As Jahangir slipped deeper into his dissolute lifestyle of opium and wine, surrounded by sycophants, he became increasingly indifferent to public matters. By the time his liaison with Nur Mahal had begun, he was very happy to relinquish his responsibilities to someone who found them more amusing. Always ambitious, Nur Mahal was only too happy to seize the reins of the empire. “All I desire,” said Jahangir, “is a cup of wine and a piece of meat. To rule the kingdom, I have Nur Mahal.”
It is said that the moment Jahangir laid eyes on Nur, he wanted her. But she would not give herself even to the emperor except in marriage. There was an impediment to their marriage, her husband — Sher Afghan — the most powerful general in Jahangir’s army. Jahangir had to have Nur at all costs and for this he had to somehow get rid of Sher Afghan. Legend has it that Jahangir set a tiger upon him but Sher Afghan killed it with his bare hands.
Stronger tactics were needed and this time a wild elephant was let loose on the general who severed the elephant’s trunk with one slash of his sword. Forty assassins attacked him but like Samson, he destroyed them all.
But eventually Jahangir had his way. One night, when Sher Afghan slept unguarded in his tent, he was killed by a hundred well armed henchmen. Jahangir then wooed and married Nur Mahal. He set her beside him on the throne, a slave to her for the rest of his life while she, using the love struck emperor as her mouthpiece, became the true ruler of the Mughal empire.
Nur Mahal was indeed an astonishing lady. One who was capable of superseding all convention in a country where women were sequestered behind veils and harem walls.
A Persian, she was born Mehr-un-Nisa and had travelled as a child to India with her father Ghiyas Beg. In the course of their journey, they befriended the caravan master Malik Masud, who introduced them to Akbar. In a matter of a few years, the able Ghiyas Beg worked his way up to the position of Diwan or treasurer of Kabul. After Akbar’s demise, Ghiyas stayed on to serve Jahangir.
When Nur Mahal became queen, Ghiyas was promoted to the highest post in the land and given the title of Itimad-Ud-Daulah or ‘Pillar of the State’. His white marble tomb in Agra with its expertly carved lattice windows and inlays of precious stones is a magnificent rectangular jewel box. It still bears its honorary title and from its minarets, the Taj Mahal is easily visible.
Nur Mahal was a clever woman. She never attempted to usurp power nor contradicted the few policies that she thought fitting to promulgate. Her tactics were subtle and shrewd. She delegated power through him until he became her puppet.
She understood her husband so well that she could inveigle him into any agreement — when it was late in the evening and if her husband was drunk and amorous. During the later years of Jahangir’s 22-year-reign, most imperial commands originated with Nur Mahal. In truth, she was the ruler of the Mughal Empire. At the same time, her power over the emperor did not prevent her from sharing his interests.
Together they composed couplets although it was rumoured that the queen had to restrain her poetic talents lest she outshone the ‘Seizer of the World’, Jahangir, at his favourite hobby. “If you marry a donkey, you must carry his load,” says a Persian proverb and so it was for Nur Mahal. Jahangir became middle aged and cantankerous, bitter for no other reason than the dull security of his uninspired reign.
The last years of his life were passed in a struggle against senility, collapsing lungs and delirium tremens. At the age of 58, he died and his death marked the eclipse of Nur Mahal. She was banished to Lahore by Shah Jahan, Jahangir’s successor and there, in self-imposed seclusion, she ended her life directing the construction of Jahangir’s beautiful tomb at Shahdara.
The Taj Mahal by David Carroll