The Life of Nur Jahan, The Muslim Woman Who Built a Dynasty in Colonial India

nur jahan empress of mughal india

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Nur Jahan, the name means “The Light of the World”. Nur Jahan was the empress of Mughal India in the 17th century who reflected forbearance and fortitude in her character. Her role was not reduced to being a Mughal queen simply but exceeded all barriers that was generally subjected to women of those times. In this article, we will be talking about the rich history of Nur Jahan, the empress of Mughal India. We will also explore the relationship between Nur Jahan and Jahangir, her deep interest in the arts and culture and how she became the co-sovereign to the Mughal emperor. 

Keep scrolling to have the entire history of Nur Jahan at your fingertips. 

Who was Nur Jahan?  

  • Nur Jahan was the Mughal empress to Jahangir who set an example for women in the 17th century by managing state-affairs, hunting, rescuing the Mughal emperor from the clutches of a rebel and even serving as a regent. 
  • She had an immense influence over her husband Jahangir and enjoyed several privileges and sovereignty. Considering the times when women had no say in the political or administrative affairs, such achievements were a rare novelty. 

Nur Jahan’s Early Life  

  • Nur Jahan initially named Mehr-un-Nissa (“Sun among women was the daughter of the Persian aristocrat Mirza Ghiyas  Beg (or I’timad-ud-Daulah) and Asmat Begum. She was a descent of reputed and illustrious families. Mehr-un-Nissa was born in Kandahar (present-day Afghanistan) while her family was shifting from Iran to India to survive from situations of a financial crisis.
  • She was a child of very alluring appearance as per the book “The Twentieth Wife” by author Indu Sundaresan. The book describes her eyes as azure and her smile, dimpled. 
  • After finding work in Akbar’s court, Nur Jahan’s father became the diwan (treasurer) of Kabul province. His good disposition, intelligence and excellent service quickly helped him rise to better positions. 

Nur Jahan’s Education  

  • Mirza Ghiyas Beg took great care for her daughter’s education. She became proficient in Persian and Arabic 
  • Languages and even took an interest in arts, literature, dance and music. The poet and author Vidya Dhar Mahajan praised Nur Jahan’s sharp intelligence and incredible common sense. She was also described as a woman with a volatile temper. 

Nur Jahan and Her First Husband, Sher Afgan  

  • Nur Jahan was married at 17 years (1594) to Iranian-born Mughal official and former military officer Sher Afgan Khan who was also known as Ali Quli Istajlu (The Tiger Tosser). The marriage was arranged by the Mughal emperor Akbar but it turned out to be a tumultous one.
  • The daughter of Nur Jahan and Sher Afgan was  Mihr-un-Nissa Begum who was also adoringly called Ladli Begum. She was born to the couple in 1605.
  • There are two popular theories regarding Sher Afghan’s death. The greatest preference is given to the theory that narrates that Sher Afghan participated in anti-state activities against Jahangir and attacked the governor of Bengal that contributed to his death. The tomb at Puratan Chawk (Bardhaman, West Bengal) says that he died as a consequence of a battle with the Mughal Subahdar, Qutubuddin Koka. 

Nur Jahan and Jahangir  

  • Nur Jahan’s meeting with Jahangir is widely debated. Some say that the love affair between Nur Jahan and Jahangir existed when Ali Quli Istajlu was alive, while others are of the opinion that the couple fell in love immediately after his death. They even claim that Jahangir plotted the murder of her first husband but there are no written evidences to prove these theories. “The History of Hindostan” written by the Mughal historian Alexander Dow presents the details of their affair while the “History of the Panjab”, authored by Syed Muhammad Latif’s narrates on the same. 
  • However, the most credible sources tells that Jahangir met Nur Jahan in 1611, four years after the demise of her first husband. She was invited as lady-in-waiting to Ruqaiya Begum, first wife of Akbar and also for receiving protection by Jahangir against Qutubuddin Koka’s avengers. 
  • Nur Jahan met Jahangir at the meena bazaar during the new year celebrations and immediately proposed her. She consented and they got married on 25 May 1611. Thus, Nur Jahan became Jahangir’s final and his most adorable wife. 
  • After their wedding in 1611, Jahangir gave her the title “Nur Mahal” that means Light of the Palace. She was also titled Nur Jahan (“Light of the World”) in 1616 by the Mughal emperor. 

Nur Jahan- The De facto Ruler of Mughal Empire  

  • Jahangir was addicted to alcohol and was an opium-eater. He spent the majority of his time on indulgence. This is one reason why Nur Jahan could exert her influence on her husband and take charge of the state’s affairs. However, it does not serve as the main reason why Nur Jahan exercised power. The couple complemented each other and to Jahangir Nur Jahan was a doting wife and he had no objection for the lady to rule his empire.
  • She was the first woman of the Mughal dynasty to enjoy countless privileges and honors. Some even claim that she was the de factor ruler of the Mughal empire for half a century. Nur Jahan was both politically astute and charismatic. Her decisive skills were beyond comparison and she proved to be at the helm of the Mughal empire whenever the need arose. 
  • Coins were minted bearing her name and she was even allowed to issue farmans and decrees independently. She bore the legal responsibility of offering consent before any document and order could be considered valid. For that purpose, she was equipped with the imperial seal of Jahangir. 
  • Nur Jahan’s father was accused of larceny and his brother, Asaf Khan of treason. Following her marriage, Nur Jahan convinced Jahangir to forgive her blood relations and place them on higher ranks in his empire. Jahangir trusted Nur Jahan immensely and so he appointed her brother as his grand Wazir and his father as the Prime Minister.  There fortunes were restored and they became affluent once again. Thus, it was her capability that helped her win favor of the Mughal emperor. 
  • Considering Jahangir’s illness and to maintain her strong hold over the empire, she offered a proposal to Khusrau Mirza, the eldest son of Akbar and a favourite among people, to marry her daughter. He refused and the proposal was passed over to Khurram who refused as well. Finally, Nur Jahan was successful in arranging a matrimony alliance between her daughter Ladli Begum and Jahangir’s youngest son Shahryar Mirza. 
  • Nur Jahan was skilled in hunting tigers. Her shooting aim was so sharp that she slayed four tigers with just six bullets in a hunting expedition in Mewar. This even made a poet to write a spontaneous couplet of her incredible feat and describing her as a woman “tiger-slayer”. 
  • Nur Jaha also performed charity work by donating whenever she can. She raised ample dowries to forward in the orphan’s marriages. Thus, she was not only a powerful ruler but also an exemplary of empathy and kindness. 
  • Jahangir was placed under duress by Mahabat Khan, the Mughal general and statesman who raised a coup against the emperor. Nur Jahan commanded her army to attack the coup atop an elephant on a roaring river. She surrendered because of failure and was placed in captivity along with his husband. Mahabat Khan underestimated Nur Jahan’s power as she managed to escape and raised an army to fight off the rivals. Jahangir was eventually rescued by the clever tactics of his wife, Nur Jahan. 
  • Nur Jahan’s administrative skills proved extremely efficient while serving as a regent, defending her empire. She applied constant efforts to manage conflicts of succession that was the direct result of Jahangir’s failure to name an heir before his death. 

Nur Jahan- A Patronizer of Arts  

Patronage of architecture 

Nur Jahan commissioned the erection of marvellous buildings or sarais that travellers and merchants can use as a resting place. Her patronage of architecture was huge and she even built beautiful palaces. The gardens that were made at her behest were something to marvel at. A large sarai named Serai Noor Mahal was built in Jalandhar district which held great importance.  

Important textiles 

Nur Jahan was a fashion enthusiast who introduced different forms of clothing that became immensely popular. She brought forth the inexpensive nurmahali dress for weddings. It was designed particularly for the poor who could easily afford these dresses. The Mughal empress introduced the following textiles: 

  • Badla: Badla was a silver-threaded brocade Kinari: Kinari was a silver-threaded lace 
  • Dudami: A muslin with flower-patterns, typically used for gowns 
  • Panchtoliya: Panchtiya was a light weight material that was used as veil 

Itimad al-Dawla- the architectural marvel  

  • In 1622, when Nur Jahan was put to house arrest, she dedicated a mausoleum for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg’s tomb. It was a marvellous beauty which inspired the construction of the Taj Mahal by Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. The tomb was named “Itmad- ud- daulah’s” tomb after the title that Nur Jahan’s father received because of his achievements and contributions toward the Mughal empire. The title Itmad- ud- daulah means “Pillar of the State”. 
  • Paintings were made in her honour that were an dedicated to her sovereignty. Thus, Nur Jahan was interested in different forms of art and patronized them greatly. 

Tensions between Nur Jahan and Khurram (or Shah Jahan)  

  • Khurram or Shah Jahan was the son of Jahangir and Rajput princess Jagat Gosaini. His relationship with his step mother Nur Jahan was not a favourable one. He even despised her for having a strong influence over his father. Khurram even didnt like to be subservient to Shahryar who was Nur Jahan’s son-in-law.
  • The Persians were making attempts to capture Kandahar. Nur Jahan who was managing the affairs tried to gain the confidence of the Uzbeks and the Ottomans and form an alliance against the Safavid dynasty. However, no significant progress were made. Therefore, she commanded Khurram to thwart off the attack but he refused. As a result, Persians captured Kandahar. Khurram led a revolt against Jahangir which was subdued. He was pardoned but tensions between Nur Jahan and Khurram kept brewing. 

Events Following Death of Jahangir 

  • Jahangir died on 28 October 1627 while travelling from Kashmir to Lahore. He was trying to recover his health but instead caught severe cold and infection. He died at a time when Nur Jahan and Khurram were in conflict with each other.
  • Nur Jahan tried her best to establish Shahryar as the next Mughal emperor and was close to success, when Asaf Khan (Nur Jahan’s brother) sided with Khurram (Shah Jahan). Consequently, Nur Jahan was placed under house arrest and his son-in-law Shahryar was executed. In 1628 Shah Jahan crowned himself as the Mughal emperor. 

Nur Jahan Under House Arrest 

  • After Shah Jahan became the new emperor, he ordered Asaf Khan to place Nur Jahan in house arrest. Nur Jahan along with his daughter and granddaughter lived within confinement in Lahore. Nur Jahan lived a simple life away from all the stately affairs.
  • During this period, she oversaw the contruction of her father’s tomb, also known as Itmad- ud- daulah’s tomb. 

Nur Jahan’s Tomb 

  • Nur Jahan died at the age of 68 years on 17 December 1645. Her mortal remnants were buried in the tomb in Shahdara Bagh (Lahore) that she built herself. The Bagh also houses the tombs of Nur Jahan’s husband Jahangir and her brother Asaf Khan. 

Books and Films on Nur Jahan  

The historian Ruby Lal authored the book Empress: The astonishing reign of Nur Jahan’ where she rescues Nur Jahan out of the romanticism and exoticism that she is usually associated with. Instead, she elaborates on the reasons behind her authoritative demeanour. 

Some of the other books written on her include- 

  • The Tainted Throne 
  • The Twentieth Wife (2002), The Feast of Roses (2003) and Shadow Princess (2010) 
  • Mistress of the Throne 
  • Mission to the Mughals 

Noor Jehan is a 1967 Bollywood film on the Mughal empress directed by Mohammed Sadiq, starring Pradeep Kumar and Meena Kumari as lead roles. The film bagged the Filmfare award for Best Art Direction - A. A. Majid. 

Some of the films performed on Nur Jahan include: 

The Final Thought

Nur Jahan became a feminist icon who was not only influential in political matters but was a sensitive companion and a superb caregiver. Her spirit continues to linger in the art, literature, architecture that remains extant today. 

Hopefully, this article has information that you liked. The life of Nur Jahan, the Empress of Mughal empire, was quite interesting and if you have more information, share with us via comments.


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