If Nur Jahan were alive today, she would be what one would call, ‘a superwoman ‘. The Queen of Queens or Maharani, the 17th wife of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, was a feisty and dynamic woman. In Empress- The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, author and feminist historian Ruby Lal brings to the limelight the many accomplishments of the Mughal queen.
As a historian, Lal seeks out an objective and accurate account of Nur’s life. She analyses histories of what is known about the queen- both oral accounts and recorded ones, and then unravels what is hidden behind the more popular constructs of her beauty.
Yes, she was beautiful. But, she was also an accomplished politician, a poet, a culturally inclined person, an excellent hunter and master strategist. She won the respect and admiration of Jahangir. He made her his ‘co-sovereign’, something that was unprecedented in the empire. She has coins that bore her seal and royal orders issued in her name. However, the conservative patriarchal society of the times could not acknowledge “that she could be both womanly and a sovereign”.
Through intense research, often with unusual sources, Lal explains the reasons behind the rise of Nur Jahan due to a plethora of factors, rather than only see her as a beautiful woman who lured her husband with feminine charms. We get a nuanced story of a queen who was much ahead of her times; A queen who was a feminist, though no such concept existed back then!
The narrative style is quite interesting since Lal tells the story of Nur Jahan almost like a fiction tale. She recreates and brings to life the times in which the queen was born and her life in the royal household complete with the sights, smells, culture and mannerisms of the eon, including insightful descriptions of the harem and the Mughal court. This places her story in context.
In these realistic recreations of the childhood, youth and the life of Nur Jahan, she weaves in the story of the times. One gets a sense of how Nur came to be the person she was.
The Queen steals the show
As a feminist historian, the book highlights the gender politics of the age. What is interesting to search in the narrative, and what Lal also attempts to find out is how did Nur Jahan achieve what she did in the age and environment she lived in? What about her made Jahangir see her with a different eye? How did she navigate the complex world of patriarchy and harem politics to a more visible kind of power?
Nur Jahan was cognizant of the fact that history often overlooked the achievements of women. She ensures in her way, that such a fate should not befall her. While she handled the politics of power in a commendable way, her downfall was also inevitable. History is eventually a point of view. When Shah Jahan, Nur’s step son, ascended the throne, many victories and accomplishments of Nur were effaced from public records and memory. Even though they had once shared cordial relations, their relationship had soured.
“In the absence of a man in whose name she could fight, and with no nobles or family members supporting or celebrating her imperial service, Nur could take no further action to retain her position as co-sovereign. Her rise to power had been relatively swift. Her fall was even swifter,” writes Lal.
Empress is a bold attempt to take a relook at history from a different point of view. Time and patriarchy may not have done due justice to Nur’s legacy, but, as the author writes, “Some people will themselves into history”. Nur Jahan was definitely one of them!
Author: Ruby Lal