The illustrated coin is the imperial silver coin of one of the largest empire known in the premodern world: the Mughal empire. And as you may have noticed, it is not the Emperor Jahangir’s name that is struck on that coin, but his wife’s name. When Nur Jahan’s husband was incapable of fulfilling his duty as ruler, struggling with alcohol and opium addiction, it was her who intervened to hold honor in place. As Empress chief consort, Nur Jahan ruled the Mughal Empire from 1611 – 1627 as the first Mughal woman to ever do so. A true sovereign in her own right!
Nur Jahan’s life before Mughal court: Who Is This Great Woman?
Born as Mehrunnissa to Persian parents, Nur Jahan lived near Qandahar, a city in modern Afghanistan. When misfortune fell upon her family, she moved to India and, together with her family, she found sanctuary in the court of the third Mughal Emperor Akbar. There, her father, Mirza Ghiyas Baig, an honest and hardworking man, rose to a high position as diwan (i.e. a financial minister). He further rose in rank due to his good character and continued to serve during the reign of the fourth Mughal Emperor Jahangir.
At seventeen, Mehrunnissa married Ali Quii Khan Istajlu, a Persian adventurer. Her husband received the rank of a high noble in Bengal and was bestowed the title of Sher Afgan (i.e. The Lion Killer) by Emperor Jahangir himself. But her husband soon found trouble with the emperor who thought Ali insubordinate and disposed to be rebellion. He directed his foster brother, Qutub-ud-Din to chastise him. When Qutb-ud-din went to carry out this order, he was killed by Sher Afgan. Sher Afgan was put to death by Qutb-ud-din’s attendants and Mehrunnissa, now a widow, and her little daughter were brought to Agra as royal detainees.
The most captivating wife of the Mughal emperor
In court, Mehrunniss was known merely as a noblewoman. Over a short period, she established herself as strong, charismatic and well-educated woman with an outstanding talent for fine arts, a reflection of her Persian culture. During a grand festival of the empire, she caught the eye of Emperor Jahangir who lost himself in admiration of her unrefined beauty. He announced their marriage that very same year. Emperor Jahangir proclaimed her a powerful partner, giving her the title of Nur Jahan (i.e. Light of the World). Since then, people referred to her as the emperor’s most captivating wife.
Some believe the Emperor was struck in love with Nur Jahan already before he had captured her attention during that festival. Some even dare to claim that the entire event around the death of Nur Jahan’s first husband was a scheme orchestrated by the Emperor himself to make her available for marriage.
In any case, during that marriage, Nur Jahan further captured the heart of the Mughal ruler with her natural talent for conversation, knowledge of many languages, elegant wit and intelligence without ever even providing him an heir. He adored her so obsessively that he soon transferred his powers of sovereignty to her, making her the first ruling Empress chief consort of the Mughal empire.
The First Influential Female Ruler of the Mughal Empire
Alongside her husband and with an unusual ability, Nur Jahan exercised her political power in administration, politics, economics and culture. By 1620, the emperor gave away under the devious pleasures of alcohol and opium and could not dominate his affairs any longer. Nur Jahan took more and more tasks on her hands until she received mammoth power in court. In a relative short period, her influence as a powerful and resourceful ruler in the Mughal empire never went unnoticed to her husband who had silver coins, current money in that time, struck in his wife’s name.
During her reign, Empress Nur Jahan took special interest in women’s affairs and would give dowry and land to orphan girls. She traded with Europeans and owned her own ships that took pilgrims as well as cargo to Mecca. Her affairs made Agra, the Mughal capital, a well-commerce city.
But at that time, being a ruler was considered to be reserved for men. Because of this, Nur Jahan never interacted directly with the ministers at court and remained behind the scenes of the women’s quarters. She negotiated her arguments and ideas only with her own trusted men who would deliver her messages to the men of the court. Therefore, she is often referred to as Makhfi (i.e. The Veiled One), her pseudonym as a poetess.
The Veiled One
With her Persian heritage and coming from a lineage of poets, Nur Jahan was presumably born with the gift of poetry. She wrote her own verses in the Arabic and Persian language and even encouraged the women at court to find solace in writing. She organized poetry contests, promoted and sponsored her favorite female poets during poetic festivities.
Only at one occasion did Nur Jahan lift her veil of invisibility. In 1626, rebels captured Emperor Jahangir during his travels to Kashmir. Mahabat Khan, the rebel leader, hoped to stage a coup. Empress chief consort Nur Jahan ordered her ministers to organize an attack to rescue her husband. During that attack, she rode an elephant into battle fighting for her heart as well as her empire.
“The grave of this poor stranger”
After his rescue, Emperor Jahangir died and for the remainder of her years, Nur Jahan lived a peaceful life with her daughter. During that time, she built a mausoleum in Agra for her father, now known as the Itmad-ud-Daulah’s tomb.
Nur Jahan died in 1645. She’s buried in her tomb in Lahore, not far from her husband’s grave. On her tomb stone, you can read the epitaph “On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing”.
We can now all acknowledge that Nur Jahan no longer is but a poor stranger to us. Her story tells women that even in a men’s world, a woman can play her part with equal capacity.
Munford, T. (1993). History: Leading ladies.Far Eastern Economic Review, 156(49), 40.
Nath, R. (1990). Notable Mughal and Hindu women in the 16th and 17th centuries. Inter-India Publications,
Zia-ud-Din, M. (2012). Role of Nur Jahan: The Mughal Empress of India.Pakistan Perspectives, 17(1), 193-204.
This article is written by Siham Machkour.