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Royal women and their influence in the Mughal Empire
Nur Jahan

It was not only the Mughal emperors who left an indelible mark in the history of the Indian subcontinent but also the queens and princesses. The latter’s contribution to art, architecture, literature, cuisine, refinement, and administrative institutions was notable. The influence of these women can be felt even today in the lives of the people of India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

Mughal Empire

The Mughal dynasty, founded by Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (1526–1530), continued in all its glory and influence until Aurangzeb (1618–1707). The decline started after the rule of the great Mughals. The rule of the later Mughals saw the disintegration of the Mughal Empire, and the last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar (1837–1857 AD), was only a nominal ruler. Babur’s victory against the last ruler of the faltering Lodi dynasty on April 21, 1526, at the First Battle of Panipat, changed the course of Indian history.

A composite culture developed with the amalgamation of the old with the new. Noble Mughal women did not lead a secluded life within the closed walls of the harem. They had a definite role to play in various aspects of social and political life.

Beginning with Babur’s granddaughter Aisan Daulat Begum, author of Humayun Nama, Mughal women like Gulbadan Banu Begum (Babur’s daughter and Humayun’s sister), Maham Anaga (Akbar’s stepmother), Mah Chuchak Begum (Akbar’s stepmother), Nur Jahan (Queen of Jahangir), Mumtaz Mahal (Queen of Shah Jahan), Jahanara Begum as well as Roshanara Begum (daughter of Shah Jahan) influenced the politics, culture, and society of the time.

While the ideological and religious controversy surrounding the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women in India is hotly debated, it is interesting to look back at the status of Muslim women in Mughal India. The present is linked to the past, the two complement each other. In contemporary India, a section of society is enforcing a strict dress code for Muslim women.

Readers will find a stark contrast when compared with the condition of Muslim women about 400 years ago. It would be appropriate to know the activities of the Mughal queens and princesses. Were they independent in their thought process? What was his contribution to contemporary society? Did they share power in the Mughal administration? Was there gender empowerment in medieval India?

Status of royal women in the Mughal period

Mughal royal women played an important role in consolidating and sustaining the stature of the Mughal Empire in South Asia. Apart from the prosperity of the rulers, their contribution to the political, economic, cultural and religious fields increased the strength of the empire. While famous men of the Mughal royal family receive attention and praise, the lives, activities, achievements and contributions of royal Mughal women have rarely received scholarly attention.

  The role of these royal women in politics was notable as these women were actively involved in harem and court politics. Their ideas greatly influenced the rulers, and many even ruled the empire behind the scenes on behalf of the rulers.

Apart from these royal women, the location of the zenana (women’s quarters of the house) has also been overlooked by the researchers. Instead, the harem is portrayed simply as a place of carnal enjoyment, where thousands of nubile women were held captive and living secluded lives as sex objects in an atmosphere of jealousy and desperation. Conspiracies for the succession to the throne were rampant. However, the truth is somewhat more complex and surprisingly somewhat different.

The women’s quarter was a multicultural space, not just for the rulers’ consorts. It was also used for asylum-seeking relatives from other states, widows of important generals, Portuguese and English servants, female soldiers serving as guards, unmarried relatives, respected grandmothers and aunts, Rajput princesses and children, attendants, and tradeswomen of all kinds.

The highest-ranking women of the Mughal era enjoyed highly refined lives of luxury, aesthetics, and exclusive advisory power.

Some noble women in the royal household were considered as powerful as their husbands, sometimes playing more decisive roles in government and acting as patrons of the arts, sciences, and literature. These royal women often understood their power and acted as formidable lobby groups.

Contemporary Persian accounts mainly describe court histories related to the many eventful activities in the life of the emperors. Although these records mention royal women in specific contexts as part of a more important account, specific and detailed accounts of their lives are absent. While the memoirs of Babur and Jahangir mention royal women related to them, details about the women still need to be obtained.

Below is a brief introduction to four prominent Mughal royal women, which are as follows:

  •       Nur Jahan (c. 1577–1645)
  •       Mumtaz Mahal (1593–1631)
  •       Jahanara Begum (1614-81)
  •       Roshanara Begum (1617-71)

Noor Jahan

The most influential woman of the time of the Mughal emperor Jahangir (1605–1627), Mehrunnisa was born in Kandahar to Persian immigrants Mirza Ghiyas Beg (Itmatuddaulah) and Asmat Begum. In 1607, she served in the harem after the death of her husband, Quli Khan. Jahangir met her for the first time in 1611 and was fascinated by her. Named Nur Mahal or ‘Light of the Palace’ after her marriage with the emperor, she was awarded the title Nur Jahan (‘Light of the World’) five years later.

Queen Nur Jahan, an intelligent and courtly woman, became very active in court politics, wielding power through her own faction known as the Nur Jahan Junta. Her name was inscribed on the coin, and Nur Jahan occasionally granted audiences in her palace. An excellent shooter and hunter of wild animals, Nur Jahan indulged in political intrigues. She was instrumental in making her father and brother Asaf Khan high officials in the court.

Ladli Begum, her daughter from her first marriage, was married to Jahangir, Shahryar’s son, who became Nur Jahan’s candidate for the Mughal throne. Prince Khurram, the future Shah Jahan (1627–1658), raised a rebellion against Jahangir, which was suppressed.

Modern historians have questioned the credibility of Nur Jahan’s rulers. Jahangir was active and did not neglect the affairs of the state. Much of the prejudice against the queen was the anti-feminist posture of contemporary historians. Nur Jahan’s last days were spent in the care of her father’s tomb in Agra. A cultured woman, she was a trendsetter in the clothing, cosmetics, and perfumes of the Mughal Zenana.

Mumtaz Mahal

Emperor Shah Jahan’s wife (1628–1658), Mumtaz Mahal (aka Mumtaz-i-Mahal), has been immortalized by her deep love for her husband and the source of inspiration behind the Taj Mahal. Earlier known as Arjumand Banu Begum, she was born in April 1593 in Agra to a highly connected and well-established Persian family.

Her father, Asaf Khan (died 1641), was Mir Bakshi (Minister of War), and her grandfather Itimaduddaulah was Wazir (Minister of Revenue) of the Mughal administration. In addition, Asaf Khan’s sister was the famous Nur Jahan (1577–1645). Many legends were woven around Arjumand, a woman of extraordinary beauty and grace. Prince Khurram, the future Shah Jahan, was infatuated with her in 1607 at Meena Bazaar (a type of market for Mughal women).

Arjumand was running a glass beads and silk shop. It was love at first sight and the two tied the knot five years later. She received maximum love, care, affection, and passion among Shah Jahan’s wives, who bestowed upon her the title of Mumtaz Mahal Begum (‘beloved jewel of the palace’). The couple shared an intimate bond to last a lifetime.

Mumtaz Mahal was unlike some other queens in the medieval and early-modern eras, simply living a life of luxury or engaging in court intrigues. She was Shah Jahan’s companion in many military campaigns. Mumtaz was a pillar of support to the emperor in times of tribulation through her care, comfort, and advice. She was the favorite wife while Akbarabadi Mahal (1677), Kandhari Mahal (1594), Haseena Begum Sahiba (m. 1617), Manbhavati Sahiba (m. 1626), and others all had a superficial relationship with Shah Jahan. He trusted Mumtaz Mahal so much that the Muhar Ujah (royal seal) was given to her.

The couple had seven out of fourteen surviving children, many of whom left their mark on Mughal history. Jahanara Begum (1614–1681), a talented and cultured woman, was the empress padishah begum of the princesses who took care of the imprisoned Shah Jahan.

The eldest son, Dara Shikoh (1615–1659), was a favorite of the emperor and a distinguished scholar. Mumtaz did not survive the bloody war of succession between her sons: Dara (1615–1659), Shuja (1616–1660), Aurangzeb (1618–1707), and Murad (1624–1661). Mumtaz was at least concerned about the education of her children. Her secretary Sati-un Nisa taught the royal siblings. A pious and kind woman, Mumtaz helped needy and destitute women.

While accompanying the emperor on a military campaign, the pregnant Mumtaz died on June 17, 1631, after giving birth to her fourteenth child, Gauhar Begum (1631–1706). The story goes that she expressed her last wish to have a monument built as a symbol of true love. Filled with remorse, Shah Jahan kept his promise and ordered the construction of the magnificent Taj Mahal. After six months, the queen’s body was exhumed from Zainabadi Garden, Burhanpur, where she was temporarily buried. The Taj eventually became her tomb. The mausoleum, a symbol of immortal love, is one of the “Seven Wonders” of the modern world and a major tourist destination.

Jahanara Begum

Jahanara Begum was the second and eldest surviving child of Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. After the unfortunate death of Mumtaz in 1631, 17-year-old Jahanara was handed the royal seal and received the title of Padshah Begum (First Lady) of the Mughal Empire. However, her father had three other wives.

Being Shah Jahan’s favorite daughter, she wielded significant political influence during her father’s rule and was often referred to as “the most powerful woman in the empire” during that time. She strongly supported his brother Dara Shikoh as her father’s successor.

After Shah Jahan’s illness in 1657, during the War of Succession, she sided with the heir apparent, Dara. She eventually joined her father at Agra Fort, where her father was interned by Aurangzeb. Being a devoted daughter, she took care of Shah Jahan till his death in 1666.

Later, she reconciled with Aurangzeb, who conferred the title ‘Empress of the Princesses’ and replaced her younger sister Roshanara Begum as First Lady. She again became involved in politics, was influential in many important matters, and had certain privileges that other royal women could not enjoy. Jahanara died unmarried during the reign of Aurangzeb.

Roshanara Begum

Roshanara Begum, the third daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal, was a bright princess and a talented poetess. She supported her younger brother, Aurangzeb, in the war of succession following Shah Jahan’s illness in 1657. Roshanara had a sibling rivalry with Jahanara, with Shah Jahan resenting the latter’s influence. When Aurangzeb became emperor in 1658, she was honored with the title Padshah Begum and became the ‘First Lady of the Mughal Empire’.

A captivating but overlooked area is now getting due attention. Here’s a fresh look at royal Mughal women, along with their social and cultural engagement with the outside world. These royal women were not in historical focus for a long time, but recent research has placed them in mainstream studies of Mughal and medieval South Asian history. His role in political and financial decisions is now acknowledged.

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