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The Emperor’s mangoes and horses, and his daggers and swords February 5, 2015

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Kumar, Vikas , trackback

Vikas Kumar

There are more than a hundred places in India named by or after Aurangzeb. The Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) has floated a petition to rename one of them, the Aurangzeb Road in Delhi, after Guru Tegh Bahadur. The petitioners argued: ‘No street is named after Hitler in the West, yet in New Delhi we have Aurangzeb Road.’ The DSGMC General Secretary added that ‘a public place named after Aurangzeb in secular India is inappropriate.’ We are obliged to confront, yet again, the matter of how to engage with our past.



Aurangzeb (b. 1618/r. 1658/d. 1707), the most controversial Mughal ruler, is no longer remembered for his military genius, his austere lifestyle, his administrative reforms, and his cannons. History holds him responsible for the disintegration of the Mughal Empire. People remember him as a ruler who dethroned and imprisoned his father, ordered the executions of his elder brother Dara Shikoh, the mystic Sheikh Sarmad and Guru Tegh Bahadur, re-imposed Jizya, forcibly converted people, and ordered the destruction of temples. With regard to the last, R.C. Majumdar, the editor of the multi-volume The History and Culture of the Indian People, asked ‘if the temple-breaking policy of Aurangzib is a disputed point, is there a single fact in the whole recorded history of mankind which may be taken as undisputed?’ Maasir-i-Alamgiri (History of Aurangzeb-Alamgir) indeed abounds in instances of religious bigotry. Written under the patronage of Inayatullah Khan Kashmiri, Aurangzeb’s last secretary and Emperor Muhammad Shah’s temporary Wazir, Maasir was completed three years after the death of Aurangzeb. But it is also true that Aurangzeb awarded land grants to temples and Hindus were well-represented in his nobility and administration. Any attempt to explain away the aforesaid land grants and appointments as politically expedient will seriously weaken the presumed relationship between Aurangzeb’s temple destruction policy and his religious faith.

In any case, before the last Lok Sabha election, politicians and intellectuals, who consider themselves to be secular, unwittingly used Aurangzeb as a metaphor to draw attention to the controversial past of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. For instance, in an interview with Dainik Bhaskar, the Vice President of the Indian National Congress Rahul Gandhi compared Akbar and Aurangzeb and added that his party followed the path of the former. Similarly, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, compared Dara Shikoh, the author of ‘Majma-ul-Bahrayn, or The Mingling of the Two Oceans . . . on India’s two faith traditions,’ with the ‘unmusical, merciless, illiberal and ravenously ambitious Narcissus’ Aurangzeb. His article concluded ominously: ‘But we know where Aurangzeb’s reign led Hindustan to.’ Harbans Mukhia, a former professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, presented an exhaustive comparison and suggested that the BJP leader is ‘a modern parallel of the ruthlessly ambitious Mughal emperor Aurangzeb,’ who was ‘[a] hard-core Muslim at heart, believing in the supremacy of his religion, revelling in promoting communal animosity.’ These statements remind me of Neeladri Bhattacharya’s observation that among secular historians there is an ‘embarrassed silence regarding Aurangzeb.’ Even those who engage with him try to ‘isolate him within the Mughal lineage as the bad guy,’ whose long reign was ‘a temporary interlude, a deviation, and not characteristic of Mughal rule.’ It then seems that Aurangzeb’s religious bigotry is one of the very rare historical “facts” accepted by the right wing as well as their secular enemies. But let us steer clear of religion and explore an entirely different aspect of Aurangzeb’s life.

From a letter in Ruqaat-i Alamgiri (Letters of Aurangzeb, compiled by Inayatullah Khan Kashmiri) we learn that once his son Mohammed Azam Shah sent certain varieties of mangoes to him. The Emperor wrote back: ‘Exalted son, I was much pleased with the ‘dali’ of mangoes sent by you to the old father. You have requested me to suggest names for the unknown mangoes. When you yourself are very clever, why do you give trouble to (your) old father. However I have named them Sudha-ras [sweet as nectar] and Rasna-vilas [relishable to the palate].’ This incident took place a few years before the Emperor’s death, when Azam was the governor of Gujarat or Malwa. (Incidentally, a mystic text Nain-Vilas, i.e., relishable to eyes, is attributed to Aurangzeb’s daughter Zeb-un-nisa.) Princes and other nobles also sent horses, swords, and daggers. In another letter written to Azam, Aurangzeb refers to a horse named Chawa-chandan (soothing to eyes like chandan). In a footnote to the first letter, Ruqaat’s translator Jamshid Bilmoria notes: ‘Here Aurungzebe shews his knowledge of Sanskrit.’ But why would an old Emperor need to demonstrate his knowledge of a language, which he did not use in court or in private conversations, in letters to his son. In any case, here Aurangzeb does not sound like a sectarian. It can be argued that the conjoining of religious and linguistic sectarianisms is a modern disease. So, there need not be a definitive relationship between Aurangzeb’s religious and linguistic choices. To put it differently, Aurangzeb was not a member of the Muslim League, the champion of Urdu-Arabic Script-Islam in South Asia. If we accept this argument then we have to admit that the categories such as religious sectarianism and extremism that apply to our times do not directly apply to Aurangzeb (and his times) because of the deep structural differences between the two societies.

The pleasant names mentioned above though tell only half the story. The Emperor also liked sectarian names, especially, for swords and daggers. In a 1692 letter to Umadat-ul-Mulk Asad Khan, a minister and general who served four generations of Mughals, Aurangzeb wrote that he liked a dagger called Rafiz-i-Kush (Shia-slayer) and ordered some more of ‘same make and name for the state.’ Maasir reports that a decade later the Emperor received and named a short sword ‘the Young Ghazi.’ However, his cannons had names like Sher-dahan (sounds like a lion) and Zafarbaksh (bestower of victory).

Likewise a survey of places Aurangzeb renamed does not reveal an abiding love for sectarian names. Maasir suggests that between 1660 and 1681 most of the places renamed were given names like Islam-abad/pur/nagar. However, in the other half of his long reign he gave sectarian names perhaps only in three instances, including when he appended Dar-ul Jihad to Hyderabad. This is very interesting as it is widely believed that he became increasingly sectarian with the passage of time. A similar picture emerges if we examine his relationship with the Holy Cities, which do not figure in Maasir after the 1680s. But in a 1694 letter Aurangzeb cautioned Inayatullah Khan that ‘Having heard about the great wealth of India Sharif-i-Mecca, for taking an advantage for himself, sends me every year an envoy (for receiving money from me). This sum of money which I sent (with the envoy to the Sharif [of Mecca]) is for the needy. We should take care whether the money is distributed among the poor or is wasted by the Sharif. On your own behalf you should write to the great and rich merchants of the auspicious harbour of Surat that this sum of money will be sent through them to the needy of the two holy and auspicious cities (i.e., Mecca and Medina) if they guarantee its safety. Any how religious charity practised by government should not be known to the public . . . If this is also impossible, why should it not be distributed among the poor of this country (i.e., India)? Because the manifestation of the Holy God is reflected in every place (i.e., God is omnipresent).’

It should be clear that invoking the memory of the last great Mughal cannot be a simple task. The place of such historical personalities in public spaces cannot be left to the mercy of contemporary political considerations.

A shorter version of this article appeared here in Sunday Herald.

Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.


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