In this episode, Pelsaert provides an equally vivid picture of the life and lifestyle of the nobility in Jahangir’s empire. The brutal contrast is akin to a tangible substance. This nobility included but was not limited to Amirs, Mansabdars, and Subedars, and the description of their lifestyle is frankly revolting. Indeed, Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa’s pathbreaking novel Aavarana contains a vastly expanded depiction of this sleazy lifestyle that allowed no room for the finer aspects of life. On the contrary, it was slightly better than naked bestiality.
Now we shall write a little of the manner of life of the great and rich.
In the palaces of Jahangir’s lords dwells all the wealth there is, wealth which glitters indeed, but is borrowed, wrung from the sweat of the poor. Consequently their position is as unstable as the wind, resting on no firm foundation, but rather on pillars of glass, resplendent in the eyes of the world, but collapsing under the stress of even a slight storm.
Their Mahals are adorned internally with lascivious sensuality, wanton and reckless festivity, superfluous pomp, inflated pride, and ornamental daintiness, while the servants of the lords may justly be described as a generation of iniquity, greed and oppression, for, like their masters, they make hay while the sun shines. Sometimes while the nobles think they are exalted to a seat in heaven, an envious report to the King may cast them down to the depths of woe. Very few of them, however, think of the future, but they enjoy themselves to the uttermost while they can. As a rule they have three or four wives, the daughters of worthy men, but the senior wife commands most respect. All live together in the enclosure surrounded by high walls, which is called the mahal, having tanks and gardens inside. Each wife has separate apartments for herself and her slaves, of whom there may be 10, or 20, or 100, according to her fortune. Each has a regular monthly allowance for her expenses. Jewels and clothes are provided by the husband according to the extent of his affection. Their food comes from one kitchen, but each wife takes it in her own apartments; for they hate each other secretly, though they seldom or never allow it to be seen, because of their desire to retain the favour of their husband, whom they fear, honour, and worship, as a god rather than a man.
Each night he visits a particular wife, or mahal, and receives a very warm welcome from her and from the slaves, who, dressed specially for the occasion, seem to fly, rather than run, about their duties. If it is the hot weather, they undress the husband as soon as he comes in, and rub his body with pounded sandalwood and rosewater, or some other scented and cooling oil. Fans are kept going steadily in the room, or in the open air, where they usually sit. Some of the slaves chafe the master's hands and feet, some sit and sing, or play music and dance, or provide other recreation, the wife sitting near him all the time. They study night and day how to make exciting perfumes and efficacious preserves, such as mosseri or falonj, containing amber, pearls, gold, opium, and other stimulants; but these are mostly for their own use, for they eat them occasionally in the day-time, because they produce a pleasant elevation of the spirit. In the cool of the evening they drink a great deal of wine because the women learn the habit quickly from their husbands, and drinking has become very fashionable in the last few years. The husband sits like a golden cock among the gilded hens until midnight, or until passion, or drink, sends him to bed. Then if one of the pretty slave girls takes his fancy, he calls her to him and enjoys her, his wife not daring to show any signs of displeasure, but dissembling, though she will take it out of the slave-girl later on.
Two or three eunuchs, or more, who are purchased Bengali slaves, but are usually faithful to their master, are appointed for each wife, to ensure that she is seen by no man except her husband. If a eunuch fails in this duty, he, with everyone else to blame for the stranger's presence, is in danger of losing his life. They are thus held in high esteem by their master, but the women pay them still greater regard, for the whole management of the mahal is in their hands, and they can give or refuse whatever is wanted. Thus they can get whatever they desire: fine horses to ride, servants to attend them outside, and female slaves inside the house, clothes as fine and smart as those of their master himself.
The wives feel themselves bound to do all this, in order that what happens in the house may be concealed from their husband's knowledge. Many wives, or perhaps most of them, forget themselves so much, that, when their husband has gone away, either to Court, or to some place where he takes only his favourite wife, and leaves the rest at home, they allow the eunuch to enjoy them according to his ability. Thus they gratify their burning passions when they have no opportunity of going out; but otherwise they spare no deceit to enable them to enjoy themselves outside. These wretched women wear the most expensive clothes, eat the daintiest food, and enjoy all worldly pleasures except one (sex), and for that one they grieve, saying they would willingly give everything in exchange for a beggar's poverty.
The ladies of our country should be able to realise from this description the good fortune of their birth, and the extent of their freedom when compared with the position of ladies like them in other lands; but this topic lies outside the scope of my task, and I shall now speak of the houses which are built here.
Concluded in the next part
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