Today in South Asian history: a monumental passing (1631)

I don’t usually worry about historical births and deaths around here–for one thing, most of the people I would cover reckoned time according to the Islamic calendar, so noting when they were born and/or died according to our calendar would be somewhat ahistorical. But today I feel like making an exception.

The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (d. 1666) is generally considered the third of the three “great” Mughal emperors: Shah Jahan’s grandfather, Akbar (d. 1605), and then his father, Jahangir (d. 1627), and then Shah Jahan himself. His son and successor, Aurangzeb (d. 1707) was also a successful emperor and in fact expanded the empire to its greatest size, but he crucially abandoned his three predecessors’ policy of religious pluralism in favor of a more Islamist ideology, which broke down the relationship between the Mughals and their majority Hindu subjects and ultimately led to the dynasty’s collapse (well, it was that and the arrival of the British). Shah Jahan’s reign is noteworthy in particular for its spectacular architectural projects. Maybe you already see where this is heading.

When he was 15, Shah Jahan (who was only Prince Khurram at the time) was betrothed to Arjumand Banu Begum, the daughter of a noble family. Arjumand was the genuine love of the future emperor’s life. It’s pretty rare to talk in those terms about a royal marriage, and indeed Shah Jahan himself married several other women for purely political reasons, but these two were legitimately in love. Arjumand bore him fourteen (!) children (only seven lived to adulthood) and was in many respects his most trusted political adviser. Shah Jahan gave her the nickname “Mumtaz Mahal,” meaning “Chosen one of the palace,” and Mughal historians wrote of her beauty, her intelligence, her charity, and, like I said, the deep love she and her husband shared.

When Mumtaz Mahal died, on (per our calendar, and allowing for some varliability) June 17, 1631, Shah Jahan was by all accounts devastated. He resolved to build her a magnificent tomb, and spared no expense importing the finest materials from throughout his empire and from distant lands like Arabia and Tibet. It took 22 years, but the building he commissioned, the Taj Mahal, may be the most recognizable structure in the world apart from the pyramids and, I don’t know, maybe the Colosseum. It’s a monument to Mumtaz Mahal and a ~350 year old testament to Shah Jahan’s love for her. It’s also increasingly threatened by pollution, so if you have the chance, see it soon.

The Taj Mahal complex (Wikimedia)


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