R. V. Smith talks of the secular nature of Christmas festivities in the Mughal era
When Jahangir came on one of his last visits to Delhi, in 1625-26, it happened to be the Christmas season. To mark the occasion, says an old but credible story, Armenian merchant Khwaja Mortiniphus presented him with five bottles of the wine of Oporto. The emperor was greatly pleased with the gesture and asked the merchant what he should give him as a present in return. The Khwaja said he had, by God’s grace, everything he could want and that he was already beholden to the emperor for allowing him to trade in his empire. Jahangir appreciated the comment but still insisted on giving him a gift— a precious diamond from the Golconda mines. The merchant in turn presented the diamond to his dear patron Mirza Zulquarnain, who was regarded by Akbar as a foster-brother and made Governor of Sambar (Rajputana)— where the Mughal salt works were located. The Mirza, also an Armenian Christian, got the diamond mounted on a gold ring which he wore nearly all his life.
Jahangir, while in Delhi, incidentally, used to live in Salimgarh, built by Sher Shah’s son Salim Shah, as at that time there was no Red Fort— of which the older citadel now forms an extension. In summer he preferred to stay on a floating camp of boats on the Yamuna. The Armenians, who had two churches in Delhi (both destroyed by Nadir Shah in 1739) used to hold a Christmas drama at which Mughal nobles and Rajput chieftains were among the prominent invitees. They sought the emperor’s presence at the play in 1625-26 and Jahangir agreed as he sometimes used to attend a similar one held in Agra since his father’s time. At that play, records the Franciscan Annals, little boys and girls dressed as angels, took part on Christmas night. The emperor was present and rose petals were showered on him. Earlier, “on Christmas morning Akbar used to come to the church (he had ordered to be built) with his courtiers to see the representation of the cave in which Jesus was born and the good shepherds kept watch. Afterwards the ladies of his harem also visited the manger.” Jahangir once presented beeswax candles at the church at Lahore, “through which he was conducted like a bishop, to the chiming of bells and singing of carols”. Talking of bells, one of the bells of Akbar’s Church is said to have fallen down when the sacristan “went mad with joy” and pulled and tugged at the bell-rope, along with his friends, on the baptism day of Jahangir’s nephews. The bell was so big that even an elephant could not carry it to the Kotwali for repairs.
To come back to the Xmas gift, while on his death-bed, Mirza Zulquarnain (known as the father of Mughal Christianity) gave the ring with Jahangir’s diamond to the Father Provincial of the Agra-based-Hindustan-Tibet Apostolic Mission, of which Delhi was a part. From him it was passed on to the succeeding prelates till it came to the Italian Archbishop Dr Raphael Angelo Bernacchioni of Figilne, who died at Dehra Dun while on a visit in 1937. But before that the Archbishop nearly lost the prized ring at Agra.
According to the late Natalia Bua, an Armenian descendant herself, “One day after lunch while the Archbishop was washing his hands outside his kitchen, he took off the ring and kept it on the wash basin. A vulture, attracted by the brilliant diamond, carried it away to its nest under the statue of Michael the Archangel, along with the smouldering stub of the cigar the Archbishop had just discarded (and kept near the ring). Dr Raphael looked with dismay at the nest, with a prayer on his lips and, believe it or not, the nest suddenly caught fire and the bright ring, along with the still burning nest, fell 100 yards away on the steps of Agra’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Servants were sent to search for it and they succeeded in finding the ring and returning it to the Archbishop. What happened to it after his death is not known but some think it was buried along with him under the Cathedral altar.
May be the medieval ring is still there— an emperor’s priceless Xmas gift to a pious merchant, whose mausoleum, known as Padre Santus’ Chapel is situated in old Lashkarpur’s Martyrs’ cemetery in a grove gifted by Akbar to a saintly Armenian woman, Mariam Pyari.
Can anyone visiting Salimgarh during these Yuletide days ever imagine that Jahangir once played Santa Claus there? A vulture, interestingly enough, still builds its nest under the wings of the Archangel’s 1840s Belgium-built statue, perched high up on the Cathedral façade.