Nur Jahan, 1577-1645; Smell the Roses

I once asked an editor of a history magazine what sort of stuff he didn’t get enough of, and the answer was unequivocal – India.  It does seem curious that a country as ancient and as rich in history and characters should be so roundly ignored in the west.  By characters, I mean women such as Nur Jahan.

Nur Jahan was the twentieth wife of the Mogul Emperor Jahangir.  She must have been something to see.  Like Josephine, she was the widow of a soldier (a rebel against Jahangir, as it happened) and already had a daughter by that man when Jahangir first saw her (1611).  They were married within two months. 

Perhaps things might have been different had she entered the women’s quarters as a younger girl, but as an experienced woman who had seen what a bit of bad luck could do to a family, she took a broader view of what the world had to offer.  Then too, she was a woman of rare accomplishment.  Her talents ranged from clothing design to perfumery to tiger hunting (six tigers with four shots – better than I could do).

As her husband, not the most robust of men, turned in later years to drink and opium, she turned to wielding power.  The arrangement seems to have suited them both.  To maintain appearances, various official beards were designated to carry out her decisions.  And, in the best middle eastern tradition (she was by lineage Persian), she took a share in various business enterprises in return for employing these men.  She took a care for women in need of help. Arts and culture flourished.  Life was good.

Her husband Jahangir, however, could not live forever and she could not rule without him.

The problem was that Mughal rulers, like the Ottomans, did not decide succession by primogeniture.  It was pretty much may the best son win.  With multiple wives, this could create a crowded field, and though the ruling monarch theoretically had a wider field to choose from, in practice the winner take all set up made for some anxiety among the contestants.  Even the least ambitious had to be aware that losers were under threat of execution.

The political maneuvering occurred during a time of war with Persia, in which Prince Khurrum (son by another mother) was commanding a large army. Nur Jahan had ordered him to relieve the city of Kandahar; he, concerned about his place in the political structure, refused.  Kandahar fell to the Persians. No surprise that there was a strain in their relations.

Nur Jahan had no sons, but she did have a daughter from her prior marriage.  It was Nur Jahan’s idea that the daughter should marry Shah Jahan’s youngest brother Shahzada Shahryar (1606-1628) and take the throne once it became free.  Which is exactly what happened when Jahangir died.  Nur Jahan asked for some of Khurrum’s nicer real estate, and she got it.

Khurrum, incensed, led a revolt, counting among his allies Nur Jahans own brother.   He succeeded. A tougher man than Shahzada, he had his step brothers executed just to be on the safe side. He did, however, spare the life of Nur Jahan (she was, after all, the aunt of Mumtaz Mahal, Khurrum’s well beloved consort and inspiration for the Taj Mahal).   You win some, you lose some.

Politicians generally leave small legacies to history.  It’s the artists and inventors and discoverers who really change the world.  And Nur Jahan was no slouch in this area either. Besides gardens in Lahore, she is associated with the discovery/invention of attar of rose.

Rose of attar is the basis for an entire world of perfume. The story goes that Nur Jahan’s mother, the 16th century perfumer Asmat Begam, noted a layer of scum accreted on the surfaces of jugs when hot rose water passed over it.   Curious, she gathered this stuff and realized that rubbing a bit of it on her hands was far more effective than mere rosewater.  For her services to Moghul perfume, she was presented with a string of pearls.

It sounds about right, but since all anecdotes are improved  by attaching them to someone more famous, this story, suitably modified, went to Asmat Begam’s daughter, Nur Jahan.

In this version, Nur Jahan had a spat with her husband and once passions had cooled down a bit, she decided to throw a party as a make up gesture. To this end she ordered several large vats of rosewater prepared and woe betide anyone who tampered with them.  In the heat of the day, she nodded off. The sun broke down the roses’ essential oils and when she awoke, she saw a layer of film on the surface. She assumed someone had thrown fat in the tanks until she tested the stuff.  Immediately she rubbed the scum all over her clothing and ran off to tell her husband about this wonderful discovery, and we can hope, found better things to do than throwing a mere party.

Or so they say.  In any event, Nur Jahan was exiled to a quiet retirement at Lahore, surrounded by gardens and free to pursue her mother’s passion of making perfume – easier than hunting tigers, if nothing else.

More on this fascinating woman can be found in:

Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India

Royal Mughal Ladies

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