The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 13, 2003
Time Off

Throwing light on the ‘light of the world’
Manohar Malgonkar

Noor Jehan was the real power behind the throne
Noor Jehan was the real power behind the throne

THE Bible has a story of a King called David who ‘coveted the wife’ of one of his own subjects, a man called Uraiah. The King just ordered Uraiah to the battlefront where, conveniently, he was killed.

History too has a similar tale. Of a powerful monarch infatuated with a woman married to someone else, a woman called Mehr-un-nisa.

The story of this Mehr-un-nisa is so charged with high drama and dizzy swings of fortune that it would be thought to be quite implausible even in fiction. But then this is recorded history, too; and thus true in its essential features. At the time of her birth, in the year 1579, her parents, who were in the process of fleeing from their own land, Iran, to India, were in such dire straits, that they had actually abandoned her by the roadside, deep in the hills of Afghanistan.

For a mother and father to steel their hearts to leaving their new-born child by the roadside so that they themselves and their other two children should have a chance of survival shows a degree of despair not easy to imagine, particularly since they were both well-brought up and even rich. The father, Ghias-beg, a capable soldier and something of a scholar, was ambitious too. He believed that service under the Mughal emperor, Akbar, would be much more rewarding than his prospects in Iran itself. He had decided to migrate to Agra, taking with him his wife and two young children. He had hired a number of mules and camels to take their baggage and set out in style. But on the way they had been attacked by a gang of brigands and robbed of everything of any value. At the time of Mehr-un-nisa’s birth, all they possessed were two mules. While one of the mules carried the two children, the husband and wife rode the other alternately, — one of them just had to walk. To be saddled with a nursling while Agra was still more than a month away might have ruined their chances of getting there at all. So they left her by the roadside.


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But only for a few hours, because as though their new baby had changed their luck, they soon ran into the long caravan laden with merchandise, of a rich Indian called Malik Masood, also on the way to Agra. Ghias-beg arranged to be allowed to join Masoodentourage, and promptly rode back on his mule to retrieve his baby.

This man Masood seems to have wielded great influence at the emperor’s court, for he arranged to present Ghias-beg to the emperor who promptly took him in his service. Ghias-beg himself was both hardworking as well as efficient, and soon rose to high position. In the year 1585, the emperor actually appointed him as the Governor of Kabul.

So this girl who, at her birth brought good luck to her parents, grew up in a household rich and bustling with servants. Her mother who was herself well-read and cultivated, took care of her upbringing. She was taught how to read and write, to paint and embroider and household management. She took to painting and writing poetry. She grew up into a ravishing beauty who was also witty, clever, charming, dutiful.

By and large, the Persians of good families in the Mughal court tended to stick together. They were of the Shia sect among the Sunnis, and thus in a minority. So when Mehr-un-nisa came of age, her father found her a husband from among his own clansmen, one Alikuli Istalju, who, too had come to India in the hope of making a good living. He was brave and hardworking, and come to the notice of the emperor, Akbar as a capable leader of men. A year or so after his marriage to Mehr-un-nisa, Alikuli found himself transferred to be a member of the staff of an army commanded by the emperor’s son, Salim, the future emperor Jehangir.

This development should have brought this story on track, as it were, as an exact parallel to the one in the Bible, about a king coveting the wife of one of his soldiers. But, if prince Salim too fell head over heels in love with Alikuli’s wife while she was on the verge of maturity, in her early twenties, and at the peak of her loveliness, history does not say so. It is only later events that point to this.

Anyhow, when Mehr-Un-nisa’s husband was posted to Salim’s staff, she was eighteen years old, the prince, twenty-eight. Salim already had half a dozen wives and scores of concubines. If he was infatuated by Mehr-Un-nisa at all, at this time as would be quite natural in a man of his inclinations, he was certainly not jealous of her husband, on the other hand, Salim seems to have gone out of his way to show favours to Alikuli, who continued to rise in prominence and power.

For instance, when Salim was told how Alikuli had wrestled with a tiger, he conferred on him the title of Sher Afkun, or one who had ‘thrown’ a tiger.

Fox six years, Alikuli and his family lived in close proximity of the Emperor’s court. Then, after Emperor Akbar died and prince Salim succeeded to the throne as Emperor Jehangir, one of the first things he did was to send off Alikuli to rule over a small principality, Burdwan, deep in Bengal, and with him went Mehr-un-nisa and her daughter she had borne to Alikuli.

For Alikuli, the soldier of fortune from Iran, this was like a dream come true. He had become the ruler of a domain in vassalage to the Mughal empire — in distant Bengal which was a world away from Iran. But the dream was short-lived.

Within a year of this appointment, Jehangir is said to have become convinced that Alikuli had made common cause with the rebels in Bengal. He sent secret orders to his viceroy in Bengal to send a force to Burdwan to arrest Alikuli and to send him in chains to Agra to face a trial.

Many historians believe that the charge was baseless, and just a device on Jehangir’s part to bring Alikuli’s lovely wife to Agra. Whatever it was, it went horribly wrong, and ended in a bloodbath. Alikuli and several of his bodyguards were killed but then so had died many of the soldiers who had gone to arrest Alikuli, including the Viceroy himself, Kutb Ud-din. And all this had happened in full view of the womenfolk of the household.

It was thus, in a state of deep shock that Mehr-un-nisa and her ten-year-old daughter were brought to Agra under escort. For a year or so both lived quietly in the house of Ghias-beg. Then Mehr-un-nisa was appointed as a maid-companion to one of the dowager queens of the late emperor, Akbar. By the time of the spring festival of March 1611, she seems to have recovered sufficiently to take part in the revelries, and after that Jehangir did not waste any more time. He married her in May. The bride was thirty-two, the groom forty-two.

And so a girl who had been all but abandoned at birth became the empress of a vast realm, and soon assumed so much control over its affairs that she virtually became the emperor, too. Jehangir, incurably addicted to wine as well as opium, abdicated all his powers to her and gave her new name, Noor Jehan, the Light of the World, no less.

All this in an environment in which thirty was thought to be the retirement age even for harem favourites.

For the next 18 years, and when she was truly middle-aged, Noor Jehan ruled the greatest empire on the planet. She doled out honours, made the senior-most appointments, sent armies on campaigns. Her father, Ghias-beg became the Empire’s vizier, and her brother, Asaf Khan, one of the pillars of the Mughal court. She became a skilled intriguer, and was never averse to backing murder-plots to carry out her designs. Yet, no matter how shockingly self-serving she was, her personal life was free from scandal, and above all she made a devoted wife to the emperor, who had become incapable of exercising his will anyhow, long before he died. Needless to say, she made powerful enemies among the courtiers and the emperor’s several sons who were raising armies for a succession dispute even before their father had died. It was Noor Jehan’s devotion to her husband and her sense of decorum, that hastened her downfall. Jehangir had died on his way back from a summer in Kashmir, and it took six days for his body to be brought to Lahore for burial, but that delay was enough for her enemies to make sure that she would never wield power again. Her followers left her in droves to join one or the other of the emperor’s sons in their bitter dispute for succession. It was as though Jehangir’s death had put out Noor Jehan, the ‘Light of the World’, even though the widow Mehr-un-nisa survived, to live out her days in the shadows.