I remember my music teacher once telling me, speaking about her daughter, “Oh, she’s a regular Aurangzeb.” Meaning, she didn’t like music, which clearly was upsetting to my teacher. Meaning, by extension, Aurangzeb disliked and discouraged music. That’s what we’ve been led to believe.
It appears that this view is only partially true — or false, depending upon how you look at it, says Audrey Truschke in her book, Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth. The cover features a young-looking emperor, not the white-bearded, bent-over figure whose image we’re familiar with. Besides, it didn’t seem to be a scholarly-type tome. Also, it was slim and priced reasonably — all good reasons for buying a book about a man who doesn’t exactly set your heart aflutter.
Good thinking because I read it almost at one go, not because the writing is felicitous but because I wanted to immediately share it. Not that I concur with all of Truschke’s conclusions, but she does make a persuasive case for putting aside preconceived notions about Aurangzeb and looks at him in historical terms. In this book, Truschke combines the forces of research and the writing of history to help us understand why Aurangzeb was the way he was, and what could have established and perpetuated his public image. In other words, the book is not so much about an Aurangzeb we didn’t know (although there is that, too), it’s about why we think of Aurangzeb the way we do.
Anyway, to get back to Aurangzeb’s attitude to music. Truschke says that for years he followed his ancestors in their leisure tastes, and that included music. “The king had expert knowledge of the art of music, according to Bakhtawar Khan, a little-cited but important historian of the period,” she writes. “A musical treatise dated to 1666, Faqirullah’s Rag Darpan, listed the names of de rigueur’s favourite singers and instrumentalists.” When he was in his thirties, he is said to have fallen head over heels in love with a singer and dancer called Hirabai. It’s difficult to reconcile the dour Aurangzeb of our imagination with the image of a lover, but that’s what he appears to have been: her lover. Sadly, though, she died a year later. During the second decade of his reign, Aurangzeb withdrew any sort of patronage to music. Yet, in his later years, he took up with Udaipuri, a musician, and had a son by her called Kam Bakhsh.
Truschke teaches South Asian history at Rutgers University in the US, and her research focuses on “the cultural, imperial and intellectual history of early modern and modern India (c. 1500-present)”. It’s not surprising, then that the voice of the researcher sometimes dominates the narrative, although thankfully it’s the ‘teacher’ who mostly speaks, with clarity and logic, if not elegance. Whichever voice you hear, though, it provides a useful lesson on how history could, even should, be read.
History is in our DNA: every present has a past, whether individual or collective. We are who we are today because of our yesterdays. But the writing of past events and people and the reading and interpreting of it are different from the ‘truth’. Written texts of actual events and persons are rarely entirely true. How can they be? They are subjective to varying degrees, they are influenced either by the period in which a text was written or by the chronological distance from the events they recall, they are encumbered by the weight of the baggage a writer (in this case, a historian) carries and are influenced by those experiences.
Truschke combines the forces of research and the writing of history to help us understand why Aurangzeb was the way he was, and what could have established and perpetuated his public image.
The same holds true for Aurangzeb, the book. Still, when Truschke appeals to the reader to examine Aurangzeb on his terms and in light of his ideals, don’t judge him by our times, it’s only fair to listen. You don’t have to love him, just try to understand that his religious ideals of providing justice and protection to his citizens often conflicted with state interests, causing enormous internal distress and impacting his actions, she says. Besides, she warns: The bulk of Mughal histories are written in Persian, the official administrative language of Aurangzeb’s empire.
Out of necessity and ease, many historians disregard the original Persian texts and rely instead on English translations. This approach narrows the library of materials drastically, and many translations of Mughal texts are of questionable quality, brimming with mistranslations and abridgements. Some of these changes conveniently served the agendas of the translators, especially colonial-era translations that sought to show Indo-Muslim kings at their worst so that the British would seem virtuous by comparison.”
Think Aurangzeb and we think “Oh, he wholesale destroyed temples”. This view is the influence of colonial era scholarship, says Truschke, and the British strategy of divide and conquer. “Aurangzeb’s notion of justice included a certain measure of freedom of religion, which led him to protect most places of Hindu worship. Mughal rulers in general allowed their subjects great leeway — shockingly so, compared to the draconian measures instituted by many European sovereigns of the era — to follow their own religious ideas and inclinations. Nonetheless, state interests constrained religious freedom in Mughal India, and Aurangzeb did not hesitate to strike hard against religious institutions and leaders that he deemed seditious or immoral.” It is in this context, suggests Truschke, that we need to see his execution of Sikh guru Tegh Bahadur for rising against the Mughals. “It probably did not help matters,” she adds, “that Tegh Bahadur’s nephew and the seventh Sikh guru, Har Rai, was rumoured to have supported Dara Shukoh (one of Aurangzeb’s brothers) during the war of succession.”
All four of Shah Jahan’s sons conspired to grab the throne. When Shah Shuja heard of his father’s ailment, he crowned “himself king, complete with the ostentatious title Abul Fauz (Father of Victory) Nasruddin (Defender of the Faith) Muhammad Timur III Alexander Shah Shuja Bahadur Ghazi”! Murad and Aurangzeb attacked Dara, Shuja attacked Dara… Shah Jahan himself was behind the murder of two of his brothers, Jahangir got his brother Daniyal killed. Fighting for the crown is de rigueur — not just in the Mughal era but wherever, whenever power is at stake.
Truschke argues that Aurangzeb “acted according to his ideals of justice, commitment to political and ethical conduct (adab and akhlaq), and the necessities of politics. Aurangzeb’s world view was also shaped by his piety and the Mughal culture he inherited.” Seen in this context, it is possible to understand why several Persian translations of the Ramayana in poetry and prose were dedicated to him.
The more he tried to curb corruption in his court, the wider it spread its tentacles; the more heavily he came down on drinking, the more people drank. The book quotes travel writer Niccoli Manucci as saying, “Aurangzeb once exclaimed in exasperation that only two men in all of Hindustan did not drink: himself and his head qazi Abdul Wahhab.” Manucci, however, divulged … “But with respect to Abd-ul-Wahhab (Aurangzeb) was in error, for I myself sent him every day a bottle of spirits (vino), which he drank in secret, so that the king could not find it out!” He was merciless when he punished, but also appointed Hindus in many high positions. Truschke tries to show how all these converged in an individual who “died having expanded the Mughal kingdom to its greatest extent in history and yet feared utter failure.”
Audrey Truschke’s biography of Aurangzeb is insightful without being defensive, forceful without being jingoistic. Most of all, it is refreshing and invites you to drink from the fountain of history. The next time you travel, you might want to take Aurangzeb along.
The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist.