Empress Nur jahan – A life of ambition

nur jahan

nur jahan

Nur Jahan was an administrator par excellence and a politician who had no parallel in Mughal history among women. Nur Jahan was born on 31st May 1577 in Kandahar region of Afgahistan into a Persian family. Her father was Mirza Ghiaz Beg and mother Asmat Begum. Mirza Ghiaz Beg was travelling with his family to India in search of job at Emperor Akbar’s court when they were attacked by robbers. After losing all their possession and unable to fend a just born Meherunissa, the family left her in bushes to her fate and proceeded further. But a merchant found the baby in bush and searched her family and handed baby Meherunissa back to her parents. Thus her early days of life was a tough one saved by a whisker of luck abandoned by her own parents.

Ghiaz Beg came to Emperor Akbar’s court in 1578 and found a small treasurer job. Beng astute and hardworking and machivellian he rose to become treasurer of Kabul province. By late 1590s he rose to become the Minister in Emperor Akbar’s court and was given title Itimad-ud-Daula or “Pillar of state”.  In the year 1595 Meherunisas was married off to Ali Quli Khan also called Sher Afghan at age of 17 years.  There were rumors that Prince Salim was in love with Meherunissa so Akbar ordered her marriage to Ali Quli, but there is no historical proof that Prince Salim loved Meherunissa as a youngster. Ali Quli Khan was an Persian brought up in Afghanistan and a slave of a Persian noble. He became a wanderer and a looter(petty theif) after his Persian master’s death and later joined Akbar’s army under Salim in Rajputhana. The story goes that once a big Mughal commander was saved during Maharana Pratap’s jungle raid by Ali Quli hence he came in contact with Akbars army. Meherunissa and Ali Quli had a daughter called Ladli Begum who was born in 1605. Meherunisas had many miscarriages almost 7 of them before Ladli Begum survived. Ali Quli served under Prince Salim in the mughal army.

In 1605 Akbar died and Prince Salim ascended the mughal throne.  When Prince Salim was ascending the throne of mughal empire there were two camps in court, one was Prince Salim and another of his son Khusrau led by powerful commanders and ministers like Man Singh, Aziz Koka and Abdul Rahim Kan-e-khana.  It is said that Ali Quli sided with Khusrau along with Meherunissa’s brother Muhammad Sharif. Jehangir after coming to power got them all arrested but pardoned everyone except Muhammad Sharif. Muhammad Sharif was put to death, Ali Quli was made governor of Bengal, Abdul Rahim was sent to war in Deccan but Aziz Koka was banished from court.

In 1607, Jehnagir got complaints regarding Ali Quli involved in anti state activities. He sent his milk brother and childhood friend Qutubuddin Koka to get Ali Quli to court. Ali Quli refused and there was a fight and Qutubuddin Koka was killed in the fight. Qutubuddin Koka’s gaurds pounced on Ali Quli and killed him. Meherunissa and her daughter were brought to court and became attendants to Rquaiah Begum, the dowager Queen. Meherunissa served Ruqaiah Begum for four years earnestly. In 1611 during Meena Bazaar Jehangir saw Meherunissa and fell in love with her and married her the same year.

By 1615 Meherunissa completely took up political administration along with Prince Khurram. Emperor Jehangir who was already sick with heart disease, asthama etc was happy to relax and drink wine and eat meat and listen to music and paint etc. Jodha Bai gave her stiff opposition in initial years of marriage but by 1615 with her shrewd, cunning capability Meherunissa replaced all old ministers and nobels with her well wishers and family members. Her father who was arrested by Jehangir on charges of corruption as he had siphoned off loads of royal treasury money in 30 years of service in mughal court was pardoned and became Prime Minister of mughal empire. Her brother became Wazir(Finance Minister) beating others with more sevice and capability. She displeased loyalists like Mahabat Khan by arresting his son in law etc. Mahabat Khan staged a coup because of this and it was Nur Jahan with her scheming that saved Jehangir and other royal family members.

But the biggest games she played was in mughal harem within the mughal family. She completely destroyed relations between Jehangir’s family members with her games and manipulations. Her first target was Jodha Bai. Prior to marrying Nur Jahan, Jodha Bai was Jehangir’s favourite wife and his chief consort. Once Nur Jahan married Jehangir she started competing with Jodha Bai on every aspects. Jodha Bai was an excellent archer and swordsman. Once when Jehangir, Nur Jahan and Jodha Bai went on a hunt in jungle a tiger attacked Jehangir’s elephant and Jodha Bai took a gun and killed tiger before it attacked Jehangir. Nur Jahan who was frozen in fear was chided by Jehangir to learn something from Jodha Bai. He even praised her sky high and gifted her many jewels. This made Nur Jahan jealous of Jodha Bai and she started learning archery and sword fight.

She started doing everything to please Jehangir and soon within a span of 3-4 years Jehangir was completely over awed by her.  Such was her power at court and hold upon the Emperor that soon after she was declared Badshah Begum (the first lady of the court), she started signing royal decrees with an authority even the Emperor could not invalidate. No other Mughal empress ever had her name imprinted on currency. She sent Jehangirs childhood friend Mahabhat Khan away to Kandahar on pertex of rebellion so he cannot over rule her decisions and influence Jehangir.

Sir Thomas Roe, the ambassador of the king of England, who stayed in the Mughal court from 1615-1618 has remarked, “All power vested in the clique (‘Jinta” or purse) of Nur Jahan at that time. It was impossible to get any work done without the help of her brother Asaf Khan and his son-in-law Prince Khurram. Her influence had increased so much that even powerful Amirs like Mahabat Khan feared her. Jahangir himself was in pleasure day and night, resigning the entire administration to her”. Thomas Roe called the mughal court the kitchen cabinet of Nur Jahan in one letter. He even went on to say that Jehangir had become her slave.

“The Conqueror of the World was the slave of a woman – his consort, Nur Mahal or Mehrunnisa ”   wrote William Foster, The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to India

Niccalo Maccuni writes “However, the way she expressed her love for her husband wasn’t the subservient way. Mehr-un-Nisaa had entered the Mughal harem as the twent fifth wife of Jahangir and at age 34 years. So she chose a radically different path. She was a demanding wife. She chose to argue with him at times and not speak to him when such arguments happened. She made sure in some way or the other she was always the centre of his attention. Instead of her giving in completely to him, it was the other way round she made him give in to her. Once when Jehangir slapped her because she was speaking ill of Pince Khurram she slapped him back in front of musicians in garden”


“She gave Jahangir to understand that the only way of being pardoned for the affront was to throw himself at her feet” –  Niccolao Manucci, Italian traveller


Noor Jahan wanted to marry ladli Begum her daughter to Prince Khurram. But Prince Khurram was in love with her neice Arjunmand Bano, Asaf Khan’s daughter and refused. So Noor Jahan asked Khusrau who was in custody of Asaf Khan that if he marries Ladli begum she will free him and also make him emperor. Khusrau flatly refused as he loved his only wife. So finally Noor Jahan married Ladli begum to Jehangir’s youngest son Shariyar. Through her daughter’s husband Noor Jahan wanted to control the empire after Jehangir’s death. This angered Prince Khurram and he rebelled. He refused to go to war in Kandahar or send his troops there and hence Persia took over Kandahar. Prince Khurram got too scared that in his absence and Jehangirs ill health she may make Shariyar next emperor. He took Khusrau with him to Deccan and killed him in custody.  Further he wrote letters to emperor Jehangir with rebellious streak and harsh words for Nur Jahan.

This was the year 1622 and Khurram rebelled. Khurram was declared a traitor and was chased though out India as a fugitive with his wife and kids for company. Mahabhat Khan defeated Prince Khurram many times once in agra, then Mandu, then Gujarath etc.  Once Jehangir only reached to face Prince Khurram in war field. Prince Khurram was not ready to face his father in war field and withdrew the next day. When Jehangir went to meet him in his camp at night, Prince Khurram did not relent and stop the war and his rebellion. This angered Jehangir and he declared declared him a traitor. Finally after many defeats Shah Jahan wrote letter to Jehangir seeking pardon. Finally Shah Jahan was forgiven but Aurangzeb and Dara Sikoh were taken as hostage for his good behaviour by Nur Jahan.

Mahabhat khan became close to Prince parvez in this campaign and hence Nur jahan became insecure. Mahabhat was loyal to Jehangir not her. She hence sent Mahabhat to Bengal and parvez to Bhuranpur. Nur Jahan cleverly arranged for his son in law to be arrested on false charges and make Mahbhat rebel. Mahabhat took Jehangir hostage and Nur Jahan rescued them with her tactic and sweet tounge. Mahabhat ran and joined Shah Jahan in Deccan. Within a year of this Jehangir died. Shah Jahan killed many male relatives and ascended throne. Asaf Khan betrayed Nur Jahan and sided with Shah Jahan.  He sent Nur Jahan to Lahore where she lived 18 years and commissioned Jehangir and her grave with pension she got.  She died in 1645 a lonely death with only daughter Ladli begum for company.

Nur Jahan had everything going for her from a traitors widow who killed emperors milk brother,to an Empress at the age of 34 years a middle age when hardly any emperor will marry a woman of her age that too a widow. Prince Khurram the unofficial crown Prince of mughal empire who was in her junta, father a Prime Minister, brother a Finance Minister, a husband who adored and worshipped her she squandered away everything in her ambition to retain power after her husbands death. Her scheming ways, her manipulations, her machivellian stratergies brought the mughal empire and mughal family on its knees. The mughal princes were known for their violence to gain throne but even they were no match for a Nur Jahan’s tactic and cunning manovering. Prince Khurram got so scared by her tactics that he  rebelled and later killed many male members of his family immediately after becoming an emperor. Nur Jahan wanted her son in law Shariyar to be next emperor, Jehangir wanted Dawar Baksh, Khusrau’s elder son to be emperor, the nobels were split between Dawar Baksh, Prince Parvez second son of Jehangir and Prince Khurram.

Prince Parvez died mysteriously in Deccan just like Prince Khusrau. No one ever knew was it a murder or natural death. Khusrau was murdered by Prince Khurram in his custody. But Parvez was sent with Khan Jahan a loyalist of Nur Jahan to deccan, did Nur Jahan get him killed to get Shariyar a chance to throne no one will ever know. Prince Khurram was too strong too tactical to get him killed. Jehangir although angry at Khurram for killing Khusrau and losing Kandahar to Persians yet had soft corners for his previous favourite son. The family got destroyed in the ambition between Nur Jahan and Prince Khurram(Shah Jahan). Like two swords cannot stay in one sheath similarly both Nur Jahan and Khurram were highly tactical, manipulative, machivellian and strong characters none lesser than the other. Prince Khurram won in the end thanks to Asaf Khan who betrayed Nur Jahan. And may be the nobels, ministers and commanders were fed up of hankering to whims and fancy of Empress Nur Jahan. They just tolerated her for Emperor Jehangir’s sake. In a way Nur Jahan saved mughal empire as Jehnagir was too disinterested in administration, but in reality did she save the empire or destroy it with her manipulations. In her abscence could not may be Jodha Bai or Prince Khurram handle mughal empire better than her for Jehangir? Or a Mahabhat Khan and Prince Khurram could they not handle the empire better than a Nur Jahan and her junta without destroying foundations of mughal empire and creating strife in family. These will all remain hypothetical questions.

 Francis Galdwin a visitor to mughal court has this to say on Nur Jahan 

So long as Jehangir followed the dictates of his own judgment, by preferring to all other considerations, the ease and prosperity of his subjects, and whilst he vigorously enforced the wise laws of his noble father, his reign was glorious and happy ; but when he embraced the soft allurements of pleasure, and abandoned himself to indolence and dissipation, he became the dupe of an ambitious woman, who, with a view of maintaining her own unlimited sway over the empire after his death, practiced upon him basest sacrifices. she precipitated him into violent acts of injustice against a son whom he tenderly loved and the intestine wars which ensued shook the very throne and which made the empire a scene of blood and devastation for a span of seven years.


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