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Mughal India

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 18:00 UK time, Monday, 10 December 2012

The exhibition Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire is currently running at the British Library in London. More than 200 manuscripts, objects and paintings are on display, covering the entire period of the Mughal Empire from 1526 until its eventual decline in 1858.

Though the empire, which covered most of the Asian subcontinent, is called the Mughal Empire, in fact the founder of it, Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, was born in Andijan, modern Uzbekistan. Throughout his famous diary Baburnama (written in Chagatai - which is considered to be classical Uzbek) he referred to himself as a Turk.

However, since this great-grandson of Tamerlane the Great was also a descendant of Genghis Khan on his mother's side his empire came to be entered into the history books as the empire of Mughals or Moguls.

The British Library exhibition is mostly about the achievements of that empire: great change, including a centralised government, religious tolerance, new systems of education and a revival of artistic and cultural traditions most famously embodied in the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal, India

Shah Jahan wrote of the Taj Mahal "The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs / And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes."

But the history of the empire was marked with tragic events too. One of them was the rivalry between two of the sons of Shah Jahan, the man who built the Taj Mahal. They were Dara Shukuh and Aurangzeb.

Dara Shukuh, a Sufi who had translated the Upanishads into Persian, was the elder son of the king, so should have inherited the throne. However, his younger brother, the orthodox Muslim Aurangzeb defeated him in battle, arrested him and executed him. He also imprisoned his own father - Shah Jahan, and his daughter Zeb-un-Nisa.

In my recent novel A Poet and Bin-Laden I tell the story of that fratricide. Here's a chapter showing the humiliation of Dara Shukuh after his defeat.

To this day Aurangzeb could still feel that gaze on him: passionate and suspicious, loving and wary, cruel and repentant, but never betraying itself with a single wrong word, let alone action. Dara Shukuh's story had come to an end and his star had finally set. The same Malik Jivan whom the prince had once saved from execution by trampling by an elephant had seized the prince and his family on a mountain track as they were on their way to Persia. This guileful Pashtu had written to Aurangzeb to say that in his grief after the loss of his beloved wife Nadira-Begim, Dara Shukuh had not even raised his sword. Only Sipehr Shukuh had fought to the end - but what could the prince do against this gang of bandits, Aurangzeb thought disdainfully.

Dara Shukuh and his son had now been brought to Delhi in chains and given into the charge of Nazar-bek. As God was his witness, Aurangzeb would have preferred his brother to flee to Persia, from where there was no return, but now he would have to a find a punishment for Dara Shikuh that would frighten his enemies and inspire his allies. This is what Aurangzeb would do: before gathering the Islamic judges and pronouncing sentence on this heretic and kafir, he would order Dara and Sipehr to be paraded through the whole of Delhi, facing backwards on a dirty elephant. From the Lahore gates through the two largest and most crowded bazaars Chovki Chandni and Saadulla, then past the fort to old Delhi and then finally this route of shame would end at the Hvaspur prison. But parading ahead along this route with his gang of bandits would be that jackal, Malik Jivan, on whom Aurangzeb would confer the title of Bahtiar-khan.

Aurangzeb knew perfectly well what kind of reception the people would give Bahtiar-khan, how the women would pour basins of slops and urine on him from the rooftops and the boys would pelt the gang with rotten eggs and fruit! And he would arrive at the palace for his audience in that state!

But Aurangzeb did not guess how, at the same time, the people in all the quarters of Delhi would sob and weep at the sight of the two princes dressed in rags and chained to the bare back of a she-elephant.

... Under the fierce summer sun Dara Shukuh shuddered on the back of that elephant as it ambled through streets in which he had known such incredible honour and glory. In the bitterness of his shame he did not even raise his eyes from his rusty shackles and only once looked round at the cry of a beggar who exclaimed: "Dara, when you were king, you always threw me a gold coin. Alas, today you have no alms to give me!" What could the prince throw to him do but a tearful glance or a heavy sigh? But he tore off a piece of gold-threaded brocade that was left on his sleeve by chance, and tossed it to the beggar ...

A howl ran round the market of Delhi ...

* * *

Dara Shukuh gazed though the ogeed loopholes of the Hvaspur Fort at the twilight advancing from the east and refused to admit that the dampness of his eyes was not caused by the evening breeze. His son, Sipehr Shukuh was cooking lentil soup in one corner, while his father, who had moved away to the opposite corner, was recalling his life, grain by grain. For some reason he saw a snowy road on which his mother, Mumtaz Mahal had scattered blood-red rose petals, and himself at the age of nine, hugging his six-year-old brother, who was trembling from the cold, and trying to warm the little boy's icy hands with his breath...

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