This is the 3rd novel in Indu Sundaresan’s trilogy of Mughal India – the 1st two were “The Twentieth Wife” and “Feast Of Roses”, both of which I read years ago and while the 1st two novels were about Mehrunnisa or Empress Nur Jahan, Emperor Jahangir’s favourite wife, “Shadow Princess” is about Emperor Shah Jahan’s two princesses, Jahanara and Roshanara who are jostling for power within the harem and each of them has their favourite brother whom they want to see on the throne after their father passes away.
The story commences on the eve of Empress Mumtaz Mahal’s death in June 1631. She is about to give birth to her 14th child in Burhanpur in South India. Emperor Shah Jahan is so distraught by her early demise that his hair turns white and he begins planning her mausoleum which as everyone knows, is the fabulous and incomparable tribute to everlasting love, the Taj Mahal in Agra which was then the capital of Mughal India.
Although Emperor Shah Jahan has 2 other wives (in the novel but who knows how many others he had IRL?), neither of them takes Empress Mumtaz Mahal’s place as Padshah Begam or chief lady of the zenana (harem), that title is given to the Emperor’s favourite daughter, Jahanara.
In this novel, there are a lot of flashbacks to the time when the Emperor was just known as Prince Khurram. He was on the run from his father, Emperor Jahangir’s army all over India with his family. At that time, Mehrunnisa was in power and later exiled to Lahore when Emperor Shah Jahan took over the throne. It’s all very fascinating and there’s never a dull moment in this novel. Indu Sundaresan’s novels are always full of interesting historical facts.
In every family, especially the big and wealthy/powerful ones, there are bound to be power struggles among the more ambitious children and so it is between the two princesses who are forbidden to marry. Emperor Shah Jahan is too reliant on Jahanara although she does want to marry an amir (official) of the court. Neverheless, she finds a way around this problem by conducting a not-so-secret affair with the man (who already has several wives) and gets pregnant. Her baby son is taken away by one of the man’s wives to be raised in his family until adulthood when he does recognise Jahanara as his mother.
Interspersed among the family conflicts, the novel is very detailed when it comes to the planning and construction of the Taj Mahal. It makes me yearn to visit so that I can see for myself what the author is describing because I can only sort of imagine what it’s like. It does sound so majestic. What I like about the novel is that every chapter begins with an excerpt from a book by other authors on life during the reign of Shah Jahan.
While Roshanara backs Aurangzeb who eventually becomes Emperor after imprisoning Emperor Shah Jahan at Agra Fort for the last few years of his life, Jahanara backs Dara Shikoh, Shah Jahan’s eldest son who was heir apparent. It’s interesting to note that although Aurangzeb never had Jahanara’s support, he never held a grudge against her and installed her as chief lady of the zenana after Shah Jahan’s death. It’s a rather complicated relationship between all the brothers and sisters. Indu Sundaresan describes their time spent together in minute detail and one of my favourite scenes is when they all get together for dinner. Although it’s the imperial family, they are just like any other family.
This is such a well crafted historical fiction book and I would recommend it to anyone who would like to get a better picture of what life in Mughal India was like and how the Taj Mahal was constructed. There’s even a diagram of the Taj Mahal in the book, it makes me want to book a flight out there!