Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.
Nūr Jahān, the Aunt of the Empress Nūr Mahal, over whose Remains the Tāj is built [1]

I crossed over the river Jumna one morning to look at the tomb of Itimād-ud-daula, the most remarkable mausoleum in the neighbourhood after those of Akbar and the Tāj. On my way back, I asked one of the boatmen who was rowing me who had built what appeared to me a new dome within the fort.

'One of the Emperors, of course,' said he.

'What makes you think so?'

'Because such things are made only by Emperors,' replied the man quietly, without relaxing his pull at the oar.

'True, very true,' said an old Musalmān trooper, with large white whiskers and moustachios, who had dismounted to follow me across the river, with a melancholy shake of the head, 'very true; who but Emperors could do such things as these?'

Encouraged by the trooper, the boatman continued:—

The Jāts and the Marāthās did nothing but pull down and destroy while they held their accursed dominion here; and the European gentlemen who now govern seem to have no pleasure in building anything but factories, courts of justice, and jails.'

Feeling as an Englishman, as we all must sometimes do, be where we will, I could hardly help wishing that the beautiful panels and pillars of the bath-room had fetched a better price, and that palace, Tāj, and all at Agra, had gone to the hammer—so sadly do they exalt the past at the expense of the present in the imaginations of the people.

The tomb contains in the centre the remains of Khwāja Ghiās,[2] one of the most prominent characters of the reign of Jahāngīr, and those of his wife. The remains of the other members of his family repose in rooms all round them; and are covered with slabs of marble richly cut.

It is an exceedingly beautiful building, but a great part of the most valuable stones of the mosaic work have been picked out and stolen, and the whole is about to be sold by auction, by a decree of the civil court, to pay the debt of the present proprietor, who is entirely unconnected with the family whose members repose under it, and especially indifferent as to what becomes of their bones.

The building and garden in which it stands were, some sixty years ago, given away, I believe, by Nājīf Khān, the prime minister, to one of his nephews, to whose family it still belongs.[3] Khwaja Ghiās, a native of Western Tartary, left that country for India, where he had some relations at the imperial court, who seemed likely to be able to secure his advancement.

He was a man of handsome person, and of good education and address. He set out with his wife, a bullock, and a small sum of money, which he realized by the sale of all his other property. The wife, who was pregnant, rode upon the bullock, while he walked by her side. Their stock of money had become exhausted, and they had been three days without food in the great desert, when she was taken in labour, and gave birth to a daughter.

The mother could hardly keep her seat on the bullock, and the father had become too exhausted to afford her any support; and in their distress they agreed to abandon the infant. They covered it over with leaves, and towards evening pursued their journey. When they had gone on about a mile, and had lost sight of the solitary shrub under which they had left their child, the mother, in an agony of grief, threw herself from the bullock upon the ground, exclaiming, 'My child, my child!'

Ghiās could not resist this appeal. He went back to the spot, took up his child, and brought it to its mother's breast. Some travellers soon after came up, and relieved their distress, and they reached Lahore, where the Emperor Akbar then held his court.[4]

Āsaf Khan, a distant relation of Ghiās, held a high place at court, and was much in the confidence of the Emperor. He made his kinsman his private secretary. Much pleased with his diligence and ability, Āsaf soon brought his merits to the special notice of Akbar, who raised him to the command of a thousand horse, and soon after appointed him master of the household. From this he was promoted afterwards to that of Itimād-ud-daula, or high treasurer, one of the first ministers.[5]

The daughter who had been born in the desert became celebrated for her great beauty, parts, and accomplishments, and won the affections of the eldest son of the Emperor, the Prince Salīm, who saw her unveiled, by accident, at a party given by her father. She had been betrothed before this to Shēr Afgan, a Turkoman gentleman of rank at court, and of great repute for his high spirit, strength, and courage.[6]

Salīm in vain entreated his father to interpose his authority to make him resign his claim in his favour; and she became the wife of Shēr Afgan. Salīm dare not, during his father's life, make any open attempt to revenge himself; but he, and those courtiers who thought it their interest to worship the rising sun, soon made his [Afgan's] residence at the capital disagreeable, and he retired with his wife to Bengal, where he obtained from the governor the superintendency of the district of Bardwān.

Salīm succeeded his father on the throne;[7] and, no longer restrained by his (scil. Akbar's) rigid sense of justice, he recalled Shēr Afgan to court at Delhi. He was promoted to high offices, and concluded that time had removed from the Emperor's mind all feelings of love for his wife, and of resentment against his successful rival—but he was mistaken; Salīm had never forgiven him, nor had the desire to possess his wife at all diminished.

A Muhammadan of such high feeling and station would, the Emperor knew, never survive the dishonour, or suspected dishonour, of his wife; and to possess her he must make away with the husband. He dared not do this openly, because he dreaded the universal odium in which he knew it would involve him; and he made several unsuccessful attempts to get him removed by means that might not appear to have been contrived or executed by his orders.

At one time he designedly, in his own presence, placed him in a situation where the pride of the chief made him contend, single-handed, with a large tiger, which he killed; and, at another, with a mad elephant, whose proboscis he cut off with his sword; but the Emperor's motives in all these attempts to put him foremost in situations of danger became so manifest that Shēr Afgan solicited, and obtained, permission to retire with his wife to Bengal.

The governor of this province, Kutb,[8] having been made acquainted with the Emperor's desire to have the chief made away with, hired forty ruffians, who stole into his house one night. There happened to be nobody else in the house; but one of the party, touched by remorse on seeing so fine a man about to be murdered in his sleep, called out to him to defend himself. He seized his sword, placed himself in one corner of the room, and defended himself so well that nearly one-half of the party are said to have been killed or wounded.

The rest all made off, persuaded that he was endowed with supernatural force. After this escape he retired from Tānda, the capital of Bengal,[9] to his old residence of Bardwān. Soon after, Kutb came to the city with a splendid retinue, on pretence of making a tour of inspection through the provinces under his charge, but in reality for the sole purpose of making away with Shēr Afgan, who as soon as he heard of his approach, came out some miles to meet him on horseback, attended by only two followers.

He was received with marks of great consideration, and he and the governor rode on for some time side by side, talking of their mutual friends, and the happy days they had spent together at the capital. At last, as they were about to enter the city, the governor suddenly called for his elephant of state, and mounted, saying it would be necessary for him to pass through the city on the first visit in some state.

Shēr sat on horseback while he mounted, but one of the governor's pikemen struck his horse, and began to drive him before them. Shēr drew his sword, and, seeing all the governor's followers with theirs ready drawn to attack him, he concluded at once that the affront had been put upon him by the orders of Kutb, and with the design to provoke him to an unequal fight.

Determined to have his life first, he spurred his horse upon the elephant, and killed Kutb with his spear. He now attacked the principal of officers, and five noblemen of the first rank fell by his sword. All the crowd now rolled back, and formed a circle round Shēr and his two companions, and galled them with arrows and musket balls from a distance. His horse fell under him and expired; and, having received six balls and several arrows in his body, Shēr himself at last fell exhausted to the ground; and the crowd, seeing the sword drop from his grasp, rushed in and cut him to pieces.[l0]

His widow was sent, 'nothing loth', to court, with her only child, a daughter. She was graciously received by the Emperor's mother, and had apartments assigned her in the palace; but the Emperor himself is said not to have seen her for four years, during which time the fame of her beauty, talents, and accomplishments filled the palace and city.

After the expiration of this time the feelings, whatever they were, which prevented his seeing her, subsided; and when he at last surprised her with a visit, he found her to exceed all that his imagination had painted since their last separation. In a few days their marriage was celebrated with great magnificence;[11] and from that hour the Emperor resigned the reins of government almost entirely into her hands; and, till his death, under the name first of Nūr Mahall, 'Light of the Palace', and afterwards of Nūr Jahān, 'Light of the World ', she ruled the destinies of this great empire.

Her father was now raised from the station of high treasurer to that of prime minister. Her two brothers obtained the titles of Āsaf Jāh and Itikād Khan; and the relations of the family poured in from Tartary in search of employment, as soon as they heard of their success.[12] Nūr Jahān had by Sher Afgan, as I have stated, one daughter; but she had never any child by the Emperor Jahāngīr.[13]

Āsaf Jāh became prime minister on the death of his father; and, in spite of his sister, he managed to secure the crown to Shāh Jahān, the third son of Jahāngīr, who had married his daughter, the lady over whose remains the Tāj was afterwards built. Jahāngīr's eldest son, Khusrū, had his eyes put out by his father's orders for repeated rebellions, to which he had been instigated by a desire to revenge his mother's murder, and by the ambition of her brother, the Hindoo prince, Mān Singh,[14] who wished to see his own nephew on the throne, and by his wife's father, the prime minister of Akbar, Khan Azam.[15]

Nūr Jahān had invited the mother of Khusrū, the sister of Rājā Mān Singh, to look with her down a well in the courtyard of her apartments by moonlight, and as she did so she threw her in. As soon as she saw that she had ceased to struggle she gave the alarm, and pretended that she had fallen in by accident.[16]

By the murder of the mother of the heir-apparent she expected to secure the throne to a creature of her own. Khusrū was treated with great kindness by his father, after he had been barbarously deprived of sight;[17] but when his brother, Shāh Jahān, was appointed to the government of Southern India, he pretended great solicitude about the comforts of his poor blind brother, which he thought would not be attended to at court, and took him with him to his government in the Deccan, where he got him assassinated, as the only sure mode of securing the throne to himself.[18] Parwīz, the second son, died a natural death;[19] so also did his only son; and so also Dāniyāl, the fourth son of the Emperor.[20]

Nūr Jahān's daughter by Shēr Afgan had married Shahryār, a young son of the Emperor by a concubine; and, just before his death he (the Emperor), at the instigation of Nūr Jahān, named this son as his successor in his will. He was placed upon the throne, and put in possession of the treasury, and at the head of a respectable army;[21] but the Empress's brother, Āsaf, designed the throne for his own son-in-law, Shāh Jahān; and, as soon as the Emperor died, he put up a puppet to amuse the people till he could come up with his army from the Deccan—Bulākī, the eldest son of the deceased Khusrū.

Shahryār's troops were defeated; he was taken prisoner, and had his eyes put out forthwith, and the Empress was put into close confinement. As Shāh Jahān approached Lahore with his army, Āsaf put his puppet, Bulākī, and his younger brother, with the two young sons of Dāniyāl, into prison, where they were strangled by a messenger sent on for the purpose by Shāh Jahān, with the sanction of Āsaf.[22] This measure left no male heir alive of the house of Tīmūr (Tamerlane) in Hindustan, save Shāh Jahān himself and his four sons.

Dārā was then thirteen years of age, Shujā twelve, Aurangzēb ten, and Murād four;[23] and all were present to learn from their father this sad lesson—that such of them who might be alive on his death, save one, must, with their sons, be hunted down and destroyed like mad dogs, lest they might get into the hands of the disaffected, and be made the tools of faction.

Monsieur de Thevenot, who visited Agra, as I have before stated, in 1666, says, 'Some affirm that there are twenty-five thousand Christian families in Agra; but all do not agree in that. The Dutch have a factory in the town, but the English have now none, because it did not turn to account.' The number must have been great, or so sober a man as Monsieur Thevenot would not have thought such an estimate worthy to be quoted without contradiction.[24] They were all, except those connected with the single Dutch factory, maintained from the salaries of office; and they gradually disappeared as their offices became filled with Muhammadans and Hindoos.

The duties of the artillery, its arsenals, and foundries, were the chief foundation upon which the superstructure of Christianity then stood in India. These duties were everywhere entrusted exclusively to Europeans, and all Europeans were Christians, and, under Shāh Jahān, permitted freely to follow their own modes of worship.

They were, too Roman Catholic, and spent the greater part of their incomes in the maintenance of priests. But they could never forget that they were strangers in the land, and held their offices upon a precarious tenure; and, consequently, they never felt disposed to expend the little wealth they had in raising durable tombs, churches, and other public buildings, to tell posterity who or what they were. Present physical enjoyment, and the prayers of their priests for a good berth in the next world, were the only objects of their ambition.

Muhammadans and Hindoos soon learned to perform duties which they saw bring to the Christians so much of honour and emolument; and, as they did so, they necessarily sapped the walls of the fabric. Christianity never became independent of office in India, and, I am afraid, never will; even under our rule, it still mainly rests upon that foundation.[25]


1. The names and titles of the empress 'over whose remains the Tāj is built' were Nawāb Aliyā Begam, Arjumand Bānū, Mumtāz-i-Mahall. The title Nūr Mahall, as applied to her, is without authority: it properly belongs to her aunt.

'It is usual in this country', Bernier observes, 'to give similar names to the members of the reigning family. Thus the wife of Chah-Jehan—so renowned for her beauty, and whose splendid mausoleum is more worthy of a place among the wonders of the world than the unshapen masses and heaps of stones in Egypt—was named Tāge Mehalle [Mumtāz-i-Mahall], or the Crown of the Seraglio; and the wife of Jehan-Guyre, who so long wielded the sceptre, while her husband abandoned himself to drunkenness and dissipation, was known first by the name of Nour Mehalle, the Light of the Seraglio, and afterwards by that of Nour-Jehan-Begum, the Light of the World.' (Bernier, Travels, ed. Constable, and V. A. Smith, 1914, p. 5.)

2. Properly, Ghiās-ud-dīn, meaning 'succourer of religion'. The word Ghiās cannot stand as a name by itself.

3. The author's slight description of Itimād-ud-daula's exquisite sepulchre is, in the original edition, illustrated by two coloured plates, one of the exterior, and the other of the interior (restored). The lack of grandeur in this building is amply atoned for by its elegance and marvellous beauty of detail. An inscription, dated A.H. 1027 = A.D. 1618, alleged to exist in connexion with the building, has not, apparently, been published. (N.W.P. Gazetteer, 1st ed., vol. vii, p. 687.)

Fergusson's description and just criticism deserve quotation. 'The tomb known as that of Itimād-ud-daula, at Agra, . . . cannot be passed over, not only from its own beauty of design, but also because it marks an epoch in the style to which it belongs.

It was erected by Nūr-Jahān in memory of her father, who died in 1621, and [it] was completed in 1628. It is situated on the left bank of the river, in the midst of a garden surrounded by a wall measuring 540 feet on each side. In the centre of this, on a raised platform, stands the tomb itself, a square measuring 69 feet on each side. It is two stories in height, and at each angle is an octagonal tower, surmounted by an open pavilion.