Jahan Ara Begum, the eldest daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan was, arguably, the most powerful woman in her age. Born in 1614, she was promoted by her doting father to the rank of Malika-e-Hindustan Padishah Begum – the First Lady of the Indian Empire – in 1631, at the young age of 17, after the death of her mother Mumtaz Mahal. It must be remembered, after all, that Mumtaz Mahal herself was, amongst scores of other wives and concubines, the most favourite consort of her husband. It was in her memory that Shah Jahan had built the Taj Mahal at Agra.
The young princess lived at a time when the Mughal Empire was one of the richest and certainly the most splendid in the world. Jahan Ara was not only the administrator of the Royal harem – the ladies’ quarters – she was also the most trusted adviser of her father in matters of war and peace.
Hakeems and tabibs applied lotions and ointments, but the recovery of the princess was very slow and the wounds refused to heal
In 1641, when only 27 years old, as she walked close to a burning lamp wearing a heavily perfumed fine silk apparel, her delicate dress caught fire. Soon her whole body was engulfed in flames. Some chamber maids threw themselves on the princess in trying to suppress the flames – themselves getting scorched severely in the process.
When the fire subsided, the princess was found to have sustained serious burns. Parts of her burnt dress stuck to her scorched body. The flames had singed and disfigured her pretty face too.
Unfortunately, local Indian records are silent on the subject – as they generally are, relating to events of social and historical importance. However, and as usual, multiple British records about this incident exist. The British records are quite elaborate, although it occurred in the secluded ladies’ quarter of the imperial palace. Writing in his History of the British Empire in India and the East, the historian Edward Noland states the following:
“Shahjahan, the great Mogul, had a favourite daughter, named Jahan Ara : on one occasion, after spending the evening with her sire, when retiring to her own apartments, she passed too closely to one of the lamps that lit a corridor of the palace, and set her dress on fire. Fearful of calling the attention of the guards – oriental ladies of her rank regarding any exposure to the gaze of strangers as a calamity to be avoided at whatever cost – she rushed to the harem, her light apparel in flames, which the rapidity of her flight of course fanned. She fell insensible into the arms of her attendants, who extinguished the fire, but the princess was severely and even perilously injured.”
Sir William Wilson Hunter in The European struggle for Indian Supremacy in the Seventeenth Century writes that the princess was severely burnt, although he doesn’t provide the precise circumstances under which it happened. Some other British sources have preserved the incident with only minor variations.
In any case, it would appear that the the Emperor was devastated. The leading hakeems and tabibs – practitioners of traditional Greek and Indian medicine – were summoned to cure the royal wounds. They prepared and applied lotions and ointments, and administered the best known medicines, but the recovery of the princess was very slow and the wounds refused to heal. Additionally, her facial disfigurements could not be removed.
In his search for someone who could restore the Princess, the Emperor learnt of an expert physician on board the HMS Hopewell, one of the British ships anchored at Surat. He approached the officials of the East India Company to make the services of this physician available to him. The Company fetched Dr. Gabriel Boughton from the ship and ‘placed him in haste’ at Agra.
The doctor asked nothing for himself. Instead he pleaded with the Emperor that the Company receive duty-free access to all the Mughal-controlled ports
The doctor proceeded to treat the Princess and through his skill and counsel, was able to restore her to a working routine. The Emperor, who had begun to rely on Jahan Ara a lot, was delighted and offered his benefactor any reward he might choose to name – within the limits of the imperial power to bestow, of course.
European trade with the Indian subcontinent started with the discovery of a sea passage around the Cape of Good Hope from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean by the Portuguese. They were followed by the Dutch, Danes, French and finally the English. By the time of this incident, the English presence was restricted to Surat and a few other places on the Western Ghats, and the trade on the Eastern shore and in the Bay of Bengal was entirely in the hands of the Portuguese and the Dutch, who thwarted the efforts of the English to set up any trading post on this side.
Luckily for the British, their doctor proved to be exceptionally altruistic. Under the grateful pleasure of one of the richest monarchs of the world of the time, he could have asked for riches and favours for himself and his family. The selfless doctor, however, replied that he needed nothing for himself. Instead he pleaded with the Emperor that his Company was having a hard time expanding trade in India and requested permission for it to trade duty-free through all the sea ports in his realm. The Princess, charmed with the disinterestedness of the medicine man, joined her powerful entreaties to his request. The Emperor, equally surprised, and admiring the patriotism and generosity of the man, conceded to the request.
Pipili was situated 50 kilometres northeast of Balasore in the state of Odisha – formerly Orissa – and 30 kilometres upstream from the Bay of Bengal on the river Subarnarekha. The Portuguese had set up trading facilities here way back in the middle of 1514 and the Dutch had followed suit. Due to their superior navy and local contacts, these two European powers had managed to keep the British out of the eastern Indian sea board.
Aware of its importance for trading activities and taking advantage of the permission granted to them, the East India Company quickly proceeded to establish a factory at Pipili and for the first time, English ships arrived at an eastern port.
Shah Shuja, the second son of Shah Jahan, was appointed Subedar (Governor) of Bihar and Bengal in 1641 and of Odisha too in 1648. It so happened that the same Dr. Boughton was now fortuitously stationed in Bengal. Due to the unfortunate accident that had befallen his sister, Shah Shuja knew about doctor’s expertise in medicine. He asked the doctor to cure someone of importance; some accounts mention a sick lady of the harem and others refer to some other important person. Pleased with his services, Shah Shuja, too, desired to bestow awards on him but the honourable doctor again sought concessions for the Company instead of compensation for himself.
Hooghly lies in the heart of Bengal, 130 kilometres upstream from the mouth of the Hooghly River in the Bay of Bengal. Since the days of Akbar the Great, the Portuguese had established a large port facility and a vast factory here to trade in Bengal, the richest province of India at the time. When Shah Jahan took the throne in 1628, the town of Hooghly had grown substantially with a population of thousands – including the Portuguese, local converted Christians and slaves. This included a large number of European women and children as well. The influence and power of the Portuguese had grown so much that they had become capable of taking control of the province. In league with the ruler of Arakan on Burmese coast, they had also started indulging in piracy and slave trade of locals, which proved their undoing.
J.J.A. Campos, who in his History of the Portuguese in Bengal has written in detail of the events of this time, writes that in view of their insolent behaviour, the Emperor decided to act against Portuguese. He ordered his Governor of Bengal Kasim Khan in 1632 to seize Hooghly and crush the Portuguese colonists. The subsequent fighting on land and sea lasted for three months and resulted in total defeat for the Portuguese.
The English took immediate advantage and settled a factory at Hooghly, laying the foundations for commerce and empire in Bengal
Mughal losses in men and material were also substantial. However they had obliterated the Portuguese in the region. The Padshahnama, the official account of Shah Jahan’s rule, narrates that ten thousand Feringhis (foreigners/Westerners) and their hired men died. J.J.J. Campos agrees with this figure – although clarifying that not all of these were fighting men. Of the 64 large sailing vessels and 200 smaller craft, only three survived, the rest having been sunk. The Mughals captured four thousand Christian prisoners who were taken to Agra. The men were tortured and enslaved. The handsome women were shut up in the harem, the older women were distributed among the Umrah – notables – and the young boys were made servants.
The European trade was lucrative for the Mughals in terms of duties received and for the protection of the Pilgrimage ships to Mecca. Therefore, the Portuguese were allowed to return to Hoogly but under very strict conditions and without the exclusive control that they had enjoyed till the previous year. This allowed the BEIC to hope for setting up a trading facility in Bengal.
Refusing an award for himself, the good doctor asked the Governor for permission for the East India Company to set up a factory at Hooghly. N. Edward writes that the English took immediate advantage of this and settled a factory at the port, which laid the foundations for their subsequent commerce and empire in Bengal. Their subsequent naval supremacy would allow them to expel all other European powers from the region and rapidly impose their monopoly on trade in the Indian Ocean. Though they suffered some reverses during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, they were able to consolidate their possessions. Dr. Cook Taylor writes that other events and consequences flowed from the establishment of a factory at Hooghly, which led to the development of Calcutta, with its Fort William, down the Hooghly River. Calcutta became the capital of the English rule over the whole of the Indian subcontinent, until the development of New Delhi in the early twentieth century. The British East India Company went on to control around a half of world trade at its zenith and established other towns in the region including Hong Kong (in South China) and Singapore.
The altruism of one English doctor had helped the Company – and the English nation – when it was struggling to survive under adverse political and economic conditions in that faraway era of the mid-seventeenth century. One can argue that East India Company had planned to get these advantages and concessions from the Mughals and may have, as a matter of policy, coaxed the doctor to demand his reward accordingly. However it would appear that all contemporary records testify to his selfless character and behaviour.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad
Wondering what happened to Princess Jahan Ara in later life, after the death of Emperor Shah Jahan? We bring you a passage from the renowned historian of Mughal India, Abraham Eraly. The book Emperors of the Peacock Throne: The Saga of the Great Mughals is available at Books n Beans (Lahore) or through www.vanguardbooks.com
Jahanara, though a partisan of Dara, was Aurangzeb’s favourite sister, and he yearned to win her love and respect. He redesignated her as the first lady of the realm, the status she had enjoyed under Shah Jahan, but now with the high title Padshah Begum, Princess Royal, instead of Begum Sahib, Noble Princess, her title until then. At his next coronation celebrations, held in Agra, Aurangzeb presented Jahanara with gold worth 1.4 million rupees, and raised her annual allowance from 1 million to 1.7 million rupees.
Aurangzeb seems to have intended to shift his capital to Agra at this time, for he brought back to Agra the imperial treasures – they were brought in 1,400 carts – which he had earlier taken away to Delhi. But in October he returned to Delhi, and induced Jahanara also to move in there. He assigned for her residence the grand mansion of Ali Mardan Khan, and often visited her, spending hours in conversation with her, rare moments of affection and tenderness in this dour emperor.
With Jahanara’s return to favour, Raushanara, who had ruled the roost in the imperial harem till then, receded into the background, to die in obscurity five years later, in September 1671, aged forty-seven. Ten years later, in September 1681, Jahanara, sixty-seven, passed away. The news of her death reached Aurangzeb when he was on his way from Ajmer to the Deccan, and he immediately ordered a halt of three days to mourn her. She was buried in the compound of the sepulchre of Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, a Sufi sage of the fourteenth century, in a humble grave, a 5 metre by 3.5 metre patch of ground enclosed with screens of marble lattice work, open to the skies and covered with grass, marked only by a plain marble slab according to her wish as inscribed upon the headstone: “Let no rich canopy surmount my resting place. The grass is the best covering for the grave of a lowly heart.” n