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Showing posts with label india. Show all posts
Showing posts with label india. Show all posts

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Damn, Girl-Nur Jahan, a Woman Worthy to be Queen

Either the twelfth or the twentieth wife of Mughal Emperor Jahangir, Nur Jahan was thrust into a life of fear and uncertainty. She was born while her parents were fleeing Persia, and was left on the road. Luckily, she was returned to her family, and was regarded as a lucky symbol from then after. Indeed, Nur Jahan was lucky for her family, because she would later become the Emperor Jahangir's favorite wife, and would, essentially, rule India in his stead, raising her family to the higher echelons of power with her.

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Contemporary portrait of Nur Jahan
Born Mehrunnisa, Nur Jahan was the child of Mirza Ghiyas Beg and Asmat Begum, both high ranking members of the Persian court. Although it is unknown precisely why Mirza and Asmat had to flee Persia, it is known that they were fleeing to the court of Emperor Akbar (Jahangir's father) in search of a better life. Asmat was heavily pregnant, and gave birth along the road. Shortly after Nur Jahan was born, their caravan was attacked by robbers, leaving the family with little goods or money to start over in their new life. Fearing that they would be unable to provide for their daughter, her parents abandoned Mehrunnisa on the road.

According to legend, Mehrunnisa's mother was so distraught at having left her daughter behind, Mirza agreed to go back for the infant. When Mirza found Mehrunnisa underneath the tree they'd left her, a large cobra was looming over her, ready to swallow her whole. Mirza rushed at the snake, shouting, and the snake slunk off to do it's snakely business elsewhere. Mirza took his daughter back to his wife, and after telling the tale of his daughter's miraculous escape, their fellow travelers gave them the money to continue with their journey.

Other accounts say that Nur Jahan was left on the road, but was returned to her parents by other members of their caravan. Either way, shortly after the return of their daughter Mirza and Asmat arrived at Akbar's court, and settled into life as a mid-level bureaucrat.

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Prince Selim, later the Emperor Jahangir
-World Grabber
Mehrunnisa, who's name means 'The Sun of Women', grew up to become a beauty with an excellent education. She was an accomplished musician, poet, dancer, and artist, and she was also known for being witty and charming. She was also a fashionista, cook, and landscape artist. It is unsurprising that around 1594 she enchanted Prince Selim (later Jahangir) to the point that "he could hardly be restrained, by the rules of decency, to his place."

Prince Selim, heir to the throne, was so besotted with Mehrunnisa that he sought her hand in marriage. However, Mehrunnisa was already betrothed, and Emperor Akbar refused to break the engagement in favor of his son. So, at the age of 17, Mehrunnisa was married to Sher Afghan, a Persian courtier and adventurer. Her first marriage, while not a love match (or particularly propitious), gave Mehrunnisa Ladili Begum, Mehrunnisa's only child.

Sher Afghan wasn't destined to live to a ripe old age. He died in 1607, after 13 years of marriage. There are many rumors saying that Selim, angered by Sher Afghan's refusal to break his betrothal, and lust for Mehrunnisa, had Sher Afghan killed. The History of Hindostan, a somewhat sketchy contemporary source, gives an account of Selim's many failed attempts to have Sher Afghan killed, culminating in Selim ordering a small army to attack Sher Afghan. While if Selim actually arranged Sher Afghan's death is in doubt, it's proven fact that in 1607 Mehrunnisa was widowed at age 30.

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Ladili Begum
Shortly after her husband's death, Mehrunnisa was summoned to Delhi to act as a lady-in-waiting to Prince Selim, now Emperor Jahangir's stepmother. In 1611 Mehrunnisa was married again, this time to the Emperor, becoming his 12th (or 20th, sources disagree) wife.

Emperor Akbar, Jahangir's father, had been a brilliant Emperor. Starting with only a small part of what is today Pakistan, Akbar managed to conquer all of north India, swallowing modern Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and parts of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China. He'd been a strict Sunni Muslim, but had encouraged religious discourse between Muslims, Hindus, Parsis, and Christians. He'd managed to woo local leaders of all religious persuasions to his side, yet retained his own religious supremacy (while building up a cult around himself).

Jahangir was a pale imitation of the brilliance of his father. Jahangir tried, undoubtedly; he extended his empire further down the Indian subcontinent, and managed to keep the empire more or less together. However, where Akbar had been focused on reform and expansion, Jahangir was focused on art and culture. Where Akbar had strictly followed the tenants of Islam (which forbid drugs and alcohol), Jahangir saw them more as guidelines, and at the time of his marriage to Mehrunnisa, was well on his way to becoming a non-functioning addict.

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Mughal Empire
As far as marriages went, Jahangir and Mehrunnisa, renamed Nur Jahan (meaning 'Light of the World), were pretty happy. Jahangir was smitten with Nur Jahan, and she seemed to have returned his affection. While the couple never had children, Nur Jahan became Jahangir's Empress, and she was, by all accounts, a loving step mother. Jahangir and Nur Jahan had a great deal in common--they both loved the arts, and were passionate about hunting. Most importantly, Nur Jahan was more than willing to take over running the country, leaving Jahangir to lose himself in opium and mindless pleasure to his heart's content.

As the de facto ruler of India, Nur Jahan put herself in the forefront of government work. She signed her name to royal decrees, along with her husband's, essentially giving herself the power to issue decrees, as well as promote and dismiss officials within the empire. She struck coinage in her own name, something that had never happened in Mughal history. She presided at Court, hearing cases about disputes between nobles, and passing judgement. She conducted international relations with other powerful women in foreign countries, and cemented trade deals. She was a shrewd businesswoman, and under her guidance India enjoyed an era of peace and prosperity.

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Nur Jahan
Nur Jahan was also a philanthropist. She was particularly concerned with the women of her empire. Concerned that poor women would be unable to marry, she personally provided a dowry for over 500 women. She was the patroness of dozens of female poets and artists, many of whom's works survive today.

Despite her peaceful reputation, Nur Jahan had no scruples about warfare. She was an excellent sharpshooter herself, known as 'Tiger Slayer' for her remarkable feat of killing four tigers with six bullets. (keep in mind, these are 17th century bullets.) She planned and led several expansionist campaigns herself. When her husband was captured, she rescued him with a contingent of soldiers, riding in on an elephant, and successfully winning the battle despite the fact that both her and her elephant were injured.

Though the empire was prospering, Nur Jahan reigning after the death of her husband was out of the question. It was widely assumed that Khurram (later Shah Jahan), Jahangir's third son, or Shahryar, Jahangir's youngest son. Nur Jahan initially supported Khurram, even marrying her niece Mumtaz Mahal to him. However, Khurram's hunger for power as he grew older led to Nur Jahan throwing her support behind Shahryar (who was married to her daughter Ladili).

When Khurram, now Shah Jahan, took power in 1628 he had Nur Jahan sent into exile in Lahore along with Ladili Begum, who was widowed after the death of Shahryar. Nur Jahan lived for another 18 years. Though she had backed his rival, Shah Jahan, kept her in comfort, and Nur Jahan was allowed to continue her building and artistic projects. She was kept from the political workings of the empire, but put her efforts into charity work instead, building mosques and assisting the poor. She died quietly in 1645.

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Silver rupees with Nur Jahan's name on them
After her death, Shah Jahan did his best to erase Nur Jahan from history, having the coins with her name rescinded, and erasing her from official records. However, Shah Jahan was not at all successful--a testament to Nur Jahan's incredible influence. The hundreds of mosques and gardens she had constructed, as well as the waystation system for travelers she had established could not be demolished. Her artistic influence continues to influence India to this day. She invented several dishes which are now a staple of Indian cuisine, and the flowering patterned muslin she favored is a favorite in Indian fashion. Her style of stitched clothing and structured saris is still the norm for Indian dress. A wealth of poetry written by her still survives, as do many of her buildings and gardens.

Nur Jahan was an extraordinary woman for any era, but especially for the era into which she was born. She ran an empire so skillfully that even her staunchest enemies grudgingly admitted that she was, what would later become her most famous epithet, 'A Woman Worthy to Be Queen'.


Sources
A History of Hindostan: Translated from the Persian: to Which are Prefixed Two Dissertations, the First Concerning the Hindoos, and the Second on the Nature of Despotism in Indian. Volume III by Muhammad Qasim Hindu Shah Astarabadi Firishtah
Indian-Jahangir
Nur Jahan
Nur Jahan: Mughal Empress
Empress of Mughal Indian: Nur Jahan
World Changing Women: Nur Jahan



Sunday, October 29, 2017

Bnei Menashe-A Lost Tribe of Israel

Claiming descent from Menashe (or Manasseh), the Bnei Menashe are a community of Jews living in the eastern state of Manipur in India, and over the borders in neighboring Bangladesh and Myanmar. Though they hadn't lived in the Levant area for more than 2000 years, these people are slowly making their way back to Israel, and reclaiming their Jewish religion and heritage.

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Bnei Menashe heading to Israel.
To understand the Bnei Menashe, you have to understand a bit of Jewish history. After the death of King Solomon, his son, Rehoboam, took the throne. Rehoboam was a bit of a dick, so United Israel had itself a little war. Ten tribes, under the leadership of Jeroboam, split away from Rehoboam, leaving him with two. These two kingdoms became Israel and Judah respectively. With the tribes of Levi¹, Judah, and Benjamin in the Kingdom of Judah.

So time went on, and in about 722 BCE Assyria conquered the Kingdom of Israel, enslaving it's people, and deporting them to other parts of Assyria. Judah was left alone, and most modern Jews claim their descent from those Judean tribes.

So when Assyria fell in 612 BCE, the Menashe escaped. Leery of being enslaved again, the Menashe went east, avoiding major cities. They went so far east, that in 240 BCE, they ended up in China. They started in Tibet, but later moved to the city of Kaifeng. Unfortunately, while in China they were enslaved again. The Bne Menashe were forced to assimilate, and killed in large numbers. Not being down with that, a number of them escaped to live in caves. They were safe in their caves, but in 100 BCE they were expelled from China. That's when the majority of them settled in the Manipur-Myanmar-Bangladesh region.
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Kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the 800 BCEs
The Menashe lived in this region for several thousand years without too much disruption. They intermarried with the locals, and adopted some local beliefs, but maintained many of their traditional religious practices, such as a festival where unleavened bread was eaten, and songs about crossing through a large body of water that split in two.

In 1894, Christianity arrived. Recognizing their own oral history in some of the tales from the Old Testament, many of the Menashe adopted Christianity, and practiced for nearly 100 years.

However, in the 1950s some of the Menashe started to question if their ancestors had practiced Christianity at all. Further research lead to the idea that their ancestors may have been Jewish instead of Christian, and while this was just fine with some of the Menashe, several of the Menashe decided to reclaim their Jewish past. They applied to join the new state of Israel, but were denied because they just weren't Jewish enough.

However, in the latter half of the twentieth century Israel changed its tune. While the Menashe are still required to undergo halachic conversion, they are now allowed to immigrate freely to Israel. In April of 2016, DNA testing proved that the Bnei Menashe share Jewish ancestry.



¹"Wait, that's three tribes!" you say. Well, kinda. the Levites were the designated priests of ancient Judaism, so the were set apart from the whole 12 tribes thing. If you include the Levites, there's actually 13 tribes: Ephraim, Manasseh, Levi, Judah, Simeon, Ruben, Issachar, Asher, Dan, Gad, Benjamin, Naphtali, and Zebulun.

Sources
After 27 Centuries of Exile, 102 Bnei Menashe Head to Israel
Bnei Menashe
Does Push for India's 'Lost Tribe of Menashe' Signal New Interest in Far-Flung Jewish Communities?
Over 100 Members of Indian 'Lost Jewish Tribe' To Make Aliya
A Long-Lost Tribe is Ready to Come Home
These Incredible Photos Show Members of an Indian-Jewish 'Lost Tribe' Moving to Israel
Who Are We?
With DNA Tests, Mystery of the 'Lost Tribe' of Indian Jews Finally Solved

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Damn, Girl-Lakshmi Bai

Rani (Queen) Lakshmi Bai is often called the 'Joan of Arc of India', and with good reason. At just 22 years old she seized control of the kingdom of Jhansi, and spearheaded a revolt against the British. Like Joan, Lakshmi's life was short, but she certainly caused the English a lot of trouble.

Image result for Lakshmi BaiLakshmi was the daughter of a scholar and a king's adviser. She was raised with the young men of the court, and in addition to learning the usual school subjects, she was also trained in combat. She was, by all accounts, a lovely and intelligent young lady, and the age of fifteen, she married Raja Gangadhar Rao, Maharaja of the kingdom of Jhansi.

The couple were married for about ten years until Gangadhar died of illness. They had no surviving children, and so they had adopted a young cousin, Damodar Rao, as their own, and the throne passed to Damodar, despite the fact that he was only five years old.

Enter the English. The English had a policy at the time of stealing every bit of land they could. It was no different with Jhansi. In a move reminiscent of the Romans dealings with Boudicca, the English refused to recognize Damodar as being the rightful heir, and they moved in to take control. Lakshmi was granted a pension of 5,000 rupees a month, and Damodar was allowed to keep his palace, but control of Jhansi had ceded to the enemy.

Now, as you might imagine, the Indians were non too pleased with this arrangement. Big shock, I know. The Indians weren't very fond of having the British in their country in general, but then the English went a step too far, or the Indians thought that they did.
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See, the English had enlisted thousands of sepoys, or native Indian soldiers, both Muslim and Hindu. When their superior officers introduced the Enfield Cartridges, the soldiers balked. They had heard rumors that the cartridges were greased with beef and pig fat. As the soldiers had to put the cartridge in their mouth to tear off the end before they could load it in the gun, they would be getting a small amount of beef or pork in their mouth, and, as you may no, beef and pork are serious no-nos in Hinduism and Islam respectively.

So the sepoys were being difficult. And by 'being difficult' I mean they were in revolt. To add to that, local revolutionaries in Jhansi had risen up and killed all the English civil servants and their families. This is when Lakshmi took control of the situation.

The narrative splits into two parts from here. Some sources claim that Lakshmi took instant control of the situation, and started hacking away at the English. There were even rumors that she'd started the revolt in the first place. Other sources claim that she took control of Jhansi in the name of the English, and asked them what to do. They never got back to her, so she just did what she wanted until the English pitched a fit a few months later.

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The statue of Lakshmi at Jhansi
Here is where the story comes back together. The English soldiers marched on Jhansi, and besieged the fort where Lakshmi was living with her adopted son. Lakshmi commanded her soldiers as well as the rebels, and though they held the fort for a long time, they eventually had to escape.

From there they fled east to Gwalior. There had been skirmishes along the way, and by this point Lakshmi's forces were tired and few in number. In a last ditch effort against the English, Lakshmi tied her son to her back, armed herself with two swords, and plunged into battle. It was in this battle that she was killed.
 Today Lakshmi is remembered as a brilliant Indian queen who fought for freedom from the English. She is revered by the Indians, and her statue watches over Jhansi to this day.

Sources
Encyclopedia Britannica
Maps of India
History Net
The Famous People