Shah Jahan

Mughal Emperor of India

Emperor Shah Jahan

Mughal / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

From the often chaotic and fratricidal court of India's Mughal Empire sprang perhaps the world's most beautiful and serene monument to love - the Taj Mahal. Its designer was the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan himself, a complex man whose life ended in tragic circumstances.

Early Life

The child who would become Shah Jahan was born on March 4, 1592, in Lahore, now in Pakistan. His parents were Prince Jahangir and his wife Manmati, a Rajput princess who was called Bilquis Makani in the Mughal court. The baby was Jahangir's third son. He was named Ala Azad Abul Muzaffar Shahab ud-Din Muhammad Khurram, or Khurram for short.

As a child, Khurram was a particular favorite of his grandfather, Emperor Akbar the Great, who personally oversaw the little prince's education. Khurram studied warfare, the Koran, poetry, music, and other subjects suitable for a Mughal prince.

In 1605, the 13-year-old prince refused to leave his grandfather's side as Akbar lay dying, despite the potential threat from his father's rivals for the throne. Jahangir succeeded to the throne, after crushing an uprising led by one of his other sons, Khurram's half-brother. The incident brought Jahangir and Khurram closer; in 1607, the emperor awarded his third son the fiefdom of Hissar-Feroza, which court observers took to mean that 15-year-old Khurram was now the heir apparent.

Also in 1607, Prince Khurram was engaged to marry Arjumand Banu Begum, the 14-year-old daughter of a Persian nobleman. Their wedding did not take place until five years later, and Khurram would marry two other women in the meantime, but Arjumand was his true love. She later became known as Mumtaz Mahal - "The Chosen One of the Palace." Khurram dutifully sired a son by each of his other wives, and then neglected them almost entirely. He and Mumtaz Mahal had 14 children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.

When descendants of the Lodi Empire rose up on the Deccan Plateau in 1617, Emperor Jahangir sent Prince Khurram to deal with the problem. The prince soon put down the rebellion, so his father granted him the name Shah Jahan, meaning "Glory of the World." Their close relationship broke down, however, over court intrigues by Jahangir's Afghan wife, Nur Jahan, who wanted Shah Jahan's youngest brother to be Jahangir's heir. 

In 1622, with relations at their zenith, Shah Jahan went to war against his father. Jahangir's army defeated Shah Jahan's after a four-year fight; the prince surrendered unconditionally. When Jahangir died just one year later, in 1627, Shah Jahan became the Emperor of Mughal India.

Emperor Shah Jahan

As soon as he took the throne, Shah Jahan ordered his stepmother Nur Jahan imprisoned and his half-brothers executed, in order to secure his seat. Shah Jahan faced challenges and uprisings all around the edges of his empire, as well. He proved equal to the challenges from Sikhs and Rajputs in the north and west, and from the Portuguese in Bengal. However, the death of his beloved Mumtaz Mahal in 1631 nearly shattered the emperor.

Mumtaz died at the age of thirty-eight after giving birth to her 14th child, a girl named Gauhara Begum. At the time of her death, Mumtaz was in the Deccan with Shah Jahan on a military campaign, despite her condition. The distraught emperor reportedly went into seclusion for an entire year and was only coaxed out of mourning by his and Mumtaz's eldest daughter, Jahanara Begum. Legend says that when he emerged, the forty-year-old emperor's hair had turned white. He was determined to build his empress "the most magnificent tomb the world had ever known."

It took the next twenty years of his reign, but Shah Jahan planned, designed, and oversaw the construction of the Taj Mahal, the world's most famous and beautiful mausoleum. Made of white marble inlaid with Jasper and agates, the Taj is decorated with Koranic verses in lovely calligraphy. The building occupied 20,000 workers over the course of two decades, including craftsmen from far-off Baghdad and Bukhara, and cost 32 million rupees.

In the meantime, Shah Jahan began to rely increasingly on his son Aurangzeb, who proved an effective military leader and an Islamic fundamentalist from a young age. In 1636, Shah Jahan appointed him viceroy of the troublesome Deccan; Aurangzeb was just 18. Two years later, Shah Jahan and his sons took the city of Kandahar, now in Afghanistan, from the Safavid Empire. This sparked on-going strife with the Persians, who recaptured the city in 1649.

Shah Jahan fell ill in 1658 and appointed his and Mumtaz Mahal's eldest son Dara Shikoh as his regent. Dara's three younger brothers immediately rose up against him and marched on the capital at Agra. Aurangzeb defeated Dara and his other brothers and took the throne. Shah Jahan then recovered from his illness, but Aurangzeb declared him unfit to rule and had him locked up in the Agra Fort for the rest of his life. Shah Jahan spent his last eight years gazing out the window at the Taj Mahal, attended by his daughter Jahanara Begum.

On January 22, 1666, Shah Jahan died at the age of 74. He was interred in the Taj Mahal, beside his beloved Mumtaz Mahal.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Shah Jahan." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Shah Jahan. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Shah Jahan." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).