Lal (South Asian History/Emory Univ.; Coming of Age in Nineteenth-Century India: The Girl-Child and the Art of Playfulness, 2013, etc.) shines a light on Nur Jahan (1577-1645), who ruled as co-sovereign in the Mughal court, taking her husband’s place without actually usurping him.
Before she ascended, her husband, Jahangir, had fallen victim to overindulgence in drink and opium, and she slowly assumed duties with his full support. Jahangir was mercurial, ill-tempered, but he loved the signs of royal power. His traveling procession consisted of hundreds of tents draped in velvet and brocade, an audience hall of more than 70 rooms with 1,000 carpets, a harem, and stables. He inherited none of his father’s empire-building drive, but he was a patron of the arts, hunter, naturalist, mystic, and book lover. He loved statistics and traveled mainly to make measurements of flora and fauna and catalog the characteristics of his country. He saw his wife as highly intelligent, talented, and politically savvy, which was due in large part to an aristocratic upbringing in her Persian parents’ household. Rather than serving as a quiet counselor and smoothing relations between the emperor and his sons, Nur took direct action. She was an accomplished adviser, hunter, diplomat, and aesthete. She designed her parents’ tomb in Agra, anticipating the Taj Mahal, which was built by her stepson, Shah Jahan. Agra was also home to her designs for her and Jahangir’s tombs and her famous Light Scattering Garden. The author’s descriptions of Agra are superb, and her detailed explanations of Nur’s upbringing reflect her long study, deep understanding, and modern take on a little-explored subject. When the emperor was kidnapped by his son’s ally, it was Nur who led an army to attempt his rescue. She must be held as one of history’s great independent, powerful women.
A page-turning, eye-opening biography that shatters our impressions of India as established by the British Raj.