Chroniclers of yore have struggled to make sense of women defying stereotyped gender roles. Their discomfort in describing such avant garde women is apparent in their work where the incredible feats of these women are attributed to nothing more than their physical charms. One such accomplished woman was Nur Jahan, who was not only the de facto empress of the Mughal empire but also an innovative fashion designer, an excellent shot, a master builder and a prolific poet. The daunting task of doing justice to Nur Jahan’s multifarious personality may have failed several chroniclers, during and after her time, yet Ruby Lal’s book, Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, accomplishes this with a flourish.

Vivid and detailed, Lal’s narrative of Nur Jahan reveals no hitherto unknown facts about her life, but tells her tale far more grippingly than Ellison Banks Findly’s biography of the empress. What sets Lal’s book apart is the treatment she gives to the various legends about Nur Jahan. Instead of dismissing them, the author uses these legends to point out Nur Jahan’s influence and popularity till date. She writes, “Even into the late 20th century, academics disparaged the legends about Nur as gossip, and leaned on love as the explanation for her extraordinary rise rather than attributing it to her talents”.

Insightful but disjointed

An important facet of the book is the way the author has attempted to fill one of the many voids in Nur Jahan’s story – that of her childhood. Since most of her sources, such as Jahangir’s memoir, European travelogues and court paintings, are silent on Nur’s growing up in Agra, Lal looked up guides to childrearing in the Islamic world and recreated a possible childhood for the Mughal Queen. This part of the book’s narrative is also heavily contextualised in the Akbari politics and comment on the way it could have likely affected Nur’s initial years.

Though insightful, this part of Lal’s narrative is disjointed and often meanders away from the subject of the biography. Furthermore, she completely glosses over important details in Nur’s story such as her rise in the Mughal harem and how Jahangir came to notice her.

Similarly, the work takes no cognisance of the Nur Jahan junta hypothesis (astutely criticized by scholars such as Syed Nurul Hasan) and therefore fails to explain the queen’s changing factions at the Mughal court. Lal does nothing more than mention that Nur Jahan’s whole-hearted support shifts from prince Khurram (Shah Jahan) to prince Shahryar, leaving the reader utterly confused about this abrupt change.

The book excellently describes Nur Jahan’s many talents but misses out on her role as a fashion designer. Her sartorial inventions, combining comfort with fashion, included the lighter version of the peshwaz (ladies gown) – the Dudami (literally equivalent to the weight of two dams or copper coins) – fabrics such as badla (silver threaded brocade), and kinari (silver threaded lace), besides the farsh-i-chandani (sandalwood-coloured carpets). These might just be legends but since Lal’s book does not shy away from including legends one wonders why such an interesting bit was left out.

Questionable authenticity

Yet, the most irksome aspect of the book is the series of questionable conjectures and conclusions Lal draws without offering any source to back them up. For example, she writes, “it is here (Agra) that Mihr (Nur Jahan’s name) learns…” to say “Ram Ram, a common greeting invoking Ram, the popular Hindu deity.” Given her Islamic upbringing it seems highly unlikely that Nur Jahan would ever use Ram Ram as a greeting, an utterance that would be considered biddat (blasphemy) in Islam.

Silver coin with Nur Jehan's name | Image credit: Drnsreedhar1959 / CC BY-SA 3.0

Elsewhere, Lal states that the coins minted by Nur Jahan with her name on them had wide circulation so that “ordinary folks would notice too, such as salt makers or cumin traders who brought their products to the Mughal court from far away and received these coins in payment.” However, it is largely accepted by scholars that Nur Jahan’s coins were a collector’s item and no actual trade was carried forward with it.

Furthermore, Lal asserts that “when Nur’s health improved, she sat in the jharokha so that she could be seen by people, like a goddess on display.” No source is offered for this unprecedented statement. The author does talk about a portrait where a royal woman’s upper body is framed by a window. Yet in a footnote to this Lal also says that the subject of the painting is doubtful. One can safely conclude that Nur Jahan would have never shown her face to “people”. Not only because she would be in purdah amongst strange men but also because Akbar’s concept of jharokha darshan relates to his theory of farr-i-izadi, the divine light, the recipient of which is the insan-i-kamil or the perfect “man”.

Akbar’s panegyrist, Abul Fazl, writes in his Akbarnama that the divine sovereign gives the divine light to the temporal sovereign. Through him, the light (or the benefaction) is received by the rest of the people. Thus, in no way was Nur Jahan a recipient of the divine light, and hence not eligible for the Jharokha darshan.

It would be quite ahistorical to think of a royal woman in the Mughal harem openly showing her face to strangers. Lastly, Lal has also grossly misunderstood the concept of jharokha darshan since it did not display the sovereign as a god but only as the perfect man.

Still, the real achievement of the book is that it is neither a drearily academic nor a shoddy popular history. Lal has managed to bring the two histories together and has reoriented Nur Jahan’s tale as feminist history. Unfortunately, the book has its share of problems, which cast serious aspersions on the research underlying the book.

Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan, Ruby Lal, Penguin Books India.