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An image of Shah Jahan

Shah Jahan: Mughal Emperor, Creator of the Taj Mahal, Champion of Fine Cuisine


One of the most well-known buildings in India is the Taj Mahal in Agra, which was commissioned by the Mughal emperor, Shahabuddin Muhammad Shah Jahan, more commonly known as Shah Jahan. This building, which houses the tomb of the emperor’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, is so famous that one may say that it has overshadowed its builder.

Although Shah Jahan is often associated only with the Taj Mahal, he achieved other accomplishments that are worth mentioning. After all, this is the man that some have considered as one of the most powerful Mughal emperors.

Portraits of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, and his favorite wife – empress Mumtaz Mahal.

Portraits of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, and his favorite wife – empress Mumtaz Mahal. (CC BY SA 3.0)

An Emperor’s Feast

Recently we’ve been able to get a glimpse into the lavish meals that were available in Shah Jahan’s household. As you’ll soon see, the Mughal empire was relatively stable, apart from intrigue within the court itself, and Shah Jahan was known to entertain visiting dignitaries during his reign.

The ornately illustrated Persian manuscript called the ‘ Nuskha-e-Shahjahani’ sat in the British Library’s collection for a long time before food historian Salma Yusuf Husain came along and translated the manuscript detailing what cam out of the emperor’s royal kitchens. The result is ‘The Mughal Feast’, which provides insight not only into Mughal cuisine, but also the lifestyle and nature of Shah Jahan.

‘Shah Jahan’ (circa 1630). (Public Domain)

Husain says that, “Shah Jahan was not a warrior; he was never a soldier. He loved to eat.” That passion for food and the finer things is reflected in recipes for date-stuffed naans, mango and tamarind soups and meats, and even silver-coated rice! Husain explains the reason behind that odd choice,

“The hakim (royal physician) planned the menu, making sure to introduce medicinally beneficial ingredients. For instance, each grain of rice for the pulao was coated with silver warq, which aided digestion and acted as an aphrodisiac.”

It appears Shah Jahan was interested in taking advantage of his wealth and status. But what were his origins?

Shah Jahan’s Family

Shah Jahan was born as Prince Khurram on January 5, 1592 in the city of Lahore (located today in Pakistan). His father was Jahangir, the fourth Mughal emperor and his mother was a Hindu Rajput princess by the name of Taj Bibi Bilqis Makani.

Portraits of Shah Jahan’s parents: Jahangir and Taj Bibi Bilqis Makani   

Portraits of Shah Jahan’s parents: Jahangir (Public Domain) and Taj Bibi Bilqis Makani (Public Domain).

As a child, Shah Jahan was a favorite of his grandfather, the emperor Akbar, who was personally responsible for the young prince’s education. Upon the death of Akbar, a vicious struggle for succession broke out among the sons of the late emperor, from which Jahangir emerged victorious. Shortly after his ascension, Jahangir faced a rebellion from his eldest son, Prince Khusrau. After the rebellion was crushed, the prince was blinded and imprisoned in the fort of Agra.

Although Shah Jahan was also one of his father’s favorites, the close relationship between father and son broke down during Jahangir’s final years. This was due to court intrigues by Nur Jahan, Jahangir’s Afghan wife, who wanted her son-in-law, Prince Shahryar (who was Jahangir’s youngest son) to succeed the Mughal throne.

Fearing that he might be side-lined, Shah Jahan made a bid for power in 1622 by rebelling against his father. It took Jahangir four years to defeat his son, and Shah Jahan finally surrendered unconditionally in 1626. Fortunately for Shah Jahan, he was not blinded and imprisoned like his brother, Prince Khusrau. Furthermore, Jahangir died a year later, allowing Shah Jahan to succeed his father legitimately.

Jahangir weighing Prince Khurram (later Shah Jahan). (Circa 1610-1615). (Public Domain)

More Rivalry for the Mughal Throne

Yet, as his father before him, Shah Jahan was faced with rival claimants to the throne. One of Shah Jahan’s first victims was his half-brother, Prince Khusrau, who was executed in 1622, even before the struggle for succession began.

Prince Shahryar, who was supported by Nur Jahan, quickly seized the Mughal throne. Asaf Khan, the father of Mumtaz Mahal, and the brother of Nur Jahan, wanted Shah Jahan to be emperor instead. Therefore he ousted Prince Shahryar and placed Prince Khusrau’s eldest son, Dawar, as a puppet on the Mughal throne, to have it safeguarded for Shah Jahan. In response, when Shah Jahan became the Mughal emperor in 1628 he had his rivals, including Dawar and Prince Shahryar, executed.

Emperor Shah Jahan (circa 1628).

Emperor Shah Jahan (circa 1628). (Public Domain)

Military Campaigns

Shah Jahan was a highly capable military leader. After ascending the Mughal throne, he began expanding his empire in all directions. In the first decade of his reign, Shah Jahan conquered the Rajput kingdoms of Baglana and Bundelkhand in the west, the kingdoms of Bijapur and Golconda to the south in the Deccan Plateau, as well as petty kingdoms in the Kashmir and the Himalayas.

Following these successes, Shah Jahan decided to launch military campaigns against the Uzbeks in Balkh, Central Asia, as well as the Safavids of Persia. Both these campaigns, however, ended in failure.

17th Century depiction of Shah Jahan leading the Mughal army.

17th Century depiction of Shah Jahan leading the Mughal army. (Public Domain)

Architectural Accomplishments and the End of Shah Jahan’s Rule

Perhaps more important than his military conquests, is the architectural legacy that Shah Jahan left behind. Like his grandfather Akbar, Shah Jahan also had a passion for architecture. The most famous of Shah Jahan’s architectural accomplishments is undoubtedly the Taj Mahal - which was built between 1632 and 1653.

In addition, Shah Jahan was also responsible for the beautification of Agra’s Red Fort, as well as the building of numerous mosques, including the Jama Mosque, the Wazir Khan Mosque, and the Moti Mosque.

The Taj Mahal at sunset.

The Taj Mahal at sunset. (nedim chaabene /CC BY 2.0)

Shah Jahan fell seriously ill in 1658. Sensing their father’s imminent demise, his four sons began to fight to become the next Mughal emperor. While Shah Jahan favored Dara Shikoh, who was a liberal, and championed a syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture, it was his fundamentalist son, Aurangzeb, who emerged victorious.

Although Shah Jahan recovered from his illness, he was captured by Aurangzeb, declared incompetent to rule, and imprisoned in Agra’s Red Fort. Shah Jahan died in 1666 after an illness.

Shah Jahan and his favorite son - Dara Shikoh. (1638)

Shah Jahan and his favorite son - Dara Shikoh. (1638) (Public Domain)

Top Image: 'Shah Jahan in durbar, holding a ruby in his right hand; 'chauri'-bearers stand on either side of him and an attendant before him holds a tray of jewels. On the left is Prince Alamgir (Aurangzeb) who salutes his father.’ Detail. Source: British Library

By Ḏḥwty


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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