Ruby Lal, author of 'Empress,' discusses the amazing life and reign of Nur Jahan

Lal explores the powerful Indian empress who was much more than a romantic icon.

Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan 1st Edition By Ruby Lal W. W. Norton & Company 36 pp.

If you grew up in South Asia, the lush 17th-century romance of a captivating young widow and a Moghul emperor is likely as familiar to you as Romeo & Juliet are in the West.

They meet, and she wows the ruler of tens of millions of people with her beauty, wit, and fearlessness. Wise and savvy, she becomes his beloved 20th wife and goes on to live an extraordinary life. She writes poetry, designs gardens and buildings, and even saves a village by hunting down and killing four dangerous tigers with six shots.

That's as far as the legend and the history books tend to go. But there's much more to the story, as historian Ruby Lal reveals in her fascinating new book Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan.

While some historians dismiss the idea that Nur Jahan was anything but a royal consort, Lal contends that she served as co-sovereign with her husband while living in a harem. In a culture of male dominance, Lal writes, "a new kind of power was on display."

"The basic facts," Lal said in a Monitor interview, "are pretty astounding. To put it plainly, she was the one woman we can count among the great rulers of India."

Q: Could you talk a bit about the Moghul empire, whose name inspired the word "mogul"?

The Moghuls were descendants of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane [a conquerer also known as also known as Timur and Amir Timur].

This was a pre-nation time, when the borders and territories that are the hallmark of modern nations do not exist. The area that we're talking about encompasses many different parts of Central Asia, places like Afghanistan, Iran, and India.

Q: What drew you to Nur Jahan, a Shiite Muslim from an immigrant Iranian family who marries a Sunni Muslim who is half-Hindu?

This is a woman who was clearly bold, independent, and very inventive in challenging the norm in quite extraordinary ways.

For me as a historian of India, the empress is not an add-on. She is the story of India. Once you know about people like her, you turn your head and see things differently. You see a place of creative, living, dynamic, influential women.

Q: How did you approach writing about her?

It's a delicate balance when it comes to writing about history and legend.

There is a vivacious public imagination about this story. People talk about extraordinary she was, how beautiful she was, and how she fell in love in 1611.

I didn't undo the legends. But I distilled them, thinking through her sovereignty, what was it that made her a sovereign.

She was powerful, she issued coins, she issued imperial orders. What I wanted to do was read these orders and look at those coins very closely: What was the meaning of the signature she adopted, what was the vision of imperial order?

Q. One of the most touching things you write about is how your storyteller mother told you about the legend of Nur Jahan when you were a child growing up in a Hindu household in India. Nur Jahan was Muslim, but that didn't seem to matter, right?

That's what drives most of my writing –  the plural heritage of India. It's a world in which a mother could celebrate Hindu, Muslim and Christian figures, celebrate all of them.

The world that I write about, that I grew up in, still exists: On the streets and corners of India, there are Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jesuits, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, people speaking more than 300 dialects. They co-exist.

Q: If you could meet Nur Jahan, what would you ask her?

I would compliment her more than ask her anything, and say, "I'm amazed that you did it."

This is what I've written about: the unexpected ways in which women use their creativity against all odds, against a very constraining environment.

Q: What could be more confining than a harem?


Q: What are you working on now?

My next book will be about Gulbadan Begum, a daughter of [founding Moghul emperor] Babur who dared to lead an all-women's journey to Mecca after the first harem was established. I'll explore a scandal hat had to do with her, shall we say, unorthodox activities.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Ruby Lal, author of 'Empress,' discusses the amazing life and reign of Nur Jahan
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today