Remembering a Forgotten Princess

, Hazrat-E-Dilli
April 02, 2016 10:00 IST

Princess Jahanara, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s daughter, was a paragon of virtues: well-educated, well-versed in statecraft, even-tempered, beautiful. Although she was on the side of Dara Shikoh in the succession battle, it says much for her stature that after Shah Jahan’s death, she was made the chief lady of the court by Aurangzeb and accorded every respect.

Perhaps it is in keeping with the rest of her life that Delhi’s beautiful Chandni Chowk that she had built as a Moonlit Street is today a warren of shops, hanging wires, colliding crowds, conniving pickpockets and careering cars and rickshaws. There is only ugly commerce and no beauty left there, writes Rana Safvi on the princess’s birth anniversary.

Illustration by Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com.

Be zat e ousefat e kard e gar ast
Ke khod penham o fazaish ashkar ast
(In her personality she has all the qualities of the Creator
She herself concealed but her bounties revealed)
Mirza Mohammed Ali Jauhar

April 2 marks the birth anniversary of a princess who had everything and yet nothing. She was the eldest child of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal and was born in Ajmer in 1614.

She was the Sahibat al-Zamani (Lady of the Age) and Padshah Begum (Lady Emperor), or Begum Sahib (princess of princesses), yet that had come to her because of her mother Mumtaz Mahal’s death.

She was the closest companion of her father, Shah Jahan, but that coveted position was because her brother Aurangzeb Alamgir had put him under house arrest.

She had been a close friend, supporter of her brother Dara Shukoh and fellow disciple of Mullah Shah Badakhshi, who initiated her into the Qadiriya Sufi, but Aurangzeb had put him to death.

The princess who was said to be the epitome of everything maidenly was revered and maligned by European writers.

François Bernier (a French traveller to the Mughal empire), relying on bazaar gossip, had gone to the extent of hinting at incest between Jahanara and her father but Bernier was on the side of Aurangzeb and both sides were levelling charges at each other. Niccolao Manucci, the only European to have actual access to the Mughal harem, soundly repudiated this and said it was ‘founded entirely on the talk of low people.’

Also read: ‘The Mughals were struggling financially after Shah Jahan’

She was a paragon of virtues: well-educated, well-versed in statecraft, even-tempered, beautiful. However, though there were many proposals of marriage, none worked out some because she overturned the proposals, some because of the exigencies of royal protocol.

Dara had promised her that when he became the emperor he would grant her permission to marry whomever she wanted. But he never became the emperor. Aurangzeb did and she went into voluntary house arrest with her father.

Her word could change fortunes of people and who was sought by foreign emissaries to put in a good word for them.

In 1654, Raja Prithvichand of Srinagar in Garhwal sought the pardon of Shah Jahan through the offices of Jahanara.

She also intervened on his request for Abdullah Qutb Shah and gained him a pardon from Shah Jahan.

Yet, when she was a mediator between her bothers in the war of succession, she failed to have an impact. She admonished Aurangzeb for fighting against his eldest brother and advised him to observe the path of loyalty and obedience but it was of no avail. However, it does show her importance in the court.

She even visited Aurangzeb on June 10, 1658, to try and bring about a reconciliation of the two brothers but again it was unsuccessful.

Her alleged role when Maratha king Shivaji, who had become a major force in the Deccan, paid a visit to Agra in 1666 left a permanent mark on India.

During his father’s lifetime, as he was imprisoned in Agra fort, Aurangzeb did not visit Agra. It was only after Shah Jahan’s death on January 22, 1666, that he decided to hold court in Agra. Mirza Raja Jai Singh had persuaded the Maratha chief to visit the Mughal court and had given him hopes of high rewards.

May 12 was also Aurangzeb’s 50th lunar birthday and it was the date settled for his first darbar in Agra. Sir Jadunath Sarkar writes in his book Shivaji and His times that Shivaji was to reach on May 11 so that he could attend the birthday celebrations. However, he got delayed and reached on the 12th to find that his reception was not as per his expectations.

To compound that, Shivaji went straight to the court without being familiarised with court etiquette. The reception in Diwan-e-Aam was over and Aurangzeb had moved to Diwan-e-Khas. He paid perfunctory notice to the gifts of 1,000 gold coins and Rs 7,000 that Shivaji presented as nazrana (tribute). He was made to stand in the third row with the panj-hazari (5,000) mansabdars (minor landlords). This annoyed the Maratha chief who turned his back and walked out of the darbar.

Here power politics came to play and the faction that opposed Jai Singh urged the emperor to punish Shivaji for his ‘insolence’ in overturning court etiquette.

Shivaji had earlier raided the port of Surat whose custom revenue went to Jahanara and, according to Nausheen Jaffery in her book Jahanara Begum, the princess too vehemently opposed lenient treatment towards the Maratha king.

This combined with the other voices led Aurangzeb to imprison Shivaji and the rest is history!

Her power was such that, unlike the other royal princesses, she was allowed to live in her own palace, outside the confines of the Agra fort; yet she spent many years in house arrest along with her father.

I suppose it is in keeping with the rest of her life that the beautiful Chandni Chowk that she had built as a Moonlit Street is today a warren of shops, hanging wires, colliding crowds, conniving pickpockets and careering cars and rickshaws. There is only ugly commerce and no beauty left there.

The famous Begum Bagh (now Gandhi Maidan) and sarai are no more.

The British razed the sarai, which Bernier compared to the Palace Royale of Paris, to the ground after the first war of independence of 1857.

She laid a number of beautiful gardens in Delhi, Kabul, Agra, Ambala, Kashmir and Surat, many of them called Sahibabad after her title.

She patronised scholars, artists and poets and wrote herself. Her works include two biographies of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti and her spiritual mentor, Mulla Shah Badakshi. She was also a proficient poet and calligrapher, yet her most famous verse is the one on her tombstone.

She was very active in trading activities and owned a number of ships. One of her ships was called Shaibi after her own title and took passengers to Mecca for Hajj.

It says much for her stature that after Shah Jahan’s death, when she returned to Delhi, she was once again made the chief lady of the court by Aurangzeb and accorded every respect.

Jahanara was possessed of enormous wealth, given to her by her father from her mother’s properties but she could not dispose of it as per her own will. She built a tomb for herself in the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and endowed its khadims (caretakers) with property worth Rs 3 crore. But after her Aurangzeb Alamgir only gave property worth Rs 1 crore and said that only 1/3rd of one’s property can be willed away by a person as per law.

Her tomb is a simple yet elegant marble enclosure with a tombstone that includes her own verse:

Huwal Hayyul Al Qayyum
Baghair subza na poshad kase mazar mara
Ki qabr posh ghariban hamin gayah bas-ast
Al faqeera, Al faaniya Jahanara mureed

Khajgaana Chist, Bint e Shah Jahan
Badshah Ghazi Anar Allah Barhana
1052 AH (1681 AD).

(He is the Living, the Sustaining
There cannot be any other curtain of my tomb except the humble covering of grass.
Grass alone is sufficient to cover the grave of a poor person, as I am
Disciple of the Khwaja Moin-ud-Din Chishti,
Daughter of Shah Jahan the Conqueror
May Allah illuminate his proof.)

Today the tomb of one of the most powerful princesses of the Mughal empire is used as a place for keeping mentally ill ladies by their guardians, often by force.

Translations by Nausheen Jaffery.

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