Although four hundred years apart, the life story of Senator Kamala Harris, vice-presidential nominee for the 2020 US election, and the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan, resonate deeply. Both leaders are daughters of migrants who went to new countries in search of a better future; both were raised by strong mothers in mixed ethnic and racial cosmopolitan communities. What connects them above all is experience-building, the slow work of accumulation of power — and their rise as strong and compassionate female leaders.
Nur Jahan — born Mihr un-Nisa or Sun of Women in 1577 on the road outside Kandahar as a comet streaked across the sky — was the daughter of Persian nobles who left their home in present-day Iran, amidst increasing intolerance under the Safavid dynasty, to seek refuge in the more liberal Mughal world of India. Raised in a blend of poetic, mystical and literary traditions from her parents’ birthplace and their adopted homeland, Nur first married a Mughal government official and former military officer, and with him moved to Bengal and gave birth to her only child. She experienced firsthand the machinations of centre-state political relations and the complexity of governance in a vast and diverse land. It was in Bengal that she honed her shooting skills and became a master shot, skills she later used in protecting her subjects from killer tigers. With her husband suspected of participating in a plot against the Emperor and killed in battle, the widowed Nur was given refuge in the Emperor’s harem — in keeping with the Mughal practice. Her fellow harem women grew to trust and admire her, and in 1611, she became the 20th and final wife of the half-Hindu and half-Sunni Muslim Emperor Jahangir.
Soon after their marriage, her influence grew both within the harem and the court. Between 1614 and 1627, Nur served as co-sovereign, a decisive player in courtly and succession politics, and a commanding strategist. She defended her subjects against oppressive landlords and championed social justice. At the height of her power in the 1610s and ’20s, princes and courtiers sought her advice and followed her commands. When Jahangir was taken prisoner by a rebellious nobleman, it was Nur who led her imperial troops to rescue him.
The Mughal family had a tradition of strong and prominent elder women— assertive royal wives, influential mothers and aunts whose opinions were valued. But no woman had ever openly and fully taken charge of the empire. It would be another 350 years, when Indira Gandhi became India’s first female prime minister, before another woman ascended to such heights in Indian statecraft. A Shia woman married to a Sunni-Hindu king, Nur Jahan was a remarkable leader in a male-dominated world. She didn’t come from royalty like Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra, or other renowned women rulers, yet she ascended from the emperor’s harem to great heights as his co-sovereign and presided over a pluralistic empire that was arguably the richest in the world.
A brilliant, persistent strategist, a fascinating woman, Nur ruled an empire against extraordinary odds. What made her rise possible was the supportive network with her husband, her high-ranking father, her vivacious and astute mother, harem matriarchs, step-son and other members of the court. Soon, she minted coins in her name, struck imperial orders over her signature, came out to the imperial balconies, fulfilling all technical signs of sovereignty. The incredibly diverse, tolerant and mobile culture of the Mughal court and India that allowed for different sensibilities, religions, and traditions to coexist were vital to Nur’s ascent.
Nur Jahan, a woman of many talents, abilities and potentialities, all of which the Emperor noticed from the very beginning, was a product of the tolerant and plural culture of India. In America, Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and Black Caribbean father, is poised for breakthrough leadership. She comes on to the American political scene as the country grapples with attacks on its multi-ethnic, multi-racial, migration centred spirit. The very best of America — the land in which Kamala Harris become possible — is dangerously threatened.
Kamala is another name for the Goddess Lakshmi, the giver of bounty and fortune. Harris, a person of uncommon political and cultural acumen, a remarkable senator with piercing intellect and commitment to rights of immigrants, is likely to be America’s torch bearer.
What came to be known as The Great Comet glowed overhead as Nur’s parents left a rigid Persian regime for what they hoped was a more tolerant Mughal court in India. When Nur was born, taking the cosmic clue, they named her Sun of Women. It is certain that Kamala’s mother knew the power of the name she gave her daughter.
Lal is professor of South Asian History, Emory University Atlanta and author, most recently of Empress, The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan
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