A Life Well Designed

Princess Jahanara Begum, the eldest daughter of Shah Jahan, followed her father’s footsteps by contributing several architectural gems to the cityscapes of India.

Princess Jahanara Designs Her Destiny

Princess Jahanara Begum Sahib (1614-1681) lived a life that far surpassed the title into which she was born. She stepped outside the archetypal role of a princess making herself better remembered as an architect, engineer, painter, poet, writer and activist.

Jahanara’s upbringing was anything but ordinary. She was the eldest daughter born to Prince Khurram and his favourite wife, Arjumand Banu Begum. Prince Khurram belonged to a family embroiled in bloody battles for the throne where he witnessed the deaths of his brothers in their pursuit of power. Nevertheless, Khurram and Arjumand shared a powerful love story that can be seen immortalized into what we know today as the Taj Mahal.

In 1620, political tensions peaked when the Persians besieged Kandahar (Afghanistan), an important gateway to India that the Mughal empire wanted to control in order to prevent foreign intrusions. As a result, Jahanara’s grandfather, Emperor Jahangir, raised a rebellion and expected support from the entire family. When Khurram refused to march for Kandhar—which was lost to the Persians after a forty-five-day siege—he was exiled, along with his family, to the Nizamshahi Territory in the Deccan, known as a wasteland filled with people of questionable morals and lowly character. Following the death of Emperor Jahangir seven years later, Khurram’s family returned to their royal place in Rajasthan.

Legend has it that Khurram faked his own death for the journey, tricking everyone in the entourage, including his children. Only Arjumand and a few confidants knew of his plan. When the caravan arrived back in Rajasthan, Khurram claimed the throne for himself, becoming Emperor of the Mughul Empire. Thus, he gained the title Shah Jahan, King of the World, and Arjumand became Mumtaz Mahal, Chosen One of the Palace, with Jahanara as Begum Sahib or Princess of the Princesses. As a teenager, Jahanara flourished in her newly appointed role and was already considered one of the most powerful women in the court.

Jahanara’s exquisite taste for her surroundings and architecture was fostered by her father, a great patron of the arts, who during his reign gave India some of its most magnificent monuments including: the Taj Mahal in Agra, Red Fort and Jama Masjid in Delhi, the Shalimar Gardens of Lahore, sections of the Lahore Fort, and the Tomb of Jahangir. During this time, Jahanara was under the tutelage of various masters in an array of disciplines. Her creativity shone through her paintings and poetry, leading Shah Jahan to ask for her opinion and help while executing his architectural projects.

In 1631, when Jahanara was 17, Mumtaz Mahal died during childbirth, leaving the Emperor in a state of lifelong mourning. Subsequently, Jahanara took the place of her mother as First Lady of the Empire—despite her father having three other wives—and became responsible for all family affairs. Years later, in 1644, at the age of 30, Jahanara’s heavily scented clothing caught fire, leaving her badly injured. Shah Jahan took on the role of nursing her back to health, unaware that he would need her to reciprocate years later. Upon recovery, Jahanara travelled extensively and returned home with much inspiration from abroad to inspire her architectural pursuits.

The Sahibi

Jahanara’s design projects came from a love for her surroundings. It was a passion that extended to the destitute far beyond the compound walls. Perhaps her most noble project was, The Sahibi, a ship she constructed that routinely sailed to Mecca distributing rice amongst needy citizens. In 1648, she teamed with her father to build the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India.

Jama Masjid in Agra, completed in 1648, Photo: W. Caney, 1880s

Jama Masjid in Agra, completed in 1648, Photo: W. Caney, 1880s

When Shah Jahan fell ill, his power-hungry sons began to fight amongst themselves for the throne. The victorious Aurangzeb executed his brothers and imprisoned his father, allowing Jahanara to take care of him until his last breath in 1666.

Following her father’s death, Jahanara continued her design projects. Her work included numerous mosques, homeless shelters, the famous Chandni Chowk Bazaar, hotels, and the ambitious 50-acre Shiba Abad Garden for members of the royal family. Chandni Chowk is still a busy shopping market containing over 1500 shops and originally included an elegant caravanserai—a roadside inn for weary travellers—with elaborate gardens. The canals running through it were designed to reflect moonlight. It was likened by French travellers such as François Bernier, who served as a personal physician in the royal court, to the Palais Royal in his native country.

Chandni Chowk, then and now.

Jahanara’s final years were spent outside the walls of the court when she left behind royalty to more freely explore her artistic and humanitarian passions. She dedicated her life to caring for others and creating beautiful spaces that ordinary citizens could enjoy and appreciate.

Upon her death at the age of 67, her brother Aurangzeb gave her the posthumous title Sahibat-uz-Zamani (Mistress of the Age), befitting for a lady who was certainly ahead of her time. The inscription on her tomb reads:

Allah is the Living, the Sustaining.
Let no one cover my grave except with greenery,
For this very grass suffices as a tomb cover for the poor.
The mortal simplistic Princess Jahanara,
Disciple of the Khwaja Moin-ud-Din Chishti,
Daughter of Shah Jahan the Conqueror
May Allah illuminate his proof.
1092 [1681 AD]

Simple, humble, and proud, are words that exude the spirit with which Princess Jahanara lived.

Story by Sara Aggarwal

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