If there is one thing that can be said about Debasish Das’s book ‘Red Fort: Remembering the Magnificent Mughals’, it is that the book captures, in equal measure, the resplendence and the pathos that the Red Fort stands drenched in, unbeknownst to the throngs that mill around the historic structure today.
Equally importantly, it must be said that it presents the Mughals for what they were: Kings, Emperors, human beings. Neither does this book demonise them, nor does it exalt them to false heights. It presents a very balanced account of their contributions and their faults, etching out an image that is neither black nor white, but full of varying hues and shades.
The author unfolds before our eyes visions such as those of the Nahr-i-Bihisht – River of Paradise – a canal channelled from the Yamuna, flowing across the rooms of the palace, into marble basins decorated with bejewelled flowers in pietra dura, so stunningly real that when water flowed over them, they appeared to be swaying mesmerizingly! You can see the bejewelled walls and gold ceilings, silken curtains and brilliant tapestries, the lamps flickering like fairy lights in alcoves behind water bubbling over marble chaadars, even as the royal elephant beneath the royal balconies stomps its feet restively.
There are captivating visual and architectural descriptions of the Chatta Bazaar, the Chandni Chowk, the mysterious and romantic Meena Bazaar, the Palace gates, the Diwan e Aam, the Diwan e Khas and even the havelis around Shahjahanabad. One of the most fascinating things about the architecture of Shahjahanabad are the Sufi and Hindu linkages in design, further spreading out to connections with Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The city’s semi elliptical design is based on the ancient Hindu Manasara Shilpa Shastra that proposed a bow or karmuka shaped city-scape: the North-South street representing the bow string, and the outer city walls representing the curved shaft.
The Iranian architects of the city also borrowed from the Sufi architectural traditions from the Rasail of the Ikhwan e Safa or Epistles of the Brothers of Purity, drawing analogies between the Cosmos and the human being, between the macrocosm and the microcosm – the very concept theorised by Da Vinci in his ‘Vitruvian Man as the cosmography of the microcosm’. “They laid out the new city to emulate the anatomy of the Perfect Man or Insan-i-Kamil as a fusion between the two. Chandni CHowk street was its backbone, Jama Masjid was at the position of its heart, and the large city gates represented its cardinal points, while the Palace Fortress was its head looking westwards towards Mecca.”
Beyond this though, the essence of a book is captured in the emotions it evokes in the heart of the reader, and the impressions it leaves on the mind. In that sense, the book is always unique to every reader, for it speaks to them according to their unique sensibilities.
For a feminist reader and a sufi learner like myself, one of the chief draws of this book was Princess Jahanara, daughter of Shah Jahan. The book is peppered with details of the life of this cerebral and strong administrator, who was an amalgam of such varied traits that she takes your breath away: a learned sufi, a brilliant writer, an architect, a leader and an able administrator. The famous Chandni Chowk was designed by none other than the magnificent Jahanara!
As a Sufi, she was taught by the Qadri Sufi mystic of Kashmir, Mulla Shah Badakhshani- who, interestingly, refused to admit her when she was first introduced by Dara Shukoh and Shah Jahan. Just three years after meeting him, Jahanara wrote the book Risala i Sahibiya. Mullah Shah was later known to have said that he would have prefered her to be his spiritual successor.
Jahanara had the title of ‘Sahibat uz Zamani’ or Mistress of Her Age, and was also the first unmarried royal woman to have her own seal, and the ability to issue her own farmaans and edicts. She wielded great power and also received revenues from the port town of Surat.
Other fascinating ladies from the royal palace also make an appearance in the book, such as Donna Julianna who was a surgical and medical expert and the Superintendent of the zenana during the time of Aurangzeb. Nur Jahan of course, is one of the most famous Mughal rulers- hunting tigers, issuing edicts, having coins issued in her name and more. One of the symbols of her power was that she used to accompany the Emperor for the Jharokha Darshan.
Admittedly, the presence of hundreds of concubines in the zenana evokes disgust in this feminist reader. But polygamy being a way of life in that age, especially for the ruling classes- across region and religion- one can do nothing but move on to less triggering parts of the book.
Informative but equally triggering are the parts about the tawaifs. Despite presenting the kothas as places of etiquette, culture and the arts, one cannot but disagree with Das when he speaks of it as a ‘beautiful tradition’, because no matter how much refinement was centred in the kothas, in the end the courtesans never ‘fit in’ as respectable women. They were always viewed as public women and lived lives steeped in pathos. No woman became a tawaif out of choice, and that, for the feminist reader in the modern age, makes for a problematic and oppressive practice. However, one does agree as to the delicate distinction Das tries to make about the fine women that courtesans were.
One of the most riveting chapters in the book is the one about cultural and literary exchanges in the Mughal period. Translation of Sanskrit epics—religious and others—was at its zenith during the Mughal Era. “The first book taken up was the Atharva Veda, followed by the Ramayana, Mahabharat, Nala-Damayanti, Bhagwad Gita, the Upanishads and many others. In Persian Mahabharata called the Razmnamah or Book of War, the narrative was interspersed with Persian verses,” enumerates Das. In fact, a Sanskrti-Persian lexicon was authored at Akbar’s court by Krishnadasa Misra.
Dara Shukoh authored the Majma Al Bahrayn (Confluence of two Oceans) “where he theorized that the two traditions, Vedic and Quranic, emphasise the same basic truth. This book was translated into Sanskrit as Samudra Sangam.” Dara also sponsored the translation of fifty Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian.
It is ironic that the very Mughals who are now being demonised by right wing Hindus as anti-Hindu, were so steeped in Hindu culture that they would probably be denounced by right-wing Muslims as heretics! The presence of Hindu astrologers at the court, sun-veneration by Mughal Emperors, the celebration of Hindu festivals with great fervour, the adoption of Hindu rituals and the patronage accorded to Sanskrit all stand testimony to a flourishing multicultural fabric.
Das also debunks the myth of mass conversions to Islam during Mughal rule, quoting Prof Harbans Mukhia of Jawaharlal Nehru University. Das quotes, “After more than six hundred years of Islamic rule if only 16% of the population were Muslims, surely religious conversion was not a strategic agenda, and a multi-religious cultural fabric was accepted.”
“The densest Muslim population is not at Delhi, UP and Bihar- the heart of the erstwhile Islamic empires of India including the Mughals – but in faraway places that are now Pakistan and Bangladesh and in Malabar area of Kerala.” Das quotes Prof Harbans Mukhia thus: “Indeed, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the concentration of political and administrative power on the one hand and the regional density of Muslim population on the other.”
The book further regales the reader with riveting nuggets of information, and delightful anecdotes. The Persian origins of the commonly used word ‘Shabash!’ for instance, and even the origins of ‘Saalgirah’ the word for birthday. The word ‘shabash’ can be traced to the name of the Persian King ‘Shah Abbas’, and alternately it could come from the Persian phrase ‘Shah Bash’ meaning “(May You) Be King!”
Captivating descriptions of the khushbu-khanah, the perfumery which was a separate department first set up by Akbar, reveal the significance of fragrances for the Mughals. We also come to know about Delhi’s oldest existing perfumery in Dariba Kalan: The Gulab Singh Johrimal Shop which used used to supply perfumes to the Mughal zenana.
Das fascinates and intrigues with descriptions of the ancient slow distillation process of itr-extraction, where fifty kilos of flower petals yielded half a kilo of perfume, taking six to seven hours of slow heating as fragrant vapours rose like mist through the bamboo pipes. Equally fascinatingly, we read that the Mughals actually encapsulated in an itr “the earthy aroma” of the dry earth when it is freshly wet with rain! Called mitti ox gil in Persian, the very description sends tantalising fragrances wafting up your nose.
The surprising origins of the hookah or hubble-bubble are revealed: how this favourite of Indian nobility was in fact a European invention introduced to the Mughal Court through interactions with the Portuguese!
From the zenith of the Mughals to the nadirs, from joyous celebrations of Jashn e Chiraghan (Diwali) to the bloodcurdling internecine murders for the throne, from heartrending descriptions of the raids by Nadir Shah to dramatic, poignant descriptions of the revolt of 1857 and the subsequent fall of the Mughals, the book deftly encapsulates the itr-like essence of the Red Fort—the rapturous revelry, the shattering tremors, the pallid gloom.
The next time you decide to visit the historic city of Shahjahanabad, be sure to take this book along. You’ll never see the Fort and the city quite the same way again.