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From the widow of an ordinary official to the empress of a great empire, Nur Jahan was exactly that – the extraordinary woman who was the light of the world she ruled over.
A few years ago, Hillary Clinton, speaking to a women’s magazine, said: “Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world. It is past time for women to take their rightful place, side by side with men, in the rooms where the fates of peoples, where their children’s and grandchildren’s fates, are decided.”
While she was spot-on in her observation in the wake of 21st century’s rising wave of feminism, I doubt she was aware of the dynamic woman who did all that and more at a time when it was absolutely unheard of. A woman who proved to be a feminist icon in the days of 17th century Mughal India – a time when the term Feminism had not yet been coined (it would take nearly two hundred years for the world to first hear what Feminism was). And yet, this astonishing woman accomplished what no other woman in the history of Mughal India, neither before or after her, would ever hope to.
Ruby Lal, in this remarkable biography titled Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, traces the rise of Mihr un-Nisa, born to a Persian noble and widow of a subversive official, who became the twentieth and most cherished wife of Emperor Jahangir, and later co-sovereign and ruler of Mughal India.
It is interesting to note how Nur Jahan, in the early years of her marriage to the Emperor, spent her time cultivating politically astute alliances and closely observing affairs of the state from within the imperial harem. Her influence in the harem, however, grew from her acts of kindness which caught the attention of the Emperor and as his favourite wife, she soon became a force within the harem.
Bestowed the honorific Nur Mahal – Light of the Palace, and later Nur Jahan – Light of the World, she ruled the vast Mughal Empire alongside her husband and governed in his stead as his health failed and his attentions wandered from matters of state. An astute politician and a devoted partner, Nur valiantly led troops into battle to free Jahangir when he was imprisoned by one of his officers. She signed and issued imperial orders and coins of the realm bore her name.
Additionally, she was a skillful dress designer, having designed an inexpensive wedding dress style for brides from poorer families called the Nur Mahali which is used even today. She was an ingenious architect who planned many gardens and innovated the use of marble in her parents’ mausoleum, which was the basis for the Taj Mahal. She was a master shot at hunting and her political acumen rivaled those of her female counterparts in Europe and beyond.
Sadly though, as women have had to bear through the centuries, the royals, courtiers and officers during Jahangir’s reign were displeased with the idea of a woman attaining the extent of power that Jahangir had bestowed on Nur. When his sons rebelled against him, she was blamed for the fall of the empire. Historians from Shah Jahan’s reign (Jahangir’s son) deliberately wrote all of Nur’s merits and accomplishments out of history.
With Empress, Lal lays out a chronologically detailed account consolidated from various time periods and sources to demystify this woman who has remained an enigma. Nur’s story is not hers alone. It is a part of a large empire and the events before and after her life play a key role in shaping her story.
Naturally then, the narrative is exhaustive in the Mughal history it encapsulates. I have never felt a kinship with History as a subject, nonetheless, I was surprised to note that I found the book delightfully captivating. One can’t rush through the pages as it calls for patience and attention to absorb the tremendous amount of facts it reveals and connects with. Even so, not for a moment did I lose interest. It was incredibly inspiring to read about the astonishing reign of a woman as accomplished as Nur Jahan.
It really is true that the women who break down barriers are those who ignore limits. Us women of today could definitely take a page from Nur’s book to learn how it is done.
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