The Light of the World
“It is astonishing to find how many of the Mughal gardens throughout India and Kashmir owe their inception to, or were directly inspired by, the taste and the love of natural scenery and flowers of this royal lady, who… shared the joyous art-loving traditions of ‘her’ Turki and Persian ancestors.” Constance Villiers-Stuart, Gardens of the Great Mughals 1913.
A soupy grit of sun, sand and wind enfolds the caravan as it winds down the track. Asmat Begum rides behind her husband. She carries her baby, three weeks old. From Tehran to India is a terribly long journey, but there is said to be work at the court of Akbar the Great.
The camel saddle is painful, the baby feels like a squirming pile of bricks. The family had paused in Kandahar, just long enough for Asmat to give birth. With each thudding camel step the promise of a new life recedes with the mirage ahead. Asmat’s family is near the head of the caravan, and they clearly hear the cry. “Dacoits!” shouts the sentinel. Bandits--the most feared word of the caravan. Dacoits travel armed, and in a pack.
Asmat pushes the baby at her husband, untangles herself from the camel and falls to the ground. She reaches for the baby and is gone over a mound of scrub. She returns alone. The caravan continues on, as it must. There is nowhere to hide hundreds of camels, their riders and cargo. The thieves are soon upon them, and Asmat’s family comes away with their lives only. What few coins they had for their new life in Mughal land are gone.
The bandits vanish into the dust; the caravan reforms. A woman rides forward from the end of the line. Hearing a cry, she followed the sound and found Asmat’s baby behind the sticks of scrub that screened her. Silently the woman hands Asmat the child.
That baby would grow up to be Nur Jahan, the Light of the World. She would, incredibly, come to rule the mighty Mughal empire singlehanded, attaining power and honors unheard of for a woman.
Her family found positions at court; Nur grew up setting trends In the women’s quarters. Her designs of clothing, brocades, rugs, ornaments and jewelry would remain in fashion for generations. She composed poetry in both Persian and Arabic. And she was, by all accounts, dazzlingly beautiful.
The Emperor Jahangir met Nur at the New Year’s bazaar and proposed in a trice. He was a true aesthete, interested in painting, flowers, poetry and hunting. But, it was sharing his love of flowers and gardens with his wife that provided his happiest hours. For the Mughals the creation of gardens was an exalted endeavor. It was said that as they stormed across the land, conquering, the Mughals left gardens in their wake. Both the Emperor’s father Akbar and his grandfather Babur documented their plants and gardens extensively
The royal couple created gardens together throughout the empire, from the plains of Agra to the hills of Lahore. But in Kashmir they fell deeply in love with the land. After the couple’s first visit they decreed it would be the site of their summer palace. For 13 years the entire Mughal court decamped from Delhi and made the journey over the snowy Himalayas by elephant.
There she created with him their most beloved garden, a spectacular destination to this day: Shalimar Bagh. They were fascinated by the plants they discovered tumbling from the cliffsides, climbing into trees, and blooming in lakes. Here Nur found the fabulous Kashmiri blue lily, Nymphaea nouchali. She often transported plants to and from her various gardens, and she wanted the blue lily with her in India. She took cuttings and was successful in naturalizing it there. It would become famous when her stepson planted it en masse at his creation, the Taj Mahal.
Her husband concerned himself more and more with gardens and art. His taste for wine and opium grew apace and his interest in governance waned. He adored his wife, and trusted her implicitly. Gradually, incredibly, the affairs of the kingdom rested entirely in her hands. She made all decisions on affairs of state and issued all public edicts. The coin of the realm was all minted in her name. “By order of the King Jahangir, gold has a hundred splendours added to it by receiving the impression of the name of Nur Jahan, the Queen,” they read. Any one of these developments was unthinkable. The Mughal women of the times were all educated in the arts, philosophy and religion, but the aim was to make them pleasant companions for their husbands, not world leaders!
On Jahangir’s deathbed he was asked to recount his most important accomplishments. “Kashmir”, he replied. “The rest is worthless.”
With her husband’s death, Nur was overthrown and banished. She passed the last years of her life in exile with her daughter in Lahore. She gardened there to the end of her days as her home adjoined the Shahdara gardens, created by the couple in happier days.