Emperor Jahangir was the fourth of the six Great Mughals – great grandson of Babur and the grandfather of Aurangzeb – and definitely the most underrated. “God will give you three sons, then the first shall be yours, to protect and guide. Bless him, I give him my name” Shaykh Salim Chishti uttered these words when Akbar, the great Mughal emperor asked the spiritual guide “How many kids will I have?” [The Jahangirnama, Memoirs of Jahangir, Emperor of India, Translated, edited, and annotated by Wheeler M. Thackston].
Akbar’s Kacchwaha Rajput wife, Maryam uz Zamani (Formally) gave birth to Akbar’s first child who was named Salim, after the saint, who later took the title of Jahangir (World-Conqueror) upon his accession in the year of 1605 AD.
Jahangir, the 4th Mughal emperor is generally sequestered when we recall the history of this empire, between his father Akbar, and his son Shah Jahan. While the former has been conferred with the honorary epithet of “Great”, the latter has been immortalised in the history of Mughal Empire by building the grand marble mausoleum for his wife, The Taj Mahal, which stands today as one of the seven wonders of the world. Parvati Sharma’s extensive account on Jahangir throws light on Jahangir, the obscure figure from history, who has been painted as a weak emperor throughout the years. Whilst, he wasn’t.
The Misinterpreted Mughal
Jahangir has been interpreted as a confusing figure over the years. More popularized in the recent times as the rebel prince, Salim, who fought against his father for a nautch girl Anarkali (thanks to Bollywood for promulgating fancy lies in history). While the myth of Anarkali still haunts the historians, the fact that Jahangir has been portrayed as a weak ruler doesn’t seem so.
Over the course of history Jahangir has been misunderstood largely due to the fact that two comprehensive accounts on Jahangir were written during Shah Jahan’s time who would have wanted to create a virtual image of Jahangir as a flimsy ruler, controlled by his wife, the brilliantly abled Nur Jahan, as an excuse for his rebellion. Another idea to demean the 4th Mughal emperor comes from the account of Sir Thomas Roe, an English ambassador at the Mughal Court, whose ultimate failure to gain trade concessions from the Emperor, might have had prompted him to paint Jahangir as a weak monarch controlled by Nur Jahan, who in his view was against the English men.
This idea was carried forward by many scholars till recent times, Parvati argues with this belief and brings forth Nur-ud-din Jahangir in her lively writing with another contrary belief, rather the truest side of him, which justifies surprisingly remarkable golden and peaceful reign. This attempt to redraw the 4th Mughal from a layman’s view is properly researched and greatly narrated, highlighted with a lot of absurd and funny incidents from Jahangir’s own auto-biography ‘Tuzuk-I-Jahangiri’ the book brings out the human side of the past living creatures which has often been ignored. Sharma navigates very well between her roles as historian and novelist, and the result is an enjoyable, readable, accurate and informative biography which will certainly contribute to rescuing Jahangir from relative obscurity. [Butler, John (2019), “Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal” by Parvati Sharma, https://asianreviewofbooks.com/content/jahangir-an-intimate-portrait-of-a-great-mughal-by-parvati-sharma/].
Some other captivating aspects of his writings are that they bring forth an overall evaluation of the emperor. The beginning of his career was marked by a lot of tumults, his eldest, over ambitious son, Khusro created a lot of havoc when he rebelled against his father in order to become the emperor, a lasting tradition in their history. However, the rebellion was soon suppressed largely due to Jahangir’s agile decision making abilities. Parvati quotes a Jesuits statement here to describe Jahangir’s haste when news of Khusro’s rebellion broke out “he (Jahangir) galloped away to chase Khusro with practically no escort” which shows how determined he was to be on the throne.
Soon after this rebellion was over there was a long period of peace in most of the parts of Empire, this peace could be partly credited to Akbar, who according to Parvati, “left such a stable, prosperous and well administered empire that it might have taken an equal effort of will to dismantle it.” The lasting peace and stability in the empire left time for the emperor to concentrate on art. In his reign, the Mughal art was at its finest. The period showcased the rich connoisseur of arts and aesthetics in Jahangir. Art was a field in which he easily surpassed his great father, as it was something which grew rapidly in his times though he must’ve been introduced to this unique world as a child inspired by his father’s teeming atelier. Jahangir’s claim that he could instantly recognize any painter’s work is a reflection of the rise of the individual artists in his time. Apart from this, he was a keen observer of Nature, Sharma while describing this observer facet of Salim writes that “From turkeys to zebras, Jahangir documented for every animal which came to his court.” Here he echoes his great-grandfather Babur’s habit of penning down detailed descriptions of the flora and fauna that surrounded him.
There was something of each of his grand forebears in him. Like Babur, he possessed a talent for critical – even self-critical – a reflection that allowed him to write a rich and personal memoir, the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. Like Humayun, he could command friendship and loyalty from the right people, especially the powerful ladies of the Mughal zenana, who interceded for him when his relations with Akbar were at their lowest ebb. Like Akbar himself, there was something of the mystic in Jahangir, a quality that still shows in the superb art and literature of his court. [Nair, Supriya (2018), An imaginative biography of Jahangir shows how the distant past can be made intimately recognisable, https://www.google.co.in/amp/s/amp.scroll.in/article/900994/an-imaginative-biography-of-jahangir-shows-how-the-distant-past-can-be-made-intimately-recognisable].
In 1611, Jahangir’s peaceful period brought in a precious gift for him, his twentieth wife Nur Jahan. Nur Jahan’s influence according to Parvati was irrefutable, while the fact that why was it so, isn’t clear yet! There can be a lot of possibilities around this, Did Jahangir lose his heart and his head completely to his wife? Or it was the effect of Nur Jahan’s flair for governance that made it convenient for him to share his rule with her? According to Sharma, in Jahangir and Nurjahan you have a middle-age love, respect and an ability to work with each other. Even in the modern world, it isn’t common to find a man of such power and his wife working so well together. To find that was a surprise. Nurjahan has been painted as this villainess but she is an equal partner and Jahangir is a person who recognises her talent and gives her responsibilities. [Onial, Devyani (2018), ‘Everything he wrote was imbued with the people, the art of India’, https://www.google.co.in/amp/s/indianexpress.com/article/express-sunday-eye/parvati-sharma-jahangir-interview-5439386/lite/].
This account also sheds light on one of the most controversial sides of his story, which is sectarian beliefs of the Mughal emperors, that has ultimately given birth to a lot of TV Debates in recent times. Jahangir’s own religious side, not that of the realm (to be noted), is a “complicated story” states Parvati Sharma. From his deep religious conversation with the Hindu ascetic Jadrup Gosain to his infamous act of the demolition of the great Varaha statue in Pushkar, all facts have been thoroughly detailed and presented here without any glorification or demolition.
Overall, this account is a must read for history aficionados. Jahangir wasn’t able to find a great chronicler in his times to write down his biography, but today it seems, if Parvati Sharma was alive in the 17th century, certainly this work would have been bestowed on her. Better late than never, we have finally found an account on Jahangir’s life which is not plagued by any kind of propaganda. In this well researched biography, Parvati depicts Jahangir as an astute ruler, a conscientious administrator, a keen observer of societal arrangements and the dynamics of social change in the world around him, a large swathe of which he ruled. [Gupta, Robin (2019), An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal, https://rotarynewsonline.org/an-intimate-portrait-of-a-great-mughal/].
Jahangir often appears incapable to many perhaps because people end up with the obvious comparison of him with his illustrious father. Parvati Sharma has given us the correct lens to view Jahangir which enables us to observe his noteworthy talents and not impress merely his vices upon our minds. This is what the author has achieved in her brilliant account on Jahangir. It is the story of a monarch who could write about a war and a flower with the same enthusiasm, who sometimes seemed like a devout Muslim while sometimes as an atheist! The many facets of this man’s complex personality find expression in Jahangir: The Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal.
(Author is a history enthusiast, pursuing MBA from Institute of financial management and research, Chennai)