A chilling narrative of the less-known aspects of Shah Jahan
By Dr Vaidehi Nathan
Shah Jahan: The Rise and Fall of the Mughal Emperor, Fergus Nicoll, Penguin Books, pp 332, Rs. 899.00
Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor who was a “ruthless political operator, who only achieved power by ordering the murder of two brothers and at least six other relatives, one of them the legitimately crowned Emperor Dawar Baksh… an enlightened despot, a king who dispensed largesse to favoured courtiers but ignored plague in the countryside.”
This is how Fergus Nicoll introduces Shah Jahan, in his book Shah Jahan: The Rise and Fall of the Mughal Emperor that academically scrutinises the life, time and reign of the Emperor.
It speaks volumes for the King’s character that in this detailed account of his 31 years of rule, one does not come across a single act of goodness or kindness for the people. The official diary, maintained daily diligently by a writer, extensively quoted by Nicoll does not give any evidence that Shah Jahan was bothered about his subjects. Famines and plagues visited the population at regular frequency. But the people had to pay the rent fixed for them.
“The poor, by contrast, thronged every village, highway and urban back-street across the entire empire,” says Nicoll. A Dutch trader in India at the time wrote, “If their villages were unable to pay the full amount of rent, they could be sold – man, woman or child – or charged with fomenting rebellion. For in Mughal India defaulting was tantamount to treason.” What a tragic picture. This when the emperor’s treasury was bursting and overflowing.
Nicoll gives a detailed account of the Emperor’s wealth at several places in the book. Here is one of them: “The fact that Shah Jahan could spend five million rupees on his widow’s tomb with such nonchalance is an indicator of the vast wealth at his disposal.” Together the provinces brought “Shah Jahan’s total income to nearly 190 million rupees. Most of that money flowed directly into the imperial coffers as crown-land revenue. The remainder was allocated at the emperor’s discretion to 655 named individuals: members of the royal family and the members of the nobility whose fiefdom financed their private militias and lavish lifestyles.” The author goes on to further illustrate the emperor’s wealth by comparing it to the pitiable state of finances of his contemporaries in the West. For instance, King Charles I in 1635 was struggling with a financial crisis, to maintain his court at an annual budget of half a million pounds.
As could be expected the book is full of political executions and mass murders. The supporters of political rivals are finished off, their heads separated, lined up for display to act as warning. During the reign of Shah Jahan’s father Jahangir, the fifth Sikh Guru Arjun Dev was executed and the possessions of his followers confiscated. The Guru, not a supporter of any group had only accorded the routine hospitality to Prince Khusraw, in the form of a tilak and spiritual advice when the latter came calling on him. Khusraw (elder brother of Shah Jahan) was then rebelling against his father. When taking the throne, the already incarcerated Khusraw’s murder was ordered by Shah Jahan.
The book elaborately describes the coming up of Taj Mahal, right from the stage of conception. The Red Fort, Jama Masjid and other structures by the Emperor have been penned extensively.
Shah Jahan, the man has got lost in this painstakingly researched book. There is no account of his personal life, as a father, husband (except that he loved Mumtaj Mahal to distraction and subjected her to annual pregnancies) and a victim of his son’s (Aurangzeb) political ambitions. Nicoll has ignored records that show that Shah Jahan was incestuous and used both his daughters Jahan Ara and Roshan Ara sexually and cruelly put to death their lovers when caught.
Nicoll has glossed over the religious fanaticism of Shah Jahan. His very anti-Hindu stances including the reintroduction of jazia the tax on Hindus, though several Rajput kings were his vassals and supplied money and men for his wars. The demolition of the ancient Vishwanatha temple in Kashi was carried out by Shah Jahan. The incident is mentioned by Nicoll in passing as a general demolition of temples in Benaras for “beautification” of the city.
This book is an academic work, on an Emperor who is taught in Indian history books as the ‘builder of Taj Mahal and a man who had an undying love for his wife.’ Nicoll opens our eye to the King that Shah Jahan was. Though the account on the social scene and the plight of the people comes rather late in the book and is not very elaborate, it gives an idea about the life of Hindus in Hindustan then. It of course only got worse under 40 years of Aurangzeb’s rule. That account would have to wait for another book.
Fergus Nicoll has been a current affairs journalist for the BBC since 1988 and is widely travelled. He received a generous grant from the Society of Authors to work on the book. The book no doubt is the result of labourious research of a committed academic mind.
(Penguin Books, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)