Aesthetic by nature but well-versed in the rigours of ruling an empire, Shahjahan was the penultimate great Mughal before the sun started setting on the empire.
He was known to be the best looking of the great Mughals and his good looks were not spoilt by negligible signs of small-pock marks on his face. He was a connoisseur of jewels and even old hands in this field would seek his opinion about the matter. He was an agreeably good singer as reported by the members of the small coterie of courtiers whom he so entertained. Fond of the good life he spent lavishly on exhibiting his wealth with a view that such display added to the dignity of the empire. His cultural and political initial steps are described as a type of the Timurid Renaissance in which he incorporated historical and political bonds with his Timurid heritage.
He was the third son of the Mughal emperor Jahangir and the Rajput princess Manmati and was born in Lahore in 1592.
After being engaged for five years to the Persian lady Arjumand Banu he married her in 1612 and had 14 children from her, seven of them survived to adulthood. She was also the niece of Empress Nur Jahan whose father and brother became chief ministers of the empire. As Prince Khurram he ruled the empire in a troika in conjunction with Nur Jahan and her brother, who happened to be Khurram’s father-in-law, as Emperor Jahangir gave up many of his functions to the troika.
In 1622 Khurram, ambitious to win the succession, rebelled, ineffectually roaming the empire until reconciled to Jahangir in 1625. After Jahangir’s death in 1627, the support of Aṣaf Khan, Nur Jahan’s brother and his father-in-law enabled Shah Jahan to proclaim himself emperor at Agra in February 1628. His first act as ruler was to execute his chief rivals and imprison his stepmother Nur Jahan. Upon Shah Jahan’s orders several executions took place on 23 January 1628. Those put to death included his own brother Shahryar; his nephews Dawar and Gurshasp sons of Shah Jahan’s previously executed brother Khusrau and his cousins Tahmuras and Hoshang sons of the late Danyal Mirza. This allowed Shah Jahan to rule his empire without contention.
Shah Jahan’s reign was notable for expansion as well consolidation of his empire, which, in size, prosperity, and development of the arts and architecture, was destined to become unrivaled in his time. He himself led the costly military campaign into the south and in 1636 Ahmadnagar was annexed and Golconda and Bijapur forced to become tributaries. Mughal power was also temporarily extended in the northwest. In 1638 the Persian governor of Kandahar Ali Mardan Khan surrendered that fortress to the Mughals. In 1646 Mughal forces occupied Badakshan and Balkh but in 1647 Balkh were relinquished and attempts to re-conquer it in 1649, 1652, and 1653 failed. The Persians re-conquered Kandahar in 1649 and it was never recovered by the Mughal Empire.
Although by that time the coastal regions had long been penetrated by the Portuguese who, despite their dislike of Islam, engaged in shipping and human mobility between the Middle East and India for Mughals.
The Mughal forces fought with the Portuguese and Shah Jahan gave orders in 1631 to Qasim Khan, the Mughal viceroy of Bengal, to drive out the Portuguese from their trading post at Hooghly Port. The post was heavily armed with cannons, battleships, fortified walls and other instruments of war. The Portuguese were accused of trafficking by Mughal officials and due to commercial competition the Mughal-controlled port of Saptagram began to slump. Shah Jahan was particularly outraged by the activities of Jesuits in that region, notably when they were accused of abducting peasants. On 25 September 1632 the Mughal Army raised imperial banners and gained control over the Bandel region and the garrison was punished. Despite this incident, Shah Jahan, like his ancestors, ignored building a strong navy and spent his resources mostly extending the frontiers of his land-based kingdom into southern, eastern, and western regions. His empire included newly captured Assam and expanded in every direction.
Shah Jahan maintained a large military force and it is mentioned that in 1648 the army consisted of 911,400 infantry, musketeers and artillery and 185,000 sowars commanded by princes and nobles.
During his reign the Marwari horse was introduced, becoming Shah Jahan’s favourite, and various Mughal cannons were mass-produced in the Jaigarh Fort. Under his rule, the empire became a huge military machine and the nobles and their contingents multiplied almost fourfold, as did the demands for more revenue from their citizens but due to his measures in the financial and commercial fields, it was a period of general stability and the administration was centralised and court affairs systematised. It is estimated that in these times India’s share of global gross domestic product (GDP) grew from 22.7% in 1600 to 24.4% in 1700, surpassing China to become the world’s largest. Shah Jahan ruled a wealthy empire and his annual revenue stood at 220 million rupees, of which his personal income was 30 million, although his personal jewelry and diamonds accounted for 50 million rupees. A monarch of sentimental disposition, Shah Jahan, in the early two decades of his rule, dispersed gifts worth 95 million rupees.
Shah Jahan had an almost insatiable passion for building. At his first capital, Agra, he undertook the building of two great mosques, the Moti Masjid and the Jamia Masjid as well as the superb mausoleum known as the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is the masterpiece of his reign and was erected in memory of the favourite of his three queens, Mumtaz Mahal.
At Delhi, Shah Jahan built a huge fortress-palace complex called the Red Fort as well as another Jamia Masjid which is among the finest mosques in India. After shifting his capital to Delhi, the new city Shahjahanabad was built having open boulevards, spacious houses, and, most of all, the Red Fort meant to house the imperial family, the bureaucracy, and troops. Cities such as Agra, Lahore, Srinagar, Thatta, and Burhanpur were chosen to house immensely beautiful Mughal buildings. Shah Jahan employed Iranian and Indian engineers to design mosques, canals, forts, palaces, and gardens and his architecture blended Persian, Turkish, and south Asian traditions. Usually built with red stone and topped by white marble, these buildings were decorated by specially designed multicolour tiles embodying Quranic calligraphy.
By this time, the Mughal art had already assumed a unique and synthesised personality in various realms of architecture, calligraphy, miniatures, textiles, ceramics, jewelry, and other metallic works. The patronisation of arts and certainly of architecture created fabulous images of India in the outside world, especially among Europeans, who were imbued with renewed energy and dynamism to seek out new routes and markets in the world. Despite this glittering wealth, however, the Empire had its own share of problems, including periodic famines, and Shah Jahan is often accused of being unresponsive to the basic needs of ordinary people. To finance his buildings all over the subcontinent Shah Jahan raised land revenue to half of agricultural produce and thus shifted the financial burden to farmers and landowners.
Despite his pomp and splendour the end of Shah Jahan proved pathetic. Unfortunately, the Mughals never devised a proper mechanism for succession nor did they fully practice primogeniture and keeping in view the tradition Shah Jahan divided the administration of his vast empire among his four sons—Dara Shikoh, Shah Shuja, Aurangzeb, and Murad Buksh—although he desired Prince Dara to be his successor. There were enormous differences in the attitude, temperament and ability of his sons and they all vied for succeeding their father. Despite much support by Shah Jahan his favourite son Dara Shikoh could not become his successor as he, along with his two brothers, Shah Shuja and Murad Buksh, were beaten to the race by their wily yet capable brother Aurangzeb who was the third son of Shah Jahan.
Shah Jahan fell ill in September 1657 and Shuja was the first one to head toward Delhi, commanding troops to defeat Dara, although he suffered reversals at Bahadurgarh in February 1658 and retreated to Bengal. Despite this victory, Dara Shikoh was unable to defeat Murad and Aurangzeb at Dharmat in April. Their next encounter at Samugarh in May 1658 was a total defeat for Dara Shikoh, who had hastily assembled an army that lacked proper training and was exhausted as a result of two earlier battles. Despite official support from his father, a beleaguered Dara Shikoh was unable to repel Aurangzeb in the fourth major battle in this war of succession and was eventually captured in Punjab by Aurangzeb’s troops. Both princes despised each other and their antithetical personalities were poles apart. After arresting Dara Shikoh, Aurangzeb held his trial on the allegations of apostasy, resulting in his execution in 1659; Shuja was defeated near Allahabad in the same year, leaving Murad and a crestfallen Shah Jahan to face the approaching forces of Aurangzeb. Shuja, in the meantime, fled to the hills of Assam and was murdered by local tribesmen. Murad was arrested on Aurangzeb’s orders and executed in 1661 for allegedly killing a noble.
Aurangzeb put his father into forced seclusion at the Agra Fort and took control of the Mughal domains, beginning his long 49-year rule. Shah Jahan lived his remaining eight years officially confined to his palace in Agra Fort, nursed by Jahan Ara and never visited by Aurangzeb, although both often exchanged accusatory letters. In January 1666, an ailing Shah Jahan pardoned Aurangzeb and expressed his wish to be buried next to his wife in the Taj Mahal. On 1 February, 1666, Shah Jahan died and after a simple funeral for an otherwise opulent emperor, he was buried in the crypt at the Taj Mahal.