Top positive review
Well researched and smooth narration
27 January 2019
I was wondering why Mughal history is yet to become stale despite absorbed multiple times by readers across different generation and geography. Just try recalling an empire which has had occupied the same volume of printed space as that of Mughal empire. The answer is none. The chronicles recorded by historian during that era definitely makes it rich. The empire is about, not only war, emperors, success and monuments symbolizing love but also it is about hatred, jealousy, fratricide and defeat. The passion for Mughal history has been beautifully sum up by Diana Preston whom we better known as one half of writing duo Alex Rutherford; popular for writing best-selling history fictions- “Raiders from the North”, “Brothers as War” and “Ruler of the World”. She says, “Mughal Empire has extraordinary, interlocking stories that to understand completely, one has to go back to a blank piece of paper. Nothing is more dynamic, exciting or compelling than the Mughals. Nothing was more significant than their courts in those days. The European ones were puny by comparison. At the heart, you have this absolutely irresistible story of family dynamics uncoiling with the horrible inevitability of a great tragedy”. These are apt words, which you cannot deny. Such is the irresistible charm of the empire. The three centuries empire can be best described in two phases. The Great Mughal and Later Mughal describing the rise and fall of the empire respectively. Prior to this, the last book I read was on fall of Mughal Empire by revered author Jadunath Sarkar. I still relish reading on Mughals. The interest on the empire does not seems to subside. Therefore, from the vault, I decided to pull out an interesting and piqued character to read. When most women cloistered in harems, Nur Jahan defied norms by openly ruling alongside her husband. Nur Jahan was beautiful, brave, strong, educated and charismatic. She served as an inspiration and central character to many novelists, filmmakers and painters.
Nur Jahan was a daughter of a noble who had fled Persia to escape persecution. She was widow of a court official, who was implicate in a plot against Jahangir. Still Jahangir fall hard for her. She later proved to be a devoted wife, wise queen, shrewd politician and commanding strategist. Mughal Empire has a history of assertive royal wife and influential mothers and aunts but never a woman had taken complete charge of the empire in a de-facto sense. However, she was born to foreign parents and was not daughter of Mughal Empire but she had garnered enough power through official signs of sovereignty. Issuing orders was one of three exclusive privileges of Mughal rulers. It was also official sign of Islamic sovereignty. The other two being named in Friday prayers and striking of coins bearing monarch’s name. She was issuing orders in her own rights, which was similar to her husband farmans. The orders were against debt and revenue collection, land grants, military matters and criminal cases. Her name also began to appear in gold and silver coins. Jahangir for more and more times was indulging in his curiosity and admiration of the natural world. In other words, he was indulging in leisure activities that soon alienated him from day to day affair of the State. Its then his empress took in more and more matters of governance in her hand. Until Jahangir’s death, she shared a wonderful relationship with him. As per Mughal records, he mentioned her as a sensitive companion, superb caregiver, accomplished adviser, hunter and a diplomat. She was the backbone of Mughal Empire and ensured that her name recorded indelibly in public memory and history.
A struggle for power begins while Jahangir was still an emperor. In fact, it was a norm during those days. A family used to be polarized. Survival was dependent on whose side taken. Akbar had been disappointed with Jahangir. He saw the abilities in Jahangir son Khusrau to succeed him. After Akbar’s death, Jahangir still ascended into the throne. Khusraw rebelled against his father to secure the throne for himself. His rebellion was crush by Jahangir forces and was imprisoned, blinded and killed, though not everything on Jahangir’s order. Khusraw rebellions left Jahangir emotionally worried and he started getting concern about the dynasty future. Nur Jahan’s influence started increasing and soon her relatives occupied chief posts of the realm. Her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg and brother Asaf Khan occupied key portfolios. Asaf Khan’s daughter Mumtaz Mahal married Khurram, better known as Shah Jahan. Nur Jahan aligned on Khurram side and assured her husband that dynastic transition would be smooth. Both Nur Jahan and Khurram had a mutual respect for each other and both had a motive. She knew that Khurram being the most competent prince was the likely successor and he would someday be a key player in Mughal succession. She was probably also being shrewd about her own future. Nur Jahan along with Khurram, Ghiyas and Asaf Khan would be the new axis of order. Khurram too then rebelled which distressed Jahangir. With Khurram out of favour with Jahangir, Nur Jahan moved to further Shahryar’s fortune. Shahryar was Jahangir’s son and at the same time husband of Nur Jahan’s daughter from first marriage. Shah Jahan had known that his powerful stepmother would not back his imperial ambition. The rift between Shah Jahan and Nur Jahan was open. Shah Jahan has had support of his father-in-law, who was also brother of Nur Jahan. The influence and power was polarized and schism started developing between two factions.
Nur Jahan’s strategies begin to backfire after Shahryar developed Fox disease, which badly disfigured him. He lost his hair, beard, eyebrows and eyelashes. Her husband health was falling and son-in-law, she thought would succeed him was threatened by a disease. When Jahangir died, because of Asaf Khan’s initiative , son of Khusraw - Dawar Bakhsh became the new emperor. Asaf Khan did this for two reasons. The first reason was that Shah Jahan was away and it was a stopgap arrangement to secure throne for his son-in-law. The second reason was to counter claims of Nur Jahan, who wanted Shahryar as a king. Shahryar army clash with Asaf Khan’s forces and was defeated and captured. With husband gone, son-in-law captured and brother in opposing camp, none of Nur Jahan’s maneuvers worked. Shah Jahan was proclaimed as the new emperor on his return. In the power battle, Shah Jahan’s side used Dawar Bakhsh as a pawn. Shah Jahan had then ordered killing of all possible contenders for throne that includes both Dawar Bakhsh and Shahryar. After Jahangir’s death, these men galloped at an astonishing speed to restore old older and override Nur Jahan. Her rise to power had been relatively swift, her fall was even swifter.
Despite the enmity, Shah Jahan treated Nur Jahan well after she faced reverses. She was no longer active in governance. Rather she spent rest of her life in retirement and seclusion. Shah Jahan fixed an annual income of two lakhs for her expenses. She spend rest of her life in Lahore. She used to spend on the needy and poor people. The official historians during Shah Jahan’s reign deliberately removed Nur Jahan’ merits and extraordinary achievements from the Mughal history. Despite Shah Jahan’s chronicle describing Nur Jahan in a very disparaging tone and making her look trifle, her supremacy emerges undiluted. No one can sully her due standings in history.
Historians, travelers, poets and travelers require special mentions. So are the researchers, who had gone distance, to decipher meanings out of the different sources and collate together the events in a chronological order. One of the major sources is Jahangirnama, which contains extensive detail on government, provincial affairs, revenues, rewards and punishments. It also contains Jahangir’s insightful analysis of natural phenomenon, people, places and events. To write his memoir, Jahangir entrusted responsibility initially to Mutamad Khan and later Muhammad Hadi, who continued until Jahangir’s death. However, the court historians gave a biased account of their king. Still, there work provides wealth of information. To understand about socio-economic lifestyle prevalent during those times, one has to rely on other sources. Often travelers provided us with extensive and unbiased account on royal family, harem and society. Portuguese priests - Father Monserrate and Father Sebastien Manrique , administer in the government of British India - Mountstuart Elphinstone , British ambassador Thomas Roe, his accompany William Hawkins, author Della Valle, French physician Francois Bernier gave their own assertions about life in Mughal kingdom. The vivid descriptions helped nineteenth century and later historians to stich together a useful and informative dossier on the subject.
I came across an interview of the author. She replied in a childlike glee. She was sanguine about her work and gave replies with alacrity. There is a mixed feeling after reading this book. Harem life and Persian influence made interesting read. However, some topics like Nur Jahan first marriage and her parent arduous journey from Persia to India unnecessarily were stretched. Sometime it seems like authors on historical books takes some liberty. Usually many knows, regarding what are the rituals followed during a noble Muslim women marriage and what it undertakes to pursue a painful journey from Persia to India during those times. I do not doubt credence of the book but you cannot tell with surety whether the narrations are outcome of research. Still I believe as per my findings that you are unlikely to find such a comprehensive book on Nur Jahan. The rigor put by author is clearly visible. It is a readable narration with an engaging style, especially after couple of chapters.