May 31 marks Nur Jahan’s 436th birth anniversary. Aroon Raman explains why the queen was really the king.
In the fascinating mosaic that is the history of India, the Mughal period sits like an exquisite miniature of a mere two centuries in a continuum that spans 4000 years. It is also fairly well-documented ; in the chronicles, the main players and colourful personalities come to life in unusual, even surreal events that lend to this age a quality of high drama.
In 1626, the reign of the fourth Mughal Emperor Jahangir was at its apogee. Yet Jahangir was king only in name; real power was wielded by his Shah Begum, the Empress Nur Jahan (Light of the World), one of the most enigmatic and interesting women in Indian history. Conventional accounts paint her as a schemer who took advantage of her husband’s addiction to intoxicants to seize and hold power. She was indeed a consummate manipulator of people, and she did this with such effortless ease that “power flowed towards her as water down a slope.”
But later evidence has revealed other facets of this altogether exceptional empress: her genius for administration, her exquisite aesthetic sensibilities, and her benevolence toward the poor and downtrodden, especially women. Alexander Dow, a perceptive observer of the Mughal court, said of her: “The power (of women), it is true, is sometimes exerted in the harem; but, like the virtues of a magnet, it is silent and unperceived. Nur Jahan stood forth in public; she broke through all restraints and custom, and acquired power by her own address, more than by the weakness of Jahangir.”
Zamana Beg was a Kabuli whose family had migrated to India and entered the service of Akbar. From very early on he was attached to the personal staff of Prince Salim, Akbar’s eldest son. As the struggle to succeed Akbar began in earnest, Beg proved his worth as forthright and completely devoted to his master. A contemporary portrait shows him to be powerfully built, in keeping with his reputation as a brilliant military commander who won the loyalty of his men by treating them “with firmness yet forbearance”.
When Salim ascended the throne as the Emperor Jahangir in 1605, he promoted Zamana Beg to Bakshi or master of his private establishment, with the title Mahabat Khan. From then on, Mahabat became indispensable to the emperor, handling all of Jahangir’s work, causing the emperor to often refer to him as a “pillar of the state.”
Early into his reign, Jahangir began to detach himself from state affairs, devoting himself to aesthetic pursuits — and increasingly, to wine and opium. Nur Jahan moved swiftly to fill this vacuum. Over the next two years, Mahabat watched Nur Jahan’s sway over her husband with increasing trepidation. Using his privileged access to Jahangir, he pleaded with him to reverse this course of action where “such a wise and sensible emperor … should permit a woman to have so great an influence over him.” Unsurprisingly, Nur Jahan on her part began to see Mahabat as a threat to her hold on power and the struggle between the two on the chessboard of the empire began in right earnest.
By early 1626, Mahabat’s standard was flying high. He had led Jahangir’s army to a crushing victory in the Deccan against the rebellious Prince Khurram.
In a series of moves calculated to bring Mahabat to his knees, Nur Jahan and her brother Asaf Khan worked upon the king to convince him that Mahabat was out to undermine Jahangir by advancing his own cause. Obtaining Jahangir’s permission when he was in a wine-induced torpor, Nur Jahan issued a firman in her own name replacing Mahabat with another officer. Adding insult to injury, Mahabat (who was famous for his honesty) was asked to account for the spoils seized during the campaign against Khurram.
Though mortified at this snub to his years of loyal service, Mahabat did not immediately rise to the bait. He wrote to the emperor seeking permission to redeem his honour in person. He gathered a force of around 5000 crack troops and set out for the imperial camp. Jahangir was then camped by the Jhelum. Again, Nur Jahan had instructions sent to Mahabat that he must approach the camp alone. Though stung, Mahabat decided to comply and sent his son-in-law ahead as a gesture of good faith.
In her bid to destroy Mahabat, Nur Jahan now overreached herself. She had Jahangir arrest the son-in-law and confiscate his property. This brutal treatment tipped Mahabat Khan into open rebellion. In an added blunder, Asaf Khan had crossed to the other side of the Jhelum with imperial troops and treasury. Mahabat seized these, posted guards at the crossing bridge and then charged into Jahangir’s camp and made him a virtual prisoner. Nur Jahan barely managed to escape.
A battle ensued. With remnants of her force, Nur Jahan was the first to ford the river and into the fight. In a flanking action, she sent in a small guerrilla force to rescue Jahangir while Mahabat was diverted in combat, a move that almost worked.
Nur Jahan was no match for Mahabat and was soon forced to surrender. The crown was now firmly in Mahabat’s control. Thus began a three-month interregnum in Mughal history: the ‘100-day reign’ of Mahabat Khan.
By May 1626, the royals were seemingly resigned to their fate. But this was a cloak, designed to “draw the veil of ignorance over the eyes of Mahabat Khan”. Nur Jahan was biding her time, reading Mahabat’s moods, watching him as a leopard its prey. For Mahabat was deeply ambivalent at keeping his long-time master prisoner. Mahabat had even allowed Jahangir to retain some Ahadi troops as his personal guard. Nur Jahan tested the waters first by instigating the Ahadis to pick a fight with Mahabat’s Rajputs. In the ensuing fracas, Mahabat lost some of his best leaders, but exactly as she had anticipated, he could not bring himself to retaliate against the royal family.
Under his queen’s tutelage, Jahangir took up the part of becoming Mahabat’s informer within the imperial camp. He pretended to relay Nur Jahan’s schemings to Mahabat, lulling him into relaxing his guard around the royals.
Using this reduced surveillance to full effect, Nur Jahan used her personal eunuch to secretly mobilise a strong force of Sayyid cavalry to the rear of the entourage. As they approached the Jhelum, Jahangir sent an abrupt message to Mahabat, informing him that an imperial force now awaited them at the rear, and strongly advising him to move forward “so that the two parties would not clash”.
Mahabat — the encounter with the Ahadis fresh in his mind, and as ambivalent as ever towards Jahangir — complied and went forward.
And so it was that Jahangir was soon received by his full court and troops and “so regained his liberty on the very banks of the river where he had lost it a few months before.” From now on Mahabat Khan would be a fugitive, done in by his own self-doubt and a woman’s cleverness.