The most powerful unmarried first lady of the Mughal Empire

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First Lady

EXTRAORDINARY FIRST LADY

She never married, but under extraordinary circumstances, she became the Padshah Begum, the First Lady of the mighty Mughal empire. Jahanara Begum was the eldest child of Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor. For more than two and half decades she held the title of Padshah Begum and wielded enormous influence in the corridors of power. She knew her Quran well, she was an avid reader of literature, and she was deft in several outdoor and indoor sports and games, including polo, hunting, and chess. Immensely wealthy, Jahanara spent huge sums for building Delhi’s biggest mosque the Jama Masjid. And the First Lady is also famous for designing the main market thoroughfare of Shahjahanabad, known as the Chandni Chowk.

LIFE AND TIMES OF JAHANARA

Jahanara was born to emperor Shah Jahan and his most beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal on March 23 in 1614. The love between the two is stuff for the legend, which has been immortalized in the monument named the Taj Mahal. Sadly, Mumtaz died in 1631, within three years of Shah Jahan ascending the throne. Following this, the emperor, despite having other wives, conferred the supreme title of Padshah Begum, the First Lady, upon Jahanara. Of course, well-raised as a child, Jahanara had the mettle to do justice to the title. This apart, on the occasion of his coronation emperor Shah Jahan gifted her favorite daughter millions of rupees and an annual grant of 600,000 rupees. Later she also received a fair share of Mumtaz Mahal’s wealth on the latter’s death. Thus, she became one of the richest first ladies in Mughal history.

In 1644, when she was barely 30, Jahanara was severely burnt in an accident. She however, recovered fully after a year of intense treatment by local and foreign doctors. On her getting well, the First Lady visited the shrine of the great Sufi Saint Sheikh Nizamuddin Chishti in Ajmer. This sparked in her a lifelong interest in Sufism.

TENURE AS PADSHAH BEGUM AND REMAINING YEARS

As the First Lady, one of Jahanara’s major responsibilities was the custody of the imperial seal. She also advised the emperor regularly on matters of the state. She was a benevolent First Lady, who ordered the organization of regular almsgiving to the poor, not only in Delhi but also in Mecca. She financed the building of several mosques, the biggest one being the Jama Masjid.

Another major achievement of Jahanara as the First Lady was serious research into mysticism and translations of Sufi texts. She herself wrote a biography of Hazrat Nizamuddin Chishti. She was the disciple of Mullah Shah Badakshi and became a Sufi of the Qadiriya order.

In 1657 Shah Jahan became seriously ill, which sparked a war of succession. After several battles, Aurangzeb captured the throne in 1658 and put Shah Jahan under house arrest until he passed away in 1666. During these years Jahanara took great care of her ailing father. Despite supporting Dara Shukoh in the fratricidal war, Jahanara retained enough power to influence Aurangzeb on many decisions. And the new emperor didn’t cause her elder sister any harm. She died on 16 September 1681. Her tomb is located in the Nizamuddin Dargah complex in Delhi.

 

(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)