The marriage of Emperor Jahangir and Empress Nur Jahan, named Mehrunissa at birth, was a partnership fixed in heaven. It was widely known that Jahangir was captivated by the radiance and charm of Mehrunissa as he saw her then in the Mina Bazaar, so much so that two months after their initial meeting, on 25 May, 1611, the two were married. Very few details are known of their first meeting, of their short courtship, or of the marriage ceremony itself. Mehrunissa and Jahangir were married by a qazi and that great celebrations were held during which the couple received many presents and gold and silver from the nobles. Since Mehrunissa was Jahangir’s last legal wife, taken at a time when he was in full power and had all the luxuries of the empire at his command, it is likely that the ceremony was extremely lavish. It was noted that ordinary Muslim marriages were carried out with great festivity and entertainment and it is quite probable that noble marriages like this were equally grand.
The extraordinary marital partnership between Jahangir and Nur Jahan did cast a spell on the Mughal Empire and brought about a distinct colour in the evolving Mughal myth. Once married they became a devoted couple with Jahangir so engrossed with her charms that, for the first time in medieval times in the subcontinent, he got coins struck in her name. Nur Jahan led a tumultuous life but despite that her personal charisma and sturdy qualities of head and heart provided her a special place in the annals of history.
Mehrunissa was, by tradition, a remarkable beauty. Few contemporary sources actually comment on her physical appearance and most early miniaturists depict her, as they do all noblewomen secluded by the custom of pardah whom they could not paint from life, according to the current standards of female beauty. She was described as a tall, attractive woman of proportionate limbs who even at the age of thirty-five had such charm and grace that the Emperor Jahangir became enamoured of her. Later sources suggest that in beauty she excelled all the ladies of the East and with an extraordinary education in the arts, had no equal among her sex.
The Mughal festival of Nauroz also held a special place in the lives of the imperial couple. The Nauroze festival of 1611 was held, as many others were, in the emperor’s palace at Agra. It was during his playful rounds through the women’s bazaar that Jahangir first came upon Mehrunissa, who was there to shop with her patron, Ruqayya Begum. Gazing upon her unveiled face as she stood in the bazaar, Jahangir fell in love with her and decided then and there to make her his wife.
There was little that stood in the way of Jahangir’s marriage to Mehrunissa. She was from a good Persian family whose members had established them, though not altogether consistently, as eminently useful to his empire. Her father and brother both served as chief ministers of the emperor. In addition, her early marriage to the emperor suspected to be involved in her husband, Sher Afgun, did not prove to be a major barrier. In her case neither her family background nor her previous marriage seem to have been half as important as her beauty that was the preeminent requirement of any potential partner of Jahangir’s as he was an acknowledged aesthete. Moreover the highly grown intellectual faculties of Mehrunissa and her all-round ability endeared her to Jahangir to the extent that he remained besotted with her throughout their marriage.
The propitious Nauroz was one of the two annual holidays celebrated with special pomp at the Mughal court, the other being the emperor’s birthday. It had been introduced by Akbar in 1582 in imitation of the Persian custom, was later abolished by Aurangzeb (presumably because it was pagan) but was eventually revived by the latter’s Mughal successors. The Nauroz originally lasted for nine days but in Mughal times it had become a festival of eighteen days. Marking the commencement of the new year, it began on the day the sun moved into Aries and ended eighteen days later, on the nineteenth of the month, with two days being special days of gift giving and favours, the first day of the month of Farwardin and the nineteenth, the time of Sharaf.
Nauroz was ordinarily a time of merrymaking and abandon. It had as its centerpiece, however, a formal celebration of the majesty and generosity of the emperor. As Jahangir celebrated Nauroz, a throne was erected in the middle of the darbar courtyard four feet above the ground. A rectangular space, measuring 56 by 43 feet, was closed around by fine curtains and canopied over by awnings of gold cloth, silk, or velvet. At the upper end, on the inside, the enclosure was decorated with pictures Jahangir had received from Europe and on the ground underfoot were placed fine Persian carpets. The throne itself was made of wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl and it was hung over with a costly canopy, supported by four columns covered with silver and sporting a fringe strung with pearls and hollow pomegranates, apples and pears made of pure gold.
Around the throne, where the emperor sat on a cushion embroidered with pearls and gemstones were tents for the chief ministers of the court where they could display with appropriate extravagance whatever treasures they might possess. In earlier times, the emperor would go into each of the ministers’ tents, take what he pleased and return to his throne but now he waited for gifts to be brought to him. According to Jahangir, who was perhaps the source, Akbar had had each of his great nobles prepare an entertainment on each of the seventeen or eighteen days of Nauroz and on their day present him with gifts from which he would choose what he wanted. Jahangir seems to have forsaken this custom and to have opted for a more informal exchange of presents and good wishes. In special places prepared for them, the women of the court could sit and watch the men’s proceedings without themselves being seen. Near the end of the feast, the emperor distributed small gifts and favours to the courtiers who had pleased him and frequently used the occasion to announce promotions at court and on the battlefield.
The Nauroz was an especially festive time for women. As a part of the celebrations a fancy bazaar known as the Mina Bazaar like the monthly Khushruz or pleasure day, was set up in the women’s apartments, where wives of the nobles could shop at stalls as in an ordinary market. In manner of a fair, wives of tradesmen would bring in items of merchandise from all over the country and sell them. With no other men present, the emperor would go among the open stalls, acting as broker for his women, haggling and flirting with all the ladies and with his gains that night make his supper. He could also learn from the gossip of the tradeswomen who had come from every part of the region what is said of the state of the empire and the character of the officers of government and learn as well the specific grievances of the trades-people. It was clearly a time, then, of great pleasure, as well as of economic and political gain for all those who participated including, and perhaps especially, the emperor. TW