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Item Code: IDK438

by Jyoti Jafa

Paperback (Edition: 2001)

Lotus Collection Roli Books
ISBN 8174360298

Size: 8.5" X 5.5"
Pages: 260
Price: $22.50
Discounted: $16.88   Shipping Free
Viewed times since 2nd Oct, 2008


Author's Note

By a strange series of events, a young woman came to control one of history's most fabulous empires, long enough to become a living legend. She was Nurjahan, the Empress of India.

Historically, the name India applied to the whole subcontinent south of the Himalayas, comprising the modern nations of India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Its vast size, and frequent invasions from its vulnerable mountain passes and unguarded seacoast led to the development of small kingdoms with their different races, languages, religions and cultures. India's wealth became a fatal burden for its own people and a target for many hardy conquerors.

The Mughals; who conquered North India or Hindustan unified the greater part of this immense subcontinent under their rule despite tenacious local resistance. Driven out of his principalities of Samarkand and Fargana, the Timurid Prince, Babur, established the Mughal Empire in 1526 by defeating the Sultan of Delhi and then the Rajput confederacy led by Rana Sanga of Mewar. In 1530 Humayun succeeded his brilliant father and experienced many ups and downs, winning and losing his kingdom. Betrayed by his half-brothers who grabbed Kabul and Lahore, and often defeated by Afghan and Rajput armies, Humayun was forced to seek shelter in Persia after the birth of his son and heir, Akbar. There Humayun acquired a great taste for Persian art and literature at the Safavid court of Shah Tahmasp. The great Afghan soldier and administrator Sher Shah Suri ruled for a brief, brilliant period. But Humayun was able to win back North India before he stumbled out of life by breaking his neck of his library steps in Delhi as he knelt to answer the evening call to prayer.

The second Mughal conquest of Hindustan in 1556 was due to the efforts of Bairam Khan, whom Humayun had appointed ataliq (tutor and guardian) to his fourteen-year-old successor, Akbar. This courageous, free-spirited boy-king could not endure tutelage, frequently indulging in madcap escapades to show his guardian Bairam Khan-and his protective mother Hamida Begum, his domineering headnurse Maham Anaga, and his demanding Mughal aunts-that they couldn't manipulate him by eighteen, Akbar had won enough battles to banish his Lord Protector. Bairam Khan was murdered at Surat by some Afghan enemies before he could embark on the pilgrimage to Mecca ordered by his youthful master.

Akbar's dream of an Indian empire became a reality even though the Mughals were foreign immigrants. Descendents of Changhiz (Genghis) Khan and Timur (Tamerlane), the Mughals felt they were Indians despite their Turkish and Mongol blood, Persian acculturation and Arab religion. A practical visionary, Akbar was shrewd enough to see that any stable rule in India must enjoy the support of the Hindus, who were in overwhelming majority. But religious tolerance did not originate with Akbar. It was an ancient Indian tradition honoured even by earlier Islamic warrior kings like Allaudin Khilji, Muhammud Bin Tughlaq and Sher Shah.

The Mughal empire rested on four pillars-the Emperor's personality, the policy of religious tolerance, the Rajput alliance and the balance of power. This last took two forms, external and internal. The external balance was with the Safavids, with whom the Mughals shared control of the Iranian plateau. The symbol of their rivalry was the strategic trade centre, Kandahar held by the Mughals from 1522 till 1649, then finally captured the other. For the Mughals, the Persians were a safeguard, leaving them free to conquer South India. For the Safavids, the Mughals kept the restless Afghans and Uzbeks in check, giving them comparative security to deal with the expansionist Ottoman Turks to the west.

The internal balance of power was provided by the independent states of the South India and the Rajput kings in the north. Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb fought many wars with the turbulent Rajputs, who constantly threatened the Mughal power centres, Agra and Delhi. The nearest Rajput state, Amber (modern Jaipur), was won over first by a system of mutual accommodation and hard-won concessions. In 156869 the two great fortresses of Chittor and Ranthambore were captured. Despite this, Mewar (modern Udaipur) maintained some independence in its remote rocky jungles. But the rest of Rajputana accepted Mughal supremacy.

After that, Akbar's conquests followed steadily. By the time of his death in 1605 Akbar controlled a huge sweep of territory between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, including Afghanistan, Balkh and Badakshan up north. In the south, Bijapur, Golconda (modern Hyderabad), Mysore (modern Karnataka), parts of Kerala, and the Portuguese colony of Goa remained independent. The Nizam Shahi kingdom of Ahmednagar became a vassal state, revolting frequently till Shah Jahan finally annexed it in 1633.

Akbar took several steps to sustain this empire. He prohibited the enslavement of Hindu prisoners of war, gave Hindus important government posts, abolished jezia (a hated poll tax on non-Muslims), and the pilgrims tax on everyone. And he married Hindu princesses, encouraging them to practice their religious rites and social customs within the Mughal household. The mothers of his heir Salim and his grandsons Khusro, Khurram (Emperor Shah Jahan) and Shahryar were the Hindu princesses of Amber and Marwar (modern Jodhpur). These matrimonial alliances brought Akbar and his successor Jehangir powerful Rajput brother-in-law with their armies and administrative skills.

Controversy surrounds these Rajput-Mughal marriages. But there were historical precedents for such matrimonial alliances between Hindu and Muslim royal families. The Raja of Ucch's daughter was Sultan Shahbuddin Ghori's wife. The Bhatti princess Nella, married to Salar Rajab, became the mother of Delhi's canal-building king, Firoz Tughlaq. A Daulatabad princess had married Alauddin Khilji's son. By opting for happy mergers rather than hostile takeovers by the mightier Mughals, the Rajput princes ensured their own survival, protected their subjects from the ravages of prolonged wars and became partners in Akbar's creation of a centralized Indian empire.

The Timurid prince who ruled India were great patrons of learning, art and architecture. Akbar too loved books, specially illustrated ones. But he had a highly disturbed childhood and a very turbulent youth, with little time or inclination for reading. So the myth persists that he was virtually illiterate. Perhaps he was simply dyslexic and had a reading disability. But only a seeker of knowledge could have collected the vast library of nearly 25,000 books which Akbar left his heirs. These included works on history, anthropology, mathematics, medicine, music, veterinary science, engineering, military strategy, natural history, comparative studies on religions, astrology, astronomy, architecture and literature in Persian, Arabic, Turki, Hindustani and Sanskrit. He also left commissioned translations of the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Harivamsha Puranas, the Upanishads and all the four Vedas to enlighten his Muslim courtiers and foster better understanding of the Hindus.

The Mughals also welcomed men of ability to India. Merchants, soldiers, poets, painters, musicians, architects and jewelers from Turkey, Iran, Arabia, Central Asia, China, Africa and Europe came seeking fortunes at the glittering Mughal court the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French had representatives in India before William Hawkins and Thomas Roe were sent by James I of England to the Grand Mughal, requesting trading permission for the East India Company. The Europeans brought new scientific, technical and artistic knowledge to Mughal India. They also aroused interest in Christianity and western customs. (But Jehangir's enthusiasm for European novelties did not prevent him from noticing the shoddy workmanship of the silver carriage presented to him by Thomas Roe, and having a far superior copy made by his own craftsmen!).

Even though Akbar was undoubtedly a great monarch, disappointments within his family darkened his last years. His prayers for a son and successor had been answered thrice. But none of these fruit of piety seemed worthy of inheriting what Akbar had created. Salim's younger brothers Murad and Daniyal both died of drink before they were thirty. The fault was no doubt party Akbar's. For all one's sons to turn into alcoholics smacks of more than mere coincidence.

According to Timurid traditions, a father's territory was divided equally among surviving sons or grandsons. Thus the Mughals had no law of primogeniture and ugly wars of succession became a fact of their lives. Akbar came to the throne without facing strong rivals. But his death and the death of every other Mughal emperor was accompanied by upheavals, none more disruptive than the rebellion of Jehangir's eldest son, Khusro. He was supported by two of the most powerful nobles in the empire-his uncle Raja Maan Singh of Amber and his father-in-law Mirza Aziz Koka, Akbar's eccentric foster brother.

Jehangir was the first Mughal to inherit an empire worthy of the name often dismissed as a pleasure-loving dilettante, Jehangir in fact served his nation well. India prospered, and there was peace in the countryside during his twenty-year reign. His essential kindliness made him forgive offenders, including his rebel son Khusro. He insisted on payment of compensation for crops damaged by Mughal troops on the march, abolished or reduced customs dues and tax for policing, established free kitchens for the poor and made sati and female infanticide capital offences. He disregarded the strict prohibitions of Islam while remaining a Sunni Muslim and observed many Hindu festivals and customs. A justice-loving ruler, Jehangir had a gold chain attached to a bell in his bedroom which could be pulled by anyone from below if they wanted to bring grievances to his notice. Jehangir's chief success lay in maintaining the status quo despite shortcomings like indolence and a pronounced taste for opium and wine that would have ruined his health much earlier, without the intervention of his devoted wife, Nurjahan. She was his alter ego; indeed, they were two halves of a perfect whole, bound by their enduring love and trust, rare in royal marriages.

Nurjahan was the de facto ruler of India for sixteen years. Brilliant, beautiful and benevolent, she is admired even now for her creativity. Her poetry is included in anthologies of Islamic literature and she designed one of the loveliest Mughal buildings, her parents' tomb at Agra. But the most intriguing aspect of Nurjahan's life was her ability to dominate the totally male-oriented world of Mughal India from behind purdah.

The enduring love between a Persian adventurer's daughter, Meherunnisa (Empress Nurjahan), and Prince Salim (Emperor Jehangir) is one of the world's rather few happy romantic sagas.


Author's Note9
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