Noor Jehan, The Most Powerful Mughal Queen!
Mehrunnisa, born in 1577 CE in Kandahar, was the daughter of a Persian fortune-seeker – Mirza Ghias Beg. He offered his services at Akbar’s court as an army commander and soon became the most powerful army chief and minister in the reign of Jehangir. He was given the title of Itimad-ud-daulah (Pillar of the State). His daughter was first given the title of Noor Mahal and then Noor Jehan, when she married Emperor Jehangir. Few know that Noor Jehan was responsible for Shah Jehan’s ascendancy to the Mughal throne.
By Vimla Patil
Noor Jehan, the wife of Emperor Jehangir, was certainly ‘destiny’s chosen child’ and wielded extraordinary power from inside the harem as Jehangir’s favourite queen. In his last years, Noor Jehan became the virtual ruler of the empire! Her family, too, remained extremely powerful for more than 70 years of the Mughal era when her niece Arjumand Banoo Begum (Mumtaz Mahal) married Shah Jehan (Khurram) and became his beloved queen for whom he built the world’s most beautiful monument to love – The Taj Mahal.
The Mughal Period is perhaps one of the most fascinating eras of India’s history in view of the many-splendoured rule of some of India’s greatest emperors. While Akbar’s reign is counted among the four Grand Monarchies of the World by eminent historians, Jehangir’s reign is known for the power the Mughal ruler wielded over a vast empire and the architectural and artistic wonders he created all over India. While Akbar built the empire and created a united India, Jehangir became known as the emperor who promoted all variety of art – painting, singing, gardening and most important, architecture. Jehangir’s fame is not just restricted to being the most productive king in terms of art and architecture. His love story with Noor Jehan, the widowed daughter of his chief army commander and minister Mirza Ghias Beg, is considered second only to that of the more famous Mumtaz Mahal and Emperor Shah Jehan! Indeed, Noor Jehan was instrumental in bringing her niece Mumtaz Mahal (Arjumand Banoo Begum) to Jehangir’s court and later to bring about her marriage with Shah Jehan (Prince Khurram).
The coming of Noor Jehan into the court of Jehangir was one of the two most important developments of his early years. The second event was the rise of Khurram, Jehangir’s third son and the favourite of his father. Noor Jehan, daughter of Jehangir’s army chief, was earlier married to Sher Afkun Quli Khan, who was posted to Bengal by Jehangir. Quli died in Bengal in 1607 and Meherunnisa returned toAgrato her father as a widow of 30.
Jehangir famously met the beautiful Meherunnisa at the annual Meena Bazaar held by the royal women and wives of nobles at the Mughal court. This event had been initiated by Humayun and was meant to offer an opportunity for women to not only buy jewels and clothes but also to flirt in a controlled environment and have a good time. This is where Jehangir first met Meherunnisa in 1611, four years after she came to Agra as a widow. Jehangir, say historical records, fell madly in love with her because of her exquisite beauty and mastery over several arts. They were married within months and Meherunnisa was first given the title of Noor Mahal and then Noor Jehan (Light of the World).
The twentieth wife of the emperor, Noor Jehan was different from all Mughal women. An accomplished poetess, a garment and jewellery designer, a connoisseur of carpets and art objects, she was surprisingly also known as a skilled huntress of great prowess. Records say that she could shoot tigers from a closed howdah on top of an elephant and once killed four tigers with only six bullets! Because of her scintillating beauty, she became the most prolific subject of portraits through the following century, though how the painters got access to her in the harem is still is not known!
A key to this knowledge is a life-size portrait of Nur-uddin Jehangir, who was so fond of luxury and opulence that he visualized his own power to be completely ‘global’. While he camped in Mandu in Madhya Pradesh in 1617, his favourite artist Abul Hasan worked for months to complete his most well-known portrait in which he held the golden globe of the earth and sat on a Portuguese style throne with wine glasses from China and Italy surrounding him. His head had a halo like the sun, to signify that he was Allah’s representative on earth. This portrait – painted on fine cotton canvas – was auctioned recently (April 2011) in Britain for a whopping Rs.10 crore! The legend that surrounds this portrait also says that Abul Hasan was such a close confidante and favourite courtier of Emperor Jehangir that he was possibly allowed to paint portraits of Noor Jehan. Thus, while the emperor was camping in Mandu, Hasan also painted a portrait of Noor Jehan as a hunter!
However, with her father as the emperor’s powerful chief minister, Noor Jehan’s new status increased by leaps and bounds. Her brother Asaf Khan too rose to high rank at the court. The Itmad-ud-daula family thus became an integral part of the royal court with access to all areas of the palace including the harem. They acquired unimaginable wealth and lived in a lavish lifestyle. When Noor Jehan’s arranged the marriage of her niece Arjumand Banoo Begum (Mumtaz Mahal) with Prince Khurram (Shah Jehan) the bond between the two families became even stronger.
History says that the quartet – Mirza Ghias Beg, Noor Jehan, Asaf Khan and Prince Khurram – wielded so much power at Jehangir’s court that they almost ran the empire on their own terms. Noor Jehan, for instance, built the grand mausoleum for her father inAgra, very close to the Taj Mahal. Her marriage to Jehangir gave her unrestricted access to his knowledge about creating documents, assigning paintings with dates, creating monuments of great architectural beauty and designing gardens. But with all these talents, Jehangir was unfortunately addicted to alcohol and opium. Both his brothers Daniyal and Murad had died of these vices. The effects of Jehangir’s vices began to catch up with his health. And naturally, Noor Jehan became ‘the power behind the throne’ with her personality and expertise in court intrigues. As Jehangir battled his addictions, Noor Jehan became one of the most powerful women to ever rule India with an iron hand. She ran the affairs of the state from the harem and every decision about the empire had to be taken only with her consent.
The result of her unlimited power was that her immediate family members were given valuable endowments and positions. She had successfully married her own daughter from her first marriage to Quli Khan – Ladli Begum – to Prince Shahriyar, the fourth son of Jehangir by a royal concubine. Through Jehangir’s reign, as the favourite queen of the emperor, Noor Jehan already wielded a great deal of real power in affairs of state. The Mughal Empire bestowed absolute power upon the emperor. Thus, his close confidantes, who could influence him, also became extremely powerful. Noor Jehan held absolute power. Jahangir’s addiction to opium and alcohol made it easier for her to widen her influence greatly. For several years – especially the last years of Jehangir – she held complete imperial power and was recognized as the real force behind the Mughal throne. She even gave audiences in her palace and the ministers consulted with her on most matters of state and finance. Indeed, Jahangir even permitted coinage to be struck in her name, confirming her sovereignty.
In 1626, Jehangir was captured by rebels while he was travelling to Kashmir. Noor Jehan – through her negotiating skills – got her husband released and Jehangir had a temporary respite from his troubles. But he soon succumbed to his addictions and died on October 28, 1627. After Jehangir’s death, Noor Jahan devoted her life to rebuild her power at the court but was sent by Shah Jehan to retire in a comfortable mansion where she lived till her death. She devoted her last years to building some of best Mughal tombs and to the making of perfumes from roses, an art she had learnt from her mother. She supervised the building of her father’s tomb inAgra, just a few kilometres from the Taj Mahal.
When Jehangir died in 1627, he was buried in Shahadara Bagh in Lahore and this imposing tomb too, bears the imprint of Noor Jehan’s talent and style. The tomb has beautiful gardens and wooded walks around, which were personally designed and laid out by Noor Jehan herself.
Noor Jehan died in 1645 at the age of 68, and was also buried in Shahadara Bagh in Lahore, now in Pakistan. As one of strongest women of the Mughal era, she built her own tomb near that of her husband Jehangir, because of whom, she held unparalleled power throughout her life
Did you know?
Against the background of a worldwide debate on the burqa, the fact that the Grand Monarchy of the Mughals – from Babur to Aurangzeb – did not require women to wear any burqa, hijab, khimar, chador or naquab opens up a new track of research. In a lecture-demonstration, Dr. Asok Kumar Das, an internationally known art expert showed that Muslim queens and court ladies as well as normal women in the Mughal regime did not wear anything to cover their heads, faces or bodies except beautifully embroidered, gem-studded garments. Dr. Das, who has been director of the Sawai Man Singh II Museum in Jaipur, a visiting fellow at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London and Smithsonian Institute and Metropolitan Museum of Art (both in the U.S.) in addition to holding several prestigious chairs in international institutions, is an expert in Mughal and Rajasthan art and culture. He says, “There is a great deal of research in the miniature paintings of the Mughal era where their queens and court ladies are seen in resplendent garments with exquisite jewellery. The question is: Who could have had access into the harems to paint these portraits? Historical records show that among all Mughal emperors, Akbar and Jehangir were great patrons of art and most of the paintings are done during their regime. The Akbarnama has several paintings showing women engaged in social activities. A beautiful portrait of the powerful Queen Noor Jehan shows that women could be painted by court artists in their regal splendour or in situations where they were seen enjoying leisure activities.
Indeed, in Akbar’s and Jehangir’s court, several artists were brought from Persia and other places for doing portraits and illustrating texts like the Akbarnama as well as many Hindu epics like the Ramayan and Mahabharat. Two well-known names among hundreds of artists at his court were Abul Hasan and Bishan Das, which shows that there were both Hindus and Muslims in the panel of painters! Most of the miniature paintings of this era are in city museums all over the world including Teheran, Paris and London. In Akbar’s rule, painting was a totally secular art and depicted court life, portraits of royal men and women, gardens with bird or animal life as well as love stories.”
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