Nur Jahan- Mughal Empress, wife of Jahangir

The Mughal dynasty was perhaps the last illustrious dynasty our country has seen,mostly because having ruled our country for more than 3 centuries the Mughals have altered and changed us in many ways one can imagine- be it art, culture, architecture, politics, warfare, public works etc. They led our country into a glorious period perhaps seen only after the Mauryan dynasty many centuries ago.

Coming to power was a relatively easy feat, the Mughals came at a time when there was a political vacuum in Northern India, the existing Lodhi dynasty at that time was on tenterhooks ruled by an imbecile king- Ibrahim. This posed as a lucrative position for Babur to invade India, armed with advanced warfare techniques and a sound strategy Babur was able to topple the Lodhi dynasty and thus established himself as the first ruler of his Mughal dynasty.

After Babur ofcourse there were many emperors who expanded the empire- there was Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir, Shahjahan, Aurangzeb names we all have heard so often in our history classes but I wonder how many of us remember the prominent Mughal women from the dynasty?

We all know how Islamic religion is so restrictive of women- with the burqas, the zenanas, the hijab etc, while these are symbols to promote female purity , to some a means for their own protection etc  this also makes most of us to think that women did not play any role in matters of importance- be it finance, politics, economics even arts for that matter.

This is a misconception.

For despite the outward restriction Mughal women were extremely influential and powerful in matters of rule and administrative policies. I would like to call is as- Ruling from behind the Veil. Naturally these women never came to the forefront except one of them- Nur Jahan (who managed to mint coins in her name which is a big feat as nominally its in the name of the king)

Before coming to Nur Jahan who directly controlled key policies and administration of Mughal India there were others who promoted  the cultural side more. Ofcourse these women were consulted for all political matters but their key contribution lies more on the creative side. They were accomplished artists, poets, writers in their own stead.Here are some of those notable women from the Mughal dynasty.

# 1 Gulbadan: Humayun’s sister was a prolific writer, she has been credited for penning down “Humayun-nama” the biography of her brother Humayun which talked not only about his life and his rule but also of women and the courtly life, their daily activities as well.

# 2 Nur Jahan: Wife of Jehangir,  is perhaps the most famous of all the Mughal women who managed to come to limelight by being part of the political intrigue. Originally named Mehrunissa was the daughter of the aristocrat Ghias Beg who was in-charge of the treasury at Kabul. Story goes that Jehangir after being caught in an affair with the courtesan Anarkali (the story line for the epic bollywood movie Mughal-e-Azam) was banished by Akbar to Kabul It is here that he meets the beautiful Mehrunissa when invited to dine one day by her father, the treasurer of Kabul at the time. This of course must have been a planned design by the family as courting the king in waiting was a lucrative move to improve the family fortunes. Things went as planned, as soon after seeing Mehrunissa, Jehangir was head over heels to marry her and soon after they were wed.

Shortly after Jehangir indeed became the king when Akbar passed away and Mehrunissa became the de-facto Queen of the Mughal Empire. Now the trouble with Jehangir was that he was a chronic opium addict and an alcoholic. He struggled with  his addiction all his life and barely managed to keep it together enough to become the king. In fact under Jehangirs rule not a single inch of new territory was won unlike the massive accumulation that is credited to his father. In this situation having Mehrunissa certainly helped to keep the existing empire in tact. Mehrunissa apart from being so beautiful was an highly intelligent woman, she was smart, well educated and  well versed with courtly manner. It is because of this political grooming she was able to take on the day to day administrative duties while her husband was drunk and incapacitated. Although she was always at the background giving her husband the necessary advice, however every one knew that If Jehangir was saying something the words were Mehrunnisas. 

Perhaps the biggest achievement for any woman of her times was to actually get coins minted in her name, something that was never heard of before. This just goes on to show that she was a very powerful force in the Mughal empire. Together with her brother and father she was able exert a considerable influence over policy matters.

#3 Jahanara:  Shahjahan’s eldest daughter was another stunning beauty of her time, a Sufi mystic by faith, keen gardener,an avid lover of poetry and literature. She also played a key role in court politics when she openly declared her support for brother Dara Shukoh as a claimant to the throne against Aurangzeb. She is  credited for her contribution in the creation of the famous market place in Delhi- Chandni Chowk

Apart from these the following women were also very influential among the respective rulers

Aisan Daulat and Qutlug Nigar- Grand mother and mother of Babur

Khanzada Begum- Babur’s sister and Humayun’s Aunt

Hamida Begum- Humayun’s wife, Akbar’s mother

Maham Anga- Akbar’s milk mother

Mumtaz Mahal- Shahjahan’s wife and Mehrunissa’s niece

Zebunissa- Aurangzeb’s eldest daughter

Begum Zinat Mahal- Bahudar Shah Zafar’s youngest wife

These are names of few women I came across while reading and exploring the era,it’s really unfortunate that not many texts/works are available which shed light on the depth of their contribution towards shaping of this large dynasty. The existing body of works either briefly mentions them or represents them as one whole entity rather than focusing on the individual contribution which is contrary to a very individualistic glorification of the Mughal emperors.