Arun Kumar
April 1998

Nur Jahan 

A review of Ellison Banks Findly's "Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India,"
Oxford University Press, 1993.

From a review written for
A remarkable woman, interesting times, and good history

    Ellison Findly's "Nur Jahan" is a biography of the eighteenth and last wife of the Mogul emperor Jahangir (1569-1627). Jahangir was Nur Jahan's second husband. Her first, Sher Afghan, was killed in a fracas that followed his murder of an old friend and associate of Jahangir. 

    Jahangir was much given to sensual pleasure, including six cups of alcohol (each two parts wine to one part arrack) and two doses of opium every day (the first eight surkhs, the second six). And this was a reduced regimen, instituted by Jahangir's physicians, and administered by Nur Jahan. I wish Findly had explained how many milligrams a surkh is. Also, how much happiness and debility a diet like this is likely to induce.

  Given Jahangir's level of addiction, it is no wonder that following his wedding to Nur Jahan in 1611, political power was exercised on his behalf almost entirely by a clique constituted, initially, of his beloved Nur Jahan, his chief minister Itmaduddaula, the courtier Asaf Khan, and his son Khurram. 

    Itmaduddaula was Nur Jahan's father, and Asaf Khan her brother. Khurram, the son of Jahangir's second wife, Jagat Gosaini, came to be known as Shah Jahan, later, when he ascended the throne following a protracted rebellion against his father. In his revolt, Khurram was covertly aided and abetted by Asaf Khan, who was also the father of his wife Arjumand Bano (later Mumtaz Mahal). 

    Sharyar, a son of Jahangir from one of his concubines, and the husband of Nur Jahan's only child Ladli Begum from her marriage to Sher Afghan, was Nur Jahan's choice for Jahangir's successor. (Nur Jahan had no children by Jahangir.) Nurjahan had tried her very best to marry Ladli first to Khusrau, Jahangir's eldest, then to Khurram, but neither could be made to take an interest in Ladli. 

    Sharyar, however, never stood a chance against Khurram. In the few years before Jahangir's demise, Sharyar contracted leprosy, and that further reduced his chances for making a successful bid for power. A few days after Jahangir's death, Sharyar did proclaim himself emperor at Lahore, but within a few days of that he was imprisoned by Asaf Khan, and blinded by his orders. Yet a few days later Shah Jahan, marching north from Deccan to Agra at the head of the rebel army, sent a message to Asaf Khan to have Sharyar and four other princes done to death. They were strangled. 

    Nur Jahan was a woman of unusual ability. She exercised political authority with intelligence, courage and astuteness, and did it despite constraints (like purdah) imposed by life in the Moghul zenana. She was also responsible, almost single-handedly, for the many artistic, architectural, and cultural achievements of the Jahangir era. Her cultural and artistic achievements derived largely from the immense resources at her command. But they were also, in equal measure, due to her unflagging energy and the keenness of her aesthetic vision. Her artistic achievements include the Moghul gardens of Kashmir and Agra, and the tomb of her father Itmaduddaula, also in Agra, which was the first example of the use of white marble embellished with the precise inlay of precious stones into the surface of marble facing --- a technique (pietra dura) exploited also in the construction of the Taj Mahal. 

    Findly's biography is a work of scholarship and authority. And quite lucid and absorbing. It covers a very interesting period of Indian history, and ties together reports from a number of contemporary sources: Indian, British, Dutch, Portuguese, and Italian. Separate but overlapping chapters each cover material with thematic unity.

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