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  • Writer's pictureRhiannon Ling

Nur Jahan: The Tiger Empress


Nur Jahan (May 31, 1577 – December 17, 1645)

I fell in love with Nur Jahan via Prof. Ruby Lal. The academic’s musings on the Empress’s power and ability, her clear love for Nur Jahan’s story and capacity, her folkloric excitement on mythos and reality…it was irresistible, frankly. I’ve no idea how we’ve managed to keep Nur Jahan's story hidden—at least in the Western world—for so long. Misogyny aside, she is a badass of epic proportions.


I mean, a woman who can kill a tiger with a single bullet? Is that not prime movie material?


Nur Jahan was born Mihr un-Nisa in 1577, near Kandahar. She was the daughter of Persian nobility, descendants of Muhammad Sharif and Aqa Mulla who had fled Iran to seek refuge in the more accepting Mughal Empire. At the time, the kingdom of Al-Hind—now northern India—was a land of unprecedented tolerance: the Mughal kingdom allowed for different religions, sensibilities, and traditions to coexist in relative peace. Many Persian refugees found asylum within its walls; Nur Jahan’s parents were but two of them.


Her childhood is somewhat clouded in legend. Stories say that her parents attempted to abandon her in the desert; when they came back to fetch her, guilt-ridden, she was sitting calmly next to a snake, danger kept at bay by her autonomy and innocence. Her name, meaning “Sun Among Women,” was given to her then, to symbolize her parents’ new beginning. The likelihood of this is, of course, questionable, though the story’s rather compelling.


Regardless, the family settled themselves into the Mughal world. Her father’s business acumen meant their status rose with speed: he was named an Itimad-ud-Daula (“pillar of the state”) by the emperor of the time. This granted young Nur Jahan access to an excellent education. She grew to be fluent in a variety of Persian and Arabic languages, and was well-versed in art, literature, music, and dance.


This lent her good luck in the marriage field, of course. At the age of 17, in 1594, she married Sher Afghan, a former military officer turned government official. The newlyweds moved with her husband’s work to Bengal; there, Nur Jahan gave birth to her only child in 1605, a daughter named Ladli. Unfortunately, shortly after Ladli’s birth, Sher Afghan was suspected of participating in a plot to overthrow the emperor. His arrest was demanded, and, in the ensuing skirmish with Bengalese officials, he was killed. Since nothing had been decisively proven, Nur Jahan and her daughter were granted refuge in the emperor’s harem.


At first, she served as handmaiden for Ruqaiya Sultan Begum, the emperor’s chief wife. Nur Jahan became rather a favorite of the Ruqaiya’s, in fact: it was written that the latter “loved her more than [any] others.” Perhaps strangely, this lasted even after Nur Jahan gained the love of Emperor Jahangir. In 1611, she became his 20th and final wife, the one who would be the favored of many. Her new name—Nur Jahan, meaning “Light of the World”—was given to her by Jahangir in 1616, solidifying the heart’s capture.


It is this love story that many know Nur Jahan for. It’s tempting to mythologize something like this: it’s the equivalent of Darcy and Elizabeth, Anthony and Kate, Süleyman and Hürrem. It’s enticing to envision the period drama trope, of one person entering the room in flowing fabric, catching the other’s eye across the way, engaging in a ballroom dance of “will-they-won’t-they.” I, too, am guilty in the loving of it. There are two problems with the trope, though: one, it minimizes the woman (Nur Jahan) to submissive beauty; two, it allows others to accuse her of seduction for political means. That dichotomy is exactly what the legacy of Nur Jahan has been battling for years from those who know her: cupid’s arrow or manipulative seductress? Pretty wife or savage beast?


Well. In a way, perhaps she was both, and neither, simultaneously.


From 1614 onward, Jahangir’s diaries detail exactly the kind of woman Nur Jahan was. He describes her as “a sensitive companion, a superb caregiver, an accomplished adviser, a skilled hunter, a diplomat and an art lover.” She rose quickly to chief advisor alongside Jahangir’s father and brother. He entrusted her with matters of diplomacy, infrastructure, patronage, social justice, and lineage. In many ways, Nur Jahan became de facto ruler by necessity: Jahangir was a notorious alcoholic and drug user, and, when he was indisposed, she was the one capable of carrying out his duties.


This essential regency became official shortly after Jahangir and Nur Jahan’s marriage. Her first royal decree, protecting the land rights of employees, was enacted within only a year or two. Her signature read “Nur Jahan Padshah Begum:” “Nur Jahan, the Lady Emperor.” In 1616, she was given her own imperial seal, “implying that her perusal and consent were necessary before any document or order received legal validity;” she was the first and final person to be visited before any decision was made. In 1617, gold and silver coins began circulating with her name opposite Jahangir’s. And, in a stunning show of power and solidarity, a portrait of her was painted between 1612 and 1617: she holds a gun, a pose reserved only for the Emperor. In short, sometime between 1611 and 1617, Nur Jahan became Empress, the only female ruler in the Mughal dynast.


Many foreigners didn’t like this state of affairs. Western civilizations mocked Jahangir, giving him the title of “his wife’s prisoner.” Considering Nur Jahan once killed four tigers with six bullets on a single hunt, I doubt that mockery was wise.


In 1626, Nur Jahan accomplished an incredible feat: she rescued her husband from militaristic kidnappers. After his rivals stole Jahangir away, Nur Jahan raised an army and led them into battle atop a war elephant. She intentionally gave herself up to the usurpers, seemingly entrapping herself in the palace with Jahangir. While there, she raised a coup of the enemy’s power from within his own palace, a strategic design mind-bogglingly difficult to accomplish. She and Jahangir returned home safely, and with an army hundreds more strong.


Nur Jahan continued to dominate Mughal politics until Jahangir’s death in 1627. Upon his eldest son’s ascension, she turned her attention to completing the tomb of Iʿtimād al-Dawlah, an Agra architectural masterpiece that would inspire the Taj Mahal. Shortly after its completion, she was forcibly removed from court by Shah Jahan, her stepson. He attempted to remove all memory of her from courtly life: her coins were taken out of circulation; her name was scrubbed from official documentation; court records were rewritten to blame her for the Empire’s increasing turmoil.


The only thankful thing is that this erasure did not lead to the physical harm of Nur Jahan. She lived the rest of her years in peace, alongside her daughter and granddaughter. In 1645, following her death, she was buried in Lahore, close to Jahangir’s grandiose tomb.


Or she’s immortal, hiding, and waiting to be called when the Empire needs her most. Whatever you prefer to think. I’m sure this Tiger Empress would appreciate it all.


Sources/For More Info:The Mughal queen who became a feminist icon” by Ruby Lal, Encyclopedia Britannica, “The Empress: Nur Jahan” from What’s Her Name, “Empress Nur Jahan and the Politics of Erasure in Modern India” by Ruby Lal, Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India by Ellison Banks Findly, Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal

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