– a tale and a review of Neela Vermeire Créations Mohur Extrait
Lahore, India – November 1627
So it had come to this. All her plans, her hopes and her dreams had come to nothing, reduced to ashes by her own brother’s betrayal. Shahryar had lost everything.
The power, the glory and might of the Mughal and all that was India would now pass to Shah Jahan, who had hated her from the moment sixteen years ago she wed Jahangir, who loathed the way she always favored his far more sensible brother Shahryar.
She had gambled everything on Shahryar, and so she too had lost all the power and influence she had acquired these past sixteen tumultuous years. Even her beloved was no more. Then again, perhaps she had lost him long ago to the lures of wine and opium.
Nur Jahan wrapped her shawl around her in the slight chill of this November evening, looked up from the missive in her hand and gazed unseeing at the intricate winding vines and flowers inlaid in the walls of her quarters.
“Majesty…” Akbar, her faithful retainer for several years, interrupted her reverie. “Asaf Khan has proposed that you retire to a palace here in Lahore with your rank and your privileges intact.”
“Has he now?” Nur Jahan had to laugh. “All my privileges, except the one that matters most, which he knows all too well.” She shrugged and knew with the ease of one who had reigned India in deed if not in name for many years that she would never show just how much her brother’s betrayal burned, never show her sorrow for fear Shah Jahan would have yet another weapon to use against her. One he would never hesitate to use.
“And yet, Majesty, would it be so terrible to have the time to dedicate to your interests? Your poetry, your music, your gardens and your perfumes? All without the distractions of rule, of court intrigue and the endless lines of petitioners at the jharoka receptions? You would no longer rule, it is true, but…” Not even Akbar was audacious enough to finish his own thought.
“There are many kinds of power and might, Akbar,” she snapped. At this late hour of the night, her voice showed the slightest hint of strain, as if everything transpired – the Emperor’s capture and death, Shah Jahan’s blatant refusal to obey her command at Kabul and this war of Jahangir’s succession – had somehow caught up with her.
“The power of poetry, the strength we gain from the music we love, the might of a perfect rose…”
There was a thought. Nur Jahan stared again at the letter and saw not the black curves, dots and lines upon lines of doom and defeat, but instead the green leaves and dawn-pink petals of a fragrant rose, diamond droplets of dew glistening in the morning light in its silken folds. Such a rose as Jahangir had given her at Nowruz, the New Year so long ago, when she was no Nur Jahan but merely a widow and a disgraced diwan’s daughter named Mehr-un-Nissa.
What would it be, she wondered, to prove just what power a rose such as that could conceal, to leave as her epitaph not the just the Empress but the very woman she had been?
Very well, she thought. Let Shah Jahan have the Empire. Let him take it and rule it and ruin it with his extravagant ways and vaunting ambition.
She, once Empress of all India, would find her solace and her sustenance in her poetry, in her gardens and her charities, and in the perfumes she so loved, to dedicate her days and nights to the pursuit of a beauty so flawless, it could be none other than her own.
And so it came to be in the years that followed her exile from rule that she strove to capture all her myriad selves in her roses and in the perfumes those roses made, to somehow wrap up her essence as the epitaph she would choose to leave behind. It should contain the sharp, spicy scent of cardamom and coriander and pepper, to recall the laughing, lighthearted girl she once was so long ago in faraway Kandahar, perhaps with the jasmines she remembered blooming in the courtyard, and hints of the almond sweetmeats and pastries Jahangir once so loved to feed her. A dusting, like the powdered sugar on loukhoum, of the violets presented to her by those comical English in their outlandish garb, and a cool, purple touch of the elegant iris root from that remote land called Florence its ambassador had presented her with. It should contain the sharp tang of leather as well in happy memory of tiger hunts in the hillsides and the iron might she once wielded in a silken, fragrant glove, and the sacred, haunting trails of sandalwood, patchouli and oud that defined India as perhaps few other essences did. A sweet, luscious finish, as much as if to say that the Mehr-Un-Nissa she once was and the Nur Jahan she became were after all, one woman first, last and foremost.
All of these, the flowers and the herbs, the spices and sacred woods intricately embroidered onto the heart of a singular flower to prove the power of a woman such as Nur Jahan, and the might of her rose.
On a December day of chill and fog, when the Empress who once was Nur Jahan breathed her last, Akbar, an old man himself by this time, took her secret note and anointed it with that mighty rose perfume before he set it alight with a taper to release her story and her essence upon the wind for another to find and to remember… a woman once known to all as… the Light of the World.
The Shalimar Gardens, Lahore, June 1947
On this sunny day, Edwina Mountbatten wasn’t sure what broke her heart the most, that she would soon say farewell to this wonder that was India, or that she had been fortunate enough to at least experience it and attempt to grasp and encompass all it was and now soon would become. Soon, these marvelous gardens would not even be Indian, but belong to a nation to be called Pakistan.
“It seems,” she said to her friend Jahawarlal Nehru as they walked, “such a pity and yet, such a necessity, that this will be another nation born of India’s ashes.”
“There is no other way, Edwina, as you well know.”
The sunlight danced in the fountains and the mannered geometry and the blaze of flowers should surely soothe any melancholy hearts and make any spirit soar to stroll amid such beauty on a day like today, when the roses bloomed their promise of a new era and a new future.
He sensed her pensive mood as they walked, as he so often did, and bent forward to pluck a perfect rose he presented to her with a flourish and a smile.
“Did you know,” he began, “there is a story about this variety of rose?”
Edwina laughed. “I do so love your stories. You have so many!”
“One of my many pleasures,” he murmured. “Ah, but this story… is a story of the fabled Nur Jahan.”
“She was quite a woman, I gather.”
“Indeed so, and quite extraordinarily talented, so I’ve been told. They say that when Asaf Khan ‘retired’ her, she dedicated her life to poetry, to charity and to perfumes.”
“Perfumes! Only in India…” Edwina buried her nose in the rose. It was like no other rose –certainly, no English rose – she had ever known, lush, deep, both majestic and piercing in its scent.
“You forget, in India, perfume is definition, devotion and adornment all in one. Something for you to think about, perhaps? Or at least consider…” he went on with another smile as they strolled onward, a precious stolen hour of serenity amid the separation talks. “And so the story goes about a perfume Nur Jahan made, and such a perfume they say it was. They say it was all her essence and all of the world, not merely India, wrapped around the might of a rose.”
“The might of a rose. I must say that phrase has a certain… power to it.”
“Well, she was am Empress, after all.”
“But of course.” Edwina breathed in her rose. It made her own British roses seem so indistinct and pallid in comparison. “But what about it? Did someone ever find the formula? I do like the idea of such a perfume.”
Nehru watched the diamond droplets of water flash above the fountain in the sunlight and refract in the air above the pool. As he thought, as Edwina walked beside him with this extraordinary rose in her hand, she thought with a pang that she might never see this fabled garden and its beauty again.
“How does it go, this tale of Nur Jahan’s mythical perfume… Ah! Well then, they say that when she died, her retainer burned the formula and released it into the wind for another to find in time. Remember, this was not simply a perfume, not just a scent to wear, but the very quintessence of an Empress of India. So it would be powerful and immensely rich, as she surely was, it would contain all her majesty and all her secrets. Not something you’d buy in Paris, perhaps. Power and majesty are not to be trifled with.”
“Something of which I suspect Her Majesty was well aware.”
Edwina tried to open up her heart, her soul, her very pores to drink it all in… the gardens, the sunlight, the company of her extraordinary friend and this extraordinary story of a perfume that sparked a longing in her heart to know it, to wear it, to breathe it, to be remembered by its presence.
“Certainly! Nur Jahan ruled an empire, let’s not forget. With an iron hand, I might add.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a perfume that would say all those things to the world.”
“Ah, my friend, neither have I, and I am Indian, after all.”
“But that is such an extraordinary story! Power and majesty all contained in a vial of scent.”
“Sometimes,” Nehru’s thrilling voice trailed off as he looked into the distance, “it is better to take the sword than to surrender, fail or run away.”
“And should that sword be a rose?” Again, Edwina inhaled deeply from the rose in her hand. To her, it seemed as if this were so much more than a simple flower and so infinitely much more than a mere ‘rose’.
They walked on a while in the comfortable silence of friends. And then, Nehru looked at Edwina and at the rose in her hand.
“Remember…and this is something I can well imagine Nur Jahan saying herself…
‘Never underestimate the might of a rose.’
Neela has offered to give away one ceramic perfume disk (for scenting drawers & closets) and a 10 ml decant of Mohur Extrait to one lucky reader in either the EU or the US, and a sample of Mohur Extrait to the two runners-up who comment on this post by midnight CET on Wednesday, May 21st. Mohur Extrait is a must-try even for those who don’t like rose – this is NOT your usual rose! Make sure to like Neela Vermeire Créations on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. The winners of the giveaway will be drawn by random.org and announced here on TAG on Thursday, May 22nd. THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED.
Notes: Cardamom, coriander, ambrette seeds, carrot seeds, pepper, elemi, iris, jasmine, rose, violet, almond, leather, sandalwood, amber, patchouli, oud, benzoin, vanilla and tonka bean.
Neela Vermeire Créations Mohur Extrait is currently only available as a limited edition directly from the NVC website for customers in the EU. For US customers, contact Neela Vermeire Creations at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mohur Extrait was created by Neela Vermeire in collaboration with perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour.
Disclosure: A sample of Mohur Extrait was provided by Neela Vermeire. The story and review are my own, but the historical context, people and events mentioned are as accurate as research allowed.
Painting: “Bani Thani”, by Rajasthani artist Gopal Khetanchi, with the addition of a 17th-century rose by yours truly.
Photo from the Shalimar Gardens, Lahore by Roland & Sabrina Michaud.
Rose petal photo from the flower market of Bangalore and presentation of Mohur Extrait bottle by Neela Vermeire. Used by permission.