The Twentieth Wife
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The Twentieth Wife
Hardcover Edition
Pocket Books, February 2002
ISBN: 0-7434-2714-9

The Twentieth Wife
Paperback Edition
Washington Square Press, February 2003
ISBN: 0-7434-2818-8

Winner of the 2003 Washington State Book Award

For three and a half centuries, the Taj Mahal has haunted our imaginations. It is a tomb built by a grieving king of the Mughal Empire (1526-1858) in India in memory of his beloved wife.

But it was this woman's aunt, an empress in her own right, who was the most powerful queen of that dynasty. The Twentieth Wife is the story of this Empress Nur Jahan.

The year is 1577. As a winter storm rages in the remote outpost of Qandahar, a baby girl named Mehrunnisa is born in a nomad tent. Her parents, penniless and in exile from their home in Persia, decide to give up the child. They already have three children, and are on their way to the Mughal court in India. Thirty-four years later, this child of the storm comes to Emperor Jahangir's harem as his twentieth wife, and becomes Empress Nur Jahan.

Brought up around the Mughal court, Mehrunnisa sees Jahangir at his first wedding. She decides with the precocity of an eight-year-old, that one day, she will be his wife.

In the years before this becomes an actuality, Mehrunnisa will be married to another man despite her inclinations. She sees her husband slaughtered by the imperial army—court gossips will have it on Jahangir's orders. There are powerful courtiers determined not to let the marriage take place. One of Jahangir's wives, Mehrunnisa's biggest rival in the imperial harem, tries to turn the Emperor against her.

Through all these years, Mehrunnisa and Jahangir's love for each other endures until 1611, when she comes into his harem as his twentieth—and last—wife. At this time he gives her the title of Nur Jahan, by which she is known to posterity.

Although a work of fiction, The Twentieth Wife is rooted in historical fact and detail culled from accounts of seventeenth-century travelers to Emperor Jahangir's court and the memoirs of the Mughal kings.

 The sequel, titled The Feast of Roses (Atria Books, May 2003) tells the story of Mehrunnisa's life as Empress. She rules in Jahangir's name for the next seventeen years, and in doing so, shapes the destiny of the empire. In a time when women were never seen and rarely heard, Mehrunnisa has coins minted in her name, owns ships that ply the Arabian sea routes, and commissions many of the gardens and tombs that still stand in India today.

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