Nur Jahan (1577-1645) started off life as the daughter of noble, but poor, Persians, who migrated to India seeking prosperity. Nur was actually born on the family’s long journey, when they stopped to rest in Kandahar. Nur Jahan’s father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg, fortuitously secured employment from the third Mughal emperor Akbar, who was known for his tolerant and welcoming court. Mirza Ghiyas Beg quickly rose through the ranks and so Nur grew up in the splendour and beauty of the royal court. At the age of seventeen she was married to a Persian officer named Sher Afghan but after his death she caught the eye of Akbar’s son and successor Jahangir and so in 1611 she became his eighteenth wife.
A ROYAL WIFE AND RULER
Nur Jahan quickly became the favourite wife of Jahangir and his constant companion. He was reportedly bewitched by her beauty and charm and was so taken with her that he changed her birth name of Mehrunnisa to Nur Mahal (light of the palace) and then to Nur Jahan (light of the world). Nur Jahan was extremely intelligent and highly educated, and she effectively ruled the empire in place of her husband. Through her potent powers of persuasion Nur Jahan secured the right to give farmans -authoritative royal decrees - thus controlling most aspects of government. She also had the power to give promotions and demotions.
This was astonishing, as at this time women were thought incapable of governing, especially in such a forthright manner. Nur was a savvy businesswoman and helped commerce and trade grow, both nationally and internationally, thus increasing the wealth of the empire. She collected duties on merchants’ goods and approved visitors to the court. She also engaged in international diplomacy with noble women in other realms, increasing the power of her empire. Nur Jahan became so powerful she was able to issue coins in her own name.
AN ALL-ROUND TALENT
Nur Jahan was known as a great patron of architecture and built many beautiful palaces, gardens and mosques, such as the Pathar Masjid mosque at Srinagar. Another great passion was the arts and she purportedly composed Persian poetry and sang ‘in the black marble courts while sitting in the moonlight with her ladies’. Nur also loved reading and she owned a large personal library. Style and fashion were important to Nur and she dominated the Haram with her taste, reportedly introducing many new designs of dresses including Dudami (flowered muslin).
Her talents also included hunting and she often joined her husband on such expeditions. According to one legend Nur Jahan organised an army to rescue her husband when he was captured by rebels, joining the battle herself atop an elephant, shooting arrows into the enemy. Nur Jahan was not only talented, but also kind, and she was known for her benevolence towards poor women of the realm. Official historians of the empire such as Muhammed Hadi speak of the great care she took of poor women by providing land and paying dowries for orphan girls, directly sponsoring five hundred such girls. Nur Jahan is rightly remembered now as the most famous of all the royal Mughal women and a historical figure whose story can inspire even today.