Mumtāz Maḥal

Mumtāz Maḥal: Early Life

Mumtāz Maḥal was born Arjūmand Bānū Begum to a Persian noble family. Her aunt was the Empress Nūr Jahān, chief consort to Emperor Jahangir and de facto ruler of his empire. Perhaps from her aunt’s influence, Arjūmand Bānū also went on to become a powerful empress.

She was known to be intelligent and charming. Arjūmand Bānū wrote poems and was a patron of the arts. She also supported the daughters of scholars and theologians that were in need. She was thus a desirable match for the young Prince Khurram. The pair were betrothed when he was 15 and she was 14. They married five years later, on a date picked for its auspiciousness. Though Prince Khurram had two other wives, his higher regard for Arjūmand Bānū is well known. Their marriage is considered a rare love match in the Mughal Empire. Upon their marriage, he conferred upon her the name Mumtāz Mahal, meaning ‘the exalted one/beloved ornament/jewel of the palace’.

Mumtāz Maḥal: Marriage

In the early years of their marriage, Mumtāz Maḥal accompanied her husband on all his military campaigns. She became his trusted confidante, even reputedly being able to advise her husband to end disputes and pardon convicts. When he became Emperor Shah Jahān, he chose Mumtāz as his chief empress. She held the title Padshah Begum, ‘First Lady’ or ‘Queen of the Great’. He also bestowed upon her the right to the imperial seal Mehr Uzaz. Also, imperial decrees had to receive her consent. Unlike her aunt, Nūr Jahān, Mumtāz Maḥal was portrayed at the time by court chroniclers as powerful but not power-seeking.

The royal couple lived in splendour at Mumtāz Maḥal’s residence, Khas Mahal, the most decorated of the empresses’ residences. Together, Mumtāz Maḥal and Shah Jahān had 14 children, and seven lived to adulthood. The emperor also had one child with each of his two other empresses.

Taj Mahal

When Mumtāz Maḥal died during the birth of their fourteenth child, Shah Jahān was sent into a deep grief. Court chroniclers detailed that he did not wear bright clothing, jewellery or perfumes for more than two years. He slowly emerged into the public again from his mourning period – now supposedly with white hair and a bent back – with the help of their eldest daughter, Jahanara Begum. She assumed her mother’s place at court and became a great consort in her own right. In the same year as Mumtāz Maḥal’s death, Shah Jahān commissioned the building of the grand Taj Mahal. It was to be the tomb for his beloved wife. It took 22 years of construction and most of the emperor’s wealth to build the monument. The finished Taj Mahal, with its rooms of marble, fine woods, and precious stone inlay, was a more-than-worthy memorial for such a revered partner.

Marcus & Co’s Portrait Miniature Brooch of Mumtāz Maḥal

Mumtaz Mahal portrait miniature by Marcus & Co.

It is, therefore, only right that this miniature portrait of Mumtāz Maḥal was set in a fine jewel. In a scrolled gold surround, detailed with white enamel and split pearls, by jewellers Marcus & Co., the portrait depicts her in fine clothes and jewels, including a necklace, earrings and head ornament of many pearls. There are no known likenesses of Mumtāz Maḥal made during her reign. So, this later depiction has been inspired by many Mughal, and later, traditions for portraits. Artists adopted a more naturalistic style than in Persian art and normally always depicted sitters with their head in profile and their body half-turned to face the viewer – though Mumtāz Maḥal is in semi-profile here. A very similar painting has been identified as depicting Empress Zinat Mahal.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the New York jewellery workshop Marcus & Co., was renowned for its finely enamelled jewels in the on-trend Art Nouveau style. Herman Marcus founded the workshop with his son William in 1892. He had trained with the Dresden court jeweller Ellemeyer to learn the enamelling techniques that so impressed the New York society. Other famous workshops noticed his talent. His work was in demand from Tiffany & Co. and Ball, Black & Co. This prompted Herman to build his name and client base, ready to open his own workshop with William.

This brooch encapsulates the splendour of Mumtāz Maḥal’s life and the craftsmanship of both the portrait and its setting would, surely, have pleased the empress!

Auction information

Fine Jewellery : Thursday 9th February 2023 at 10am

Lot 661 A late 19th to early 20th century 18ct gold portrait miniature brooch of Mumtaz Mahal, with split pearl and scrolling white enamel surround, by Marcus & Co.

Estimate £400 – £600

The portrait miniature brooch by Marcus & Co in 9 February’s Fine Jewellery auction brings together the splendour of the Mughal court and the craftsmanship of a respected New York workshop to honour one of the most well-known Mughal empresses: Mumtāz Maḥal (1593-1631), the inspiration behind the Taj Mahal in Agra.

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