When we speak of Mughal women in the context of Jahangir, Nur Jahan is the first one who comes to mind. However, she was only one (and the last) of his many wives. In those times, marriages not only meant getting a life partner, but also a political and diplomatic ally. Rajput Princess Man Bai (Shah Begum) was one such lady who entered the Mughal court through this route. Her short but tragic life does not find much mention in historical records (it was so difficult to find an image of her!). But she continues to live via her tomb (ironic, we know) – which is the only surviving memory of this Mughal Queen. Read on for her story!
Shah Begum’s Tomb at Khusrau Bagh
When you enter Khusrau Bagh in Allahabad (now, Prayagraj), a feeling of peace overcomes you. But this complex has been witness to a bloody history. In the center of the complex, is the Tomb of Shah Begum.
It is said, that Jahangir, deeply disturbed at the death of his wife, Shah Begum, decided to commission a tomb for her. He entrusted the work to Aqa Reza – a noted artist of the Allahabad court. The west-entrance to the Walled garden has an enormous Chunar-Sandstone gate, with an inscription that reads:
this lofty edifice was completed by Aqa Reza, the painter, a devoted official of the Emperor ; 1606-7.Architecture of Mughal India by Catherine Asher
The tomb is a three-storied structure with a ‘Chattri’ on top – perhaps indicative of her Hindu birth. It is made entirely of sandstone. You can also spot a marble cenotaph (typical of Islamic tombs) with inscriptions on the top floor; though the actual grave is at the ground level. The inscriptions on the marble cenotaph are attributed to the Court Calligrapher, Mir Abdullah Mushkin Qalam and describe her qualities .
Experts have often compared her tomb to the Panch Mahal at Fatehpur Sikri and it is said to have influenced the design of Akbar’s Tomb at Sikandra.
The Khusrau Bagh
The complex came to be known as Khusrau Bagh after Prince Khusrau, son of Shah Begum, was also buried here. In addition, it is also where her daughter, Nithar Begum is buried. Historians suggest that the Khusrau Bagh funerary complex marks an important transition in Mughal architecture. This is because for the first time, gardens started becoming associated with funerary structure. The fullest expression of this trend came to be seen during Shah Jahan’s time, with the construction of the Taj for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, along with the enormous gardens surrounding the monument.
Fun fact– During the Revolt of 1857, Khusrau Bagh was the headquarters of the dissenting sepoys under Maulvi Liaquat Ali. As soon as the rebellion was quelled, the British regained controlled of the area.
From Man Bai to Shah Begum
Man Bai, later known as Shah Begum, was the daughter of Raja Bhagwan Das of Amber. According to some references, she was the niece of Mariam-uz-Zamani, Akbar’s wife and Jahangir’s mother. Thus, she was Jahangir’s cousin and later became his wife. They got married when Jahangir was at the age of fifteen.
The Rajput-Mughal Alliance
It was said that Jahangir and Man Bai’s wedding was magnificent and lavish. An indication of this is the rich dowry bestowed upon Bhagwan Das, which included hundreds of elephants, horses, jewels, numerous and diverse golden vessels set with precious stones, utensils of gold and silver. The wedding was performed by Muslim Qazis along with a few Hindu ceremonies. Akbar himself, accompanied by his nobles, went to the Raja’s palace to celebrate the wedding.
Man Bai was give the title of Shah Begum after her marriage to Jahangir though some references state that the title was given after the birth of the son, Khusrau, in 1587. The couple’s first was a daughter, Sultan-un-Nissa Begum.
In his autobiography, Jahangir has written much about Shah Begum. From his writings we learn that she was considered a beautiful and graceful lady, though temperamental. This, he attributed to a family history of depression.
This would frequently get inflamed by her husband’s polygamous activities. He also said that she was ambitious to be on the top of the Harem and became violent if her wishes were opposed.
Shah Begum: Caught between the ambitions of father and son
A growing rift between son, Khusrau, and husband, Jahangir, put Shah Begum in an unfortunate and compromising position. The cause of their dispute was a shared ambition for the throne. Jahangir was technically next in line to the throne but Khusrau challenged his father by putting forward his own claim.
Shah Begum was loyal to Jahangir and did not tolerate her son’s growing insubordination. Such was her attitude-
What shall I write of her excellences and goodness ? She had perfect intelligence, and her devotion to me was such that she would have sacrificed a thousand sons and brothers for one hair of mineJahangir writes of Shah Begum in his memoirs
True to her character, Shah Begum kept advising Khusrau to be loyal to his father. The fact that her own son had taken the help of her brothers to pose a threat to her husband became too much for her to handle. The public scandal brought her great shame.
Shah Begum died of opium overdose in 1604. Many believe her death was actually a suicide. There are two versions about her death/suicide; one suggests that Shah Begum, torn between her love and affection for her husband ( Jahangir) and for her son (Khusrau) took an overdose of opium, unable to handle the pressure; the other version suggests that she couldn’t overcome her son’s indifference and insolence towards her and Jahangir which propelled her towards an untimely death.
Khusrau went on to rebel against his father. Even though it seems that he was also Akbar’s preferred heir, when his forces came head to head with Jahangir, he was easily defeated. On his capture in 1607, Jahangir had Khusrau imprisoned and blinded. It is as if Shah Begum had foreseen this tragic end.
Even though Shah Begum’s life was short-lived, it is a testimony to the kind of experiences that women had to endure as part of the Mughal court. She never compromised on her priniciples, which is also why the politics, competition and intrigue took such a toll on her.
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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Edited by Staff Writer, Srishti Sood