The history of the garden and the various roles women played in that history has been a great interest to me for many years. Naively I thought I would write a book on the subject since the information is well hidden in many books on these two subjects. I am not a writer. Nor am I a historian. I do want to put down on paper (so to speak) what I have learned. Hence this blog.
Of all the women I have researched and written about so far,
the story of Nur Jahan is the most complete, the most reasonably well
documented, and plenty has been written about her. In the first part of this
post I will focus on the life of Nur Jahan with reference to the gardens.
From Wikipedia: The Mughal Empire or Mogul (also Moghul)
Empire in traditional English usage, was an imperial power in the Indian subcontinent
south (India Pakistan Bangladesh) and from about 1526 to 1757. The Mughal
emperors were Muslims and direct descendants of Genghis Khan through Chagatai
Khan and Timur. At the height of their power in the late 17th and early 18th
centuries, they controlled most of the subcontinent.
A woman living during Mughal times did not have the freedoms
that many women have today. As a member of royalty even a Mughal Queen lives in
the harem with all the other women who attend the emperor. These women include
female family members of the emperor, concubines and other wives of the emperor,
ladies in waiting, serving girls, entertainers, slaves, and female guards for
the Queen. The women lived their lives in the harem and did not leave unless,
for example, on pilgrimages and visiting other family. Women came to the harem
through marriage, birth, appointment, as purchases or gifts.
There are many stories about Nur Jahan and her husband the
emperor Jahanjir. Some have their basis in fact but many were hearsay and can’t
be verified. It is said that Jahanjir first saw Nur Jahan in the garden and fell in
love with her on sight when he was still a young Prince Salim and she was still
known as Mehrunisa (or Mihrunnisa, there are many variants in spelling). She
is supposed to have been a beauty, as well as charming and intellectual.
Nur Jahan was born into a noble family from Persia. Her
father, Mirza Ghiyas Beg and her mother Asmat Begam along with other family
members were leaving Persia after the family suffered a reversal of fortune to
find a better life in India. Mughal India was at this time open to receiving
new immigrants, and was tolerant of other faiths and clans. The family joined a
caravan but were robbed of their valuables by bandits while traveling. When
they arrived in Kandahar Asmat Begam gave birth to her fourth child, a girl
whom they named Mehrunisa, “the Sun of Women”. The family reaches the city of
Fatehpur Sikri where Mirza Ghiyas Beg is presented to the Emperor Akbar and is
given a post in the court of the emperor.
Little is known of Mehrunisa’s (Nur Jahan) early life. She
would have learned about the arts and literature of her heritage as well as her
family’s new country. She would also have been instructed in her religion,
Shia, and would have learned to read the Quran. When young, Mehrunisa learned
to sew and embroider. She loved all fine arts, wrote poetry, and was adept at
cooking. During her life with the Emperor
Jahanjir her achievements and contributions included literature, architecture,
gardening, dress designing, decorating, hunting, and shooting. She was most
certainly an intelligent, cultured woman who also eventually enjoyed the fruits
of power and who had the desire and ability to run the country while her
emperor husband Jahanjir was ill.
Mehrunisa was married to Ali Quli Istajlu in 1595. Like her,
he was another Persian immigrant with a noble background. Ali Quli Istajlu was
a soldier of war who became famous for shooting a tiger single-handedly while
in the employ of Jahanjir. When Jahangir ascended the throne, he appointed Ali
Quli Istajlu the title of Sher Afghan. The couple had a daughter, however the
marriage did not last long as Sher Afghan was killed in 1605. The death of Sher
Afghan changed Mehrunisa’s life. She was appointed to the service of Salima
Begum, the widow of Akbar (Jahanjir’s father) and she was now to live in a
small room in the harem.
It does not seem to be known with certainty how Mehrunisa
came to be known by Jahanjir. Maybe it was an encounter in the garden before
her marriage to Sher Afghan. More likely they met in 1611 during the
celebrations of the Nauroz, one of two annual holidays celebrated at court. Jahanjir
is reported to have fallen in love at first glance and they married two months
later on May 25, 1611. He bestowed on Mehrunisa the title of Nur Mahal (Light
of the Palace) and later Nur Jahan (Light of the World). It is worth noting
that Nur Jahan was 35 years old with a child when they married. Women of this
age, widowed with children did not expect to marry again; they were ‘old maids’.
Nur Jahan most probably was an extremely beautiful woman to be so fortunate to
marry a second time. As it turns out their relationship was one of great love.
Nur Jahan was not the first Mughal queen who created gardens.
Many of Jahanjirs female ancestral
relatives created gardens in the areas of Agra and Kabul. Jahanjir himself was
a great lover of gardens and he had gardens built in his name alone as well as
with his queens. Nur Jahan's involvement
elevated the garden from a place for parties, celebrations, art displays and
meditation to a place where court business could take place. With this change
gardens became more elaborate and refined in design; the intention was to make a
statement to all about the emperor’s power and place in the Mughal world.
The world for royal women in the harem began to improve and
expand. Prior to this time the only reason women could leave the harem and
travel was for religious purposes such as visiting shrines and making pilgrimages,
accompanying men on military and diplomatic campaigns and to visit family
outside the court. Such travel was always accompanied with a retinue of male
family. These confinements began to ease with Nur Jahan's involvement. Women
began to be allowed to leave the court for reasons of pleasure – by today’s
standards they could behave like tourists and see the sights and partake in
social activities previously unknown to them. Travel became more commonplace and Jahanjir
helped to make this more pleasurable for all by adding allees of trees on
frequented routes, and adding buildings as rest stops for the comfort of the
The couple were both totally enraptured with gardens.
Jahanjir had made gardens before their marriage but the two of them constructed
many gardens together and apart. In their earlier years together the couple had
gardens constructed in the area of Agra. Agra is situated on the banks of the
Yamuna River with the surrounding area being flat. Agra suffers from
extremities of climate with scorching hot summers, chilly winters and
occasional monsoons. The couple also traveled further north to the valleys in
the Himalayas to the area known as Kashmir. While the climate of this
mountainous region also has highs and lows, it was the beauty of the area that
attracted them: mountains and valleys, rivers, lakes and waterfalls, and
especially the great variety of flowers of the region. Nur Jahan introduced
many plants from Kashmir such as the Blue Kashmir Lily, now immortalized in the
Taj Mahal. The flower as art was incorporated into the designs of many of the
gardens she created.
Blue Kashmir Lily - Nymphaea nouchali
Jahanjir was a lover of life, an aesthete. He was not at his
best in the political world like his father Akbar and his grandfather Babur
before him (both great gardeners). He loved the drink and the opium like his brothers
did. This constant consumption of wine and opium wreaked havoc on his body and
made him very ill over the years, shortening his life. Fortunately for him he
had a wife, a queen of strong character and intellect, who was endowed with the
skills necessary to fill in at court when he could not. Jahanjir passed on the
affairs of the state to Nur Jahan and it was she who ruled much of their time
together. Criticisms on her character and her rise of power were a constant
during these times. These criticisms continued after her death by historians or
biographers of the time and of course later as well. Regardless, she was given
the power by the emperor and she took it and used it as she felt necessary up until
Jahanjir died in 1627. He was buried in Lahore in the garden of Dilkusha, a
garden created by Nur Jahan. Nur Jahan was exiled to Lahore after the Emperor’s
death. Normally she would have been able to stay at court as a widow, however
there was much politics involved (which I have spared you all along). She spent
the rest of her life in Lahore until her death in 1645. She was buried in a
modest grave near Jahanjir, in a tomb decorated in geometric and floral
patterns she designed herself.