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

glistening spray,

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

fluttering doves.

'Hold my birds, child!' cries the stripling, 'I am tired of

their play',

Thrusts them in her hands, unwilling, careless saunters on

his way.

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

footsteps stray.

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.

And then?

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

and dejection.

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"?