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A New Light on a Neglected Ruler: On “Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan”

THE 20TH WIFE of the Mughal emperor Jahangir amazed everyone by gunning down four tigers with six shots. She also wrote poetry, designed clothing, built gardens, and issued her own imperial orders and coins. All of which can be understood as signs of legitimate sovereignty, at least for feminist historian Ruby Lal, whose new book, Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, contextualizes the story of a remarkably powerful female figure at a time when strong women were ignored by history and dismissed as uppity schemers.

Jahangir was the fourth Mughal emperor of India, assuming the throne in 1605 after the passing of his father, Akbar. He ruled until his death in 1627, presiding over a pluralistic empire that was arguably the richest in the world. Encyclopedic amounts of writing already exist on the Mughals, but according to Lal, hardly anything accurate has emerged about Jahangir’s favorite wife, Nur Jahan, who was born on a roadside near Kandahar in modern-day Afghanistan, and whose parents were liberals influenced by poetry and mysticism.

In the patriarchal era of Mughal India, no other scenario allowed a woman to hold co-sovereignty with an emperor. As a ruler, Jahangir was often sensationalized by historians as a raging drunk, an opium addict, or a political naïf — all of which were true — but the way in which he shared power with Nur never receives the appropriate attention. Writing to debunk the accepted interpretations of history that suggest Nur only rose to power due to her husband’s ineptitude, Lal presents a wealth of context to show that Nur was, at the least, a woman of many talents, abilities, and potentialities, all of which Jahangir noticed from the very beginning. They were very much in love, and she helped direct his empire with serious flair.

Right away, Lal takes on previous commentators, both from Nur’s day and those of subsequent eras, who seemingly could not handle the prowess of a strong woman.

“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,” Lal writes. “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.”

Even modern-day historians of the Mughal era, writes Lal, don’t have an adequate understanding of the multilayered social structures that characterized the Mughal world. Instead, they reinforce crude generalizations and exaggerations.

For example, even today, historians and tour guides tend to bolster the stereotype that Mughal harems were segregated confines where everyone was an object, a “lady in waiting.” The reality, writes Lal, was that many of the women, especially Nur’s contemporaries, were educated, politically astute women with leadership qualities. In the Mughal capital of Agra, the harem featured “midwives, scribes, lamplighters, pages, stewards, doorkeepers, oil keepers, cooks, tasters, tailors, palanquin bearers, tanners, water carriers, bookbinders, astrologers, perfumers, weavers, and masons.” Paths to advancement were available to everyone involved.

“Women wrote poetry and prose; they discussed matters personal and political,” Lal writes. “The harem was a diverse and dynamic place engaged in the affairs of the world in a deeply personal way, and its women lively and conflicted human beings with strong interests and desires.”

And when Lal goes after previous commentators, all men, she illuminates Nur’s life even more. Specific Western historians, who either lived during the original Mughal era or regurgitated the misunderstandings of previous writers, completely ignored Nur’s cultural and political acumen.

Sir Thomas Roe, Britain’s ambassador to Jahangir’s court, for example, wrote a famous book about his mission, but Lal shows him to be a self-aggrandizing hanger-on and a grumbling chauvinist who couldn’t accept that a woman held any position of power. And then there was Niccolao Manucci, a Catholic mercenary and quack doctor who came to India six years after Nur had died. Manucci decided to recast Nur’s nativity scene as the Flight into Egypt from the Gospel of Matthew, complete with the donkey carrying the pregnant mother and other allusions. This distortion carried on for centuries, in both paintings and historical research.

As a feminist historian, Lal writes that her goal is to foreground the stories of women and girls largely missing from the histories of pre-colonial South Asia. To do so required consulting sources ignored by previous historians. It also necessitated alternative approaches, challenging the very notion of what counts as evidence, and therefore history. A few pages of back matter explain her approach.

Refreshingly, there is no linear “first this, then this” narrative. Lal instead paints rich multisensory tapestries, beginning with the story of Nur’s birth and her caravan as a baby to the lands of the Mughal court, and then the pluralistic milieus into which Nur married. We get new insights into various battles, harems, palace intrigues, and ways in which Nur deftly shared power and helped her husband operate his empire, with Lal providing context and evidence to show that due to Nur’s surroundings, history, and contemporaries, she was probably a progressive, worldly, multitalented, forward-thinking woman warrior from the outset. Big chunks of Empress come to us in the form of contextualized history, mingled with speculation.

Lal uses the word “probably” at least a few times. Since we experience Nur Jahan somewhat from a distance rather than by firsthand reports, similar qualifiers also appear many times throughout the book. We get speculations about what Nur “might” have worn, how she “might” have acted, or reasons why something “perhaps” occurred the way it did. This will probably irritate the more stodgy historians, but Lal provides more than enough background and context to show how and why she arrived at her more-than-educated guesses.

Perhaps the most illuminating through-line in the book, and one that recurs again and again in the life of Nur, as well as that of her ancestors and descendants, is the concept of light, in both a traditional Sufi sense and a neo-Platonic sense. What came to be known as The Great Comet glowed overhead as Nur’s parents left a rigid Persian regime for what they hoped was a more tolerant Mughal court in India. When Nur was born, they gave her the name, Mihr un-Nisa, “Sun of Women.”

When they arrived at the court of then-emperor Akbar, we learn that Akbar held an unorthodox position within Islam. He was interested in Persian neo-Platonic philosophers known as The Illuminists who believed all life comes into existence through constant blinding illumination from God, the Light of Lights. The Illuminists inherited influence from Hermes Trismegistus, who believed the sun was a manifestation of divinity. Akbar would pass on his interests in light and celestial bodies to his son, Jahangir. Akbar also built a palace-fort in the Kashmiri city of Srinagar, a vacation compound he called the Hari Parbat. Jahangir and Nur would later restore the grounds and rename the property Nurafza bagh, the Light-Enhancing Garden.

The more emotionless historians might scoff at this technique, but the references to light are not just for poetic reasons. Mughal emperors had long associated themselves with the “great light” of the sun. “To Jahangir, light was more than a metaphor,” Lal writes, in a chapter called “Veils of Light.” “The loftiest ambition of a Mughal king was to be seen as the ruler of two worlds: the imperial and the sacred, the visible and the spiritual. Order and harmony, a reflection of divinity — a force of light — resided in the king.”

Jahangir gave himself the imperial name Nur ad-Din, the Light of Faith, and then, after initially giving his wife, Mihr un-Nisa, a new name, “the Light of the Palace,” he later gave her another name, “Light of the World.” These were the ways in which he entered the aforementioned philosophical and spiritual traditions, with Nur fully participating in the process. She would even later design another garden, the Light-Scattering Garden of Agra, which likewise gets its own chapter.

Finally, Lal writes of Jahangir’s demise in this fashion: “At dawn on October 29, 1627, as the light changed, Jahangir died.”

All of the allusions help enlighten the story, puns aside. In fact, we get the impression that this is Lal’s mission here — to illuminate and serve Nur Jahan’s life, to place her in the light rather than chart every known detail in a linear fashion. In other words, Lal releases Nur from the condescending ways in which previous commentators have trivialized, belittled, and diminished her accomplishments.

The only taxonomic information comes to us via an introductory list of notable people — Lal even calls it the dramatis personae — and then at the end of the book, a 10-page cast of characters along with their biographical details. Many of the names weaving in and out of the story might confuse a few people, especially to readers not innately familiar with the ethnicities, religions, and geography of that part of the world. The way in which this material bookends the story seems theatrical or cinematic, perhaps proving that the unique marriage of Jahangir and Nur was more than worthy of all the films, novels, and various stage productions, even today.

¤

Gary Singh was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University and is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press).For 13 years, his columns have appeared in Metro Silicon Valley, San Jose’s alternative weekly newspaper.

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