The common impression in our country of the last great Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb has been that of a saintly monarch who lived up to the standards perceived to have been set by Islamic teachings. While this reputation has been unravelling in the recent past with a better understanding of his brutal and cunning conduct against his father, brothers, nephews and close allies as, indeed, against his foes, it has also, at the same time and rather unfairly again, overshadowed his disciplined and austere lifestyle. In the true pre-modern spirit, Aurangzeb was a complex person who was capable of being remorselessly “inhuman” as well as an efficient absolute ruler.
This article seeks to lay out an image of some aspects of his personal lifestyle and the conduct of his household.
The main source for the information contained herein is Niccolao Manucci, the Venetian adventurer who came to India in January 1656 at the age of seventeen and stayed on till his death at the ripe age of 79 in 1717 in Chennai. Soon after his arrival through Persia, he was embroiled on behalf of Dara Shikoh in the war of succession between Shah Jahan’s four sons. He wrote his four-volume History of the Mughals that was translated from Italian to English by William Ervine, a British civil servant in Bengal and an eminent historian himself. Though Manucci is accused by some of mixing court gossip with actual events, he claimed, “I shall tell of all that happened to me and of all that I saw, without exaggerating any one thing, for that is abhorrent to me.” Since he practised medicine as well, and Western doctors were held in high esteem, he had unusual access to the harem, so as to see his imperial female patients. That lends some relative authenticity to his eyewitness accounts.
It was customary amongst the Mughals to have large harems comprising scores – in some cases hundreds – of official wives, concubines, slave girls, singers, eunuchs, dancers and helpers. Aurangzeb, however, had three wives. He also had only one concubine; an extremely pretty girl of Georgian origin who was in the harem of Dara Shikoh and was appropriated by Aurangzeb after the former’s execution. As is expected from the monarch of a large empire who was constantly on the move at the head of an army, he worked extremely hard and was preoccupied for most of the day with little rest or recreation.
He woke up early for his morning prayers and remained in prayers and recitations for an hour and a half. He ate only once a day and remained occupied with the affairs of the empire till after midnight. He slept for three hours only each night. During sleep he was guarded by female slaves, who were very brave and highly skilled in the use of the bow and other arms. Every year he went into Aiteqaf (penitential retirement) for forty days, during which he slept on the ground, fasted, gave alms and prayed for accomplishment of his designs.
Aurangzeb did not conduct himself as pompously as his forefathers. He wore simple clothes and a few ornaments; a small plume or aigrette in the middle of his turban and a large precious stone in front. He wore a large jewel around his stomach but wore no strings of pearls, as all his descendants did. His robes were always made of a very moderately-priced material, for each qabd (gown) did not exceed ten rupees in cost. All the stones he wore were almost always named after heavenly bodies such as the sun, the moon or a star. When he wanted a particular stone, he would command “Bring me the Sun” or “Bring me the Moon” etc.
In his old age, though, he remained at rest for long periods but never failed to pray every morning or to give orders for the business of the day. Aurangzeb ruled for 49 years and didn’t rest for a single day.
In the manner of any other imperial autocrat of that era, Aurangzeb was ruthless and cruel against his enemies. He imprisoned his father, killed all his three brothers and some nephews; jailed, drugged and killed his eldest son Muhammad Sultan; had his other son, the future emperor Shah Alam and his children, jailed. His youngest son, too, rebelled against him unsuccessfully and escaped to Persia where he died in Mashhad a year before his father did. Aurangzeb never forgave anyone who he perceived as rebellious. He followed the dictum of his grandfather Jahangir that “a king had no relatives, not even his sons.”
In spite of Aurangzeb having forbidden all music, he continued to keep several dancing and singing women in his palaces for the entertainment of the queens and princesses. He conferred special names on the mistresses or superintendents such as Sarosh Bai, Sunder Bai, Hira Bai, Ras Bai, etc. In fact, the Venetian Manucci lists, in volume 2 of his book, nearly a hundred such names for all classes of harem inmates. Some of these names were based on some physical characteristics of the person such as their facial features, gait, gestures, speech or other actions. All the principal female slaves were well clad and adorned with jewels.
As would suit the richest monarch of the world, Aurangzeb spent prodigious amounts of money on his household and court expenses. Every day, one thousand rupees were disbursed for his personal kitchen while all the princes and princesses had their own kitchens and separate allowances. The court officials had to lay before the emperor a fixed number of meat and other dishes in vessels of china-porcelain on gold stands. As a great favour, the king sent some of these dishes, or of what was left over, to the queens, princesses and the captains of the guard. The recipient of this honour paid a hefty amount to the eunuchs who conveyed the food. When Aurangzeb was on a military campaign, where provisions were dear and scarce, limits on expense were disregarded and there was no control over the spending during this period.
The expenses of the palace were very high – at about ten million rupees a day. This included the money that the emperor used for the expensive robes that he distributed amongst his officials and visitors. A lot of expenditure was incurred on jewellery, perfumes and scents. Reflecting on what he saw as the general wealth of ordinary people, Manucci noted that all Indians were fond of scented oils extracted from flowers.
The purchase of precious stones required a large expenditure. The goldsmiths were constantly busy with making ornaments. The best of the jewels were reserved for the emperor, his queens and daughters. The princesses made it one of their diversions to examine and show to others their jewellery. When taken to the rooms of imperial ladies for medical advice, he noted that the princesses often took out their ornaments and jewels as an opening for a conversation. These were brought in large trays of gold. They would inquire from Manucci his estimates as to their value and characteristics. He examined every sort of gemstone, some of which were of an extraordinary size. He has mentioned seeing strings of rubies pierced and strung together, each about the size of a nut.
The princesses wore necklaces of jewels like scarves, on both shoulders, added to three strings of pearls on each side. Usually they also had three to five rows of pearls hanging from their neck, coming down as far as the lower part of the stomach. Upon the middle of the head was a bunch of pearls which hung down as far as the centre of the forehead, with a valuable ornament of costly stones formed into the shape of the sun, or moon, or some star, or at times imitating different flowers. On the right side they had a little round scarf with a small ruby inserted between two pearls. They had valuable stones in their ears. Around their necks, they had strings of large pearls or precious stones with a big diamond, or ruby, or emerald, or sapphire in its centre. They wore on their arms, above the elbow, rich armlets two inches wide, enriched with gemstones, and having small bunches of pearls hanging from them. At their wrists were very rich bracelets, or bands of pearls, which usually went round nine or twelve times. Manucci, as their physician, complained that they often hid the place for feeling the pulse – it was so covered that he found it difficult to put his hand upon it. On their fingers were rich rings, and on the right thumb there was always a ring, where, in place of a stone, a little round mirror was mounted with pearls around it. They used this mirror to look at themselves, an act of which they were very fond of. In addition, they were girded with a sort of waist-belt of gold two fingers wide, covered all over with great stones with ends of the belt fixed with bunches of pearls. They wore anklets of valuable metal rings or strings of costly pearls.
All princesses were in the habit of using mehndi (henna) on their hands and feet. Manucci thought that they did this because they could wear neither gloves nor stockings on account of the great heat which prevailed in India. They were also obliged thereby to put on such thin muslin saris that their skin showed through. Ordinarily they wore two or even three garments, each weighing not more than one ounce, and worth from forty to fifty rupees each. This was without counting the gold lace that they are in the habit of adding. They slept in these clothes, and renewed them every twenty-four hours, and never put them on again, but gave them away to their servants. Their hair was always very well dressed, plaited and perfumed with scented oil. They covered their heads with a sheet of cloth of gold of different makes and colours. During the cold weather, they wore the same clothes, covering themselves with a fine Kashmiri woollen qaba or a long open gown. Above their other clothes, they put on fine shawls, so thin that they could be passed through a small finger-ring.
Every year he went into Aiteqaf (penitential retirement) for forty days, during which he slept on the ground, fasted, gave alms and prayed for accomplishment of his designs
The princesses lighted at night large expensive torches made of wax or oil. Some of the princesses wore turbans by the king’s permission. On the turban was a valuable plume surrounded by pearls and precious stones.
These queens and princesses had pays or pensions according to their birth or rank. In addition, they often received from the emperor special presents in cash, under the pretext that it was to buy betel, or perfumes or shoes. They lived in this way, with no cares or anxieties, occupying themselves with nothing beyond displaying great show and magnificence, an imposing and majestic bearing, or making themselves attractive, getting talked about in the world, and pleasing the emperor. For, in spite of there being among them many jealousies, they concealed this as a matter of policy. In the midst of so much idleness, enjoyment, and grandeur they could not fail to take up a number of vices. When these ladies fell ill, they were carried away to a very pretty set of rooms in the palace, which they called the bimar-khanah, the House for the Sick. There they were nursed and tended with all possible care, and they only come out either fully well or dead. When the latter was the case, the wealth of the dead was seized by the court. If the patient was one esteemed by the monarch, he went to see her at the beginning of her illness, and if she did not recover promptly, he didn’t go back to her but sent from time to time a slave to ask after the state of her health.
The birth of a prince or a princess was celebrated with joy. If a prince was born, all the court took part in the festivities lasting several days with playing of music. The nobles appeared to offer their congratulations to the emperor and brought presents, either in jewels, money, elephants, or horses. The same day, the emperor gave the child a name, fixed his allowance and allotted a jagir. When he was married and had a palace of his own, his accumulated wealth was given to him. Manucci wrote that Prince Shah Alam, the heir-apparent, had an income of twenty millions of rupees. This prince had in his palace two thousand women and maintained a court as superb as that of his father.
The Emperor’s sons were called Padishah-zade that is, “Born of the King” and the sons of princes were called Shah-zade that is, “Born of a Prince”. Members of the imperial family bore the title of “Sultan”.
As is evident from the above, Aurangzeb led a disciplined and – relatively speaking, by Mughal standards – a simple life. However, the modern reader must make no mistake here: he ruled a rich empire and this wealth was reflected in the lifestyle of the imperial household.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at email@example.com