Every time I pass by the exquisite mosque of Mariam Zamani opposite the Lahore Fort outside Masti Gate, originally called Masjidi Gate, I think of the amazing story of this daring Hindu Rajput lady who defied the Mughals and married Akbar the Great on her terms.

What was her real name? Where did she come from? Did she convert to Islam? Most people think her real name was Jodha Bai of Amber. The mystery of this beautiful human being and her connection to Lahore has never been fully explored. Few know why her name is Mariam-uz-Zamani, after whom this beautiful mosque is named. Last Sunday as the corona virus forced me to stay indoors, I started to read about her and it turned out to be a beautiful story of defiance, dare, risk and love. I even ended up watching a film about her.

This beautiful Empress of Hindustan, the person allegedly responsible for Akbar moderating his extreme religious views, has a tomb just a mile away from Akbar’s in Delhi. That a Hindu Rajput princess, the daughter of the proud Kachwaha Rajput Raja of Amber and mother of Emperor Jahangir, attained such prominence is a story worth telling. But then there are doubts about who really was Mariam Zamani. A number of names have been mentioned, as also a bizarre one that she had Portuguese origins. The others names being Hira Kunwari, Harkha Bai and Jodhaa Bai. One source claims that that all these names are of the same person. This is also incorrect.

The bizarre claim that she was actually Portuguese suggests her name was Dona Maria Mascarenhas. A Portuguese book, very popular in India, has even suggested that her name Mariam is because of her Portuguese name Maria. The probable Portuguese claim could have been made because we know that Mariam Zamani, after the death of Akbar, had set up in Lahore a shipping business owning many ships, all dedicated to ply between Lahore and Arabia for pilgrims. The ship builders were invited from India’s western ports where a lot of Portuguese did business. Her largest ship named ‘Rahimi’ was built in Lahore and could carry up to 600 pilgrims at a time. That ship was hijacked by Portuguese pirates in 1613. It turned out that the ‘pirates’ were actually sailors of the Portuguese Navy. When they officially refused to release the ship Mariam Zamani’s son Jahangir attacked the Goan town of Daman and jailed all the Portuguese.

The mere fact that the mosque of Mariam Zamani is located just outside the eastern wall of the Lahore Fort speaks volumes of why Jahangir built the mosque there in the first place. The connection is clear. A look at ‘Tuzk-e-Jahangiri’, written by Mu’tamad Khan, provides the missing clues. Its location is where Mariam Zamani ran her shipping business. The mosque of Mariam Zamani is probably the finest and most beautiful in Lahore after the Wazir Khan Mosque.

Now let us look into this beautiful lady and find out who she really was. She was born in 1542 to Raja Bharmal of Amber and his wife Rani Champavati, who was the daughter of Rao Ganga Solanki, the son of Raja Prithviraj Singh and Apurva Devi, the daughter of Rao Lunkaran of Bikaner. The mere fact that a proud Hindu Rajput princess agreed to marry a Muslim points to the fact that Mughal rule was accepted by the Rajputs, and such a marriage was to put them at an economic and political advantage. But then this Rajput lady on hearing the proposal refused to change her religion and had a small temple built within the fort at Agra.

The real importance is that this led to Akbar adopting a tolerant attitude towards other religions in the sub-continent, which is the reason he is known as Akbar the Great, a title given to him after he revoked a Mughal law imposing a tax on all Hindu pilgrims.

Akbar was keen to have a son to be groomed as the next emperor. He asked the empress to stay on in Fatehpur Sikri and to send her blessings on Sheikh Saleem Chishti, a descendent of Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer. The saint had, in a dream, allegedly promised Akbar he would be blessed with three sons if his wife sent her blessings on his descendent. In August 1569 the future emperor Jahangir was born and she named him Saleem after the saint. It was at this stage that she converted to Islam and promised the ‘saint’ that she would read and understand the Quran.

One source, however, claims that the Empress remained a Hindu as Akbar had promised to let her remain. A delighted Akbar bestowed on her the title Mariam-uz-Zamani. The very name Mariam, the original name of Mary, mother of Jesus, tends to vaguely suggest that she could have had some Portuguese connections. But the word ‘Mariam’ also means ‘mother’ and as she had become a mother she was named Mariam Zamani, the ‘mother of the empire’. Amazingly she went on to bear Akbar ten children, four of whom died within months.

But then the well-chronicled presence of a small temple in Agra fort belonging to the Empress cuts across any Portuguese connection. Here we must again refer to Jahangir’s autobiography ‘Tuzk-e-Jahangiri’ which refers to many names as it moves over time. The lineage of the Kachwaha Rajputs, who claim lineage from the Solankis, the sun worshippers and from whose name ‘solar’ was allegedly derived. They also allegedly were descended from Kusha, the second son of Rama and Sita, after whom Pakistan’s city Kasur is named and his brother Lahu has Lahore named after him. So various names come forth like Harkha Bai, Jiya Rani, Maanmati, Harika Bai and also Shahi-Bai.

The Rajput family lineage book suggests that her true name was Harkha Bai, and that the other names, all of her sisters, were used on the suggestion of Hindu and Muslim ‘seers’, if we can call them that, to prevent anyone doing magic on her or the Mughal royal family.

There is also an interesting research by a British East India Company officer by the name of Lt. Col. James Tod, whose famous book the ‘Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan’ used the name Jodhaa Bai. There is a suggestion that the name was wrongly used for another wife of Jahangir. However, A.D. Jhala in 2011 in his analysis discounts this as the name has been used in ‘Tuzk-e-Jahangiri’ repeatedly. Hence, he says, this is an uncalled for controversy.

But this brings us to the central question posed earlier. We know that this royal Kachwaha Rajput princess had a mosque named after her, also that she was buried near her husband in an Islamic manner, and that the tomb still exists, and further that she went on Hajj and did a roaring shipping business in Lahore. ‘Tuzk e Jahangiri’ points to the actual conversion at the shrine of Chishti in Ajmer on the birth of Jahangir.

The fact remains that the Rajas of Amber, a very small kingdom compared to other nearby ones, managed to make the most of this connection. In Abu’l Fazl’s list of ‘mansabdars’, of the 27 named 13 were from the State of Amber. So the influence of Mariam Zamani during the reign of both Akbar, and more so in the reign of Jahangir, can be seen very clearly. So she is a very important lady in our history, yet ignored for gender and religious reasons. Few today are aware of her immense power and influence in her day.

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2020