THREE decades into Emperor Shah Jehan’s turbulent reign, two Europeans, Niccolao Manucci, an Italian, and Francois Bernier, a Frenchman, arrive in India and make their way from India’s west coast on to Delhi, the Mughal capital. Manucci who grew up in Venice, arrived in Goa in 1653 and briefly studied medicine-or what went for it-under a Catholic missionary priest. Bernier, a French peasant’s son born in 1620 also studied medicine, but in his own country, and graduated in 1652 and made his way east towards India with but one ambition-to serve the Mughal Court as a physician. Both succeeded in their objectives, but what is more, they wrote accounts of the times they lived in Delhi.
Sudhir Kakar has now used their writings as a base for his own work which turns out to be a mixture of facts and fiction with minimum liberties taken with historical facts, but in biting prose. The two European travellers, Kakar insists, viewed Shah Jehan’s Court “through the lens of sensibility, crafted by European prejudices”. That is a little unfair judgement. The Moghul Court was not exactly paradisiacal; it was rent with diabolical scheming with courtiers feigning loyalty to whoever was in power.
Both Manucci and Bernier were observers of what went around them. They were also aware of Mughal subjects like the Hindus who are dismissed as “idolators” and “rare heathens” Manucci saw Hindus as “unfailingly courteous and often generous beyond their means”. Bernier had contempt for Hindus-idolators as they are called-dismissing them as “servile by nature from centuries of oppression by their own princes as by the Mohammadans” and being “even worse then the Mughals in the extent to which they stretch their sycophancy”. As he put it: “It is astonishing to see how this (idolatrous) multitude allowed itself to be subjected by so small a number of Mohammadan princes”. To Bernier, “the amazement disappears when one remembers that the idolators are not a united race” and it is this “disunion that made them tributaries to the Great Mughal”. He is quoted as saying: “The Mohammadans rightly despise the idolators as a naïve and primitive people” described as zulum parast (tyranny adorers) who had little self-respect. Bernier refers to Hindu princes giving away their daughters to the Mughals as seraglio wives, to be kept in harems. Life in a harem was terrible. The bulk of the practice of these two European physicians came from the very women in the harem whose lives were miserable.
Shah Jehan was obssessed with sex. Again, according to Manucci, the Emperor “saw no reason to control his sexual appetite even when his beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal was alive”. When she passed away, “renouncing the pleasures promised by women’s bodies” was not one of his ways of mourning the departure of a beloved. Nor was there a limit to the number and variety of women he bedded. Not content with the two thousand queens, concubines, dancing girls, female musicians and slaves in his harem, Shah Jehan was also in the habit of inviting kanjaris to stay in the harem for a night to amuse him. According to Manucci “these ravishing dancing girls were known for employing their amazingly supple limbs most innovatively in amourous sport”.
It was not just Shah Jehan whose sexual appetite was unbelievable. Much the same could be said of Jahanara Begum who had her lovers. The whole lot was barbarian. There was the time Kandahar Fort was besieged. Prince Dara watched the scene as the Mughals were defeated. What happened next was simple. The Persian Commander allowed the imperial army to carry away and bury the dead bodies of Mohammadans while the heads of five hundred idolater soldiers were cut off and heaped together leaving the headless trunks to the vultures. How Aurangzeb, when he defeated his own brother Dara is another story. Dara (the wali Ahad) and his son Sipir Shukoh were clad in torn, dirty clothes and placed in a howdah ” their hands and feet fettered in iron chains and their coarse cotton turban covered in filth” and they were paraded through Delhi’s streets.
These and other such incidents are all recounted in this valuable book which is history in the raw. For Aurangzeb relationship did not matter. When he learnt that his sister Roshanara Begum had kept eight young men in her palace for her pleasure, she was quietly poisoned to death. Crimson, certainly, was the Mughal throne figuratively tarnished with blood. We need to know the truth about another time and era and Kakar has provided it, thanks, in the main, to two Europeans to whom thanks are over due. This is history in the raw, but Kakar has done justice to it. And how!
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