Khurram Shah Jahan, a title meaning King of the Words,’ ruled the Mughal Empire from 1628 to 1659. His reign marked the eultural zenith of the Mughal dynasty; a period of multicuralism, poetry, fine art and stupendous architecture. His legacy in stone embraces not only the Taj Mahal-the tomb of his beloved second wife, Arijumand Mumtaz Mahal-but fortresses, mosques, gardens, caravanserais and schools.
But Shah Jahan was also a ruthless political operator, who only achieved power by ordering the murder two brothers and at least six other relatives, one of them the legitimately Emperor Dawar-Bakhsh. This is the storey of an enlightened despot, a king who dispensed largesse to favored courtiers but ignored plague in the countryside. Fergus Nicoll has reconstructed this intriguing tale from contemporary biographies, edicts and correspondence; he has also traveled widely though India and Pakistan to follow in Shan Jahan’s footsteps and find new evidence of his passing. As a result, many aspects of the conventional wisdom have had to be re-examined.
Fergus Nicoll has been a current affairs journalist for the BBC since 1988 and his work has enabled him to travel widely throughout the middle East and South Asia. He is the author of The Mahdi of Sudan and the Death of General Gordon.
Every day of the year, even on the stupefying days of summer heat, the tourists come to the Taj tvtahal, bearing their Baedekers, their Guides days Routed, their Chikyu no Arukikatas. They gaze up and ponder over the flawlessly inlaid Koranic quotations on the tomb’s towering portals. stroll the leafy paths of the well-watered garden and pose for photographs with a backdrop of breathtakingly beautiful white marble that was iconic centuries before Diana, Princess of Wales, commandeered the world’s greatest icon of enduring royal love to signal her own marital discontent.
The Taj Mahal: eighth wonder of the would, one of those places that many visitors fear will be a cliché, a disappointment— until they arrive, Commissioned in 1631 by the Emperor Shah Jahan after the death in child- birth of his beloved second wife Ariumand Mumtaz-Mahal, the glittering monument took twelve years to complete, at a cost of five million silver rupees. Contemporary writers acclaimed the masterpiece with rapturous descriptions of the funerary complex, from the tiniest chip of carnelian inlay on the royal sepulcher to the towering minarets and the vast market square abutting the principal gate. Today’s visitors are fired by the emotion of the story of love and death — and by the fluent fabrications of the tour guides, who tell of Shah Jahan blinding his architects and cutting off his craftsmen’s hands, lest they try to reproduce such a marvel. The tourists venture across the Yamane River, seeking a different camera angle or perhaps examining the dust and ruined masonry in the Moonlight Garden on the other bank for proof of the fabled Black Taj. Nor is it only the half- million or so foreigners that are captivated by this most solid of myths each year. The Taj Mahal may be the primary image with which India markets itself to the world but the magic works at home too. For the vast majority of the crowds are Indians: more than two million in 2006; Hindus and non-believers as keen to explore the atmosphere at this Muslim tomb as those of the Muhammad faith,
Yet in the long and frequently bloody tale of the rise and fall of Emperor Khurram ‘Shah Jahan’ —general, rebel prince and patron of the arts — the tomb to Mumtaz-Mahal plays but a small part. His is a complex and conflicted tale of romance and violence, of marital fidelity and fratricidal betrayal, of exquisite artistry and ugly intolerance. For the Mughal court was a world where brutally violent politics, internecine conflict, pedantic quadruplicate bureaucracy and high art all coexisted under the same royal roof. Before his usurpation by his own son, Shah Jahan reigned for 32 years as an enlightened despot: a man seen variously as a virtuous supporter of Sharia law and a monster of moral depravity. Between these extremes lies the truth of the man.
Shah Jahan was a soldier who loyally served his father, Emperor Salem jahangir, in a series of campaigns against enemies both internal and external — before turning renegade and launching a disastrous attempt on the throne that left him in the wilderness, his every step dogged by imperial troopers, for six arduous years. As emperor, he moved away from the free- for-all hybridized religion of his grandfather Akbar to a more entrenched and conservative Islam, yet managed Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions and the rival ambitions of subordinate Hindu princes to preserve the integrity of a multi-faith court, bureaucracy and army. Above all, he was a creative man and an aesthete: accomplished in and appreciative of the disciplines of the poet’s meter and the architect’s drawing-board — a man whose legacy will for ever be measured in the stones that he had laid: the fortresses, mosques, schools, caravanserais and gardens nosy crumbling in all corners of his vast empire.
In reconstructing this intriguing tale from contemporary documents, including the vivid pen-portraits and panegyrics of court biographers, Shah jahan’s own stern edicts and a surprising volume of correspondence with the neighboring Persian Empire, many aspects of the conventional wisdom have had to be revisited. For the first time it is revealed why despite Mumtaz-Mahal’s aristocratic upbringing and influential position within the polygamous harem — attributes that enabled her to become Shah jahan’s closest political confidante—she was cast aside for five years between their engagement in Kabul on 4 April 1607 and their eventual marriage at Agra on 10 May 1612, For the first time, too, the emperor’s staggering personal wealth is made clear, with the ruling family and no more than seven hundred named individuals dividing between them a treasury that dwarfed that of any contemporary European monarch and enabled Shah Jahan to spend eye-watering sums on vanity projects such as the eleven-million-rupee Ornamented Throne.
Most significantly, however, Shah Jahan’s place in history as the fifth emperor of the Mughal dynasty has had to be reappraised. Compelling contemporary evidence, including corroborative testimony from neighboring Persia, makes it clear that, by the time a bloody chain of events culminated in his coronation on 14 February 1628, Shah jahan had murdered two brothers and at least six more male relatives, one of them the legitimately crowned Emperor Dawar-Bakhsh Shir Shah, This redefines the man routinely eulogized in simplistic terms as lover, warrior and master architect as Shah lagan the Regicide, confirming him in fact as the sixth of the Mughal royal dynasty to take the throne of Hindustan.
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