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DAWN The Review, December, 2000


"My ancestors had many faithful servants," writes Aurangzeb in one of his letters, a masterpiece of fluent Persian. "They were entrusted with gaining victories. Right down to the days of my father, there was no dearth of suitable men. Now I want ONE competent honest person to fill the post of viceroy in Bengal and I find none. Alas! Alas! The rarity of useful men." The tragedy of Aurangzeb is that he was the creator of his problems as well as their victim.

It's true that the machinery of the empire was crumbling when Aurangzeb came to rule, but he was unable to appreciate that negative emotions don't build empires. Empires, like all other forms of wealth, are built upon dreams. And dreams Aurangzeb had none.

Aurangzeb was born on 21 October 1618 in the reign of Jehangir. He was the third son of Shahjehan, and apparently superior to his elder brothers Darashikoh and Shuja or the younger, Murad. Aurangzeb was a remarkable heir to the energies of Tamerlane, the wisdom of Akbar and the aesthetics of Jehangir. Yet his father never quite appreciated this fact and preferred Darashikoh instead. Aurangzeb's superhuman energies simplified into the singular emotion of jealousy. And jealousy breeds death wish.

There is a famous incident about Shahjahan watching a fight between elephants when an elephant went out of control and rushed towards the imperial pavilion. The king and the other princes moved aside, but the young Aurangzeb went ahead and attacked the elephant. He made a narrow escape with his life when help arrived. As the emperor advised the king that sometimes prudence should be given preference over bravery, the young boy answered, "This servant of yours hasn't learnt turning his back." This anecdote is often quoted as an example of Aurangzeb's bravery. What is left out so often is a morbid death wish in the young boy who was barely in his teens, and an angry obsession to prove his worth in the eyes of his father even at the cost of his own life. Later, the prince found means to do so at the cost of others' lives.  

Aurangzeb started by imitating his father, and soon surpassed him in devotion to religion as well as in cunning, the two significant traits of Shahjehan. At the age of eighteen, Aurangzeb was appointed viceroy of Deccan and he did a marvelous job there.

Aurangzeb is portrayed by his apologists as well as by his detractors as a cold-blooded and rigid person. That doesn't seem to be the case. A closer look into his personality reveals him as a bonfire of emotions. That he disguised them so well is only a testimony to his strong will power. On those rare occasions when he allowed letting them go they were nothing short of a human volcano. This is just what happened in the case of Zainabadi, one of the earliest love affairs of Prince Aurangzeb.

Zainabadi was a slave girl. It is said that when the prince first saw her he fainted like a proverbial eastern lover. When he regained his consciousness he was determined to die for her, a serious possibility in view of the fact that she belonged to Aurangzeb's maternal aunt's husband! However, the issue was resolved when the uncle agreed to trade the slave girl for one of the women in Aurangzeb's harem. In addition to her other charms, Zainabadi could also sing very well. Aurangzeb's soul thrived on melody, and he himself was an accomplished master of classical Indian music. In a well-recorded anecdote, Zainabadi went as far as insisting that Aurangzeb should accept a cup of wine from her hand, knowing well that the prince abhorred alcohol for religious reasons. As the lover gave in and was about to drink from the cup, Zainabadi took it away from him with a coquettish remark, "The purpose was to test your love, and not to leave a bitter taste in your mouth." Recalling the incident many years later, Aurangzeb wrote to his grandson, "In my youth, which is called jawani divani in the language of vulgar companions, I was also attached to a person who was haughty. Throughout her life, I maintained my love, and never uttered a harsh word to her." It is remarkable that even in love Aurangzeb was testing his own endurance. He could hardly see anything in terms other than a grand confrontation. Luckily, Zainabadi died soon.

Aurangzeb's jealousy finally clamped down on his father in 1658. Shahjehan was deposed and imprisoned. Aurangzeb's treatment of his father betrays a deep-rooted complex. He could have killed Dara Shikoh without many hassles, yet he went on to stage a trial with a religious Qazi pronouncing the verdict of heresy. Possibly, the true motive of Aurangzeb was to show his father that his life-long preference for Dara was morally wrong.

In the prison, Shahjehan was even denied the provision of a royal bath. When he complained, the witty Aurangzeb replied, "A man of your religious stature doesn't need the pomp and show of this world!" He was obviously pointing out at the contradiction between Shahjehan's famous piety and his extraordinary taste for luxury.

In 1668, Aurangzeb forbade the writing of history in his court. He also issued orders against anyone writing a personal history of his reign. Together with the historians, he also banished astrologers, poets and musicians from his court. His personal habits also underwent a drastic change. He stopped sitting in the jharoka, customary for the Mughal kings since the days of Akbar. He adopted a simple dress of inexpensive white cloth, though he didn't remove the piece of emerald from his crown. Also, he started learning the Quran by heart. That was a difficult task to perform at such a late stage in life, yet he accomplished it, taking great pride in being the first Hafiz-e-Quran in the House of Taimur. This was the beginning of what is generally seen as Aurangzeb's efforts to turn India into an Islamic country.

Those who accuse him of setting up a theocratic state, just like those who respect him for the same reason, grossly overlook one important fact. India wasn't a "state" in the days of Aurangzeb. It was a kingdom, and the Mughals who ruled over it were originally foreign rulers. Aurangzeb's agenda was to strengthen the hold of his dynasty, and the only tools he could trust were his religion and his cunning. Much like Tamerlane, and his own father, he didn't see any conflict between the two. He recognized his times as an hour of crisis and, being a devout religious person, he took refuge in religion. Hence when he imposed jiziya on the Hindus, it was also a sign to show that the Mughals still had the power to keep the local majority in their control. The same motivation led him to a random destruction of thousands of Hindu temples -- including an especially sacred one at Benaras, which was then replaced by a mosque. To Aurangzeb, his religion was his identity more than anything else, and with utmost sincerity he made an attempt to impose this identity over his kingdom.

From a monarch's point of view it was the crying need of the day to reinforce the dynasty's supremacy over the subjects of India. Feudal lords were standing up to challenge the Mughal domination. The Jatts from the neighborhood of Delhi went as far as invading the tomb of Akbar the Great and consecrating his grave in the absence of Aurangzeb. It is said that the bones of the dead monarch were dragged out and thrown into the fire. However, throughout these insurgencies, loyalty to the master took precedence over religious association. It can be safely assumed that loyalties were based on devotion to the master rather than a sense of religious belonging. When Raja Jaswant Singh, a Hindu vassal of Aurangzeb, defected on him, Jaswant's Rajput wife refused to sleep with him and accused him of being "unfaithful" to his master. Jaswant was compelled to go back to Aurangzeb. On the other hand, in the brief period when the Marhatta chief Sivaji was serving with the Mughal army Aurangzeb used him against the Muslim ruler of Bijapur. Most of Aurangzeb's enemies were Muslims, including the legendary Khushal Khan Khattak of the Frontier Province and the rulers of Golkonda and Bijapur. Aurangzeb made it a mission of his life to trample the glory of these Muslim rulers, often under the feet of his Hindu soldiers. Through a thirty year war in Deccan, he succeeded in bringing an end to the most powerful Muslim kingdoms in that region and unwisely abolished his single defense against the upcoming Marhatta power. After the "victorious" retreat of Aurangzeb, the Muslim population of South India was left entirely at the mercy of their Marhatta enemies.

This result was achieved by spending nearly the entire treasure of the Mughal Empire. When Aurangzeb took over the Empire from Shahjehan, the royal treasury at Agra was estimated to have 400 million rupees worth of cash and valuables -- more than what Akbar the Great had left for his successors. When he died forty-nine years later, this sum had been reduced to 130 million rupees, despite the addition of several new provinces. Taking up a job in the royal army had become a practical joke, since the salaries were seldom paid. The Personnel Department was forced to acknowledge the situation, and hence it began to officially inform the soldiers at the time of their "hiring" that they would start receiving their salaries only after some of the seniors are dead! Even the nobles of prestigious ranks didn't receive salaries for years at length, and were considered lucky if they could get one-fourth of the original amount after prolonged legal battles against clerks!

Law, devoid of its spirit, is reductionism. Under Aurangzeb, it proved disaster. "Of all the sovereigns of the House of Taimur, Aurangzeb was the most distinguished for devotion, piety and justice," writes Khafi Khan, the famous contemporary historian who compiled a history as soon as the ban on historiography was lifted after Aurangzeb's death. "But due to adherence to the shariat (Islamic Law), he didn't make use of punishment, and without punishment the administration of a country cannot be maintained. Discord had arisen among his nobles through rivalry. So every plan and project that he formed came to little good. Every enterprise he undertook stayed long in the pipeline and failed eventually."

People perceive religion according to the needs of their own souls. Aurangzeb understood it as a justification for universal jealousy. If he had expected that adherence to religious law would stir up the sagging spirits of the society, he was gravely mistaken. He patronized religious learning and the famous Darse Nizami, still current in the madressahs of India and Pakistan, was composed during that period. He also brought together a large number of religious scholars to compile Fatawai Alamgiri, an exhaustive digest of Islamic Law. And yet, such was the inefficiency of the Mughal army that during one of his stays in the South the soldiers unloaded the barrels of gunpowder in the army kitchen, quite near the giant stove. Soon after the grand explosion that followed naturally, someone regained the good sense to inform the king that the cellars under the royal bedroom were also being used as a store for gunpowder! The king went mad with rage, but the honorable Qazi (judge) pronounced that any punishment greater than a temporary demotion of the concerned officers would be a violation of the Islamic Law. Aurangzeb obliged, but couldn't help saying, "If it were King Jehangir, he would have tied these scoundrels with these same barrels and blown them up!" That, indeed, was a very candid remark about Jehangir.

Aurangzeb's superfluous adherence to the letter of the law was a subject of many jokes among his nobles. When he was about to depute an army against rebels in the South, one of the nobles remarked in his presence, "His Majesty! Why send an army? Tell the Qazi Sahib, he may be able to crush the enemy with an edict!"

In the last days of Aurangzeb an old widow complained against some officer who had confiscated her land unjustly. The king immediately replaced the officer and ordered redress of the widow's grievances. After a while she came back because the new officer didn't return her property either. Aurangzeb remarked helplessly, "Sister! Pray to God that now He replaces your king!"

God did that, eventually, on February 21, 1707, but Aurangzeb had hardly left the chance of a good replacement. He had brought up his sons in a repressive atmosphere and by the time they engaged in a deadly war of succession they were all too old to learn the art of being a king.

The eldest, Bahadur Shah I, who succeeded, was sixty-five years old. (He shouldn't be confused with Bahadur Shah Zafar). He was pious and indecisive and his orders often contradicted each other since he could not refuse the request of any claimant. At last he instructed his officers not to pay attention to his orders and always to do what they deemed suitable in any situation. People nicknamed him "Shah-e-Bekhabar" (the Unknowing King), which was a sarcastic chronogram of his accession. He died five years later, leaving an empty exchequer and four useless sons. The House of Taimur then virtually went into the custody of the nobles who could enthrone or depose emperors as they pleased. Six emperors were replaced within seven years after Bahadur Shah.

In imposing an orthodox code of life on his family and his country, Aurangzeb tragically deprived The House of Taimur of the one characteristic that had helped it stand up again after every great fall. That was the ability to appreciate life in its most unexpected forms.

Aurangzeb is portrayed by his apologists as well as by his detractors as a cold-blooded and rigid person. That doesn't seem to be the case. A closer look into his personality reveals him as a bonfire of emotions. That he disguised them so well is only a testimony to his strong will power.
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