Jahanara Begum

Jahanara Begum


Jahanara Begum (1614-1681)

Khurram and Arjumand

In 1614, a daughter was born to a most romantic couple, Khurram, prince of the Moghul Empire, and his wife, Arjumand Banu Begum, the neice of the Moghul Empress, Mehrunnisa, known as Nur Jahan. The girl was a small dissapointment to the Moghul people as she would never be able to succeed to the throne, yet, Khurram and his wife adored their baby girl, and one day she would become the most powerful woman in all of India.

Khurram was born on January 5, 1592 to the Emperor Jahangir and one of his concubines. His family was a hostile one, constantly competing for the throne of the richest kingdom in the world that their father ruled. Before Khurram was coronated as the ruler of the Moghul Empire, he had seen the deaths of his brothers Prince Khusrau, whom Khurram himself had killed because of Khusrau's attempt to unseat Jahangir from the throne, and Prince Shariyar, who was killed under the orders of Khurram's father-in-law, Arjumand's father, Asaf Khan. Arjumand Banu was born in 1598 (some put it at 1593) to Asaf Khan, the wazir to Jahangir, and one of his wives. She most likely grew up in a suitable environment, perhaps even the harems at the palaces, as her aunt was the Empress.

Khurram first met his future wife at a court festival known as the Nine Days' Bazaar. At this nine day festival, the women of the harem may come out of seclusion and mingle with average people (heavily veiled of course). What is unique is that there was a sort of mock bazaar set up. The harem women ran the stalls at the bazaar, selling things such as turbans and chadors and instruments. Khurram met Arjumand at one of these stalls. The Empress Nur Jahan herself was helping the young Arjumand run her little shop and urged her neice to speak to the prince. The two fell in love immediately, and on May 10, 1612, when Arjumand was 14 and Khurram 20, the couple was married, making Arjumand his third wife. His two other wives included a Hindu woman and a haughty concubine. Later on he would marry a Christian concubine from Armenia. But everyone knew that Arjumand was his true love.

Arjumand and Khurram celebrated their first child with Huralnissa, a girl born on March 30, 1613. She died when she was only 3, on June 14, 1616. A year after Huralnissa was born, and two years before she died, the couple celebrated their second child, Jahanara, born on April 2, 1614. Following Jahanara came the beloved first boy, Dara, born on March 30, 1615. Next came Shuja, another son, born on July 3, 1616, then another girl, Raushanara, born Spetember 3, 1617, then a boy, Aurangzeb, born November 3, 1618. Afterwards there followed numerous miscarriages by Arjumand.

In 1620, Emperor Jahangir fell seriously ill. Nur Jahan, hoping to seal the family quest for power, married her daughter to one of Jahangir's sons by another queen, Shahryar. She wished for the couple to produce an heir to the throne if Jahangir died, which seemed very likely. Jahangir had always feared the Persians to the west, as the Persians feared the Moghuls to the east. With the present disputes in the Moghul courts, the Persians decided to take advantage and captured Qandahar, a Moghul possesion. When the dying Jahangir and Shahryar raised a rebellion against the Persians, Khurram openly denied them his assistance. A family rebellion exploded and he led his armies against his powerful father and Shahryar. However, he was defeated. Instead of being executed or being held for other treasonous acts, Nur Jahan dictated her orders that Khurram should relocate his family. And that Dara and Aurangzeb should be handed over as hostages.

Princess of Princesses

Jahanara grew up among splendor in the middle of nowhere. She and her family lived in huge tents, ate and drank from plates and goblets of gold, and wore the most expensive chadors and kameez. The family had relocated to the Nizamshahi Territory in the Deccan, a wasteland and breeding ground for rebels, traitors, and criminals. However, on October 28, 1627, Emperor Jahangir died. Khurram took advantage of this opportunity and he and his family and their enormous entourage made their way to the royal compunds in Rajasthan, Fatehpur Sikri. A legend goes that Khurram faked his own death by drinking goat's blood and spitting it up very graphically to not attract attention and fear by other competitors to the throne. Only his closest accomplices, including Arjumand, knew he still lived. Jahanara had to live in despair for a few days thinking that the father she loved was dead. However, when the entourage reached Rajasthan, Khurram lifted himself out of his prye and became the Emperor of the Moghul Empire. He ordered all other competitors to the throne, including Shahryar, executed, had Nur Jahan brought to his palace to live under his surveillance as she was a powerful and ruthless woman, and set about to restore the royal compounds. He became Shah Jahan, "king of the world", Arjumand became Mumtaz Mahal, which can be roughly translated as "crown beauty of the palace", and Jahanara inherited the prestigous title of Begum Sahib, Princess of Princesses. Hence she became one of the most powerful women at court at the age of 14.

Shah Jahan set about to first restore Fatehpur Sikri. He re-did the entire harem apartments, which in itself was its own palace. Jahanara's rooms can still be seen today, though not in the splendor they were fitted to at the time. Rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds were scattered across the walls of her apartments, creating flowers designs. Various jewels were set into the floors and even into her large swimming pool. Niches were carved, setting candles across her rooms. Her rooms would have truly been a wonder, with candlelight shimmering among the rubies and diamonds and emeralds and sapphires, shimmering on the cool pool waters, and across the vast marble and jeweled floors.

Jahanara spent her days in the royal harem, the most protected and secluded places in the land. She spent her nights with her father and mother, painting, writing poems, and helping her father plan reconstructions of other palaces and monuments. Jahanara truly was a gifted young woman. She was known to her closest family simply as 'Janni'. She spent her days with all the women of the court, from the lowest concubines to her step-mothers. She had a very good relationship with her brother Dara, who shared her love of the arts, but was hostile towards Raushanara and Aurangzeb, both said to be in league with each other and very devious and disrespectful towards their mother, their father, and even other minorities in the harem, such as the Hindu wife and Christian wife of Jahan. Of course the children were schooled, Jahanara included. The were taught by many tutors, including Mumtaz's secretary, Sati-un Nissa, nicknamed Sati. Many lessons were based on the Koran, which captivated Aurangzeb and led him into even more small mindedness towards other minorities and peoples and ideas.

Jahanara spent her teenage years travelling all over the empire, visiting her father's many splendors with the court. The family visited the beautiful palace at Srinagar in Kashmir, where the harem often went for picnics on Silver Island on Lake Dal. And they also toured Jahan's masterpiece, the Red Fort, an ostentatious palace that rivaled any palace they had ever seen. The Nine Days Bazaar, which had simply died in Jahangir's later reign, even made a come back in Jahan's reign, which Jahanara took a part in.

However, tragedy struck the family in 1631. While giving birth to her 14th child, Mumtaz died on June 17. The child lived, the later Gauhara Begum. With the death of the empress, Jahanara became the uncrowned woman figure head next to her father. She took on many responsibilites, including all the responsibilities of operating the harem, from food to clothes to tutoring.

Empress of Princesses

Jahanara planned weddings alike. She saw to Dara's betrothal to a begum, Nadira Banu, and planned out the wedding. While attending a garden party in 1644, Jahanara's heavily perfumed kameez, trousers, and pairhan, robes, caught fire. She became seriously sick and Jahan himself nursed his beloved daughter back to health, which took many weeks.

After almost 30 years as the lead woman in the empire, Jahanara took on another duty: to tend to her dying father. When Jahan fell ill, his four sons (Dara, Aurangzeb, Shuja, and Murad) broke into wars against one another to succeed their father. Aurangzeb triumphed. He had Dara and Murad executed and Shuja fled. It is unclear how or where he died. Although Jahan was still living, Auranzgeb declared himself the Emperor and had his father locked up in his palaces in Agra. Jahanara lived with her father for the rest of his life.

While in captivity, Jahan had to watch in seclusion as his most famous masterpiece rose into the sky. The Taj Mahal. It was begun in 1631, and not finished until 1648. Jahanara herself had even helped in its designing. The building was to serve as a tomb for Mumtaz, and later on for Jahan, so they would be with each other eternally. Legend says that Jahan had intended to build a black version of the Taj Mahal on the opposite side of the river that the Taj Mahal sat upon. And it is also said that Jahan had the hands of the carpenters who built the Taj Mahal removed so they would never build a monument like it or greater than it ever again (Ivan the Terrible of Russia is rumored to have done the same when building the Kremlin and the St. Basil's Cathedral).

Shah Jahan died on October 22, 1666, at the age of 74, Jahanara at his side. He had left behind many masterpieces. The Taj Mahal is the most famous yet he also built the grand palaces at Agra, the Red Fort, restored Fatehpur Sikri, and had commisoned the ostentatious peacock throne, a large throne with a covering supported by four poles at each corner of the square, made entirely of countless jewels including diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, etc. In his reign he led a few war campaigns and had put the Deccan territory to some rest. He even succeeded in restoring Qandahar back to the empire.

Jahanara returned to court lfie after her father's death, despite that the court now belonged to the new emperor, her hated brother Aurangzeb, a despotic bigot and chauvinist. In Aurangzeb's reign he had numerous luxuries banned. The Nine Days Bazaar was gone. Harem women were even more secluded and Christians, Hindus, or any other non-Muslims were tortured and spit upon.

Jahanara was allowed certain licenses. She became the Padishah Begum "Empress of Princesses" under Aurangzeb's orders. With this title, Jahanara was permitted to disobey Aurangzeb's laws and criticize him. Doing so she wore the clothes women were no longer allowed to wear, such as kameez, and embraced Hindus and Christians as her brother, Dara, had.

Jahanara's final years are mysterious. She did leave the royal palaces and lived in her father's city of Delhi for the rest of her life and commisioned numerous structures, including the Chandni Chowk, a large and ornate marketplace. Jahanara composed many poems, painted, and honored her father and mothers' love of the arts. In a away she continued what her father had started. Raushanara was still living with Aurangzeb at the time. Being the jealous type, she asked Aurangzeb if she could be permitted the freedoms Jahanara had. Aurangzeb responding by saying no, that he needed his sister to care for his children (Aurangzeb had married 5 wives and fathered 4 daughters and 6 sons). Jahanara never married, and knew she never would all her life, as it was forbiden for Moghul princesses to wed. Jahanara is rumored to have asked her father to lift this law, but it never happened. And the ruthless Aurangzeb would certainly never let the law be sanctioned, even if Jahanara was the Empress of Princesses.

Jahanara died on Setpember 6, 1681, at the age of 67. She did nt have many personal possessions but the ones she did have, mostly clothes and jewels, were left to her neice, Dara's daughter, Jani Begum.

Aurangzeb ruled for another 26 years. He is remembered today mostly for his inhumanity and bigot ways, yet he did strengthen the empire in many ways, at the price of others.

Jahanara is a revered Indian icon today. A woman who had numerous powers in a time when royal women were secluded and not allowed many liberties. She was an engineer, a writer, a painter, and an activist.


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