Jahanara Begum (1614-1681), the first surviving and daughter of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628-1658) and empress Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631) was born on March 23rd, 1614 C.E, in Ajmer, the auspicious Sufi pilgrimage city and final resting place of the principal guide of the Chishtiya order, Shaikh Khvaja Mu’inuddin Chishti (1143-1235). Ajmer was not only Jahanara’s birthplace but later served as her spiritual axis mundi and inspired the passionate and pious narratives of the princess’ two Sufi treatises: Risala-i-Sahibiyah (1639) and Munis al-arvah (1640) and the commission of the Begum Dalani (1637) portico and enclosure of the Ajmer tomb mausoleum. Shah Jahan’s daughter’s birth in the politically and spiritually rich context of Ajmer was a blessed moment and portends the princess’ unprecedented and prolific social, spiritual and political participation in the emperor’s imperial vision of his kingship and the Timurid-Mughal legacy.
Upon her mother’s untimely death in 1631, the seventeen-year-old princess was assigned her mother’s role as the head of the imperial harem and the keeper of the royal seal. In her role as the de facto consort queen to the powerful emperor Shah Jahan, her immediate duties included arranging the marriage preparations for three of her younger brothers, as well as assisting her father in the supervision and design of her mother’s tomb mausoleum, the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan sought emotional, spiritual and political comfort from his eldest daughter and frequently took her advice on a myriad of concerns. Shah Jahan’s high esteem of the princess is indicated in his entrusting her with the imperial seal as well as giving her fiscal freedoms that were unprecedented for imperial women. Shah Jahan’s fondness for his daughter was reflected in the multiple titles he bestowed upon her, which included Sahibat al-Zamani (Lady of the Age) and Padishah Begum (Lady Emperor) or Begum Sahib (Princess of Princesses). The imperial largesse assigned to Jahanara Begum, allowed high profile commissions alongside the works sponsored by the emperor including the first female-sponsored congregation mosque, khanaqah, hammam, caravanserai and several gardens. These works dotted the imperial landscape, were particularly spiritually and politically significant sites, and served as Jahanara’s agents of representation.
In her twenties, Jahanara Begum was introduced to Sufism by her Sufi-devout brother and heir apparent, Dara Shikoh (1615-1659). The ruler/prince-mystic connection pre-dates the Mughals to their Persian ancestors, the Timurids, and was formally implemented in India by Jahanara’s great-grandfather, emperor Akbar (1542-1605). Mystical associations and practices were inextricably connected to Timurid and Mughal rule and accommodated the social, political and spiritual needs of the imperial family in a more nuanced manner than traditional Islam. Jahanara Begum and Dara Shikoh continued the spiritual traditions under the spiritual tutelage of the renowned masters Mulla Shah Badakhshi (d. 1657) and Mian Mir (d. 1635), respectively. The Sufi princess took her brother’s lead and wrote the two Sufi treatises mentioned above that outlined and detailed her own journey into Sufism.
Biography by Afshan Bokhari
Know that, after the performance of religious duties, requirements, and the recitation of the Holy Qur’an, this weak woman who hopes for salvation regards no action as nobler than the remembrance of the spiritual states and stations of the revered saints (may God sanctify their spirits). Therefore, I have spent a portion of my time …
Extract from Risala-i-Sahibiyah (1640) Translated by Sunil Sharma Since my twentieth year I have had a sincere resolution and firm belief in the … order of the masters of Chisht (may their secrets be sanctified) and the ring of discipleship and servitude to the guiding pir, who is the pole of the saints, leader …
Bokhari, Afshan. “The ‘Light’ of the Timuria: Jahan Ara Begum’s Patronage, Piety and Poetry in 17th C. Mughal India,” Marg 60:1 (2008),pp. 52-61.
Bokhari, Afshan. “Between Patron and Piety: Jahan Ara Begum’s Sufi Affiliations and Articulations” in Sufism and Society: Arrangements of the Mystical in the Muslim World, 1200-1800 C.E., ed. by John J. Curry and Erik S. Ohlander (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), pp. 120-142.
Bokhari, Afshan. “Imperial Transgressions and Spiritual Investitures: A Begam’s “Ascension” in Seventeenth Century Mughal India, Journal of Persianate Studies (Special Issue), 4, no. 1 (2011), pp. 86-108.
Bokhari, Afshan. Masculine Modes of Female Subjectivity: Jahan Ara Begum’s (1614-1681) Patronage, Piety and Self-Fashioning in 17th C. Mughal India (London: I.B. Tauris, forthcoming).
Ernst, Carl W. (trans. and ed.). Teaching of Sufism (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1999), pp.194-5 and 196-9.
Helminski, Camille Adams. Women of Sufism, A Hidden Treasure: Writings and stories of mystic poets, scholars & saints (Boston and London: Shambhala, 2003), pp. 129-130.