In the autumn of 1619, when the days were clear and cool, perfect for travel, the royal cavalcade of Emperor Jahangir and Empress Nur Jahan, his twentieth and favorite wife, set out from Agra, the capital of Mughal India, headed for the Himalayan foothills. The people of Mathura, a popular pilgrimage site along the emperor’s route, were anxious for his arrival. For months, a tiger had been attacking villagers and visitors, then disappearing into the forest, evading local hunters. No divine intervention seemed to be forthcoming from Lord Krishna and his consort Radha, the Hindu deities worshipped in Mathura’s temples. But the emperor could solve the problem. Killing tigers had long been a royal prerogative. Jahangir—his name meant Conqueror of the World in Persian, the language of the court— was the fourth of the Mughal emperors, a Muslim dynasty established by invasion early in the sixteenth century. Descendants of the Central Asian nomad kings Chingiz [Genghis] Khan and Tamerlane, the Mughals ruled much of Hindu- majority India for more than three hundred years.
According to one excited observer, the imperial procession included “fifteen hundred thousand” people— men, women, and children; courtiers, soldiers, and servants— along with ten thousand elephants and a great deal of artillery. The procession halted near Mathura, and attendants began erecting hundreds of magnificent tents, with the harem quarters marked with intricately carved red screens. While the traveling court was still being set up, a group of local huntsmen appeared and begged Jahangir to do something about the tiger. Unfortunately, the emperor was obligated to decline. Several years before, Jahangir had taken a vow to give up hunting when he turned fifty. After that, he’d promised Allah, he would injure no living being with his own hands. He was two months past that milestone birthday, and had recently renewed the vow as an offering on behalf of a favorite four- year-old grandson, traveling with him, who suffered from epilepsy. Shooting a tiger was now out of the question for Jahangir. The empress, however, was there to protect her subjects. Beautiful and accomplished, Nur Jahan was the daughter of nobles who’d fled persecution in Persia. She was also the widow of a court official implicated in a plot against Jahangir, but that didn’t stop the emperor from falling hard for her. She was thirty- four when they married, nearly middle- aged in the Mughal world. Since their wedding in 1611, the same year that Shakespeare premiered The Tempest , Nur Jahan (Light of the World in Persian, the name bestowed by her husband), had proved to be a devoted wife, a wise and just queen, a shrewd politician— and an expert markswoman. Her shooting skills were already legendary. A few years earlier, she’d amazed her husband and his courtiers by slaying four tigers with only six shots. On October 23, 1619, Nur Jahan mounted an elephant and settled into the howdah, the elaborate litter on the animal’s back, holding a musket. The mahout, the elephant handler, led her along the sandy track toward the forest. Nur Jahan accompanied her husband, Jahangir, on his own elephant, and they were followed by a long line of courtiers, some on superbly ornamented elephants and horses and others in red and gold jeweled palanquins with silken seats, decorated with garlands of flowers and carried by attendants. Portraits of Nur Jahan from the period suggest that she was wearing a regal turban, much like the ones favored by the emperor and distinguished noblemen, but highly unusual for a woman; a knee- length tunic with a sash around the waist over tight trousers; and earrings and a necklace of rubies, diamonds, or pearls. Her shoes were open at the back, exposing the henna designs on her feet. At forty- two, she was still praised by her contemporaries for her luminous beauty. Local hunters on foot guided the party past fields of barley, peas, and cotton, lush from the recent rains. Along the way, they spotted herds of cattle, goats, and blackbuck with long corkscrew horns. When they reached the forest, the emperor and empress could barely see beyond the dense wall of creepers, bushes, and trees— lofty nim, thorny babul, and many others. The hunters showed the empress and her retinue the spot where the tiger was likely to appear, and they waited. Soon Nur’s elephant, in the lead, began groaning and stepping nervously from side to side; the mahout couldn’t make it stand still, and Nur Jahan’s howdah lurched precariously. From his own elephant, Jahangir looked on, silent and focused.
Later, he would recall the moment in the Jahangirnama (The memoirs of Jahangir), a journal he began when he ascended to the throne in 1605 that would serve as the public record of his reign. “An elephant is not at ease when it smells a tiger, and is continually in movement,” he wrote, “and to hit with a gun from a litter is a very difficult matter.” The tiger emerged from the trees. Nur lifted her musket, aimed between the animal’s eyes, and pulled the trigger. Despite the swaying of her elephant, one shot was enough; the tiger fell to the ground, killed instantly. Jahangir was delighted. A woman shooting publicly was rare; a woman shooting with such expertise was unheard- of. Nur’s shooting skill wasn’t the only thing that made her highly unusual. She held a position in the empire never before filled by a woman: co- sovereign. For more than a decade and a half, from a few years after their wedding until Jahangir’s death, Nur Jahan ruled along with her husband, effectively and prominently, successfully navigating the labyrinth of feudal courtly politics and the male- centered culture of the Mughal world. She issued her own imperial orders, and coins of the realm bore her name along with her husband’s. In Islamic thought and practice, the edicts and the coins were convincing technical signs of sovereignty. Furthermore, Nur sat where no other Mughal queen had sat before or would after, in the jharokha, an elaborately carved balcony projecting from the palace wall, from which government business was conducted.
While Nur ruled the empire alongside her husband, dispensing justice and masterminding daring rescues, she also wrote poetry and designed clothing, gardens, and buildings. Though modern South Asians embrace the legends of Nur with affection, gusto, and pride, the emphasis on her romance with Jahangir truncates her biography in a way that diminishes her. In the popular imagination, Nur’s story seems to stop at the very moment when her life’s best work began. Between 1614 and 1627, the year of Jahangir’s death, Nur served as her husband’s co- sovereign, a decisive player in courtly and succession politics, and a commanding strategist. She defended her subjects against oppressive landlords and otherwise championed social justice. At the height of her power in the 1610s and ’20s, princes and courtiers sought her advice and followed her commands; she had the faith and trust of her husband. In 1626, when Jahangir was taken prisoner by a rebellious nobleman, it was Nur who led her imperial troops to rescue him. Many of her male contemporaries were in awe of Nur, whom they saw as a person of uncommon political and cultural acumen, and a remarkable leader. But in a conservative patriarchy, they had trouble accepting, despite empirical evidence, that she could be both womanly and a sovereign. Some commentators pronounced her cunning and conniving, precisely the way certain authoritative women are described to this day.
Thomas Roe, the British ambassador to Jahangir’s court, saw Nur as manipulative and mysterious: “[Jahangir’s] course is directed by a woeman, and is now, as it were, shut up by her soe, that all justice or care of anything or publique affayres either sleepes or depends on her, who is more unaccessible then any goddesse or mistery of heathen impietye.” 10 In the view of Peter Mundy, a merchant with the British East India Company who visited Agra in 1630, Nur was “hautie and stomakefull”—that is, stubborn. Europeans like Roe and Mundy seemed especially bewildered by the phenomenon of Nur Jahan. She hadn’t inherited an empire, as had Queen Elizabeth I of England, crowned twenty years before Nur’s birth, nor was she exactly a favorite, the familiar adviser- minister figure they knew, a staple of European courts but always a male. They couldn’t quite wrap their minds around a woman’s coming to power because of her own talents, but they could understand a wily consort winning the indulgence of a love- blind emperor. Jahangir’s marriage to Nur in 1611, the critical moment thought by many to explain her rise, launched a multitude of legends about every phase of Nur’s life— her birth, her first marriage, harem life, an alleged early affair with Jahangir when he was a young prince, her meeting and marrying Jahangir, her power over her husband. The legends soon engulfed the truth, overshadowing her actual personal history.
Excerpted from “Empress: The Astonishing Reign Of Nur Jahan” by Ruby Lal, published by Penguin India.