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An Other Woman

Nur Jahan (born Mehr-un-Nissa), the daughter of Persian immigrants who became queen of the Mughal Empire, enjoys a special status in South Asia. Many stories have been written on her life and many films have been made. However, none of them explains how an ordinary woman accumulated power and influenced a patriarchal dynasty that had ruled the Indian Subcontinent (now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan) with overwhelming authority. Ruby Lal has made an attempt to portray a complete picture of the genius in her latest publication, Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan.
Lal – a Professor of South Asian Studies at Emory University, US – worked really hard to pen the book, as she verified the contradictory and unreliable records of Nur’s life (1577-1645) before establishing the facts. The job was difficult as the author had no other option, but to rely heavily on court records, the autobiography of Emperor Jahangir (Nur’s second husband) and accounts by contemporary foreign diplomats and others. Unfortunately, Nur – named ‘light of the world’ by Jahangir – didn’t document her own life and views, despite being an educated woman.

Ruby Lal

Lal provides detailed information about Nur’s life to her readers. Nur’s first husband was senior Mughal official Ali Quli. On their marriage, the author says: “The mansion would have been festooned inside and out with lace, tinsel, strings of bells and colourful embroidered fringes; the trees in the courtyard would be hung with garlands of marigolds and jasmine.” She beautifully narrates Nur’s later life with Jahangir after Quli was killed.
She also describes Nur’s journey from ‘one of Jahangir’s wives’ to ‘his favourite wife’ in a different manner. It is to be noted that Nur held a special position, as she enjoyed the power to issue royal decrees. In fact, some of Mughal coins were minted bearing Nur’s name. However, her rise was not so smooth, as it triggered tensions in the court and also in the royal family. Although foreign envoys, who documented Jahangir’s life, mentioned nothing about Nur’s influence over her husband and projected him as an alcoholic, Lal doesn’t do so. She follows the path shown by British Ambassador Thomas Roe, who stated that Nur “governs him, and wynds him up at her pleasure”. “People say she always sat right next to Jahangir in the court and that if some cases or decisions came up and if she agreed with him, she would pat him on the back and he would say yes to that decision,” says Lal.

Nur Jahan

In her publication, Lal further discusses about the larger developments that changed Nur’s life. We all know that Nur impressed Jahangir with her generosity and enjoyed the special status mainly because of her father and brother, who held important positions at the Mughal court. We also know that Nur and Shah Jahan shared a very good relation. However, Lal reveals that Nur was well aware of the fact that Shah Jahan, the son of Jahangir by one of his other wives, was a threat to her power. And the rift between the two became apparent when Shah Jahan rebelled against his father. He ultimately succeeded Jahangir, put Nur Jahan under house arrest (after the death of Jahangir in 1627) and forced her to lead a quiet life.
Lal has made no definite comment on what transpired between Nur and Jahangir or Nur and Shah Jahan, but she tries to present a different side of a medieval Indian woman to her readers who are interested in the Mughal history. In order to explore the intriguing world of the only woman to have helmed the Mughal Empire, Lal traces her life in great detail and rips apart narratives of romance and exoticism that surround the popular image of Nur Jahan. She focuses mainly on the facts that made a Muslim woman living in 17th century India one of the most authoritarian figures in Indian history.
The book is Lal’s gift to the Indians on the occasion of the South Asian nation’s 72nd Independence Day (celebrated on August 15)!

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