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Not Just A Pretty Face, Nur Jahan Was A Badass Feminist Queen

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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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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