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Princess Jahanara Begum, born on 23rd March 1614 at the Akbari Fort of Ajmer, was the second daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and the first with his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. At the age of seventeen, losing her mother untimely, Jahanara Begum rose to the title of Padshah Begum or empress, in the year 1630. Her patronage of Sufism, and commissioning buildings like the Jama Masjid at Agra or the Chandni Chowk of Delhi, as well as her charity, are some of her achievements as the Empress of the land. It will not be farfetched to say that she was indeed perhaps the richest woman of her times, trading goods with European countries by her own ship Sahibiya, and patronising artists at her own will.

 Throughout her family turmoil, she remained important in the harem and even when Dara Shukoh and Shah Jahan showed clear displeasure with Aurangzeb her respect in all her brothers’ eyes remained intact. This was proved when in 1640 after she was badly burnt all her brothers visited her bedside and prayed for her well being. Apart from Calligraphy, Jahanara also wrote books for Sufism, her book Munis Al Arwahher is about her sufi teacher, and Risala E Sahibiya is about her own journey towards Sufism. She became the chief lady of Aurangzeb’s reign after his fallout with Roshanara Begum, but lived outside the fort of Delhi in her own house, till her death on 16th September 1681. She gave away her wealth to charity and her nieces and chose a simple open-air tomb in the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi as her final resting place. In life and death, Jahanara Begum remained an enigma, an interest of history, and the main character to study the Mughal Harem system of Shah Jahan’s times.

Fact or Fiction?

On the preface of the book “The Life of a Mogul Princess” the Swedish author and historian, who had once been associated with ASI, Andrea Butenschon mentions it as an “Autobiography” of the Timurid Padshah Begum, Jahanara Begum Sahib. It is hence written in the first person, as a claimed translation of an original diary of the Princess in Persian. The author even writes a vivid description of how she, during excavation and the aim to restore the Jasmine Tower, at the Nur Mahal- the white marble part of the Agra Fort, India chanced upon a Persian Manuscript she had kept for this work. Though farfetched in claiming the book to be written by the Begum herself (whereas her other books, Munis Al Arwah and Risala E Sahibiya are very much rightfully credited to her) the author had indeed done extensive research on the Begum and this work, perhaps of fiction as the historians today believe, is worth a read.

It is still a mystery to the reader as to how a book, so accurate historically, claims to be an autobiography translated from Persian and is written in the same manner, if she had no documents at hand. If she did have a manuscript, however, no such document is found today and if she didn’t, one wonders why she didn’t want any credit for such extensively researched, eventfully correct and well written historical fiction. This book, a very rare and expensive one, is found in all major libraries under the History and Biography section, including the National Archeological Library at New Delhi.

The Story in History

Nevertheless, the book is divided into four parts, the first part remains in the present tense when Jahanara Begum locked up in her palace in the Agra fort in 1658 starts to narrate the tale of her life in this journal, pouring out her heart in the memory of those she had lost, her dead brother Dara Shikoh, her mother Mumtaz Mahal and perhaps the most attractive character in this tale, Rao Raja Chattrasal Hada of Bundi. She starts with the gruesome incident of Dara’s severed head being presented to the ill and ailing Shah Jahan and Dara’s parade of shame through the streets of Delhi.

“What are we but shreds of the past, all we that have not sown seeds for growth in the future? Such a shred, I dedicate my thoughts to oblivion.

Jahanara, Imprisoned in the fortress of Agra. Zul Qa’dah. A.H.1069”

This is how the narratives begin.

The second part, explores her life, in bits and pieces right from the time she just started off her duty as Padshah Begum in 1630, arranging the weddings of her brothers, and taking the help of her guide Sati Un Nisa, to the times she starts feeling inclined towards Sufism, all the credit for which she gives to Dara. People often referred to Jahanara Begum as Faqirah (ascetic) due to her devotion to Sufism. Jahanara was the disciple of Mullah Shah Badakhshi, who initiated her into the Qadiriyya Sufi Order in 1641. She made such progress on the Sufi path that Mullah Shah would have named her the successor in the Qadiriyya, but the rules didn’t allow it. Her book Risālah-i-Sāhibīyahwas was based on the life of her spiritual mentor, Mullah Shah. [Jahanara Begum: A Mughal Queen Like No Other (2018), https://www.google.co.in/amp/s/feminisminindia.com/2018/06/01/jahanara-begum-mughal-queen/%3famp].

 It is also here, that she mentions that she is perhaps the richest woman in the world and yet the poorest because her desire of having someone to love and have as her own, remains unfulfilled. Here, even in a fiction narrative, Jahanara Begum comes alive in flesh and blood, as a human appealing to the reader for simple happiness.

The story, in first person, mentions letters we otherwise read of in history, be it from the influential Rajputs to her, or that of her brothers, Dara or Aurangzeb, and from Chattrasal. In the third part, after her very famous accident in 1640, an extensive trip to Ajmer, often described in Risala E Sahibiya is found. The turmoil of the years to follow, the wars between the brothers, and her pain in losing family, forces us readers to see her as a human being and not a historical figure. We sympathise with her sorrows and joys.

Another very trivial yet quite accurate part of the book that makes readers wonder if at all the Swedish Historian found some hidden manuscript is the part where she describes her personal life. Unlike the European accounts of Mughal Ladies engaging in incest and romance with quite a number of men, Jahanara’s story mentions only a few. Dulera, a dancer boy, who also finds mention in many significant papers and thesis written on her, is attributed as the first love of her life. His dancing skills made her want to emotionally bond with him, as a result of which perhaps Dulera lost his job. The second man is the very influential Najabat Khan who later joined Aurangzeb and wanted to marry her for the throne. And last but not the least, comes Chattrasal whom she mentions as a Rakhshabandhan Bhai in the narrative during her teenage and finally over the years, they bond over their love for Hind. It is historically known that Chattrasal dies in Samugarh and was a known lover of the Begum. It was an open secret nobody talked of. But this book, however fictitious, makes us take a journey in the eternal Saga of love and separation these two individuals face due to the politics of the land.

The fourth and final part of the book covers snippets and quotes which the author claims to have found from half-burnt copies of the manuscript and it finally ends with Jahanara Begum leaving for Delhi upon her father’s death in 1666.

Why should a history seeker read it?

History, apart from being events and wars that changed a dynasty, land or person’s future is also about the people involved. One crucial part of history is to see every historical figure as a human being, in their own complexities of life and relationships. Perhaps the reason Aurangzeb is so misunderstood in modern day historical outlook is because we see him not as a complex man but as a king. The book, consisting of 208 pages, covers the hardest time of Jahanara Begum’s life from 1658 to 1666, hence is important to give us a humanly insight on the Begum we know but the woman we don’t. It is well written, easy to read and understand yet in a very typical literary style of the Victorian era. Like most translated manuscripts it comes with footnotes and original quotes in italics and often if we cross check the facts, except for the portrayal of Aurangzeb as a shrewd and hated man, perhaps trying to reflect the princess’ feeling at losing her favourite brother, is historically correct. Places like the Taj Mahal. Agra Fort, Ajmer Sharif and Fatehpur Sikri are all described vividly and accurately.

Two parts of the book remains a stand out than the rest; one where she defends the brother in Aurangzeb who loved and respected her despite the differences between them ideologically, the one who was once a lover and a friend, and also a loyal general before circumstances changed him otherwise, and the other where she meets Chattrasal one last time at the moonlit Taj Mahal in disguise. Both these heart-wrenching parts make us wonder, if it was at all easy, to be a princess in the medieval age.


(Writer of the review is a history enthusiast, historical fiction blogger, and a published author with Penguin India)

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