The Twentieth Wife
HomeBooksTaj TrilogyEventsInterviewsBiographyContact Indu

The Silent Imperial Woman of the Mughal Empire in India

by Indu Sundaresan

The year was 1631.  As night stalked over India and dawn beckoned in the horizon, a woman lay exhausted on a silk covered divan inside a fort palace.  For thirty hours the child inside her had strained to come out. 

Her husband Emperor Shah Jahan prayed and fretted outside the birthing chamber.  Court astrologers cast charts and horoscopes furiously, looking for a good omen, a sign of promise. The child was born three hours before daybreak, and with the first wail, the baby took the mother's life.  The Empress who died was only thirty-eight, and this was her fourteenth child.

Shah Jahan spent the next twenty years building a tomb for his beloved wife.  It stood on a marble platform, with a spire on each corner, and a long rectangular reflecting pool in front.  We know it as the Taj Mahal—that monument to one man's deep and abiding desire for the woman he loved.

The Taj Mahal  

The Taj Mahal,  built c. 1645

Since then, for three and a half centuries the image of the Taj Mahal has been branded on our senses.  The Taj at the birth of dawn, ghostly sugar-spun minarets breaching indolent mists; the Taj at high noon, shadows leached into the ground, with the blinding assault of white marble; the Taj on the night of the full moon, serene and silent, its dome gleaming pearl-like, hiding its secrets.

But most of us would be hard pressed to remember the name of Mumtaz Mahal, the woman who lies in the carnelian, amethyst and jasper-inlaid sarcophagus beneath that dome.  It is rather that wraithlike idea of her that remains: as the woman for whom the Taj was built.  She has been mute all this time, perhaps secretly smiling to herself, for she now represents the vividness and omnipotence of the Mughal Empire (1526-1858) in India.  Yet she was empress for only four short years, a momentary flicker in history's eye, not long enough to shape the empire's destiny in any way.

In her times, her aunt Empress Nur Jahan ruled longer and reigned supreme over the vast lands of the empire.  But there is no magnificent tomb to etch her name into eternity and she has dissolved into oblivion—a silent and voiceless imperial woman of the empire.

A little known fact is that these two women, aunt and niece, were not even originally from India; they traced their ancestry to Persia. Though once in India, they held firm sway over Indian history and over their men, deeply loved by the emperors. Both were rumored to have had great beauty, and were renowned for their intelligence and authority—no small feat in a time when women were never seen in public and rarely heard.

Bridal Finery

It might come as a surprise that the women of Mughal India did have power over the widespread reach of the empire (encompassing northern India and modern day Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh) mostly because they lived within the gilded structure of the imperial harem, secluded behind the veil. From the perspective of the 21st century, especially given the romantic charm of the Taj, it seems easy to pigeonhole these women as vapid, unthinking creatures, given only to pleasure in its various forms, living only to please their men. Look deeper, beyond the mirrorwork embellished harem rooms in the forts at Delhi or Agra, or the baths where the women frolicked, or the miniature paintings that show harem life in a haze of opium, wine, jewels and gestures of love. Look deeper and we find Nur Jahan to have been a woman of substance and strength.

To get to the beginning of the legend of Nur Jahan, we have to travel back even earlier to the year 1577. A winter storm raged around a nomadic encampment on the fringes of the Mughal Empire, and in one of the black tents, a baby girl was born. Her parents, of the Persian nobility, were fleeing their homeland in search of refuge. Thirty-four years later, this child of the storm, born in times of despair, grew up to marry Emperor Jahangir and become Empress Nur Jahan.

Nur Jahan was already married once before, and had a child from that marriage. In a time when women were literally discarded after the age of thirty, when harems welcomed new and fresh faces almost every day, Nur Jahan, when she stepped into the imperial harem, already fit none of the established norms. For hers was no political marriage. She was Jahangir's twentieth wife, and breaking with the tradition of dynastic ambition, her position of power came from the love and trust the emperor had in her, not from having given him the all-cherished male heir.

Emperor Jehangir 

Emperor Jahangir

Over the next sixteen years of his reign, until his death in 1627, she would rule instead. She signed on royal orders, patronized artists at court, gave alms generously with her large personal income, and controlled the politics of the empire, providing at times, wise and safe counsel for Jahangir. She had coins minted in her name, a mark of sovereignty usually available only to the emperor. She oversaw the building of her father's tomb, that Persian noble exiled from his homeland, and it still stands today diagonally opposite the Taj Mahal, along a curve of the Yamuna river. In this tomb is the first influence of pietra dura inlay of precious stones in marble that is copied so effectively in the Taj. Nur Jahan's immense power in a time when women were meant to be faceless and quiescent has given her the unsavory reputation of a woman who took unfair advantage of an ailing emperor to further the wealth of her own family.

But Nur Jahan's authority came, pure and simple, from the man who married her. He loved her with a deep and absorbing passion that formed the foundation for ballads and songs in India. Thomas Moore's epic poem Lalla Rookh is based on their story. But Jahangir died before she did, and so left no memorial to her name, no substantial lasting-into-eternity indication of why or how much he loved her.

A year after her marriage to Emperor Jahangir, her niece Mumtaz Mahal married Jahangir's son. It was a five year long engagement, not consummated because Nur Jahan's family had fallen into disgrace at court. So it is safe to assume that had Nur Jahan not married Jahangir, this most important marriage between Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan might not have taken place. And then, that magnificent tomb, the Taj Mahal, might not have existed.

Both these women, within the confines of their relationships, were powerful because they were beloved of emperors. But the future played strange games, turning the immortality of one of them into a fleeting footnote in history. The irony is that, for all the brilliance of her life, Nur Jahan is hidden in the shadow of the Taj—cast in the impending penumbra of the world's greatest monument of love. She could not have imagined that almost four hundred years later, she would be nearly invisible, dwarfed into nonexistence by her niece, who ruffled so little the political waters of her times.

When you next see a picture of the Taj, or are fortunate enough to see the Taj itself, think of the silent woman who ruled the empire before the one lying in that tomb. And wonder that if not for Nur Jahan, perhaps there would have been no Mumtaz Mahal.

Then perhaps—to cast its magnetic specter over posterity—there would have been no Taj Mahal.

© Indu Sundaresan
Contact Indu: indu (at) indusundaresan (dot) com