Jahangir And Nurjahan
A.D. 1605 TO A.D. 1627
These names, "Conqueror of the World" and "Light of the World," are
It is as well they should be so, for they supply us with the only
excuse which Prince Salim could put forward for the curious animosity
that for many years went hand in hand with his undoubted affection and
respect for his great father, Akbar; the excuse being that he had bee
crossed in love, real, genuine love, by that father's absurd sense of
The story will bear telling.
There was a poor Persian called Mirza or "Prince" Ghiass, of good
family but abjectly poverty-stricken, who, finding it impossible to
live in his own country, determined to emigrate to India with his
family. On the way thither, his wife, Bibi Azizan, somewhat of a
feckless fashionable, was delivered of another daughter. Already in
dire distress, the parents felt unable to cope with this fresh
misfortune. So they left the child by the wayside. The chief merchant
of the caravan by which they were travelling, happening to come along
the same road a few hours afterwards, found the baby, and being struck
by its beauty, determined to rear it as his own.
Now in a travelling caravan wet-nurses are rare. Small wonder, then,
that the infant, whom the merchant had instantly called the "Queen of
Women" (Mihr-un-nissa), should find its way back to its mother. This
led to explanations. The merchant, discovering the father to be much
above his present position, employed him in various ways, and became
interested in his future.
This led to his being brought to Akbar's notice, who, finding him
straightforward and capable, advanced him until he rose to be Lord
High Treasurer of the Empire. A fine position, truly, especially for
Bibi Azizan, who, amongst the ladies of the court, was noted for the
dernier cri of fashion both in dress and perfume. It was she,
briefly, who invented the attar of rose, which at first sold for its
weight in gold.
Now Bibi Azizan was a matchmaking mamma, and in little Mihr-un-nissa
she had a pretty piece of goods to bring to market. A thousand pities,
indeed, that husband Ghiass, honest man, had already allowed talk of
betrothal with young Sher-Afkan of the King's Light Horse. All the
more pity because there was Prince Salim giving his father trouble
despite the Rajput wife they had given him.
That Bibi Azizan cast nets is fairly certain; but it was Fate which
sent the bird into them.
It was after one of Akbar's favourite diversions, a Paradise Bazaar,
when the lords and ladies of the court had been playing pranks, that
Salim first saw the girl who was, long years afterwards, to be his
good genius. The tale may be fully told in verse of how--
"Long ago, so runs the story, in the days of King Akbar,
'Mid the pearly-tinted splendours of the Paradise Bazaar,
Young Jahangir, boyish-hearted, playing idly with his dove,
Lost his boyhood, lost his favourite, lost his heart, and
found his love.
By a fretted marble fountain, set in 'broidery of flowers,
Sat a girl, half-child, half-maiden, dreaming o'er her coming
Wondering vaguely, yet half guessing, what the harem women mean
When they call her fair, and whisper, 'You are born to be a
Curving her small palms, like petals, for their store of
Gazing in the sunny water where in rippling shadow lay
Lips that ripen fast for kisses, slender form of budding grace,
Hair that frames with ebon softness a clear, oval, ivory face.
Arched and fringed with velvet blackness from their shady
depths her eyes
Shine as summer lightning flashes in the dusky evening skies.
Mihr-un-nissa, Queen of Women, so they call the little maid
Dreaming by the marble fountain where but yesterday she played.
Heavy sweet the creamy blossoms gem the burnished orange
Through their shade comes Prince Jehangir, on his wrist two
'Hold my birds, child!' cries the stripling, 'I am tired of
Thrusts them in her hands, unwilling, careless saunters on
Culling posies as he wanders from the flowers rich and rare,
Heedless that the fairest blossom 'mid the blaze of blossom
Is the little dreaming maiden by the fountain-side at rest
With the orange-eyed, bright-plumaged birds of love upon her
Flowers fade and perfume passes; nothing pleases long to-day;
Back toward his feathered fav'rites soon the Prince's
Dreaming still sits Mihr-un-nissa, but within her listless hold
Only one vain-struggling captive does the lad, surprised,
'Only one?' he queries sharply. 'Sire', she falters, 'one has
'Stupid! How?' The maiden flushes at his quick imperious tone.
'So! my lord!' she says defiant, with a curving lip, and
From her unclasped hands the other circling flies to join its
Heavy sweet the creamy blossom gems the burnished orange tree,
Where the happy doves are cooing o'er their new-found liberty.
Startled by her quick reprisal, wrath is lost in blank
Silent stands the heir of Akbar, gazing with awakening eyes
At the small rebellious figure, with its slender arms
Face half frowns, half laughter, royal right of maidenhead.
Slowly dies the flush of anger as the flush of evening dies,
Slowly grow his eyes to brightness as the stars in evening
'So, my lord!' So Love had flitted from the listless hand of
And the heart of young Jahangir, like the dove, had found its
Such is the tale which, even nowadays, the women of India love to
tell, bewailing the unkind destiny which separated the lovers for
nearly twenty years. But, as a matter of fact, there is no evidence to
prove that the little Queen-of-Women fell in love with the prince at
all. On the contrary, it seems probable that, being a girl of great
sense as well as great beauty, she preferred her father's young
soldier to her mother's somewhat debauched heir to a throne. Certain
it is, however, that the orthodox Mahomedan faction would have viewed
with favour the introduction of a Mahomedan bride. Akbar, however,
possibly from political motives, ostensibly because of the previous
promise, vetoed the match, and giving the young soldier-bridegroom an
estate in Bengal, sent him thither with his disturbing wife. Here they
seem to have been very happy. But Jahangir did not forget, and the
fact that fourteen years afterwards, at least, one of the very first
acts of his reign was to send to Bengal, pick a quarrel with
Sher-Aikan (who appears to have acted as an honest and upright
gentleman by point-blank refusing to be bribed), and treacherously
killing him, carry off his wife, makes one pause to wonder whether
Jahangir's life might not have been a better one had his inclinations
towards this most masterful woman not been thwarted.
It is a curious story altogether, one which needs reading between the
lines. Not the least curious part of it being the fact that Jahangir,
passionately lustful as he must have been by the time when, as a man
of nigh forty, he gained actual possession of Nurjahan, used no force
towards her. He accepted her scornful rejection of her husband's
murderer, and after months spent in the endeavour to soothe and
conciliate her, accepted his defeat.
For six long years Nurjahan lived at the court as one of the
attendants of Jahangir's Rajput mother, refusing any pension from the
hand of the man who had killed Sher-Afkan, and supporting herself
entirely by her exquisite skill in embroidery and painting.
It is customary to say that ambition overcame her scruples; but the
seeing eye, reading between the lines, may find a womanly pity for the
man who in the prime of life had lost all control over himself, and
who sorely needed help. She was a clever, a fascinating woman; and no
woman could quite keep her head before such long constancy as his.
It needed little to bring him back. The story runs, that a single
visit to her rooms, where, dressed in the simple white which she
always wore after her widowhood, she received him gravely, kindly, was
They were married almost immediately, and from that time the woman
whom he had first seen as a little maiden beside the fountain was the
one over-mastering influence in his life.
Thus before we begin even on Jahangir's career we must concede to him
the grace of being a constant lover.
The six years which had passed since he had succeeded to his father
had been fairly peaceful ones.
He had found the whole of his vast empire tranquil. The Rana of
Oudipur, it is true, was still unvanquished; but the thorn of Chitore
had almost ceased to rankle from its sheer persistence. The Dekkan was
also disloyal; but there was no pressure of battle, no stress of
struggle anywhere, for Jahangir's eldest son, Khushrou (Fair Face),
had, after years of open enmity, subsided for the time into sullenness
But almost the very first act of Jahangir's administration was one
which, as it were, swept away the whole foundation of the empire which
Akbar had built up.
He restored the Mahomedan confession of faith to the coins of the
realm, thus giving the casting vote to a creed.
It was the first nail in the coffin of Unity.
For the rest, Jahangir evidently did his best for a while. He issued a
few edicts, notably one against drug-takers and dram-drinkers, he all
the while continuing his notorious habits.
Just before his marriage with Nurjahan, the Dekkan gave him serious
trouble. An Abyssinian slave called Malik-Amber rose to power and
swept all before him, compelling the Imperial troops to retire. But in
Bengal peace was restored, and after many successes Oudipur succumbed
to a final attack from Prince Khurram, Jahangir's second son, who
afterwards reigned as Shah-jahan. The emperor's delight on this
occasion was childlike. In a rather inefficient and unreal diary,
which he kept in imitation of his great-grandfather Babar, he records
how the very day after the arrival of some captured elephants from
Chitore, he sent for the largest of these and "went abroad mounted on
Alam-goman, to my great satisfaction, and distributed gold in great
But in all ways he appears to have been blatant, even in his good
humours. And these came to the front after his marriage. For Nurjahan
was skilful. She held him hard in leash; her ascendency was absolute.
It is usual, once more, to discount her influence by asserting its
root to have been ambition; but there is absolutely nothing to warrant
this assertion. It is true that she raised her own minions to office,
that her father held the post of prime minister; but he was wise and
just. Nor can there be any doubt that the whole administration
improved after Jahangir's marriage. As for his private character, he
became, for a time, quite a decent and respectable monarch. If he
drank, he drank at night in secret; his day duties were done with
Meanwhile, the report which a certain Mr Ralph Fitch had brought home
to a certain "island set in steely seas" was beginning to bear fruit,
and something more than hope of mere commerce filled the sails of the
innumerable fleets which, not from England alone, but from Holland
also, set forth to break through the monopoly of the shores of Ind
which Portugal was endeavouring to maintain. The Dutch succeeded
first, and their East India Company was formed in 1602. The first
Royal Charter given to an English Trading Company was in 1601, but it
was not until 1613 that a fleet of four joint-stock vessels, with Sir
Thomas Roe aboard, as accredited ambassador from James I to Jahangir's
court at Ajmir, sailed for India.
The journal of this voyage, written by Sir Thomas Roe himself, is
excellent reading, and gives us a quaint picture of life at the court
of the Great Moghul. Jahangir himself, dead-drunk as often as not,
with the figures of Christ and the Virgin Mary hanging to his
Mahomedan rosary. A spurious Christianity (deep-dyed by the monkish
legends which the Jesuit translators had coolly interpolated into the
version of the gospels which Akbar had ordered and paid for!),
hustling Hinduism and Islamism combined. Nurjahan, with trembling
lips, no doubt, at times, driving her despot gingerly what way he
should go, proud of her power, but weary, a-weary of heart. A
beautiful queen, beautifully dressed, clever beyond compare,
contriving and scheming, plotting, planning, shielding, and saving,
doing all things for the man hidden in the pampered, drink-sodden
carcase of the king; the man who, for her, at any rate, always had a
The inconceivable magnificence of it all, the courtesy, the
hospitality, the devil-may-care indifference to such trivialities as
English merchants or solid English presents! As Sir Thomas Roe writes
sadly to his Company:--
"But raretyes please as well, and if you were furnished yearly from
Francford, where are all knacks and new devices, L100 would go farther
than L500 layd out in England, and here better acceptable."
Thus the rivalry of "made in Germany" is no new thing to India. Sir
Thomas himself seems to have been a most excellent, God-fearing man,
who was both perplexed and distressed at the attitude of the heathen
towards his own faith.
"I found it impossible," he writes, "to convince them that the
Christian faith was designed for the whole world, and that theirs was
mere fable and gross superstition. There answer was amusing" (?)
"enough. 'We pretend not,' they replied, 'that our law is of universal
application. God intended it only for us. We do not even say that
yours is a false religion; it may be adapted to your wants and
circumstances, God having, no doubt, appointed many different ways of
going to Heaven.'"
Whether amusing or not, the argument was singularly unanswerable!
One of Sir Thomas Roe's most striking sketches is that of Prince
Khurram, who moved through the court, a young man of five-and-twenty,
cold, disdainful, showing no respect or distinction of persons;
"flattered by some, envied by others, loved by none." "I never saw,"
writes the ambassador, "so settled a countenance, or any man keep so
constant a gravity."
Sir Thomas Roe was not by any means the only Englishman at court.
Captain Hawkins had come thither nearly six years before, and
had--Heaven knows why!--been beguiled by the capricious king into
remaining, on the promise of a high salary. More than once he had
attempted to escape in various ways; but even his plea that he lived
in fear of poison was met by Jahangir with almost ludicrous firmness,
and the presentation of a "white mayden out of his palace, so that by
these means my meats and drinks should be looked into."
Poor Hawkins! His protest that he would take none but a Christian girl
was of no avail. An orphan Armenian was promptly found, and the
discomfited Captain could only write home:--
"I little thought a Christian's daughter could be found; but seeing
she was of so honest a descent, and having passed my word to the king,
could not withstand my fortunes. Wherefore I tooke her, and, for want
of a minister, before Christian witnesses I marryed her; the priest
being my man Nicolas; which I thought had been lawful, till I met with
a preacher that came with Sir Harry Middleton, and he, showing mee the
error, I was newly marryed againe."
An honest soul, apparently, this Captain Hawkins. Sir Harry Middleton
was hardly so virtuous, for, disappointed in his desire to establish a
factory at Surat, he started with his little fleet for piracy on the
High Seas, waylaying other people's golden galleons! But all round the
coast, nibbling, as it were, at India's coral strand, were strange
ships out of strange nations, seeking for a foothold, seeking for
merchandise, for money.
But of this the emperor took no notice; neither did his far more able
son, Prince Shahjahan. Backed by all Nurjahan's influence, he was fast
superseding his father in a dual administration, leaving the
latter free to amuse himself in Kashmir. But the death of
Ghiass, Nurjahan's father, about the year 1620, brought about
complications. His sound good sense, his justice, had so far kept
the impulsive womanhood of the empress inline with policy. Now she
suddenly betrothed her daughter by her first husband to Prince
Shariyar, the youngest of Jahangir's sons, and naturally threw over
the Knight-of-the-Rueful-Countenance, in whose inflexibility she saw
danger to her own power. For Jahangir was ill of asthma, and like to
Aided by her brother, she set to work instantly to sow dissension
between father and son, to such purpose that Shahjahan, till then the
undoubted heir-apparent, his father's fighting right hand, was forced
to take refuge in the Dekkan, which once more was in the act of
throwing off allegiance to the Moghul.
Having thus disposed, for the time being, of the inconvenient heir,
Nurjahan took her emperor to Kashmir, where, no doubt, he enjoyed
himself, for he returned thither the next year. He was, however,
living in a fool's paradise, while Nurjahan, bereft of her father's
shrewd eyes and Shahjahan's haughty insight, was but poor protection
for a debauched and drunken monarch.
So one dawning the crisis came. Mohabat Khan, whilom Governor of
Bengal, a worthy and excellent man, fell into disgrace with the
empress. His son-in-law, sent to beg forgiveness, was bastinadoed and
returned to him, face towards tail, on an ass.
So it came to pass that while the imperial camp, conveying the emperor
to a summer in Kabul, was marching northward, there followed behind it
a half-defiant, half-repentant chieftain, commanding some five
thousand stalwart Rajputs.
A word might have brought him to obedience once more; but the imperial
camp was large, and proud, and self-confident. So Mohabat bided his
time. There was a bridge of boats over the Jhelum River, nigh where
the bridge stands now, and after the usual custom, the imperial
troops, marching at nightfall, spent the dark hours in crossing and
preparing the new camp on the opposite bank.
Thus by dawn little was left but the scarlet-and-gold imperial tents,
wherein Majesty lay sleeping; a drunken sleep, it is to be feared.
This was Mohabat's opportunity. He swooped down, overpowered the
guards at the bridge, burnt some of the boats, cut others adrift, and
then awoke the confused monarch.
One can picture the scene. A protesting prince in pyjamas begging to
be allowed to dress in the women's tents, and so gain a few words with
his ever-ready counsellor. Mohabat wilily refusing; and so out into
the dawn, down by the river-bed, with the red flush paling to primrose
in the sky, and the wild geese calling from every patch of green
pulse, a disconsolate despot bereft of his guide.
The empress, however, discovering her loss, was nothing daunted. She
put on disguise; somehow--Heaven knows how!--managed to cross the
Jhelum, and finding her generals somewhat doubtful, somewhat chill,
upbraided them for allowing their rightful king to be stolen before
their very eyes. That night an attempt was made to rescue him by a
nobleman called Fedai-Khan, who swam the river at the head of a small
body of horse; but it failed, and half the party was drowned.
Next morning, Nurjahan, having succeeded in rousing the army to a
sense of its duty, herself headed a general attack. There was no
bridge; the only ford was a bad one, full of dangerous deep pools. But
the rashness of impulse was leader, and the woman was amongst the
first to land of a whole army, drenched, disordered, dispirited, with
powder damp, weighed down with wet clothes and accoutrements.
The result was a foregone conclusion. Nurjahan herself was as a fury.
Her elephant circled in by enemies, her guards cut down, balls and
arrows falling thick around her howdah, one of them actually hitting
her infant grand-daughter, Prince Shahriyar's child, who was seated in
her lap. A strange place, in truth, for a baby, unless it were put
there as a loyalist oriflamme. Then, her driver being killed, and
leviathan cut across the proboscis, the beast dashed into the river,
sank in deep water, plunged madly, sank again, and so, carried
down-stream, finally found shore; and the empress's women, looking to
find her half-drowned, half-dead with fear, discovered her busy in
binding up baby's wound.
Bravo, Nurjahan! One can forgive much for this one touch of
Of course she was beaten; whereupon she gave up force and instantly
went to join her husband in the guise of a dutiful wife. It was her
only chance of regaining him, and her empire over his enfeebled brain.
Already she was almost too late. Mohabat had been before with her, had
treated him with deference, with profound respect, had made him see
that she was the cause of all his troubles--which was hardly the case.
Anyhow, she was met point-blank with an order for her execution.
Even this did not daunt her courage. She only asked for permission to
kiss her lord's hand before death.
Grudgingly assent was given; it could not well be withheld. And one
sight of her was enough. Jahangir's heart had really been hers ever
since, as a boy, she had defied him in that matter of the doves.
Perhaps--who knows?--she may have stood before him--guilefully--in the
very attitude in which she had stood while Love flitted from the
listless hand of Fate; and all that Mohabat could do was to bow low
and say: "It is not for the Emperor of the Moghuls to ask in vain."
So Nurjahan was once more in her old place beside the drunkard, free
to begin again with her fine, feminine wiles. It did not take her long
to undermine Mohabat's influence. Within six months her intricate
intrigues bore fruit. Jahangir, whose person was so watched and
guarded that he was practically a prisoner, was spirited away by a
muster of Nurjahan's contingent in the middle of a review, and Mohabat
having thus lost his hostage was compelled to come to terms.
One of these being an extremely guileful one, namely, that the
ex-Governor of Bengal should turn his military capacity to the
crushing of Shahjahan, who was beginning to give trouble in the
This policy of the Kilkenny cats seemed to promise peace, and,
relieved of all anxiety, the emperor and empress set off for their
annual visit to Kashmir. But this time death lurked amid the purple
iris fields which they loved so well. The asthma from which Jahangir
had suffered for many years became alarming. What were the floating
gardens of the Dhal Lake, the Grove of Sweet Breezes, or the Festival
of Roses to a monarch who could not draw his breath? They tried to get
him back to the warmer climate of the plains, but he died almost ere
he left the valley, being carried dead into the tent on one of the
high uplands of the Himalaya.
So ended the reign, and with it, Nurjahan's. She made no effort to
enter public life again; she put on the white robes of widowhood, and
spent her days in prayer and charity, a sufficient answer to those who
charge her with personal ambition. As far as India is concerned,
Jahangir's was a neutral influence, except for that one first act of
his, that rehabilitation of the Mahomedan formula. Under this, the
whole of Akbar's dream of unity was dissolving into thin air. Yet the
danger which perhaps he had foreseen, against which he had, perhaps,
attempted to guard India, was becoming every day more dangerous.
The vultures--or, let us say, the eagles--were gathering over the
carcase. From Holland, from Portugal, from England, even from France,
came galleons, like birds of prey eager to carry off the riches of the
So for picturesque purposes we can think of this reign as of the
picture of a man, pampered, bloated, half-drunken, looking in the lazy
sunlight at the figure of a woman round whose head doves flutter
amongst the hawks.
Jahangir's famous drinking-cup, cut from a single ruby about 3 inches
long, after passing from hand to hand for many years down to the last
century, has finally and mysteriously disappeared.
In some ways it would be worth while once to drain the good wine of
Shiraz from the glowing red heart of that fatal cup which bears on it,
in fine gold characters, a single name.
They say it is "Jahangir"--Or is it "Nurjahan"?