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Excerpt: Empress; The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal

Nur Jahan was the twentieth and most cherished wife of the Emperor Jahangir. Unlike his other wives, she ruled the vast Mughal empire alongside him. This excerpt from Ruby Lal’s biography of the Empress reveals some of the traits that endeared her to her husband

books Updated: Aug 18, 2018 09:28 IST
Ruby Lal
Ruby Lal
Hindustan Times
Jahangir,Akbar,Nur Jahan
Emperor Jahangir and Prince Khurram (later Shah Jahan) with Nur Jahan, c1624-1625. (Heritage Images/Getty Images)
308pp, Rs 599; Penguin

Jahangir married Nur during an unusual period of repose in Agra. For nearly two years after the wedding, the couple undertook a range of short, festive outings in the area…

By late 1613, Jahangir, motivated partly by a wish to be closer to the Mewar campaign but mostly by his wanderlust, was eager to tour his territories in western India, accompanied by his favorite wife, Nur…

After having moved several times, the Camp of Good Fortune was back in Ajmer on March 20, 1616, when Jahangir honored his wife in a novel way. The emperor, Nur, and a group of royal women paid a visit to her father’s tent, “in order to add to his dignity,” Jahangir wrote. Ghiyas presented “exceedingly rare” offerings to the emperor — pearls and rubies worth a fortune, and elaborate clothing.

“A pleasant assembly was held,” wrote Jahangir; nobles and servants drank cups of wine. After the festive gathering, Jahangir begged Ghiyas to excuse him. He went back to his imperial tent and issued an edict: “I ordered Nur- mahall Begam to be called Nur- Jahan Begam,” changing his wife’s name from Light of the Palace to Light of the World.

Names had a very special significance among royalty of the Islamic world. Monarchs regularly conferred exalted and poetic titles and names upon members of the family or court as indications of status and privilege…

When Jahangir renamed his wife Nur Jahan, Light of the World, he moved onto a loftier plane, linking her name to his by references to illumination and strength. The emperor’s full name was Nur ad-Din Muhammad Jahangir. Nur ad-Din, Light of Faith; Jahangir, Seizer or Conqueror of the World… In Persian, nur means “light,” and in Pashtu, a language of Afghanistan familiar to the Mughals, it means “rock.” The name the emperor gave to his newest wife embodied both meanings: brilliance and solidity. The Light of the Palace was elevated to Light of the World, and the honorific Begum clinched her status as a highly exalted woman.

Celebrations followed Nur’s renaming…

After the first entry about Nur in Jahangir’s memoir, his admiring references to her began to proliferate. Many of the most appreciative passages deal in detail with her hunting prowess — a subject deeply meaningful to Mughal rulers. When Jahangir praises Nur’s skill as a hunter, he is not so obliquely endorsing her ability to rule.

Nur Jahan holding a musket by court painter Abul-Hasan Nadir uz-Zaman. (Courtesy the publisher)

Hunting was much more than a leisure activity. For Mughals, hunting symbolized imperial dominance, as it had for their Mongol and Turk ancestors. Stalking and shooting allowed a ruler to display his ability to tame the wild and to publicly assert his bravery in the open theater of the hunting grounds. In addition, hunting served some of the same vital purposes as royal travel in general. The emperor and his officers could gather local intelligence and amass data about land revenue, trade, and production. A ruler had the opportunity to meet his people — peasants or traders, who might appear to pay respects or make complaints — and form close ties with local chiefs. Sometimes the appearance of a Mughal hunting party might cause a disobedient or rebellious landholder to back down. An expert on Mughal warfare notes that hunting was “an essential instrument of Mughal government.

Under the veil of hunting, the Mughals both rallied and suppressed the enormous military potential of the country surrounding the imperial hunting grounds. Hunting expeditions were often organised to inconspicuously mobilise troops . . . [and] for practicing cavalry manoeuvres . . . hunting remained one of the cornerstones of sixteenth — and seventeenth- century Mughal rule.” …

Author Ruby Lal (Myron McGhee)

When Jahangir meticulously listed in his journal the animals he killed — in one stretch of 1616, the take was 1 cheetah, 1 lynx, 15 tigers, 33 gazelles, 53 nilgai (large antelopes), 80 boars, 90 antelopes, and 340 waterfowl — he was asserting his majesty. And when he wrote rapturously about Nur’s hunting, he was asserting hers. On April 16, 1617, Nur Jahan set out on elephant- back to hunt in Malwa using the “battue” method of s talking, a regular practice among the Mughals. With the help of dogs, four tigers spotted by scouts were surrounded by beaters, men who pounded the bushes with sticks in order to drive the game into a small, open area. The empress fired six shots and bagged all four tigers. Jahangir was hugely impressed. “Until now, such shooting was never seen, that from the top of an elephant and inside of a howdah (‘amari) six shots should be made and not one miss, so that the four beasts found no opportunity to spring or move.” In sheer delight, the emperor scattered coins over Nur Jahan. Impromptu, a poet recited this couplet

Read more: Excerpt: Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhoty

Though Nur Jahan be in form a woman
In the ranks of men she’s a tiger-slayer.

That a woman could aim and shoot with such accuracy stunned this poet. He was not alone in his awe.

First Published: Aug 17, 2018 23:24 IST