“Jahanara, the eldest daughter of Shah Jahan, was very handsome, of lively parts and passionately loved by her father. Shah Jahan reposed immense confidence in his favourite child. She watched over his safety and no dish was permitted upon the Royal table, which had not been prepared under her observation.”
– French traveler Francois Bernier
Jahanara is a revered Indian icon today. A woman who had numerous powers in a time when royal women were secluded and not allowed many liberties. She was an engineer, a writer, a painter, and an activist.
Despite being one of the most powerful women of her time, bestowed with both beauty & intelligence, the humble princess wished that she be buried in a simple enclosure close to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the patron saint of Delhi & the Sufi mystic whose teachings she revered. She was only 17 when her mother Arjumand Banu Begum aka Mumtaz Mahal passed away . She took it upon herself to raise her six siblings & also look after her grief-stricken father & assist him in the affairs of the court so as to enable him to fulfill his obligations to the state.
Jahanara became the first woman of the Mughal household, soon surpassing Shahjahan’s other wives – he made her the custodian of the Imperial Seal & gave her the titles of Badshah Begum & Begum Sahiba .
Shahjahan also fixed her an annual stipend of Rs 1 million & granted her the right to revenue from the port of Surat -Gujarat which she possessed till the time of her death. She received half of Mumtaz Mahal’s total wealth worth over Rs 10 million & also received handsome gifts from the native rulers, chieftains & warlords in return for political & administrative favors she bestowed upon them through the Emperor – she was the wealthiest woman of her time, but being of Sufi temperament, she used most of her wealth & accumulated riches for the service of the poor & the orphans.
A very learned lady, she was well-versed in Persian & Arabic & came to be known as a scholar & a patron of arts & literature, herself being a writer, painter & poet . Jahanara was designed the famed Chandni Chowk street of Delhi – the chief avenue of Shahjahan’s capital at Shahjanabad with the Red Fort as its pinnacle & flanked by the houses of the “Omrahs” & a canal running through its center that reflected moonlight & made onlookers gasp with astonishment at the fusion of earth & paradise. Of a philanthropic dispossession, she took it upon herself to look after the comfort of the poor & the needy.
A religious person she is credited with having built many mosques, especially the Jama Masjid of Agra, & serais . She wrote “Mu’nis al-Arwāḥ”, the biography of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the founder of the Chishtiya sect of Sufism & “Risālah-i Ṣāḥibīyah” the biography of Mullah Shah, both highly noted for their literary quality & writing style. She was renowned as a patron of Sufi literature & commissioned the translation as well as commentary on several classical works.
In the year 1658, Shahjahan fell terribly ill & was bedridden as a consequence, rumors spread that the Emperor was dead, that he had been murdered by the followers of one of his sons for the purpose of usurping power – when he failed to appear in court for over a week, each of his four sons, Aurangzeb, Dara Shukoh, Murad Baksh & Shah Shuja, prepared their armies & marched upon Delhi to claim sovereignty. Jahanara openly & actively supported Dara, her brother with whom she shared her Sufi beliefs & religious tolerance; she was totally against her cold, rigid & Wahabi brother Aurangzeb whom she referred to as a white serpent in her personal correspondence. However after the initial tussle & warfare, it was Aurangzeb who graced the throne of India & also had Dara executed; soon thereafter Shahjahan recovered from his illness, but Aurangzeb was in no mood to restore surrender his powers & face his father’s terrible wrath for murdering his brothers – he had Shahjahan imprisoned in his fortress at Agra.
Despite his initial resentment Aurangzeb extended courteous treatment towards his sister, Jahanara however was very close to her father & decided to share his captivity – Aurangzeb was spared the opportunity to imprison her . Aurangzeb fixed her a handsome annuity & allowed her to maintain her estates as well as retain the right to revenue from Surat.
There were rumors to suggest the reason for her choosing captivity over enjoying her youth & life – she closely resembled her mother in terms of looks & intelligence, prompting her father to make advances towards her & the two had shared sexual relations; She lived in Agra till her father’s death in 1666 after which she was reconciled with Aurangzeb & retired to Delhi to live in the mansion that once belonged to Ali Mardan Khan, a Persian noble in her father’s court & the viceroy of Punjab. Aurangzeb respected her & sought her counsel in matters of state & public welfare; she never shied from arguing with the Emperor in order to prove her point, especially when it concerned his enforced austerity measures or his practice of religious intolerance.
Though he never forgave her for siding with Dara, Aurangzeb trusted her wisdom over the loyalty of their younger sister Roshanara Begum who harbored bitterness & political enmity against Jahanara & had also shared in Aurangzeb’s schemes to usurp the throne when Shahjahan was bedridden. Overlooking Roshanara & Gauharara (the third sister among the seven siblings), Aurangzeb appointed Jahanara as the first lady of the court & raised her annual allowance from Rs 1 million to 1.7 million.
Mughal princesses were not allowed to marry, a custom arising out of the consideration that no man was worthy enough to ask the hand of the daughter of the Great Mughal in marriage the real reason however was the suspicion that the princesses’ husband might accumulate power in his hands & threaten the Emperor – Jahanara, Roshanara & Gauharara stayed single all their life even though they had many lovers who would come visit them at night in the cover of silence & camouflage of the dark.
Roshanara, who was closer to Aurangzeb & had immense power in her hands took on a number of lovers. Soon however she was caught red-handed by the pious Aurangzeb who chastised her for failing to honour her obligations by curtailing many of her powers & had her lover poisoned. Much to the chagrin of Roshanara, Jahanara was given considerable influence in Aurangzeb’s court after this & began acting as an intermediary between the local chieftains/warlords & the Emperor. Though Dara’s sons were executed by Aurangzeb to avoid future complications, the remaining children were looked after by Jahanara like her own. Roshanara decided to retire to a garden-pavilion built for her pleasure at the outskirts of Delhi; Jahanara became the most important woman in the Mughal court.
It is not to suggest that Jahanara did not have any vices – both Bernier & Manucci note that she was an alcoholic (besides the usual charges that Aurangzeb disapproved of – dancing, singing, poetry & acting); at times she would be so drunk that she would have difficulty standing up & would often pass out.
Aurangzeb allowed her to design & commission her own simple mausoleum comprising of a magnificent lattice enclosure made of white marble immediately opposite the striking tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin. She passed away on September 6, 1681, at the age of 67 & was buried in a simple grave in the open-roofed enclosure she designed. She was posthumously conferred the title of Sahibat-ul-Zamani (“Mistress of her time”) by the Emperor.
The intricately carved filigree screens of her remarkably simple tomb hide the graves of the princess & several others who lie beside her from the eyes of the onlookers, an equally splendidly adorned marble door bars the entrance to the princess’ final resting place.
In accordance with her last wishes, she was given a humble funeral & an otherwise unremarkable grave. Except for a simplistic flower carved in marble at the head of the grave, the rest of it is not ornamented in any manner, instead the grave hosts a hollow on the top filled with grass; the sides too bear no ornamentation except calligraphic inscriptions. The Persian inscription next to her grave reads –
“Allah 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 mortal simplistic Princess Jahanara,
Disciple of the Khwaja Moin-ud-Din Chishti,
Daughter of Shah Jahan the Conqueror
May Allah illuminate his proof.
1092 [1681 AD]”