Jahanara Begum
The forgotten princess

Photo by Mohd Aram on Unsplash

Jahanara Begum, Princess of Princesses (1614-1681)

Writer, poet, painter and architect to the famous Chandni Chowk of Delhi, Jahanara was a Mughal princess ahead of her time.

While Princess Jahanara held a prominent place in the Mughal empire, she has remained in the shadows, overshadowed by the name of her mother Mumtaz.

Let's travel back in time to meet this unique woman from the golden age of the Mughal empire.

Early years

The Mughal empire was an Islamic Turkic state that existed between the 16th and 19th centuries, whose sovereigns were descendants of Tamerlane, encompassing most of the territories currently corresponding to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, until reaching some areas of Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and eastern Iran.

Jahanara, eldest daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, was born in Ajmer in 1614, she was named Begum Sahib: "Princess of Princesses", such was the illusion and love that the couple felt for this girl.

Born in one of the richest and most splendid empires in the world, the young princess "very pretty and lively in spirit" [1] became familiar from her childhood on the art of politics, wars, family struggles and intrigues of the harem, latter was the space where the entire existence of the women of the court took place.

Being a very intelligent and talented young woman she received the highest education possible, which included religion, languages, painting and poetry. She also played polo, participated in hunting games and was an excellent chess player. With her father she used to hold long games, times when they also planned the construction of palaces, monuments and mosques.

When he was 17 years old, occurs the sudden death of his mother, after which Sha Jahan entitle her the title of Padsha Begum, the First Lady. Name her like that went against the traditions,  the one that should have been given to one of his wives, however, Jahanara was the person he trusted the most and felt the most united. Let's not forget that after the death of his wife, Sha Jahan fell into a great depression, during which he entrusted all responsibilities to his eldest daughter.

By becoming Padsha Begum, she acquired immense power, as well as being the heir to most of the fortune left by her mother, some ten million rupees at the time. As the closest confidant and adviser, Sha Jahan awarded her the imperial seal, being able to decide on the fate of the people, handle diplomatic negotiations and supervise the construction of the Taj Mahal.

She was one of the few women in the empire who had her own maritime businesses, accumulating great wealth. This allowed her to gain independence and living in her own palace, in the confines of Agra Fort, something that was an exception for the princesses of the time.

Relationship with his siblings

Among his brothers, Dara Shikoh, the eldest, was her favorite. They shared a love for poetry, painting and classical literature, both having received a careful education, mastering languages such as Arabic and Persian. Jahanara saw in him a future emperor, just and benevolent. Both were deeply spiritual and embraced Sufism, having been initiated into the Qadiriya order.

With Aurangzeb, the next brother in the line of succession, he was not particularly close.

Aurangzeb's ambition and intolerance in religious matters made her fear for the peace of the empire, should he come to power. 

With her younger sister Roshanara she maintained a rivalry, marked by the jealousy of the younger sister for the position held by the older one. Thus, Roshanara and Aurangzeb became allied, showing disrespectful attitudes towards their elders, causing frequent friction.

What would the history of India have been like if Dara Shikoh had been the emperor ... is the question everyone asks.

Retrato de Dara Shikoh Google Art Project

“Jahanara establishes herself in the city as the most influential woman in literature and poetry. She collects rare and beautiful books and her library is unmatched. Donate money to charity, especially Sufi shrines and carry out graceful diplomacy", writes Ira Mukhoty in her book "Daughters of the Sun"

Agra Fort. Photo by Arun Geetha Viswanathan on Unsplash

Youth and maturity

In 1644, a few days after her thirtieth birthday, Jahanara's garments caught fire, leaving her seriously injured. Shah Jahan personally cared his favorite daughter, who took a year to recover from her serious injuries. Once she improved, she made a pilgrimage to the Moinuddin Chisthi shrine in Ajmer, to give thanks and respects to the Sufi saint of whom she was devoted.

Jahanara actually wrote a biography of Moinuddin Chishti, the founder of the Chishtiyah Sufi order in India, titled Mu'nis al-Arwāḥ, and a biography of Mullah Shah Badakhshi, his spiritual mentor, titled Risālah-i Ṣāḥibīyah. Both books are highly regarded for their judgment and literary quality

In Risālah-i Ṣāḥibīyah she describes her initiation in Sufism when she was in her twenties, speaking of herself as a faqīrah to express her vocation as a Sufi woman. Well versed in Sufi literature, she commissioned translations and commentaries on many works of Sufi literature.

Attracted to architecture and the design of public spaces, she sponsored multiple works such as the Agra Mosque of 1648 and many others , public gardens and madrasas to promote education. In 1650 she commissioned a large mosque and religious complex dedicated to her spiritual master Mulla Shah in Srinagar, Kashmir.

But Jahanara's political and economic influence failed to prevent the war of succession between her brothers, Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb. She made several attempts to mediate between them, but at the end Aurangzeb killed Dara Shikoh and confined his parent Shah Jahan, now elderly and ill, to Agra Fort under arrest. 

True to her father, Jahanara left her lucrative activities and luxurious lifestyle to accompany her father in her confinement, taking care of the last eight years of his life, until he passed away at the age of 74 in 1666.

Musamman Burj, Sha Jahan's place of confinement. Agra Fort. Photo by Mitchell Ng Liang an on Unsplash

After Shah Jahan's death, Aurangzeb finally forgives his sister for having supported Dara Shikoh in the fight for the crown, granting her the new title of Sahibat al-Zamani, "Lady of the Age", appropriated to a woman who defied the conventions of the time.

Jahanara never married, in the book The Princess in the Shadow, the author attributes her to falled in love with a young nobleman of the court, but renounced this love to fulfill her duty as First Lady, since as a married woman she should to leave and live in her husband's house.

Also is said that the princesses had a forbbiden to get marry.

Spending her last years in pursuit of her artistic and humanitarian passions, Jahanara passed away in 1681 at the age of 67, but not before she made her mark in history, being remembered as the architect of the legendary Chandni Chowk Bazaar of the Old Delhi.

Today, many of Chandni Chowk's ancient buildings manage to invoke the spirit with which Jahanara lived, which helped her survive and thrive amid betrayals and tragedies.

Sita Ram watercolor. Chandni Chowk - 1815 Source: British Library cited in Rare Books Society of India

Jahanara, faithful to her independent and unconventional character, chose in life the place where she had her tomb built, in the complex of the Sufi saint Nizzamudin Auliya, where also lie the poet Amir Khusrao, whom she admired. 

Her grave is  remarkable for its simplicity, it is built entirely of white marble with a filigree trellis and an open ceiling.

The inscription on the tomb reads as follows:

He is the Living, the Sustaining/ Let no one cover my grave except with greenery/ For this very grass suffices as a tomb cover for the poor/The annihilated faqir Lady Jahanara/ / Daughter of Shahjahan the Warrior/(may God illuminate his proof).

"Allah is the Living, the Sustaining

Let no one cover my grave except greenery

For this very grass suffices as a tomb cover for the poor

The annihilated faqir Lady Jahanara

Faqira [2] and Disciple of Khwaja Moin-ud-Din Chishti,

Disciple of the Lords of Chisht

Daughter of Shah Jahan the the Warrior (may God illuminate his proof)."

[1] Francois Bernier, Journey to the great Mughal, Hindustan and Kashmir

[2] Faqira means "Sufi woman"

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