The lady behind the Sheesh Mahal

June 23, 2019

The beloved queen of Shah Jahan, Mumtaz may not have lived to witness the realisation of her dream -- that is, Sheesh Mahal. But the ‘palace of mirrors’ shall always be associated with her

The lady behind the Sheesh Mahal

The Lahore Fort has been revealing its secrets to those who seek them. Other than it being a fortress for the Mughal dynasty, it had been their abode of choice, which made them add pleasuring apartments to the magnanimous palace. One such building is the Sheesh Mahal, literally translated as ‘Mirror Palace,’ which was commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1631 and completed in 1632.

Popular legend has it that Mumtaz Mahal, the beloved queen of Shah Jahan, had a dream one night that she was floating in the air so high that she could touch the stars. Upon awakening, she expressed wistfulness for the ecstasy she had felt in the dream. The answer to that longing was the construction of Sheesh Mahal, within Jehangir’s Quadrangle -- the courtyard which houses opulent structures such as the Pari Mahal and Naulakha Pavilion.

As the name suggests, the Sheesh Mahal looks like a building made with finely cut mirrors -- the kind we find embedded with embroidery. Though, these mirrors were paired with diamonds, pearls, and precious stones originally.

Face front, the Sheesh Mahal has five arched entrances that allow the visitors to be mesmerised in the glittering and reflective qualities of hundreds of thousands of mirrors all over the walls and the ceiling. The verandah is just the façade, since the opulently decorated bedroom of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz lies way behind, nicely tucked away among a cluster of other rooms.

The bedroom has an opulent ceiling, star-shaped and studded with crystals that even shine in the dark. To think that the trace of golden frames and lines, now freshly painted, was actually gilded, the red plastic-glass crystals and blue ornaments had to be put in the wall structures recently, to fill for the looted rubies, emeralds, lapis lazuli, and sapphires, is overwhelming. "Only two candles can light up the whole Sheesh Mahal, since the mirrors reflect light extraordinarily," says the local guide at the Lahore Fort. And so it does, at night when battery-run candles light up the place, making it glisten like a huge disco-ball from a distance.

Right outside is a square of fountains with a small, raised platform in the middle, which can be reached by a walkway. When the moon is full, it shines right on the platform and the gushing fountains scatter the light, and reflect it on the mirrors of the Sheesh Mahal. Such lavishly flamboyant would an emperor express his love for his beloved queen, who attempted to realise her dreams. Mumtaz could not live to witness the completion of the Sheesh Mahal but nonetheless, the Sheesh Mahal will be associated to her romance with Shah Jahan in all times to come.

Mumtaz Mahal, whose real name was Arjumand Bano Begum, was born in the house of a Persian man, Asif Khan, brother of Empress Nur Jehan and son of Itemadud Daula, Jehangir’s confidante. Just like Jehnagir met and fell in love with Nur at the yearly Meena Bazaar at the Fort, Arjumand and Khurram (Shah Jahan) too spotted each other very early in their lives and became what we now call, childhood sweethearts. Giles Tillotson writes in his book Taj Mahal: "In 1607, Mumtaz was engaged to Shah Jahan but since the betrothed couple was merely out of childhood, the marriage was not solemnized."

Nur Jehan, Shah Jahan’s step mother, who had fought vigorously to stay in power, had quietly retired after her husband Jehangir’s demise, and Mumtaz had the complete freedom to exercise her role as Baadshah Begum, which she did owing to her intelligence and intellectual capacities.

Shah Jahan’s biographer Muhammad Amin Qazvini describes in detail why the consummation of the marriage took years at a stretch: Shah Jahan was a military man, ever since he had been put into training for the imperial throne by his father Jehangir. During one of the combats, he learnt of four miscreants who were trying to overthrow Jehangir from the throne while his soldier son was out in battle. Shah Jahan sped back to the fort, to apprise Jehangir of the ill news and the latter took a swift action by ordering "Off with their heads!"

As much as Shah Jahan was lauded for saving the kingdom on both ends, it cost the prince his love life, since one of the four conspirators of the throne was Asif Khan’s youngest brother, Mumtaz Mahal’s uncle. ItemadudDaula, Shah Jahan’s grandfather’s most trusted man, too, was imprisoned and, thus, the marriage was called off for purely political reasons.

Shah Jahan, who had to be raised to the level of manhood from boyhood, got married to a royal princess. Mumtaz Mahal, however, stayed loyal, and did not marry or court anyone.

Fergus Nicoll, in his book, Shah Jahan: The Rise and Fall of the Mughal Empire, writes: "After a hiatus in their engagement of merely five years, Prince Shah Jahan took Arjumand Bano (Mumtaz Mahal) for his second wife on Friday 10 May, 1612.

"And so, Lady Arjumand Bano, daughter of a Persian family, entered into South Asia’s greatest ruling family, travelling to her harem on a palanquin caparisoned in gold. After canvassing opinions among the elders of the court, Shah Jahan focused on Mumtaz’s weighty dignity, her intellectual capabilities, and her beauty. She was, he concluded, simply the finest woman in the royal household -- the ‘Most Exquisite of the Palace’ -- the very name that has echoed down through history, Mumtaz Mahal."

With Mumtaz in the palace, Nauroz celebrations became the norm. The first Nauroz during Shah Jahan’s regime saw the royal riches being doled out by the bucket, especially on Mumtaz Mahal herself. Nur Jehan, Shah Jahan’s step mother, who had fought vigorously to stay in power, had quietly retired after her husband Jehangir’s demise, and Mumtaz had the complete freedom to exercise her role as Baadshah Begum, which she did owing to her intelligence and intellectual capacities.

According to Nicoll, "Mumtaz Mahal was given powers equivalent to those given to Nur Jehan and far greater personal resources. Indeed, her role grew rapidly, until foreign ambassadors were heard to observe with disdain that public business slept until it was referred to her, while the emperor was governed and wound up at her pleasure."

Mumtaz Mahal was in possession of the Royal Seal, coins were minted in her name and she was declared to be an all-in-all power, worthy enough to declare edicts and royal farmaan (decrees) on her own. Nicoll quotes one of the farmaans given by her for the lands of revenue in the emperor’s name: "It should be the endeavor of the Kanuji to adhere to the prescribed rules and regulations of His Majesty the Emperor: to treat the peasants and residents of that place in such a way that they feel satisfied and grateful to him and the population and the cultivation of the district increase day by day and to practice sincerity, honesty and devotion. He should try in such a way that not a single rupee of the government in this regard is lost or wasted."

Mumtaz was a supporter of women taking up positions of importance at the palace and, to begin with that, she hired female tutors for her children. Besides, wet-nurses were made part of the royal household. She herself, like Nur Jehan, her mother-in-law, was a trader and merchant who had a ship out at sea that would sell local goods to foreign lands in exchange for Chinese silks, Persian brocades, and other exquisite merchandise.

The Empress Mumtaz Mahal lived a life of luxury. However, during her 18-year-old marriage with Shah Jahan, she gave birth fourteen times. Of her eight sons, four survived; out of six daughters, three died. Due to the fondness Shah Jahan, the military-minded Emperor had for Mumtaz, he never left her behind even when he went to battle or expeditions and, thus, a pregnant Mumtaz was often spending her difficult days of labour in camp-like dwellings. It was the birth of her fourteenth child -- a girl -- that she died, in a camp away from home, while Shah Jahan played his daily game of chess with his favourite daughter, Jahan Ara, in Burhanpur.

When Mumtaz felt the end was near, according to Mohammad Latif, a historian from the 19th century, she "looked at the king with despair and with tears in her eyes, and admonished him to take good care of the children, as well as her own aged father and mother."

Tillotson says that Shah Jahan grieved endlessly for her as he refused to wear any jewels or perfumes for two years nor did he listen to any music. And the portraits show his beard went white.

If the Sheesh Mahal in Lahore was a way to express his love for Mumtaz Mahal while she lived, the Taj Mahal in Agra was a way to express his grief and remorse after she died. Taj Mahal houses the graves of all of Shah Jahan’s wives and himself, as well as the chief maid of Mumtaz, but the Sheesh Mahal has been preserved wholly as a memory of the romance between Mumtaz and Shah Jahan.

The lady behind the Sheesh Mahal