When appearances meant everything (Part II)

September 24, 2008

A tale of Mughal India, ..
continued from Part I:

On September 6th, 1657, The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan awoke to discover that he could not pee. He had fallen victim to an overindulgence in a medieval Viagra that had interfered with his ability to urinate. The passion for a silky new Moorish slave girl had driven the ageing monarch to seek an injection of explosiveness into his tired libido. He had consumed quantities of stimulants and aphrodisiacs designed to restore his youthful ardor. Instead, he suffered the agony and ignominy of extreme urinary retention, his limbs swollen, his body bloated, the Emperor of the world reduced to a mere mortal. Or so was alleged by the rumors that arrived on horseback into Mughal cities and towns over the next several days – and spread rapidly beyond. Was the old man dying? Would he be dead soon? Was he dead already? No one really knew. All that was known for sure was that the Emperor had not been seen in public for an entire week! Even a passably healthy Emperor took pains to assure that the world that he lived. A complete absence of appearance did not bode well.

Dead or not – Shah Jahan’s sons were not about to wait to find out. The death of a father, or even the rumor of a death, was not a time of mourning, worry or concern for these imperial princes, but one of war, intrigue and survival. For the best that the losers in the struggle of succession could hope for was to have their eyes put out by the winner. And so, like lions who begin eating their prey while it is still alive – for fear of losing their share – Shah Jahan’s sons made their first moves. Moves that they had been planning all their lives. The horse messengers began racing all over the country, calling in favors, promising positions and gold, mobilizing secret agreements and regiments.

Shah Jahan’s need for his Moorish slave girl was perhaps understandable. Though he maintained a well stocked harem and multiple wives (most just seals on political alliances), he was, in many ways, a lonely man, and had been since the passing of his beloved Mumtaz – whose death in 1631 had left him distraught and alone. The couple had met and fallen in love as teenagers, and remained inseparable companions for over 19 years of marriage and permanent pregnancy. In 19 years of passionate bliss, Mumtaz had conceived and given birth to 12 children, until she had finally perished during the birth of their 13th child. It was presumed that the Emperor had turned to his Moorish temptress to ease any guilt or responsibility he felt for Mumtaz’s death. For the marble of the Taj Mahal he had built in her memory lacked the Moor’s fiery embrace and beguilingly soft skin.

September 14th, 1657 – the eight day since the Emperor’s had been last seen. As the nascent rebellion took hold in the Mughal Empire, the day’s petitioners gathered below the Red Fort’s ramparts, shielding in the shadows from the vicious sun, and gazed up at the window of audience with little hope. Many, if not most, prayed aloud for their monarch, as they had all week, but the prayers found no sympathetic God. Some had already abandoned their posts and begun to retire. But as the rest considered the option, they observed a movement in the audience window. A shout of “Jahanpanah!” went up among the faithful, and those who had drifted away came racing back. For framed in that ornate and intricately carved window stood a man.

Or what seemed like a man. He was dressed in imperial finery, in cloth of gold, with pearls and rubies and diamonds. By his side stood his functionaries, their strong hands supporting him, as he swayed, staggered and barely kept his feet. The man was old, much older than the man that the onlookers recalled. For in the passing week, their memory of their ruler had returned to earlier times, to times when his youth and good looks had been the subject of tale and verse – a man who had looked like an Emperor. This man in the window was weak and withered. This man did not have the appearance of a king. He scarcely had the appearance of a man. This imposter had the appearance of an old palace eunuch dressed up to look like a king!

It took several months for the stories of the eunuch in the window to fade. Shah Jahan eventually convinced his Empire that he was not dead. But he was too late. By June of 1658, he had been overthrown by his wily and cruel son, Aurangzeb, and cast into a prison in his own capital of Agra. His only consolation was that his prison had a view. For from within his comfortable chambers in the Agra Fort, Shah Jahan beheld a vista dominated by his masterpiece – The Taj.

The former Emperor lived on for a further nine years. Some say he died in disappointment, unable to fulfil his last dream – the construction of his own mausoleum – a second, Black Taj on the opposite side of Yamuna river, a perfect reflection of The White Taj, the two linked together by a single bridge. But his soul could take solace in the fact that upon his death, his son Aurangzeb buried him besides his wife in the Taj, where together they give audience to millions of onlookers every day.

And who was the mysterious Moorish girl who proved to be such a potent political catalyst? History does not record her fate. Nor of the inventor of that deadly aphrodisiac. It is not known if the girl remained with her Emperor – if merely to ease the boredom of incarceration. In fact, it is not known if the girl existed at all. Or if Shah Jahan had been laid low by an aphrodisiac or merely the flu. For these were times when rumor was fact and appearances meant everything.

For an account of this episode in Mughal history, refer to the colorful and occasionally tabloid memoirs of the Venetian travelers Manucci and Careri.


When appearances meant everything (Part I)

September 24, 2008

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

They Stole it from Us

September 24, 2008

April 6th, 1850. The paddle sloop HMS Medea slipped away from its mooring in the
port of Calcutta and began the long journey to its home port of Portsmouth, England. The charter was unusual, for the ship carried but two passengers: Captain Ramsay and Lt.Colonel Mackeson, both soldiers in the employ of the East India Company and aides to the Governor General of the Company’s Empire in India, Lord Dalhousie. In addition to their personal effects, the men carried with them a single, innocuous dispatch box that presumably contained dispatches from Dalhousie to his board of directors in London. It was uncommon for Her Majesty’s Navy to be deployed on what appeared to be mundane Company business, for the Company had vessels aplenty of its own. What the Medea’s skipper, Captain Lockyer, did not know was that Lord Dalhousie had specifically asked the British Admiralty for the loan of a warship to carry this very particular cargo. Though no doubt curious about their odd assignment, Lockyer and his men could at least content themselves with the prospect of a summer voyage considerably more relaxed than their spring, which they had spent fighting pirates off the coast of Hong Kong.  

The Medea did not reach Portsmouth until June 29th, where it docked in an isolated quay with little fanfare. The voyage had been more eventful than anyone had anticipated, for the ship had nearly met its fate in the Indian Ocean. About a third of the way into the journey, cholera had broken out on board and killed two sailors. Fortunately for the crew, the ship had been on the approach to the island of Mauritius, a British possession, and a crucial supply halt on the India route. But the Mauritians were terrified that the deadly cholera might jump ship onto land and refused to let the Medea birth. They demanded that the Medea leave immediately, which Lockyer flatly refused to do. Irked, they petitioned the island’s Governor to have the ship sunk, men and all. Tensions ran high, but eventually Lockyer had his way and loaded the Medea with fresh clean water, which miraculously banished fresh incidents of cholera from the ship. The Medea left Mauritius with generally better health and fresh food, only to sail directly into the storms that bedevil the environs of The Cape of Good Hope. Its crew battled gale force winds for nearly twelve hours before finally managing to get away.

The relief of the Medea’s crew and passengers at their narrow escape was magnified soon after arriving at Portsmouth, when the contents of the mysterious dispatch box were finally revealed. In the dispatch box was a small iron chest with two locks whose only keys were on the person of Col. Mackeson. Inside the chest sat a solitary stone. It was the Koh-i-Noor, the fabled Mountain of Light. It had been sent to England as a gift from the East India Company to its sovereign, Queen Victoria.

The Company had won the 186 carat diamond by force of arms. In 1849, it had confiscated the behemoth from the twelve year old Maharajah of the Punjab, Duleep Singh. The famed jewel was not all that Duleep had had to surrender. The blood soaked Second Anglo-Sikh War had resulted in the annexation of the Punjab and its 4 million citizens into the Company’s Empire. The powerful kingdom of the Punjab, built by the brilliant Maharajah Ranjit Singh, had crumbled a mere 10 years after his death, victim to the greed, pettiness and intrigue of his worthless successors. The Company, under the imperialist Dalhousie, had stepped in and picked up the valuable pieces. Ironically, the Punjab, like the rest of the British Empire in India, had been won for the British chiefly by Indians. Though lead by British officers and laced with British regiments, the wars of the East India Company were fought and won by an Army made up primarily of sepoys (sipahis) – native soldiers.

The Koh-i-Noor had always been a prize of war. Though its origins are shrouded in mystery, the diamond had certainly been discovered in the mines of Golconda, the sole source of the stones in the world until the 18th century. It passed from hand to hand, and came to obsess any that possessed it. Among its most illustrious owners was the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, then arguably the richest monarch in the world, which one would have to be in order to absorb the immense expenditure of state funds necessary for the construction of a mausoleum named The Taj Mahal. The jewel remained in the Mughal treasury until 1739, when it fell into the hands of the Persian conqueror Nadir Shah, and acquired its present name. Nadir Shah was in the midst of the bloody sack of Delhi, massacring thousands and looting the priceless imperial Mughal treasure – a treasure that the Mughal Empire had accumulated over two hundred years, by, in part, looting the rest of India. It is said that despite being surrounded by the fabulous hoard of gold and jewels, Nadir Shah was so overwhelmed by the diamond’s size, weight and brilliant light that he exclaimed in his native Persian: Koh-i-Noor, Mountain of Light!

The diamond did not remain Nadir’s for long, as he was murdered by his own men in 1747. The diamond made its way to Afghanistan, and from thence to Ranjit Singh in the Punjab. Ranjit Singh was so enamored of the Koh-i-noor that he never let it out of sight. He even had it mounted on his bridle, so that he could admire (and guard) it while taking the long rides he loved.

The legend of the Koh-i-Noor owes much to the travelers, courtiers, ambassadors and common people who wrote, spoke and sang of its beauty. The giant stone was often in plain sight wherever its owners went, shining on royal turban, crown and in Ranjit Singh’s case, a singularly stunning bracelet. But never in its history had the diamond been in actual peril, for none who came under its sway would willingly harm it – until its voyage on the Medea, when it nearly ended up at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

Today, the Koh-i-Noor is not the giant it once was. It lost nearly 40% of its weight when it was re-cut by the Victorians to enhance its brilliance. At 108 carats, it is neither the largest nor the the most beautiful diamond in the world. It sits in the Tower of London in the company of the British Crown Jewels, where it is admired in passing by millions of tourists, most of whom know little of its history or mystique. Except for the tourists with Indian passports, who point at it as they go by and sometimes mutter: They stole it from us.