Remarkable rise to power of Empress Noorjahan

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


August 20, 2022

Remarkable rise to power

Zoya Ansari describes an outstanding Remarkable rise to power

Empress Noorjahan is remarkable rise to power as quite a phenomenon in the annals of history as she created a powerful niche in the governance process in a male-dominated Mughal Empire. She was also very sagacious person as she resigned to her lot after the rule of her husband, Jahangir, ended. Prior to her retirement, Noorjahan had a larger-than-life presence in the Mughal Empire and her word was considered law as her husband had delegated most of his imperial power to her. It was actually Noorjahan who provided access to Shahjahan to become part of the ruling troika yet they fell out after Jahangir became dysfunctional and Shahjahan could see that Noorjahan would be the only obstacle in him getting to the imperial throne.

During his many years of cooperation with Noorjahan while ruling the empire Shahjahan was appreciative yet apprehensive of her talents as a prudent politico-administrator as, while as heir apparent known as Prince Khurram, he had ruled the empire with her as part of a troika comprising him, Noorjahan and her brother Asaf Khan who was also his father-in-law. The fact that Noorjahan was family as her niece, Asaf Khan’s daughter, Arjumand Bano, later famed as Mumtaz Mahal, could not stop emperor Shahjahan from keeping tabs on the fallen empress. There must have been something special in this lady that catapulted her as joint ruler of the vast subcontinent with her husband. Otherwise she was 35-year-old widow of Sher Afgun who had fallen out with Mughal emperor when she caught the eye of Jahangir. Born in Kandahar to impoverished Persian parents fleeing Iran for better prospects in Mughal domains, Mehrunissa was a beautiful and accomplished girl.

She was married at 16 to Ali Quli Istajlu, an Iranian immigrant serving at the establishment of a prestigious Mughal noble Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan. Ali Quli bravely fought for Prince Salim in many campaigns and was awarded the title Sher Afgun (lion-slayer). Sher Afgun unfortunately fell out of favour with prince after Salim rebelled against Akbar but the rupture in ties was not due to Noorjahan at all. On ascending throne Jahangir pardoned Sher Afgun and transferred him far away to Burdwan in Bengal. As the luck would have it, the reckless Sher Afgun was killed during a fracas with Qutbuddin Khan, Governor of Bengal.

Her father meanwhile had grown in stature as Chief Minister of Jahangir and the widowed Mehrunissa along with her daughter Ladli Begum were taken under the privileged appendage of late Emperor Akbar’s wife Salima Sultana Begum. Her impeccable manners and skills in embroidery and stitching became legendary during her four year’s association with royal harem. She fashioned brightly coloured brocades, tissues and silks for ladies of the harem. Her designs were much sought after and often set the fashion trends. She invented Dudami (flowered muslin) for peshwaz (gowns open in the front), panchtoliah for oṛhnis (a new design for veils), badlah (embroidery with metal strips), kinari (lace), and farsh-i-chandani (white cloth for floor covering). She is also credited with designing gold ornaments with elegant new patterns. She was quite well known in harem circles as an embodiment of good taste.

After six years on throne Jahangir in 1611 met her at Meena Bazar – a New Year fair started by Akbar in which the emperor was the only male present while princesses, noblewomen and other female members of royal harem exhibited brocades, exquisite silks, fine muslins, bejeweled turbans and the like. An aesthete to the bone, Jahangir was enamoured of her, proposed immediately and married her on 25 May of the same year. Mehrunissa was his 18th and last wife and Jahangir gave her the title of Noor Mahal or Light of the Palace and later Noorjahan or Light of the World. Soon she became the most powerful woman in the Empire as coins were minted in her name, legislation enacted by her, edicts issued by her orders and foreign affairs conducted under her watchful eye.
As Empress, Noorjahan was well adept with niceties of art, literature and philosophy and was a brilliant conversationalist. She was famous as a crack shot and often accompanied Jahangir on tiger hunts. She ably assisted Jahangir in his pursuit of art and painting as he was the best connoisseur of fine arts ever in Mughal Empire. Her mother, Asmat Begum discovered attar or essence of roses but Noorjahan distilled and popularised it. Apart from this, she took care of orphans, especially girls, and is estimated to have arranged the marriages of, or provided for, five hundred such girls. She was patron of architecture and built many beautiful palaces, gardens and mosques. The tomb she built for her father Mirza Ghiyas Beg in Agra is one of the exquisite examples of Indo-Persian architecture and is known to be a precursor to the Taj Mahal.

Mughal historians imply that Noorjahan’s dominance over a besotted Jahangir resulted in his favourite son rebelling against him and widespread disaffection amongst nobles particularly the attempt of Mahabat Khan to kidnap both Jahangir and her. Many historians have portrayed her as an ambitious, scheming figure taking advantage of Jahangir’s weakness for indolence, wine and opium. It however is clear that during her 16 years stay at the top she worked in close coordination with her brother, the chief minister and heir-apparent Prince Khurram, the future emperor. The strength of their joint policies kept a weak emperor Jahangir afloat otherwise imminent disaster was round the corner. In all probability the prejudice against her reflects the deep-seated anti-feminist bias of many contemporary historians which has often been repeated uncritically by others.

However she massively impacted Jahangir’s life who laconically admitted his dependence and left the running of the empire to her. Jahangir was often sick and she took good care of him and started gradually participating in government affairs, that too, with his permission. She so well understood Jahangir that he brought her status at par with him. Her position in the Empire was such that except for khuṭbah (prayer for the reigning monarch), she possessed all the privileges of a ruler. Farmans or edicts were issued in her name and grants were conferred under her seal. From 1623-27 coins were also struck in her name bearing the words: Ba-hukm Shah e Jahangir yaft sad zewar (front) By order of the King Jahangir, gold has a hundred splendours added to it Za naam e Noorjahan Badshah Begum zar (on reverse) By receiving the impression of the name of Noorjahan, the Queen Begum.

She is the only woman in Mughal history to have obtained the privilege of her name being put on coins of the realm. Another privilege she was granted was that she appeared with Jahangir for jharokha darshan, an exclusive ceremony during which the emperor would show himself in person to common people. At the death of Jahangir in 1627 Noorjahan was prudent enough to realise that her time was over. She forthwith withdrew from public activity and gracefully retired to a small jagir in Lahore. She lived for another 18 years during the rule of Shahjahan but no harm came to her as she completely confined herself to charitable activities till 1645 when she passed away at the age of 72 and lies buried near her husband’s tomb in Shahdara Lahore. TW


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