The most powerful woman in the East
Biography: Empress, Ruby Lal, WW Norton, hardback, 380 pages, €25.20
Nur Jahan took charge of the Mughal empire while her husband was drunk as a lord.
Biographies of "forgotten women" have been a flourishing industry for well over a decade, especially those in Europe. But there are still many women in the East - in the Islamic world especially - whose stories have yet to be told. Male court historians have undervalued the contributions of such women - usually the wives or mothers of powerful men - to their civilisations. That means the modern historian wishing to reconstruct their lives has very little reliable material with which to work.
Ruby Lal, an Indian historian now teaching in America, faces exactly these challenges in writing the biography of the Mughal empress Nur Jahan, a near contemporary of Elizabeth I. That she succeeds so admirably with a relative lack of authentic material is a tribute to her dexterity as a writer. She enlivens the mostly austere historical record by including (with due caveats) the many entertaining legends that have accrued around Nur Jahan over the centuries. In so doing she not only paints an absorbing portrait of a remarkable woman, but also offers a stylish reconstruction of a fascinating slice of Mughal life.
Nur Jahan ("Light of the World") was Emperor Jahangir's 20th and final wife. When she married him in 1611, she was a 31-year-old widow. Her first husband was a respected nobleman who came to a sticky end when he rebelled against Jahangir. Later storytellers and film-makers, keen on creating a dramatic love story, have speculated that the emperor and Nur Jahan had been sweethearts before her marriage - her original name was Mihr-un-Nisa: her family were refugees from Persia, who were finally reunited after her convenient widowhood.
Jahangir, like his father Akbar, was a religiously tolerant and cultured monarch who liked to surround himself with musicians and poets. He loved imperial pomp, and moved his luxurious court around his Indian empire to show his people who was in charge. His mobile Hall of Private Audience was likely to have contained 72 rooms with 1,000 carpets.
But he was also a drunk and a drug addict. Alcoholism was common among Mughal monarchs, but even so, he packed it away: Lal tells us he drank "20 cups of doubly distilled spirits, 14 during the day time and the remainder at night". He didn't help matters when he began mixing alcohol with opium. In his memoirs, Jahangir admits that the only person who could help him tame his drinking was his favourite, Nur Jahan.
A keen observer of court politics and statecraft, Nur Jahan took on more responsibility for running the empire while her husband distracted himself with fripperies. Nur Jahan issued orders in her own name and, in 1616, gold and silver coins were minted with her image on the obverse side of her husband's. She signed her own name on official documents: Nur Jahan, the Lady Emperor.
Where did she learn her political skills? Lal speculates that it was in the harem, which was full of rivalries and alliances between the sovereign's Muslim and Hindu wives. Lal writes: "She seemed more canny than other royal women her age about the workings of the empire, exhibiting the knowledge expected of esteemed elder women like her harem mentors." Not that she wielded her power solely through the stereotypical female wiles of gossip and manipulation: she was a fierce woman, who on a hunting trip with her husband once shot dead a tiger - a typical symbol of masculine authority. When Jahangir was captured during a rebellion, she rode to his rescue on an elephant.
The martial-spirited Nur Jahan is captured well by a contemporary painting of her by the court artist Abdul-Hasas Nadir uz-Zaman. Instead of sitting demurely with a veil, as women were mostly depicted in miniatures, she is standing alone and upright in a turban, holding a long musket that she appears to be reloading. There is a vigour and freedom in her stance that is rare for the time. As Lal writes: "Neither of the two Islamic empires of Nur's time, Safavid Iran and Ottoman Turkey, could boast of such graphic evidence of an empress engaged in intrepid imperial adventure." At the time she was compared to the Queen of Sheba, who appears in the Koran as Solomon's wife.
Lal notes that she was also an architectural innovator. The Light-Scattering Garden, which she designed, took the model of a Persian garden and made it more informal and open, adding pavilions, arcades and walled rooms for shade that echoed the harem's layout. She also had a hand in the astonishingly beautiful shrine to her parents called the I'timad ud-Daulah tomb, which modern visitors to Agra might have heard described as the "Baby Taj". But as Lal points out, the Taj Mahal, built by Jahangir's successor Shah Jahan, is in reality the baby of the Nur Jahan creation.
She was also a generous patron, arranging more than 500 marriages for orphaned women, and creating a style of cheap wedding dress still in use today, called a Nur Mahali. She seems to have fully earned the panegyrics of the court poet Shirazi, who acknowledged that: "Her glory and dignity had captured the world."
Certainly she has captured the heart of Lal, who does a marvellous job of piecing together the scant evidence about her heroine's life. It must be said, though, that there are quite of lot of "would haves" and "maybes" in her account and while as a reconstruction it is plausible, you do wonder what a less sympathetic biography might look like. Also, for a female-centred history, there is an awful lot about men in this book.
Perhaps that is inevitable. No matter how much power she had, Nur Jahan was always reliant on a powerful man. (Maybe that is why Jahangir felt he could trust her with so much power: unlike one of his power-hungry sons or unruly nobles.) Cleverly, she married off the daughter from her first marriage to Jahangir's eldest son, Shahryar, thinking that he would inherit the throne. But in the event he was outsmarted by his brother Shah Jahan, and so the last 18 years of Nur Jahan's second widowhood were spent quietly planning her beloved husband's shrine in Lahore.
Perhaps she was also reflecting on a life in which she had risen from being a refugee born on the run to becoming the most powerful woman - perhaps for a while even person - in the Mughal Empire. Unlike her husband, she left no memoirs, but as Lal shows, she certainly left her mark.