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Nur Jehan

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Nur Jehan

For actress, see Noor Jehan.
Nur Jahan
نور جهاں
Idealized portrait of the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan
Empress consort of the Mughal Empire
Tenure 25 May 1611 – 8 November 1627
Spouse Sher Afghan Quli Khan
Ladli Begum
Full name
House Timurid (by marriage)
Father Mirza Ghias Beg
Mother Asmat Begum
Born 31 May 1577
Kandahar, Afghanistan
Died 17 December 1645(1645-12-17) (aged 68)
Lahore, Pakistan
Burial Shahdara Bagh, Lahore
Religion Shia Islam

Nur Jahan (Persian: نور جهان‎; Urdu: نور جهاں‎; Pashto: نور جہاں) (alternative spelling Noor Jahan, Nur Jehan, etc.) (31 May 1577 – 17 December 1645) born as Mehr-un-Nissa, was Empress of the Mughal Empire as the chief consort of Emperor Jahangir. A strong, charismatic and well-educated woman, she is considered to be one of the most powerful and influential women of the 17th century Mughal Empire. She was the twentieth and favourite wife of the Emperor Jahangir who ruled the Mughal Empire at the peak of its power and supremacy. The story of the couple’s infatuation for each other and the relationship that developed between them has been the stuff of many (often apocryphal) legends.

As a result of her second husband’s, the Emperor Jahangir's, serious battle with alcohol and opium addiction, Nur Jahan was able to wield a significant amount of imperial influence and was often considered at the time to be the real power behind the throne. She remains historically significant for not only the sheer political power she maintained (a feat no Mughal women before her had ever achieved) but also for her contribution to Indian culture, charity work, commercial trade and her ability to rule with an iron fist. She was the aunt of the Empress Mumtaz Mahal for whom the future Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal. Furthermore she is the only Mughal empress to have her name struck in silver coins.[1]

Birth and early childhood

Nur Jahan was born on 31 May 1577 in Kandahar, Afghanistan, into a family of Persian nobility and was the second daughter and fourth child of the Persian aristocrat Mirza Ghias Beg and his wife Asmat Begum. Both of Nur Jahan's parents were descendants of illustrious families - Ghias Beg from Muhammad Sharif and Asmat Begum from the Aqa Mulla clan. For unknown reasons, Ghias Beg's family had suffered a reversal in fortunes in 1577 and soon found circumstances in their homeland intolerable. Hoping to improve his family’s fortunes, Ghias Beg chose to relocate to India where the Emperor Akbar's court was said to be at the centre of the growing trade industry and cultural scene.[2]

Half way along their route the family was attacked by robbers who took from them the remaining meager possessions they had.[3] Left with only two mules, Ghias Beg, his pregnant wife, and their three children (Muhammad Sharif, Asaf Khan and a daughter whose name is unknown) were forced to take turns riding on the backs of the animals for the remained of their journey. When the family arrived in Kandahar, Asmat Begum gave birth to their second daughter. The family was so impoverished they feared they would be unable to take care of the newborn baby. Fortunately, the family was taken in by a caravan led by the merchant noble Malik Masud, who would later assist Ghias Beg in finding a job in the service of Emperor Akbar. Believing that the child had signalled a change in the family’s fate, she was named Mehrunnisa or ‘Sun of Womanhood’.[4] Her father was appointed diwan (treasurer) for the province of Kabul. Due to his astute skills at conducting business he quickly rose through the ranks of the high administrative officials. For his excellent work he was awarded the title of Itimad-ud-Daula or ‘Pillar of the State’ by the emperor.[3]

As a result of his work and promotions, Ghias Beg was able to ensure that Mehirunnisa (the future Nur Jahan) would have the best possible education. She became well versed in Arabic and Persian languages, art, literature, music and dance.[5] The poet and author Vidya Dhar Mahajan would later praise Nur Jahan as having a piercing intelligence, a volatile temper and a sound common sense.[6]

Marriage with Sher Afghan

In 1002 AH/ 1594 AD, when Nur Jahan was seventeen years old she married her first husband Ali Quli Istajlu (also known as Sher Afghan). Sher Afghan was an adventurous Persian who had been forced to flee his home in Persia after the demise of his first master Shah Ismail II.[7] He later joined the army and served under the Emperors Akbar and Jahangir. As a reward for his loyal service and faithful companionship to Akbar’s eldest son, the Prince Salim (the future Emperor Jahangir and Nur Jahan’s second husband) the emperor arranged for Sher Afghan to marry Mehirunnisa.[2] In 1605, the couple was blessed with a daughter who they named Mehirunnisa (later at court she would be named Ladli Begum). Mehirunnisa – Ladli was the one and only child Nur Jahan would have. During this time Ali Quli Istajlu was bestowed the title of Sher Afghan or ‘Lion Killer’ after he saved Jahangir’s life when he was attacked by an angry tigress.

In 1015-16 AH/ 1607 AD, Sher Afghan was murdered after it was said he had refused to obey a summons from the Governor of Bengal, took part in anti-state activities and attacked the Governor when he came to escort Sher Afghan to court. Some have suspected Jahangir for arranging Sher Afghan’s death because the latter was said to have fallen in love with Mehirunnisa and been denied the right to add her to his harem. The validity of this rumour is uncertain as Jahangir only married Mehirunnisa in 1611, four years after she came to his court. Furthermore, contemporary accounts offer few details as to whether or not a love affair existed prior to 1611 and historians have questioned Jahangir’s logic in bestowing honours upon Sher Afghan if he wished to see him removed from the picture.[8]

Marriage with Jahangir

In 1605, the Emperor Akbar died and was succeeded by his eldest son Prince Salim, who took the regal name Jahangir. After her husband Sher Afghan was killed in 1607, Nur Jahan and her daughter Ladli were summoned to court by Jahangir to act as ladies-in-waiting to his stepmother, the Empress Ruqaiya Sultan Begum.[9] Ruqaiya was the daughter of Mughal prince Hindal Mirza and had been the late Emperor Akbar’s first and most beloved wife. Also, having been Akbar's chief wife, she was the most senior woman in Jahangir’s harem and was thus, by stature, and ability, the most capable of providing the protection that Nur Jahan needed at the Mughal court.[10][11] Together with her daughter, Ladli Begum, they served as ladies-in-waiting to the Empress for four years while earnestly endeavouring to please their imperial mistress.[12] The relationship that grew up between Nur Jahan and Ruqaiya appears to have been an extremely tender one which remained so until Ruqaiya's death in 1626. Said Pieter van den Broecke, "This Begum conceived a great affection for Mehr-un-Nissa; she loved her more than others and always kept her in her company."[11]

In 1611, while accompanying her patroness, Empress Ruqaiya, Nur Jahan met the Emperor Jahangir at the palace meena bazaar during the spring festival of Nowruz which celebrated the coming of the new year. Jahangir grew so infatuated by her beauty that he proposed immediately and they were married on 25 May of the same year (Wednesday, 12th Rabi-ul-Awwal, 1020 AH/ May 25th, 1611 AD). Nur Jahan was thirty four years old at the time of her second marriage and she would be Jahangir’s twentieth and last legal wife.[2]

To honour his new beautiful and faithful wife Jahangir gave her the titles of ‘Nur Mahal’ or ‘Light of the Palace and ‘Nur Jahan’ or ‘Light of the world’.[13] Jahangir’s affection and trust of Nur Jahan led to her wielding a great deal of power in affairs of state. Jahangir's addiction to opium and alcohol made it easier for Nur Jahan to exert her influence. For many years, she effectively wielded imperial power and was recognized as the real force behind the Mughal throne. She sat alongside her husband on the jharoka to receive audiences, issued orders, over saw the administration of several jagir (land parcels), and consulted with ministers. She even decreed Nishan which was a privilege reserved only for male members of the royal family.[14] Nur Jahan remained loyal and faithful to Jahangir even after his death.

Family advancements and consolidating power

After Sher Afghan's death Nur Jahan’s family was again found in a less than honourable or desired position. Her father was at that time, a diwan to an amir-ul-umra, decidedly not a very high post. In addition both her father and one of her brothers were surrounded by scandal as the former was accused of embezzlement and the latter of treason and plotting to kill Jahangir.[2] Her fortunes took a turn for the better when she married Jahangir. The Mughal state gave absolute power to the emperor, and those who exercised influence over the emperor gained immense influence and prestige. Nur Jahan was able to convince her husband to pardon her father and appoint him Prime Minister. To consolidate her position and power within the Empire, Nur Jahan placed various members of her family in high positions throughout the court and administrative offices.[15] Her brother Asaf Khan was appointed grand Wazir (minister) to Jahangir.

Furthermore to ensure her continued connections to the throne and the influence which she could obtain from it, Nur Jahan arranged for her daughter Ladli to marry Jahangir's youngest son, Shahryar and her niece Arjumand Banu Begum (later known as Mumtaz Mahal) to marry Prince Khurram (the third son of Jahangir and the future Emperor Shah Jahan). The two weddings ensured that one way or another, the influence of Nur Jahan's family would extend over the Mughal Empire for at least another generation.[16]

Mughal Empress

Nur Jahan possessed great physical strength and courage. She often went on hunting tours with her husband, and on more than one occasion shot and killed ferocious tigers.[17] Nur Jahan’s courage, bravery and administrative skills would come in handy throughout her reign as she as had to defend the Empire’s borders in her husband's absence and deal with family feuds, rebel uprisings, and a war of succession brought on by the failure of Jahangir to name an heir before he died on 28 October 1627.[18]

Tensions between Nur Jahan and Jahangir's third son, Shah Jahan, had been uneasy from the start. Shah Jahan resented the influence Nur Jahan held over his father and was angered at having to play second fiddle to her favourite Shahryar, his half-brother and her son-in-law. When the Persians besieged Kandahar, Nur Jahan was at the helm of the affairs. She ordered Shah Jahan to march for Kandahar, but he refused. There is no doubt that Shah Jahan's refusal was due to her behaviour against him. As a result of Shah Jahan’s refusal to obey Nur Jahan’s orders, Kandahar was lost to the Persians after a forty-five-day siege.[19] Shah Jahan feared that in his absence Nur Jahan would attempt to poison his father against him and convince Jahangir to name Shahryar the heir in his place. It was this fear which forced Shah Jahan to rebel against his father rather than fight against the Persians.[20] Shah Jahan raised an army and marched against his father and Nur Jahan. Although Shah Jahan was forgiven for his errors in 1626 tensions between Nur Jahan and her stepson would continue to grow underneath the surface.

In 1626, the Emperor Jahangir was captured by rebels while on his way to Kashmir. The rebel leader Mahabat Khan had hoped to stage a coup against Jahangir. Nur Jahan intervened to get her husband released. Nur Jahan ordered the ministers to organise an attack on the enemy in order to rescue the Emperor; she herself would lead one of the units by administering commands from on top of a war elephant.[21] During the battle Nur Jahan’s mount was hit and the soldiers of the imperial army fell at her feet. Realizing her plan had failed Nur Jahan surrendered to Mahabat Khan and was placed in captivity with her husband. Unfortunately Mahabat Khan failed to recognise the creativity and intellect of Nur Jahan since before he knew it she was able to organise an escape and raise an army right under his very nose.[22]

Shortly after being rescued, Jahangir died on 28 October 1627. Jahangir’s death sparked a war of succession between his remaining competent sons Shah Jahan and Shahryar. Jahangir's eldest son Khusrau had rebelled against the Emperor and was blinded as a result. He was later killed during an uprising in Deccan. Jahangir’s second son, Parviz, was weak and addicted to alcohol. Afraid that if Shah Jahan was made emperor she would lose her influence in court, Nur Jahan choose to side with Shahryay who she believed could be manipulated much more easily. During the first half of the war it appeared as though Shahryay and Nur Jahan might turn out to be the victors however the two were betrayed by Nur Jahan’s brother. Asaf Khan was jealous of his sister’s power and sided with Shah Jahan. While Asaf Khan forced Nur Jahan into confinement Shah Jahan defeated his brother’s troops and ordered his execution. In 1628, Shah Jahan became the new Mughal emperor.[23]


Nur Jahan spent the remainder of her life confined to a comfortable mansion with her daughter Ladli. During this period, she paid for and oversaw the construction of her father's mausoleum in Agra, known now as Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb, and occasionally composed Persian poems under the assumed name of Makhfi. Nur Jahan died on 17 December 1645 at age 68. She is buried at Shahdara Bagh in Lahore, Pakistan in a tomb she had built herself. Upon her tomb is inscribed the epitaph “On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing”.[23] Her tomb was not too far way from the tomb of Jahangir. Her brother Asaf Khan's tomb is also located nearby. The tomb attracts many visitors, both Pakistani and foreign, who come to enjoy pleasant walks in its gardens.

Nur Jahan in popular culture

  • Novelist Indu Sundaresan has written two books revolving around the life of Nur Jahan, The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of the Roses
  • Nur Jahan's Daughter by Tanushree Podd, she also provides an insight into the life and journey of Nur Jahan from being a widow to the Empress and after, as seen from the perspective of her daughter.
  • Many poems have also been written on her life.

See also



Further reading

  • Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India, by Ellison Banks Findly, excerpts online

External links

  • The World Conqueror: Jahangir

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