Muslim Marriages in Jahangir’s Agra: An Eyewitness Account

Muslim Marriages in Jahangir’s Agra: An Eyewitness Account

This is the first part of a series describing the Muslim society, culture, and lifestyle of Agra during Jahangir's rule. It is an eyewitness account of a Dutch merchant stationed in the city for seven years starting from 1618.


IN 1618, FRANCISCO PELSAERT, a junior merchant employed in the Dutch East India Company, landed in India and spent seven years in Agra. He recorded his observations of the city and broadly speaking, the overall tenor of Jahangir’s rule. The document titled Remonstrantie, is in the nature of a corporate report detailing such things as the description of Agra, indigo trade, description of the business practices of Gujaratis, Dutch trade in northern India, trade in narcotics, land and administration, lifestyle of both Hindus and Muslims, and other aspects of social life. It basically makes for dry reading except the portions related to social life, customs, etc.

Beginning with this essay, we will publish interesting excerpts from the work which we hope will be useful both to researchers and the general public.

Happy reading!

Moslem Marriages in Agra

In arranging a marriage, the Muslim bridegroom has no say in the choice, still less has the bride, for the selection is made by the parents or, if they are dead, by friends. When a youth is from 15 to 18 years old, his friends seek for the daughter of a man within the circle of friendship; but this applies to the rich rather than the poor, because as a rule soldier marries soldier, merchant marries merchant, and so on according to occupation.

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If they know of no suitable match, there are female marriage-brokers, who know of all eligible parties. The parents will call them in, and ask if there is no rich young lady for their son. The brokers understand their business, and instead of one, will suggest perhaps twenty-five prospective ladies. When the proposals have been thoroughly examined in regard to birth and present position, the parents choose the one which seems to be most suitable. Then the mother, or the nearest friends, go with the youth to the friends of the young lady they have chosen, even if they have no previous acquaintance. After compliments, they ask if they will give the lady in marriage to the youth. After full discussion on both sides, there is usually an interval of some days, or, if they get an immediate assent, the youth, or bridegroom, sends a ring to the bride, with his compliments. She sends in return some betel, with a handkerchief or something of the kind, though the unfortunate bridegroom is not allowed to meet the ladies, still less to see if his future bride is white or black, straight or crooked, pretty or ugly: he must trust his mother and friends.

From this time on begins much merrymaking in the house, with music and singing, and the congratulations of friends on both sides. When the bridegroom goes home with his friends, similar music begins there also, and this goes on continuously, night and day, with drums, pipes and other noise, provided by both parties, so that the whole neighbourhood is drowned in noise.

At last the wedding-day comes. This is fixed for 15 or 20 days after the engagement, in order to give time for preparing the feast. Three or four days before it, the bridegroom and his parents go to the bride's house, with a great company of the whole tribe, and taking with them a large number of gondas, or large ornamented wooden dishes, full of confectionery, sugar, almonds, raisins and other fruits, and also a sum of money, 100 or 1000 rupees, according to their position. The money goes towards the expenses of the bride's relatives, most of which must be paid by the bridegroom, who also provides the bride's jewellery.

The procession comes to the bride's house with much music and drumming, and the visitors stay for the evening meal, returning home at night. The next evening the friends of the bride come with similar noise and pomp, and hundreds of lights; they bring to the bridegroom a representation, made of cotton, satin, and paper, in the form of ships or boats, ornamented with tinsel, and various colours and flowers. This is placed on the roof of the house till it falls to pieces.

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Then the women employed for the purpose anoint the bridegroom, and rub his hands and feet with mehndi, till they are quite red; this is supposed to have been sent by the bride, and the occasion is called Mehndi day in consequence. The guests remain to sup with the bridegroom, and go home at night. The next day is the marriage-day.

The bridegroom is dressed in red, and so garlanded with flowers that his face cannot be seen, and towards evening all the friends and invited guests gather, and accompany the bridegroom to the bride's house with the greatest possible display of lighted fireworks, drums, trumpets, music, and singers, so that everything may pass off without adverse comment.

The bridegroom goes on horseback, with the male friends and a great cavalcade: the women follow in palanquins and carts, covered with the finest doth that can be provided. The bridegroom goes to the place where the male guests are gathered, but he may not speak till the marriage is complete, but sits as if he were dumb.

The ladies go into the female apartments, where there is music, singing, and dancing, as there is before the men, where the dancers sing and dance as skilfully as they can. It is the custom at all Muslim weddings and feasts to call in these people for the guests' entertainment.

There are many classes of dancers, among them lolonis, who are descended from courtesans who have come from Persia to India, and sing only in Persian; and a second class, domnis, who sing in Hindustani, and whose songs are considered more beautiful, more amorous, and more profound, than those of the Persians, while their tunes are superior; they dance to the rhythm of the songs with a kind of swaying of the body which is not lascivious, but rather modest. Other classes are named horckenis and hentsinis, who have various styles of singing and dancing, but who are all alike accommodating people. The music lasts till a quarter of the night has gone.

To be continued

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