DOWN MEMORY LANE R.V. Smith rewinds to the times when Mughals swooned over monsoon

The annual rains were something novel for the Mughals. Babar found the dust and heat of Hindustan too overbearing – and so did his son Humayun. They had hamams built in their palaces to keep cool in the beastly summer months. But when the monsoon showers moistened the earth, they felt relieved. The first monsoon that Babar experienced was a joy to him. Used to the cool valleys of Afghanistan, he had never seen the rains descend in such torrents amid streaks of lightning because the monsoon’s reach does not extend to that country. As a matter of fact, it does not even cover Sindh. The noted civil servant C.A. Kincaid was to write later that the monsoon dies out before it reaches Sehwan. The famous grapes of Chaman, on the Baluchistan-Iran border, thrive without these seasonal showers.

Babar’s heat-stricken body felt revitalised when the rains hit his abode and he hastened to Aram Bagh to enjoy the monsoon pouring its bounty on him. His Charbagh too came alive with green grass and a variety of shrubs that seemed to have sprung up overnight. It was the perfect time for swimming in the Yamuna and then resting in the Charbagh.

Humayun also liked the monsoon as he too had spent his youth in cool climes. But what made him apprehensive were the floods. Rivers in spate posed problems of governance as he was still trying to consolidate the conquests made by Babar. His fears were not unfounded and as fate would have it, after being defeated by Sher Shah at Chausa, he barely managed to save his life in the swollen Ganga with the help of a water-carrier (bhisti) who supported him on his mashaq (waterskin). How Humayun rewarded the bhisti by allowing him to become king for a day is part of history and so the name, Nizam Saqqa lives on. While tasting the delights of the monsoon, Babar sat down with his companions to drink and while many of them rolled over the carpet after getting drunk, he alone sat in regal splendour without showing signs of drunkenness, for he could stand a lot of the hardest of liquor.

Humayun too drank when the weather turned pleasant but he was more fond of opium than wine and that was what weakened his mind and made him indecisive to the extent of losing his kingdom to Sher Shah and his Sur family for 15 years, until he could recapture Delhi and Agra. But he still enjoyed taking opium though Babar had given up wine after a pledge he made before the battle of Sikri with Rana Sanga. He broke his drinking vessels and vowed never to drink again, come rain or shine. The story about the mullah who was forced to drink against his will is erroneously connected with Babar. That probably happened during a subsequent regime. The story would have us believe that instead of putting the liquor in his mouth, the mullah used to pour it into his shirt sleeves. Once when the king stood in front of him to see if he really drank, he shrugged his sleeves and two tigers leapt out of them, scaring both the king and his courtiers out of their wits.

Akbar loved the monsoon no end and had boats tied in the Yamuna until the river got so flooded that they had to be untied and so sleeping in them at night was no longer possible. The focus shifted to the Agra Fort and its Angoori Bagh (grape garden) which was later redeveloped by Shah Jahan. The Jesuits brought the wines of Portugal which the emperor relished.

Jahangir drank in all seasons but particularly during the monsoons. Still he carried his wits about him and had enough sense to sit down and paint the splendour in the grass – the clouds, the flowers and birds and beasts. Some of his paintings still survive.

Shah Jahan drank in his early years but forsaking wine did not mean that he stopped relishing the rains. When Mumtaz Mahal was alive, he enjoyed her company (just as Jahangir had enjoyed that of Anarkali at Fatehpur Sikri when he was Prince Salim). After the death of Mumtaz, Shah Jahan sat in the Mussamun Burj to see the rain beating down on the Taj Mahal and soothing his heart or he spent time in the Sawan-Bhadon pavilion in the Red Fort. Earlier he had swum in the Yamuna in flood and was given the ustadi of swimming (during the event in Sawan) by his father, Jahangir. Aurangzeb may have spent monsoon nights with his courtesan lady-love, Hira Bai Zainabadi, but in later life he became too pious to enjoy sensual pleasures.

Of the later Mughals, Jahandar Shah found the rainy months most conducive for his alliance with the ravishing Lal Kanwar. After him Farrukh Siyar went all the way from his capital to Agra to build a Delhi Gate during the monsoon. Mohammad Shah Rangila is renowned for his Barsat-ki-Ratain (monsoon night revelry). Shah Alam as Shehzada Ali Gauhar enjoyed swimming in his youth – so did Akbar Shah and Bahadur Shah Zafar. Remember Phool Walon-ki-Sair, started in the reign of the former after the rains were over. But Zafar liked to spend the season in Mehrauli, where swings came up on nearly every tree and the Malhar intoxicated the swingers into ecstasy.

Keywords: monsoonsMughals