Glimpses of an inclusive culture

“City Of My Heart” captures the pulse of Delhi during the last days of the Mughal Empire

Updated - November 26, 2018 03:36 pm IST

Published - November 26, 2018 02:36 pm IST

NEW DELHI, 17/04/2014:  Diwan-i-Am monument a part of Red Fort in Old Delhi. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar.

NEW DELHI, 17/04/2014: Diwan-i-Am monument a part of Red Fort in Old Delhi. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar.

Delhi has had the distinction of being the premier city of the world (“Alam mein intikhab”) at a time when even the great kingdoms of the West were hardly a patch on it. As such accounts of that period even today make one’s heart swell with pride. One such treatise is “City Of My Heart” (Hachetta India), based on a fantastic translation by Rana Safvi of Urdu works by Syed Wazir Hasan Dehlvi, who wrote “Dilli-ka-Akhri Deedar” (Last glimpse of Delhi), “Qila-e-Mullah Jhankhinan” (Glimpses of exalted fort or Lal Qila) by Mirza Ahmad Salim “Arsh” Taimuri, “Begmat-ke-Aansu” (Tears of the Mughal Begums) by Khwaja Hasan Nizami and “Bazm-e-Akhir” (The Last Assembly) by Munshi Faizuddin. The focus in this piece is on the Munshi’s book, published in 1885. It’s a record of the last days of the Mughal Empire, “after the lamp was extinguished” in the 1857 revolt.

The author was an attendant of Mirza Mohammad Hidayat Afzan (also known as Mirza Illahi Baksh), father-in-law of Bahadur Shah Zafar, as his daughter, Rahim Baksh Bai Begum was married to the last Emperor. But the Mirza was also the “Samdhi” of Zafar as his other daughter, Hatim Zamani Begum was married to Bahadur Shah’s son, Mirza Fakhru. The book was written 28 years after the end of the Mughal dynasty and the Munshi heard the accounts of the reigns of Akbar Shah II and Zafar from his employer. Extracts from them are worth quoting as they throw light on the life in the court, harem and kingdom and the political, social and religious milieu of the time:

At night the emperor rests on his bed. “Chappiwaaliya’n” press the feet, while the “qissakhwans” “Female attendants” stand outside the room and narrate stories. All passages leading up to the palace where the Emperor rests are locked and guarded by female guards. None can go past these Abyssinians and Turkish women-warriors to disturb the Emperor’s sleep. When dawn comes, the royal gun is fired to announce its arrival. The attendants bustle around getting everything ready before the Emperor awakes.

In the afternoon, the sun is high up in the sky, and it’s time for the royal rest. The attendants in charge of the beds arranges them with covers, bolsters and cushions. Once his bed is ready, the Emperor comes to the Khwaabgah and sits on the bed to smoke his hookah. After an hour, he asks for Aab-e-Hayat, and the superintendent of the department of water brings him water from the river Ganga, which is stored in an earthen urn and placed on ice. At midday, the Emperor lies down on his bed and the curtains of the Khwaabgah are drawn for privacy. In the evening, he hears Tanras Khan and other musicians and watches dancers perform. Then a cannon is find and dinner is laid for the Badshah after which he hears the dastanyos and then retires to bed.

Court Celebrations : Besides Phool Walon-ki-Sair, ladies outings, Saints, Urs and Moharrum, there were Nauroz, which is the ancient Persian New Year and is celebrated on the first day of the spring equinox. The Mughals, who had modelled their court on that of the Persian Empire, celebrated it with great pomp and show. The first thing astrologers and pundits do is to predict a colour for the New Year. Once the colour has been chosen, dresses are made in the same colour for the Badshah, begamat and the princesses.

Ramzan : Two days before Ramzan dromedary (camel) riders are sent off in all directions to spot the new moon. Cannons are fired on its sighting and the Emperor makes his vow of roza, which he observes diligently for the whole month.

Eid-ul-Fitr : As soon as morning breaks, the Badshah bathes and changes into robes adorned with jewels. The dastarkhwan is quickly laid out with vermicelli and milk, sweet candies, dry fruits and plain rice. The Badshah consecrates the food and tastes all the dishes. After rinsing his mouth, he goes outside. The “Jasolni” (herald) immediately calls out to alert every one of his presence. A trumpet is sounded and a procession falls into place. A 21-gun salute is given from the parade grounds when the procession reaches the Eidgah. The Badshah gets down from his elephant and offer namaz.

Eid-ul-Adha (Bakr-Id) : On the tenth day of Zil-hajj, the Badshah’s procession leaves for the Eidgah. The protocol remains the same, except that this time, a masnad is set aside for him in a royal tent that faces south. It is now time for the ritual sacrifice when the Badshah arrives, a sheet of cloth is put up between the camel and him. The superintendent of the armoury gives him a spear. The qazi reads out the prayers for offering the sacrifice. After the prayers, the Badshah throws the spear at the chalk mark on the camel’s chest. The qazi slaughters the camel and completes the sacrifice.

Raksha Bandhan is celebrated as Salona festival when a rakhi is tied to the emperor’s wrist by a Hindu woman. On Dussehra, the Badshah holds a durbar. An Indian Roller bird is let off in front of the Badshah. The superintendent of the falconry brings a falcon and a hawk to the Badshah, who places the falcon on his wrist.

Deepavali : When the time comes for the first diya, no one enters or leaves the royal apartments. No vegetable enters the mahal, and all vegetables have to be peeled beforehand for fear that someone may do black magic on the ladies inside the Qila which is illuminated on all sides.

On Holi : All the groups that did mimicry, impersonation, play-acting, etc in the city during Holi would come to the jharoka and be rewarded by the Badshah.

Thus did the Mughal emperors preserve the composite Hindu-Muslim culture known as Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb of which alas there are few practitioners.

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