Refinement is the child of civilization, not its parent. The Mughals understood this point and regarded Persian culture as the epitome of refinement; ethnically Chagatai Turks from Central Asia, the Mughals wholeheartedly embraced Persian culture and adopted Persian as their language of court and administration. The custom began with the Mughal Emperor Humayun, who spent his exile in Safavid Persia and was mightily impressed with that land. It was Humayun who, after his conquest of India with the Safavid army’s help, invited Persian soldiers, nobles, artists and administrators to settle in India.
The Mughal king’s open-door policy, coupled with the status of Persian as the state language, attracted a number of talented Persians over the next few centuries. Apart from soldiers, administrators and aristocrats, a number of poets, physicians, musicians, architects, painters, musicians and other people possessing diverse skills migrated to India and transformed its political and cultural landscape. Mughal culture has often been described as a fusion of Indian, Mongol and Persian traditions. However, the Persian impact and imprint on Mughal culture was both prominent and paramount in areas such as art and architecture, language and literature, calligraphy and painting, music and medicine, gardening and coinage, carpets and jewelry, pottery and manuscripts.
[quote]Humayun invited Persian soldiers, nobles, artists and administrators to settle in India[/quote]
Persia not only influenced the Muslim cultural heritage in India. According to Richard Frye, the pre-eminent Iran expert at Harvard who passed away recently, Persia’s role in the development and diffusion of Islamic civilization is similar to that of Greek civilization on Christianity. Both Persia and Greece were older civilizations than Islam and Christianity respectively, and thus had a profound influence on refining and spreading the civilizations associated with those two religions.
The Indian historian Abraham Eraly in his book Emperors of the Peacock Throne has pointed out that the ablest prime ministers of the Mughal period – Bayram Khan (Akbar), Abdur Rahim (Akbar), Itimad ud daula (Jahangir), Asaf Khan (Shah Jahan), and Naimat Khan Aali (Aurangzeb) – were Persian. Mughal kings married a number of Indian women but the most notable queens – Maham Begum (Humayun’s mother), Hamida Bano Begum (Akbar’s mother), Nur Jahan (childless as Jahangir’s queen) and Mumtaz Mahal (Aurangzeb’s mother) – were also Persian.
Although both Nur Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal have captured the imagination of historians, Annemarie Schimmel, in her scholarly work The Empire of the Great Mughals – History, Art, and Culture, has written in detail about the prominent role of women at the Mughal court and observed that women in the Central Asian regions, to which the Mughals belonged, enjoyed “considerably more freedom and were more active than those in the Central Islamic regions.”
Jahangir is best known for his romances with two Persian women – the dancing girl Anarkali and the empress Nur Jahan. It is possible that Anarkali is a mythical being, a concoction of sensational dastaans and later of Bollywood romances. But Nur Jahan was real: the daughter of a Persian immigrant, she was widowed at the age of thirty and four years later became the most powerful Mughal queen.
Born as Mehr-un-Nisa in Kandahar in 1577, while her parents were on their way to India after migrating from Tehran, Nur Jahan (meaning Light of the World) is the most remarkable female icon in Mughal history. She was a woman of taste and talent who lived in an age of cosmopolitanism. “No gift of nature seemed to be wanting to her; beautiful with the rich beauty of Persia, her soft features were lighted up with a sprightly vivacity and superb loveliness,” wrote the Indian historian Beni Prasad in his early 20th century history of Jahangir.
Displaying a fine taste for Persian poetry, literature and the arts, Nur Jahan possessed in liberal measure, in Beni Prasad’s words, “a piercing intellect, a versatile temper, and sound common sense.”
Her father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg (later known as Itimad-ud-daula), was a Persian aristocrat who, after suffering a reversal in family fortunes in Iran, had moved to India and joined Akbar’s court. Mehr-un-Nisa, meaning ‘Sun among Women’, was married at the age of seventeen to Ali Quli Khan, a Persian adventurer in India, who had served with Jahangir when he was a prince and had earned the title of ‘Sher Afgan’ (the tiger-slayer) due to his brave role in hunting expeditions. Later he was sent to Bengal on a military expedition where he died under somewhat mysterious circumstances.
[quote]Jahangir saw Nur Jahan at the Nowruz festival in Delhi’s Mina Bazar[/quote]
After her husband’s death in Bengal in 1607, Mehr-un-Nisa moved back to Agra with her daughter, Laadli Begum, and joined the harem of Ruqaiyya Begum, Akbar’s first wife who was childless. Four years later, in 1611, Jahangir saw Nur Jahan for the first time at the Nowruz festival in Delhi’s Mina Bazar and was besotted by her exquisite appearance. (According to Eraly, the Mughals used to host a bazaar at the start of every Nowruz festival, on the 21st of March, in which women could roam the streets without purdah.) Nur Jahan’s story is so inspiring and romantic yet some Indian historians have tried to further embellish it by insinuating that Jahangir had seen her earlier and was involved in her husband’s controversial murder in Bengal. Beni Prasad, who published his ‘History of Jahangir’ in 1923, impugned this conspiracy theory and stated that there is no evidence to suggest that Jahangir was either behind Sher Afgan’s murder or had seen Mehr-un-Nissa before the Nowruz festival in 1611.
[quote]She was a 34-year old widow with a daughter from her first marriage[/quote]
Jahangir saw her next in the harem of his stepmother, where she lived. A thirty-four year old widow with a daughter from her first marriage, Nur Jahan did not need words to convince Jahangir. Transfixed by this Persian beauty, Jahangir stood motionless for a few moments before he asked her if she would marry him. “A subject has no choice,” the lady is said to have replied coyly.
[quote]She is the only Mughal queen to have her name inscribed on coins[/quote]
Nur Jahan did not marry Jahangir to play the role of another decorous, docile and dutiful trophy wife. Her critics accused her of exploiting Jahangir’s passion for joie de vivre and addiction to opium and alcohol to take the reins of power. Actually power flowed to her as, according to Annemarie Schimmel, ineffectual Mughal aesthetes were no match for this spunky and ambitious Persian noblewoman. She is the only Mughal queen to have her name inscribed on coins. Like other queens she possessed the imperial seal and signed imperial orders.
Her extraordinary achievements also need to be examined in the face of patriarchal norms, strongly prevalent at that time, which measured a woman’s worth or importance in bearing an heir to the throne. Nur Jahan gave no heir to Jahangir but ran his empire for fifteen out of his total reign of twenty-one years. She composed poetry and was a first-class horseback rider; she hunted tigers and lions in addition to owning ships, indulging in commercial transactions and foreign trade, designing gardens, introducing new culinary delights, revolutionizing dress and decorations, promoting new patterns of jewelry and embroidery, and financially patronizing needy and penurious women in society.
Nur Jahan inherited her father’s entire estate and built a grand mausoleum for him in Agra. The building, known as Itimad-ud-Daula’s tomb, is considered one of the finest examples of Persian architecture and a forerunner of the Taj Mahal in its style and splendor. Nur Jahan has been criticized for placing her father and brother Asaf Khan in addition to other relatives in the most powerful positions in the court. Her defenders contend that for a woman ruling from behind the purdah, it was quite natural to rely on her closest male relatives for support within the court to get her orders implemented. She introduced her niece, Arjumand Bano (later Mumtaz Mahal), to Jahangir’s favorite son Prince Khurram (later Shah Jahan), who immediately took a shine to her and was betrothed to this stunning beauty. Although Shah Jahan married two other Persian women before marrying Mumtaz Mahal, those matches were just political alliances as Mumtaz Mahal remained his constant companion – their love immortalized in Bollywood love songs – for the rest of her life.
Nur Jahan made two major mistakes in her life: the first was poisoning Jahangir’s mind against Prince Khurram (Shah Jahan) and Mahabat Khan, thus driving both of them into rebellion. She first sent Mahabat Khan, Jahangir’s trusted Afghan general, to put down Khurram’s rebellion; and once the rebellion was crushed she spared his life as he was married to her niece. Later, when they turned against Mahabat Khan, both Jahangir and Nur Jahan ended up as his captives in Jehlum for a hundred days but later on, due to Nur Jahan’s presence of mind and clever contrivance, Mahabat Khan’s forces were thrown into confusion and the royal couple escaped from his captivity.
After Jahangir’s death, Nur Jahan sided in the war of succession with her son-in-law, Prince Shahriyar, Jahangir’s younger son who was a good-looking fool addicted to alcohol. Her brother Asaf Khan sided with his son-in-law, Prince Khurram, who, after winning the battle against Prince Shahriyar, put him to death as was the Mughal tradition but spared Nur Jahan, confining her to Lahore.
Nur Jahan donned the dress of simplicity during her widowhood, became a recluse and devoted herself to prayer; she lived for nearly eighteen years till death overcame her in 1645. She loved Lahore, beautified it by building Jahangir’s mausoleum with her money, and was buried in the city which she had glorified in her famous Persian verse:
Lahore ra jan barabar kharida-im
Jan dada-im va jannat e digar kharida-im
I have paid the price of my life to purchase Lahore
And given up my life to purchase another (second) paradise
The author tweets @AmmarAliQureshi and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org