Review of Ruby Lal's 'Empress': A remarkable story of Nur Jahan's reign

Biography and history are closely related but it is not always a very easy relationship. In the world of Indian scholarship, the problem is further complicated by the fact that biography very often tends to become hagiography. The writing of history requires a certain amount of distance and perspective whereas biographers tend to remain very close to their subjects, often seeing the world and events through the papers and the recollections of their subjects. Biography, by definition, is focused on an individual more often than not on a famous individual — someone who it is assumed made the times and was also made by the times. It is precisely here — a woman in her times — that history and biography begin to intersect. History, especially since the influence of Marxism and of the Annales School became predominant, has been seen as the interplay of vast impersonal forces over which human beings have little or no control yet these forces shape the destiny of human beings. The classic statement on this came from none other than Fernand Braudel in his magnum opus: The Mediterranean And the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, where he wrote, “When I think of the individual I am always inclined to see him imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand.’’ Braudel was, in a different way, echoing and with greater emphasis the views of Marx as articulated in that famous opening paragraph of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history but they do not make it just as they please. The dead hand of the past hangs over their present activities.’’ The issue that Braudel and Marx were raising is the one of human agency, which is at the heart of the biographical enterprise. The challenge before a historian-biographer is to locate and analyse the interaction between human agency and the vast impersonal forces.

These prefatory words are necessary because Ruby Lal has, in a masterly and enviable manner, crafted a riveting narrative where history and biography come together. The focus is, of course, a remarkable woman, Nur Jahan, who wielded almost unlimited power in a man’s world. To understand the unprecedented achievements of Nur Jahan, the author sees her in the historical situation in which she found herself and which in many ways she could not alter but was able to use to her advantage.

She was the daughter of a Persian nobleman who, like many other noblemen from Persia and Central Asia, had left his homeland with his family around 1577 to seek his fortune in Al Hind, as India was known. Large parts of north India were then ruled by the great Mughal, Akbar, the third emperor in dynastic succession. Nur Jahan or Mihr un-Nisa, as she was called before she became an empress, was in fact born as the caravan made its way from Persia to India. Ghiyas Beg, Mihr’s father, through family connections, made himself part of Akbar’s court. Lal breaks the chronology of her narrative at this point to provide a description of the structure of Akbar’s court and the apparatus of the Mughal Empire. Readers are thus introduced to one crucial aspect of the context in which Nur Jahan operated as an empress.

There was another equally important context. This was the Mughal harem, the subject of Lal’s first book. The first two great Mughals — Babur and his son Humayun — had been camp emperors, moving from place to place and ruling from large tents rather than from forts and palaces. It was Akbar who began the practice of ruling from a fixed court and of sequestering the Mughal women in a specially protected part of the fort/palace.  This cloistering did not necessarily mean that all women of the harem became passive onlookers to the play of politics and power that surrounded the persona of the Mughal emperor and the way he ruled. Lal shows here that there were some very powerful women in the harem and they could influence decision-making in critical matters. It was in this harem with its somewhat unique ambience that Mihr un-Nisa found herself after the death of her first husband Ali Quli Khan, a Mughal mansabdar who had been posted in subah Bangla.

Life in a remote province as a young and intelligent woman shaped Mihr un-Nisa. She was free from the confines of life in a harem and thus could train herself in certain skills that in the Mughal world were considered “masculine’’. She learnt how to shoot, to hunt, to practise the art of poetry and, most importantly, she could observe the ways of politics in the Mughal empire. It was these skills and, of course, her remarkable beauty that attracted Jahangir, when she was back in the harem as a widow.

Jahangir married her, renaming her Nur Jahan and she became his favourite wife. They were inseparable. Thus began what Lal calls Nur Jahan’s “ascent’’. Her power and position became synonymous with that of the emperor. This was unprecedented and never to be repeated, since Mughal badshahs styled themselves as elevated personalities. Several of her close family members held some of the most important administrative positions: her father was Jahangir’s wazir; her brother’s daughter Arjumand Banu (later famous as Mumtaz Mahal) was married to the heir apparent Shah Jahan; her daughter by Ali Quli Khan, Ladli Begum, was married to another of Jahangir’s sons, Shahryar. Nur Jahan was at the centre of a web of power and patronage. The historian S Nurul Hasan, in a now forgotten essay, described this as the Nur Jahan junta. She was also, as Lal records, a woman of exceptional generosity who arranged for the care for orphaned girls.

Empress The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan Author: Ruby Lal Publisher: Penguin Pages: 304 Price: Rs 599
Nur Jahan, thus, entered the world of Mughal legends. She also had her share of contemporary and later critics, all of whom — and not surprisingly, all males — described her as ambitious, power-grabbing, manipulative, vengeful and so on. It is one of the strengths of Lal’s book that it points out that these traits (used to condemn Nur Jahan) were considered virtues in Mughal males, signs of their virility. Male strengths were unacceptable in a woman. Nur Jahan broke the stereotype. Lal’s book helps us understand the woman and the world over which she triumphed. Empress is an outstanding work because of its masterly craft, its sensitive and penetrating reading of sources, its imaginative recreation of the colour and the grandeur of the Mughal court and its matchless unravelling of the interplay of human agency and the forces of history. This is the work of a first-rate historian writing at her best.

The reviewer is chancellor and professor of history, Ashoka University