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DAWN The Review, 2001

Mumtaz Mahal: the Lady of the Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

She lies buried under Taj Mahal. Her name was Arjumand (later Mumtaz Mahal), she was the immortal beloved of Prince Khurram (later Shahjehan), and a daughter of Abul Hasan (later Asaf Khan), a Persian at Jehangir’s court. Historians don’t tell us much about her beyond this. Let’s make an attempt to see what a traditional historian might have skipped.

Soon after the accession of Emperor Jehangir in 1605, Abul Hasan found himself in an awkward situation as his father had opposed the succession, and was now house-arrested, while a brother had foolishly participated in a revolt against the emperor and was executed. Asaf Khan, always trusting his wit and wisdom, set out to win back the favours of the moody Jehangir. A few years later, he was one of the most trusted companions of Jehangir while his father was virtually the Prime Minister of the land. By then, Asaf Khan had also succeeded in winning the Emperor’s heart to accept his daughter Arjumand as a wife for the Crown Prince Khurram.

Prince Khurram was a man who had always lived by the dictates of his mind. It is extremely unlikely that he would have fallen in love with the daughter of a suspect, and certainly impossible that he would have risked his father’s displeasure by asking for her hand. Hence, Arjumand’s marriage with Khurram must have been an arranged marriage, and there are two possible reasons why the emperor could have chosen this girl to be the future queen of India. If we are to believe that Jehangir in his youth had already been in love with Arjumand’s aunt Mehrunisa (later Nurjehan), then he may have chosen Arjumand for his son due to her blood relation with Mehrunisa, and due to a possible physical resemblance with her. On the other hand, it is equally possible that the match was a result of Abul Hasan’s own scheme to get closer to Jehangir. In any case, the betrothal took place in 1608, and was then conveniently forgotten – it seemed, for good. In the meanwhile, Khurram was married to the daughter of another courtier (incidentally, a Persian as well). Then, in 1611, Jehangir married Mehrunisa, and a year later Arjumand was also married to her fiancé.

In the next twenty years, Arjumand gave birth to fourteen children. The historians have taken this indicator to point at the physical intimacy between the couple. Indeed it was quite unusual for a medieval prince to retain interest in the same woman over twenty years, and especially for a prince like Khurram whose lust for variety in female company was well known and survived to the end of his days. Out of their fourteen children, four males survived. At least two daughters also survived, one of whom was the famous Jehan Ara who kept company with her father when he was imprisoned in his last days. She was generally reputed to be a woman of a kind nature but remarkable endurance: two traits that Mumtaz herself must have possessed in order to keep the heart of one of the most cold-blooded lovers in history.

Historians are quick to point out that unlike her aunt Nur Jehan, Arjumand had no taste for politics, and never interfered with the matters of the state (to the great satisfaction of male historians!). But those who draw this hasty conclusion obviously forget one major factor: Arjumand hardly lived up to four years into Shahjehan’s reign, which was exactly the period it took Nur Jehan to study the court politics before participating in it. We cannot be sure if Arjumand Bano (or Mumtaz Mahal, as she was called by Shahjehan after his coronation), would have also made a bid to play a greater role in the affairs of the state if she had lived longer.

We have, however, another interesting indirect insight into her character, which has generally escaped the historians. Out of the four of her sons who survived, the three elder ones who had an opportunity to grow up under her supervision were the best disciplined and the noblest generation in the entire dynasty since Tamerlane. Murad, the youngest, who got the fewest years to spend with his mother, turned out to be a hopeless alcoholic and a complete idiot. We know that Shahjehan spoiled the eldest son and completely ignored the others. Hence it is quite possible that Mumtaz Mahal had a soothing positivity about her that nurtured every soul who came in contact with her and yet left each soul to develop according to its own. She wasn’t like a teacher who struggles with the pupil’s minds to shape their character. She was more like a whiff of spring air that touches each flower as it passes, but leaves the flowers to blossom according to their own colors and perfume.

We don’t have authentic pictures of Mumtaz Mahal, though some Mughal miniatures are generally thought to be her likeness. In these, her features are heavily stylized to combine an imperial pride with a pleasant feminine hospitability. We have no way of being sure that these were the actual traits of her character, but they very well might have been.

The circumstances of Mumtaz Mahal’s death are better recorded. History tells us that she died while giving birth to her fourteenth child. Common tradition adds a little anecdote (the only one we have about her!). It is said that on deathbed she asked Shahjehan to promise that he would never marry again, so that their sons don’t have any stepsons to endanger their lives over the war of succession. In another version of this story, she is reported to have also asked Shahjehan to build a memorial after her that could stay till the end of time. Both these versions are highly suspect, since the building of Taj Mahal would have ignited the imagination of every storyteller to draw up a fitting deathbed dialogue between the dying queen and the emperor.

Hence, the only thing we know for sure about the human side of the lady who is buried in Taj Mahal is that we can’t be sure of anything. Ironically, history has given her the most lasting memorial and has erased everything memorable about her.

...the only thing we know for sure about the human side of the lady who is buried in Taj Mahal is that we can’t be sure of anything...

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