First Family of Mughal Nobility III: Sun among Women

An outline of the early life of Mehr-un-Nissa (the future Nur Jahan) from her birth to the death of her first husband.

Opening Note: This is the third of a five-part story. It is about a family of nobles that seem to turn up repeatedly while studying Mughal history, making themselves almost indispensable across several generations of rulers, beginning with Akbar and going on till Aurangzeb’s successors, encompassing a period of over 130 years. In the first part, we explored the tomb of Parwar Khanum at Badaun, Uttar Pradesh. In the second , we outlined the story of Mirza Ghiyas Beg, who begins the family’s narrative in India. The third part is about the early days of Beg’s most illustrious daughter, Mehr-un-Nissa. (Links to the first two parts are at the bottom)

Imagine being born in a family that has just been robbed of almost all that it possesses, and that too when they were moving from Persia on an eastward path to the Mughal territory. A family that once enjoyed a high degree of comfort is now unable to feed their new-born child, with three older children already there to look after. This is how Ghiyas Beg’s fourth child and second daughter came into the world, at or just outside Qandahar in 1577.

Some accounts hold that the family was forced to abandon the child and that it was picked up by a merchant who came upon the route just after them. Further, when this merchant – Malik Masud –sought someone to look after and nurse the baby, a happy coincidence brought him to the Beg clan where he handed the child back to its biological mother who was overjoyed. Moreover, with Masud’s support, Beg was able to begin a career in the Mughal administrative system, in a journey that is outlined in the earlier part of this narrative. (link below)

The almost-lost child, on her return, was seen as a blessing and was named Mehr-un-Nissa or ‘Sun among Women’. With her father in a position in Kabul, little is known about her childhood. The stories – their veracity unknown – begin when she grows into a striking young woman in her teens. The gist of these unverified accounts speaks of a degree of proximity and possible attachment between Mehr-un-Nissa and the young prince Salim. If indeed such an attachment had taken place, it was unlikely to have happened at Kabul and more possibly at the Mughal courts of Agra or even Lahore. These accounts further hold that it is to nip this relationship in the bud that the Emperor Akbar himself recommends a match for the girl, leading to her first marriage.

A painting of Akbar in his court

Ali Quli Istalju was a Turkic origin person who had served as a ‘safarchi’ or table attendant to the Persian Shah Ismail II. After the Shah’s assassination in 1578, he made his way to Qandahar and from there into Punjab, where he met Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan at Multan. Istalju joined the Khan-i-Khanan’s army and did well in the campaign at Thatta (now in Sind, Pakistan). As a reward, he was granted a minor mansab.

In 1594, Istalju married the seventeen-year-old Mehr-un-Nissa. Accounts say that at some point afterward, he was part of an army led by Prince Salim against Mewar. This is somewhat contradictory to the storytellers who speak of a romance between Salim and Mehr-un-Nissa. It would be difficult to imagine her husband being part of an armed force with the prince himself present. Battlefields are a convenient place for fatal ‘accidents’ to take place. At this point, a note from the Jahangir-nama (translation), about Istalju:

He was in my father’s service for a long time. When my father was headed for the Deccan with good fortune and had assigned me to attack the Rana, Ali-QuIi became my retainer. I awarded him the title of Sher Afghan [lion-thrower]. Then, when I went from Allahabad to pay my respects to my exalted father, most of my retainers and men left me on account of the inattention that had been shown to me Ali-QuIi also chose to leave my service at this time. After my accession I was manly enough to overlook his faults and gave him a jagir in the souba of Bengal.

It is a fair assumption that most of Mehr-un-Nissa’s married years with Istalju were thus spent in his area of control in Bengal. Around 1605, the couple had one child, a girl named Ladli Begum. This was around the time that Emperor Akbar passed away and Salim took his place as ‘Jahangir’. In 1607, trouble erupted for Istalju.

A 17th century painting of Emperor Jahangir

During the reign of Jahangir, distance ensured officials posted in Bengal often paid little heed to instructions from their superiors in the capital. So, when Jahangir heard of Istalju’s lack of loyalty – or perceived lack of loyalty, he sent his foster brother and close friend Qutubuddin Koka to discipline Istalju and possibly, bring him back. Here’s how that went, as per the Jahangir-nama (translation):

From there I was informed that it was not proper to station the likes of such troublemakers in that province, so I ordered Qutbuddin Khan to send him to court. If he had any vain notions, he would pay the price. The khan knew him well enough, and as soon as the order arrived he took the men he had with him and set out at a gallop for Burdwan, Ali-Quli’s jagir. No sooner was Ali-QuIi informed of Qutbuddin Khan’s arrival than he went out by himself with two grooms to greet Qutbuddin Khan. After his arrival in the midst of the troop, the khan’s men pulled him off his horse.

Since Ali-QuIi’s suspicions had been aroused by the manner of Qutbuddin Khan Koka’s arrival, he said in order to catch him off guard, “What kind of leadership is this?” The khan had his men pull back, and he alone joined Ali-QuIi so that he could relate the contents of the order to him. Seizing the opportunity, Ali-Quli immediately drew his sword and wounded him two or three times with it. Since Amba Khan Kashmiri, a scion of the rulers of Kashmir, had a great affection and regard for the khan, he raced forward in loyalty and manliness and struck Ali-Quli a hard blow to the head, but the vicious fellow stuck a poniard into Amba Khan, fatally wounding him. When the men saw Qutbuddin Khan in this situation, they fell on Ali-Quli, chopped him to pieces, and dispatched him to hell. It is hoped that the disgraceful wretch’s place will forever be in hell.

Jahangir Receiving Qutbuddin Khan Koka at Lahore in 1605

The tomb of Istalju, or Sher Afghan, in Bengal

Some accounts, such as that of Sujan Rai, author of the Khulasatut-Tawarikh, imply that Istalju was deliberately killed at Jahangir’s instruction. The reason is attributed to the continuing infatuation the emperor possessed for Mehr-un-Nissa. Whatever the case may be, her husband lay dead – he was buried in Burdwan itself – and the lady found her way back to the imperial capital, with her daughter. The next part of this narrative will outline her life from this point onwards.

Links to earlier parts of this story:

Part I: Quest starts in Badaun:

Part II: The story of Mirza Ghiyas Beg: