How a Mughal Empress Broke the Glass Ceiling Five Centuries Ago

Biographies of women, particularly historical Indian figures, are so rare that one cannot – and must not – overlook their publication and significance. Not only is history written by the victor, it is also written by male victors, and women are more often than not considered unimportant, uninteresting players in the sagas of time. Unless they had played key roles in the shaping or undoing of a king or some other male public figure, their contribution to Indian history is limited to a few paragraphs in the history books or simply ignored.

And so it was with a sense of excited anticipation that I set out to read Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, by well-known feminist historian Ruby Lal, who has authored two more books on Indian history from the female perspective, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, and Coming of Age in Nineteenth Century India: The Girl-Child and the Art of Playfulness.

As the author says in the introduction, Nur Jahan’s is a household name in South Asia, and has been the subject of at least eight movies, several plays, an opera and numerous historical romances in Hindu, Urdu, Punjabi, English and other languages of the subcontinent. Tour guides and custodians of Mughal tombs extol her legendary feats.

And yet, without a proper contextualizing of her achievements and remarkable reign as Empress of Hindustan, one cannot appreciate the personal courage and boldness it must have taken for a Mughal woman to achieve what she did.

The book narrates the life and times of Nur Jahan beginning from the circumstances of her birth, about which multiple theories and perspectives exist. Lal presents them all in a neutral way, leaving the reader to decide which one may be closest to the truth. It is a technique she uses in the telling of several events in Nur Jahan’s life for which multiple historical narrations exist.

It is befuddling at times to see how different some of these stories were from one another, especially since her estranged stepson Shah Jahan had many of them deleted or modified after he came to the throne. These varied narratives are also telling of the position of women in society at the time: even an Empress was not allowed an objective, holistic mention in the annals of royal history.

Nur Jahan was a woman who would be extraordinary even today – she was a widow with a child when she married Emperor Jahangir; she killed tigers with a shotgun; she led a battle on the back of an elephant to rescue her king; she had coins minted in her name, the only Mughal empress to do so; she issued imperial orders; and she so completely won the love and devotion of her husband that he practically turned over all matters of governance to her able hands.

She rose above gender bias, social constraints and palace politics, and left a lasting architectural and feminist legacy for India. In chronicling her life, Lal has shown both academic maturity that testifies to the thoroughness of her research, and a certain muted admiration that keeps you turning the pages. A tale as awe-inspiring as Nur Jahan’s could not have had a better storyteller.

First published in the October 2018 issue of eShe magazine

Syndicated to CNBCTV18