Monday, November 29, 2021

Old Route to the Taj

The most skilful engineers and artists must be aware that the fame of Emperors rises with their lofty edifices. Thus the well known saying,‘the names...

Written by Mahmood Farooqui |
October 3, 2009 11:23:04 pm

The most skilful engineers and artists must be aware that the fame of Emperors rises with their lofty edifices. Thus the well known saying,‘the names of Kings remain alive for ages on account of their buildings’.

— Tarikh-e Akbari,Arif Qandhari

When Shah Jahan embarked on one of the most ambitious building programmes ever known to mankind,he well knew what he was trying to achieve. It included the Taj Mahal,the city of Shahjahanabad,the Peacock Throne,the Jama Masjid,innovations to Lahore and Agra forts,the Shalimar Gardens,marble mosques at Babar’s grave in Kabul and at Ajmer apart from innumerable caravanserais,roads,mosques,pavilions,gardens,canals and waterworks. No wonder his works remain the most visited in India,and perhaps the world,and he outshines other members of his peerless family in public remembrance.

Shah Jahan,clearly,was after immortality,but so were most monarchs who preceded him. What was it that made him concentrate on magnificent constructions as his route to immortality? Was it because Akbar had been the empire builder and Jahangir the aesthete who had made painting his particular passion,thus forcing Shah Jahan to choose buildings as his hallmark? Or,was it that by the time he came to the throne,the Mughal imperial machine had become sufficiently oiled and regulated to generate the mammoth revenues needed for these edifices? Unfortunately,Fergus Nicoll does not answer the question that should lie at the heart of Shah Jahan’s endeavours. The book judiciously looks at all the sources and presents a balanced opinion on most things and is also well illustrated with paintings and the best of contemporary poetry. Unfortunately,it is not able to break new ground on Shah Jahan. 

It could have been explained away as Nicoll’s ignorance of source languages,but the most medieval sources are now available in English translation. If the book reads too much like a well-synthesised Oxford tutorial essay,then some blame must lie with the author’s terms of engagement. The nature of subterfuge,alliance-building and factionalism that characterised medieval Indian political systems is complex enough to bamboozle most observers. The combination of high ruthlessness,where rebels are beheaded,crushed,sewn into skins,and complete laxity and forgiveness,where defection is routinely pardoned and sometimes even rewarded,can seem highly arbitrary at first sight. It takes a trained eye to discern motivations and find clarity in the sophisticated and circumlocutory world of Mughal diplomacy. No monarchy was wholly arbitrary or despotic,least of all the highly complex Mughal bureaucratic machinery which rested on an evolved Jagirdari or Mansabdari system. It has been characterised as “Patrimonial Bureaucracy”,a term which fails to find mention in Nicoll’s book. 

Perhaps that is one reason Indian writers have been tempted off writing popular histories and biographies. A glance at Nicoll’s bibliography reveals a drying up of Mughal and wider medieval scholarship in the last 25 years. Too much concentration on the nature of Mughal state seems to have frightened scholars and writers off the period altogether. One page in his book,dealing with disparities of income,makes one wish for a “History of Poverty” in India. Accounts of Pandit Jagannath,a Sanskrit poet,and of Pandit Harinath,a Hindi poet,at Shah Jahan’s court are tantalisingly brief. A fuller history of Mughal patronage to arts and letters may change our perception of the Empire. Where there is new scholarship to rest on,for instance,Ruby Lal and S. Mukherjee on Mughal women,this book is able to do better justice. 

The grand feats of the Mughals have often dazzled us,making us forget the centuries of synthesis that went before them. The Sharqis of Jaunpur and the Deccan Sultanate were in many ways even more rooted in indigenous imagination than the Mughals. Works of Hindavi literature and music thrived in these kingdoms. With their imperial outlook,their universalist ambitions and their Persian idiom,the Mughals tied India much more securely to an international order than ever before. 

Shah Jahan ascended the throne after a bitter fratricidal struggle. He had had a brilliant military career before that,defeating the proud Sisodia rulers of Mewar,subjugating the kingdoms of Bijapur,Golcunda and Ahmednagar and even attacking the Persian-held Qandahar. At the end of the thirtieth year of his reign,he found himself facing a son,as proud as himself,with a brilliant military reputation and one who had once been held hostage by Jahangir because of Shah Jahan’s rebellion. Alamgir,the world-conquering Aurangzeb,killed three of his brothers and imprisoned Shah Jahan. For a full eight years,the glorious builder,the proud monarch had nothing to do. He could not write letters or receive visitors,but pray night and day and gaze at the tomb he had so lavishly built for a wife who went through fourteen pregnancies in nineteen years of marriage. Eventually,Shah Jahan found the most spectacular resting place ever granted to man,but you wonder if it was worth the eight years that he spent as an exile in the heart of his splendid kingdom.

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