Indian History Part 82 Jahangir Section IV: An Assessment

Canberra, 04 November 2020

‘What is immediately striking as we look at the portraits of Jahangir and compare his face with that of his father is the contrast between the two. Akbar appears self-contained; there is about him the inner orientation of a man who has to prove himself to no one but himself. In contrast, Jahangir’s is a face in the mirror of the world, a man who has to see his worth in the eyes of other people. He appears a little unsure of himself, but bravely posturing. His expression—the arch look he favours, the fake firmness of his weak mouth—seems contrived. The very physiological mould of Jahangir is different from that of Akbar. There is a certain angularity in Jahangir’s features, a hewn rather than moulded look; it is more Indian, with Rajput characteristics cutting another race into the smooth, rounded, Mongoloid face of his ancestors.’

—Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, pp. 244-45. 

Jahangir is one of the most interesting figures in Mughal history and was the first Mughal who could be considered a ‘Hindustani’, with all the attendant nuances that the term involves. Jahangir’s reign sits in the middle of the 181-year rule of the imperial Mughals—starting with Babur’s victory in the Battle of Panipat in 1526 and ending with Aurangzeb’s death in 1707. It is a plateau in Mughal history, illuminated by the setting glow of the magnificence of Akbar’s reign that preceded it; a plateau from which only a downward trajectory was available. The imperial Mughals would not climb any more mountain pinnacles—in a strange way the plateau itself was the zenith of their combined rule.

An ordinary, generic opinion of Jahangir is that of a sensual, leisure-seeking and callous tyrant, which is disingenuous, somewhat misleading and incorrect. Various reports and chronicles, from varied and different sources, agree that he was intelligent, shrewd and a person who understood the complex challenges of governing very easily. He was sub-consciously influenced by the surroundings in which he spent his childhood and early adulthood, under the guidance of his illustrious father, whose court was filled with the most intelligent people of the sub-continent as well as Central and West Asia. Jahangir cannot be dismissed as an irrelevant and inconsequential stop-gap between Akbar and Shah Jahan, as many historians have tended to do. It is indeed true that he was devoid of any ambition towards empire-building or even direct governance of his inherited empire, and that his main interests were science and culture. However, his 20-year reign was marked by unusual stability and peace, in otherwise extremely turbulent times—two decades of tranquillity, much like the eye of the storm in a raging typhoon. It is also true that the desire to carouse and the lure of hedonism surfaced regularly in Jahangir; while he was also a sensitive connoisseur of painting, a renowned naturalist, as well as an epicure. On the other hand, his Mughal blood also hardened him in times of extreme need to initiate grim and ruthless action in order to hold the empire together.

The Ruling King

Jahangir acted on his own in most matters of state and could not tolerate any opposition to his decisions. Further, he rarely changed the decisions that he had already made. However, he did not strike out on his own in any new direction, and he built very little; anything that was built during his reign was mostly a follow-through on the foundations and policies that had already been laid by his father. He was stern in the administration of justice and put down tyranny with a heavy hand. Jahangir made law and order a priority across the empire, personally intervening to redress grievances, especially in important cases. Punishments against crime was usually very severe, although he was personally fair-minded and even considerate to a degree.

As a rule, Jahangir was generous and charitable, being kind to the poor and always rewarding merit, loyalty and faithful service. He also held saints in high esteem, interacting and freely associating with even Hindu yogis and visiting famous ascetics. He was warm and affectionate to kinsmen, a doting father and loving husband. Jahangir readily forgave the trespasses and treason of his sons. His eldest son, Khusrau’s unfortunate fate was self-inflicted and not representative of Jahangir’s vindictiveness. In an age where misogyny was the gold standard for the behaviour of kings and nobles, his treatment of his Queen Nur Jahan was exemplary. Jahangir and Nur Jahan complemented each other—he loved her unreservedly and she returned it with equal fervour, in her own full-blooded manner.

‘He [Jahangir] gave her not only his heart but also his kingdom and if she sweetened his life and added to the splendour of his court, he on his part, by lavishing affection on her, made her famous for all time in history.’

—Iswari Prasad,

The Mughal Empire, pp. 452-53.

In the later part of his rule, when the empire was being governed by Nur Jahan as the de facto ruler with his permission, he seems to have started to look for a lofty ideal of kingship, perhaps the result of a latent influence of his father.

Jahangir – The Individual

Jahangir was very well-educated and had varied interests—in Persian literature, poetry, history and geography. His power of observation was highly developed and he was adept at expressing himself in an erudite manner, as demonstrated by the writing in his personal memoirs. Even though he was not a ‘builder’, he loved architecture and painting. He was also a naturalist with an intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna of the Kashmir valley, his favourite region. He was a capable general who could plan and lead complex expeditions and military campaigns. Although he lost physical vigour in later life, in his younger days he was a great hunter.

The Emperor was not a poet, but he composed verses in an impromptu manner at times, which compared favourably with any lines that a professional lyricist could pen. He had a sensitive mind that reflected and reacted to beauty—of a woman, a flower or a landscape—with a childlike wonderment, obviously ruled by the heart rather than the head. In fact, Jahangir had a great deal of the child in him; a simplicity that was never seen in Akbar but is attributed to his grandfather Humayun. This trait made him highly emotional, his thrills and miseries seeming almost childlike and transitory, while providing a straightforward transparency to his character. This was the complete opposite of his father who remained inscrutable throughout his life.

It is not surprising that Jahangir was dreamer, although his flights of fancy did not last very long. Serious consultations with his nobles and generals, to discuss matters of importance to the empire, invariably dispirited him. However, he was capable of taking stock of reality and acting for the good of the state when it was necessary, although he would personally have preferred not to be involved in the humdrum, ebb and tide of everyday governance of a vast and unwieldy empire. It would seem from his memoirs that on some occasions he pined for glory—impulsively wanting to achieve greatness that would be bigger and grander than that achieved by Akbar, his father.

Jahangir was extremely curious, a trait that he inherited from his father. However, he did not share Akbar’s intense interest in mysteries and metaphysics, nor did he believe in divine intervention. Jahangir was wedded to empirical rationalism, which he combined with an enduring wonder about nature. His thinking process was the same as the one adopted by members of the Royal Society, formed in London 30 years after his death.

Jahangir was short-tempered and subject to great paroxysms of rage. He could be needlessly cruel, inflicting punishment disproportionately in excess of the crime. These spasms of anger were awesome and he innovated gruesome punishments for even minor offences. The streak of sadism that he displayed was considered barbaric, even in medieval times when cruelty was an accepted way of life. Further, he never expressed remorse, even in retrospect, for any of the cruel actions that he initiated. He was just decadently and whimsically cruel and has been described as a mixture of opposites. The imperial Mughal kings, as a rule, were far gentler than their medieval contemporaries. Atrocities were relatively rare in the Mughal Empire by the standards of other Muslim kingdoms of the time such as in Turkey, or the Christian monarchies in other parts of the world. Therefore, Jahangir’s streak of sadism must be mentioned as an anomaly in an otherwise sedate dynasty, even judged by the standards of the day. This character trait defies rational analysis.

Religious Policy

As with most of the governance mechanisms during his reign, Jahangir’s religious policy was also modelled contextually as it suited him. Before he was allowed to assume the throne, the nobles had made him pledge to ensure that the superiority of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy was maintained during his rule. However, he lapsed into being tolerant of other religious practices when it suited his convenience, but never declared tolerance as a central policy; he was a practising Muslim and punished people who interfered with orthodox Sunni practices. Even while practising religious tolerance in his own fashion, he exhibited open contempt for Hinduism.

He was guilty of temple destruction, which invariably followed even minor victories on the battlefield. The worst incident that has been recorded happened in 1620 after the capture of the hill fort of Kangra. At the ancient shrine of Jwala Mukhi, cows were slaughtered at the sanctum sanctorum, the temple was brought down to its foundation, and other despicable acts of desecration carried out. Similarly, in Pushkar, Jahangir had the idol of the Varaha avtar—the incarnation of Lord Vishnu in a man’s body with a boar’s head—broken into pieces and scattered at random. In Gujarat he hounded the Jains almost to extinction, breaking up their temples and using the stones to pave the steps to the mosque for the pious Muslims to walk upon. However, he was keenly interested in Vedanta and Sufism, the principles of which fascinated him. 

His approach to Christianity was also somewhat similar, contextually supporting or opposing them. Even so, he was more sympathetic to the Jesuit priests than to Hindu religious teachers and Hindus in general. At times he held Christianity in esteem and also permitted the Jesuits to preach freely. However, at the same time he was also openly disdainful about the popular beliefs of Christianity. For example, the idea of Jesus Christ being the ‘son of God’, was declared absurd by the Emperor. He questioned the inherent ideas that bound the faith, ideas that could not easily be explained logically—for faith cannot satisfy reason, although reason cannot undermine faith. On the other hand, he gave stipends to Jesuit missionaries and even permitted some members of the core royal family to be ‘converted’ to Christianity by them.

The Conversion of Three Young Princes

The high point of Jesuit proselytising came in January 1610. Jahangir handed over the three young sons of his dead brother Daniyal, the eldest aged 10 years, to the Jesuit priests to be brought up. The princes were baptised two months later and used to parade on elephants, dressed in Portuguese costumes, on their way to church. They were also renamed Dons Felipe, Carlos and Henrique, respectively, from Princes Tahmuras, Baisanghar and Hoshang. The conversion did not last long—the princes returned to the Muslim fold a mere four years later.

Overall, Jahangir made some feeble attempts at continuing his father’s policy of Sulh-i-kul, ‘Peace unto All’. However, even this unifying concept was adapted and applied in a contextual manner when it suited the Emperor. He writes in his memoirs about the practice of Kashmiri Muslims giving their daughters in marriage alliance to Hindu families and also taking Hindu daughters as their brides: ‘Muslims taking [and converting] them is good, but giving them, God forbid!’ He instituted capital punishment for the head of the family for a Muslim daughter being married to a Hindu. [This could perhaps be counted as the first recorded instance of what is, in the modern 21st century India, dubbed as ‘love jihad’, where a Muslim boy marries a Hindu girl and converts her to Islam.] Even with all the bias and flaws in his religious policy, Jahangir stopped short of being a zealot. However, it must be admitted that the anti-Hindu actions, while neither systemic nor systematic, were also not sporadic or spontaneous. They were regular and routine in their occurrence and almost always had royal sanction.

Nur Jahan

No assessment of Jahangir, whether as an emperor or as an individual, can be considered complete without at least a brief analysis of the love of his life and Queen, Nur Jahan. However, hardly any contemporary records or chronicles provide any details of her life or do justice to this extraordinary woman. Even Jahangir in his memoirs mentions her casually, harping on her single-minded loyalty to him, perhaps to maintain a veneer of propriety, appropriate to the social norms of the times. However, Nur Jahan was anything but the run of the mill medieval queen.        

Nur Jahan was endowed with great qualities of both the head and the heart—she had artistic gifts, literary merit and was dignified in deportment. She was full of grace and charm and had magnetism and courage. Jahangir gave her the official title of ‘Padshah Begum’, which could be roughly translated to mean ‘Queen Empress’, a controversial appointment in misogynistic medieval times. Although she has been accused by some later-day chroniclers of manipulating the Emperor to bestow the title on her, it is certain that neither did she ever ask for it, nor did she insist on it being used in reference to herself. In hindsight, the appointment should be considered a progressive move by an enlightened sovereign. Further, she has never been accused of misusing her position, but being a woman wielding enormous power, jealousy and envy followed her throughout her life.

Nur Jahan was intelligent and gifted with an abundance of common sense. Her aesthetic tastes were extremely refined and her choice of art and ornamentation exquisite, traits that she shared with her husband Jahangir. As the Queen, she became a cultural force by herself and was considered the fashion ‘setter’ and leader. She came to embody the height of Persian culture and civilisation in the Mughal court and kingdom. Nur Jahan was an accomplished rider and an excellent shot, taking part regularly in big-game hunting; she is reported to have shot four tigers during one such hunting expedition. While she was full of vitality, she was also generous to a fault. With her forceful character, she was able to influence Jahangir morally, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

Since there are no details available of her influence on the affairs of state, how much she influenced the political developments of the time is still a sphere of speculation. It is unfortunate that her dealings and activities have not been chronicled—otherwise a different perspective regarding the progress of Mughal history would have been available to the modern historian. Most historians, including this author, believe that her manipulations of the court in favour of Prince Shahryar, her son-in-law, was the fundamental reason for Shah Jahan’s rebellion. However, her role may be being overstated since the actual impact of her actions is difficult to fathom in the absence of trustworthy information. Even so, there is no doubt that she fell out with Shah Jahan after her daughter was married to Shahryar and also that she started to build an alternative power base to project Shahryar as a possible successor to Jahangir. The reality of the situation must remain obscure in the face of an opaque lack of information. It is obvious that she had a an emotional weakness for her immediate family, which was carefully exploited by her brother Asaf Khan and later by Prince Shahryar and her daughter Ladli Begum.

Nur Jahan was dignified in retirement, as she had always been even when Jahangir was alive. She survived for 18 years after the death of her husband, passing her time in silent-sorrow and mourning, in the company of her widowed daughter. She died on 8th December 1645, and was interred in the mausoleum that she had raised over her husband’s grave.

Controversy and speculation continue to accompany any mention of Nur Jahan. Was she the architect of the unfortunate rebellion of Shah Jahan, which sowed the seeds of the decline and later fall of the Mughal dynasty? There is no single answer to this vexed question and perhaps the speculations will never be laid to rest—it must, of necessity, remain a mystery. There is no doubt that Nur Jahan came to occupy a place of influence in the sphere of political power through Jahangir’s indulgence. However, her place in history is sealed by her own actions and her exceptional political and administrative skills. She will forever be known for single-handedly routing Mahabat Khan after his successful coup d’etat, purely through her political manipulative skills, and thus saving the Mughal dynasty for posterity, from almost certain extinction.

In the final analysis it must be emphasised that Jahangir did not abdicate power, as has been repeatedly mentioned by a number of historians. He merely delegated it to his Queen, understanding and having full faith in her consummate skills and capacity to exercise power with sagacity and grace. This assessment should perhaps form the epitaph for the Emperor and his beloved Queen. 

Conclusion

Much of Jahangir’s character traits could be condemned; at the same time a great number of positive qualities entitles him to be placed among the most fascinating personalities of his time. It must not be forgotten that he ruled over a period that has been repeatedly mentioned by many historians as the ‘Glorious Epoch’. No doubt though that the glory was somewhat eclipsed by his relatively short reign having been bracketed between those of Akbar and Shah Jahan, both long-serving and illustrious sovereigns.

Jahangir suffers from a disparaging assessment he was subjected to by the Victorian historians, who mocked him as being hen-pecked and being controlled by his wife. They also disapproved of his decidedly libertine ways, measuring him within their own strait-laced morality. The fact remains that these historians, who in the first place had no understanding of the nuanced culture of the Orient, had themselves no right or the ability to pass judgement on a progressive and even enlightened monarch, who was certainly far more advanced in his thinking than their own kings and rulers. The unfortunate part is that modern historians have also unquestioningly followed the Victorian assessment, and thereby diminished the lustre of a ruler who was more good than bad, viewed purely in the narrow confines of the state of his kingdom.  

In the end there is a need to ask, what is the litmus test of a sovereign’s success? If the answer to this question is ‘the security and prosperity of his/her subjects’, then Jahangir could vie with all the other imperial Mughals for the title of having been the most successful among them.     

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2020]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

One Response to “Indian History Part 82 Jahangir Section IV: An Assessment”

  1. Good day Sir,

    Sir may i ask for your email address sir?

    Thank you sir.

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