Indian History Part 83 Shah Jahan Section V: Magnificence – While It Lasted

Canberra, 02 January 2021

‘With Shah Jahan a Pharaonic mask slides into place. The person virtually disappears behind the persona, as Shah Jahan’s official chroniclers scrub him clean of all the grime of life and present him as The Great Mughal, gilded, bejewelled and perfumed, larger than life but lifeless.

— Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 299. 

There are three meticulously compiled chronicles of Shah Jahan’s reign that is available to the modern researcher. They were written by courtiers and personally approved by the emperor or by his nominated representatives, but do not provide any detail of Shah Jahan as a man. Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador to the Mughal court during Jahangir’s rule has stated that Shah Jahan was, ‘flattered by some, envied by others and loved by none’. As a prince, he did indeed live above common sentiments, formally cold and reserved at all times.  After ascending the throne, he made a stately monarch, but also one who was fully accessible to all. He was good natured and generous as long as his own personal comfort was assured.  

Shah Jahan was undoubtedly the most munificent of all the imperial Mughals. He was a handsome man of winsome manners, of average height and with a fair complexion. Although moderate in stature, he had the authority and poise to carry the opulence of his dress as well as the royal settings that he loved. Everything about Shah Jahan—his behaviour pattern, dress, the setting in which he was viewed by his subjects—was carefully orchestrated to project imperial grandeur; to be seen as the ‘magnificent’ emperor. He exhibited extreme pride while also being somewhat contemptuous of everyone else. However, he was careful to never personally display any arrogance. Shah Jahan excelled all his contemporary monarchs in cultural appreciation and refinement. He was a teetotaller till his 24th year and practised all the manly exercises prescribed for a prince of the age. He was passionate about hunting.  

During Shah Jahan’s reign the Mughal court was magnificent and always in splendour. The emperor was unfailingly kind and sympathetic and his benevolence endeared him to his subjects—he was the most popular of all the imperial Mughals. He was a staunch Sunni Muslim, deeply devoted to his religious duties, and many of his policies were tinted with the stain of bigotry. However, some chroniclers have attempted to dismiss his bigotry and proclivity towards religious persecution of ‘non-believers’ as being the result of the great influence that his Mumtaz Mahal had on him. This justification is difficult to accept and the responsibility for the enactment of religiously intolerant policies must be laid on Shah Jahan himself. Even so, it must also be recorded here that Shah Jahan as the emperor honestly strived to be secular, although he was only partially successful. However, in a majority of instances, he managed to keep statesmanship above his religious bias and was selectively tolerant of Hindus and also the Jesuits, who had arrived in hordes in the sub-continent by this time. Many of his army commanders and senior ministers were Hindus. He also permitted a church to be built in Agra.

As a son, he was a troublesome offspring, almost always at odds with his father from his teen years. As a father, Shah Jahan was indulgent and never disciplined his sons. His overtly visible preference for, and partiality towards, his eldest son Dara Shikoh was one of the primary reasons for the vicious war of succession that was fought by his four sons while he was still alive and nominally the emperor. His turbulent old age as a prisoner was the direct result of his blind paternal love for his eldest, a character flaw that laid the foundation for the path to ruin of the Mughal Empire. Even so, at the end of his life, his patience and forbearance became legendary because of the stoic manner in which he bore the privations of being a prisoner for eight years. His calm acceptance of his position in life was nothing short of exemplary. His most remarkable character trait perhaps was his deep and abiding love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, a love so deep that he never remarried after her death, an unusual situation for a Mughal emperor.

In his hey days, Shah Jahan was a man of sound judgement with a vast knowledge of the world. He was a good administrator and his governance gathered universal praise and admiration. However, with age and the death of his beloved queen, he lost his vigour and enterprise. He drank wine and no doubt indulged, at times excessively, in catering for his voracious sexual appetite. Gradually he neglected the business of government, became indolent and ease-loving—his old vigilance had vanished forever. The immediate result was that corruption and treachery became rife in the royal court.

Administration and Justice

Shah Jahan’s empire extended from the Lahiri harbour in Sindh to Sylhet in Assam (approximately 2500 kilometres) and from the fort at Bist in Afghanistan to Ausa in the Deccan Plateau (about 2200 kilometres). The kingdom was divided into 22 subhas and yielded 22 crore rupees as revenue per annum (one crore is equal to ten million). The main revenue was land tax, while some other minor taxes contributed a small percentage of total revenue. The administration framework was almost the same as that of his predecessors, but the execution was much improved and more efficient. It was fundamentally a feudal and military administration with a huge standing army to bolster the emperor’s strength. Considering that his was a continuation of the established Mughal administration, Shah Jahan could be thought to have completed what Akbar had set out to achieve during his illustrious reign.

During Shah Jahan’s reign, the empire was internally peaceful till the breakout of the civil war; the revenue collected was unparalleled; and the people were prosperous. There are many unbiased reports that praise the equity in government, the generous treatment of farmers, the probity of the justice system and the honesty and transparency of the exchequer, which was personally audited by Shah Jahan periodically.

Justice was carefully, but firmly, administered—creating a universal sense of security in the populace. Provincial governors were under strict instructions to be scrupulously honest, especially in dealing with the common people. The administration of justice was done by qazis and miradls. The emperor was the highest judge, personally hearing cases on all Wednesdays and giving judgements according to the Sharia and the advice of the ulema. He also intervened, when he felt the necessity, to vindicate the claims of justice. However, the punishments inflicted were draconian and at times barbaric, even by the standards of the time. The emperor punished both commoner and noble alike if they went against his wishes—after all the government was an absolute monarchy. Foreign travellers who visited the Mughal Empire during Shah Jahan’s reign—Bernier, Tavernier, Manucci, Mundi—are unanimous in their praise for the administration and justice system in place.

Akbar was pre-eminent as a conqueror and Shah Jahan as an administrator, an assessment that is accepted by both Muslim and Hindu chroniclers. During Shah Jahan’s reign, the kingdom was a Benthamite democracy in full swing, where it was agreed that ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number was the measure of right and wrong’. In the imperial service, men of various nationalities, race and religion served at the emperor’s pleasure. Despite their overt displays of opulence, the nobles of the realm were not in as good a shape as would have been expected. They were paid in cash and in jagirs, and were forced to maintain large retinues to demonstrate their status and also obliged to give the emperor costly gifts at court. As a consequence, they were invariably in debt. Adding to their problems was the fact that their positions were not hereditary, thereby making the future of their progeny somewhat shaky.

Patronage of the Fine Arts

Although Shah Jahan had won some splendid victories while in command of his father’s forces early in his career, he was an indifferent military commander and as an emperor considered war an inhuman act. For the core of his empire, North and Central India, Shah Jahan’s reign was one of peace and plenty; literature flourished, education was valued and the fine arts progressed by leaps and bounds. In providing patronage for the arts and education, Shah Jahan was truly above sectarian considerations—he encouraged merit, irrespective of the source from which it emanated. Great works of literature, poetry, art and architecture remain to testify to the glorious standards achieved during Shah Jahan’s benevolent rule. The splendour of his court and the glory of his reign have become bywords for greatness.

‘Is there a soul that will not be stirred to its depth at the ethereal beauty and grandeur of the Taj; or does not recognise the literary elegance and historical importance of Badshanama, ever a treasure-house of research for the ambitious historian; or does not go into ecstasies over the miniature and portrait paintings of that period; or does not have an ear for the melodious voice of Ram Das and Mahapattar, the philomels [sic] of the Mughal court?’

— S M Jaffar,

The Mughal Empire: From Babur to Aurangzeb, p. 275.

An important change that came about during Shah Jahan’s rule was that royal patronage was no longer the monopoly of the poet and the painter, since every kind of artist was encouraged and recognised by the emperor himself. Shah Jahan was an ardent lover of paintings. The portraits and miniatures produced during his time were beautified with intricate borders, of birds and flowers, which were woven into the main theme of the painting. The emperor himself was an acknowledged master in the art of illuminating manuscripts. Shah Jahan was a great patron of music and there are reports that he was also an accomplished singer. He spent dedicated time listening to music and despite his great fondness for everything Persian, he enjoyed and encouraged Hindustani (Hindi) music and poetry.

Shah Jahan was a perennial student—always attempting to widen his mental horizons by studying the latest and best Persian authors and literature. He was especially fond of history and had books read to him from behind a curtain in his bed chamber to gradually lull him to sleep. As an emperor he also paid great attention to education, promoting educational institutions with vast endowments that made them prosperous and self-sufficient. He established a number of institutions of higher learning and in 1650, founded the famous Imperial College in Delhi, near the historic Jama Masjid.

The Peacock Throne

The Peacock Throne that Shah Jahan had had fashioned is as important as any of the magnificent buildings that he got constructed. He lavished vast sums of money from the public exchequer towards its construction and used the large horde of jewels that had been collected over generations in the Mughal treasury. His motive for creating the Peacock Throne seems to have been to augment the already great grandeur of the empire and to display his wealth to his subjects and visitors alike.

It is chronicled that the emperor made over to the overseer of royal goldsmiths, jewels valued over two crore rupees and 100,000 tolas of gold valued at over 1400,000 rupees (one tola is equal to 11.6 grams). When completed, the throne was three yards in length, 21 yards wide and five yards high with a canopy. The outside of the canopy was to be inlaid with rubies and cornelians and the inside enamelled and studded with jewels. The canopy was supported by 12 emerald pillars. On each pillar there were two peacocks inlaid with gems, from which the throne derives its name. In between every two peacocks, there is a tree set with rubies, diamonds, emeralds and pearls. Ascend to the throne was through three steps also studded with jewels.

The throne took seven years to complete and is estimated to have cost more than one crore rupees to manufacture. The throne was carried away to Persia by Nadir Shah after he captured and sacked Delhi in 1739, only to lose it to the Kurds. The Kurds apparently dismantled the throne and distributed the precious stones. Peacock Thrones, probably reproductions, were made later for subsequent Shahs of Persia, notably for Fath Ali Shah (ruled 1797-1834).  The dazzling chair-like throne used by the two Pahlavi Shahs at their coronations, in 1926 and 1941 respectively, was a reproduction dating from the Qajar dynasty. The Peacock Throne no longer exists in Persia. However, a remodelled modern version can be seen in the New Museum in the palace of Tehran.   

Architecture

There is no doubt that Shah Jahan had a sentimental and emotional side to his character. However, his self-control was prodigious, and he never let his character traits interfere with the performance of what he considered his ‘duty’. Cold, unmoving and rigid perfection was Shah Jahan’s cherished ideal for himself, demonstrating this in all that he did as the emperor. Some historians have opined that this facet of his character is reflected in the architecture of his time—this assessment is true, at least during the time that he was really the hands-on emperor of Hindustan.

Shah Jahan’s reign is memorable for the excellence of its architecture. The Taj Mahal is the epitome of Mughal architectural achievement and has been variously described as the ‘queen of architecture’, a ‘dream in marble’, a ‘teardrop on the cheek of time’ etc. As has been often stated, it was designed by Titans and finished by jewellers. Taj Mahal, named by Shah Jahan as ‘Rauza-i-munavvara’, ‘The Illuminated Tomb’ came to be commonly called the Taj Mahal, which is a corruption of Mumtaz Mahal, the queen in whose memory it was built. It is opulent and austere at the same time with perfect symmetry and balance, clearly matching Shah Jahan’s own cherished character traits. Since it has been ascertained that Shah Jahan was an accomplished architectural designer, the prevalent belief in modern times is that the mausoleum was designed by the emperor himself, perhaps with some expert advice.

‘The Taj Mahal is not only an expression of supreme love but also of confident power and opulent majesty. It was the creation of an emperor whose dominions stretched westwards across the Indus into present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, eastwards to Bengal and southwards to the central Indian plateau of the Deccan.

— Diana and Michael Preston,

A Teardrop in the Cheek of Time, p. 4

Other notable structures constructed through the three decade long rule of Shah Jahan are:

  • the marble Moti Masjid, the Pearl Mosque, within the Agra Fort, which has been described as the ‘purest and loveliest prayer house in the world’;
  • the Jama Masjid in Delhi, constructed on a rocky platform, completed after six years of continuous labour, and is one of the finest of Mughal architecture and monuments;
  • the Diwan-i-Khas, the court of private audience, which is a masterpiece of delicacy, elegance and poetic design;
  • the Diwan-i-Am, the court of public audience, with its exquisitely ornamented ceiling supported by a row of richly carved columns;
  • the Rang Mahal with its garden-court; and
  • the Shalimar Bagh gardens in Lahore.

Shah Jahan also built himself a new capital, a common practice of the time for great monarchs, who attempted to perpetuate their memories. The emperor chose the site of the ruined city of Tughlaqabad to build the new capital, which was named Shahjahanabad. The foundation was laid on 29th April 1639 and workers of all hue, from talented craftsmen to labourers were requisitioned from across the vast kingdom for its construction. The ‘city’ was completed in nine years at a cost of 65 million rupees. Shah Jahan travelled from Agra to inaugurate the new city on 18 April 1648. The famous Peacock Throne was installed in the Diwan-i-Am, which could accommodate 10,000 people at a time, if needed.  

Shah Jahan’s Orthodoxy

Shah Jahan was an orthodox and devout Sunni Muslim who practised all the religious rites prescribed by Islam. However, he was not an ascetic, just the opposite—he loved luxury and revelled in erotic pleasure, music and dance. In that respect, the orthodox view of religion as an official policy during his reign was hypocritical. It could have been a reaction to the liberal religious policies that were pursued by his father Jahangir and earlier by Akbar. Contemporary Muslim chroniclers write with great approbation of Shah Jahan’s actions against the Hindus.

For example, in 1632, when Shah Jahan was informed about the ‘wealthy’ infidels of Varanasi wanting to complete the construction of a temple started during Jahangir’s rule, he gave orders to raze it to the ground. Further, he ordered that all temples under construction in the kingdom should be razed to the ground—following which, in Varanasi alone 76 temples were completely destroyed. This was a foretaste of the fanaticism to come, which was a major factor in the fall of the Mughal Empire. There was a dichotomy in Shah Jahan’s behaviour pattern. In his personal relations, he was friendly with Hindu nobles, but was always hostile to the religion itself. It can be surmised that his friendship with Hindu nobles was only a politically practical ‘toleration’ of the infidels who were a critical part of his ability to project power.

Shah Jahan’s bigotry was not confined to the Hindu religion, but also directed against the Shia sect of Islam. His dealings with the Qutb Shahi king ruling Golconda is a classic example of his extreme orthodox intolerance of the Shia sect. He had openly declared that the main objective of the Mughal invasion of Golconda was for the extirpation of heresy and the triumph of the ‘true’ doctrine; conquest and annexation came a distant second.

Shah Jahan also prohibited the prevalent custom of Muslim families giving their daughters in marriage to eligible Hindu grooms, while permitting Muslim men to take Hindu wives and converting them. He persecuted any Hindu who married a Muslim, while separating already married couples by royal decree. In such cases, the Hindu husband was forced to convert if he wanted to keep his household intact. Further, he regularly converted temples into mosques, a practice that drove a wedge between the two religions and sacrificed the already tenuous communal harmony in the kingdom. It is at this juncture, when religious tolerance, which had been a founding principle of the empire, had been discarded, that the differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ started to percolate into the Indian society in a clearly visible manner. The seeds of religious divisions, which still plague the country, had been sown and was being nurtured.

Mumtaz Mahal – The Lady of the Taj

No account of the life and reign of Shah Jahan would be complete without a brief description of Mumtaz Mahal, his beloved queen. Mumtaz was born Arjumand Banu Begum in 1594, the daughter of Asaf Kahn who was the brother of Nur Jahan, the powerful queen of Jahangir. She was betrothed to Prince Khurram, the future Shah Jahan, sometime during 1606-07. Khurram at that time was already married to Quandhari Begum. Mumtaz was well-educated and had cultivated all the qualities and accomplishments that were needed for a noblewoman of the time. Her beauty was renowned far and wide.

Shah Jahan and Arjumand were married in 1612, after a rather long courtship by the standards of the time, with great pomp and ceremony. She was given the title Mumtaz Mahal, meaning ‘the exalted one, or light, of the palace’, by Shah Jahan. Mumtaz captured her husband’s heart by her charms and there is no doubt that they loved each other passionately. Mumtaz Mahal enjoyed the emperor’s fullest confidence to the day of her death. Mumtaz Mahal is reported to have pleaded with her husband not to have any children by other women, ‘lest her children and mine should come to blows over succession’. She was obviously unaware of the oncoming storm of the civil war between her own sons and, perhaps fortunately, did not live to witness its ferocity. Shah Jahan accepted the injunction and raised only one child—his first from his first wife—other than Mumtaz’s children.

Mumtaz Mahal bore Shah Jahan 14 children—eight sons and six daughters—in the 19 years of their marriage; averaging a child every 16 months, which meant that the queen must have been almost always pregnant or recovering from childbirth. Of the 14 children, four boys and three girls survived, a good average for the time.

Mumtaz Mahal was always by Shah Jahan’s side, through ‘sunshine and storm’, irrespective of her own state of pregnancy or childbirth. When Shah Jahan was a homeless wanderer for eight years, Mumtaz Mahal accepted the hradships with absolute equanimity, eliciting great admiration from all. Shah Jahan consulted her on all matters of state and valued her opinion and advice, even regarding high-level policies. On becoming the emperor, Shah Jahan raised her above all other ladies of the imperial household and also entrusted her with the custody of the royal seal. Since all royal edicts and decrees had to have the royal seal affixed on it, this was an opportunity for Mumtaz Mahal to scrutinise the dealings of the court and offer advice to the emperor if needed.

Mumtaz Mahal was a kind and tender-hearted lady, prone to giving alms and support to anyone who approached her. Her own station in life and availability of abundant wealth did not blind her to the misery of the common people. She regularly provided the finances required for the marriage of orphan girls. Such acts of kindness endeared her to all, especially the ladies of the harem. She was also an extremely pious lady, whose religious views were heavily influenced by the orthodox Sunni doctrine. If there was a flaw in her character, it was that she continually attempted to influence Shah Jahan to be harsh on the non-believers in the kingdom. Considering his love for the queen and her direct influence on him, it is to Shah Jahan’s credit that he astutely managed to keep the actions against infidels within ‘acceptable’ limits.

On 7th June 1630, while Shah Jahan was conducting military operations from his temporary camp at Burhanpur, Mumtaz Mahal died in childbirth, giving birth to her fourteenth child at the age of 38. Shah Jahan went into uncontrolled grief and remained in almost complete isolation for nearly two years. It is said that his beard grew white within a few days of his wife’s death.

There was enough reason to build the great mausoleum—the Taj Mahal.    

 © [Sanu Kainikara] [2021]
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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 Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. 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)

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