February 02, 1998
Akhilesh Mithal

Nur Jahan: Power Epitomized


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Those who are wearied by the antics of the Mayawatis and Sushma Swarajs (to say nothing of Saadhawee Ritambharaa) are advised to return to the 16th century for an exquisite example of a woman of elegance and excellence in power. We have in mind Mihrunnissa better known as Nur Jahan (pronounced Noor Juhaan). Her given name means the sun, or the person who lights up the whole world. Although legend has this lady enchant the eldest son of Emperor Akbar while they were teenagers the reality was otherwise. Mihrunnissa was born in 1577 and met her second husband, Selim who had taken the title ‘Nurudeen Jahangir at his accession in 1611. At this juncture she was a widow of 35 years of age and ‘encumbered’ with a daughter from her first husband, Ali Quli Istunjuloo entitled ‘Sher Akfan’ after he slew a lion with his sword.

For a woman thus placed to enchant, entrance and bemuse a mature man with a seraglio stacked with apsaraa and houri like beauties shows her remarkable quality — her intelligence, charm and character. Nur Jahan had a diverse number of achievements to her credit. She excelled in a whole range of unrelated activities. She could turn a verse, appreciate a painting, design building from its architecture down to the smallest embellishment in enhancing its beauty, evolve a new style in dress, drop tigers and lions with an arrow or a bullet and sustain a conversation on any of the subjects of the day. It is because of her ‘eye’ being added to that of her husband who was one of the greatest aesthetes known to the history of mankind that Mughal painting scaled its pinnacle of glory in the period 1612-1627.

The family of Nur Jahan, her mother, her father Mirza Ghiyas, her brother Asaf Khan, her niece Arjumand Bano Begum entitled Mumtaz Mahal (the lady of the Taj), her nephew Shaista Khan are all remarkable persons known for their administrative skills one for the extraordinary level of elegance and excellent achieved. Mirza Ghiyas entitled Eyteymaaduddowlah was the role model of a courier for the most magnificent and resplendent court of the Teymourees in India. Suave, cultivated. urbane accomplished and skilled the Mirza set an example of how a top aristocrat should live and move and have his being. We are fortunate to have concrete evidence of this in his mausoleum which survives to allow all to see subtlety and delicacy which distinguished Mirza Ghiyas and sets him above and apart from the others even in those days of general elegance and great good taste. The Eyteymaaduddowlah garden and tomb on the banks of the Jamuna in Agra is a lyric, a song in marble inlaid with coloured stones and enhanced with gold paint. To a compare it to any other building is to show poverty of mind and spirit and to deny the superb abundance of India which allows for and helps produce a bewildering range and variety of splendours.

We recommend Jahangir’s own excellent Memoirs to enable a visit to his times. He records — on one such occasion, four tigers came out of the bushes near the elephant being ridden by Jahangir and Nur Jahan. The Emperor looked at his lady and whispered, “Yours!” She asked in gestures, “Arrow or Bullet?” In order not to make a sound and thus disturb the very sharp-eared animals the Emperor raised two fingers put them down and raised them again. Nur Jahan understood that he wanted to have her shoot two with bow and arrow and two with the gun. She loaded two guns and kept them ready, resting on the howdah. Then she took up her bow and selected two arrows. In the twinkling of an eye she raised the bow and in quick-fire action let fly two arrow at the tigers. Her aim was unerring and two large beasts fell with arrows stuck in their hearts. She then picked up the two guns in quick succession and dropped a tiger with each shot.

When Jahangir was taken prisoner by General Mahabut Khan Nur Jahan tried to cross the river between her and her husband on an elephant although the flood waters were high and swift. She took her daughter by Sher Afkan, Laadlee Begum with her in the howdah. Although her attempt to rescue failed and she could not repeat it because it spelt danger for her husband, the attempt shows her spirit and her loyalty. Although used to the exercise of power in the last years, the succession of her son-in-law failed. This prince, Shahryar was defeated by her brother Asaf Khan. Asaf Khan was promoting the candidature of his own son-in-law, Shah Jahan who was far away in Gujarat. Jahangir died in transit between Kashmir and Lahore. Asaf Khan posted guards around Nur Jahan’s camp and recovered his grandsons Dara Shukoh, Shah Shuja and Aurangzeb from her custody to ensure that she had no power over the father, Shah Jahan.

After the coronation of Shah Jahan, Nur Jahan gave up politics and lived in seclusion. Always clad in white, all her time was spent in building the tomb of her husband and growing its garden. She herself built a very small tomb for herself and the verse she wrote for it is to be the part of the repertoire of every one with any vestige of the heritage of India.

Bur Muzaarey Maan Ghureebaan Ney Chiraaghey ney guley
Ney Purey Purwaanaa Soazud, Ney Suddaayey Bulbuley’.
‘On the grave of this traveller be so good as to light no lamps nor strew any roses. This will ensure that the wings of moths do not get singed and that nightingales will not sigh and weep and lament’. Small wonder then that the birth of Nur Jahan has become a legend and a fable. It is said that her birth was attended with a miracle. A King Cobra was the first being to protect her from the heat of the noonday sun.This embellishment is placed in her story soon after her birth (1577) in the vicinity of Qandhar. The grandfather was top nobility of Iran and governor of the province of Yezd. After his death, the enemies of the family wreaked havoc on the mild-mannered, suave and urbane Mirza Ghiyas. Things came to such a pass that the Mirza had to flee although his lady wife was heavy with child and almost full-term.

After they left home, highway robbers fell upon them and plundered not only their wealth but also their mounts. With great pleading and in the name of his wife, the Mirza managed to retain one donkey. As they traversed the stony path to India they found the journey arduous and hard. Near the City of Qandahar the small band stopped to let the lady deliver her baby. It was a girl-child and very beautiful. The prospect of yet another life to nurture and protect appeared impossible to the dispirited family and they decided to abandon the baby by the wayside. They felt that it had no chance with them while some lucky and fortunate wayfarer who happened to pass by and take pity on the waif may well take it in and provide far more than the blood family could possibly do.

As they left and the sun rose high to cast its pitiless hot rays on the helpless infant, a King Cobra happened to come near drawn by the smell of mankind. Whatever its reason to come near might have been, the beauty of the baby quite overpowered the snake and it assumed a protective role. It coiled itself at the head of the child and spread out its hood to cast a shadow and prevent the heat of the sun from falling on the tiny face. The scouts of the next caravan to pass saw the deadly beast from a distance. As they warily drew near, they were amazed to find that the dreaded creature was performing a most unexpected role-that of protecting a helpless, human infant. They turned back to inform their Chief, the Mir-i-Karwan (Meer-I-Kaarwaan). As he approached, the snake sped away leaving the field clear for the humans. The next thing was to find a wet nurse for the baby. As refugees (punaahgeer) travel slowly, the caravan soon caught up with Mirza Ghiyas and his sorry band. The mother was more than happy to nurse her child and the first miracle of Nur Jahan’s life had sprung up to embellish her remarkable story.

The charm and bon vivant qualities of Mirza Ghiyas soon endeared him to the Mir-i-Karvan and he introduced him to the great Emperor Akbar with great and effusive enthusiasm. The Emperor was endowed with the rare quality called Mardum-Shinaasee or the quality of being able to assess and evaluate men for their qualities. He was impressed by the Mirza and started him with the middling rank of a Mansab of 300. The Mirza was to rise to become the Prime Minister and win the title Eyteymaaduddowlah (The trusted Minister). His tomb on the river bank in Agra, designed and built by Nur Jahan is a jewel of a building and delights the heart of the onlooker to this day. Fortunately for us, Nur Jahan did not build it in solid silver as she initially planned to so. It was well within her means to do so as it was Shah Jahan’s wish that a gold and jewel screen to surround his wife’s sepulchre which was covered with a sheet of pearls on Eids and her birthday anniversary. The screen was replaced by the present marble one by Aurangzeb. The pearl coverlet and the silver doors have been looted. The tomb of Mirza Ghiyas would have disappeared if Nur Jahan had built in silver. The present structure is marble as well as being fabulous.


Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1999. All rights reserved.
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