In 1627, Mughal Emperor Jahangir was holding court in his capital – Lahore (in present-day Pakistan). He hadn’t been very well, and the summer heat was bearing down on him, so once his duties were done, he decided to head to Kashmir for some respite. That didn’t help; in fact, his condition worsened, and he decided to journey back to Lahore. He would never make it home.
On 28th October 1627, Jahangir died near Rajouri (now in Jammu & Kashmir). Here, in the middle of relative nowhere, near Bhimber (now in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), a hastily constructed grave was built for the 58-year-old Emperor beside a Mughal mosque.
His final resting place could only be Lahore. And so, over the next 10 years, a large square mausoleum was built, at the heart of a beautiful garden, with construction overseen by his beloved wife, Nur Jahan. Jahangir’s tomb remains one of the city’s most significant Mughal-era monuments.
Jahangir was born Nur-ud-din Muhammad Salim in 1569, and took the reins of the empire after his father Akbar’s death in 1605. Over the next 22 years, he would establish himself as an aesthete and connoisseur of the arts. He is considered among the least militarily inclined of the great Mughals, but is remembered for his interest in nature studies and the many folios that he commissioned of the flora and fauna of the subcontinent.
Another notable element of Jahangir’s reign were his coins. Soon after taking charge, Jahangir started issuing coins with portraits on them and is known as the first Mughal ruler to have done so. Immediately after his father Akbar’s death in November 1605, and even before his own coronation in March 1606, he commissioned coins bearing the face of his father.
And then here was the love story. Jahangir has been immortalised on page and screen as the famous Prince Salim, who fell so madly in love with Anarkali (some accounts put her down as a concubine of his father; others say she was a dancing girl) that their star-crossed love would feature in books and movies all the way to the 1960 Bollywood classic Mughal-e-Azam.
Another woman he loved would go down in history in a very different way. In 1611, Jahangir married Mehr-un-Nisa, the widow of Sher Afgan, a rebel officer under Akbar. She was his 20th wife, but the most favoured. He would give her the title of Nur Jahan or ‘Light of the World’.
Nur Jahan would become one of the most powerful women in Mughal history. She involved herself actively in affairs of the state and wielded such control that she even issued firmans (orders) and had coins stamped out bearing her image. Like her husband, Nur Jahan was a great patron of art and architecture. She is said to have built caravanserais along major trade routes to encourage trade.
She also had a plan for succession. It was her dream to see her husband followed on the Mughal throne by his son Shahryar, who, incidentally, was married to her daughter from her previous marriage. This plan of hers caused considerable friction between her husband and his elder son, Prince Khurram.
In 1622, Khurram – who would go on to become Emperor Shah Jahan – rose against Jahangir and Nur Jahan. When the fort of Kandahar (in present-day Afghanistan) was captured by Persians, he was asked to reconquer it. But fearing that in his absence they would push for Shahryar to be enthroned as Jahangir’s successor, he raised an army and marched against his father and stepmother instead.
In 1627, Jahangir and Nur Jahan were in Lahore, where Akbar had shifted the Mughal capital in 1585. It was also the couple’s favourite city. But when the summer heat began to tell on the Emperor, he left for Kashmir and then made that ill-fated attempted journey home. He died following a tragic hunting accident. The party had been in pursuit of a deer when one of Jahangir’s men fell over a cliff to his death. This had a deep impact on the Emperor, from which he never recovered.
It is said that the initial burial was a rather unusual one too – not all of the Emperor was laid to rest at the 16th-century Chingus Fort in Rajouri. Nur Jahan, legend has it, decided to delay releasing the news of Jahangir’s sudden death, to put off the war of succession that would inevitably follow. She would announce his demise, she decided, once the entourage reached Lahore. Meanwhile, to preserve the ruler’s remains, she ordered the intestines removed and buried near where he had died. Chingus, in fact, is Persian for ‘intestines’.
Nur Jahan then set off for Rajouri, to join the entourage headed home with the Emperor’s remains. His body made its way to Lahore under the supervision of Nur Jahan’s brother Asaf Khan, and a number of other nobles. The war of succession in the Mughal court lasted three months. Nur Jahan still wanted Shahryar to succeed his father. Shah Jahan managed to thwart that plan with the help of – of all people – Asaf Khan, who was always a partisan of Shah Jahan.
After Shah Jahan’s coronation (r. 1628-58), Nur Jahan stepped away from affairs of the state and led an austere life in Lahore. It is said she lived in the same complex where Jahangir’s tomb was being built. She turned to philanthropy and religion, would clean the tomb herself and sit by it and read from the Quran.
The mausoleum – situated in the Dilkusha Garden at Shahdara on the banks of the Ravi in Lahore – was completed in 1637, at a cost of about 10 lakh rupees. It is a striking structure. Some say the design was Nur Jahan’s, and it is described as the most magnificent Mughal edifice after the Taj Mahal.
There are no domes; it is said that Jahangir didn’t favour domes. Instead, on a large platform sits a single-storey structure built of red sandstone, covered in intricate patterns etched in bits of marble. Its front is a row of arches, topped by a vast flat roof with a minaret in each corner. It is said that the tomb was once decorated with precious stones.
When Nur Jahan died in 1645, she was buried by Jahangir’s side, in a crypt she had designed herself. Both graves are below-ground.
For Shah Jahan, the construction of the grand public monument was a rite of passage, helping affirm his own right to rule. But the tomb suffered considerable damage in the centuries to come. According to popular beliefs and notion, when the Sikh Emperor Maharaja Ranjit Singh (r. 1801-39) took over Lahore, he is said to have stripped the mausoleum of much of its precious ornamentation. However, there are no proofs for this theory and recently some scholars have challenged this. It is also said that during his time, the tomb was used as a residence for a senior military official.
The British East India Company captured Lahore in the mid-19th century and used an inn that stood within the compound – the Akbari Sarai – as a railway warehouse. While their railway-related activities caused damage to the mausoleum, they are also said to have restored parts of it. Over the years, the flooding of the Ravi also took a toll.
Jahangir’s tomb is now on a tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Wouldn’t that be a fitting end to the tale of Salim and his Mehr-un-Nisa?
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