Life and Style of a Renaissance Woman: Nurjakhon

Issue #1 • 1252

I am not a moth that perishes instantly,
And suffer from a prolonged death like a candle
That burns itself nights away

Historically, our culture developed in streams as broad and deep that in terms of scale can be compared not only to the streams of rivers or seas, but well to those of an ocean. Experiencing the influence of the great contiguous civilizations, Central Asia not only generated advanced specimens of its own culture, but also dynamically propagated them among much experienced nations of the West and South, earning their deferential recognition. Its 14-15 century Renaissance brought certain personalities and events to historical prominence. One of these unique personalities was our half-forgotten and insufficiently recognized heroine Nurjakhon, wife of Jakhongir who was one of the Temurids and ruled in India. Her life and creative style reflected still largely unknown features of her epoch of transition from nomadic to sedentary living.

She arrived to India, a country new to her, during the time when a woman played a special role in the man’s quest for God. As early as in the 9th-12th centuries of Muslim Renaissance the Sufis likened their love of God to the ecstasy of a lover, and Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) saw in a woman the embodiment of Sofia, the Goddess of Wisdom, as she raised a man to the heights of love for God. In the Reformation Europe the idea was developed by German theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546), who declared matrimony an important factor of spiritual development. During the same time in Bengal, of yore obsessed with all kinds of divine magic, the ruler Oloviddin Khusain Shakh of the Saids of Arabic origin, extended his patronage to Sri Chaitanya (1486-1534), the preacher of supernatural, who, as “the embodiment of God and the guru of exalted love”, lead India’s spiritual Renaissance of the 16th century (2, p. 107), and a myth about Lord Krishna and Radkha, a milkmaid in love with him, was used by Chaitanya for preaching the idea of “a soul in love with God”.

In the city of Vrindavan, Chaitanya formed a group of theologians known as Six Gosvami. “In 1570 the Emperor Akbar, then 28, the eighth of the Temurid dynasty, arrived to Vrindavan that had become the centre of Krishna cult, for an unprecedented meeting with Jiva, one of the six Gosvami brothers, and the zealous preacher and famed philosopher of India” (2, pp. 147-148). Like Chaitanya, “Jiva Gosvami (1511-1596) identified God with Krishna, and preached that erotic love for Krishna is the climax of implicit submission of the soul to God and the ultimate blessing for a man in his vale of life” (3, pp. 244-246). Their meeting concluded in a characteristic for the epoch aspiration for enlightenment: it was decided to build a library in Vrindavan.

Upon return to his new government city Fotihpur Sikri with renewed vision, Akbar introduced a number of innovations; to begin with, he ordered his courtiers to approach him prostrated face downwards, as if they were approaching God. This borrowed Tibetan ritual symbolized humility, self-denial and absolute submission. And to cultivate the rite of erotic love of soul for God he built a five-storey tower Panch Mahal at the centre of his palace compound to be the place for entertainment, feasts and copulation. This ancient ritual of Tantra was usually practiced in five-tier (hence “Panch”, five) Indian temples; such temples were also built specially for emperors. Therefore, following the Panch Mahal of Akbar Rajputa, they built Govind Mandir palace (1620) with a similar tower at the centre of a courtyard for his son Jakhongir. But while Panch Mahal was the concentration of Akbar’s palace life, Govind Mandir stood empty waiting for Jakhongir to visit, just like the wives of Temur waited for him in suburban gardens of Samar-qand. Govind Mandir was no home to any of the ruling families as Jakhongir preferred spontaneous entertainment in another palace that was inspired by a Renaissance woman – truly spiritual partner of the Turkic rulers of India.

Mukhammad Shakh Khalji, the Sultan of Malva since 1469, built a two-storey 100 meters long Jakhaz Mahal (The Ship Palace) for his 15,000-strong harem, between the two ponds in his capital city Mandu. The palace with three halls alternating with small private chambers invoked imitations in 15th-17th century India: Yusuf Odil Shakh, the ruler of Bijapur, built his “Jakhazal” near a citadel, and the women of Man Singh, the ruler of Gvalior, reposed on a flat roof of a harem in pavilions similar to those in Mandu. In 1535 Jakhaz Mahal was captured by Babur’s son Khumayun, and in 1560 by Akbar who returned here two more times. Of the palaces around the ponds one called Khava Mahal (“khava” is the Old Turkic for “passion”) gave name to two Akbar’s pavilions in Fotihpur Sikri: the first one was attached tojiis harem, and the second one built by the lake.

The role of a Tantric woman was destined to be played by Mekhriniso who moved in the circles of Akbar’s imperial court. She was born in 1577 and was the granddaughter of Khoja Mukhammad Sharif, the vizier of Khorasan, and the daughter of Mirzo Giyosbek who sought his fortune in India and became Akbar’s treasurer with the title of Etimod ud-Daul (The Trust of the Nation). Against Akbar’s will, Ja-khongir loved Mekhriniso from his childhood. Having liquidated her husband Sher Afghan, valiant army general, he married her giving her the title of Nurmahal Begim (The Light of the Palace) and later on Nurjakhon Begim (The Light of the World). He admitted that only with Nurjakhon his home knew the pleasures and spirituality of marriage. Jakhongir properly maintained the romantic Jakhaz Mahal palace and visited it with his spouse on Navruz (the New Year) and Shab-i-Barat (Full Moon Night) holidays. “Jakhongir stayed in Mandu for more than seven months; for instance he arrived on the 6th of March and departed on the 24th of October, 1617. On Shab-i-Barat holiday the Emperor wrote: “On Thursday evening, the 26th, on Shab-i-Barat, in one of the halls of Nurjakhon Begim’s palace situated amid large ponds I convened the guests among amirs and courtiers to a feast arranged by Begim… What an amazing feast that was. At the beginning of the evening they lit lanterns and lamps on both ponds and in the palaces around them, and they all shone so brightly as perhaps was never seen anywhere else. The lanterns and lamps twinkled in the waters, and it seemed as if the entire surface of the ponds turned into a fiery valley…” (4, pp. 34-35).

As a wedding gift, Jakhongir gave to his spouse Babur’s garden called Gulafshon (Besprent with Blossoms) that was located in Agra, on the bank of Jamna River, and she renamed it into Bogi Nurafshon (The Garden Emanating Light) and built in it a makhtabi above the river shore. In Akbar’s nomadic camp (and he used to travel along his empire for several months) a makhtabi was a space (90 by 135 meters) separated by canvas partitions used for private receptions; at the centre of it there was a throne mounted on a platform that was known as namgira. The makhtabi that Nurjakhon ordered to be built of stone in the garden had a pool in the centre and in the middle of it the namgira platform, as her asthmatic husband need space and cool-n’ess. In Khorasan, Nurjakhon’s native land, there was a custom to play otash bazi (fireworks) at night during the month of Ramadan. Players divided into two groups and burned Bengal lights (in Persian mokhi-tob – moonlight) (5, p. 94). Inspired by this, Nurjakhon also separated her makhtabi from the rest of the garden by two buildings -the northern and the southern – to hold ceremonies or banquets, and also for chancellery needs. To Jakhongir’s pleasure, she likened these two buildings to Jakhaz Mahal palace in that both had three open and airy verandas alternating with small private chambers. Only a woman could thus repeat Jakhaz Mahal, as the chambers were also meant for intimacy with her.

By these transformations Nurjakhon facilitated the transition of Temurids from nomadic canvas to stationary stone architecture. Before Nurjakhon this process was started by Akbar who built stone palaces Devoni Khos and Khazinai Khos in Fotihpur Sikri palace compound, following the model of tent structures of Seljukid nomadic camps of the llth-12th centuries. Jakhongir reminisced of the time spent in the makhtabi of that garden: “In March 1621, on Wednesday, surrounded by ladies who accommodated themselves in the boat, I sailed to the Nurafshon Garden and rested there during the night. As the garden belongs to the household of Nurjakhon Begim, on Thursday, the 4th, she held a reception to mark the beginning of the 16th year of my rule, and endowed with gifts everyone who arrived” (6, pp. 199-200).

The traveling camp of Emperor Akbar stretched for two kilometres, and west of makhtabi at the centre of the camp there was a fenced circular area with a tent in the middle; on the periphery it was divided into 12 segments. “In each of these segments there was a cosy tent, and the entire area was called ibachki, and this name used by His Majesty was of Chagatai” (7, pp. 47-49) (Chagatai is the name of the second son of Genghiz-khan who ruled in Central Asia – Sh. A.). Similar camps comprising a central tent surrounded by other tents were called kyurien (circle) by Mongols (8, pp. 245, 243-260). But Turks began to refer to it in a more specific way: ibachki. The word is a derivative from eb (the Old Turkic for dwelling, household, camp) and ebchi (woman, wife) plus the suffix of belonging -ki, which reflected the reality of life at that time: for nomads any station, settlement, Orda (or Urda) meant a woman and a harem. In Akbar’s camp the ibachki functioned as gender regulator, if one can put it this way; here the Emperor communicated privately both with men from the west of the camp and women from the east. Rather flexibly, Nurjakhon transformed these secret tents of Turkic ibachki into a stationary architecture.

Having married Jakhongir at 34, at the age of 40 she still converted these canvas tents into intimate stone chambers similar to those she saw in Jakhaz Mahal palace and built in her garden in the two makhtabi buildings for Jakhongir; but at 50 and in the zenith of her power, although she again repeated for Jakhongir two similar buildings in Khasan Abdal Garden (12 kilometres away from historic Taksila), they no longer resembled even slightly those little chambers. In these two famous gardens Nurjakhon radically changed the overall composition of a Temurid garden and its space of pleasures: modestly imitating the Jakhaz Mahal palace in the two buildings in the Babur Garden, later on she positioned two similar buildings right on a central axis of Khasan Abdal Garden and laid them out to emphasize not only the space of makhtabi with the Emperor’s throne positioned on the axis, but also her own, feminine, supreme power.

The First Lady ruled on behalf of Jakhongir from 1616 to 1627 and rose to the position of a finance minister, “ruling the state from behind a harem curtain” (9, p. 15). Nurjakhon was also quite talented in decorative art, into which, promoting the culture of Khorasan and also Italy, she introduced new dress cuts with her famous Kinari lace (10, pp. 93, 122) that stayed in fashion up until the end of the 17th century. In the mausoleum of her brother Asaf Khan the inner surface of the dome is finished with “a graceful intertwining relief on plaster that resembles fabrics from Italy and Sicily, which already began to penetrate Temurid palaces in India” (11, p. 107). Later on Nurjakhon ordered similar lace to be carved over white marble to decorate the mausoleum of her father and mother (1622-1628). Very soon and now a different customer ordered that this lacy network be employed in a miracle called Taj Mahal (1б31-1б48). The authorship of Taj remains the subject of political, religious and cultural ambitions, yet it is obvious from the results of the work done by its known creators: in the four minarets by the Turkish architect Mukhammad Isa Efendi, the apprentice of the great Sinan; in a Temurid geometry of the brick-and-stone frame of Taj and its white marble facing performed by masters Mukhammad Sharif from Samar-qand, Ota Mukhammad and Shokir Mukhammad from Bukhara; as well as in a refined finishing by Venetian jeweller and architect Geronimo Verroneo.

This multinational team was directed by the cold-minded calculation of the great “system manager” Shakhjakhan. Yet even the work of this exclusively male team of masters from all over the world was influenced by Nurjakhon and her distinct style, despite the fact that she was sent in exile and removed from all affairs of state and society. Following Jakhongir’s death in 1627, Shakhjakhan banished Nurjakhon to Lahore; yet he remained impressed with the mausoleum she built for her parents. Shakhjakhan fancied the finest geometric and vegetable carved ornament on white marble in imitation of Nurjakhon’s soft lacy textiles that decorated the galleries of that burial-vault. He developed the technique in veranda semidomes in the centre of each of the four Taj Mahal facades, having turned the mausoleum ceilings in truly gigantic white lacy shawls emphasizing the overall feminine harmony of Taj. The dome that crowns the mausoleum is associated by Indians with breast full of milk, but as Taj was devised as an image of God’s throne, its dome at the same time is likened to the outline of the back of the thrones of Indian deities and is shaped like a lotus in the bud, thus symbolizing not only the femininity of Mumtaz Mahal who rests here, but also (in a broader context) a potential for enlightenment according to the Buddhist cult of Tantra practiced by the Temurids of India in order to reach God.

Nurjakhon interred Jakhongir in the surroundings of Lahore, in her garden called Dilkusho (Joy for the Heart) just as the garden of Temur’s wife in the suburbs of Samar-qand. She was not allowed to be buried next to her husband. Nurjakhon who died in 1638 was interred in a remote corner of the garden in a mausoleum that modestly echoed the resplendent mausoleum of her husband; here she hared the deathbed with her daughter of the first marriage. However, even here this talented woman who once lay with the Emperor on beds bestrewn with rose petals departed from this world in great style. “The marble sarcophagus was a real piece of art, of the same size and quality as the ones above Jakhongir and Asaf Khan, in the same garden, and bore engraved inscriptions that spoke of God. After some time the mausoleum was looted. Marble and flowery mosaics that covered all its vaulted chambers were torn down by Ranjit Singh. Now it is a tattered one-storey building. At the centre of it there are two tombstones of Nurjakhon and her daughter Ladli Begim. Beneath the stones there is chamber containing their tombs. When Ranjit Singh tore down the precious ornamental tiles, he lowered himself to such barbarism that he even intruded the underground chamber where the two coffins suspended on metal chains were discovered. The chains were severed and the coffins buried into the ground. And the opened chamber with broken doors was left to the mercy of wild beasts” (12, pp. 109-110).

By that time the royal pastime in the company of women in the spirit of Tantra cult that existed during Nurja-khon’s time lost its experimental flavour of searching for God and ascension to the divine. A woman was no longer regarded as a spiritual partner. Distinctions between Sufic orders once influential in Temurid societies were becoming obliterated, and heavenly shrines of Tantric cult lost their former mystery and were now copied in ordinary garden pavilions. Eight-day fair organized by Shakhjakhan in a locked citadel of his new capital city Shakhjakhanabad was intended for music and dancing in a specially constructed new palace hall that sparkled with mirrors, enamelled ware and gemstones. The former spirit of righteousness was replaced with the freedom of morals. “Formal distinctions in Sufic orders were getting blurred as scholars and theologians were crowded out by countless dervishes who were lazy and illiterate. Feasts in the shelters of Sufic saints in Shakhjakhanabad gathered townsfolk and pilgrims day and night. And those who religiously recited holy scriptures mixed in these crowds with those who were looking for entertainment and mere onlookers, beauties and perverts, and all this was quite confusing in terms of what is holy and what is vulgar, what is piety and what is lust” (13, pp. 65, 97,174). The epoch parted with heavenly ideals of the past centuries and acquired cold earthly rationalism of new time. This led naturally to the construction of Taj Mahal in the shape of God’s throne on Earth, and to the planning of the seventh city of Delhi Shakhjakhanabad in the form of the stellar order of Heaven reflected here on Earth.

On the background of these changes, the years of Nur-jakhon’s rale excite an increasing interest. The First Lady of Jakhongir’s empire surpassed Tantric woman who was assigned a spiritual role. Following the previous experience of her father-in-law Akbar who turned canvas tents of nomadic camps into stone palaces, she also threw a bridge from nomadic Temurid architecture to a stationary one by means of feminization of private spaces, doing it her own womanly way. Nurjakhon embraced the architecture of Jakhaz Mahal, the Palace of Pleasures, the heritage of the Turkic rulers of India, and implemented its idea in the pavilions of Babur’s Garden and Khasan Abdal Garden in a new way, highlighting by means of architecture the place for the emperor and place for herself, the woman in power. Having thus altered Turkic and Temurid spaces for confidential and intimate retreat, Nurjakhon once and for all feminized architectural decorum, which was subsequently reflected in the exquisite art system of Taj Mahal. Architectural lace of her structures was most evidently continued in a refined decorum of this unique mausoleum.
The pictures of architectural object were taken by the author.

Shukur Askarov

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