When appearances meant everything (Part I)

A tale of 17th Century Mughal India.

It was a September morning like any other in Delhi. The air clung despairingly to the fading cool of the night, as the sun that would incinerate it began searing the smoky haze of the morning’s cooking fires. A crowd of petitioners, sycophants and sightseers had gathered on the sandy banks of the city’s lifeline – the Yamuna river. They stood at the foot of the looming sandstone ramparts of the colossal Red Fort, their eyes riveted expectantly upon an ornate viewing window built into the imperial chambers that overhung the bastion’s walls. For this was time of the daily people’s audience. It was the time when the Emperor, The Great Mughal Shah Jahan, made his daily morning appearance before the people of Delhi, when he sat himself down in the viewing window and devoted an entire hour of his extraordinary existence to their ordinary one. This was when the Emperor listened to his subject’s complaints, passed judgement upon their tormentors, tossed handfuls of gold coins at their heads, and generally looked regal, divine and – alive. He only missed the appointment on the occasions when the need to crush a rebellion or escape the terrible summer heat took him from his capital. For he was quite fond of tossing gold coins at his people’s heads, of dazzling them with his splendor and wisdom, and above all – of looking alive. Of all of Shah Jahan’s duties and responsibilities, looking alive was by far the most crucial.

On this warm day, the people waited in vain. The hours went by, the sun rose high into the sky, but of the Emperor, there was no sign. Eventually the surprised and disappointed crowd drifted away, some looking back over their shoulders as they went, hoping that their ruler may yet show them his face. They speculated on the reasons for his absence. Perhaps he had been overwhelmed by the memory of his dead wife and departed to Agra to gaze upon the grand mausoleum he had built in her name. Perhaps he had hurried away to combat a defiant Sultan who had raised the flag of insurrection. Or perhaps the great one had fallen ill, as he might, for he was no longer the spry Prince he once was.

By that evening, the bazaars of Chandni Chowk were abuzz with rumor. Sources inside Shah Jahan’s palace had confirmed that the Emperor was not well. Fortunately, he was attended to by the greatest physicians, holy men and quacks in the land and was expected to make a complete recovery. The Emperor’s heart, said the sources, had lost little of the vigor of its youth and all that ailed him was a minor attack of constipation. But despite the reassurances, the first messengers had already left the city, racing for the far corners of the sprawling Empire, to the lands where Shah Jahan had posted his sons as Governors. He had done so because he believed that governing the uncooperative inhabitants of those distant realms would train his sons in the affairs of state. He wanted to keep his sons as far away from each other as possible – to keep them from killing each other – at least while he was still alive. For like their counterparts in Turkey, the Mughals had no belief in primogeniture, preferring that the royal progeny compete openly and violently for the royal crown. And the royal progeny in their distant fiefs waited impatiently for their old man to die.

A new day dawned in Delhi and the people went about their daily routine. Like his subjects, Shah Jahan was also a man of habit, and typically rose at 4.00 AM to spend his day in governance, pleasure, audiences, art and watching elephant fights – a favorite pastime. But for a second day in succession, Shah Jahan did not rise from his bed. For a second day in a row, the Emperor did not make the all important appearance to his people! The crowd of petitioners who had customarily gathered below the royal window again left without a glimpse of their king. The Emperor, claimed the gossips in Chandni Chowk, was bed-ridden with a case of severe constipation, swollen limbs and overwhelming malaise. Soon, the city could speak of little else, as the average citizens took to evaluating their options and what a royal demise would mean to their fortunes, careers, and lives. And the agents and spies that the Mughal princes maintained at their father’s court hastily scribbled updated reports and a fresh batch of horseback messengers raced away with the sealed scrolls.

A third day went by without any amelioration in what was fast becoming a major imperial crisis. And then a fourth. The Emperor remained confined to his bed, alive, but in considerable pain and discomfort. There were many who feared that he was already dead, or else he would have made at least a token appearance at the royal window. Others took comfort in the doctors, priests and quacks who were hard at work, feeding him elixirs, tonics with ground pearls, incantations on scraps of paper, and other exotic medications much trusted at the time. None had any effect. The only progress was in the nature of the rumors, which had taken on a dominantly salacious tone. For the Emperor, it was alleged, was not constipated at all. The Emperor, they said, had actually lost the ability to express bodily waste of the other kind. And this embarrassing condition was not the consequence of age, ailment or injury, but of taking too much of a certain concoction whose sole benefit was the restoration of a vital masculine capacity known to decline with age! The aging Emperor, the diehard romantic who had spent untold millions on building a Taj Mahal to the love of his life, had apparently developed a raging passion for a nubile Moorish slave girl who had recently been added to his harem…

To be continued… Part II

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