Mughal emperor Jahangir was a man from whom no one had any expectations. Neither his father Emperor Akbar, his sons Khusro and Khurram and nor his nobles and subjects. Contemporary accounts state that, on news of Jahangir’s accession, across the empire ‘bazaars shut down, people buried their jewels, put on old clothes and expected the worst’. And yet, he ruled a wealthy, powerful and stable empire for 22 years and left his mark on history.
Author Parvati Sharma, brings to life the character of Jahangir, in her new book ‘Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal’ published by Juggernaut. While there have been many historical accounts published on Jahangir’s life and reign, this book makes an interesting read is that by delving into ‘Jahangirnama’, his own memoirs, it brings alive the personality and character of Jahangir.
Through Jahangirnama, Jahangir tells us that, because he was born in the house of Sheikh Salim Chisti, his father always called him by his nickname ‘Shekhu Baba’. While he is more famous in popular Indian culture as Prince Salim- the lover of Anarkali, his first love was undoubtedly alcohol. Jahangir candidly mentions how he started drinking at the age of 18 and justified it claiming he did it for ‘better digestion’. He opens about his relationship with his sons and other members of the court.
Through the book, a complex picture of Jahangir emerges. Of a man capable of exceptional cruelty and of compassion. A mansabdar who broke Jahangir’s favourite porcelain plate was almost whipped to death, and ordered to march to China to get a replacement ‘or never return’. Those who displeased him met horrible deaths. This was in contrast to his love for justice and his love for animals and plants. There is an account of his pet Saras cranes named Laila and Majnun, and how he took a great interest in their chicks. Another of his fascination for a place called ‘West Indies’, about which he has heard but wants to know more about.
I spoke to author Parvati Sharma, on the fascinating and complex personality of Jahangir and what his memoirs tell us about him.
Akshay: Thank you so much for speaking to us for ‘Story behind the Story’. Can you tell us, why did you decide to write a book on Mughal emperor Jahangir?
Parvati: Sometimes it’s just luck. I published my first book almost exactly 10 years ago in 2010 and then I wrote a children’s book on Babur. I was actually working on another novel and had gone to discuss that [with my publisher] and as I was leaving that meeting, they suggested that I do something different and write nonfiction on Indian History. I had done a book on Babur and you know after Babur, Jahangir is the only Mughal who wrote his own diary.
So I started reading [the Jahangirnama] and got hooked in the first few pages itself, where he [Jahangir] talks about the twelve decrees he issues after he became emperor, about building hospitals, abolishing certain taxes and also prohibiting the manufacture of alcohol. And then, in the very next sentence, he says that I’ve done this, even though I, myself have been drinking since I was 18 but now I only drink to promote digestion – which everyone knows is not true and he himself knows it’s not true!
Then he talks about [the murder of] Abul Fazl, his father’s historian, close friend and loyalist. Jahangir doesn’t like him at all, and writes that this man [Fazl] has always been passing negative remarks about me [to my father] so I asked Bir Singh Deo, the raja of Orchha, to cut his head off and send it to me. I was not expecting to read these things. So, I was drawn to Jahangir as a character, it is such an interesting story.
Akshay: In popular culture and imagination, Jahangir is more popular as Prince Salim, in films such as Mughal-e-Azam and now in all the TV serials about Salim-Anarkali. There is a tomb in Lahore called the ‘Anarkali’s tomb’ with an inscription on the grave that says ‘Majnun Salim Akbar’. In your research, did you come across any reference to such a character? What’s your perspective on Anarkali?
Parvati: You know, I get complaints that there is not enough about Anarkali in my book. I couldn’t find anything much on her. It is true that there is a tomb [in Lahore] identified as the tomb of Anarkali. Some say that she was a concubine of Akbar, and the mother of his [Jahangir’s] youngest brother Daniyal. The more popular version, as shown in Mughal-e-Azam, is that she was a dancing girl and there was a class issue [for Akbar’s opposition to Anarkali]. As far as the tomb in Lahore is concerned, it might be that of one of his [Jahangir’s] wives called Sahib Jamal, who was the mother of his second son Parvez.
How this story of Anarkali came about, I can’t say. The earliest mention seems to be by an English traveler called William Finch. But one of the things that didn’t ring true was that the class issue would not have applied at the time. Being a Mughal emperor, he could marry and have as many wives or concubines as he wanted. Who was going to stop him? We also know that he did, once, want to get married to a daughter of one of the men in Akbar’s court. Akbar didn’t want Jahangir to get married to this woman because she was a cousin to one of his [Jahangir’s] other wives. But Salim insisted and Akbar just gave in, without any issue.
I was more interested in the relationship between Jahangir and Nur Jahan. While it is not a story of young love fighting against parental objection, it is a romantic story, a familiar story and an attractive story of a middle-aged marriage. She [Nur Jahan] was maybe his 20th wife and he [Jahangir] was her 2nd husband. She was in her mid 30’s and he was in his early 40’s. And yet, they had mutual interest and mutual respect for each other, which is the kind of relationship rarely found. I was quite attracted to that.
Akshay: Another famous tale related to Jahangir, is that of the Golden Bell of Justice that anyone could ring. How much of this tale is true?
Parvati: The bell was real. When he became an emperor, the first thing he did was that he made a chain [with a Golden Bell] from the Agra Fort all the way to the Yamuna and it was huge. It was made of approximately 120 kilos of gold. The idea was that anybody who wants justice should ring it, and he will immediately get the attention of the emperor. If anybody ever rang it or not, I don’t know. There are contemporary travelers’ accounts that talk about how he [Jahangir] sits in his public darbar, which is where people come [for Justice] and that his decisions are swift and sometimes brutal.
Akshay: In the book, Jahangir comes across almost as a contradictory personality, in one story when his mansabdar broke his favorite dinner plate, he was whipped and sent to China to get a replacement, on the other hand, there is Jahangir as a man who is a lover of justice. So how do you see Jahangir in these two extremes?
Parvati: The thing about Jahangir is that there is always a contradiction and that too, at many levels. So he is capable of getting angry and shows terrible cruelty and on the other hand, he has an amazing relationship with his favourite wife Nur Jahan. That also reveals another aspect of his character, that of a man who is tremendously powerful but who is able to share that power with his wife. He also had a great curiosity to know about the world and all kinds of new things. So I stopped trying to pin him down into one thing or another and I started enjoying all these different aspects of his personality.
Akshay: One of the most tragic characters of Mughal history who is not very well known is that Prince Khusro, Jahangir’s eldest son. How do you see Jahangir’s relationship with Khusro and also Emperor Akbar?
Parvati: I think Khusro’s story is very tragic. While he plays an important role in history, he doesn’t have any real agency. About the Jahangirnama, some have read it as a collection of anecdotes, of one man’s pleasures. But in the recent rethinking of Jahangir and Jahangirnama, one historian, Corinne Lefèvre, has called it as ‘a model of imperial propaganda’, basically suggesting that every word of it was well thought out, that he [Jahangir] knew what he was writing and why he was writing [what he was] and what impact he wanted to have [on the reader].
When he writes about Akbar, he never says my father was favoring my son. He writes that my son is behaving very badly, and also blames Khusro for the death of his [Jahangir’s] wife, that is Khusro’s mother. But when he writes about Akbar, he never speaks badly about him. In fact, he talks about him with great respect. When he is talking about some delicious fruit, he remarks ‘I wish my father was here, he would have enjoyed it.’
Khusro must have had some degree of charisma, again in that young age of 17-18, to have support for two rebellions. After the first rebellion failed spectacularly and everyone involved in it suffered gruesome deaths in punishment, he was still able to gather support again from several hundred noblemen. He was popular but then it all comes to nothing. He had 1 or 1-and-a-half shots [at the Mughal throne] and he loses both and then spends years as a prisoner, blinded, and is eventually murdered at his younger brother’s [Shah Jahan’s] orders -- so it’s a sad and wasted life.
Akshay: How do they see Jahangir’s relationship with Khurram, who later became Emperor Shah Jahan?
Parvati: It was very different [than his relationship with Khusro]. Khurram was the star of his [Jahangir’s] eyes. Khurram was quite young when Jahangir came to the throne and as he grew up, he was given responsibilities and charge of military campaigns, which he managed to win. Then he just goes from height to height and quite fast: from Baba Khurram to Shah Khurram until Jahangir gives him the title Shah Jahan after his [Khurram’s] victory in the Deccan. Jahangir can’t praise him enough. [In the memoirs] he [Jahangir] refers to Khurram as ‘my favourite son’ and so on, and then suddenly the relationship changes completely.
Nur Jahan first allies with Shah Jahan and supports him, but later she starts favouring Jahangir’s youngest son Shahryar. Shah Jahan naturally gets suspicious and then he revolts. So Jahangir’s tone [in the Jahangirnama] also changes. Jahangir was writing as things were happening. It was written like a diary. So now suddenly he starts ranting about Shah Jahan and his rebellion, calling him ‘bidawlat’ – ‘the wretch’ – and you can sense the bitterness, the anger and rage in him.
Akshay: Coming to the last question, Jahangir was a man from whom no one had any expectations, neither his father, his sons nor even his subjects. So as his biographer, how do you see Jahangir’s reign?
Parvati: Even history didn’t have any expectation from him. We are just used to looking at him as a weak alcoholic man. This was my own sense when I started writing but of late, there has been a rethinking of Jahangir as a sovereign, that these notions of Jahangir are the result of propaganda that has been unchallenged since the time of Shah Jahan.
Shah Jahan rebelled against his father and in the last few years of Jahangir’s life, they didn’t see each other. When Shah Jahan came to the throne, he could not say anything critical as such of Jahangir, the previous emperor, but he could be critical of Nur Jahan.
So this idea of Jahangir as a weak alcoholic dominated by his wife, and about Nur Jahan as powerful and manipulative stems from Shah Jahan’s court accounts. That is one, and the other source is Sir Thomas Roe. Roe was the first English Ambassador to a Mughal court. While, in his journals, Roe says that Jahangir is a very interesting man and he really seems to have enjoyed Jahangir’s company, Roe had come to India to get a trade deal which he failed to get. And he put the blame for his failure on Jahangir’s weakness – that while Jahangir was favourable, he was controlled by a ‘Faction’ including Nur Jahan, her family and Shah Jahan.
But if you think about it, for 22 years, the empire was ruled by him [Jahangir]. There was a lot of competition for the kind of power that he exercised. If he was really as easily manipulated and weak, as he is made out to be, the empire really wouldn’t have lasted, would it?