The Lady of the Taj Mahal – Arjumand Banu Begum

The Lady of the Taj Mahal- Arjumand Banu Begum

A short Biography

Courtesy: Mr. Rashid Patch, former US Marine Corps

Mumtaz Mahal, meaning “beloved ornament of the palace”) was the name conferred upon Arjumand Banu Begum, Empress of India during the Mughal Dynasty. She was born in Agra, India into a family of Persian nobility, as a daughter of Abdul Hasan Asaf Khan, making her a niece (and later daughter-in-law) of Empress Nur Jehan (who subsequently became the wife of the emperor Jahangir). Her younger sister Parwar Khanum married Sheikh Farid the son of Nawab Qutubuddin, the governor of Badaun who was also emperor Jahangir’s foster brother. As a Persian princess, she was religiously a Shia Muslim.  She was married at the age of 19, on 10 May 1612, to Prince Khurram, who would later ascend the Peacock Throne as the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan I. Though betrothed to Shah Jahan in 1607, she ultimately became his third wife, in 1612, and was his favorite. She died in Burhanpur in the Deccan (now in Madhya Pradesh) during the birth of their fourteenth child, a daughter named Gauhara Begum.

In 1607 AD (1016 AH), Prince Khurram, also known as Shah Jahan, was betrothed to Arjumand Banu Begum who was just 14 years old at the time. She would become the unquestioned love of his life. They would, however, have to wait five years before they were married in 1612 AD (1021 AH), on a date selected by the court astrologers as most conducive to ensuring a happy marriage. After their wedding celebrations, Khurram “finding her in appearance and character elect among all the women of the time”, gave her the title ‘Mumtaz Mahal’ Begum (Chosen One of the Palace).  18 AH). The intervening years had seen Khurram take two other wives. By all accounts however, Khurram was so taken with Mumtaz, that he showed little interest in exercising his polygamous rights with the two earlier wives, other than dutifully siring a child with each. According to the official court chronicler, Motamid Khan (as recorded in his Iqbal Namah-e-Jahangiri), the relationship with his other wives “had nothing more than the status of marriage. The intimacy, deep affection, attention and favor which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence (Mumtaz) exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other.”  She was a woman with a kind heart.

Mumtaz Mahal had a very deep and loving marriage with Shah Jahan. Even during her lifetime, poets would extol her beauty, grace and compassion. Mumtaz Mahal was Shah Jahan’s trusted companion, travelling with him all over the Mughal Empire. His trust in her was so great that he even gave her his imperial seal, the Muhr Uzah. Mumtaz was portrayed as the perfect wife with no aspirations to political power in contrast to her aunt, Empress Nur Jehan, the wife of 4th Emperor, Jahangir who had wielded considerable influence in the previous reign. She was a great influence on him, apparently often intervening on behalf of the poor and destitute. But she also enjoyed watching elephant and combat fights performed for the court. It was quite common for women of noble birth to commission architecture in the Mughal Empire. Mumtaz devoted some time to a riverside garden in Agra.

Despite her frequent pregnancies, Mumtaz travelled with Shah Jahan’s entourage throughout his earlier military campaigns and the subsequent rebellion against his father. She was his constant companion and trusted confidante, and their relationship was intense. Indeed, the court historians go to unheard lengths to document the intimate and erotic relationship the couple enjoyed. In their nineteen years of marriage, they had fourteen children together, seven of whom died at birth or at a very young age.

Mumtaz died in Burhanpur in 1631 AD (1040 AH), while giving birth to their fourteenth child. She had been accompanying her husband while he was fighting a campaign in the Deccan Plateau. Her body was temporarily buried at Burhanpur in a walled pleasure garden known as Zainabad originally constructed by Shah Jahan’s uncle Daniyal on the bank of the Tapti River.  The contemporary court chroniclers paid an unusual amount of attention to Mumtaz Mahal’s death and Shah Jahan’s grief at her demise. In the immediate aftermath of his bereavement, the emperor was reportedly inconsolable.  Apparently after her death, Shah Jahan went into secluded mourning for a year.  When he appeared again, his hair had turned white, his back was bent, and his face worn. Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter, the devoted Jahanara Begum, gradually brought him out of grief and took the place of Mumtaz at court.

Her personal fortune (valued at 10,000,000 rupees) was divided by Shah Jahan between Jahanara Begum, who received half and the rest of her surviving children. Burhanpur was never intended by her husband as his wife’s final resting spot. As a result her body was disinterred in December 1631 and transported in a golden casket escorted by her son Shah Shuja and the head lady in waiting of the deceased Empress back to Agra. There it was interred in a small building on the banks of the Yamuna River. Shah Jahan stayed behind in Burhanpur to conclude the military campaign that had originally brought him to the region. While there, he began planning the design and construction of a suitable mausoleum and funerary garden in Agra for his wife. It was a task that would take more than 22 years to complete: the Taj Mahal.

No expense was spared; and at that time, the Moghul Empire was the richest nation on earth. Technicians and craftsmen came from around the world to work on the edifice. The surfaces of the interior, and the base of the exterior, are covered with inlay of precious and semi-precious stones: fields of flowers in carnelian, jade, and mother of pearl; monumental calligraphy in black onyx – much of it the work of Venetian stoneworkers recruited for the project. (Their descendants in neighborhoods around Agra maintain the tradition of stone inlay work.)a
Today, the Taj Mahal stands as the ultimate monument to love, and a homage to her beauty and life.

When Shah Jahan became ill in 1658 CE (1067 AH), Dara (Mumtaz Mahal’s eldest son) assumed the role of regent in his father’s stead, which swiftly incurred the animosity of his brothers. Upon learning of his assumption of the regency, his younger brothers, Shuja, Viceroy of Bengal, and Murad, Viceroy of Gujarat, declared their independence, and marched upon Agra in order to claim their riches. Aurangzeb, the third son, and ablest and most virile of the brothers, joined them and being placed in chief command, attacked Dara’s army close to Agra and completely defeated him.

Although Shah Jahan fully recovered from his illness, Aurangzeb declared him incompetent to rule and put him under house arrest in Agra Fort, where he remained for the next 8 years, until his death . His cell in Agra Fort is still shown to visitors. It has a single small window, high up in the wall. It is told that by polishing a silver coin on the stones of the cell, and attaching it to a pole, Shah Jahan was able to catch a glimpse of the outside; and from that point, the only thing visible was the Taj Mahal.

Confined to bed, Shah Jahan had become progressively weaker until, on 22 January 1666 CE (1076 AH) he commanded the ladies of the imperial court, particularly his consort of later years Akbarabadi Mahal, to the care of Jahanara. After reciting the Kalima and verses from the Qu’ran, he died. Jahanara planned a state funeral which was to include a procession with Shah Jahan’s body carried by eminent nobles followed by the notable citizens of Agra and officials scattering coins for the poor and needy. Aurangzeb refused to accommodate such ostentation and the body was washed in accordance with Islamic rites, taken by river in a sandalwood coffin to the Taj Mahal and was interred there next to the body of his beloved wife Mumtaz.

Her monument, the Taj Mahal, is one of the most recognizable structures in the world; It is widely considered as one of the most beautiful buildings ever constructed. It  stands as a symbol of undying  love.