A grieving emperor’s ode to love
Sprouting from the golden sands of Agra, there emerges a pristine white marble structure, its luminous surface shimmering under the sun like a burst of glowing energy. Sublime, surreal, sensuous, an ode to love: the Taj Mahal. On a full moon night, encircled in its own radiance, it sits like a pearl in the womb of an oyster, grand, glorious and serene.
An emperor in mourning, his back bent like an archer’s bow, his hair turned grey overnight, thousands of tears rolling down his eyes for his departed beloved. He built this magnificent structure, a tribute to a woman as brilliant as a shining star, as beautiful as a radiant pearl.
But who was the woman for whom Shah Jahan’s heart bled, for whom he made such a monumental offering? Shah Jahan is known for his many architectural gems, but none more than the Taj Mahal.
Read on for Mumtaz Mahal’s story, the lady who remains entombed in the Taj.
Agra, 1607 CE : The Annual Meena Bazaar
Many years ago, in the same imperial city of Agra, in the spring of c.1607, it it was a morning of great cheer. Finely embroidered tents were erected in the gardens of the royal palace. Flowers were blooming and birds were singing in the fragrant trees of pomegranate and orange. And the water- creating waterfalls as it drifted down the slope of the marble slabs or sprouting high up in a spray of joy from the mouths of many fountains- gushing through the water ways that divided the Charbagh gardens of the Mughal palace.
The occasion was the annual Meena Bazaar. Once in a year, the ladies of the palace, the Mughal princesses and the noble women would all join in the fun of a mock market place, setting up stalls to sell their goods to the men in the greater palace area. The Mughal princes, royalty, and noble men would all come to have a look at the variety of stalls, indulge in a playful banter with the shopkeepers, buy a few mementos and enjoy an afternoon of gaiety.
The stalls were decorated with buntings and banners of many colours.
Some were selling gleaming glass bangles, some rustic earthen ware pottery, some stalls were selling luscious silks and other fabrics, some were selling pigeons and green parrots and yet some were selling fresh flowers and garlands and some kohl and ittar fragrances.
A young Prince Khurram approaches Arjumand Banu Begum
There was one stall that was selling gems and pearls, the girl standing behind the counter was laughing and chatting with her friends and waiting to show her goods to prospective buyers. She was about 14 years old and very beautiful.
This girl was Arjumand Banu Begum, the daughter of Asif Khan, the grand wakil at the Emperor’s court. She was also the granddaughter of the Prime Minister of the Mughal Court.
The Mughal princes and noble men were apprehensive of approaching her stall : what if she takes offence at their interaction? Not many were brave enough to venture in that direction but one – the crown prince of the Mughal empire, Khurram.
Prince Khurram was Emperor Jahangir’s third son. His mother Queen Jagat Gosain, was a Rajput Princess of the state of Mewar in Rajasthan. Prince Khurram had already been declared the Crown Prince of the Empire. At the time of this Meena Bazaar, he was 15 years old.
Prince Khurram approached Arjumand Banu’s stall and inquired about a
large glass piece on display. Arjumand declared the glass piece to be a unique diamond. The crown prince expressed his desire to buy it, and further inquired about the price. Arjumand mockingly quoted an exorbitant amount for the worthless piece. But to everyone’s surprise, Prince Khurram bought the glass piece irrespective, paying the huge asking price and walked off from the stall with a resolution.
The legend goes – that very afternoon, Khurram went home to announce to his father that he wished to marry Asif Khan’s daughter.
Arjumand Banu Begum’s family: Connections to the Royal Court
Abul Hassan, Arjumand’s father, was given the title Asif Khan by Emperor Jahangir. Abul Hassan was a member of the Mughal court and served as the Wakil during Jahangir’s rule. His sister was Nur Jahan (one of the most powerful Queens of the Mughal era) and their father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg was the Grand Wazir (prime minister) of the Imperial court. Ghiyas Beg was even titled ‘Itimad Ud Dulah’ meaning ‘The Pillar of the State’.
Mirza Ghiyas Beg, the Grandfather
Mirza Ghiyas Beg and Asmat Begum, Arjumand Banu’s grandparents, were highly cultured people. Many years ago, they were associated with the royalty in Persia, but their fortunes dwindled and Ghiyas Beg lost the favours that were bestowed on him in by the Persian court. In 1577, destitute, without a job and without any future in his homeland, Ghiyas Beg with his family, decided to come to India and look for opportunities available in the Mughal Court. Mirza Ghiyas Beg was a capable man. He was introduced to the Emperor Akbar and impressed him. He served Akbar with rectitude and wisdom.
When Akbar’s son Jahangir ascended the throne, Mirza Ghiyas Beg was retained in the court. When Ghiyas Beg rose to become the Grand Wazir, the position of the family was consolidated in the imperial court.
With the young crown prince’s announcement of his decision to marry Arjumand Banu, the links of Ghiyas Beg’s family with the Mughal court would stay intact for generations to come.
Prince Khurram’s engagement to Arjumand Banu
Prince Khurram and Arjumand Banu Begum were engaged in 1607 to be
married on that special day when the stars in the universe aligned in the
most propitious manner, the day that the astrologers had predicted would
only come after five years.
In the meantime, Prince Khurram went on to marry other princesses – but only for political alliances.
The Most Awaited Wedding
In 1612 Arjumand Banu Begum (her paternal aunt Nur Jahan was the Empress by now) married Prince Khurram in a grand royal ceremony. The jubilation for this royal wedding lasted for a month.
Arjumand Banu was soon awarded the title of Mumtaz Mahal by her father-in-law, the Emperor Jahangir.
Mumtaz Mahal’s influence in the Mughal household
The Mughals were known to be highly sophisticated; Education and knowledge were paramount for men and women. Mughal men and women were initiated in arts and learning from early years of life. The women were held in high esteem in the Mughal households. Not only were women active players in resolving family disputes, they were considered king-makers. They were also part of decision making in the administration and strategic planning for the Empire. Mumtaz Mahal was no different.
As an administrator and political leader
When Khurram became the Emperor Shah Jahan, he gave Mumtaz his seal (just like his father had given his royal seal – an emblem of authority, to NurJahan), to be used for issuing royal decrees.
It is said that Arjumand Banu was deeply involved in the state affairs ; apart from that, she was the emperor’s confidante and he took her advice in strategically planning the many wars that he fought in the years that they were married.
Mumtaz Mahal : her cultural and social life
Many a miniature paintings depict royal women, dressed in diaphanous silks, adorned in beautiful gold jewellery studded with deep red rubies, sparkling green emeralds, diamonds shining like stars in the sky, white creamy pearls forming long strings around their necks; these beautiful Mughal women, with their elaborately kohled eyes like that of a peacock’s, are often pictured smoking huqqas through long spiralling pipes and being entertained by musicians, as the maids as beautifully attired stand fanning their mistresses.
Like so many of the Mughal women, Mumtaz Mahal was an accomplished poet and accomplished archer. She enjoyed watching elephant fights with her husband. She must have been well read in the sciences and literature in classical languages; indulging in calligraphy and painting while sitting atop a marble pavilion by the River Jumna.
Women in Mughal harams were builders and architects. They took a keen interest in developing the cities they lived in and left behind numerous monuments to their names. One such garden built in Agra by Mumtaz Mahal has survived the tests of time.
An Untimely Death
In a howdah on an elephant or being carried in a palki, Mumtaz Mahal who bore 14 children in nineteen years of her marriage, never hesitated to go along her husband on treacherous war campaigns even when in family way. It was on one such campaign when Emperor Shahjhahan was going to Burhanpur once again, Mumtaz also accompanied him. Burhanpur was a volatile region. The Emperor had set court in the Badshahi Qila for a long period before because of the threat the Empire faced on its borders with the Qutub Shahi Kingdom of the Deccan.
Burhanpur, where once before Mumtaz had given birth to a child.
Once again, Mumtaz Mahal gave birth to another child in this city. This time, to her last child, Gauhar Begum.
In the spring of Burhanpur when the flowers were blooming and the birds were singing, and the fragrance of the blossoms of the orange and pomegranate trees glided through the arches of her royal apartments; Mumtaz Mahal died in child birth on the 17th of April 1631.
The construction of the mausoleum
The grief of the emperor had no bounds. She was interred in the walled garden Zainabad built by Shahjahan’s uncle Prince Daniyal in Burhanpur. After six months, the body of Arjumand Banu Begum, Mumtaz Mahal for posterity, was shifted to Agra, the same city on River Jamuna where Mumtaz Mahal was born in the spring of 1593 on the 27th April amid chirping birds in the orchards and fragrant flowers of the Mughal gardens.
This was the city now, where the emperor had planned to build the most palatial mausoleum for his beloved. The most ideal spot for the construction of such an elaborate structure was a point in the river where it had a natural node. Raja Jai Singh of Amber already had a haveli at that point on the river Jamuna. The emperor bought the land from the Raja, and built a tribute so resplendent, so magnificent, so grand that it became a metaphor for love for centuries to come.
For Women’s History Month, the Heritage Lab in collaboration with Jaypore and Aleph Books celebrates women at the Mughal court. Despite being highly educated and powerful, the contributions of #TheseMughalWomen remain under-represented in history. As part of this campaign, we invite readers, researchers, bloggers to share their encounters with #TheseMughalWomen.
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Ambrin Hayat is a social worker. She writes on history. She is a commentator on social and political issues and builds bridges between communities. She tweets @ambrin_hayat