Thursday, 9 February 2012

Name in the Spotlight: Jahanara

When I was twelve or thirteen I started getting pocket money from my parents. Considering that I was a very geeky child, they were not surprised that one of my first purchases was a book. I picked it at random from our local Ottakar's store's (now Waterstone's) history section. The book was Jahanara: Princess of Princesses, a fictional diary based on real events and real people, by Kathryn Lasky. You may not have heard of this Indian princess, but you have undoubtedly heard of a building built in her mother's memory: the Taj Mahal, now considered a symbol to eternal love. 

Jahanara was the eldest surviving daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and his favourite wife Arjumand Banu Begum, who was later given the title of Mumtaz Mahal, meaning Jewel of the Palace. They are said to have been deeply in love, a devoted couple who together had fourteen children. It was during the birth of the fourteenth child that Mumtaz died.

Jahanara, as her father's favourite, in many ways took over the duties of queen and first lady. Her father, devastated after the death of his beloved wife, went into deep mourning, and it was his daughter, only 17 at the time, who helped him through. She is said to have been a rare beauty, a lover of the arts, and a dedicated, caring daughter. Her position as Princess of Princesses meant that she had power and influence that other women of the time could not dream of having. When her father died in 1666, her position as the leading female figure in the Empire was threatened. Her brothers fought for power, and in the end it was her least favourite brother, Aurangzeb, who won the battle to become Mughal Emperor. She was removed from her privileged position and replaced with her sister, Roshanara. However, Jahanara was soon re-instated to the top of the hierarchy, as Empress of Princesses.

Such a fascinating character deserves to be more talked about. Her name is thought to mean 'Ornament of the World' in Persian, although a possible meaning of 'Queen of the World' has also been suggested but seems unlikely. Others prefer to take her titles, such as Princess of Princesses and Mistress of the Age, as the meanings for the name. Its exotic sound and four syllables could very well account for Jahanara's absence in the charts, both in England & Wales and in the US. Still, the princess herself was often referred to as Janni by her family, which makes her full name much more accessible. This majestic name could certainly hold its own against Antoinette and Alexandrina.