This tale is about a princess who dedicated her whole life to her father, stood by him till his last breath, and thus, fulfilled her promise to her dying mother. Witty, sharp, caring, and courageous, Jahanara was ahead of her times. When all the princesses were supposed to live their life behind a purdah, she became the “First Lady” of the Mughal empire. However, unfortunately not many people are aware of her life and her unconventional role in the traditionally patriarchal society of medieval times.
The eldest child of Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, princess Jahanara was born in the holy city of Ajmer. Her childhood was like that of any other princess, safe behind the walls of the palace. Her early education was entrusted to Sati-un-Nissa, the principal lady-in-waiting for Mumtaz Mahal, who was not only a scholar of Persian literature and Koran but also an expert in royal etiquette, housekeeping, and medicine. Living in a state of magnificence, she was loved by all, especially Shah Jahan, who had no bounds when it came to his most precious child.
However, things changed after the untimely demise of her mother. Even though Shah Jahan had other wives, he awarded Jahanara with the title of First Lady, the Padishah Begum, a post which was generally assigned to the chief wife. Apart from this, multiple titles were bestowed on her like “Sahibat al-Zamani” (Lady of the Age) and “Begum Sahib” (Princess of Princesses). In the state of deep mourning, Shah Jahan found solace in the company of his "Janni". He entrusted her with royal duties and power that were uncommon for the princesses of that age. In fact, she was allowed to live outside the Agra fort in her own palace. Half of her mother’s wealth was given to her, and the remaining half was divided amongst her siblings. She not only shouldered the responsibilities of her siblings and harem but also helped her father in running the empire. At the mere age of 17, the young princess accepted her fate with dignity and poise. From being a carefree girl, she was pushed into state politics and encumbered with the tasks of resolving family feuds. With time, her own dreams of finding love and marriage blurred.
Apart from being a powerful woman in the royal court, Jahanara was a patron of Sufism and often called herself “Faqirah” (ascetic). She was a follower of Sufi saint Mullah Shah Badakshi who taught her about the Sufi order. She was so inspired by her mentor that she wrote a book based on his life called "Risalah-i-Sahibiyahwas". In her biography of Moinuddin Chishti, Jahanara writes about her pilgrimage to Ajmer, which she took after a year of an unfortunate event that took place just two days after her thirtieth birthday. The princess got perilously injured after getting caught into a fire. The leading hakims and tabibs were summoned to cure the princess, but none of the treatments showed results. Instead, it was a mendicant who successfully cured her. It is believed that Jahanara wasn’t able to recover due to the profanity of a family whose son got killed on her orders as he was eyeing one of her inmates. The family members of the deceased were summoned to the palace, and an apology letter was written by Jahanara , to them. Compensation was also given to the family for the same. On her recovery, while Shah Jahan distributed coins and rubies among the public, Jahanara paid a visit to the Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti’s shrine in Ajmer.
During her lifetime, Jahanara made some significant contributions to architectural and religious development. However, not many people are aware of them. She designed Chandni Chowk in the then capital of Shahjahanabad and strengthened the influence of the capital by establishing trade with Dutch merchants. The place where the Delhi Town Hall stands today used to be a Sarai, known as “Begumabad” or “Begum ka Baag". Her ambitious and well-planned projects boasted aesthetic beauty but now seem to be lost in the past. Jahanara also owned a ship which she used to trade with the English and Dutch and also actively took part in financing the mosques and helping the needy in Mecca and Medina. She also made charitable donations and supported various relief programmes for people.
Sita Ram watercolor. Chandni Chowk - 1815
In terms of her relationship with her siblings, she had the strongest bond with Dara Shikoh, the chosen crown prince of Shah Jahan. It was Dara who introduced Jahanara to the teachings of Qadiriyya order of Sufism and both shared similar interests and ideals towards life. Roshanara, her younger sister, on the other hand, is said to have had a bitter attitude towards her. As Jahanara was always favoured over her and other siblings, Roshanara developed a sense of jealousy and hatred for her. Their perspective towards life was poles apart. While Roshanara believed in the abuse of power and accumulation of wealth, Jahanara was a pious lady devoted to her father and the kingdom. Hence, it is not surprising that huge differences existed between the sisters. Jahanara was a woman who stood up for her choices and didn’t hesitate from showing disapproval towards Aurangzeb’s and Roshanara’s negative attitude with respect to minorities and their father.
When Shah Jahan became seriously ill in 1657, a war broke out among his four sons. Jahanara made several attempts to end the rivalry between the brothers by suggesting a division of the kingdom, but her efforts went in vain. Dara was badly defeated in the battle and fled to Delhi. Soon, Aurangzeb seized the throne, killed Dara Shikoh, and exiled Shah Jahan into the Noor Mahal. Jahanara, like a dutiful daughter, accompanied him.
Passing away of Shah Jahan painting by Abanindranath Tagore
Jahanara saw her world crumbling in front of her eyes. After losing her mother at an early age, the person to whom she devoted her life; the powerful Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, was now confined in a small part of the palace in melancholy, suffering, and sickness. At the same time, she grieved her beloved brother and the downfall of an extravagant empire. After being locked up along with Shah Jahan, she spent most of her time reminiscing about her childhood, taking care of her father, and keeping him away from politics. The time was testing Jahanara’s patience as she could see the mistreatment of Dara’s kids by Roshanara and the cruelty of Aurangzeb, who sent the severed head of his brother to Shah Jahan.
When Shah Jahan passed away, Aurangzeb who despite his behaviour, had a deep regard for Jahanara, requested her to take back the position of Padishah Begum (then occupied by Roshanara) and increased her monthly revenue. As the Padisha Begum, she tried to change Aurangzeb’s opinion on religious aspects and strongly disagreed with his restoration of taxes on Hindus.
Later, she moved to Delhi and secluded herself from the public eyes to lead a life of simplicity away from the luxuries and riches of the Mughal palace. During her last days, when asked about her last wish, she said, “Let no marble cenotaph or rich gems cover my tomb. For even in death, graves are plundered for riches, and people find no peace. Let my tomb have an open sky and a grass covering. Because grass only grows back when being stepped on. God always cares for the poor”.
Jahanara died peacefully in 1681 at the age of 67 and was buried according to her wishes in a tomb in the Nizamuddin Dargah in New Delhi.
Jahanara's tomb, New Delhi