The Nur Jahan and Jahangir Love Story

For the very first episode Season Two, I am joined by acclaimed historian of India and a professor of South Asian History at Emory University Ruby Lal whose book discovering the sovereignty of Nur Jahan as she boldly redefined the role of the royal wife reveals her love story with Mughal Emperor Jahangir. Here’s to these two early 17th-century co-sovereigns of the Mughal empire

Holly: Hello darlings and welcome back to the second season of Past Loves,  the weekly history podcast which explores affection, infatuation and attachment across time to bring you the lighter side of history and a touch of romance to daily life. It is very exciting to be back with a second season of the podcast  just in time for us all to return to school and work after the summer which I hope you have been able to enjoy. If you listened to the teaser last week you will know that for this season of the podcast I have cast my net even further to try to bring you the very best love stories from history – so I think we’re spanning four centuries and four continents.  Really it is just very very exciting and I am so pleased to be back here with you. 

Over August I’ve still been connecting with some of you over on Instagram @pastlovespodcast which has been a delight  – and at the moment I am running a giveaway with The History Press over there as well so listen to the end for more details about that. And then of course I have been talking to some incredible people from the world of heritage and academia and today, I am talking to Ruby Lal – an acclaimed historian of India and a professor of South Asian History at Emory University.  Ruby was an utter joy to talk to and she is so clearly passionate about the couple we are going to talk about today – the early 17th century co-sovereigns of the Mughal empire Nur Jahan and Jahangir.

Honestly, Ruby’s face lights up talking particularly about Nur Jahan and I think by the end of this episode you’ll completely understand why. Actually she has written an evocative biography of Nur Jahan called Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan. Nur Jahan was a Persian noble who boldly redefined the role of the royal wife. Told in a distinctly narrative way which echoes the importance of the stories, tales and legends that have crafted our understanding of this empress and emperor, Empress for the first time brings to the public the leadership and sovereignty of Nur Jahan as co-sovereign with her husband Jahangir and shows that she was the only woman ruler among the great Mughals of India. The book won the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year Award in Biography, and was also a finalist in History for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. It really is a wonderful piece of work  and I was so grateful to Ruby for talking to me about the relationship between Nur Jahan and Jahangir – a couple who ruled side by side…

nur jahan and jahangir love story
Nur Jahan holding an image of Jahangir

Holly: Welcome, Ruby. And thank you so much for joining me today.

Ruby Lal: I’m delighted to be here, Holly, thank you. 

Holly: So, when you were researching your book, I know you spoke to quite a few people. And they were able to tell you the date that Nur Jahan was born and the date that she got married. And I thought, even though we’re trying to escape those confines with this story of their love, we should probably start at the very beginning. She was born in 1577. Who were her parents? What was life like for them at that time?

Ruby: Oh, Holly, in fact, I think that’s a great question, because we should really open up these dates the way in which you said that I talked to a lot of people because I did that, because I was quite interested to know what the public knew or thought it knew. And so therefore, it really just involved these two dates, which is the moment of her birth at the moment of her marriage. So 1577 is the moment she comes from an aristocratic family in south of Persia, which is modern day Iran. And her father was, you know, he was in a very important position at the court of Shah Tahmasp who was the ruling Emperor at the time. And a lot of things happened in the late 1570s. Namely, there was a lot of disagreement in Persia around how to be, how to live, conflict between Shias and Sunnis, but also, there was a lot of uncertainty. It’s not clear but some sources suggest that Nur’s father, a man called Ghiyas Beg, was in some debt, and his father had died and was not able to help him etc. So one way or another, the end result was that he decided to leave Iran and head for India, which was called Hindustan at that time, and the ruler was Akbar the Great and it was a liberated atmosphere. It was an atmosphere of welcome where people from all over the word particularly artists, calligraphers, experts in Persian, all sorts of people on refuge. So they leave and at this time, and they leave his wife Asmat Begam, they had three children already, and she was pregnant with her fourth child. And they joined typically, as people did, they join an aristocratic caravan, which means that it went on for miles, but they would have, you know, a separate area where she would be taken with great honour and sanctity and that her respect would be kept all the way through. There would be attendants, so on and so forth. So the caravan moves, and this is how people moved through much of history in those times whether it was Central Asia or it was, you know, Afghanistan or India or other lands in the world, they moved in caravans, huge caravans. Of course, it was dependent on who you were, and therefore the caravan varied kings and aristocrats like Nur Jahan’s father’s would go in a different caravan. And traders always went through I mean, these are also slices of the Silk Route that we are talking about. So there was very robust trade and ordinary people quite often joined these caravan. Sufis joined them, preachers joined them, jesuit priests travelled with caravan. So it’s a medley of really interesting folk that are there together. So they reach just the outskirts of Kandahar, which is more than Afghanistan and this was a very important area, which was the border line between let’s say, Hindustan on the one hand and Persia on the other hand.

Holly: Okay. 

Ruby: The North and just outside Kandahar, just before in fact, they reach outside Kandahar, the caravan had been attacked, and a lot of their goods and things had been stolen. So they were really in these deprived conditions to as they just had outside Kandahar, her mother Asmat goes into labour and gives birth Nur Jahan at that point who they name Mehr-un-Nissa, which literally means women of the sun as you, obviously, by all accounts have beautiful infant who will have brought light their lives. So that is the moment of birth. 

Holly: I particularly love a couple of the stories that surround her birth because I think they are starting to show this or like the attempt to start to show this kind of blessed woman who brings a change of luck to her family. So there are three stories but they kind of all centre around a very similar theme, don’t they?

Ruby: Yes, they do. I call this chapter ‘Miracle Girl’ and you’ve accurately picked up the idea here. There are three storytellers so the only thing we know. About her birth, that’s confirmed in all the records is that she was born in Kandahar in 1577, as her destitute parents left. But over time, people were really taken by this imagery. In particular, in the early 18th Century, there was a man called Khafi Khan, who worked in the later Mughal courts. And he draws upon this imagery of the abandonment of the child. So here’s what happened according to this chronicler, which is that the parents were so destitute that at one point, they just wondered how would they take care of this little baby girl that had arrived. And so the father and the mother discuss and you know, they decided that they would just have to really leave the baby and hope for the best. So they wrap her in these beautiful piece of cloth. And her father Ghiyas Beg leaves her under a tree. But in a little while the mother is just obviously completely distraught. And she says to her husband, that this can be we need to bring that baby back. So one story is one legend is that when he goes back to get the baby girl, he sees that there’s a huge cobra, which had spread its head over the baby, and was protecting the baby. And so Ghiyas Beg is very scared, but as soon as he goes near, the cobra just withdraws, and he picks up the baby. And now there are all these symbolisms in Khafi Khan’s version about migration, leaving, coming together. There’s another version, which is that the caravan leader really finds the baby. And the idea is that he kind of knows what has happened – the look of the mother and you know, gives it to Asmat. So you know, this, this whole sense in which a chronicler like Khafi Khan was working out the power of this woman because he knows the courtly tradition. Then we have this amazing man called Manucci. He was a Italian quack doctor, who was actually a very interesting man who spends over two decades in Mughal India much later on. And he works as an artillery man in the army of one of the Mughal princes is called Dara Shikoh, who was Nur’s nephew of the Sufi Prince. And he begins to wonder about Nur Jahan’s splendour. And so he writes this amazing account. Essentially, what he says is that this moment of birth, is almost biblical in its character and in its tenor. He essentially uses the language that he was familiar with out of the Christian tradition. So these are really just two examples. There are many of these examples, the point and I think the reason why you picked up these legends, but they are, in fact courtly, you know, documentation on the 17th and 18th Century, but they’re very legendary in character in the sense that they really build a splendour around Nur Jahan in order to understand in order for the writer or the thinker to understand, you know, who was this girl? This is almost a magical birth. And this is exactly how recorders and chroniclers wrote about the birth of the kings there was always miracle attached to them. 

Holly: Of course, it would be a disappointment if there wasn’t, wouldn’t it? So I also found it very interesting if we’re thinking about how this woman became co-sovereign about her childhood and about her education that she received because her father became someone who is very prominent in court. So she received a very good education didn’t she? 

Another interesting podcast if you are wanting to dig deeper into Nur Jahan’s life

Ruby: So a couple of things. They already as I mentioned earlier on, they came from this very noble aristocratic background in Iran, her father, and hence Nur Jahan came from a family of really prominent writers, poets. Her father was a master in calligraphy writing, in the writing of the art of composing letters. I mean, these were not ordinary things. These were these were very thought through. Her mother was really vivacious and a woman of great spirits, and that’s how she is recorded in the documents. So this is the background and they bring some of those traditions with them. And those traditions are then mingled in because her father, you know, gets employment in the court of Akbar Great and his rise too is stupendous. By the time people forget this, by the time Nur Jahan comes to the harem of Jahangir, whom she will marry, her father is already the wazir, which is essentially a combination of the highest finance minister and Prime Minister, you know, all of those things are melded together. So, the upbringing will keep all of these things into mind, aside from the kind of classic things that aristocratic girls received, such as learning the Quran, such as learning a certain code of being, a certain ethic of being, which meant a lot of lightness, curtsy, civility, hunting, you know, all of these things come together. And then there are strict manuals of comportment within the terms of which she will be raised. But it seems like this was much more a liberal family, then you also have because they are by this time, in Fatehpur Sikri in northern India, there’s also the interaction with local Hindu traditions, which is really what the court was under Akbar the Great which is by the so liberal. There are, you know, mystical, Sufi practices. And there’s this this kind of wider landscape of, you know, mixed religions, any number of dialects, languages, many forms of being and believing to that I want to add a first marriage which is glossed over very easily in most, you know, synoptic versions of Nur Jahan in books or even articles, which is dismissed in one line that she was married to this man of Persian origin called Ali Quli and she goes to live with him in Bengal. Those were twelve years of a marriage out of which she has an only child, one girl Ladli Begum. So one of the biggest challenges for me was to think, how to bring to life that life in Bengal. What was Bengal like? Begal was the first province to come under the Mughal rule, it was the easternmost province. It was the land of the Bengal Tiger. It was very green. It was an eclectic place where the play with the divine was what people were doing, right, essentially, really, critiquing any form of Orthodox associations with divinity, but forming one on one association with God. So these were things that were going on. There was a very famous, you know, saying a man who live there, and Nur Jahan went and visited him and he talked a lot about piety, he talked about arms giving, so these were things she was doing. Her clothing changed. She is much more, she is now in a lighter, you know, set up. She should wear linens. The diet changes to, you know, lighter things such as pickles in lime juice, all of these things including the landscape are made part of her being. So, but I mentioned the Bengali years because she marries this man at age 17, and comes back and when I was writing this chapter to my mind, I thought of Nur, and she’s still Mehr-un-Nissa at this point. I thought of her as this, you know, beautiful young olive newly emerging tree, but not yet a tree. When she comes back to the harem 12 years later, she’s this tree of experiences because her husband was away quite a lot. She’s in a much smaller setup. She’s in an aristocratic setup in Bengal. She’s surrounded by this green that I mentioned, you know, it’s the Wild West in America terms. She’s already trained in hunting, and I believe this is when she finessed her hunting skills. She’s known as one of the finest hunts woman of the Empire. We’re not talking about just some little birds, but she did. We’re talking about killer tigers, right?

Holly: I know. It’s amazing hearing about her life in Bengal. I thought you really got that sense effect, the inner steeliness coming through. And you could tell the kind of woman she was becoming.

Ruby: Exactly. That’s very nicely put. And then so her husband is likely to share quite a lot of the ongoings. There’s state relationships, there’d be letters from her mother, her sisters, all of these kinds of things. So she’s growing and growing and she’s accumulating this amazing experience. And sometimes maybe I’m jumping steps here. Perhaps you had this in mind, but people always say to me, Well, you know, what was what was it about her and not those 19 other wives in the harem. So shall I respond to that?

Holly: Yes because this is a big difference in who she was as a person.

Ruby: Yes, exactly. So she’s carrying, you know, they are all extraordinary women too I mean, it’s not just and this is the problem in people’s imagination that you talk about the harem and you think, ‘Okay, well, it’s a jingbang of these women, you know, who are just lounging about and kind of waiting for the Emperor to come and then you know, they’ll fulfill him and his pleasure’ but all of that is completely inaccurate. That’s the work I’ve done in my earlier academic writing. So, you know, several of those were really agential really interesting women. But I think what went in favour of Nur Jahan is really that she has this experience aside from the, of the incredible collaboration of various significant men around.

Holly: Yeah. But it was a patriarchal society so you know.

Ruby: Absolutely – patriarchal, feudal. And so therefore, it’s all the more incredible.

Holly: So her husband, her first husband does die within this kind of complex story of a plot to kill her future husband, but it means that she ends up coming to court as a widow. And obviously, at this point, she has the potential to meet Jahangir here. And there are lots of stories about how they do meet their stories about the fact that they met earlier in their lives. So do you think you could possibly distil all of the different options that there are as to how they did meet?

Ruby: Absolutely. It’s so she comes in 1607/8. Three years later, she gets married. Uh, so two sets of things. First of all, there’s one very famous story and there are many versions of this story that can be found from virtually the 19th Century onwards. And the story was essentially that one day, Jahangir the Emperor, who was called Prince Salim, at that time, was going to the bath. And on the way, when he was going to the bath had two prized pigeons in his hand. And on the way he comes across this really gorgeous woman who was standing there looking at the flowers and the swan, and he looks at her and he says, you know, ‘I’m going to the baths, do you mind holding these buttons for me? And I’ll take them and I’m back.’ And so she says, ‘Yes, I’ll keep them’ so she takes the pigeons. When he comes back, he says that he sees that there’s only one pigeon in her hand. And he says, ‘where’s my pigeon?’ And he and so she says, ‘well, it flew away.’ And he says, ‘How did that happen?’ So she extends a second hand with the second in which is holding the second pigeon releases a grip, and lets the pigeon fly. And she says, ‘like this.’ So he loses, you know, he loses his heart to her witticism and to her character and to her, obviously, bravery. 

Nur jahan and jahangir love story
Nur Jahan and Jahangir with Prince Khurram

Holly: Yeah. 

Ruby: So this pigeon story gets repeated over and over and over again. And this is really imprinted in people’s minds. To distil this legend, I didn’t want to first of all do away with the legends in my book, I think it’s very important to take on legends seriously, because through legends, people are actually making sense of this amazing world. What was so beautiful about her? And by beauty we don’t only mean looks, but it’s also the character, the witty character, the charming character, the brilliance of the mind, you know, all of those kinds of so the likelihood is because she was the daughter of Ghiyas Beg, aristocratic families every now and then went to the palace. So the likelihood is that he may have met. There is a very famous legend with a very different name, which I didn’t bring in this book, an English man in the early few years of the 17th Century around 1604 or 1605, a man called William Finch for the first time refers to this. He says there was a woman called Anarkali, literally meaning pomegranate kernel, who Salim was so much in love. But his father, Akbar the Great, refused that marriage because already promised to somebody else. And you know, they’ve been any number of films that have been made on Anarkali, I believe, is something to do with this, maybe I’m not sure, unrequited love of Salim for Nur Jahan. So that’s your legend. As far as the historical documentation, that is the texture traditions that I work with, they suggest the meeting, which is equally romantic and really very beautiful. In the palace every year there was a very famed market or bazaar that was held only for royalty. To which traders that included both tradesmen, but also their wives of really high status brought curiosities of the world and royalty past, the Queen scheme, princesses, concubines. It was called Meena bizarre. And Nur Jahan, when she came to the Agra fort to the harem, she was put in the charge of three senior most matriarchs, one of them was the Emperor’s mother, so you have to think why she was no lady in waiting. She was the Prime Minister’s daughter, but for all sorts of reasons. And partly because when an imperial officer has been killed, it was the case that the family will be brought back to the fort. So she comes to the harem. Anyway, all the women come and so does Nur Jahan. And it is there that for the first time he sees her according to records, and in these 1611 they get married.

Holly: I mean, it is it’s romantic. But pigeons. It’s just so I don’t know the imagery of that story. I can see why it’s so memorable and people hold on to it. Because if it’s very charming, isn’t it?

Ruby: Yes, yes. And we can you know, I mean, if we want to extend our imagination, which we there’s no reason why we shouldn’t we can almost imagine the pigeons in the Meena bazaar. 

Holly: And I love the way in your book that you take instances that we know happen, say, like Jahangir writes about them in his memoirs. So we know that he’s talking about these kinds of things. And we take those and look at the actual significance behind what that would mean. And I think that when we talk about what their relationship was like, together, that’s incredibly important. But I think before we talk about them together, it would be nice to talk about as he was then Prince Salim on his own, what his childhood was, like, what his upbringing was like.

Ruby: So a couple of things have to be said, essentially, a prince, the idea is that the prince is going to be a future king and that undergirds everything that a prince must do. His father was Akbar the Great which was the third Mughal Emperor. And really the first emperor who established Mughal rule in India. He conquered pretty much a northern India as far as the boundary of Dhekan, which is just beyond Hathras today, so those areas. There was also a lot of tension on other other provinces. So it was not a holistic, you know, capture. There were always centre state relations, which is why we were talking about, you know, Bengal. Akbar the Great had lost children before and Salim was a much vetted son. He really makes a pledge to the Sufi saint in Sikri, a man called Salim Chishti and then he’s blessed by this son and is named after the saint – his name’s Salim Chisthi as he’s called Salim as prince. And so when he’s brought up within the terms of classic princely education, again, very similar to how a aristocratic boys would be brought up. So hunting is very critical, you know, building strength is really very critical, poetry, mathematic caligraphy, hunting. Prince Salim, of course, becomes absolutely fascinated by painting and the so called Mughal miniature painting, which had its early formations from the time of the first emperor and but the history of that is really very, very different. The atelier really reaches the epitome under Jahangir’s reign when he becomes Jahangir. So he’s really passionate about painting. And I say this because, you know, there was no law of primogeniture in the court as the right of succession of the first Prince was not automatic. He had two other brothers afterwards who then died later on. But the prince had to prove himself in many things that is military networking with noblemen, you know, conquests, administrative agility, and of course, the support of the harem women with this really very critical. They absolutely adored him. So there is all of this but like, almost all Mughal princes, he revolts against his father’s authority Akbar the Great and establishes a separate court in Allahabad on the Ganges, and this is where the most experimental painting really comes to be. And eventually, Akbar forgives him and he becomes the king. But I do want to say one last thing about Jahangir, in Akbar’s reign the whole drive, I mean, he’s a very experimental, very playful King his father. And he’s very eclectic. He’s really philosophical he was illiterate, but he was marvellously illiterate. He was deeply philosophical. He was very experimental. You know, he had, I mean, the library was stupendous. The atmosphere was stupendous, the campaigns was stupendous. By this time, you have administration, you have taxation, everything is all settled. But remember, he is the first man who builds the Imperial walled harem. Never before women lived in a walled harem before, and the Mughal kings had always been very peripatetic. These were tented royal, gorgeous tents that, that were like tented cities, that’s how royal women lived. They were on the horses, they were outside. Of course there were, there were codes of civility, they were not in public, but they will not veiled. So he puts them behind the walls. And he also declares them the veiled ones. These are two incredible things that happened. And Salim, then Jahangir goes against exactly these kinds of policies, and becomes one of the most peripatetic kings. I mean, he was never in one place. There was only one time, the time when he marries, Nur Jahan that he was in Agra, continuously for two years between 1611 and 1613. And starting 13, they started being on the road and never stopped. So they went from western India into many, many trips to Kashmir – they loved Kashmir – back down again to Agra to southern India to many spaces, but constantly pitching dens. And I believe, coming out of the harem walls and into the open country is really what contributed to the co-sovereignty.

Holly: Yeah, yeah, it gives the possibility that it might it’s an easier transition, isn’t it and for moving into a place of equality, So Jahangir becomes the Emperor in 1605. And he marries 19 women. So what was it like for her to come into this space with all of these different wives? What was her experience? Because she was a widow, had a child, it must have been a real change from previous life in Bengal.

Ruby: Exactly, exactly right. Very, very different lifestyle, you know, from just physically from a mansion to a large harem, right? It’s not only 20 wives, but also their own particular establishments. The wives didn’t live together, they had their own troupe of attendants and servants, and people looked after them from morning to night, the princes. And so it’s a it’s a very different setup. And I think it is that setup, she begins to understand from the Queen mothers and the Empress Dowager and so on and so forth. And so she begins to find, I think, after her marriage, the interesting thing is, she begins and before then she begins to find her own person while being in the harem. So one of the things she does, amazingly after her marriage, and this is this is recorded to the women who looked after her, her attendants and companions and so on, here’s this man, his name is Perry Buckley, and he wrote this incredible Compendium – it’s very extensive biographies of all Mughal nobleman, about 375 people, there’s only one woman who he mentions that’s Nur Jahan, and this is what I mentioning comes from that incredible document – and he says, so she had these women that range roughly between late 30s, to about 70, who were around her. So she gives them the choice, she says to them, to the younger ones, and to all of them that ‘you can go out of the harem. Either I can help you look for husbands for you, or you can leave and find yourself, you know, companions.’ Now we in the 21st century will think about ‘what kind of choice is this asking me to make’. But think about the 1610s you know, for a woman to have the liberty to go out, to have the possibility of a different choice, which I believe in inverted commas because the language of feminism doesn’t exist at that time. But I think it’s a very compassionate act for want of a better word. Then she gave dowries is because marriage is what defined most women in that world, the world over. So she gives dowries to 500 poor girls, and then she begins to design this, this gorgeous dress. It’s called nur mahali. So when she marries Jahangir, he renames her as Nur Mahal, meaning light of the palace. And so she designs the clothing which is still sold in the fourth bazaar outside Agra, the nur mahali, the dress. So it’s a gorgeous dress for very, very insignificant sum. So these are some of the acts, you know, she was early on beginning to do but then slowly, obviously participating in discussions with her father with Jahangir, her step son Shah Jahan, the oldest Prince was married to her niece, he was a great collaborator. And so what I did in this book is to begin to chart her ascent slowly to show not just that, yes, coins were issued in her name. So what did that mean? When was that taking place? What was the scene? What was she doing? What is the significance of issuing the coin? Or I said southern India was only just coming into the imagination of the Mughals as a possible extension of Imperial territory. So Prince Khurram, Shah Jahan, he was called Prince Khurram, he goes to the south. But before then he also goes to…and the news of his earliest victories come to Nur Jahan. In the Smithsonian, and this painting is included in the book, we have a painting that complements the scene of Nur Jahan at the head when the news is being brought, that he had gathered these victories. And the way the bending is dialled, it’s just so evocative of whose in power the Emperor and the Empress, and then the prince slightly smaller than the two of them, pictorially speaking, is sitting at their feet, etc. So things like this begin to come together and slowly by 1616, you know, he declares her Nur Jahan ‘Light of the world’. Now Nur is, and they’re Malwa this time and he goes, the Emperor goes to her father’s house and says, ‘I’m going to be doing this’ and the public proclamation has been made. But he had begun calling her Nur Jahan, prior to this declaration already.

Holly: Yeah, and Nur’s so special, isn’t it?

Ruby: Yes, it’s very special because he himself when he ascends the throne, he calls himself Nur-ud-din Muhammad Badshah Ghazi, Nur-ud-din the meaning light. Nur meaning light- Nur-ud-din light of the faith, Nur Jahan light of the world. Now, this is not an incidental reference. It’s a reference to how sovereignty was imagined by the idea of light. And the simplest explanation is that the king was supposed to be or the Empress was supposed to be an embodiment of divine light, which was concentrated around your forehead, which came to you through several screens from divinity. And only those that were masters of the age could see this divinity in the Emperor or the Empress. So clearly the Emperor saw that divinity.

Holly: It’s so beautiful. And I think it’s such a testament to their relationship, because there are a lot of stories about how her rulership in particular was because of his weaknesses. But you argue very well, that actually, they were equal in their relationship. They were equally ruling as co-sovereigns.

Ruby: So there are three technical signs of sovereignty in Islamic thought. One is that coins must be minted in your name. So these coins survive in various places in India, they’re also held in Berlin, also in Paris, you know, so on the one side, you have the name of Nur Jahan, on the other, Jahangir. The second really very critical sign is we are talking about the formal of signs at the moment. The other very critical sign is issuing of Imperial orders with your signature. What we have at the moment are roughly around 10 to 15 of these Imperial orders. And what were these orders about? For instance, you know, protection of the rights of peasants, if somebody’s land had been taken, as was in the case of one of the successes of Nur Jahan treasurer then she, you know, sends an order saying it should be given back to him or if there were others – so administration related Imperial orders on land related Imperial orders or taxes related exactly the kind of things rulers do. Now people knew about the Imperial orders, but like the coins they’ve been, and I mean, scholars here they had just done what I call a bullet point history right? She issued imperial orders. She issued coins. 

Silver Rupee with Nur Jahan and Jahangir’s Names, 1625–28 CE. H. Nelson Wright, Catalogue of the Coins in the Indian Museum Calcutta – more images available on Ruby Lal’s photo gallery

Holly: yeah casually just did them…

Ruby: Just just did them, right -What did it mean? So I actually looked at the language of the imperial order, and I was so struck by her signature. It says Nur Jahan, that’s her name, padshah, meaning King, begum, an honorific and her rose petaled stamp on that Imperial order. So there’s this language in these orders. Then in Jahangir’s father’s time, Akbar the Great, and this practice comes from Indic traditions in Indian, he would bring his person onto one of the Imperial balconies twice a day, and people from below, you know, viewed him. It’s like, are taking into your vision gods or goddesses. And Nur Jahan is known to have done that. That’s an informal sign, that’s not a sign of Islamic sovereignty. There’s another really interesting sign which we have partly talked about. And I was very struck by this, because people said to me, scholars said to me, ‘oh, well, you know, Jahangir does not (and it’s not only Jahangir, it’s in many, many records – Jahangir does not write about Nur Jahan so I’m just explaining that part) I began reading this in Persian, and I realized two things. One is he’s writing in a stream of consciousness style, which is he’s not saying you know, ‘Holly and Ruby 500 years later,’ you know, I’m mentioning this hunting because it has a significance, right? And that he that he mentions this amazing moment with which my book opens, which is that Mathra had been challenged by a killer tiger. And then she gets on the elephant, shoots this killer tiger and saves her subject. And I can think to myself, why is hunting being mentioned again, and again in this stream of consciousness, almost 30 plus entries? And that’s the task of a historian, I figured out that to hunt particularly to hunt lions and tigers, was the prerogative of the sovereign. Not everybody could do it unless they asked. So these were things they were doing together they were travelling together, all of news about the campaigns was coming together. One of the most formidable acts is the quite incredible in Nur Jahan’s story is in 1626, year before Jahangir dies, and that’s the end of her sovereignty also, is that they were headed towards, you know, kaabu and on the way he gets again, the story is very complicated, but one disaffected nobleman captures him and takes him into captivity for 100 days. He of course, neglects to take Nur Jahan and she strategizes, gets on an elephant, loses the battle. She’s also captured but from within captivity, she works with her noblemans it’s such a strategic and planned manner and eventually rescues her husband. The interesting thing is immediately after this in the court chronicle, a word begins to appear – it’s called fitna which means chaos. And it was first used for Prophet Muhammad’s dearest, wife, Ayesha. And from then on fitna came to be attached to women and it was a damning word which meant you know that your sexuality is a problem. Your acts are a problem, you are a problem. And riding on an elephant was the military feat that the clerics and  all the men who by this time have been confounded, but they were not against her. By this time it was to watch too much.

Holly: Yeah because Jahangir speaks with such respect for her capacity to shot tigers, and to hunt in general. And I think maybe we should talk about the portrait of her loading a musket because that is very significant, isn’t it?

Ruby: Yes, yes. Thank you for asking that question. I lived with that portrait for ever. And, you know, again, we know this portrait in that art historians have done a fabulous work of this portrait. So first of all, it was built in Jahangir’s atelier who were a great not only a connoisseur of art, but a great esprit of art. He could tell according to various observers, he could just by looking at one segment of a painting could tell who had done it and what was wrong with it, etc, etc. So he was that skilled. According to art historians, this painting was built somewhere between 1612 and 1617. It is built in 1612. 

Holly: It’s so early.

Ruby: Why it’s staggering and 17 even still staggering. Yeah. Here’s what happens. Jahagir’s atelier becomes very famous for portraiture. And he best let’s say the painter laureate of the quarter man called Abul-Hasan was a master portrait artist. He is the man and his signature is below the painting. It’s a full size classic miniature portrait. She’s dressed, she’s wearing pajama, like, you know, men wearing pajama. She has a turban, she has rubies and pearls, and she loads a musket. How do we know it is Nur Jahan? First of all, art historians have skillfully with art history established this. But for instance, the difference is there’s a narrowness to the waist, there is a slight rise of the of the breast. And then it’s a direct depiction of her hunting skill. She was the master shotsman. There’s one other thing I want to say: before Jahangir’s atelier women in the Muhgal atelier were painted by suggestion. That is people are not allowed to view them, to see them. But it is suggested that Nur Jahan was the first woman to be actually viewed in any case, you will have been viewed by her own, you know, actions and visibility. And so Abul-Hasan will have seen all these things. In my view, he breaks from all tradition to do this portrait, it was never done ever again. In fact, a very close, very masterful senior European art history colleague he said to me, ‘apart from her the way she is, she’s depicted here loading the mask at the act of loading the musket stupendous, which means technical know how.’ Apart from from anything else, and he didn’t think that there was anything like that out of the Northern European courtly traditions that he studied.

nur jahan and jahangir love story
Portrait of Nur Jahan Holding a Gun, by Abul- Hasan Nadiruz Zaman, 17th century CE. Courtesy of Rampur Raza Library.

Holly: So along with this you kind of mentioned that she starts in the stories get this nasty woman sign of being a bit cunning, that she utilises particularly Jahangir’s alcoholism and opium addiction to her own advantage. But I think, you argue in the book that yes he drank alcohol and yes he took opium but he was still Emperor and I thought we could talk a little bit about how they functioned as a couple because art, architecture and fashion were very important for them as a couple. 

Ruby: That’s right, one more time because we have been talking about this. So like with Nur Jahan, the dismissal of this as a love story only, for Jahangir the dismissal if you just think of him as an alcoholic then you are dismissing him. As I’ve been saying he was this lovely, moody, philosophical, art-oriented, very savvy king. He never abdicated the throne but he did say that he had given the reigns of sovereignty to Nur Jahan Begum. So somethings were made together. I imagined for the first time in this book, I struggled with how to this of this time and this reign by these two people and co-sovereignty was the best description of that – some stuff together, some stuff separately, deliberations around war would obviously be together but there would be separate hosting, separate receptions. He was there in many many acts like when the killing of the tigers. But, you know, if she’s crafting imperial orders obviously she would be in her own establishment with clarks and scribes and so on. And so forth, even in the tented section, but she also some of her own estates. Couple of these of these were really massive, she had her own extended estates where they spent time together, hunted together.

Holly: Yeah it’s lovely. I also found that the narratives of gardens in their lives quite interesting – how they both found this love of gardens and there are a few (I think later paintings) but paintings of them together in gardens.

Ruby: Yes again, I think a very important thing to pick up. So her famous, really beautiful garden called Rambagh. It’s like a pleasure pavilion. It’s just on the banks of the Yamuna and it’s set on three levels and the top most levels are on like a covered pavilion which is closed because it is very delicate and intricate. I went there with the archaeological surveyor of India team and the roofs, you can still see great magnificence in the roofs. It has such richness of pigment and colour and mythical birds and so many other things that are just things that are poetic but also mythical. This site is really critical. This is the site of the garden of the first Mughal Emperor Babur, Jahangir’s great grandfather, builds. He was a lover, an absolute lover of gardens. He just lives in gardens and it is Babur that Jahangir looks up to because he was a poet, a wander, a beautiful writer. So his account Jahangirnameh his diary, is like his great grandfather’s Babur Nama which is exquisite because it reveals in the beauty of the landscape, the beauty of trees, of animals, of people, of tribes, of diversity, or richness. So in a way, the couple is just forming that link with another time.

Holly: I thought one of my favourite, it’s so tiny but it’s just a little testament to their relationship was that he writes that he received care from her when he was sick that “better than any physician” because of the affection and sympathy that she shows him and I just thought, as you say he doesn’t write that much about her and I think part of that was because she was a woman and it was respectful not to write that much about her but to write that little intimate moment I just thought was very special to have.

Ruby: Exactly right, it is very moving.

Holly: Yes, so things as you mentioned take a difficult turn come 1626 when he is kidnapped, she manages to formalise their escape but as you mentioned it is the tipping point as to how their relationship is talked about. So can you explain a little bit as to why that happened?

Ruby: So after she rescues the Emperor is really the beginning of the end of their sovereignty. He’s very sick at this time and in a little while he dies. By this time two things have happened that are pretty critical: her daughter is married to the youngest prince and the stepson Khurram, Shah Jahan builder of the Taj Mahal, feels very challenged and he goes into rebellion. He also becomes increasingly one of the forces to really wipe out Nur Jahan from history and so he’s in rebellion. He’s gone. Her brother Asaf Khan who was a very major nobleman was the father-in-law of this rebellion and so all of these people had now come together and as soon as the Emperor dies they all turn against her.  And really whilst the body is on its way, he dies on the way – it’s like a dual coterie that travels one with the Emperor’s body and one with the Empress. But she was practically taken a prisoner. Then she is let go, that is also very interesting. But I’ll say two things: most matriarchs would go to the harem and if she had decided to go to the harem of her stepson and her niece then she would have been welcomed and forgiven for what they assumed was a problem and then she would have acted as a wise stateswoman and so on. But it’s very interesting, she doesn’t decide to go live with them. She lives on her own and one has to remember that she is the former sovereign, co-sovereign. I also, as I mentioned, she own several landed estates and other things, other imperial property. She would have all that. So she lives on her own. She starts to build his mausoleum. She also designs her own – so she leads her own life. And this is really essentially what happened. She lives, this is 1627, he dies she lives until 1645. Now that is one time when we have absolutely no documentation. We have to use our historical imagination to think – a woman who rose repeatedly over and over again actually after the first husband died, this girl born on the road to go back there and then strategizing, planning, she’s not going to as historians have depicted wear some black clothes and being seen in some kind of mourning state. She would, she would do all of that but also continue to do the things she had done namely architecture, namely her grand nieces. Her niece Mumtaz – it’s said the Taj Mahal is built in her memory so she will be watching from afar as the Taj is being built. She’ll have people come to her, report to her.

nur jahan and jahangir love story

Holly: Yeah I mean she’s got that steely interior. I don’t believe she descended into nothingness either. I mean it’s still a relatively sad end that what happened was that her son-in-law [stepson] created in a way, he created this narrative of her being a manipulative wife and Jahangir someone who could be easily manipulated. So your book has come to rewrite this – so what should their legacy be as a couple?

Ruby: I think legacy first of Nur Jahan because obviously it’s really important to establish that because we had lost her to history for so long.  Legacy as a brilliant, wise, shroud, becoming woman, a woman who took her experiences very seriously. I think of her power of heart power, do you know what I mean? With compassion built into it. But also strong-minded and ambitious. You know women are looked down upon for their ambition and we want to reclaim that girl power. As a couple, you know, this delicate balance that seems to have been there and great amount of respect. So kind of parallel co-domains of existence, being together but not just simply melded into one, very distinct, very respectful personalities, definitely persons of their own. 

Holly: Yeah, I mean I think that is the perfect place to end – thank you so much for talking to me about their love story. I love the fact that you can take the legends and they’re beautiful but the reality is just so much more exciting which is such a treat so thank you so much.

Ruby: Thank you Holly.

Holly: And thank you so much for listening. I just find particularly Nur Jahan but Jahangir as well so fascinating. I think what Ruby has done of reading between the lines and exploring the meaning behind the pieces of evidence of their lives – like that incredible picture of Nur Jahan loading a musket – is so incredible. She really has brought their story to life again. 

Do be sure to pick up Ruby’s book Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, which is now available on Amazon, Waterstones and at your favourite book shop. It really is a wonderful read – I mean I think you can tell that I certainly fell in love with Nur Jahan and Jahangir’s story. You can also discover more information about Ruby and her work as well as how to contact her over on her website

Speaking of books – if you didn’t know over on my Instagram @pastlovespodcast I run the Past Loves Book Club where each month we choose a book (be it classic or historical fiction or nonfiction) that explores love in some way. On the second Saturday of each month we then have a chat about the book and I just absolutely love it. So the next discussion is this Saturday, Saturday 8th September 2020, and we will be discussing The Mountbattens: Their Lives & Loves by Andrew Lownie and then the September/October book is going to be a new release – Widows: Poverty, Power & Politics by Maggie Andrews and Janis Lomas published by independent history publisher The History Press. Excitingly, at the moment, I have teamed up with The History Press over on my Instagram @pastlovespodcast to give away a copy of the book so you could be reading along with me for the next Book Club. It really is an amazing prize and you have until 6pm UK time on 15th September 2020 to enter. Just head to the show notes and you will find a link straight to post with the very easy instructions as to how to enter, as well as all of the T&Cs. A very good luck to you! 

Also if you have enjoyed this episode please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast wherever you are listening to it now and that helps more and more true romantics with a passion for history like ourselves to find the show. Also if you told just one friend about the podcast that would be just so very wonderful. Thank you again for listening, I can’t wait to talk to you again next week when I will be delving into a secret royal marriage – until soon!

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