ALMOST ALL POPULAR narratives about the Mughal Empire place majority of the emphasis on Akbar and Aurangzeb with justifiable reason: the former, after his initial spell of rampant military expansionism marked by extraordinary cruelty, eventually “settled down” by consolidating his victories. As is well known, Aurangzeb’s regime was marked by his personal bigotry against Hindus and a fanatical commitment for Islamizing all of India. His repeated military adventures were underscored by the same fervour and in his own lifetime, he had bankrupted his economy owing to his zeal for Islam and in the process, destroyed the Mughal dynasty. This apart, the sheer length of his regime is another factor contributing to the immense literature that has grown around him.
However, the intervening rulers, Jahangir and Shah Jahan get comparably slimmer volumes because they did not distinguish themselves in anything apart from bigotry and debauchery, both of which were funded by an epic-scale exploitation and oppression of their citizens. It is here that the eyewitness accounts of travellers and merchants like Francisco Pelsaert become valuable in that they show the actual picture of this exploitation.
In the concluding part of this series on Jahangir, Pelsaert gives us a picture of the houses of aristocrats and semi-aristocrats in Agra and describes their daily routines including the kind of meals they ate. Even in this account, Pelsaert returns to a recurring theme of sorts: the number of women that Jahangir’s nobles hoarded in their wasteful mahals and the perverse manner in which the psyches of these women were completely altered due their status as highly-paid sex slaves.
Oh! And the next time you relish that “Mughalai cuisine,” do remember what you have read in the following paragraphs.
I shall now speak of the houses which are built here. They are noble and pleasant, with many apartments, but there is not much in the way of an upper story except a flat roof, on which to enjoy the evening air. There are usually gardens and tanks inside the house. In the hot weather the tanks are filled daily with fresh water, drawn by oxen from wells. The water is drawn, or sometimes raised by a wheel, in such quantity that it flows through a leaden pipe and rises like a fountain. In this climate water and plants are a refreshment and recreation unknown in our cold country. These houses last for a few years only, because the walls are built with mud instead of mortar, but the white plaster of the walls is very noteworthy, and far superior to anything in our country. They use unslaked lime, which is mixed with milk, gum, and sugar into a thin paste. When the walls have been plastered with lime, they apply this paste, rubbing it with well-designed trowels until it is smooth; then they polish it steadily with agates, perhaps for a whole day, until it is dry and hard, and shines like alabaster, or can even be used as a looking-glass.
They have no furniture of the kind we delight in, such as tables, stools, benches, cupboards, bedsteads, etc., but their cots, or sleeping places, and other furniture of kinds unknown in our country, are lavishly ornamented with gold or silver.
They use more gold and silver in serving food than we do, though nearly all of it is used in the mahal, and is seen by scarcely anybody except women. Outside the mahal there is only the diwan-khana, or sitting place, which is spread with handsome carpets, and kept very clean and neat. Here the lord takes his seat in the morning to attend to his business, and here all his subordinates come to salaam him. This is a very humble salute, in which the body is bent forward, and the right hand is placed on the head; but persons of equal rank or position merely bend the body. If strangers desire admittance, their names are first announced, and they are then introduced. After saluting, they take seats appropriate to their position in a row on each side of their host, and that so humbly that they seem unlike themselves, for it is more like a school of wise and virtuous philosophers than a gathering of false infidels [Muslims and Hindus, according to Pelsaert]. No one will move from his place, though they should sit the whole day.
There is a certain gravity in their mode of speaking. They make no loud noise, and do not shout or use gestures. If they talk secrets, they hold a handkerchief, or their girdle, before their mouths, so that neither speaker shall be touched by the other's breath. Everyone leaves as soon as he has obtained an answer to his request, but friends, acquaintances, and persons of position remain until the lord retires into the house, or unless the audience is prolonged until mealtime, though there are no fixed hours for meals.
Before eating they first wash their hands; then the tablecloth is brought and spread on the floor. The food consists of birinj [biryani], aeshalia [al-shallah] pulao, zueyla, do-pyaza, roast meats, and various other good courses, served on very large dishes, with too little butter, and too much spice for our taste. The head servant sits in the middle and serves each guest according to his rank, the senior first. In eating, they use little in the way of spoons or knives except their five fingers, which they besmear up to the knuckles, for napkins are not used, and it is very bad manners to lick the fingers. Each guest confines himself to the portion served before him; no food is touched with the left hand; and little or nothing is drunk while eating, whether water or wine, until they have said their prayer and washed their hands.
Alike at midday and in the evening, the guests rise and take their leave with scanty compliments, saying merely, God grant a lasting blessing on the house! The host then goes into his mahal to sleep until the evening, when he usually comes out again to the sitting place.
Some rich people, and many who are economical, take their meals in the mahal in order to save the heavy cost of the outside service. Again, they cannot hold their reception when they are in the King's camp, because they are on duty continuously from morning to night.
Some of the nobles have chaste wives, but they are too few to be worth mentioning. Most of the ladies are tarred with the same brush, and when the husband is away, though he may think they are guarded quite safely by his eunuchs, they are too clever for Argus himself with his hundred eyes, and get all the pleasure they can, though not so much as they desire.
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