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'A Visit to Mughal India' from her blog archives by Rohini Chowdhury

by Rohini Chowdhury

blog archives
Around the Fireplace


     The Great Banyan Tree
     A Visit to Mughal India
     The Lake District...


     A Walk Into the Past
     South Bank...
     A tale of two cities
     Autumn Ramblings


     'Tis the night before Christmas
     Knives to Grind...
     In a Railway Carriage



to Rohini Chowdhury's blog Around the Fireplace

January 10, 2009


The story of the Mughals of India is a story so exciting that it is difficult to know how to tell it. How should I begin? Should I begin with Babur's invasion, the two great battles that he fought and won against all odds and which led to the establishment of one of the greatest empires in history? Or should I begin with Babur himself, soldier, statesman, conqueror, emperor, and, in the words of the historian Percival Spear, 'a poet and man of letters, of sensibility and taste and humour as well.'

The Mughal period in India is characterised by superlative achievement in all fields of human endeavour - in empire-building, in statesmanship, politics and administration, in trade and commerce, in art and music and architecture, in literature and poetry. It is a period that is made even more fascinating by the richness of its personalities - the emperors Babur, Humayun, Akbar; the queens and princesses, Hamida Banu, Maryam, Nur Jahan, Jahanara, who held their own with the emperors even in that age of seclusion and purdah; the courtiers, ministers, poets, musicians, Birbal, Todar Mal, Abul Fazl, Tansen, whose stories are told to children even today.

Interestingly, the term 'Mughal' is a term the emperors would have shuddered to have applied to them. The Persian term, pronounced 'Mughul' in Persia and 'Mughal' in India, referred broadly to people of Central Asia who spoke the Mongol languages. Babur never considered himself to be one of 'the Mughal (Mongol) hordes', whom he looked upon as barbarians. He traced his descent from Timur on his father's side, and Chingiz Khan on his mother's, and in Uzbekistan, Babur's home, the dynasty called themselves Chaghtai, descended from Chaghta, the son of Chingiz - which made them the elite among the Mongols. Though the term was in use to describe the dynasty from as early as the sixteenth century, it was made popular only with the advent of the Europeans, who felt no great need to be aware of the nuances of the term or the sensibilities of the emperors.

It is impossible to tell the full story of Mughal India here. Instead, let me take you on the journey I took through Delhi and Agra this winter with my family, visiting the landmarks of Mughal history. I will attempt to tell it in order - that is, not in the order in which we visited the tombs and gardens of the great Mughals, but in the order in which these great monuments were built by the emperors and their queens.

Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, though the architect who laid the foundations of the Mughal Empire in India, did not leave behind any remarkable architectural creation, except for the many Persian gardens that he commissioned around the country. (He is also said to have commissioned the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which was destroyed in 1992 in one of the most shameful acts of sectarian violence in India).

So let me begin with Humayun, Babur's son and successor, the second Mughal emperor of India, whose magnificent tomb stands in spreading, sunlit gardens, which form a quiet oasis amidst hustle and noise of crowded Delhi.

Humayun was a tragic king. Twenty-three years old at the time of his father's death, he faced hostility on all fronts - within his family, in the court, in the army. Kind-hearted, tolerant, intellectual and cultured, he was ill suited to rule a fledgeling empire, and, in 1540, lost his throne to the Afghan Sher Shah Suri. Humayun somehow escaped to Persia where he sought, and was given, asylum by Shah Ismail. It was during this period of exile, in 1542, that his son Akbar was born.

With Humayun's defeat, it seemed that the days of the Mughals in India were over. Sher Shah Suri was not only a brilliant general, but also a talented ruler. He gave the empire an efficient administrative sytem, established a strong and vigorous centre, and embarked upon a reassessment of land-tax. Unfortunately for Afghan rule, and luckily for Humayun, Sher Shah was killed in 1545, during an attack on the Rajput fortress of Kalanjar. He lies buried at Sasaram in Bihar, in a three-storeyed octagonal tomb, once richly decorated.

Sher Shah's tomb is considered to be the finest example of Afghan Pathan architecture in existence today. Though we could not visit Sher Shah's tomb in Bihar on this trip, we did see another example of Pathan architecture: within the garden complex of Humayun's tomb, in a little enclosure of its own to the left of the main entrance, stands the tomb of Isa Khan, one of the nobles in Sher Shah Suri's court.

We walk up the steps and through the sandstone doorway that leads to the tomb and its surrounding sward of green. The tomb is a small, octagonal building, characteristically Afghan in design, perfectly proportioned, elegant and beautiful. Built in 1547, it was once richly decorated, its dome covered with blue tiles, all of which have now fallen off. Bare and unadorned today, it nevertheless holds me spellbound.

Coming back to Humayun. After Sher Shah's untimely death, his second son Jalal Khan was proclaimed king under the title of Sultan Islam Shah. He held the empire together, mainatined the efficiency of the army and kept in place his father's reforms. But he died in 1554 and disorder followed his death. His maternal uncle seized the throne and assumed the title of Muhammad Adil Shah. Adil Shah proved to be a lazy and inefficient ruler. His Prime Minister Himu tried to manage the affairs of the kingdom, but was frustrated by the foolishness of the king, whose authority was also challenged by two nephews of Sher Shah.

The resultant chaos encouraged Humayun to make a bid to recover his throne, some fifteen years after he had lost it. This time luck was on Humayun's side: in February 1555, he succeeded in capturing Lahore and then, in July of the same year, Delhi and Agra. But Humayun did not live long enough to enjoy the throne he had reclaimed - he died in January 1556 as the result of a fall down the staircase of his library in Delhi. The building that is said to have housed the library - an octagonal sandstone building, built by Sher Shah Suri and known as Sher Mandal - still stands in the Purana Kila (Old Fort) in Delhi.

Humayun lies buried in a red sandstone and marble mausoleum not very far from the Purana Kila.

A sign outside the tomb explains that Hamida Banu Begum, his queen and widow, built the Emperor's mausoleum between 1565 and 1572. The sign continues: 'Precursor to the Taj Mahal, it [Humayun's tomb] stands on a platform of 12000 sq m and reaches a height of 47 m. The earliest example of Persian influence in Indian architecture, the tomb has within it over 100 graves, earning it the name, 'Dormitory of the Mughals'. Built of rubble masonry, the structure is the first to use red sandstone and white marble in such quantities. The small canopies on the terrace were originally covered in glazed blue tiles, and the brass finial over the white marble dome is itself 6m high.'

Green lawns stretch in all directions from the tomb. We walk in the surrounding gardens, the immense bulk of the mausoleum behind us. Emerald green parakeets fly screeching across the pale winter sky to perch upon the domes of the smaller tombs and mosques in the complex. Delhi, with its chaotic, swirling traffic, recedes into the background, and I am transported to an age that was quieter, slower, yet majestic and glorious, where men and women lived their lives on a scale larger than most of us can imagine today.

From the serene glory of Humayun's tomb, let me take you to Agra, the capital city of Akbar, Humayun's son and successor, and the greatest of the Mughal emperors of India.

A Visit to Mughal India cont'd...  next page
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