India’s Culinary Cabinet: Indigenous & Imbibed – Part I (Prologue)


These flavours which O Food are thine throughout the regions,
are diffused like winds; they have their place in heaven.

– Mandala 1, Hymn 187, Rig Veda

flavoursIn Ancient Rome, the celebrated gourmand Apicius penned a cookbook in which 350 out of its 500 recipes called for the use of peppers and other Indian spices. High-profile dinner parties in Ancient Rome were made possible by journeys to India where gold and silver were exchanged for pepper and spices.

Pepper was equal in value to gold and silver, and at times used as currency. Greek philosopher Pliny the Elder complained “there is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces”.

The craze for pepper and spices inspired near-impossible voyages. If anything, it shows that the story of civilization is also the story of food and cooking. Few have mastered the art of cuisine quite like India who can claim to have developed the world’s first international crossover cuisine. It is no wonder that it would one day become the culinary mainstay of India’s last colonizers.

English in Court: A Gravy of Thorns


Breads of remorse, gravy of thorns
Cooked on a fire of anguish… 

Emperor Akbar mulls over the unexpected trade request from the Queen of England. He is not in a hurry to engage. Yet the Queen moves fast and sends an ambassador who requests an audience. “What do I have to lose?” Akbar grants an audience to John Middlehall who states the desire of his country to be treated on par with the Portuguese in trade.

Akbar is annoyed that the hopeful newcomers should presume to be on par. The Portuguese are regulars at his Court and Akbar appreciates their eagerness to blend in, learn, teach and share knowledge, meals and recipes. What will the new guests be like. Moreover, what do we have to gain from them, he thinks.

Akbar’s son and eventual successor Jahangir will need to take a call. To his good fortune and also due to his fluency in Turkish, the emissary William Hawkins finds favour with Jahangir who honors him with a captaincy. Hawkins soon settles down with an Armenian wife and becomes a frequent guest at the Court. Yet Jahangir, like his father before him, is in no hurry to grant the trade concessions that Hawkins came for in the first place. Jahangir has the support of key lobbies in his Court, including his influential trade minister Mukarrab Khan, and the Portuguese. He hands the same treatment to the next emissary Roe, serving him the special khichdi loved by his family. But no trade concessions.

Not far away, in Lahore, Shah Hussain – the radical Sufi Punjabi poet is dancing on the streets, and singing kafis to his lover, Madhu Lal. Everyone in the city knows his story. Years back, he had famously left his madrasa abruptly upon reading the verse: “The life of this world is nothing but a game and sport.” From then on he gave himself over to living without rules and constraints. Upon encountering him, his pir recognises his protegee’s true liberation and appoints him his viceregent.

The verses from one of Shah Hussain’s famous kafis connects to the Court – expressing what the reluctant Mughals are getting into with creeping British influence in the Mughal Empire:

Dukhan di roti, solan da salan
Aahen da balan baal ni

  • Britain and the Islamic World, 1558-1713, By Gerald MacLean, Nabil Matar
  • Biography of Shah Husayn (Madhu Lal), Abdul Nishapuri
  • Wikipedia: Madho Lal Hussain
  • Images: Ni’matnama of the Sultans of Mandu

The Spectacular 60-day Rice: Khichdi for Kings


It ranks low on Mughal era scribe Abu Fazl’s list of rice by price. But it’s rugged, starchy quality, and mild sweet flavour is exactly what makes it perfect for India’s number one soul food: khichdi. This is what Emperor Akbar would have every time he needed to tuck into something reassuring. Nourishing and digestible, it’s the perfect fix for children, elderly, and those on the mend.

Successive generations would inherit Akbar’s preference for this specific khichdi. His ill-tempered grandson, Aurangzeb, would take a shining to the very same preparation. In one moment of dereliction in the middle of his worries over the Deccan, Aurangzeb finds himself yearning for khichdi. He requests his son to send over his cook, whose masterful preparation of biriyani and khichdi, still lingers in his memory.

The low-yielding sathi/saathi is also considered auspicious among some communities today and it is the preferred grain base for a type of kheer and paddy prepared during festivals in Bihar and UP. A rice that binds king and countrymen.

  • Rice Research in South Asia through Ages, Y L Nene
  • Sweet and sticky, DowntoEarth, Sangeetha Khanna

When Emperor Akbar’s Palace Khichdi is interrupted by Elizabeth, Queen of a Land in Despair

It is the perfect Sunday morning. The Cambay breeze wanders and cools the palace air…jiskiThe aroma of which pervades the air, A sight which adds to its flavour, Aesthetic and appetising is every morsel, With a taste unmatched and unique, Prepared just to please our guest is the meal, That we serve at our India table.

The Mir bakawal lays out creamy Gujarati khichdi prepared from satthi and yellow lentils. Satthi is so named because this coarse, mildly sweet rice takes 60-days to mature.  The Mir knows that though this grain does not enjoy the reputation of the exotic, musk-scented Mushkin, its texture is second to none for the khichdi experience. When freshly-harvested satthi is cooked for the right amount of time it releases a good amount of starch, resulting in a smooth, creamy finish, loved by the emperor.

On the side there is pungent pickle and some pure ghee. Emperor Akbar is about to begin when he is interrupted by a nervous Munsif who carries a message. It is from a distant ruler. It is from the ruler of a distant country, Elizabeth the first. She addresses him as the “the most invincible and mighty Prince … Invincible Emperor”. She seeks trade concessions from India.

Historically besieged at that point, the British monarch indeed must plead, for Akbar rules over an Empire at its apogee – economists looking back from later centuries will note that even the revenue of Akbar’s great grandson was ten times more than that of Louis XIV in 1638. Even in 1750, five years after Plassey, India would control 24.5 per cent of world trade, while the UK had only 1.0 per cent.

Akbar listens to the strange message while calmly helping himself to his favourite soul food – khichdi. 

  • From Midnight to Glorious Morning?: India Since Independence, Mihir Bose
  • Rice Research in South Asia through Ages, Y L Nene
  • Sweet and sticky, DowntoEarth, Sangeetha Khanna, December 2013

Waris Shah & the Battle for Basmati


Above is the oldest known reference to the rice cultivar named Basmati. These are lines from the epic poem, Heer Ranjha, by iconic Punjabi poet Wasir Shah (1725– 1798). Its citation went some way to establishing India’s prior art in the development of Basmati, challenging US-based RiceTec Inc.’s patent on the scented pearl of India.

A translation of the extract from which the verses are picked:

“…Fragrant rice stores are filled in which Gold Leafed & ordinary rice are being threshed,Basmati, Musafaree, Begumee, Harchand and Yellowish rice are getting stored, Suthee, Karchaka, Sewala Ghard, Kanthal and Kekala rice are being moved,Fine white Kashmir, Kabul rice dishes which are eaten by fairies and beautiful women  ….”

Wasir Shah’s poem also makes mention of a rice know as satthi (referring to the 60 days it takes to mature). It is a coarse rice that Mughal Emperor Akbar’s industrious scribe Abu Fazl makes note of in the Ain-e-Akbari. We turn to the story of satthi next.

Teaser: It is the perfect Sunday morning. The Cambay breeze wanders and cools the palace air.

From Nehari to Quarma. From Pulao to Biryani


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A plate of nehari against a painting of Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid, by William Carpenter, 1852 (source:

THIS IS A HOMAGE TO the pan-India standing & understanding of spices; their evolution and refinement on the plate. Biryani is the high point of this insight. One class of biryani emerged from the development of nehari, through its contribution to quarma. For this we go to 17th Century Delhi – Shajahanabad. Jahanara, daughter of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, loves her poetry, art, Sufi meditations, Shiraz, and good food. On some days she has the pleasure of walking in disguise through the main street of Chandni Chowk, a thoroughfare of her own planning.

This evening however, nihari is on her mind. She briefly stops by a stall preparing a spicy broth whose preparation she had discussed with hakims over a month ago. Her beloved city is in the grip of an influenza outbreak and the hakims had been consulted to come up with their understanding of the predicament. The city’s water lines had been poisoned. There was no reasonable way to identify the source of the contamination. Even if they did know the exact source and point of entry of the contamination, it would be next to impossible to clean up the waterways.

The only reasonable course of action would be to develop a dietary solution that would boost the immunity of the cityfolk. Towards this end, they formulate a strongly spiced, slow cooked broth which is named nihari. They also promote a few new spices into Delhi’s culinary milieu. Chilli – introduced centuries back by the Portugese who continue to drop into the Mughal Court – is a frontrunning spice of the moment. Nihari calls for slow cooking trotters overnight in a strong broth of assorted spices. The hakims recommended the consumption of nihari at least once a day. While this would have been out of the reach of the common man, market vendors operating out of hole-in-the-wall enterprises would be trained to prepare this specialised broth and make it available at a modest cost. By all accounts, the city overcame the crisis and continued its commitment to nihari, which is defined by the gelatine and marrow drawn out from the bones, skin and connective tissue, through hours of simmering over embers. The farmaishi (refined) version uses prime cuts such as the shins or even the tongue, while the misquind (common) edition goes for the trotters.

Nihari would go on to inspire qorma. In qorma, the meat is cooked till it is tender while still remaining on the bone. This gives it a defined texture, a definite bite. It has a similar spice profile and most often incorporates a dash of cream/yoghurt.  But while the nehari is prepared over embers, qorma is cooked over a fire. In both cases, as with all Indian dishes prepared in the earlier traditions, the source of heat never comes into direct contact with the vessel; there is a gap of at least 4-6 inches between the fire/embers and the vessel. Diffused heat is the hallmark of traditional Indian cooking. Both nehari and qorma are defined by this.

The qorma combined with pulao/ pilaf would create the curried rice dish we call biryani. The origins of pulao are claimed with equal basis by Persia and India. The 10th Century Persian scholar Abu Ali Ibn Sina is the first to formalize the recipe. Pulao also finds mention in the Mahabharata. Pulao marks a coming together of a Persian approach and Indian spices. The restraint of pulao and the effulgence of qorma, combine to give this class of biryani.    

In the end, biryani, in its many forms, is a child of evolution, a product of inspired association in the land of India. While the idea of biryani may well have predated the Mughals, the patronage, poetry, indulgence and stability offered under the golden era of the Mughals, created the ideal environment for the emergence of a special dish at its most refined. In Shahjahanabad, Delhi became the envy of the world. A city whose Emperor commissioned lavish works of function and beauty, including the Taj Mahal in Agra. This was a city that was guided by a sensitive prince in Dara Shikoh, a city fashioned to the faultless aesthetics and sensitivities of princess Jahanara. Both had plans for the future of the capital, alas both were to be overttaken by the ruthless ambition of their more determined brother, Aurangzeb, and Delhi would only be able to look back and wonder at what was. Thankfully, the flavours of glory remain.

Chillies Arrive in the Land of Pepper


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Varkala Beach, Kerala (img source: Wikipedia)

COLUMBUS FIRST encountered the chilli in 1492. Less than 20 years after its discovery in America, the frisson of chillies spread from one Indian kitchen to the next like hot gossip. It would in time drastically impact, or rationalize, the commercial prospects of black pepper and long pepper, both of which were almost undifferentiated in destination markets. However culinarily as well as commercially, Indians cottoned on to chillies’ potential faster than the Portugese. So even as the Portugese were negotiating with Indians for a hook in their pepper supplies, they were palming off chillies to India, with the air of being uncertain on what to do with it themselves. While the 16th Century historian Peter Martyr wrote of the chilli: “… when it is used there is no need of Caucasian pepper”, and 16th Century Indian composer Purandaradasa elegised the fruit thus, “Saviour of the poor, enhancer of good food, fiery when bitten … ,” Indians didn’t miss a beat and by the 16th Century, India was the origin of a majority of the chillies that wound their way to the markets of Germany, Britain and Holland.

Like pepper, chillies started out being exclusive to one region. Unlike pepper, chilli wasn’t finicky about soil or climate. The seeds could flourish almost anywhere with little or no care. Pepper generally propagates through cuttings, and requires precise soil conditions, not to mention the assistance of something like the double monsoon (which apart from Kerala, could be claimed by only a few other locations, among them the Spice Islands in Southeast Asia). Incidentally, Mexico which could also boast a double monsoon, was the origin instead of a proletariat challenge to pepper.

chilliesChristopher Columbus found the locals of these new lands, would have chilli in every dish. It would factor in their ceremonial offerings and was also used in innovative ways to scold errant children. Christopher Columbus believed this to be the pepper he had been searching for. Landing back in Spain, he was informed that his coordinates were off completely. Not only was the country he discovered not India; his ship’s hull was not filled with pepper but with pods of a plant nobody had asked for. It’s another matter that a century from then, the consumption and cultivation of chilli would be taken up with enthusiasm across Europe.

In time, Mexican cuisine too would take on influences from the East that would become indispensable. Notable among these were the use of rice and tamarind, cinnamon, almonds, raisins, and cumin. Many of these ingredients are combined with Mexican chocolate and chilli in the trademark Mexican sauce dish known as mole.

During his diplomatic stint in India, the Mexican poet Octavio Paz remarked at the uncanny similarities in function and form between Indian curries (from the clear soup like rasams, to the qaliyas) and the varieties of Mexican mole.curryandmole But the similarities do not end there – there are remarkable parallels between rotis and tortillas, tostadas and papads, quesadillas and samosas, chutneys and salsa. Coconuts have grown in coastal regions of both India and Mexico since millenia, and its exact origin is still disputed. Banana and tamarind are notable gifts of South Asia to the New World. Today, in much the same way many Indians assume the chilli to be native, Mexicans take the tamarind and banana to be their own.

Perhaps because Goa was the entry point of chillies into India (the world’s largest producer of chillies), the major production and trading centres of chilli in India today are located in the Deccan (in particular Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka). The present-day markets of the erstwhile Deccan trade in key local varieties including the bydagi, ellachipur sannam, guntur sannam and hindpur.

  • Indian Food, A Historical Companion, by KT Achaya
  • Rice: The gift of the other gods, by Karen Hursh Graber (
  • Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, by Lizzie Collingham
  • Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504, by Laurence Bergreen
  • (video series) Heat up Your Life – Peppers and People, NMSU media productions
  • (video series) The Spice of Life “Chillies”

A Piquant Malabar: Thwarted Ambitions & A King’s Ritual


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The Zamorin of Calicut was signally unimpressed by Vasco da Gama and made it clear that he expected “gold, silver, velvet and scarlet” in return for Portugese access to spices. Image: From painting showing the Zamorin of Calicut on his throne, by Veloso Salgado,1898 (Image source: Wikipedia)

In the end, they are the ones who discovered us.

 – 15th Century Portugese Count on hearing what the Zamorin of Calicut expected in return for the spices sought by Portugal

THE PORTUGESE CONQUEST of Goa in 1510 took both the Sultan of Bijapur and the Portugese by surprise. The Portugese had set out only to test new waters, for they were eager to reinvent themselves after the ill will they had built in the Malabar.

It was becoming increasingly difficult for them to procure supplies of pepper and spices. Local suppliers, unhappy with the menacing highhandedness of the Portugese, saw it fair to place barriers to their procurement of pepperWhether by accident or design, the later Portugese introduction of chillies to India would dent the monopoly of pepper over pungency – and extract a measure of poetic if pungent justice for the slighted Portugese.

Meanwhile, drained by their complicated relations with powers in the Malabar, the Portugese general Albuquerque had decided to set out to Hormuz or the Red Sea, where his equity was in place. The advice to sail to Goa instead, came from a certain Thimmayya (Timoji), a local corsair who worked for the Vijayanagar Empire.

But the taking of Goa was not a cakewalk and the Portugese had to abandon the city a few months after their first assault. From there they retreated to Anjediva (an island off the coast of Goa), where he gathered an improved fleet and material resources.

What food did the incoming Portugese encounter in India? We know that in Calicut a few years earlier, Vasco da Gama and his team had been treated to a meal at the home of a local official of rank. It consisted of rice, butter and boiled fish. The preparation was received well by all of the Portugese party, with the exception of the notoriously grim da Gama. A more culturally diligent Portugese, Duarte Barbosa, took time and the privilege of access, to take note of the dining ritual of the Zamorin.

The Zamorin’s meals would follow a format. In the run up, he would bathe in his palace tank, worship towards the east and dress in fresh garments. His meal would first be offered by priests to the Gods. The ruler would seat himself upon a low, round seat. He would then be brought a silver tray containing small silver saucers. A copper pot of boiled rice would be placed upon an adjoining stool. The attendant would ladle rice onto the silver plate. In the smaller saucers, the attendant would serve curry (meat-based, plant-based, or both), relishes, chutneys and sauces.

It is fairly certain that the Zamorin’s cooks designed his meals according the precepts of Ayurveda – with deference to the season and the Zamorin’s own disposition. Apart from those who waited on him during the meal, no one else was allowed to watch him as he ate (which makes Barbosa’s observations either a feat of tact, investigation, or reasonable supposition). A silver ewer of water was also placed before him, from which he periodically drank by lifting it high and pouring the water into his mouth, not allowing the container to touch his lips. On conclusion of the meal, he would wash himself.

The palace priests would carry any leftovers into the courtyard, and summon crows to partake of the offering.

  • Goa-Kanara Portuguese Relations, 1498-1763, by Bhagamandala Seetharama Shastry
  • The Routledge History of Western Empires, by Robert Aldrich, Kirsten McKenzi
  • The Career and Legend of Vasco Da Gama, by Sanjay Subrahmanyam
  • The First Spring: The Golden Age of India, by Abraham Eraly
  • Society in India, by A R Desai
  • History of India, edited by A V Williams Jackson
  • Spice Roots by K Rajagopal (The Hindu, July 20, 2013)

Goa: The Sultan’s Retreat on the Konkan Coast


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Kokum, coconut, colocasia and bimbal have been foundational ingredients of Goan cuisine since ancient times; shown here against a backdrop of the city of Goa in 1509, as depicted in l'Atlas de Braun et Hogenberg, 1600 (Map source: Wikipedia)

Kokum, coconut, colocasia and bimbal have been foundational ingredients of Goan cuisine since ancient times; shown here against a backdrop of the city of Goa in 1509, as depicted in l’Atlas de Braun et Hogenberg, 1600 (Map source: Wikipedia)

YUSUF ADIL SHAH’S RIVERSIDE PLEASURE PALACE in Goa is a well-earned retreat for the Sultan. His newly-formed Sultanate has its fair share of attacks to fend off. But once he manages to dismantle a key confederation of enemies, he enjoys some measure of peace. There is no shortage of relaxation zones to choose from, but Goa is his favourite retreat by far, given its balanced natural beauty and cosmopolitan charms afforded by a steady flow of traders from Zanzibar to Ceylon. They dock at this important port city for the procurement of spices and cotton, and catching up with essential merchant news and intrigues.

His Goan retreat palace overlooks the idyllic Mandovi river, around which a great city, Ella (Old Goa), had been built under the supervision of Mahmood Gawan, the accomplished Prime Minister of the erstwhile Bahmani Sultanate, who wrested Goa from the Vijayanagar Empire. While the city had already known a measure of glory as early as the 10th Century under the Kadambas, Gawan developed Goa into an important port city that attracted major merchant vessels. With the disintegration of the Bahmanis, Goa passed on to Yusuf Adil Shah’s Bijapur Sultanate. Yusuf Adil Shah lost no time in advancing its prestige and he commissioned the creation of shipbuilding facilities at the Goan port. Vessels built here would carry local pilgrims on their annual transit to Mecca. Goa, for long a name well known to merchants on the Indian Ocean circuit, is now a trade emporium of repute.

So what would the Sultanate of Bijapur treat himself to at his Goan retreat? No doubt he would take a ride down the river now and then. Meal times would feature a bountiful array of freshwater and sea food. But what of the flavours? We can speculate that Adil Shah had a fair exposure to West Indian cuisine, courtesy his Marathi wife, Satti Bai. But being from Indapur (a hotter, drier part of Western Maharastra), her culinary background would not have too much in common with that of the more fertile, diverse Konkan coast. Tamarind, jaggery, kokum, coconut oil, curry leaves are highlights of the entire stretch of the Konkan Coast. Rice, coconut, sugarcane, colocasia, drumstick and gourds are ancient foods of this land. Tamarind and in goa, kokum in particular, account for the sour quotient in the still extant pre-Portugese Goan cuisine. Other early and continuing agents of sour in Goan cuisine include raw mango and bimbal.

The Bijapur Sultan may well have indulged in the pre-Portugese specialty known as xacuti. This is a stew of chicken or mutton, spiced with the great ingredients of the Konkan coast including, pepper, coconut, tamarind and mace. He would in all probability wash down that meal with a goblet of sol kadhi, a subtly pungent, pink drink of coconut milk, sweetened, soured and coloured with kokum.

At this stage, vinegar, chillies, tomatoes, and potatoes have not announced themselves to the Goan palette. But we will find, their eventual harbingers – the Portugese – are just round the corner, and Yusuf Adil Shah will be taken by surprise when they land unannounced on the shores of his special port city, aggressive ambitions in tow.

  • A History of the Deccan, by James Dunning Baker Gribble
  • Goa Through the Ages: An economic history, Volume 2, by Teotonio R. De Souza
  • Goa and Mumbai, by Amelia Thomas, Amy Karafin
  • The Penguin Food Guide to India, by Charmaine O’ Brien
  • Upper Crust: A Saraswat Way of Life
  • Forgotten, by Bilkees I Latif
  • Wikipedia

A Return to Gulbarga: Tehri & Hoorana Holige


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Tahiri, hoorana holige and malpuri featured against the backdrop of Asuf Gunj, Gulbarga, 1880 (© The British Library Board)

LIKE SOLAPUR, Gulbarga sits on the northern reaches of newly formed Bijapur Sultanate. Glory is not new to Gulbarga; decades earlier it had served as capital of the Bahmani Sultanate. Back then, the city played host to year-long celebrations marking the betrothal of the son of the founder of the Bahmani Sultanate. These festivities saw the installation of giant streetside confectionary dispensing machines. We speculated that the banquet would have featured a version of today’s mande gosht, a pungent salan usually paired with a roomali-like roti.

Now in Gulbarga’s second innings as capital, we return to dwell on items prepared on the hearths of homes or street outlets. Some of these have survived into the 21st century. As in Solapur, jowar (jolada) rottis are the true blue staple, but tahari is easily the principal specialty dish that both locals and visitors will champion. Some call it a version of biryani, but it is also prepared as a one pot meal. The principal meat employed is either mutton or beef. But while biryani requires using spices with restraint, washing the rice several times to reduce the starch content (traditionally, frying the grains of rice), parcooking the rice and semi-cooking the marinated meat before layering both and cooking them together to completion, tahari does away with the marination and the layering, and amps up the pungency, in trademark Gulbarga style.

Tehri/tehari/tahari is also claimed by other regions who give it their own spin. In Awadh, tehri stands out for the distinct yellow appearance of the rice, spices are added directly to the cooked rice. In other parts of North India and Pakistan, tehri is interpreted as an entirely vegetarian dish that showcases expertly prepared potatoes instead of meat. Tehari is also available as a street food in parts of Kashmir.

While other parts of India can lay claim to tehri by other names and forms, the same can’t be said of at least two of Gulbarga’s signature sweets. One is the khoya-based ‘mamu ki malpuri’ and the other is hoorana holige, a delicately prepared pancake with a  stuffing of chickpea-toor dal paste and jaggery.

  • A History of the Deccan, by James Dunning Baker Gribble
  • Wikipedia

Shenga and Chaddars at Solapur


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solapurFIVE SULTANATES RISE out of the debris of the Bahmani. These are: Bijapur, Golconda, Ahmadnagar, Bidar, and Berar. Bijapur is helmed by Yusuf Adil Shah (1490–1510), former governor of the of the province and principal architect of this decentralised resolution to the Bahmani power gridlock. The remit of Yusuf Adil Shah’s Bijapur Sultanate stretches from Solapur in the North to Goa in the South, the Konkan on the West to the Krishna River in the east.

The present day district of Solapur lies on three river basins and is believed to be have been part of territory of the Puranic Andhrabhritya dynasty. Solapur is today the country’s leading producer of jowar (sorghum), a historic millet which has a presence in a wide stretch of Western India that goes back at least 2000 years. It contributes to a favourite local staple – the jowar roti. Bhajra/pearl millet too is not an uncommon choice of flour for making these breads. The most significant signature ingredient here is shenga (groundnut) which is sanctified in the much-loved shengachatni, a dry chutney that can be consumed as a accompaniment with roti or rice, or used as a masala to flavour vegetable-based sidedishes. Groundnuts are however not native to India and were only brought in after the 16th Century (likely as late as the 18th Century) by the Portugese, who had themselves first encountered these pleasing legumes in Brazil, a while after they landed on that continent in 1500.

In Solapur, peanuts are making of a sweet flatbread – shenga poli – stuffed with peanuts and jaggery. Another Sholapuri sweet dish of note is lapshi, made from broken wheat and jaggery. Khara mutton is a salty mutton curry that is a notable nonvegetarian specialty. Being at the cultural crossroads of Maharasthra, Telengana and Karnataka, these influences reflect on the culinary palette of the region.

Solapuri chaddars (sheets/blankets/towels) enjoy global recognition, and carry a Geographical Indication tag. Then again, the region’s repute in textiles is nothing new. In the early 16th Century, a Portugese officer observed that “calicoes and turban material produced in the Deccan were enough to furnish the world”. Among the woven fabrics produced in and exported from the Deccan, were taffeta (production of which was originally developed in Persia) satin, and hard-wearing dungaree (which takes its name from a village near Mumbai called Dongri where this was produced).

Silkworm cocoons were brought in from China to the Konkan, where silk was processed for export to markets in the Middle East. Most of the Deccan’s textile exports at this time went to Egypt; a trade arrangement which was facilitated by a well-established mercantile entity that dominated India-Egypt trade. It is understand that in the mid-15th Century one member of that group went on to reside in Gulbarga, in the role of agent of Cairo’s Mamluk Court.

  • A Social History of the Deccan, by Richard M Eaton
  • The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: A World on the Move, by A. J. R. Russell Wood
  • Socio Economic Development in Solapur District by Sikandar S. Mulani
  • Western Maharashtrian Cuisine:
  • Silk Tafetta live well:
  • Wikipedia

From Boiled Beans to Victory


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 Image of modern-day Hampi (capital of the former Vijayanagar) and stone statue from a Hoysala monument, against image of Bengaluru – East View of Bangalore by Robert Home, 1792 (Sources:,

AS THE BAHMANI Sultanate reconstitutes into the Deccan Sultanates, they are following in their rival’s footsteps. The Vijayanagar Empire’s founding brothers, Hakka & Bukka, had themselves regrouped forces and resources from the natural dissolution of the Hoysala Empire, which in turn had links with the earlier Western Chalukyas. And just as the Bahmanis had shaken off the yoke of the Delhi Sultanate to come into their own,  the Hoysalas had emerged from subordination to the Western Chalukyas.

By the 12th Century, the Hoysalas grew to become “the most powerful dynasty of the Deccan”. They set the standard for any power formation that wished to take their place; which would be the  Sangama brothers Hakka & Bukka, founders of Vijayanagar (City of Victory). The visionary Hoysala leader, Veera Ballala II, is credited with founding the city known today as Bengaluru. According to legend, this enterprising leader managed to lose track of coordinates while hunting in a forest in the southern reaches of his kingdom. He spent hours trying to retrace his steps but failed to get back on track, and instead found himself too tired or hungry to make any more progress. The present need was food and drink. Looking around more slowly for signs of habitation rather than a track, he came upon a modest hut where he was received by an elderly women who offered him a meal of cooked beans (benda kalu) and a place to rest.

A meal offered to a hungry person is never forgotten. While there is little doubt that the old lady received a suitable reward from the satisfied king, the wider area too was gifted the name bendakal-uru (the place of boiled beans), later restructured to Bengaluru. With the annual Avarekalu festival, the present day city of Bengaluru keeps alive this connection to beans. Specifically, this festival celebrates an ancient legume also known as lablab, or the hyacinth bean. Boiled beans were likely not new to the palette of Veera Ballala II. However, considering his ancestral land was located in the region of Malnad which sits on the fertile slopes of the Western Ghats, between Coorg and Belgaum, he would be familiar with a varied produce, dishes made from fresh greens, stems, shoots and flowers, not to mention an array of meats. Being a king, these ingredients would well be within his reach, and it helped that the Hoysala capital, Halebid, was fertile too.

Incidentally, beans figure prominently in the culinary heritage of the founders of the Vijayanagar Empire, who are said to belong to the Badaga tribe of the Nilgiris. To this day, a dish made of avare (hyacinth beans) and potatoes, is a fixture at Badaga wedding feasts.

  • A Social History of the Deccan, by Richard M Eaton
  • Badagas of the Blue Mountains:
  • Wikipedia

Of Millets and Recipe-collecting Kings


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Moment of truth: Great food requires patience both in its preparation and appreciation. The 15th C Sultan of Mandu understood this and gave up official duties to devote his time to, among other pleasures, food. Image: Against a backdrop of ragi, artwork from the Sultan’s book of recipes, The Nimatnama, which includes “gharib” recipes that call upon millets

THE MUGHAL EMPEROR BABUR (who enters later chronologically) had strong opinions of the Indian food scene based on limited encounters. He bemoaned the lack of fruits that appealed to him, or for that matter “any good food in the markets”. However, even he realised that the charms of food had to be worked on to be revealed; he eventually had locals bring in their knowledge into his kitchen. It would be interesting to know what he or fresh settlers made of local meals when they first arrived in the Deccan, from the 13 Century onwards. Forays into mandis (markets) would likely be their first introduction to the variety of local and traded foods. They would have come across a range of new grains – they would see varieties of rice they had never known before. The 12th Century work, Manasollasa, written by the Western Chalukyan king Somesvara III, speaks of as many as eight varieties.


Legend holds that Lord Ram, Indra and Hanuman, chose ragi over rice. Unusually for a cereal, ragi contains an amino acid, methionine, that is normally found in significant amounts largely in meats, eggs and fish

But it is likely that millets eclipsed rice in inland markets. The many varieties would be hard to miss in the mandis of the inland Deccan, but fresh settlers from West Asia or further North would not be seeing millets for the first time. It is known that millets, rather than rice or wheat, formed a critical part of the diet of the prehistoric Indian, Chinese and Korean societies, and eventually made its way westwards to Asia and Europe. As for new settlers in the Deccan, it would be fair to say that they had well and truly arrived the day they understood the pre-eminence of millets in the local diet, and began incorporating it into their own. Millets have a special place in the hearts of the Deccan land. Ragi stands out among the millets here. Ragi however, is native to the highlands of East Africa where it has been growing for 5000 years. It arrived in India around 3000 years back, probably coming from trade with the Axumite Empire. In the Deccan, ragi is prepared in the form of rotti, bhakri, dosa, idli, porridge, pudding, or a large sphere (mudde) that is broken into pieces that are dipped into sambar.

In Sanksrit, the iron-rich ragi is referred to as nrtta-kondaka, meaning dancing grains. Legend holds that Lord Rama, Indra and Hanuman all favoured ragi over rice, on the merits of its immediate and lasting attractiveness. Its merits go beyond looks: it is rich in minerals and unusually for a cereal boasts an amino acid, methionine, that is normally found in significant amounts largely in eggs, meats and fish. In flavour, this red millet constitutes a challenge to chocolate, and brings a grainy and glutenous (though it is gluten-free) texture that makes it a wonderfully original comfort meal.

As for kings and their whimsical tastes, there is one king of the Deccan who improved on Babur’s bias for immediate gratification. This King saw it worthwhile to dedicate his life to better understanding fundamental pleasures, of which food was critical. The 15th C king of Mandu (on the northern rim of the Deccan) went on to create a book of recipes, The Nimatnama – a valuable compilation of his leisurely meditations and observations in the culinary direction, that went on to be completed by his son and successor. The book deals with “cooking food, sweetmeats, fish and the manufacture of rose-water perfumes.” The interplay of local and Persian styles are apparent both in the artwork in the book as well as the recipes themselves. Incidentally, the book also features a selection of rural recipes, a number of which call upon the use of millets.

  • Indian Food, A Historical Companion, by KT Achaya
  • How the banana goes to heaven, by Ratna Rajaiah
  • Eleusine coracana (L.) Gaertn.
  • A history of Persian Food through the ages
  • Wikipedia

Haleem & the Hadramauts of the Deccan


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The classic slow-cooked haleem has its origins in the more visually austere but equally rich harees of the Levant. The Chaush community of Hyderabad brought these and other culinary jewels from their ancestral home in the Hadramawt, which roughly corresponds to present-day Yemen / South Arabia. (Background image of the famed mudbrick towers of Hadramawt in Yemen: Nygra:

THE EASTERN DECCAN OFFERS A UNIQUE STUDY in the engagement between local and arriving cultures. This plays out on the plate, as well as in language, fashion and architecture. In this region of the Deccan, West Asian meals based on chickpeas and meat are given a twist of the trademark pronounced sour of the East, through the addition of gongura, mango pickle, or lemon.  An example of this would be shooli, the Iranian beetroot broth fairly popular in modern-day Iran, which is re articulated here with a sour assertion, courtesy the extract of grape.   

One dish – haleem – deserves special mention. The restraint and balance of this slow cooked dish of meat, whole wheat and pulses, makes it the prime choice for the iftar break. But its pedigree and refinement also means it is a must have on the menu of wedding feasts and other important celebrations. Hyderabadi haleem today carries the GI (Geographical Indication) seal, which means that no haleem made in another city can claim to be Hyderabadi haleem. As to its origins, some say that it derived from from harees, a time honoured communal dish of the Levant. Versions of the same are equally well established in Iran, Turkey, Armenia, Iraq and the Caucasus. The keşkek is the Greek counterpart of haleem/harees. What sets the Indian haleem apart from other versions, is the empahtic use of dal, sometimes as many as seven types of dal are rallied. However, in leaving out dal and turmeric, the Malabar version of haleem, known as Aleesa, bears greater similarity to the Arab prototype.  In khichra – the version of the North Western Deccan – the meat is not blended into paste and stands out in form and texture within the dish.

In the Deccan, one Arab-origin community embodies the journey of preserving and sharing culinary heritage. The Chaush community of Hyderabad trace their origin to the Hadramaut – a region that corresponds to the present-day Yemen, which is historically known for its coffee, dates and interestingly, coconut. Though they may well have arrived before the Nizams, as a community, they came to prominence in their service as soldiers of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Historic dishes of note among this community include mudbi – seasoned meat cooked on special stones, and served with honey; and maraq – a broth of spiced meat. The haleem/harees prepared by the Chaush, like Aleesa of the Malabar coast, has a distinct sweetness. Strong qahwa (coffee) is the preferred drink here for conversation therapy.

Haleem is not the only meat-pulse coalition to emerge from the cultural dialogue in the Deccan. There’s the ever-popular dalcha. The sour power in this dish is contribute by the dauntless tamarind pulp (taken from around the pod). Tamarind or tamar-i-hind, meaning the Indian date, is in fact native to Africa, but has been cultivated in India for long enough to be considered native here. Uniquely, cuisine of the Eastern Deccan also makes use of the tender leaves of the tamarind, known locally as chigoor and used in preparations of dal and mutton.

The exchange is not only one way of course. Pickles, chutneys and souring agents led the processed flavour brigade from the Deccan, that crossed over to communities settling in from West Asia. Some of these flavours would travel over the seas as well. One such likely Deccan-inspired chutney is Yemen’s fenugreek-based chutney known as hilba which is used as dip for bread, on the lines of humus.

  • Mediaeval Deccan History: Commemoration Volume by A. Rā Kulakarṇī
  • Some Accounting for Taste (Food, Faith & Syncretism in the Deccan) by Gautam Pemmaraju (
  • Little Hadhramout, In Hyderabad, India (
  • Wikipedia

Bidar’s Kalyani Biryani: Sup of Bliss


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Bidar becomes capital and stays that way towards to the end of the Bahmani Sultanate. It will gain spectacular monuments such as the the madrasa of Mahmud Gawan and the Rangeen Mahal (features shown in pic; source: Wikipedia); Bidar will also become famous for what will come to be known as Kalyani Biryani

WITH THE QUICK change of events, fortunes and figureheads guiding the Bahmani Sultanate, we may have overlooked the shift of capital. While Gulbarga was the preferred capital at the start, by the close Bidar enjoys that favour. Bidar is not very far from Gulbarga, and lies just over 100 km to its north.

At the height of its imperial prestige, Bidar was described as ‘the most splendid cities of India’. The 15th Century Russian visitor Athanasius Nikitin describes it being a well-tilled land with many fields; a refined city that that enjoyed pleasant weather. Much later in the 17th Century, the French traveller Thevenot describes the Persian governor of Bidar being carried in an oxen-drawn palanquin draped in silk serge onbamboo poles plated with chamfered silver. The edifice of a university set up by the admired Prime Minister Mahmud Gawan (whose unfortunate fate concludes the previous post), is described by a later visitor as ‘the finest of its kind surviving in India’.

This is a city that in later years will come to be known for its signature style of metalware known as bidri. The city’s has pedigree too, one that is the stuff of epics. Legend holds that Bidar is the site of Vidarbha – the furthest southern kingdom mentioned in the Mahabharatha. Incidentally, Damayanti, the princess of the Vidarbha kingdom was married to Nala, who it is said excelled in the art of cooking. He is believed to have authored a booked on the subject which survives to this day; his book, Pakadparna, details the preparation of a spectrum of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, as well as drinks. While the preferred oil base in these recipes is sesame oil, a preferred cooking oil of the South today; most recipes in this treatise call for the use of kasturi, a type of turmeric native to the Himalayas and not the South.

As the seat of a more than a few Bahmani rulers, Bidri no doubt witnessed the invention of many original imperial dishes. These creations would have trickled their way to streets and homes in some form. A later example of Bidri culinary heritage that travelled to Hyderabad, is the famous Kalyani biryani. This distinctive buffalo meat-based dish is the inheritance of the Kalyani Nawabs of Bidar, who, back in the 18th Century, began a tradition of serving this biryani to anyone coming over from Bidri who happened to drop into their haveli. The haveli itself has not survived, but the recipe has, by virtue of the haveli’s cooks who branched out to run their own catering establishments.

The romance of the passing glory of the Bahmanis is best captured by this inscription on the mausoleum of the Sultan who shifted the Bahmani capital to Bidar:

”Should my heart ache, my remedy is this. A cup of wine and then I sup of bliss.”

  • A Social History of the Deccan 1300-1761, by Richard M Eaton
  • History of Kr̥ṣiśāstra: A History of Indian Literature by Gyula Wojtilla

Foraying into the Flavours of the Deccan


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The expansive region of the Deccan opens up new fields for overland forces from the North; it also widens their culinary repertoire. Map of Deccan and South, by German cartographer Sebastian Münster, c.1588; via; Photo: A field of ragi, a nutritious millet of the Deccan

The expansive region of the Deccan opens up new fields for overland forces from the North; it also widens their culinary repertoire. Map of Deccan and South, by German cartographer Sebastian Münster, c.1588; via; Photo: A field of ragi, a nutritious millet of the Deccan

THERE IS A PARADOX in the conspiracy that ends the last post. The Deccanis who angled Gawan’s Persian origin to steer local sentiment against him, were themselves recent arrivals to the Deccan.

Only a few generations earlier, their forefathers had arrived from the Delhi Sultanate and surrounding areas, and authored a new power matrix for the region. Intermarriage was common and before long the community was integral to the identity of a reconstituted geo-political power centre. What was the nature of this region then, that appeared to absorb them with neither fear nor favour?

The Deccan plateau edges the North of peninsular South India, and lies South of the Indo-Gangetic plain. In the words of the 16th C Persian historian Ferishta, the Deccan had “three sons”: Marhar, Kanar and Tiling – the areas covered by present-day Maharashtra, the northern regions of Karnataka and large parts of Andhra Pradesh and Telengana. This was an area peppered with independent regional kingdoms before the arrival of transregional power systems and counter-coalitions. What was the pre-existing Deccan cultural fabric that the first arrivals in some way blended into? Flavours could give a sense.

The pesarattu of Southwest India is just one example of many lentil-based flat breads that would redefine the experience of bread for transregional explorers

The pesarattu of Southeast India is just one example of many lentil-based flat breads that would redefine the experience of bread for transregional explorers

The first transregionalists making a foray into this new terrain, would have been offered meals of rice and bushmeat or fowl, or millet and beans in milk. Communities close to rivers and the coast would serve rice with the catch of the day. A scoop of pickle would be a standard relish at all main meals – though prepared with different core ingredients depending on preferences and availability of ingredients. There would be many plants that would have fascinated the overland visitors from the North. A little later in the 15th Century, Babur, who would establish the Mughal Empire, will compare the profile of the coconut tree to the date palm. In his memoirs, he describes coconut water as “agreeable” and coconut flesh as something like the plant’s cheese.

Inland, wheat flour would be put to use in interesting ways beyond the comparatively plain bread known to the Northern visitors. Apart from the mandakas and patrikas which were elaborately processed breads,  the vidalapaka would be an example of how far flour could be taken: these cakes were made from a mix of five flours and a likely protoype for today’s simpler pesarattu, a popular crepe of Andhra Pradesh and Telengana.

  • A Social History of the Deccan 1300-1761, by Richard M Eaton
  • Indian Food, A Historical Companion, by KT Achaya

Brinjals & A Turkish Turn in the Deccan


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The place of perceived outsiders (Turks, Persians, Moghuls) at the high table, soon raises the concerns of some Deccanis who conspire to disgrace the Bahmani Sultanate’s Persian-origin prime minister. Image: From a painting by Levnî, Surnâme, Topkapi Palace Museum Library

THE NEXT KEY DEVELOPMENTS occur under Sultan Muhammed Shah who is all of nine when he assumes the throne. Thankfully, it is a while before he exercises real authority. When he does, he displays qualities that honour his role as captain of the Bahmani destiny, however his impatience and temper will prove the undoing of the dynasty. Instead his rule will stand out for the flowering of someone else in his ranks: Yusuf Adil Shah. This industrious officer will go on to establish a dynasty of his own, and this appears to be his due, however he gets there by excelling in the service of the above mentioned flawed Sultan.

So, who is Yusuf Adil Shah? Some say he was Georgian slave who was bought in Iran.  A more popular version serves a more sensational story: he was the son of the Sultan of Turkey, Murad II.  As a young boy,  he was forced to flee his home country in the succession battle that ensued following his father’s death.  His mother had him taken away to Persia for a safe upbringing under the wings of the Suffee royal family, in the town of Saweh.  On turning sixteen, he decides to set off for India, following a strong personal belief that this is where his destiny lies. His instinct guides him well, for in the years after his arrival, he steadily wins the confidence of important people till he finds himself mentored by Khajeh Gawan, principal minister in the Bahmani Sultanate.

Whether Yusuf Adil Shah is  aware of it or not, by going to India, he takes himself to the birthplace of what will become Turkey’s favourite vegetable – the brinjal / aubergine. This enchanting member of the nightshade family will inspire a beguiling oil-based dish that legend holds had the power to make an imam faint under its spell – the imam bayildi. To stretch the connection a little more, Yusuf Adil Shah’s journey from Turkey and the Persian Gulf to Hindustan, is the journey of the brinjal in reverse.

As for the Bahmani reagent he serves, Sultan Muhammed Shah for all his failings manages to do a good job of holding off challenges and even making gains, due in large part to a talented team exemplified by the likes of Yusuf Adil Shah and his mentor, Khajeh Gawan. In the end however, the Sultan’s poor insight and temper, proves to be not only his undoing but the undoing of the Bahmani Sultanate. After putting Khajeh Gawan to death as punishment for  a letter that turns out to be forged by the minister’s enemies, the Sultan is deserted by his key Governors who are shocked by the rash elimination of a trusted and admired prime minister.

  • A History of the Deccan, by James Dunning Baker Gribble
  • Indian Food, A Historical Companion, by KT Achaya

“One wave of the sea, cannot be repaid by treasures of gold”


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Persia’s revered poet-mystic does not make it to Gulbarga; he is being true to his soul, yet it also means forgoing culinary novelties such as samosas. Image: 19th C copy of the Diwan of Hafiz depicting Hafiz offering his work to a patron.

THE NEW SULTAN – MAHMOOD – will come to be known as the Second Aristotle. Well versed in the local dialect as well as Persian and Arabic, he is a gifted poet and now in the position of Sultan, patronizes some of the finest poets from West and Central Asia. Gulbarga becomes a magnet for artists and poets from West Asia. The Sultan pays equal attention to details of administration and justice as he does to verse. He is conscientious leader. During a famine, he personally pays for the despatch 10,000 bullocks to as far as Gujarat, to bring back wheat to provide for his people at a subsidy. Beloved of his people, Sultan Mahmood sets scrupulous standards for himself. As a prince, he had a reputation for being up-to-date on and setting fashion trends, but in the role of Sultan he will only be seen in plain white clothing. Here is a leader who saw himself as a trustee of his kingdom’s wealth and to his credit, he managed it with good judgement unquestionable taste.

The Sultan extends an invitation to Hafiz – Persia’s revered poet-mystic – going so far as to send a sum of money to cover his journey to the Deccan. Hafiz accepts the invitation and boards the ship at Hormuz but after a sudden storm, the ship turns back to port , shortly after setting sail. Shaken by the incident, Hafiz decides to return to his home country. He makes it a point to compose a poem for the Bahmani Sultan by way of excusing himself and also to honour the king for his consideration:

… When I thought of your pearls, it seemed then to me
To risk a short voyage would not be too bold;
But now I am sure, one wave of the sea
Cannot be repaid by treasures of gold.
What care I for pearls or for gems rich and rare
When friendship and love at home both are mine?
All the gilding of art can never compare
With the pleasure derived from generous wine!
Let Hafiz retire from the cares of the world,
Contented with only few pieces of gold …

Had Hafiz reached Gulbarga, he would not have found himself at sea on the front of cuisine. Accounts of travellers to Delhi (with a similar court culture) at the time speak of drinks of sherbet and fuqqa (made from barley). Meals featured thin loaves of bread known as khubi, stuffed breads and preparations of roast sheep meat and fowl. At a private dinner in Delhi, the Moroccan traveller Ibn Batutta remarked at a preparation known as sambusak (samosa), suggesting it was a novelty for him and that he was encountering this dish for the first time, in India.

  • A History of the Deccan, by James Dunning Baker Gribble
  • Meaning of Islamic Art, by K.K. Aziz
  • History of the rise of Mahomedan power in India, by Muḥammad Qāsim Hindū-Šāh
  • The Literary Gazette: A Weekly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts (1829)

Revenge of a Betel Bearer


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The Bahmani regent meets his end when he lets his guard down during a spot of hunting and fishing, on retreat from battle. Picture shows a later Bahmani Sultan Adil Shah II slaying a tiger (c. 1660), Bijapur. The Ashmolean Museum.

SULTAN MUJAHID succeeds his father to the throne and is called into action almost immediately. Their old rival – the Vijayanagar Empire – challenges them over the historic tract of the Doab. The Bahmani army advance in pursuit of the King of Vijayanagar, as far south as Rameswaram and back to his capital. On his way there, an ill-advised act of plunder, incites the sentiments of locals who unexpectedly rise against the Bahmani army. On the back foot, the army is forced to retreat and after negotiating some peace with the Vijayanagar Empire, the Sultan takes it slowly and decides to bivouac on the banks of Vijayanagar’s Tungabhadra River. Here he is relaxed enough to indulge in hunting and fishing.

Venison, rabbits, fowl and fish will definitely be on the menu on such outings. However a brief distance away within the walls of the prosperous capital city of Vijayanagar – residents have access to markets that are replete with a variety of meats including that of fowls, sheep and goats. Later visitors to the markets of Vijayanagar will remark on the quality of mutton sold in the streets. They note three types of patridge and two types of doves.

betelnutbearerWhile the relaxing Bahmani forces have no access to bounty beyond the walls, they are short of nothing. Not even internal conspiracy. For a while now, a few members of his entourage (including his betelnut bearer) have been plotting their revenge on the Sultan, for previous slights. They successfully manage to execute their plan when the Sultan retires to his tent after a few leisurely hours of fishing. The chief conspirator takes to the throne on return to the Bahmani capital of Gulbarga. But he does not keep it for long and Gulbarga sees a quick succession of young princes take to throne, before stability is restored with the appointment of Mahmood Shah, the last surviving heir of the Second Bahmani Sultan.

  • A History of the Deccan, by James Dunning Baker Gribble
  • A Forgotten Empire (Vijayanagar): A Contribution to the History of India, by Robert Sewell
  • The Oriental Biographical Dictionary, by Thomas William Beal

Wine, War & the Making of Kingdoms


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A chain of events that kick off with the Sultan’s fondness for wine, ends with him banning all distilleries in his capital. (Image composition features 17th C portrait of a Persian prince in Golconda)

CELEBRATIONS AROUND THE NEW THRONE, feature wine, at least in the Court. One particular event combines that with a spectacular performance by 300 singers brought in from Delhi specially for the event. Flushed and energised after their performance, the Sultan orders his Minister to reward the troupe with a draft on the treasury of the neighbouring Kingdom of Vijayanagar. Audacious as it is, what makes the demand even more reckless is the detail that Vijayanagar is one of the strongest kingdoms of the South at the moment – a rival to be feared.

The capital of the Vijayanagar Empire of the 16th Century will be described by Portugese visitors, as the “best provided city” in the world.  Its markets are stocked with excellent home grown grains, millets and vegetables. It is described as abounding in oranges, limes, grapes, brinjals, and a stupefying range of green vegetables. Popular vegetables included plantians, pumpkins, gourds, and cucumber. This is a prosperity built on unrivalled political strategy. But right now, in the 14th Century, it would be fair to say that the fledgling kingdom of Vijayanagar is still learning the ropes.

The Bahmani forces vanquish the superior forces of Vijayanagar and the Bahmani Sultan has the satisfaction of seeing his draft honoured. Almost as soon as he concludes this matter, he is informed of a revolt at Daulatabad. Here too, his venture ends in victory. In Daulatabad, he makes the acquaintance of an inspired fakir who persuades him to abstain from wine. The Sultan of course will of course go one step further and have all distilleries in his capital destroyed.

But there remains a variety of other drinks to enjoy – fruit juices including the juice of pomegranate and the madala fruit. There is also the trusty milk and buttermilk concoctions. For those unfortunate residents who missed their fix of liquor, they’d probably make plans to visit neighbouring kingdoms where they would have their fill at toddy shops and nibble on salted snacks in between.

Sultan Mohammed Shah I returns to his capital with the major battles of his career behind him. The best of these prove to be master classes in strategy, extracting victory with limited forces. At the end of his life and rule, the treasury of Gulbarga has amassed enormous reserves and the Bahmani Sultanate has earned a redoubtable reputation in the Deccan, whose fortunes the Sultanate will decide for some time to come.

  • A History of the Deccan, by James Dunning Baker Gribble
  • Food and Food Habits in Vijayanagara Times, by Jyotsna Burde

Power Broking & A Game of Thrones


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throne4NEW KINGS ARE SENSITIVE to effrontery – imagined and actual. In the case of the new Bahmani Sultan Mohammed Shah, all it takes is a gift of horses. On confronting the team of dealers on the clearly substandard steeds, he is peeved to hear that the original faultless specimens were replaced on the orders of a ruler whose territories they had passed through. So it’s off to Telangana again, where the unapologetic Raja gets the worst from the slighted Sultan. Revenge may have been extracted, but on their return trip back to Gulbarga, the Bahmani army is taken to the cleaners and return severely depleted. Thus begins a long standoff between the new Sultanate and one of their equally combative neighbours. Soon enough, the neighbouring Kingdom proposes some kind of truce. While initially uncertain, Sultan Mohammed caves in when he is told that it will be sealed with the gift of a special jewelled throne.

This is no ordinary throne. This gold plated, ebony seat stretches to a length of nine feet and is encrusted with jewels which are designed to be detached and replaced as needed. A verbal account of its details is sufficient to persuade the Sultan to give in to the plan. The throne has a name of its own – Firozeh – after its sky blue enamelling.

When the jewelled throne finally finds its way to the Court at the Bahmani capital of Gulbarga, the buntings and troupes are called out. The silver throne of his father is down over to the treasury, the new seat is placed in the Durbar hall and the Sultan calls for feasting and celebrations. The gift of the jewelled throne succeeds where it was meant to: it secures a degree of peace for the neighbouring kingdom of Telengana and of course secures the Raja’s position. A throne for a throne.

Coincidentally, centuries later, a Mughal ruler by the same name (Mohammed Shah) will have to do the opposite and turn over the priceless Peacock Throne to appease the rampaging forces of Nadir Shah. In other cases, a tangible throne will not be enough – what matters is total, unobstructed power. Such will be the case with Aurangzeb. Incensed at having to hear of his brother, Dara Shikoh’s natural claim to the throne, he hires assassins who break into Dara’s home just while he is preparing a meal of khichdi for his son and himself.

  • A History of the Deccan, by James Dunning Baker Gribble
  • Travels in the Mogul Empire, AD 1656-1668, by Francois Bernier
  • Lalla Rookh: an oriental romance by Thomas Moore, by Thomas Moore

Departing to the flavour of “dates encrusted with sugar”


(Image composition: Manuscript of the Bustan by Sa`di + View of arched hallway from the Jumma Masjid at Gulbarga)

IT IS NOT BY “BREAD AND CIRCUSES” alone that Bahman Shah keeps his subjects happy. With senior members of the earlier power matrix, he strikes the right balance between affability and authority. There is the frequent revolt and bristling noble that must be checked. A decade into a successful run, internal conflict in the territory of Gujarat calls for an intervention and he sends his army there on the invitation of the ruler of that kingdom. He sends his son to lead the operations, and himself follows shortly afterwards.  He never makes it to Gujarat. Illness stops him in his tracks and the Bahman ruler heads back to Gulbarga, with the sense of an  end.

While he still has energy left, he assigns governorship of his four provinces and order prisoners to be set free. On his last day he calls in his youngest son from his lessons, and enquires after the texts he has been learning. The young boy has been studying The Bustan of the revered Persian poet Saadi, whose verses have been likened to “dates encrusted with sugar”. The prince dutifully recites from the Persian masterpiece,

Many like me have viewed the fountain, but they are gone, and their eyes closed for ever. I conquered the world by policy and valour, but could not overcome the grave.

 The founder of the Bahamani Sultanate departs from this world. The mantle passes to  his son, Mohammed, who had earlier been sent to secure the compliance of the Raja of Telengana. Mohammed has his task cut out: leaders of territories under Bahmani control decide to try their luck on hearing of the demise of Bahman Shah. But after a shaky start, the heir finds his feet, reasserts the dominion of the Bahamani Sultanate, and, not for the first time, the recalcitrant rulers retreat.

Once he has earned some sense of stability, he commissions the great mosque at Gulbarga. Designed by a Persian architect, it will bear some resemblance to the Cathedral Mosque of Cordoba, and will be a rare example of an Indian mosque to be built without a courtyard (though common in the pre-Sultanate mosques of South India).

  • Muslim Architecture of South India by Mehrdad Shokoohy
  • The Bustan of Sadi, tr. by A. Hart Edwards, 1911
  • A History of the Deccan, by James Dunning Baker Gribble

A Wedding Feast: Confectionery for All, Mande Gosht for Some


A wedding celebration doubles as inauguration festivities of the new capital; a version of mande ghost might have featured in the banquet line up. B&W photo: Asuf Gunj, Gulbarga, 1880 (© The British Library Board)

WITH HIS CAPITAL NOW SHIFTED TO GULBARGA, the new Sultan sets to work. Bahman Shah’s mission is to consolidate the Southern territories which Tughlaq had held until recently. Starting from his base in Daulatabad, this will be like tracking down culinary influences. For the cuisine of the wider Marathwada region of Daulatabad carries marked influences from its proximate lands: the kokum and coconut of the Konkan coast (a region that Bahman has his sights set on), the Kohlapuri rasas, and the besan-based forumulations of Vidarbha. It also carries select influences from the Eastern regions of Telengana and Warangal – areas which Bahman Shah will advance on immediately. Before that however, and to shore up critical goodwill, he has planned the wedding of his eldest son to the daughter of his Prime Minister. The celebrations last a whole year and see the regular distribution of horses from the Far East, and robes made from gold cloth, satin and velvet. Jewelled sabres are handed out to members of nobility. Large confectionery-dispensing machines are stationed at points on the main streets of Gulbarga; they shower specialty treats into the crowd. In line with tradition, the last day of the year-long celebrations would see  officials, ambassadors and nobility lining up to present Sultan Bahman Shah with the finest presents in their possession. Public and private banquets on the occasion, would feature regional specialties – a version of today’s popular mande gosht would likely have featured in the lineup. It consists of a pungent salan prepared from mutton and select spices (onions, chillies, coriander), paired with a large roti similar to the romali. An undoubted treat for the commoner of Gulbarga, who otherwise makes do with meals of rice, ghee, khichri, and vegetables cooked in butter and milk – as reported by Afanasy Nikitin, a Russian who visited the Bahman kingdom in the 15th Century. His account also mentions that on journeys it was common for people to carry stone pots in which to prepare broth. Incidentally the account of his journey in India was adapted into the 1957 film, Pardesi, starring Mumtaz.

  • A History of the Deccan, by James Dunning Baker Gribble
  • The Journey Beyond the Three Seas, by Afanasy Nikitin
  • Upper Crust Magazine

Naan-Qaliyan: From Delhi to Daulatabad and beyond


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Naan-qaliyan becomes Tughlaq’s unintended gift to the Deccan. It goes on to become the favoured meal of Mughal army camps stationed in the Deccan and today remains a culinary specialty of the region of Aurangabad. The naan in the Deccani preparation is brushed with turmeric water. B&W image: 19th C engraving by William Simpson

THE RISE TO POWER of Delhi-bred Bahman Shah in the Deccan in 1347, does not come out of the blue. He has networked here extensively. As Tughlaq’s general, he had earlier been deputed to the Deccan to head the Finance Department in Daulatabad. It is fair to say he cultivated the company of the powerful. For when everything finally comes together a few years after Tughlaq moves back to Delhi with his population in tow, the political decks are cleared for Bahman to announce a rebellion. In a few years, he orders the making of a victory tower (Chand Minar) in honour of the successful rebellion, before he assumes leadership of an independent Sultanate. This is only made possible with good will and active support from local amirs of Daulatabad, and the backing of the kings of neighbouring Telangana and the newly-emerged Vijayanagara.

A change of capital is advisable. As long as Bahman is in Daulatabad, he finds himself looking over his shoulder. The continuing water scarcity that years earlier had famously out Tughlaq, remains an issue. Yet Tughlaq’s foolhardy scheme had one golden lining – itearth_oven lead to the invention of a meal that remains a signature dish in the region today. The story goes that in order to feed his population during the journey, Tughlaq’s bawarchis turned to the most serviceable techniques under the circumstances: they dug out ovens  at every meal stop to turn out numerous naans. A massive cauldron was enlisted to prepare spiced mutton: qaliyan. In fact it becomes the preferred staple of the later Mughal army camps stationed in Deccan. The pairing of naan-qaliyan continues to be a trademark specialty of the region of Aurangabad.

The naans in question are not just any naans – they have the special quality of softness that remains for days. These naans remain a specialty of modern day Aurangabad. Often eggs and milk are also added in the preparation of these naans. But what makes them stand apart visually is that they are golden yellow from the turmeric water brushing they receive fresh from the oven.

Tughlaq brought qualiyan to Daulatabad, now the army favourite is taken further when Bahman moves his capital. He shifts the seat of the sultanate to the more fertile Gulbarga which also brings with it some reflected pedigree, situated as it is not far from the regal capital of the ancient Rashtrakutas. In a few years, when the Bahmanis make a conquest of the Deccani kingdoms to the South East, they will also take note of the change in cuisine: from the breads and preference for pungency in the South West, to rice and the mastery over sour flavours in the Southeast.

But the Bahmanis also carry new  flavours from different lands. Culturally, the seat of the Sultanate is marked by its cosmopolitanism – Dakhni, Abyssinian, Transoxonian and Persian. All this reflects in the cuisine as well. Coincidentally, the name Bahman shares an association with Persia. Bahman is the name of the protagonist of the Persian epic, Shah Nama. The epic starts with the story of creation and the dawn of the civilizational arts that include fire, cooking and metallurgy.

The Persians will come to have a more pronounced presence and influence in the Deccan region than they will in the North, even under the Mughals. One of the later and most notable Bahmani rulers, Mahmud Gawan, will have been born in Persia.

  • Mahadev Govind Ranade, Volume 3, edited by Verinder Grover
  • Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates, by George Michell, Mark Zebrowski
  • The Political Economy of Commerce: Southern India 1500-1650, by Sanjay Subrahmanyam
  • Wikipedia
  • The Foodie – Dawat-e-Aurangabad (TV show)

The Bahmanis: Shaking off the Yoke


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When Tughlaq heads back to Delhi from Daulatabad, his commander Hasan Gangu stays back, declares autonomy and ascends the throne that the local ruler has vacated for him. This marks the start of the Bahamani Sultanate. The first independent Sultanate of South India shakes off years of menace from Northern powers

AKBAR MAY BE MAKING POLITE overtures to the Deccan Sultanate, but previous Delhi-based powers had the region in their grasp. Centuries before, Turkish-origin Alauddin Khilji, the most powerful leader of the Delhi Sultanate, had conquered prominent Southern kingdoms: Devagiri under the Yadavas, the Kakatiya’s Warangal, and Madurai under the Pandyas. This was not surprising; this was a man who made no bones about his ambitions: he had coins minted with him being described as the second Alexander. However’s Khilji’s objective was largely to extract tributes to sustain his armies and the Delhi Sultanate; settling in the Deccan as a sovereign presence was out of the question. Devagiri, Hill of the Gods, was famed for its wealth. A shrewd strategist, Alauddin Khilji saw to it that Devagiri would capitulate to the demands of the Delhi Sultanate. To head this Deccan project, he deputed the redoubtable  commander, Malik Kafur. In Devagiri, Khilji would have to negotiate with Devagiri’s ruling Seuna Yadavas under Ramachandra. On Khilji’s very first attempt on Devagiri, Ramachandra was force to cave in to Khilji’s demands. This would become a pattern at any future refusal of tribute payment. But appeasement was two-way. Ramachandra would be summoned to Delhi on one occasion to be conferred the title Rai Rayan. He was also given a region of Gujarat. Ramchandra reciprocated by giving his daughter Jatyapali, in marriage to Khilji. This was a critical alliance that paved the way for Khilji to make further inroads into the Deccan. Alauddin’s turn in the South was a hard act to follow. His successors would not match and a recalcitrant Devagiri would shake off the yoke at every opportunity. Devagiri, also called Daulatabad, would be the same city to which, decades later, the ill-starred Tughlaq, would shift the entire population of Delhi, before moving back. If Tughlaq’s own generals needed a convincing reason to abandon ship, nothing could be clearer than this. Sure enough, in a few years of Tughlaq and the population shifting out of Daulatabad, Zafar Khan, a general under Tughlaq declares automony from the Delhi Sultanate, and establishes what would be referred to as the  Bahmani Sultanate. As South India’s first independent Sultanate, the  Bahmanis shake off years of menace from Northern forces. Raised in Delhi, Hasan Gangu could not be a more suitable figure for the role: he is homegrown and has worked his way through the ranks. He has taken on the name of the brahmin mentor of his childhood and adolescence – Gangu, who foresaw greatness in the future of the one-time slave. In honour of his mentor, Hasan Gangu names the new Sultanate, Bahmani.

  • Studies in Mughal History, Ashvini Agrawal
  • Wikipedia

The Deccan: Jewels of the South


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Ibrahim Adil Shah II receives Akbar’s envoy – a historic contact between the Indo-Timurids of the Mughal North and the Indo-Persians of the Deccan. Image: 17th Deccan miniature of the Sultan of Bijapur (Wikimedia Commons)

MUGHAL INTEREST IN THE DECCAN began to stir under the rule of Emperor Akbar. He had heard much of the greatness of the Vijayanagar Empire. Another thing that piqued his curiosity was the Persian-influenced Deccan Sultanates. It is during his reign that a historic contact would be made between the Indian Timurids and the Deccanis. It is no surprise then that even as early as the time of Babur’s ragtag advance into India, the Deccan was witnessing a mature field of action among multiple players from the region and over the seas. This included the Portugese takeover of Goa from the powerful Bijapur Sultanate of the Deccan.

Bijapur continued to be powerful in Akbar’s time and it is to this power centre that Akbar dispatched his grandee, Mirza Asad Baig. This was a capital city recognised as one of the great metropolises of the Indian region; arguably greater even than any Mughal capital. The report and goods that Mirza Asad brings back are enough to confirm this. He describes the airy environs around his appointed residence and a vast bazaar. In this scrupulously clean market, he notes there is a green tree for each shop. He mentions shops selling wine, jewels, armour, cloth and eatables. There are prize meats arranged upon shelves, there are double-distilled spirits, sweetmeats, pistachios, almonds and sugar candy. 


Akbar’s envoy is received at the Gagan Mahal, ‘Sky Palace’, which served as Audience Hall and the Sultan’s private residence. (Image via

He describes one street in the bazaar dedicated to entertainment – dancing, drinking and pleasure seeking, and remarks at there being not one dispute to be seen. Fascinating as all this is, the jewels on display here come in for special mention. The Mirza does not forget to pick some out for the Emperor. These include a pokhraj (yellow sapphire), a neelam (blue sapphire), a diamond, and a fantastic model of a bird fashioned from jewels.

Mirza Asad Baig brings back these with him to the Mughal Court. There is one other thing from Bijapur that he shares with a private circle – tobacco and the huqqa – novelties in the Mughal domain, but ones that will catch on quickly.

The Request for a Talented Cook


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aurangzebHAVING FINALLY made critical gains in the Deccan, Aurangzeb is keen not to let it slip out from between his fingers. It’s already been over two decades since he has moved his base to the Deccan but with the ever-attentive Maratha forces, they cannot take a single victory for granted. This obsession has taken a toll on both the Emperor and the Empire – though the Empire now stretches across the greatest geographical reach in its history, it has come at price to the treasury.  

In one of his many moments of reflection, it is the memory of a food that moves him to pen a letter to a son. He is known for his simple meals and preference for vegetarian preparations especially qubooli, a unique lentil biryani. On this occasion though, it is khichdi that he yearns for. He requests his son to send over his cook, whose masterful preparation of biriyani and khichdi, still lingers in his memory. 


The Tomb of Aurangzeb in Khuldabad (Source: British Library via Wikipedia)

These simple pleasures are the rare reprieves he permits himself from his grim lifelong conquest for glory. By 1705, an affliction takes a toll on his health and he never recovers. Some time before he passes on, he will tell his son, “I came alone and I go as a stranger.” He is buried in Khuldabad (in Aurangabad), close to the shrine of the Sufi Saint Shaikh Burhan-u’d-din Gharib.

With his passing, the Mughal throne will see a quick succession of eight rulers. However the cultural light of the Mughal torch has long since passed on to the Courts of Successor States, that have been enriched by the flight of poets and artists who fled the Mughal Capital since Aurangzeb’s ascension nearly half a decade ago.

A Nightingale Came to the Garden*


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The wine at night unto the morning lends
Its exaltation, morning to the night.

– From the Diwan-i-Makhfi, a compilation of writings by Zebunissa

aurangzebAURANGZEB’S AUSTERITY means that music and poetry has long since been banished from the Court. Yet one group of poets manages to meet in the very precincts of the Court for hidden poetic parties. This has been made possible because they have the membership of Aurangzeb’s eldest daughter, Zebunissa, herself a poet of repute. If Zebunissa has some influence over Aurangzeb, it is well-earned. She proved to be something of a child prodigy and managed to memorize the holy book to become a Hafiz at the age of seven, an event that her father ensured was celebrated with a grand public feast at Delhi’s Great Maidan. From then on, she was instructed in mathematics and astronomy, subjects in which she quickly gained proficiency.


Zebunissa, daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb. A gifted student and accomplished poet, she also introduces a new fashion – the angya kurti (an adaptation of a traditional Turkestan costume)

Her poetry caught the attention of her tutor who advised Aurangzeb to find a suitable circle of accomplished poets from all over the country, to give her artistic company. This request was surprisingly acted upon. As the mushairas play out today evening, it may very well be that Aurangzeb has chosen to look the other way. He thinks back fondly to a recent amusing exchange between his daughter and a prospective young suitor, who happened to be none other than the son of Shah Abbas of Persia. The Emperor had been told that at one point during the feast Zebunissa had arranged for him and his retinue, the prince had asked Zebunissa for a certain sweetmeat, with a name that was a convenient double entrendre. Zebunissa, quick to pick up the nuance, deadpanned that he could ask anything he wished from the kitchen. 

Aurangzeb’s favour will not shine on Zebunissa for long. He will soon be informed of her complicity in helping Shivaji in his sensational escape. The last straw however will be evidence that she counselled her brother Prince Akbar in his rebellion against Aurangzeb. She will have her properties seized, pension cut off and she will be thrown into jail. There, in Salingarh Fort at the edge of Shahjahanabad, she will spend her last years. She will find solace writing poems, as she had before, under the name Makhfi (‘Hidden One’). 

(*From a ghazal by Zebunissa)

Flashback to the Vijayanagar Empire


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aurangzebTHE COLLECTIVE APPEAL of the Deccan Sultanates pales in comparison to a legendary regional power that once straddled a large part of the Southern Peninsula up to just a few decades back. This was the Vijayanagar Empire. It had successfully defended itself against attempts by the Delhi Sultanate and made conquests of its own that took its reach to Lanka, Orissa and Burma. This was an Empire that sent embassies to China, imported gold, silver, copper, vermillion and coral from Palestine and horses from Persia. 

Described by a Portugese traveller of the time, “as large as Rome and very beautiful to the sight”, the capital city of the Vijayanagar Empire was undoubtedly the jewel in its crown. Of real jewels too there was an abundance that struck all who visited; some were brought from Ceylon and Pegu (in Burma) but for diamonds of the first water the Empire had to look nowhere else but its own famed mines – believed at the time to be the only in the world to produce diamonds. Incidentally, it is a diamond from the mines of Golconda in the Vijayanagar Empire that has been the pride of Mughal Emperors. Like the quest for the Deccan, the Syamantaka Mani (later named Kohinoor) has been passed down the line of Mughal Emperors.


Sacred tank in Hampi, located in the capital of the Vijayanagar Empire (Source: Wikipedia; Author: Dey Sandip)

The capital city of the Empire, the Persian Ambassador to Calicut noted, “is such that the pupil of the eye has never seen a place like it, and the ear of intelligence has never been informed that there existed anything to equal it in the world.” Newcomers walking through the markets could not fail to notice the marked presence of roses which are bought and sold as often as items of food. Those visitors fortunate to stay long enough would note that, unlike in other world markets where food stocks became scarce at certain times of the year, in the city of Vijayanagar, there was abundance of all items of food, all through the year.

There was rice, corn, barley, moong dal and a profusion of meats – the most popular types being mutton, pork and poultry, though all types were consumed and the king was known to enjoy venison and sparrows. In the markets of the capital there were limes, sour and sweet oranges, grapes, jackfruit, pomegranate and brinjal. This mirage of unreal riches ultimately dissolved to in-fighting, resulting in compromised defences against the onslaught of the Sultanates to the north. 

Aurangzeb succeeds in gaining Bijapur and then Golconda, but Vijayanagar’s past glory will not be approached. In time, both cities will slip from him and the Peacock Throne will be looted along with the Dynasty’s much loved diamond, once mined in an Empire that surpassed the imaginings of the Mughals.

Guerrilla Tactics & A Basket of Sweets


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aurangzebTHE DECCAN SEEMS LIKE the last and most vexing frontier for the Mughals. If it had frustrated Shah Jahan in his time as Emperor, and his father before him, Aurangzeb is eager to make a point of his superiority and stops at nothing to succeed where his predecessors had failed.

He is up against a loose confederacy of Sultanates that includes the wealthy kingdoms of Bijapur and Golconda, both of which are well-known for their diamond mines. The Bahamini structures here are distinctively Persian, with little vernacular influence, however the food is a blend of local Deccani and Persian – pilaus with nuts and dry fruits encounter tamarind, coconut and curry leaves. 

But in the last few decades, the Sultanates have been less of a concern for Aurangzeb that the growing challenge of the Marathas under the leadership of the redoubtable military leader Shivaji. Intrigued by him, Aurangzeb finally gets his chance to meet the leader face-to-face at the Mughal Court in Agra in 1644. However Shivaji is deliberately not granted an exclusive audience, instead he is received in the company of other army officers. Shivaji storms out at the affront and Aurangzeb orders his men to see that he is not allowed to leave the premises. 

Shivaji in Aurangzeb custody

Shivaji eventually finds a way out of his confines at Agra (Image: Painting by AH Muller)

Not one to give his game away, Shivaji pretends to settle into a routine. Feigning sickness, he sends out baskets of sweetmeats every evening to the holy men of the city, in return for their blessings for his health. Each basket is huge and is slung on a pole that is carried by two men. After weeks of getting the guards accustomed to this routine, one evening he manages to secret himself in a sweetmeat basket and is quietly carried out of the city. This masterstroke of deception is good example of his original on-field guerrilla tactics that will set Aurangzeb on edge.

A Clever Cook & A Darbar in Saxony


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aurangzebIN THE COURT and calendar of the austere Emperor Aurangzeb, celebrations are few and far between. However, guests of the Mughal ruler wouldn’t know the difference from before – they are treated to the same spectacular indulgence that has made Mughal hospitality a legend over centuries. Since hospitality begins at home, Aurangzeb extends some degree of indulgence to the patriarch he has deposed: his father, Shah Jahan. Confined to the fort at Agra just across the river from the Taj Mahal, a forlorn Shah Jahan has been given something to look forward to at last.

Aurangzeb has allowed Shah Jahan the choice of meal he would like to be served at his fort prison. However, the ailing ex-Emperor is allowed to specify only one dish. The dish he mentions will be served to him every day for the rest of his life. Shah Jahan is in a fix. He is lucky to have good counsel at hand. The lively prison cook advises Shah Jahan to request dal, because it is versatile enough for him to make a different dish from it every day of the year. Recalling the many dal dishes he had been served as Emperor, Shah Jahan sees this is an excellent suggestion. In his last days in confinement, these dishes of dal prepared at the hands of the inventive cook, give him delight.


The marvel of Aurangzeb’s Court as captured by a jeweller in the Court of Augustus II of Saxony. Above image shows figurines from the work currently on display in the Green Vaults, Dresden (Source:

Austere as Aurangzeb may be, his visitors are not treated to any of the grimness. Dussehra, his birthday and of course the anniversary of his coronation, are some of the few days that see a modicum of merriment. Sometime between 1701 and 1708, the splendour of Aurangzeb’s Court will inspire the creation of an elaborate miniature gold, silver, jewel and enamel set, named ‘Aurangzeb’s Birthday Celebrations’. It will be made by a jeweller in the Court of Augustus the Strong, the ‘Sun King’ of Saxony.

If Shah Jahan, the acclaimed connoisseur of jewels and art, were alive to see this, he would have certainly gone out of his way to acquire the miniature for his Court. Aurangzeb, on the other hand, who is still Emperor when this is made, certainly wouldn’t be interested. Moreover, the Empire he fought so viciously to rule over, is proving to be more than he can handle.

A Proper Coronation at Shahjahanabad


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aurangzebAURANGZEB’S FIRST CORONATION had been a hurried affair at Shalimar Gardens on Delhi’s Karnal Road. He needs a whole year to settle scores before he is secure enough to hold a proper coronation celebration. It is held at New Delhi – Shahjahanabad. At the Qila-i-Mubarak (of which today’s Red Fort is a part), the halls of public and private audience are decked to perfection. There, he mounts the Peacock Throne to the sound of drums and trumpets, a few hours after sunrise on June 5, 1659 – a time chosen by astrologers. He takes on the title Alamgir, Seizer of the World. 

As an Emperor who desperately needs the assurance of his people after unsavoury displays of conflict, Aurangzeb announces the abolition of up to 80 taxes and also waives tolls. However, his plan for economizing, grind the city’s celebrated arts life to a halt. Today, as poets and musicians receive inams of silver and gold as part of coronation tradition, they are well aware that the golden age of Delhi’s arts patronage is passing.  


The venue of Aurangzeb’s second coronation. Image: Late 18th C rendering of the Red Fort in Shajahanabad

Aurangzeb will put brakes on the tradition of appearing at the jharokha every morning. Also to be discontinued will be the long tradition of rulers having their biography written in their time (however the chronicling of his first ten years will be secured before this). But somehow, he does not limit celebrations to mark his coronation – festivities roll out over 14 weeks.

Dara Shikoh: Delhi’s beloved poet prince


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Thou art at the same time, the light and the moth,
The wine and the cup, the sage and the fool,
the friend and the stranger,
the rose and the nightingale.

                                         – From The Compass of Truth by Dara Shikoh

WORDS SUCH AS THESE can too easily be picked on to mark out Dara as an infidel. Aurangzeb will soon have his quarry on such subjective charges. Ironically, between the two, it is Dara Shikoh’s legacy that will shine through history.

Loved by the people of New Delhi (Shajahanabad), it is through its wailing streets that he will be paraded after his capture. This prince-mystic, has been a champion of the oneness of religious quests, a patron of the arts, himself an accomplished poet and calligrapher who has undertaken the mammoth collaborative task of translating the Bhagvad Gita and 50 of the Upanishads into Persian. A worthy inheritor of Emperor Akbar’s pantheism, he has drawn comparison between the concepts of mukti and fana; ishq and maya. He wears a ring inscribed with the word prabhu in Sanskrit. 

At 44, while cooking a meal for his son and himself, assassins break into his chambers. Dara valiantly defends himself with a kitchen knife, but is overcome. The city goes into mourning. He will be immortalized through his writings and translations of Sanskrit texts that will introduce European thinkers to new insights; it is his translation of the Upanishads that will be further translated into European languages – introducing the continent to the foundational texts of Indian spirituality. The German philosopher Schopenhauer will say: “In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life. It will be the solace of my death.”

Image: From a 17th Century painting of a prince recently identified as Dara Shikoh (The British Library Board)

Aurangzeb ~ 6th Mughal Emperor Coronation: July 22, 1658


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aurangzebAURANGZEB COMES TO POWER by dint of determination. As someone who was never looked on as heir, he is determined to make his own mark as Emperor and certainly does so aesthetically. He is not apologetic about his staid tastes and as an orthodox religionist, he firmly edges out the artists, poets and painters who were nurtured by Court patronage over successive Emperors. His ruthless stance will serve well to expand the Mughal Empire – taking it to its largest reach in the Indian peninsula since its founding by Babur. Though he will be repeatedly challenged in the Deccan, he will succeed in establishing centres at Bijapur and Golconda in the South. These cultural influences will find their way to the royal dastarkhwan. Under Aurangzeb, royal cuisine, though austere, will not be stymied in the same way as the other arts, for in Aurangzeb’s own words (in a letter to his son): “… the desire for eating has not left me entirely.”

(Image source: Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive)

Simmering Battles, Nourishing Broths


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shah jahanSOME DISTANCE away in the Emperor’s model capital, Shajahanabad, the bazaars are humming with activity. Above the usual din of trade and bargain, poets, jewellers, clerks and masons all seem to be interested in updates on the same thing: the stand-off between the princes and the Emperor’s ill health that appears to have been shared by the city. Only last year, the city had a major health outbreak that affected its very functioning. It unravelled when a minor outbreak of influenza went out of hand and held the entire city in its grip. No one imagined it would get too serious, till it began to claim numbers and even affect members of the royal household. A harsh winter, made the situation dire.


The streets of Shahjahanabad are abuzz with news on the state of the Emperor’s health and the confrontation between the princes. (Source: via

High ranking members of the government called a meeting of senior hakims who after several days of careful enquiry into fundamental causes, came to the conclusion that the water lines were badly compromised, resulting in contamination. The hakims advised immediate measures to ensure the availability of potable water. As for the challenge of recovery, the hakims advised that at as far as possible, foods would have to be slow cooked. A recipe was put out for a certain slow cooked meat dish (nahari). Formulated by the hakims, this heart-warming formula calls for trotters and assorted spices. Understanding that this may be out of the reach of the ordinary citizen, they advise a potent and pungent combination of spices in at least one main dish a day. 

Today, as one cook stops by for a late afternoon kebab with a friend, en route to making purchases at the Khari Baoli spice market, they hope for the health of the Emperor. Yet, the inevitable is already at hand – and as Aurangzeb overpowers every obstacle on his way to the throne, Shah Jahan must resign himself to a life in the shadows at Agra.

Destiny holds Sway at Samugarh


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shah jahanTHE WIND IS CHANGING direction and the futures of Shah Jahan’s rival sons are becoming clear. Emperor Shah Jahan can do little more than watch as Aurangzeb gains an upper hand, while Dara Shikoh, the Emperor’s favourite and his eldest, stumbles at every confrontation. Shah Jahan is not on the best of health, but it is to relieve his worries that he visits the dargah at Ajmer.

Just as Jahangir was born in answer to Emperor Akbar’s prayers to Salim Chisti at Ajmer, Shah Jahan too had performed devotions at Ajmer for the birth of Dara Shikoh. Even now, Shah Jahan visits the shrine as often as he can, always barefoot. Dara, a devoted Sufi in the Qadiri order, also cultivates his relationship with Ajmer. Jahanara herself has been a long-time devotee of the Saint and has penned his biography. Aurangzeb’s equation with Ajmer is more conflicted. As a hardliner, he does not approve of the music played there. In later years however, a particular qawwali performance will change his mind and lead to him to make a generous endowment to the musicians. 


Shah Jahan en route to Ajmer. Image: 17th Century painting (The Royal Collection)

Soon enough, the war of succession is out in the open. During a spell of illness while holding court at Agra, Shah Jahan appoints Dara Shikoh as reagant. An impatient Aurangzeb expresses his displeasure militarily and after victory over his brother in Samugarh, Emperor Shah Jahan is placed under house arrest at Agra Fort. During nine long years of captivity, Shah Jahan will take comfort in prayer, the sight of the Taj Mahal from his window and the attentive assistance of Jahanara.

The Peacock Throne and the Prince


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shah jahanThe takht-i-shahi (later to be called the peacock throne) serves as Shah Jahan’s throne in the new Mughal capital of Delhi. It is a showcase of the wealth of the Empire and the skill of the Court’s artisans, but also, Shah Jahan’s personal collection of jewels. The throne is decorated with outstanding gems from his prized set: the Kohinoor, the Akbar Shah, the Shah, the Jahangir, and the Timur ruby. The pearl-fringed canopy over the throne is equally stunning: supported by 12 emerald-studded columns, the inside of the enamelled umbrella shimmers with garnets and rubies and above it is a jewel-studded gold peacock with a tail of sapphires.


Emperor Shah Jahan seated on his jewelled throne that has taken six years to create, Image: From 17th C illustration in the Padshahnama (via Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum)

But now more than ever, the question is: who will inherit this throne and the Empire? About the same time that the Peacock Throne and the capital finds a new seat in Shahjahanabad, the Emperor’s son and heir apparent is steadily rising up the ranks. Dara Shikoh has been made Governor of Gujarat. Dara, while much loved by all in the Court and the Capital, is no match for his younger brother, Aurangzeb, on the field. Aurangzeb has governed in the Deccan, Multan and Gujarat, and regularly leads military expeditions, such as those against Balkh. In doing so, Aurangzeb has built useful economic and military alliances which he can easily summon to his assistance in a show of strength, or actual confrontation. Meanwhile, Dara, Shah Jahan’s clear favourite from the very start, appears to have overlooked the importance of these practical skills, possibly labouring under false security.

He may be the people’s darling prince, but he is possibly not someone they can trust for protection against a robust enemy. Even as he sees that he must protect his preordained path to the throne, Dara indulges his heart’s calling. Between 1640 and 1657, he composes 20 books, including a Persian translation of the Upanishads, Sirr-e-Akbar (The Great Secret) and Majma-ul-Bahrain (Meeting Place of Two Oceans). It is his Persian translation of the Upanishads that will, in coming centuries, introduce these works to a Western audience.

“If the World is the Body, Delhi is the Soul”*


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Panorama of Delhi with view from the Red Fort, painted by Mazhar Ali Khan in 1846 (via Asia Society)

shah jahanEMPEROR SHAH JAHAN returns to his Imperial engagements with renewed interest after his son’s marriage. He is pleased to see another son, Aurangzeb, coming into his own. Meanwhile, the Emperor moves as the occasion demands – the Deccan, Kashmir, Lahore. He has been thinking of setting up a new capital near Delhi for some time now. Agra is turning into a city of cenotaphs and he has complained rightly that all his capitals so far have not been really planned on a scale that accommodates the ceremonies required for an imperial capital. In time, after lengthy deliberations with planners, Shah Jahan narrows in on an area of land twice the size of the fort at Agra.

The chosen site overlooks the Yamuna and is North of the historic city of Delhi. It is to be called Shajahanabad and will be the New Delhi. Work commences in 1639 and over the next ten years as masons, stone cutters and carpenters toil away, Shah Jahan drops in regularly to oversee progress, reward workers and point out improvements/changes. By 1648, the Red Fort, enclosing an area of 125 acres, is finally complete – a feat of scale and workmanship – it is a self-contained metropolis with sectors for imperial chambers, government offices, bazaars and workshops that produce everything from textiles to perfume.


The central water feature in Chandni Chowk; the bazaar, within the new Mughal capital, designed by Jahanara, daughter of Shah Jahan. Image: 19th C painting by Sita Ram (Source credit: British Library)

Winding through these spaces are avenues and watercourses, keeping this an island of cool even in the heat of summer. The harem quarters are done in white marble and mirrors. The marble pavilions of the Private Audience Hall are set with precious stones and within it is placed the bejewelled Peacock Throne (takht-i-shahi). Celebrations to mark the inauguration of the citadel roll out over 10 days.

Jahanara, who shares her father’s interest in architecture, has involved herself in the design of Chandni Chowk which will quickly become one of the most important bazaars within the fort complex.  It is designed as a series of galleries on either side of a central canal. She also designs a serai, gardens, a bathhouse and a palace for the new city.

* Quoted: Line by the 19th Century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib

Prince Dara Shikoh weds Nadira Begum


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Prince Dara Shikoh’s baraat (wedding procession) with Shah Jahan closely behind his son. Image: From an 18th C painting, The marriage procession of Dara Shikoh (National Museum, Delhi)

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The world is a paradise full of delights 1

While Mumtaz was still alive, she had arranged for and hoped to witness the marriage of her eldest son and heir apparent, Dara Shikoh. With her demise, this event must wait two years before it is realised. The time has now come for Jahanara, Dara Shikoh’s eldest sister, the First Lady, to take charge of her brother’s wedding celebrations. She has much in common with Dara. Not just in terms of temperament, but in spiritual leaning. Both Jahanara and Dara are initiates of the Sufi Qadiri order which holds the symbol of the rose.


Gifts are given as generously as they are received. Image: From a 17th C painting by Bishnadas (The Royal Collection)

In managing the elaborate arrangements for the wedding scheduled for the first day of February, she is ably assisted by the resourceful Satti un-Nissa, Jahanara’s tutor who was also her late mother’s lady-in-waiting. The amount spent on the celebrations will equal that spent on construction of the entire Red Fort complex. She will meet more than half of this from her own funds. The day finally arrives. For the first time since the demise of Mumtaz, music rings through the palace. Dara, in a heavily worked angrakha, escorted by his brothers in the customary baraat, enters the the diwan-e-aam where his father Shah Jahan places the sehra, the ceremonial veil of pearls, across his son’s forehead. After the brief midnight ceremony overseen by the qazi, festivities play out against the backdrop of fireworks along the length the river across which move the dim shapes of decorated boats.

At the wedding feast, Shah Jahan is radiant, no longer in his clothes of mourning, but in dazzling jewels, perfume and embroidered finery. Gifts are distributed as generously as they are received. At a distance, in a private moment under the stars, as Jahanara looks on at the fireworks from her balcony, she enjoys a few glasses of her favourite cocktail made from wine and rosewater and considers a verse by Rumi – Today is the day of the rose, now is the rose’s year.

From lines read out in memory of Mumtaz Mahal

In this World this Edifice has been Made *


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shah jahanSHAH JAHAN is developing an architectural signature. White marble is a hallmark – visible in the tomb he built at Fatehpur Sikri for Shaik Salim Chisti and also at the mosque he builds in the Chisti dargah in Ajmer. It is not only his feel for material that defines his design sense, but his grasp of form, mass and scale and his confirmed leaning to paradisaical imagery. Nor is it always marble – a marble-like effect is achieved with polished plaster in the Public Audience Hall of the Agra Fort.


Taj Mahal: The final resting place of Mumtaz Mahal (Source: altiusdirectory)

It is an unfortunate event however that paves the way for what will be Shah Jahan’s crowning architectural achievement. After only a few years as Queen, Mumtaz passes away in childbirth while in the Deccan. Mumtaz Mahal is interred at Buhranpur and later at Imperial Agra, on the banks of the Yamuna. It is upon this resting place that work begins almost immediately on a structure that will be seen as one of the Wonders of the Age and the world, the Taj Mahal – a vision formed from white Makrana marble and semiprecious stones.

Shah Jahan will never again adorn himself with his favourite perfumes and for two years more he will be seen wearing only white, the colour of mourning. His eldest daughter, Jahanara, Princess Flowerbed, takes over the official responsibilities of her mother Mumtaz.

*From Shah Jahan’s description of the Taj Mahal

Navroz in the Air, Scions in the Wings


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shah jahanTHE FIRST LARGE celebration after Shah Jahan’s coronation is an old one – the festival of Navroz. His father had celebrated Navroz but Akbar in his time, was especially enthusiastic about it and would have himself weighed against gold, coral and seven types of grain. Shah Jahan, a favourite of his grandfather Akbar, keeps the tradition too. A sky blue canopy is erected above the private audience hall  and under this are many pavilions trellised in silver and draped in brocaded velvet. There are Persian carpets upon the stone floors and the walls of the quadrangle are draped in cloths of gold and velvet. Shah Jahan does not know it, but it will be the last time Navroz will be celebrated in the Mughal court. His successor will ensure it is abolished.


Dara Shikoh: A leader in-the-making. Image: From a Portrait of a Prince (The British Library Board)

For now, there is merriment in the markets and Shah Jahan’s eldest son, Dara Shikoh, has found a few minutes to steal away, under disguise, to the bazaar area and observe things, unhindered. There are vendors of nuts, figs and peaches and from under a tent a fortune teller beckons. Thirteen-year-old Dara walks on past stalls selling pigeons and doves. There are astrologers and fish sellers and even a troupe of tinsel-trimmed dancers winding their way through the din. Dara is at an age where he is beginning to display his leanings which are towards the arts and mysticism. He spends as much time with poets and at the studios of painters as he does with Sufi fakirs. Like his three brothers, Dara has been tutored in a manner that has been laid out for heirs for generations; Persian poetry, history and culture are of importance. Dara’s unfettered outlook is however in stark contrast to the orthodox leaning of his brother, Aurangzeb. 

Shah Jahan’s daughters too are coming into their own. Because Moghul princesses are forbidden from marrying, Shah Jahan’s daughters can and are encouraged to spend more time with studies than other girls their age. The eldest, fourteen-year-old Jahanara, has been particularly diligent under the tutelage of her mother Mumtaz Mahal’s erudite lady-in-waiting, Sati-un-Nissa. Jahanara, who is affectionately known as Chimini or Chimani (Princess Flowerbed) will in later years write the biography of the Sufi saint Muʻin al-Din Chishti. It will be called Muʼnis al-arvā (The Confidant of Spirits).

Outtakes from a 12-hour Work Day


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shah jahanSHAH JAHAN has his work day chalked out. No one could be better suited to high standards of discipline and his is a 12-hour work day. Easily the most precocious of his predecessors, Khurram (as he was known as a child) was a delight to his tutors and excelled not only in memorising texts but in mastering the martial arts.

Today he wakes up before daybreak and runs through his beads till sunrise when he walks over to the jharoka in the outer wall of the palace, to give darshan. This Indian custom, a ‘display’ of the leader before the people, was first introduced by Emperor Akbar into the Court timetable. More practically, for people to witness this proceeding reaffirms their faith in the establishment. From time to time, the Emperor pulls up petitions that have been attached to a rope hanging below, sometimes he looks out at the comings and goings in the workshops further out. Around 8, he withdraws into the diwan-e-am (hall of public audience).


Shah Jahan favoured jharokas in white marble styled with curved bangala roofs supported by balusters; pictured is his jharoka-i-darshan at the Naulakha in Lahore

In this hall, the Emperor takes his place in an alcove before proceedings begin with report submissions on matters of state. After a few hours here, he withdraws to the more relaxing environs of the diwan-e-khas (hall of private audience) where he receives ambassadors and lends a ear to key Court officials. This is the segment he particularly looks forward to because it is here that he gets to sit with architects and discuss plans for alterations to edifices and constructions of new buildings. Shah Jahan takes pride in his grasp of architectural grammar; he took his father by surprise when, at the age of sixteen, he oversaw the design of impressive quarters inside Kabul Fort.

After these discussions and another secret council, he retires to the perfumed zenana apartments for lunch and then a siesta before returning to the halls in the evenings to catch up on remaining work which often lasts till ten at night. On those afternoons and evenings that offers time for leisure, the Emperor and the ladies play cards and sometimes live pachisi (an Indian boardgame) on squares marked on the grounds outside.

A Feast for a Family Reunion


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 shah jahanCELEBRATIONS  for the ruling family only really begin one month later – when Shah Jahan’s sons, who have been away in Lahore for several years, finally reunite with their parents at Agra. Aurangazeb, Dara Shikoh and Shah Shuja have grown up and Mumtaz rushes out to receive them. At the formal greeting ceremony in the diwan-e-am the next day, the sons walk up in a procession to the Imperial jharoka (balcony), where they are each embraced by their father, Shah Jahan. On this occasion the new Emperor honours an important high officer also over from Lahore, Asaf Khan, who is presented with a jewelled scabbard and sword, and a bejewelled robe of honour.


The family reunites after six years. From 17th C painting showing Shah Jahan receiving his three eldest sons (Image source: Royal Collection)

At the first private banquet held for family members in the zenana apartments, imperial cooks prepare a range of dishes themed on white: ethereal biryanis and pulaos, and meats and vegetables coated in well-flavoured white sauces. There is also a special preparation of rogan josh coloured in an eye-catching red from the use of Kashmiri rattan jyot (made from the bark of a tree) and a kichri prepared with dried fruits and a blend of spices. There is a selection of novel European confections prepared by bread makers with experience working among the Portugese who have had a nominla presence in the region running over many decades now. There are apples from Kashmir and Samarqand and mangoes from the Lakh Bagh orchards in Bihar that were commissioned by Shah Jahan’s grandfather, Emperor Akbar. accession3

After washing their hands, they seat themselves cross-legged before carpets covered with leather sheets and white calico. The Emperor asks that some of the banquet be set aside for the needy. The family is then personally served by girls from the harem bearing dishes of silver and gold.

Auspicious Conjunctions at Agra


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shah jahanONCE SHAH JAHAN is summoned to Agra to assume the throne, he sets off from the Deccan. It is a journey of over two months and he makes a brief stop at the Nur Manzil before arriving at Agra. Returning to a city you have left long ago can be daunting, but riding in to be crowned Emperor is to write history; Shah Jahan proceeds along the city’s thoroughfare in a gilded howdah atop a majestic elephant. Yet he only enters the citadel through its Southern Gates at the precise time worked out by astrologers.

He proceeds to the Hall of Audience where the takht nashini (ceremony of accession) takes place. He seats himself on the low, cushioned throne in the royal balcony as the khutba is pronounced. At 36, Shah Jahan is formally declared Emperor. The years of exile, waiting and planning, had been worth it. He takes on the title: sahib-qiran-i thani, Second Lord of Auspicious Conjunctions (Timur, his ancestor, being the First). Mumtaz Mahal, his wife and unfailing companion through his peregrinations, is given the rank of Nawab Mahd Aliya, First Lady. 

Shah Jahan has been well instructed in the protocol for the day. After the coronation, he receives nazar (gifts of money) from the assembled nobility and distributes the same among the people. He also bestows titles and jagirs to officers, commanders, nobles and artists of distinction. Poets recite qasidas in his honour and there is dance and music. The ladies present him with nithar (gifts of money) which, after tradition, is distributed to the needy. Celebrations are marked by fireworks, a series of private banquets, and public food distribution where the common man, awam, is treated to innovative sweet delicacies such as pateesa, which is made from gram flour, and petha, a candy which is made out of ash gourd, an Indian vegetable of ancient vintage.

Shah Jahan ~ 5th Mughal Emperor ~ Coronation: 25 January, 1628


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shah jahanLike his father had before him, Shah Jahan rebels his way to power. He is nonetheless legitimate and carries a strong sense of his Mughal heritage. Developments in the Deccan will demand a great deal of his attention as Emperor, much as it had while he was Prince. At court, the tradition of luxury will be carried on as before but where Jahangir took a personal interest in paintings, Shah Jahan’s domain of connoisseurship will be architecture and ambitious town plans. He does not ignore the visual arts all together; he demonstrates a bias for portraitures, rich colours and gilding. He takes particular interest in jewels, a subject on which he is a respected authority.

He will leave his aesthetic mark in three spectacular commissions – a city, a marble memorial and a golden throne. He will be known as The Builder of Marvels. (Image Source: V&A Museum, South and South East Asian Collection)

May the Jade Cup be Forever like a Ruby


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Wine cup owned by Jahangir, 17th Century (Image Source: V&A Museum, South and South East Asian Collection)

Az shah-e Jahangir, jahan yaft-e nezam
az aks-e sharab-e lal rangesh bada
yaqut-asa piyale-ye
yashm-e modam

Through the world-conquering Shah, the world found order
Our time became filled with light by the radiance of his justice.
From the reflection of his spinel-coloured wine,
May the jade cup be forever like a ruby.

– Sa’ida-ye Gilani, calligrapher in Jahangir’s Court

AFTER 22 YEARS OF OVERSEEING THE EMPIRE bequeathed to him by his father, Jahangir passes on from this world. This follows a brief capture by renegades and a brave intervention by Nur Jahan who secures his release. In the end, neither wine nor opiates would give relief and he had long ago given up hope of a rapprochement with Khurram, now Shah Jahan.

In the tumult following his demise, Nur Jahan, Jahangir’s twentieth and final wife, unarguably the real power at the helm, is briefly placed under house arrest before she relents to all demands that she relinquish further interest in politics. They needn’t have asked; she had already decided to withdraw.

In mourning, bereft of her life companion and with no special kinship with the Emperor-in-waiting, Nur Jahan retires to a mansion with her daughter. She makes no further claim to influence in any new equation and spends her new life on poetry, gardening and the arts. Years later, when she sees her own end, she has her mausoleum commissioned at Lahore, oversees its details and lends one of her own verses to be engraved upon her tomb:

“On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing.”

Retreats, Rebellion & Solace in a Pet Deer


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Shah Jahan enjoys a period of idyllic refuge at Jag Mandir, Udaipur. Image: From 18 C painting showing Maharana Ari Singh at Jag Mandir (Maharana of Mewar Charitable foundation)

Jahangir2THE EVENTS OF THE LAST YEAR have tired out Jahangir who – now at Lahore after resolving an internal rebellion – desires to repair to Kashmir for recovery. It is a measure of his condition that he has entrusted to a courtier the important task of updating his journal; the last in his line to write the journals in his own hand, was Babur, and and Jahangir’s personal commitment to keeping a faithful record of impressions, matches his great grandfather’s.

Shah Jahan meanwhile, in the middle of a rebellion, is being hosted by a series of friends and allies. Being Rajput from his mother’s side, it is no surprise that he is more comfortable taking up an invitation from Rajasthan. For a while he is hosted at Udaipur by Karan Singh, the Rana of Mewar. In fact Shah Jahan, Mumtaz and their six children are the first guests to stay at a newly completed domed structure named Gul Mahal in the larger lake palace complex known as the Jag Mandir. Its marble walls are inlaid with glass, mirror work, cornelian, rubies and jade and Mumtaz and the children are charmed and dazzled. As Emperor, Shah Jahan will invoke details he admires here in a future structure that will be known as the Taj Mahal.


A lodge built in memory of a pet deer, gives solace. Image: From a 19th C Mughal painting

Jahangir meanwhile is staying for increasingly longer stretches at Kashmir. But nothing is bringing cheer. Even deer hunting, which always exhilarates him, only makes him more despondent. Instead for a while, he finds a greater measure at calm spending time at the Hiran Minar, a memorial he had built several years earlier, to his favourite pet antelope, Mansraj.

Overspread with Shadowy Knolls


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Jahangir2JAHANGIR HAS A CHOICE of many summer homes like the Neelkanth summer house at Mandu built into the fort many decades ago, on his father’s orders. He still remembers his first sight of the hill fortress when he arrived there to make it the next capital. It called to mind the words of a poem:

Seen from afar, amid dust-laden clouds
The citadel loomed forth, severe and grand
Like a mountain overspread with shadowy knolls
Whose tracery the setting sun scarce limned.

Jahangir recites the same lines on his visit to the Garden of Gulfashan on a brief visit to Agra towards the end of summer. He is quoting from Diwan, a work by a poet called Anwari; a work well loved by his father. But right now as he sees through the last appointments for the day and has his meal brought in, he is preoccupied. His failing health and Shah Jahan’s repeated open rebellions have made it clear that matters have a reached a point beyond repair.

Right now, having dined on a few items of rich dishes, it is a different kind of poet that mirrors his mood. A poet he had the privilege of knowing while he was still a prince. This was a Sufi Saint of Punjab who created the style of poetry known as kafi. He set the streets of Lahore on fire with his unfettered verses.


Jahangir goes about his duties, but has a lot on his mind. Image: From 17th C painting, Jahangir receives a prisoner

As Jahangir looks out over the terrace and ponders the decisions of Shah Jahan, verses by the poet Madhu Lal Shah Husain come to mind:

Dukhan di roti, soolaan da saalan,
Aahen da baalan baal
(Bread of sorrow, sauce of thorns,
Creates a fire of laments)

These are one of many verses by the Sufi poet who will for centuries to come, be celebrated in his home town at the Mela Chiraghan, the Festival of Lights that marks his death anniversary (urs).

Kashmir: In the Soul-enchanting Spring


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Jahangir2SHE’S HAD SIX GLASSES of keora sherbet in the last hour. The thin streams of cool air from the indoor water channels are a relief, but as soon as Nur Jahan parts the khus curtain to step out, she is arrested by a wall of heat. Though they were sprinkled twice already, the Imperial gardens are wearing a veil of dust. Further out, the Yamuna is down to a stream. There is really only one way out of the oppression of the impending summer. She will leave for the cooler environs of Kashmir, where she will be joined a little later by Jahangir.

It will not be Jahangir’s first retreat to Kashmir as Emperor. He still remembers watching the harvest of the saffron fields as a child in the company of his father, who came to regard Kashmir as his private garden. Of Kashmir, he writes in his journals:

In the soul-enchanting spring,
the hills and plains are filled with blossoms,
the gates, the walls, the courts, the roofs are lighted up
by the torches of banquet-adoring tulips.

Jahangir has already had many pleasure gardens built in Kashmir, notably: Shalimar Bagh, Achabal and Nishat Bagh. But his special favourite are the pavilions at Vernag, the spring at the source of River Jhelum. The construction of the pavilion garden at Vernag has only recently been completed and guests at the party held a while back to mark its completion, marvelled at the arcades, walkways, baradaris and its overall effect of being one with the landscape, as they drank of the wine and ate peaches the Emperor had specially ordered from Kabul. 

This time as Jahangir spends the afternoon at Vernag, he has attendants catch the carp in the central tank and release them back after placing gold nose rings on each fish. As he walks back looking up at the hills rising in the distance, he tells Nur that if he could choose the place where he should die, it would have to be Vernag.


Panorama of Mughal pavilion built around the spring at Vernag, Kashmir. Image Source: Wikipedia

Pets & Paintings at the Imperial Court


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Jahangir2EMPEROR JAHANGIR’S IMPERIAL routine is hardly a cakewalk: getting up at sunrise, giving darshan at his jharoka (balcony), receiving requests or complaints, returning to catch up on rest, going back to review the parade before presiding at the diwan-e-aam and then to the confidential closed door meetings with the mansabdars, the high officials. 

As public duties go, it is the diwan-e-aam that he enjoys the most. It is in this segment that ambassadors and merchants from other kingdoms vie for his attention with novel gifts. His advisers had informed him of the arrival of an English ambassador a while back. Jahangir however cannot say he is pleased with the quality of gifts offered so far by this delegate: items of velvet and leather that show every sign of the journey they have come through. The mastiffs however he greatly appreciates. In fact Jahangir feeds them himself with a pair of gold tongs.


Jahangir takes an interest in what visitors can present. Image: From a 17th C painting The Great Mughal Jahangir’s Darbar, David Collection Museum, Denmark

Jahangir appreciates the paintings brought in by the Ambassador. This is praise coming from a recognised connoisseur. For even while he was still Prince, Jahangir had set up his own studios in Allahabad where he did away with the factory style of painting production preferred by his father, instead he had single artists take control of every aspect of a painting. As Emperor, he has whittled down the team of Akbar’s artists, retaining only the best in this new approach.

In light of the current techniques of European art, Jahangir encourages his artists to experiment with multi-point perspective, to develop standing portraits and also to introduce allegorical elements, after a fashion, while keeping with tradition.

Jahangir’s Pearl Earrings of Devotion


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Till then a sign of indentured service to a master, ear-piercing becomes a trend when Jahangir has his done

KHWAJA MOINNUDIN CHISTI is his spiritual patron and Jahangir undertakes pilgrimages to Ajmer whenever he can. On one of his most recent visits he experiences a serious health relapse that takes a turn for the worse. He prays to his Khwaja and stages a quick recovery that takes his doctors by surprise. Once he has fully recovered, he has his ears pierced as a sign that he is a ‘ear-bored slave’ of his patron, and wears pearl earrings. In a matter of a few months, pearl earrings are in high demand among men of rank and fashionistas.

However he also seeks out the wisdom of gurus of the age like Miyan Mir, the Sufi saint to whom Nur Jahan is particularly devoted. Jahangir has special affection for the Vaishanavite yogi by the name of Jadrup. Jahangir has his retinue stop at a distance, while he proceeds on foot, to a hole in the hillside to convene with this esteemed hermit who lives there. In his own words, Jahangir describes the ascetic as being one of ‘unusual grace, a lofty understanding, an exalted nature and keen intellectual powers’.

Back at the palace, Nur Jahan has been spending time in a private studio with weavers and artists, discussing new carpet patterns. She has been seeing quite a few examples of English art and needlework and thinks on the whole, their work is easily surpassed, while they also suggest new boundaries of design. In fact for some years now, the East India Company has been sending carpets from Lahore to England where they are in high demand, and being used, curiously enough, as table coverings.


Carpets sent to England are sometimes used as table coverings in the early stages of their introduction. Late 16th to early 17th Century Mughal Carpet (Image courtesy:

Shah Jahan weds Arjumand Banu


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Shah Jahan at his wedding procession. Photo of painting at National Museum, New Delhi. Photo by:

Jahangir2A WHILE BACK JAHANGIR had called a surprise evening party to celebrate the full moon. There was music, poetry and surprising hors d’œuvres and the novelty of the occasion made it memorable for many. Today however is a celebration that both he and Nur Jahan have been awaiting for close to five years. This is how long ago Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan had been betrothed to Arjumand Banu but the stars willed their marriage would only happen this year.

Arjumand Banu is Nur Jahan’s niece and the aunt has been personally involved in details of the bride’s wardrobe for several months. Today she will be wearing a gilt-edged red sari encrusted with semi-precious stones and pearls. Shah Jahan will be wearing an embroidered cream jama (overcoat) fastened diagonally at his right shoulder, over trousers with a mango print and silk mojari.


Arjumand Banu becomes Mumtaz, a future Mughal Empress. Miniature source:

Yesterday was Shah Jahan’s hennabandi ceremony. For this, henna was sent in a procession from the bride’s home, along with other gifts including perfume, incense, betel leaves and the ever-auspicious sugar candy. In keeping with tradition, he was dressed in apparel specially picked for him by the bride’s father.

Soon after Jahangir ties the sehra (veil of pearls) to the forehead of his son, drums and trumpets announce the start of the wedding procession to the home of Nur Jahan’s father (Arjumand’s grandfather), the Itimad-ud-daulah. A cavalcade of princes and elites atop caparisoned horses and princesses in palanquins, wind their way down teeming thouroughfares and streets, preceded by musicians and kenchens (dancers). On arriving, the revelries continue unabated and only pause briefly when the Kazi performs his blessings. The party lasts till the next morning when the couple return to the house of the groom.

Arjumand Banu enters the royal palace as Mumtaz.

Coffee is Pleasing to Princes


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Public domain image, royalty free stock photo from www.public-domain-image.comJahangir2Coffee is pleasing to princes
The water of Khidr is concealed within; In the gloomy kitchen filled with smoke, The coffeepot seems like the source of life!

– Qati’i in praise of coffee

PROHIBITION MAY BE IN PLACE in the Mughal Empire, but there’s another beverage that’s sending waves among the trading community, nobility and by extension those lucky to manage their kitchens. Jahangir enjoys a cup of coffee himself from time to time and he already sees how helpful it is in keeping one awake. Just as surely as wine and opium sends him to sleep. Qati’i, the composer of the above verses tells the Emperor that the beans were discovered by a revered Sufi mystic of North Africa named Shadhili. 


Following an ancient Indian custom, Jahangir will be weighed on his birthday just as his son is here. Image: From 17th C painting Image Source: British Museum

Nur Jahan meanwhile, is busy organising celebrations to mark Jahangir’s birthday. This day will, according to tradition, feature his weighing on golden scales against bags of gold, silver and precious stones, brocade and food. Like more than a few Mughal customs, this one is taken from the long-held practice among local rulers known as tuladana

Once the weighing is concluded, the coins and bags against which the sovereign have been weighed, are then thrown among the invitees and courtiers. Even citizens of the Mughal Empire are on occasion honoured with such weighing, after which they are rewarded with their weight in coins.

Later this afternoon Nur Jahan has a game of polo scheduled. Jahangir, meanwhile, has been mulling over gifting a suitable honour to his son Shah Jahan for an impressive string of recent conquests on the field. He finally calls in his scribes and instructs them to compile his memoirs into a single volume. This volume he will present to his son.

Nur Jahan: From High Fashion to Architectural Vision


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Nur Jahan’s formidable knowledge of embroidery translates seamlessly to the inlay work throughout the marble structure of her father’s tomb. Image source: Wikipedia

Jahangir2BETWEEN TENDING TO THE splendour of the palace, managing feasts as well as looking into grants and signing firmans, Nur Jahan indulges her flair for design. She has had an interest in textiles since childhood and now as queen, her talents reach a wider audience. She interacts regularly with textile specialists and becomes responsible for encouraging and introducing new styles such as the floral patterned muslin known as dudami, a cotton cloth known as panchtoliya, perfect for veils, and badhah – a glittering silver-threaded lace which is all the rage among the ladies.

By no means are her fashions restricted to the elite. Nur Jahan makes a conscious effort to reach out to all classes and to this end introduces a budget brocade perfect for marriage finery; it is called Nur Mahal. The fashion trends she kicks off turn out to have timeless appeal too – and a kurti-trouser design credited to her will be a rage centuries later. The style of white floor sheet known as farsh-i-chandani too will shine through time.


Nur Jahan’s involvement in the design of her father’s tomb, heralds a new phase in Mughal architecture.

Her formidable knowledge and immersion in textiles and embroidery inform her architectural inputs. In the jewel-box tomb she designs for her father, Itimad-ud-Daulah (Ghiyas Beg), she has the flooring around the cenotaphs fashioned with floral carpet designs and hands the head mason embroidery designs she would like to see carved as reliefs upon the arches. It strikes both Nur Jahan and the mason that on white this could very much evoke the style of chikankari embroidery.

This tomb, a forerunner to the Taj Mahal, will be one of the first Mughal examples of a building made entirely of white marble and one pioneering the extensive use of a sophisticated style of marble inlaid with precious stones. Nur Jahan’s mother, meanwhile, is wasting none of her time in developing her interests and has developed an ittr that has become quite famous. Distilled from roses, it is called ittr-e-gulab. Demand for it has been phenomenal and mother must call up daughter for help in making arrangements for larger supplies.

A King should be like the Moon


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Rahiman Raaj Sarahie,
Sasi Sam Sukhad Jo Hoy |
Kaha Baapuro Bhaanu Hai 
Tapyo Taraiyan Khoy |

(A King should be like the Moon.
The Sun creates far too much heat
and takes away the sparkle from the stars.)

– a doha by Khan-i-Khana

A COURT POET RECITES this couplet credited to Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana. Khan-i-Khana was none other than a Navratna in Akbar’s Court. He was an important general but he was also popular for his dohas (a style of couplet) written in Hindi and Braj basha. While Jahangir himself wasn’t particularly fond of Rahim for his stand on Akbar’s succession, he finds this couplet genuinely praiseworthy and rewards the reciter with a turban and a shawl.


The dohas of Khan-i-Khana, a Navratna in the Court of Akbar, will prove as
popular in the future as they were in his own lifetime.

 He receives many poets at his Court, a good number from Central Asia. Jahangir is fluent in Persian, Turkish, Arabic and he can manage a bit of Portugese. It is in Persian that he converses with guests from Central Asia. One such guest is a distinguished poet by the name of Mutribi Samarqandi. Jahangir likes nothing more than to hear a guest tell him how dazzled he is by Hindustan. In one of their many exchanges, Jahangir decides to surprise him by placing a large sugar candy on the guest’s seat in advance of his arrival. This sugar candy has been specially commissioned from a sweetmaker in Lucknow. In fact Mutribi is amazed to see the candy and says he has never seen anything like it before. He tells Jahangir that he will take it back to his home country, Turan, and offer it to a respected Sufi figure.

Clearly food possesses a unique power to amaze. Jahangir ensures that Mutribi is treated to the food of Mughal nobles. Consequently Mutribi gets an insight into the staple meals of the region’s elite – these include a kabuli pilaf made with meat and rice, spiced with ginger, onions and zeera (carraway seeds); this is accompanied with a dish made of chickpeas. Dal and rice is something of a classic meal and Jahangir’s own favorite is a khichri made from peas and millet.

Mutribi personally enjoys a treat that is something of a rage at the moment – called sarpacha, it consists of sheep feet in a delicate though tangy stew of mint, lemon and vinegar.

The Art of Setting Up Camp


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Jahangir2A CONVOY CAN LEAVE A TRAIL of public utilities every place it passes through. In the case of the Mughal camp, this is most certainly the case. So many serais, public wells and kos minars are the incidental gifts of the peripatetic Mughals. With camping techniques perfected over generations, Jahangir, a creature of the Court, has quickly taken a shine to the indulgence of Imperial-style travel.


Camping with convenience. Image: From 17th C painting showing Jahangir served by his sons (British Museum)

As soon as the orders for movement are issued, the best routes are chalked out, an advance camp sets out, finds a suitable spot, erects tents and places furnishings well before the royal contingent and trailing crew arrive. At each location, the contingent stay a minimum of two days before they head forth again on camels, horses, howdahs, in palanquins, to the next spot, where once again tents are erected by the advance team. Nothing is rushed. So the camp doesn’t move more than 13 kilometres a day. The calvacade-on-the-move also serves an endless source of entertainment for residents of the cities, towns and villages they pass by.

This is how Jahangir and his city-sized retinue arrive at the new capital in Ajmer. When England’s first ambassador comes a-calling, it’s not at Agra or Delhi that he presents his credentials, but at this Imperial camp in Ajmer. In three years, this precise camp will be burned down to ensure everyone’s on board before the Mughal contingent moves to their next capital at Mandu.

A Feast “better than Apicius could have made”


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Jiski Khushboo Se Mehek Utthe Fizza
Jiski Rangat Se Bhi Aa Jaye Maza
Ho Nafees Aur Lazeez Har Luqma
Zaiqa Iska Ho Har Ek As Se Juda
Kha Ke Ho Jaye Jehvan Khush Mehman
Hum Bechaate Hain Wahi Dasarkhan.                                                 – Rizvi

(The odour of that which pervades the air, a sight which adds to its flavour; aesthetic and appetizing is every morsel, with a taste unmatched and unique, prepared just to please our guest, is the meal that we serve upon the dastarkhwan.)

WHEN IT COMES TO HOSPITALITY, few Courts in the world can surpass the Mughals. For decades now, Turkish ambassadors, Persian nobles and Portugese travellers have been passing through the Mughal Capital. Under Jahangir, the English make a tentative entry. Thomas Roe has the honour of not so much breaking ice as gearing for a signature Mughal welcome that has been the talk among ambassadors and merchants for many years. On the bidding of King James I, Roe comes to the Mughal Court to ask for specific favours for the East India Company.

One day he is invited to a private meal by Asaf Khan, Emperor Jahangir’s brother-in-law, easily among the most influential in the kingdom. As the opening of the tent is parted, the incense wafts over the arriving guests. Plush carpets have been laid and as soon as they seat themselves a white calico sheet is placed over the carpets. Upon this, attendants place gilt-edged silver dishes one after another. There are pilafs and rice dishes that are coloured yellow, purple, green, by saffron and eye-catching dyes.   


Thomas Roe is the first English ambassador to visit the Mughal Court Image: Painting showing Roe presenting his credentials to Jahangir at Ajmer; canvas commissioned in 1927.

Though the visitors will note later that they experience great difficulty in sitting cross-legged throughout the feast, they agree it is all worth it. They find it remarkable that meat of fowl is not served in whole parts as is their custom, but cut into slices and garnished with herbs, roots, onion, ginger and other spices. Of this, Roe’s companion observes “it was better than the way it was done in England”. Roe is bowled over by the spread of sweet-dishes – jellies and aspics, ambergris-scented puddings made from almonds, chicken and rice; nut-studded halwah, dressed tubers, fruit salads, candied roots and sun-dried plums. He also remarks at water, served from tinned copper jugs, being the perfect accompanying drink for the Indian meal.

Roe’s companion also takes up an invitation to a more humble abode he passes by one evening. Here, once again seated cross-legged on the floor, he eats a meal this time of simple bread prepared upon a tawa and rice boiled with green ginger and pepper. He is surprised that this plain meal supplies him with sufficient energy to carry him coolly through the remainder of a humid day.

Nankhatai & the Making of Nur Jahan


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Jahangir2AT THE ROYAL MEENA BAZAAR for ladies, organised as part of the annual Navroz celebrations, Emperor Jahnagir’s stepmother does the rounds of the stalls that showcase the handiwork of the women of the palace and nobility. She is accompanied by her chief lady-in-waiting, Mehrunissa. Mehrunissa is a young lady of many talents; she is adept at Arabic and Persian and accomplished at cooking, sewing, dancing, painting and interior decoration. She is a book-collector and pens poetry under the name Makhfi. If there’s one stall at the Meena Bazaar that Mehrunissa always looks out for it is the confectionary stall. Street stalls were her favourite haunt as a child but ever since adolescence, she’s had to depend on servants to procure street delicacies for her on their daily errands. Today she briefly excuses herself to spend some time at the shaan khatai stall.

When Jahangir takes his rounds of the bazaar on the last day of festivities, he comes upon Mehrunissa for the first time. She is gorging on sugared batasha, even as she’s having some nan khatai packed to take away. She turns round with her hands full, barely able to smile for the biscuits she has yet to swallow. At the sight of her, he approaches his stepmother for an introduction. He is surprised to learn that she is the daughter of Mirza Ghiyasuddin Beg, a prominent figure in his father’s government, currently serving as Itimad-ud-Daulah (Pillar of the Government) in his own Court. Jahangir makes his interest known immediately, proceedings are initiated, and in two months, he is married to Mehrunissa, now Nur Jahan.


Nur Jahan – A weakness for nankhatai biscuits takes her far. Her own special recipe for nankhatai will be known as khas khatai. Image: From an 18th C painting of Nur Jahan.

In fact Nur Jahan is more than just an accomplished housekeeper. She has quite a reputation as a shikari. As queen she will accompany Jahangir on his pleasure hunts and on one occasion, will kill four tigers with just six bullets.

Nur Jahan will come to be the most prominent and proactive First Lady in Mughal history. She will be the only Mughal Empress to have coins minted in her name. In an unprecedented move, she now sits alongside Jahangir at the imperial jharoka as he grants audience. But she will never forget that it was the feast of Navroz that helped her meet Jahangir. As queen, this feast will be celebrated with special fervour at her quarters. She doles out gifts, honours and handfuls of a ‘khichri’ of precious stones, gold, silver coins and pearls. On Navroz, the walls, carpets, walls and costumes of everyone in her quarters, are coordinated according to auspicious colours of the day. She arranges for free banquets to be served across the city.

Continuity, Kingship & Navroz


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Cupbearer! Brighten my cup with the light of wine; Sing, minstrel, for the world has ordered itself as I desire.              – Hafiz

HAVING WAITED IN THE WINGS long enough, he’s had plenty time to chalk out a wish list. For starters, he will no longer be known as Salim. He will be Jahangir, Seizer of the World. 

Like his father, he is keen to be seen as just. A few months earlier, he had re-erected an Ashokan Pillar at Akbar’s Allahabad Fort. Here Mughal inscriptions and the lineage share space with Ashoka’s edicts. Now as  Padshah, he grants a general pardon of prisoners. But his very first order relates to a ‘chain of justice’. Fitted with bells, this chain of gold will extend from the top of the royal tower at Agra to a point on the banks of the Yamuna. Anyone with a long-standing grievance may pull this chain for speedy redressal.

Out in full force. Image: From 17th C painting in the Jahangir-nama depicting celebrations,

He rolls a dozen special regulations mostly angled at a public goodwill. These include the creation of towns, hospitals and serais. The imprint of Akbar is especially clear in his announcement banning the slaughter of animals on certain days of the week and other periods, such as the month of his birth. The more curious of his regulations is the ban on the production and consumption of alcohol. This is unusual because his own appreciation of wine is well known and earlier, even a cause for concern. However this move stems from his own battle with dependance and his concern that it should not plague his people.

The ban is fluid however, and some occasions will call for it to be set aside. So in the capital city’s first celebration of Navroz under Jahangir, there is a free flow of drinks and exhilaraion. The city is festooned with brightly coloured fabrics and dancing lulis and charmers keep up the mood over many days.

Jahangir ~ 4th Mughal Emperor ~ Coronation: 24 October, 1605


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GENTLE, DEBONAIR, BUT ALSO MERCURIAL, Prince Salim comes to the throne already keyed in to the workings of the Mughal Court. He is not a great general or strategist, but with the bright team he has been left with, this is well taken care of. There is one department in which he easily eclipses his predecessors. The Arts. He is an expert in the minutiae of miniature painting, calligraphy, literature and precious stones. His forebears too have nurtured the arts, but under Jahangir, they receive especial attention. The body of work and lively experimentation in style encouraged under his patronage, will stand testament to the ability of the artists and to Jahangir’s earnest interest.

Like the Rays of the Sun and the Moon


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akbar_sketchSOME THREE DECADES AGO, Akbar had prayed desperately for an heir. He was given three. Today as he paces his terrace, the thought of his eldest, Salim, sets him on edge. He may not have gone to seed like his brothers, but indiscipline combined with wreckless ambition does no one any favours. In fact he has already casually crowned himself on one occasion in Allahabad, though few took note of it.

Akbar must make a decision. His energy is deserting him and he no longer presides over the daily durbars. He rarely makes an appearance at either the Diwan-i-aam or the Diwan-i-khas. He has issued orders for the construction of his own mausoleum at Sikandara, close to Agra. In a few months he is taken ill. A conference of elders and nobles is convened to decide on a successor. Not surprisingly, a few would rather Salim’s son Khusrau take over instead of the petulant heir apparent. However, it is finally decided that Salim should follow, in the course of natural succession, and Akbar himself gives his approval. From his bed, Akbar directs his son to put on the imperial robes and girdle the fath-ul-mulk, the hereditary sword of their line.


Waiting in the wings – Prince Salim. Image: From 17th C painting of Prince Salim, by Bichtir (V&A Collection) Top Image: 19th C painting of Akbar’s mausoleum near Agra (British Library)

Akbar passes from this world on his birthday (in the Gregorian Calendar) on an autumn night in 1605. The next morning, his body is led out in a quiet procession and laid to rest at his mausoleum at Sikandara. Immediately next to the slab above his resting place are placed his special books and raiment. An inscription on an entrance gate to the mausoleum reads: ‘May his soul shine like the rays of the sun and the moon …’

Akbar’s legacy is unquestionable – not only did his strategic genius broaden the realm of the Mughal Empire, his wisdom ensured that he commanded unprecedented awe within the Empire and abroad. Akbar is a pioneering champion of religious freedom at a time when his counterparts in adjoining and distant kingdoms only knew of victimising dissenters to the state line.

The Empire is in mourning; religious texts are recited in cities throughout the domain. Prince Salim will assume the throne in a week.

A City of Victory, For the Time Being


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akbarTHE PALACE COMPLEX is taking shape at his new capital, Fatehpur Sikri. Of all its sections, it is in the diwan-i khas, the hall of private audience, that Akbar takes particular interest. He has asked his architect to share sketches, suggested improvements and finally arrived at a suitable plan.

The diwan-i-khas, like quite a few other courtyard-facing buildings in the complex, is rimmed with chatris and adorned with carved brackets. The building houses one large hall with a central pillar that supports a throne higher up. From this throne, bridges lead out to other platforms. The form is clearly that of the mandala and the pillar bearing 36 brackets carved with regional motifs, represents the centre of the universe in local cosmology.


Central pillar at the Diwan-i-Khas (Wiki Commons; Liang Chang)

After a period of 14 years, the city and the palace are finally realised. Everything has been looked into: there is even a large lake that has been made to take care of the city’s water needs. Within this city’s red walls, are schools and entertainment grounds for elephant matches and circuses. The palace grounds are dominated by buildings for state departments such as the Treasury, and spaces for Akbar’s official duties, such as the Diwan-i-Khas. An interesting feature in the complex, is what looks like a giant board game. In fact it is a life-size chequered stone board upon which Akbar plays pachisi, directing gamely members of his staff as board pieces.

Close to his own private chambers in the palace complex, there is a tank, the Anup Talao, with a central platform from which Tansen plays some his celebrated raags. However it is upon the platform of the pleasure pool over at the House of the Turkish Sultana that Tansen famously performs his Deepak raag that potentially sets the whole scene ablaze.

Fatehpur Sikri, however will not remain capital for long. Akbar will move to Lahore and then back to Agra, and the Mughal Empire’s capital will move with him. His three sons are growing up fast and are soon enough given independent charge of missions across the Empire. It is also becoming clear to Akbar that his eldest son, Salim is growing restless; he has already begun to ignore orders and demand greater control.

A Successor and a Legacy of Sarv Dharm


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River-like generosity, sun-like affection, earth-like hospitality.

Attributes that endear man to the Divine, in the words of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti  

AKBAR HAS AN ENVIABLE RECORD of victories. He has the people’s awe and his courtiers’ attentions, but even with his teeming harem, he does not have a successor. He approaches a Sufi mystic of the Chisti order. Shaikh Salim Chisti who lives in a modest dwelling at Fatehpur Sikri, tells Akbar with preternatural conviction, that he will have three sons.


Shaikh Salim Chisti’s prophecy is fulfilled in the birth of Salim. Image: 16th Century painting depicting moment after birth of Salim to Jodha Bai

Akbar is buoyed and when in a few weeks, news arrives that his Rajput wife, Jodha Bai, is with child, Akbar sets off barefoot on a thanksgiving pilgrimage to the dargah at Ajmer. On August 30, 1569, a son is born to him – he is named Salim after the mystic who foretold his arrival. He will later be known as Jahangir, but even when he grows up, Akbar will only ever call him by his pet name, Shaikhu Baba.

Akbar resolves to build up the town of Fatehpur Sikhri, in honour of his spiritual guide, Shaikh Salim Chisti. Heavily inspired by local and Rajput aesthetics, the royal palace and fort takes shape from the red sandstone of the area. He has already instructed that the Diwan-i-khas (Hall of Private Audience) be designed on the principles of the mandala.

One afternoon, after telling off a quarellsome right-winger in his service and assigning him the task of translating the Mahbharata into Persian, Akbar heads out to his pleasure city at Nagarcin, south of Agra, where a polo match awaits him. He arrives late in the evening and the match is played in spite of the darkness thanks to a suggestion that they set fire to the ball. They quench their thirst with sherbets cooled from ice that has just been carried off the boats from the mountains beyond Punjab.

Before he retires for the day, he thinks of the city taking shape at Fatehpur Sikri and for a brief moment remembers his own father’s unfulfilled ambitions for Dinpannah – a refuge for the aesthete and the spiritualist. He will succeed where his father has failed. There is a reason why Fatehpur Sikri is called The City of Victory. It will be emblematic of the composite future of the country. It will embody Sarv Dharm.

A Mughal Feast with Rajput Flavours


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akbarALMOST AS SOON AS HE’S BACK, there’s a marriage lined up. His own. Akbar has been engaged for some weeks now; months back he had narrowed in on the profile a Rajput princess, daughter of Raja Bihari Mal of Amber. The betrothal dovetails nicely with the strategic moves Akbar is making on Rajput strongholds. However, the princess, Harkha/Jodha Bai, has plenty of charm besides. As for the feast – at least two of his navratnas, not to mention the begums of the harem, take personal interest in cuisine for special occasions. One is the Chief Cook (Mir Bakawal) who is Hakim Humam, the other his Akbar’s personal biographer, Abu Fazl who tries out every new dish. The attention to every meal is heightened on feast days, but even on normal days, each item is supervised by the Mir Bakawal, food is served in dishes of silver, gold, earthenware and stone, each tied in cloth onto which is affixed a seal and the name of the dish.


The piece de resistance will be the Rajput dish murgh mussamman: precursor to the later Mughal interpretation,murgh musallam

This feast will feature plenty of Rajput culinary favourites, notably murgh mussamman – slow cooked in a manner similar to dum pukht. Akbar may not be a gourmand, but he is a taskmaster for culinary quality; the finest dishes are granted the suffix ‘Akbar’ and these will be no doubt be served at the marriage reception. It is said one chicken preparation had to be worked on more than 200 times, before it was deemed worthy of being called Murgh Akbari. This feast will also see the premier of a pilaf dedicated to his nine grandees – appropriately called navratna, studded with vegetables made to look like jewels. There will be especially improved versions of zard biryani, saag, qabuli, qima shorba, yakhni and mutanja.


And the feasting begins. This image from a 16th Mughal painting depicting celebrations at the marraige of Adham Khan gives an idea of the mood (V&A Collection).

Buildings are dressed in glittering gossamer awnings, streets of the bazaars are lit for whole weeks. As is the custom, the day before his wedding, Akbar receives gifts of betel leaves, sugar candy and henna from the bride’s family. His hands and feet are patterned with henna and he wears the clothes sent by the bride before heading to a party exclusively for the male guests. On the day of his wedding, dressed in red and decked in floral garlands, he puts on the beaded sehra, mounts the horse and heads in a procession through the festooned thoroughfares packed with well-wishers, to the bride’s home where the ceremony of betrothal is conducted.

From here, the party heads back to the Mughal halls for the main feast.

A Meditation on the Chisti Silsila


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Akbar pays his respects at the dargah of Khwajah Moinuddin Chisti at Ajmer. Image: From a 16th Century watercolour painting by Basawan (V&A Collection)

akbarTHERE IS A MYSTIC known as the Sun of the Kingdom of Hind, Aftab Mulk-i-Hind. Founder of the Chisti Silsila, he walked the earth in the 13th Century. Also known as Khwaja Ajmeri, Moinuddin Chisti laid the foundations of
a mystical order that is the most important in the region.

Akbar is a great devotee of the Chisti Silsila. He frequently visits the Delhi dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, a famous Saint of the Chisti Silsila. But he has not yet made the visit to the dargah of the founding Saint at Ajmer. The city of Ajmer, famous for being the karma bhoomi of the great King Prithvi Raj Chauhan, is now under Mughal dominion.

Today, Akbar is inspired by the songs of minstrels, and wastes no time in having his men arrange for his departure. He sets off from the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, then to the dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki at Mehrauli, before proceeding to Ajmer. The only missing link in this Urs that traces the Silsila, is a visit to the dargah of Baba Farid, disciple of Qutbuddin Kaki and guru to Nizamuddin Auliya. His dargah however is located much further away in Pakpattan (Punjab). To compensate, Akbar takes blessings from the khadims at the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya; the khadims are direct
descendants of Baba Farid, Nizamuddin having adopted the Baba’s children as his own.

The roads on the way to Ajmer are served well by sarais in the musaffir khana tradition, no doubt prompted by the flow of pilgrims. These inns serve everything from the simple khameeri roti made from sharbatti atta, to shammi kebabs and qaliya. There is also a chulao that appears to be a sarai favourite. This rice dish is the prototype for what will, several centuries later, become the famous sarai ki biryani.

Many pilgrims pour in and out of the dargah and Akbar is pleased to notice that officials make it a point to feed the poor as well as the hungry and tired pilgrims. However he cannot fail to note that their whole operation can do with a lot more organisation, a centralised Imperial order. A big cauldron for starters, would be a great idea for community cooking.


The dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti as it stands today.

Akbar pays his respects at the dargah and returns. He will make several more visits to Ajmer in the future – as many as fourteen. One of his most notable endowments to the dargah which can be seen to this day – will be his gift of a giant degh (cauldron) which can cook up to 2400 kilos of food.

The purely vegetarian food known as Niaz consists mostly of rice cooked with ghee, sugar, jaggery, nuts and saffron. Prepared much the same way today as when Akbar got it organised all those centuries ago.

The Two-Onion Mystic & Nine Gems


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akbarIN SIX YEARS OF RULE, Akbar has understood the importance of sound advice. The importance of being surrounded by persons of skill, judgement and nous. To this end, he has picked out his Navratnas. Nine Jewels. More than just ministers, this elite group of advisors are invested with powers that extend beyond their department. This means that Hakim Humam, one of Akbar’s Navratnas, who is the Mir Bakawal (Chief Cook) is also called up in the capacity of diplomat, connoisseur of poetry, and even to consult on matters of science.

Only last year, news of the extraordinary musical talents of Tansen, reached Akbar’s notice. Akbar has been taking music lessons since childhood and his Court needed a worthy Chief Musician. He had persuaded the King of Rewa to send over Tansen. In his very first performance, Tansen impresses Akbar sufficiently for him to announce that the musician will now be among the elite team of Navratnas.

Many of the Navratnas have pedigreed, classical training, but a few, like Mullah Do Piaza, have proven themselves on the job. Trained in philosophy and adept at Arabic and Persian, he was eager to perform in any capacity at Akbar’s Court and has steadily risen through the ranks – from poultry-caretaker to librarian – by proving his excellence. As a member of the elite corps, he now advises on jurisprudence.


It takes some plodding before this Navratna arrives at the secret of the perfect Do Piaza. Image: From 18th Century Deccan portrait of Mullah Do Piaza

One of Mullah Do Piaza’s side-interests is cooking. Eager to showcase his culinary chops, he throws parties regularly at his home and encourages people to walk in for a good meal. These feasts are also an opportunity to gauge tastes and arrive at flavour combinations that draw widespread approval. As one-time Court librarian he has had access to some exceptional recipes such as those in the Nimmatnama-i Nasiruddin-Shahi (Book of Recipes) which records the making of preparations in the Kingdom of Mandu, under a King who took a personal interest in the art of cooking. It is from this document that he has been inspired to develop a dish that has become his piece-de-resistance, a dish so popular he has recently come to be referred to by it.

However it’s taken some time for him to arrive at the perfect configuration for the meat dish known as do piaza. Earlier on he understood it had something to do with the onions. He just had to figure out how much. At one party he instructed his kitchen to increase the quantity of onions by one part every time he clapped. In this way he was able to arrive at the right quantity before it tipped the balance. The results surprise even him – onions must weigh in at twice that of the meat. There are other trade secrets to the success of his dish – but this stands out.

Akbar is served this dish one afternoon and he is so delighted that he asks to have it served to him at least once a week. Mullah doesn’t reveal how exactly he goes about making this famous dish, but word among some cooks is that he uses no more than two onions. Whether two onions or twice the quantity of onions – the confusion will last as long as the legend of the dish and the mystic who makes it famous.

Stories from the Past, Lessons in Dhamma


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I have enforced the law against killing certain animals. The greatest progress of Righteousness among men comes from the exhortation in favour of non-injury to life and abstention from killing living beings.

– Ashoka Pillar Edict


BACK AT HIS PALACE QUARTERS, Akbar sits with scholars. They read out to him the exploits of a great emperor of the past. His name is Piyadasi, he is better known as Ashoka. They tell of his feared reputation on the field and within his own kingdom. His moment of illumination at Kalinga. His edicts promoting kindness to all living beings and edicts advising an end to the slaughter of animals. Akbar has himself paid homage at a shrine commissioned by Ashok in Sarnath. He remembers the high, polished pillar outside.

Akbar is intrigued. That a leader should be remembered for his kindness rather than his valour. The teachers tell him of Ashok’s sensitivity to all living beings – that he called for the creation of animal hospitals and put in place laws governing the rights of animals. Akbar asks the scholar about Ashok’s own diet. The scholar knows exactly what he means. He tells him that the reform meant personal sacrifices in Ashok’s regular indulgences.


In later years, Akbar too will distance himself from the slaughter of animals and the consumption of meat. Image: From 16th C painting, Akbar ordering the slaughter to cease (British Library)

Where previously, meats of great variety were prepared regularly and in large quantities in the Imperial Kitchen, with the change, only two peacocks and a deer were allowed to be used in a day. The reform also meant that Ashok no longer went on the hunting trips he had enjoyed so much in the past. In the place of these trips, he would go on dhamma tours which involved visiting holy men and the aged and making them gifts.

Akbar mulls over these stories as he sits down to his meal of khicdi and curd. But he is interrupted. News has arrived that the renegade general Hemu has not only taken Delhi but styled himself ruler under the title Raja Vikramaditya. Within only a few months of coming to the throne, Akbar and his army face their first battle. Amid the clatter of swords, booming ordinance and stampede of horses and elephants, they score a fortuitous victory over Hemu. The underdogs turn from defence to attack, even as Hemu’s forces turn on their heels. Akbar wins his first battle, but he hasn’t forgotten the story of Ashok. He wonders how it is possible to rule and preach kindness at the same time.

In the middle of so much action, Akbar has little time to relax. But after this eventful year, he has won some time for a bit of planning. Right now he is looking through plans for a new city at Feroze Shah Kotla, his father’s mausoleum which is already taking shape, and profiles of a few Rajput Princesses. 

The Wonderful Things in this World


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akbarHE EATS ONLY ONCE A DAY, CARES little for meat, holds fruits in high regard and only drinks water from River Ganga. Akbar comes into office with a routine already in place. He is entirely hands-off when it comes to matters of the kitchen, but he pays close attention to it. As a child growing up first in Sindh and then in Kabul, it became clear this department was serious business. Wandering through his caretaker’s palaces, he saw the functional kitchen of rank demanded the same focus and planning of a military-level operation. He was more interested in the action than the food, but some indulgent cooks would mistake the toddler’s visits and would smuggle out little packages for him to sample. His all time favourite since then has been kichri. His curry of choice, mirch ka salan.

A feast is now due. Necessitated by his coronation some months earlier, it is an event that will be managed by the begums, decorators, event planners and the Mir Bakawal, as usual. Unlike his father, Akbar is not a creature of celebrations or festivities. He prefers focussing on developing skills with an application to practical and tactical advantage on the field and in interactions with the jagirs. Yet he appreciates the place of tradition and will tolerate parties for their subtle social and political statement.

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Ahead of the big day, the Mir Bakawal lays out a mock feast banquet for Akbar. Image: From 16th C painting, A banquet for Babur (British Library)

Three weeks ahead of the feast he calls in the Mir Bakawal to run over the menu. Mir Bakawal arranges a multi-course khasa in rehearsal for the feast day. It is divided into three main sections:

  • Purely-vegetarian foods, sufiyana
  • Grain-and-meat dishes
  • Meat dishes cooked with spices

Akbar approves. He is intrigued to see a qaliya called kundan qaliya (golden lamb qaliya) and asks Mir about it. Mir Bakawal tells him it is a refined version of that everyday qaliyan found in the market stalls. Akbar tells him he’s heard something about the origin of qaliyas in connection with Mohammed bin Tughlaq of the erstwhile Delhi Sultanate.

Mir Bakawal knows this story well and for a while the King and Imperial Cook discuss that tale that is told very often: Tughlaq’s eccentric scheme to shift his population from Delhi to Daulatabad. He succeeded in some sense, but perhaps the only good thing to come of it was the invention of qaliya – the result of a large scale measure to feed the camp in transit. Mutton and spices were slow-cooked in deghs buried in dugouts with naans simultaneously turned out from an adjacent furnace.

Their conversation also touches upon salan. Akbar is pleased to see that his favourite mirch ka salan hasn’t been left out of the feast menu.  Mir Bakawal points out this thin spiced curry is an adaptation of a popular Indian cooking practice which the kitchen has embellished with local spices, condiments and souring agents from regions all over the kingdom – making something altogether unique.

From Prince to King – Hitting the Ground Running

akbarA TEENAGE AKBAR finds himself swept by events in the wake of his father’s demise. So far, he has proved himself more than equal to the responsibilities placed upon him as prince. He has no time to think now, no time to grieve, but in a private moment on the night of his hasty coronation at Kalanaur, he finds himself overcome by sorrow. After years of separation from his father, to be reunited with him in the last year has been a dream. He was honoured to be ordered by his father on live missions. That his father took a personal interest in his drawing skills.

 In a short while, message has been sent that he may proceed to Delhi. Here, he is eased into his duties. Word has been put out that Akbar has taken over kingship from his father.

From the moment of his birth, great things have been predicted for Akbar. Much to his irritation, he is often reminded of it. Still a youth, Akbar is certain of only one thing: he has to fight for every victory. None of the greatness predicted for him will be handed on a platter. Thankfully, the experience and insight of Bairam Khan – appointed by Humayun as his son’s guardian only months before his death – has made things much easier for him. 

Sitting with Bairam Khan and his generals one evening only months after arriving in Delhi, they discuss threats of pressing concern. On seeing Akbar’s anxiety, Bairam Khan points out there will always be threats, but right now one looms larger than all the rest. An unprepossessing general by the name of Hemu, recently split from service to Adil Shah, is making a confident advance on Delhi with a sizeable force behind him.

Saved from Chaos. By a Lookalike.


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Making a lookalike – How difficult can it be? Image: From Mughal Emperors and Rajput Prince (Images of Asia)

THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF Humayun’s demise send the Court’s notoriously phlegmatic coterie of spin doctors into panic. What should be the next move? It cannot be as easy as getting Akbar over and crowning him. People would want to how the Padshah died. A fall down the stairs is a shade too flimsy; it may colour perception of the rulers, it may give the impression that their hold is tenuous rather than ordained. It is decided that they will have to plant a story that Humayun is effectively, up and about.

Planting stories and shaping public opinion has been done before. What really agitates the coterie is news that the rumour has been doing the rounds of the army. Only an appearance by Humayun can settle the matter once and for all. This can be done. They zone in on a modest subject, Molla Bi, whom everyone agrees is a dead ringer for Humayun. For a day, Molla Bi is whisked away to a world that he could not have dreamed. Stranger still to him, no one is doing him a favour, it is he who is rendering a service. He is decked out in the imperial robes and seated on the imperial throne in the main hall. Through a strategic play of light and shadow, areas of Molla’s profile that may give him away, are kept in the dark.

The coup is successfully pulled off. Dignitaries, army officials and influential members of the general public are pleased that the air is cleared. Meanwhile, Akbar, who was earlier summoned, is advised to stay put. This is just as well since he is fighting a battle at Kalanur in Punjab against a certain Sikandar Shah. It is in a garden in Kalanur that thirteen-year-old Akbar is crowned.

‘The Wind of Autumn has to Blow’


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huma_xceptionTHE RETURN OF LIGHTS AND POETRY to Delhi and Agra, has resulted in a wholly expected flight of scholars and poets from Persia. The Persian Court’s posture to the arts, however munificent, cannot hold a candle to Humayun’s exemplary patronage of the arts. Poets from as far as Samarqand are toasted not just at the Mughal Court but also in the homes of the nobility. But neither is this Delhi’s first encounter with Persian, nor is the influence wholesale and one-way. Amir Khusrau, the 13th Century Indian-born Sufi poet of the Delhi Sultanate, wrote in both Persian and Hindavi, the language of the people. He even went on to lay the foundation of a new language, Urdu, that combined Sanskrit and local dialects with new influences.

A visiting admiral-poet by the name of Sidi Ali Reis has the pleasure of being currently hosted by Humayun. He has already presented a few well-appreciated ghazals in his presence. It is while returning with the Padshah from an excursion to the graves of Amir Khusrau and Hazrat Nizammudin Auliya where they have received the langar of kal bread and spicy stew, that Humayun points out a site close to a bridge where he wishes to have his mausoleum prepared.


The wind of autumn has to blow in this rose and the garden; Thou hearest with thine own ears that a certain one passed away, In the ears of others thy news also has to go.
(Elegy by Maulana Qasim Kahi, Persian poet in Humayun’s Court)

It is common knowledge that Humayun regularly consults the signs of Nature, his astrolabe and the auguries of Diwan-i-Hafiz. So does he have an inkling of his end? Sidi Ali is witness to it. It is a Friday evening and Humayun has just checked on his manuscripts in the upper storey of the Sher Mandal (pictured right). He exchanges a few words with the astrologers. He then descends the marble stairs. While still near the top of the stairs, he kneels down to answer the ‘call to prayer’ which has just sounded. When he gets up, he trips on his robe and falls down the steep stairwell. The attendants and guests including Sidi rush down. Humayun has sustained a deep cut on his forehead.

His attendants carry him to his chambers and the hakims arrive at once. Humayun is unconscious and will not recover. Three days later, he passes away. His son, Akbar is summoned from the field.

Of Manuscripts, Mandalas and Shayaris


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huma_xceptionThere is a secret to Humayun’s unexpected flair for settling easily in every new station throughout his retreat, exile and comeback. Why he now settles down so quickly into Delhi and Agra. Throughout, Humayun has been accompanied by his beloved manuscripts. These are his most valuable possessions. A large part of this collection has been inherited from Babur who had carried them over the Khyber.

During feast days in the early part of Humayun’s rule, the illuminated manuscripts would be showcased to dazzling effect in the room known as the House of Good Fortune. The Khanah-i-talism (Mystic House) and his library room may be no more, but with his manuscripts he can bring the magic back, and he has already begun to do so at the octagonal pavilion now called the Sher Mandal. As a forum for discussion on all things temporal, spiritual and poetic, the name mandal is apt. He has had many discussions with his spiritual advisers on the power of this energy matrix known as the mandala.

Not only does its cosmological references give direction to design of buildings and char baghs, with the raja mandala, it casts light on kingship. In fact it has offered Humayun more direction than the reading of the stars. The lines that define the forces around a ruler are also a call to kings to circulate their domain, widen their circle of influence.


Nothing like a poetry face-off. Image: From a 16th Century painting recreating an interaction between poets and scholars during the Delhi Sultanate (Royal Asiatic Society)

Sitting on the terrace of the Sher Mandal one day, he thinks of the long exile and asks some of his officials at hand, after the opinions of his subjects on his return. He is not surprised to hear that a few who have heard how far he has been, have seen his exile more as a vijayayatra. He tells no one, but in a sense, this is how Humayun has seen it too.

For now, he sits back as the poetry sessions begin. A visiting Turkish admiral rises to present a ghazal. Humayun is pleased that he has written one on the subject of a dashing new member of his entourage – the young Imperial Archer, Khoshhal.

Surveying the Change, Spotting the Mandal


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huma_xceptionHumayun can see the Surs hadn’t forgotten to leave their mark on the city. They’ve put in place many new buildings and utilities. Humayun thinks the aesthetics coarse but as much as he resents Sher Shah, he is impressed by what his advisers report of his legacy. Rigorous land revenue and tarrif reforms, management of the system of irrigation canals, extension of the network of arterial roads notably the Shahrah-i-Azim, known later as the Grand Trunk Road, and the helpful provision of sarais for travellers along these stretches.

It’s all quite impressive, but what Humayun isn’t so happy to hear is news that his dream city, Dinpannah, which was shaping nicely before he had left, has been radically re-altered after the Sur vision. Only a few months after settling back into his throne, he decides to head out to survey the extent of reconstruction at Dinpannah.


Humayun is not pleased to find the Surs have meddled with Dinpannah, his dream project. Image: 1823 painting, Inside the main entrance of Purana Qila (Yale Centre For British Art)

He recognizes some of the contours of the citadel’s boundaries, but not much else. It has been renamed Shergarh. Humayun thinks it’s just as well, since there’s nothing of his Dinpannah that remains. Nevertheless, the new buildings here can be put to good use. As he walks around, among the new buildings and some ruins, a middle-aged fakir approaches him as if out of history. He invites a visibly tired Humayun to share a small meal with him.

They sit down in a shaded recess and they open out a small bundle of cotton cloth holding a few discs of spiced bread that the fakir refers to as missi roti. Humayun finds it difficult to stop at one. Once he is done, he is a little taken aback to hear that the fakir had been keeping the rotis for a few days now. In fact missi rotis keep perfectly well over many days and are the perfect food for long journeys, he is told. Humayun takes note, thanks the fakir and gets up to resume his survey.

His mood picks up when he notices something familiar at the far end. A neat, pavillioned, ocatagonal building he had once marked out for his library. He approaches and is delighted to find that it stands unchanged and from the looks of it the Surs have been using it as a library too.

He doesn’t think much of their ragtag collection, but with the mandal, he knows he has found his bearings.

Winning back Akbar and Hindustan


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huma_xceptionAN AMUSED HUMAYUN takes the frenzied ‘assistance’ over the Persian border in his stride. As for his overall impressions of the country, he can say it has points to recommend it. The Persians certainly know how to throw a good feast and he has noted points of service his Court would do well to pay heed to. He has a good mind to call over a few painters and writers of the Persian Court once he has settled back at his seat in Hindustan; they should be overwhelmed by the wealth of fascinating new subjects, both real and metaphysical.

As for getting back, it’s about time he picks up young Akbar who’s been under the care of his uncle Askari out at Kandahar for over a year. He finds the promised Persian garrison waiting for him at Sistan. Humayun hasn’t forgotten that Tahmasp has made him promise to capture Kandahar for Persia. Humayun takes Kandahar, nominally hands it to the Persians and then takes it back after eliminating the more aggressive of the Persian troops.

The child Akbar and his mother

Getting back his son, and in a few years, Delhi and Agra too. Image: From 16th C painting Akbar recognizes his Mother (The British Library Board)

From there, he is able to concentrate on his personal mission and looks to recover his son Akbar. Barely three years old, Akbar is already being eyed as bait by Akbar’s wily brother Kamran. Kamran even captures him at one point and lowers him from a fort wall during exchange of fire with Humayun’s forces. Humayun eventually gains Kabul, Akbar and the whole of Afghanistan, captures Kamran and blinds him once and for all. Significantly in the same year Humayun takes Kabul, his nemesis Sher Shah dies in a blast leaving behind a dissolute son and a fractured empire plagued by famine and epidemics.

It is only a matter of time before Humayun retakes Delhi and Agra, 15 years after he was ignominiously chased out by Sher Shah. His journey out of Persia into Delhi may seem straightforward, but it’s taken him a decade. Back in Delhi, he somehow feels like he’s never really left home.

Loitering with Intent and more Peregrinations


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huma_xceptionTHE AROMA OF INDIAN RICE, ghee and spice isn’t the only thing that lingers on Persian soil. Humayun, trotting away after Tahmasp’s grand send off, decides almost as soon as he is out of sight and reach, that he’d like to look around Persia a bit more. He takes an unabashed sightseeing tour of the bazaars at Ceasarea, marvels at the famed ‘Syrian’ domes and even takes a look at the Caspian Sea. It isn’t long before his peregrinations come to the attention of one of his erstwhile Persian minders.

Tahmasp, on a routine horseback inspection of his country, chances upon new tents on a certain stretch of clearing. To his shock, he is told that they are Humayun’s though he isn’t in at the moment. It’s a good thing too because Tahmasp is first flabbergasted and then incensed and at once sends a messenger to show Humayun the right way out of Persia and hopefully to his eventual destination in Hindustan.

18th-Century Mughal Painting of A Prince on a Brown Horse

Have horse, will jaunt. Image: Humayun takes a carefree tour of Persia. Image: 18th C painting of a prince on a brown horse (© Burstein Collection)

This done, Tahmasp continues to ride along still at a loss to comprehend Humayun’s alarming levels of dissolution and complete disregard for propriety. Tahmasp hasn’t ever had the luxuries of time and indulgence Humayun has enjoyed in childhood and adolescence. He’s has after all been ruling Persia since the age of 10. Since then, he has been holding together a tinderbox of supporters and rivals and staving off external threats from the Ottomans and the Uzbeks. Coming from the line of the Saffavids, he is also a ‘mystic king’ and regarded as such by his people who regularly gather to perform ritual songs, dance and acts of piety in his presence. Only rigour and discipline have seen him rule this long.

Right now as Tahmasp moves around at a slow trot atop his speckled white horse, he thinks again about the many episodes of Humayun’s luck. Something tells him that Humayun’s in line to stage quite a coup on his return to Hindustan. What Tahamsp knows with greater certainty is that his tastes have taken a shining to certain Indian ingredients. The Hindustani feast created an unexpected buzz in Court and Tahmasp is losing not time in initiating the import of that particular variety of rice, ghee (a novelty for the Persians) and that curious spice that rivalled saffron in the intensity of its hue.

There is also the matter of the serviceware Humayun’s men had laid out at the banquet – beautifully crafted vessels of novel moulding and intricate engravings made of not only silver but also bell metal. He has already sent a message to Humayun on the subject of initiating regular despatches of these commodities on his return to Hindustan, even as Tahmasp’s men are showing the wandering sovereign the way over the border.

Sisterly Advice & A Winning Dal Khuska


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huma_xceptionTHE GIFT OF JEWELS SUCCEEDS in purchasing a two month reprieve from Tahmasp’s discomforting visits. When he does resume interaction, it is to demand an explanation for a troubling rumour that has reached his ears – to get an inkling of what the future held out for him in the region’s power stakes Humayun had laid out arrows to practice divination; as part of the preliminary arrangement he had ranked himself higher than Tahmasp. When Tahmasp summons Humayun to explain himself, the Indian sovereign gamely admits to the truth of the report is and that he had ranked himself higher because his territories are were in fact larger than Tahmasp’s. As soon as Humayun leaves, the unnerved Persian king broaches a plan to liquidate Humayun.

News of the plan reaches the ears of Tahmasp’s sister and though she cannot quite understand why, she is overcome with emotion. She ask his brother to consider his position – that he has managed to make enemies of every neighbouring territory; that he will gain nothing by harming the Indian sovereign; that Humayun is their guest and if he really can’t stand another minute of him, he should at least let him leave. Tahmasp is chastened and at his next encounter, makes kind gestures to Humayun and assures him of assistance on his journey to India. He also tells Humayun that before he leaves he would like to have the pleasure of a Hindustani-style feast if Humayun can arrange one.

Food officials

A farewell feast. Image: From 16th C painting, Reception for the Ambassador of the Grand Moghul at the Court of the Shah Tahmasp (© Bridgeman Art Library)

Shortly after a lavish three-day farewell feast organised by Tahmasp in honour of Humayun, the Indian ruler has his cooks prepare a feast worthy of their name. Festivities open not far from Persepolis with the opening of a fruit before the train of dishes is brought out. In spite of the profusion of impressive meat dishes on offer, it is a deceptively simple vegetarian dish that catches Tahmasp’s fancy – the dal-and-rice dish of Dal Khuska. This in fact is the first time the Persians are getting a taste of a certain fragrant long grain rice. The aromas and colours they will carry away from this feast will linger for days on their fingers, tongues and no doubt in their memories. A notable revelation is turmeric which, like saffron, invests every dish with gold but also a certain ephemeral, peppery tang. The Persians are not aware of it at the time, but this encounter with the tastes of India begins Persia’s affair with turmeric and Indian rice which they will import from India hereafter.

The feast ends well. The next morning, the Shah presents Humayun with two apples and a knife and bids him farewell on his journey to back to Hindustan. The promised Persian contingent of horses under the Shah’s son is already awaiting ahead in Sistan. 

A Deer, A Stroke of Luck & A Diamond


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huma_xceptionIT IS WHILE HUNTING at Persepolis that Humayun inadvertently demonstrates some signs of his ordained greatness or luck. Picture a deer bounding at you from an impossible direction, going first left and then right as frantic deers are wont to be. Picture everyone in the Persian team including Tahmasp looking on slyly, rooting for the failure of the Indian sovereign at this symbolic test. When Humayun’s arrow succeeds in catching the deer behind its ear, it has the effect of proving more than his marksmanship.


The Persian camp are in awe. Image: From 18th C painting, Humayun hunting near Kabul

The reaction in the Persian ranks is akin to what you would expect from a gang of cultured school bullies, who after taunting a newcomer, hears him give it back fluently and with authority. In truth, Humayun is himself taken aback by the accuracy of his aim. He’s never really honed his skills, never understood the point in hunting down doe-eyed, wonderstruck creatures of the wild.  He picks up astonished comments. ‘a fortunate prince’, ‘the mark of a sovereign’, doing the rounds of the hunting party. Tahmasp, a tad overshadowed, quickly looks away and points at something in another direction.

While Humayun may be dissolute and inconsistent, this incident reminds us once again that his luck is exceptional. The astrologist at Umerkot confirmed his destiny by reading a glowing future for Humayun – likening his greatness to that of Harsha Vardhan of Thanesar, the Last Victorious Circuit of the four quarters of the Earth.  

Back at the present hunting party meanwhile, Humayun figures this to be as good a time as any to tackle Tahmasp’s tone of expectation with a gift. That very day he reluctantly places the Kohinoor, the largest diamond in his possession into a box lined with mother of pearl, and dispatches a tray with this and a scattering of precious stones to Shah Tahmasp. Accompanying this gift is a message that these jewels have been carried from Hindustan expressly for the Persian monarch.

Tahmasp is stunned. The sight of the Syamantaka mani (believed to be the jewel of Surya, the Sun God; only later does it come to be referred to as the Kohinoor) is enough, but he sends the tray of treasures for evaluation anyway and he is told that the stones are simply priceless.  It may be fair to say that the King of Persia has been signally overwhelmed and overshadowed. That he questioned the worth of a sovereign so powerful. That Humayun could so casually hand him a diamond that purchased Persia several times over.

Tahmasp is ashamed. But parting with the Syamantaka was not easy for Humayun.

When in Persia, dress as the Persians


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huma_xceptionAFTER AN OVERWHELMING WELCOME at his designated encampment at the Garden of Desire in Herat, Humayun begins to make himself comfortable. With hospitality this indulgent, exile is a distant thought. After a month, he is finally invited to meet the young Shah Tahmasp. The scion is as gracious and magnanimous in person as his delegated hospitality suggested, but before long he brings up the matter of a cap. Humayun had been expecting this; only last week, his right-hand man Bairam Khan had told him of a face-off he had with the Shah over the matter of the cap. The Shah had offered him the traditional Saffavid headdress, but Bairam Khan had refused saying he was in the service of Humayun and could not wear the cap of another kingdom. Tahmasp relented on that occasion, but conveyed his displeasure. This time, when Shah Tahmasp offers the cap to Humayun, he meets no resistance, tensions dissolve and Tahmasp calls for celebrations to begin.


The Shah’s faultless hospitality carries a hint of expectation. The incident of the headdress belies this. Humayun (L), Tahmasp (R) from this 17th C fresco at the Chehel Sotoun, Esfahan, Iran

It’s a welcome party that has been planned for weeks in advance. The carpets are laid, guests are seated and one by one the sealed trays are brought in and broken open. There are various preparations of rice: chilau, pilau mixed with the meat of wild fowl, and lamb in another preparauib. The pilaf that catches Humayun’s fancy has bits of orange peel – the naring pilau. There are dense stews with the bones left in giving greater flavour, there is a dish of deer meat. Many of the guests present already know better than to indulge with abandon in these preliminary dishes, no matter how irresistible, to accommodate the popular favourite: roasts, served fresh and sizzling from the fires. There is patridge, lamb and even antelope. Every now and then, guests take a lick of pickle and nibble an onion.


In full swing: From a fresco at the Chehel Sotoun, Esfahan, Iran

Humayun notes that the sherbets served at this feast, unlike the thin consistencies he is used to, are so thick they require a spoon to be scooped out. They are however not bad at all. This is Humayun’s first taste of Saffavid celebrations at the Court. In the following seasons he is invited to many countless hunting and drinking parties across the country. And even though Humayun gives the impression of having nothing on his mind but the pleasure of enjoying present luxuries to the hilt, he has not failed to pick up the note of expectation in Tahmasp’s communications with him. Bairam Khan has already asked Humayun to consider parting with the precious Kohinoor. Humayun knows it will happen very soon.


The History of India, Mountstuart Elphinstone
The Tezkereh al Vakiat or Private Memoirs of the Emperor Humayun, by Jouher, trans. by Charles Stewart
Food in Motion: The Migration of Foodstuffs and Cookery Techniques, Vol. 2, (Alan Davidson, ed.)

The Birth of a Prince


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huma_xceptionHUMAYUN IS OUT ON THE FIELD testing the defences of a district, when Hamida who is at Umerkot, goes into labour. In a short while a liveried messenger arrives to tell Humayun that a son has been born to him. The date: October 15, 1542; the time: 2 am, the phase of the moon, the astral bodies, all make for an exceptional astrological reading. Humayun is ecstatic. He breaks open a pod of musk and distributes it among those present by way of gift. He names his son Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar. He will go on to become the first Hindustan-born King from the House of Timur. Trumpets are sounded but celebrations are brief. The family must move again or they risk jeopardizing their gracious hosts as their enemies close in on their quarry.


From a 16th C painting depicting celebrations for Akbar’s circumcision, Kabul

Humayun next looks to Persia for refuge. His trusted advisor Bairam Khan has done the ground work and sent out feelers to the Saffavid Court at Persia, and the response is favourable. But before they reach Persia, they must first make their way across the hostile environment of Afghanistan. The anxious parents make the decision that newly-born Akbar should be spared this journey; they leave him in the care of Askari, one of Humayun’s truculent brothers who controls Kandahar.

Though his ambassadors have alerted him to the exiled sovereign’s imminent arrival, Shah Tahmasp hasn’t given it much thought. He is after all in the middle of battle with the Turks and figures he may as well try his luck backing an exiled sovereign who may one day shape into a helpful ally. By the time Humayun and his contingent arrive at the Palace, Shah Tahmasp has already laid down the service protocol for every stage of their stay. The reception alone will outdo anything Humayun has experienced as ruling king. Staff and attendants of the Court act on these opening orders: Upon his auspicious arrival let him drink fine sherbets of lemon and rosewater, cooled with snow; then serve him preserves of watermelon, grapes and other fruits, with white bread just as I have ordered. For this royal guest prepare each drink with sweet attars and ambergris …

Deserts, Desertions & An Oasis


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huma_xceptionHAMIDA AND HUMAYUN spend an idyllic season with each other. But Humayun hasn’t forgotten business. He already knows he isn’t returning to his brother’s encampment. It appears Hindal hasn’t taken well to the alliance and he’s joined a hermitage in Kandahar. That Hindal should have taken it so badly, amuses his brother but Humayun sees he needs to quickly strike productive military alliances while people’s memory of him as king is still fresh. His brothers are out of the question and a waste of time. He is back to field action in a matter of months.


After a brief idyll, the couple must wander the deserts. Image: 18th C painting showing man and woman with hawk (British Museum)

It quickly becomes clear he is on the back foot, beseiged in every direction. Before long, in the company of Hamida, his retinue and a fast depleting body of troops, Humayun roams the deserts, trying his luck with any governor that may receive them kindly. They turn to Marwar but it turns out to be a trap – its Raja is in cahoots with Sher Shah. They quickly move to Jaisalmer which has hinted at a sympathetic reception. This too proves to be a set up. Betrayed, rejected and hunted into wandering the desert flats, Humayun is at rock bottom. Desertions have turned into a flood. A heavily pregnant Hamida stoically endures the hardships. They go for days without water and the travel-worn brigade are on their last legs when they throw caution to the winds and land at the fort of Amarkot without any indication of how they may be received.

To their relief, they are greeted with open arms by the Rana of Umerkot. In a cool Audience Hall, they are served sliced melons and iced sherbets in engraved goblets. They are welcome to stay at Umerkot for as long as they like. This is a great turn for Humayun and to make things better, it is here that he reunites with his long trusted advisor Bairam Khan. But the best news is yet to come: the birth of a son, the first Hindustan-born Crown Prince from the House of Timur.

A Silver Lining


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Hamida Banu; Image: From a 19th C painting, Lucknow

huma_xceptionWHY IS HINDAL SO WORKED UP? Rumour has it that Hindal has a thing for Hamida. With her show of resistance towards his brother, it would seem Hamida feels the same for Hindal. Except for the first time she agrees to greet Humayun, the feisty Hamida refuses invitations to further courtesies. On one occasion she goes so far as to say: ‘If I was required to pay my respects, I have done that once; why need I do it again?‘ On another, she sends back this message, ‘To see his Majesty once is legitimate, to do so the second time is not. I will not go.’

Even after Hindal sets aside opposition on his mother’s advice, Hamida rebuffs all entreaties from the influential women of the zenana. It is after a bath, when she has her hair dried, that Hindal’s mother finds out what her concern is. It is not that Hamida considers him with disdain; he is after all a King who has lost his kingdom. On the contrary, she believes she should marry ‘someone whose collar my hand can touch, not the hem of whose skirt I cannot reach.’

It takes 40 days and a chance encounter with his collar, before Hamida relents. Humayun takes the astrolabe in his own hands and quickly fixes the marriage date. Betel leaves are offered and the first wedding gift dispatched to the bride’s family. On the day of the wedding, Humayun receives guests and then makes his way to the Main Hall where a sehra of pearls is tied to his forehead. From here the procession heads to the bride’s place. Young Hamida is adorned with spectacular wedding finery, notable among these are a jewel encrusted mang (lying along her central hair parting), dazzling Karanphul earrings, a gemstone-studded nosering, engraved anklets, armlets, a waist belt and hip chains, all in gold.

After the festivities, the royal couple pack up and repair to Humayun’s pleasure garden in the outskirts.

Feast 001

Guests are served fresh breads, pickles, khichri, grilled meats and kheer. They leisurely conclude this with barley water and paan. Image: From an 18th C painting showing a royal feast in progress, Rajasthan

A King on the Run, A King Nonetheless


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humayunHUMAYUN MAY BE A FUGITIVE  for want of a permanent address. But a King on the run is a King nonetheless. He still has a sizeable though demoralised retinue of a few thousands. After Sher Shah’s forces sent them scattering, a good number consolidate on the way to Lahore. It is here that Humayun and his brothers, themselves shaken and besieged, meet and discuss developments. They embrace and express relief, but no one is too eager to offer Humayun special sympathy. In all, nothing is resolved and no future course of action decided upon. It’s just as well, because no sooner do they  begin to get distrustful of each other all over again, than news arrives of Sher Shah’s forces gaining on Lahore.

They bolt: Hindal for Sind, Kamran for Kabul. Humayun – unaware of where. His paralysis may be comical but it is also propitious because when he finally makes up his mind he goes in the direction of Sind, where he eventually catches up with Hindal and an interesting turn in personal fortunes of a kind. Hindal receives Humayun in a town in Western Sind where the battle-weary sovereign is glad to treat himself to some long-forgotten luxuries like rose-water baths, silk robes and lemon sherbet.


An unusual bird flies into Humayun’s tent in the morning, perhaps signalling a new force about to enter his life. Image: From a 17th C painting, Humayun in an encampment (British Museum)

That evening he goes over to Hindal’s apartment for a programme of entertainment. Amid the light music and the quiet recitals of poetry in the cool air scented with vetiver, Humayun walks in and sits against cushions. He picks up a samosa filled with mincemeat and onions.  He finds himself distracted by the sight of a young lady in the corner where the women are relaxing. He notices a bunch of bright yellow lantana flowers in her hand. Hindal leans over and addresses Humayun. He doesn’t fail to notice the cause of his half-brother’s distraction. Instead of replying to Hindal, Humayun asks, pointing, ‘Who is that girl?’ Hindal is angry enough to call an end to the entertainment but manages to controls himself.

‘What do you mean? That girl is a dear friend of mine whom I regard as a sister.’
‘That’s all right. I just want to know what her name is.’
‘Is she married?’
‘She is not married. But what is it to you?’
‘In that case, I wish to marry her.’
‘Remember you are a guest. There should be more urgent things on your mind.’

With this, Hindal storms out. Humayun coolly finishes a bowl of kheer garnished with nuts. Before he leaves, he picks up a roll of paan topped with gold leaf, from the many arranged on a filigreed silver plate. He smiles at Hamida before he makes his way to his chambers. His brother is right, as a sovereign in exile, he should be more serious. Hindal would normally take offence at such a scolding, but the worm has turned. His sights are set.

A String of Defeats and a Hasty Retreat


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humayunSHER KHAN IS NOT PUT DOWN FOR LONG. While Humayun cools his heels as he is given to after every exertion, Sher Khan recovers ground and regroups. He has his eyes set on Bengal and has gauged Humayun’s excitability over the wealthy territory. Sher Khan has made some influential allies in Bengal and of course he has the redoubtable Afghans forces on his side. It is at a certain confrontation in a forest in Bengal that Humayun’s poetic sensibilities get the better of him. Mid-campaign, he orders camp to be set up in the middle of a spectacular tract to give him some time to enjoy it. Almost as soon as he does this, the rains come down in force. Not only that, he learns his supply lines have been cut by Sher Khan’s more active forces.


When Sher Shah’s forces come down heavily on the Mughal army in Chausa and then Kannauj, the only recourse for Humayun is to flee. Image: Painting by Abdul Ghafur Bershna

Humayun beats a hasty retreat but has to contend with Sher Shah’s forces once again at Chausa. To add to his misery, he receives information that brother Hindal has crowned himself at Agra. Humayun comes very close to being washed away at one hasty river crossing and he makes it to land with the assistance of a water bearer. On seeing Humayun return to Agra, Hindal – who had hoped Humayun wouldn’t make it back – steps aside. Humayun has the pleasure of making the water-bearer king for two days, fulfilling his rescuer’s wish and no doubt embarrassing Hindal. Sher Khan meanwhile takes over Chausa and styles himself King – he will now be known as Sher Shah. This is a memorable victory for him and he bestows the name of this city on his favourite variety of mango, still referred to today as Chausa/Chaunsa.

With his back to the wall and his pride at stake, Humayun sets his sights on a no-holds barred confrontation with his arch nemesis. Kannauj is the venue. This time, while he succeeds in enlisting the support of Hindal, he knows he is fighting with a depleted army and compromised judgement after so many setbacks. They are trounced. This time when Humayun retreats to Agra with his forces, Sher Shah gives chase. When Humayun arrives in Agra, he dares not go to his palace. Instead he stays at the home of the saint Sayyid Rafiuddin Safavi who serves him a warm meal. While the saint’s everyday fare is basic, he makes it a point to make Humayun comfortable. Humayun and his men are treated to rice flavoured with roast pine nuts and desi ghee, crisp kak with long aubergines pickled in brine and rai seeds, and a turmeric-infused wild chicken stew.

Humayun fights back tears and thanks Rafiuddin for the wonderful food. Better than any he had enjoyed in the luxury of his palace. But his palace – he has no hope of recovering it. He cries because he realises he no longer has a kingdom. He is now a fugitive.

Uneasy the Head that Wears the Crown


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HUMAYUN’S GENERAL ARRIVES BREATHLESS with news that Sultan Bahadur has made an attack on Bayana. This is a city of some strategic importance. Humayun does not find this development unexpected and wastes no time in sending over a troop division headed by some trusted generals to repel the movement. They defeat Bahadur’s men with ease. With that behind him, Humayun leaves for Gujarat where he sets up camp at the Gold-scattering Garden.

Here Humayun gathers his thoughts and reflects on strategy. He is fully aware that there have been revolts in just about every jagir of significance ever since he has come to the throne. In Humayun, the restless and the ambitious have quickly sensed a certain weakness, a clear opportunity for claiming greatness. What concerns Humayun right now is the stance of his brothers – quarrelsome Kamran, impetuous Askari, moody Hindal. 


Hindal, meaning Conqueror of India, has his own set of grudges against his brother Humayun. Image: From a 16th Century painting, Celebrations for Akbar’s Circumcision

Acting on his father’s advice and his own desire for amity, Humayun gives Kabul and Kandahar to Kamran when he asks for it. Later he even concedes to the demand for Lahore and Multan. To Askari he concedes Gujarat and Malwa. Hindal who was given Alwar, is a completely different game all together. Hindal is keenly aware that he is the Court’s favorite to succeed Humayun; Babur certainly had something on his mind when he named him Hindal, meaning Conqueror of India. Hindal is ambitious yet at the same time his tantrums take the form of cutting himself off from the world and retreating to a hermitage. Worrisome as his fractious brothers are, Humayun knows he can appeal to blood ties in an emergency. His advisers don’t think so.

The dark horse in Humayun’s story is the figure of Sher Khan – a distinguished commander who once served under Babur. In the next few years, as Humayun cherry-picks his battles to gain maximum leverage with minimum effort, Sher Khan, with the help of the Afghans, gains control of Bihar and even makes a daring attempt to take Bengal. Humayun, always at his best when he is taken by surprise, repels Sher Shah’s ingress.

But with Bahadur on his right, Sher Khan on his left and brothers and discontents all around him, it seems only a matter of time before the forces ranged against Humayun succeed in de-throning him.

A Mystic House for a Mystic Feast – 2


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humayunDUSK IS AROUND THE CORNER and festivities are in full swing when Humayun sets down his glass goblet. Quietly, he makes his way past the musicians, gangs of mirthful friends, lone ranting drunks and the grim, star-crossed couple. He goes up the stairs to the upper chambers, walking in first to the room called the House of Pleasure. From what he remembers, it has been done up excellently but he really couldn’t tell now for the crowd that has made itself comfortable on the gilded bedstead, pillows and sandalwood chests.

Everyone is either helping themselves to the generous spread of fruits and beverages or offering it to their neighbours, between non-stop conversation. Humayun catches sight of a favourite dervish with whom he exchanges warm greetings. He would stay longer but he would like to take a quick round of these rooms before hopefully making it in time to the terrace to catch a sunset view of the celebrations along the banks of the Yamuna.


This painting assists in conjuring a tame picture of the House of Pleasure on the day of the Mystic Feast. Image: From a 16th Century painting recreating an interaction between poets and scholars during the Delhi Sultanate (Royal Asiatic Society)

From here, he dodges past the odd stragglers to make his way to the room dedicated to the soldiers, vazirs, mirzas and chiefs – the House of Dominion. The room glows from reflections off the displays of the freshly-buffed military equipment, gilded armour, daggers and jewelled scimitars. It is in the last room – the House of Good Fortune – that Humayun is most at home. Arranged here is a dramatic display of picture books, calligraphy, portfolios and gilded pen cases with meditative stringed music coming from a corner of the room. He has inherited his father’s literary interests and commitment to libraries. This inclination goes back even further. Tamerlane, his ancestor, used his vast collection to build a celebrated library in Samarkhand.

Humayun quickly rushes up to the terrace in time for the last moments of sunset. He rests his hands on the parapet and looks out over the banks of the river. Colourful tents and pavilions have been pitched here. As the sun sets, he catches the glittering outline of the dome of his mobile palace. Humayun’s specially commissioned barges have been tied to the banks, not far from the movable bridge, which brought over many visitors from the other side of the river.

He thinks of Dinpannah, the city he has just founded within Delhi, on what he had been told is the very site of the ancient city of Indraprastha. Work has only just begun and he has greats hopes for it. We have all dreamed of living in a city of like-minded people with shared dreams, tastes and concerns. Humayun has envisioned this for the spiritualists who need it more than anybody else. This city will be their refuge. It will be his capital. A Refuge for the Faithful. 

His thoughts are interrupted by urgent missives delivered to him by a general.

Clouds have begun to gather on the horizon. Daggers glint in the shadows.

A Mystic House for a Mystic Feast – 1

humayunSAY YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO HOST A PARTY without limits. Say you were told that future generations would remember you by this feast. How would your party be?

Humayun knows just how his will be. This reclusive young king who prides himself on his ability to fantasize at length and in detail, has dreamed of a Mystic Feast since he was 14. Now, five years into his kingship he has already had the pleasure of hosting the feast more than twice. This year it is to be combined with his brother Hindal’s marriage – the annual Mystic Celebrations will be in the first half and the wedding feast in the second; of course they will flow into each other. As with all festivities, the Begums take charge of planning details such as seating arrangements, order of gifts, fabrics, colour schemes, aesthetics. For Humayun, this day is also his gift to his long-cultivated circle of artist friends; an occasion for them to take to the stage, find an audience and spread their magic. 

Like any good thing, the Feast is still a work in progress, but it succeeds in astonishing anew with every edition. This time, preparations as well as celebrations, begin weeks in advance. Bazaars are lit up and homes are decorated. Humayun returns from out of town delighted to be treated to this tableau. His palace grounds are festooned with gilded tent poles, embroidered hangings, pavilions of European brocade and novel furniture.


If he should be judged by the best parties he gave, Humayun gets gold for imagination and indulgence. Image: From a 16th Century Mughal painting, Humayun’s Garden Party (British Museum)

The Mystic House or Khanah-i-talism, is the venue for the main course of entertainment. It is the most distinctive set of buildings within the Imperial Palace Complex. The main hall of the House is eight-sided and at its centre is a tank with a carpeted platform in the middle. A group of young artists amuse themselves in the empty tank.

As he walks into the room, Humayun is pleasantly surprised to see a jewelled throne. It was a gift from his aunt.  As soon as he settles into the divan that has been placed before the throne, he whispers his recipe for a bit of mischief to set off the amusements – “Fill the tank with water.”

Caught unawares, the artists at the centre of the tank and the prank, let out squeals of excited surprise. They are told they will be helped out as soon as they eat the anise-garnished medicated confection that will be offered to them on a tray. They emerge in high spirits.

The festivities have begun.  The food is laid out and gifts are distributed. The hall rings with the chatter of feasting guests and background notes emerging from the music room. The Royal Kitchen has arranged the widest possible range of cuisine and beverages imaginable. This year they are also accommodating special requests for cuisine that guests think up of on a whim. 

Of this feast, a historian in the service of Humayun writes:

All kinds of dishes were produced
Filled with various types of exquisite foods;
On every table royal delicacies
From birds to fish were served …
With pure drinks of various colours.

This year, the nascent Mughal court witnesses the first formal deployment of glass goblets for guests. The goblets have been procured at the personal direction of Humayun. Visitors marvel at their beverages shining like liquid jewels.

Treading Water, Charting Plans


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humayunHUMAYUN IS KING AT 23. He knows he must tread carefully. Considering he has always followed the path of least resistance, staying clear of confrontations is simple. The comings and goings of well wishers serves as a crash course in the inherited support network. Some are more important than others, For now, he tells himself, I don’t think it will send the right signals if I seem to be too eager to please. If anything, it’s the organisation of things that can do with a bit of attention.

He calls his astrologers and goes about sketching out a timetable for how the week should be arranged. Off the record, it follows his rough personal schedule for the last two years. With only minor restructuring and the inputs of senior advisers and astrologers, it firms up to look a bit like this –


Babur takes great interest in what the stars foretell. Image: From a 17th Century Ottoman miniature (Istanbul University Library)

Saturdays & Thursdays: Give audience to the literary and religious guests; Sundays & Tuesdays: Receive state officials, look to management of government affairs; Mondays & Wednesday: Pleasure; parties.

He is also considering commissioning appropriate courts for his audiences. Before any of this however, he fulfills a long held dream of fixing an official day for a Mystic Feast (it will be held on the anniversary of his accession) and drawing up plans for an appropriate house for the feast, preferably on the banks of a river. Blueprints for the Mystic House are drawn up within months of Humayun’s accession and construction begins shortly after.


Centuries later it will be said that Humayun didn’t leave much of an architectural legacy. Truth could well be that his might have been the most astonishing, built as it was, with the intention of being packed up. Humayun’s imagination leads him to commission some of the most fanciful but fleeting creations of any in the Mughal line: a movable palace, a movable bridge, a floating market, a dismantable pavilion (Tent of Twelve Signs) with adjustable configurations.

In the Shadow of a Father’s Dreams


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humayunIF THERE IS A CURSE TO BEING AN HEIR, Humayun embodies the fix. Humayun has always been reluctant to take over Babur’s manic programme of aggressive territorial expansion. Now with his dath, he is left the daunting task of managing a complex, challenging Empire his father has only recently established. Babur’s feelings for Humayun were hard to explain. Even harder to explain was his decision to mark out Humayun as his successor on the basis of affection ( /right of way for the first born) rather than an objective evaluation of his fitness to rule. He set his intentions in stone almost as soon as his son was born. Humayun is named after Huma, the legendary bird whose shadow made kings.

Even as a teenager Humayun would joke with friends that if he came under any shadow, it was that of his dominating father. Just about the only interest he shared with Babur, was literature, both of the past and of the day. At the expense of learning the ropes of administration and field strategy, Humayun cultivated his relations with poets, writers, lyricists, painters, and astronomers. He also spent some effort trying his hand at making a name for himself as a poet/writer. It didn’t help that his father had plenty of criticism to share on his son’s fledgling efforts.

At the same time, it cannot be said Humayun entirely absconds from his duties. He has always been diligent in acting on his father’s summons to join him in some far-flung battle or negotiation. It is true that Humayun has a record of being late for more than a few of these, but he always has a perfectly honest reason.

Humayun is a sensitive soul and the circumstances of his father’s recent demise have disturbed him. He has only been recently informed by his sister of the prayer of intercession Babur made on his behalf. He is moved but he is also angry that he has been saddled with an impossible legacy that is still in the making. How will he even begin to pick up from where his father left off.

Humayun (1508-1556)


Lotus eater, opium addict, dissipate son of an ambitious king, history has unflattering things to say about Humayun. Though even while his father was alive, he was not entirely absent to his official duties. Now, at the helm of a young Empire still in the making, his weaknesses will force him into a corner, into exile. But he will make a remarkable comeback that even his well wishers couldn’t have predicted. Image: Humayun in a landscape setting, circa 1650.

The Legacy of Babur


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Since Hindustan didn't have a tradition of garden-keeping that impressed him, Babur brought over the geometric Central Asian tradition. He also initiated the cultivation of melons and elevated the status of the imperial kitchen. Image: From 16 C painting showing Babur supervising garden works.

Since Hindustan lacked any tradition of garden-keeping that impressed him, Babur brought over the geometric Central Asian tradition. He also initiated the cultivation of melons and elevated the status of the imperial kitchen. Image: From a 16th Century painting showing Babur supervising garden works.

WHILE THE DELHI SULTANATES would have already set in place a proper city/town culture with thriving markets and a tradition of food stalls, Babur extended and re-articulated the same. Even so, considering that the city and towns in the imperial zones were almost completely abandoned by former residents after the defeat of Ibrahim Lodi, the imprint made by Babur and his retinue were really on a blank state.

In reflective moments, Babur often wondered how he would be remembered; he had doubts about his popularity in Hindustan, but here are reasons for some gold stars against his name:

  • Cities and their markets become markedly cosmopolitan – bazaars begin to wear the colours of Herat and Samarkhand;
  • Markets geared to supply his favourite Central Asian fruits, saffron, grapes and nuts brought in from over the mountains;
  • Markets get bakeries turning out fresh bread;
  • Relatively novel meats such as rabbit (Babur’s favourite) and fowl premier in markets;
  • Techniques of grilling and roasting become prevalent;
  • The Imperial Kitchen Brigade is raised in rank; there is more emphasis on food safety;
  • The Imperial Kitchen, in keeping with tradition of the preceding Sultans, makes liberal use of local inputs: ghee, rice, turmeric and sugarcane;
  • At Imperial meals, pickles are generally served first and the main meal liberally informed by brinjals, pumpkins, gourds and plantain – many of which the Central Asian are encountering for the very first time;
  • Soups, stews and broths make their mark in cuisine;
  • Babur encourages the cultivation of his favourite melons;
  • Babur brings the Central Asian style of gardens (the charbagh) to Hindustan;
  • Although not one for throwing lavish parties, Babur understands their importance. Such feasts project imperial power and impress visitors; the feast described sets the tone for the sophistication of Mughal feasts in successive generations;
  • If Babur is today celebrated as a poet in his home country of Uzbekistan, there is every reason for it. He read widely, sought out the company of those with literary tastes and is credited with being the first leader from the region to pen his biography – the Baburnama.

Light Garden of an Angel King


When Humayun’s condition worsens, Babur prays that the suffering transfers to his own self. Miraculously, Humayun recovers while Babur is struck by a fever that leads to his death. Image: From a Mughal illustration showing Babur being treated for an illness.

DEFENDING TERRITORIES, acting on complaints, visiting outposts, quelling the stirrings of rebellion – Babur is back to work as usual. But this is his last chapter.

One day, he receives news that Humayun has been taken ill. Babur returns to Agra immediately and is torn to see his favourite son laid low. No medication appears to be working and his doctors are left wringing their hands and giving way to spiritual advisers. Babur sees no visitors for days – spending time in prayer and visits to his son’s chambers. When Humayun takes a turn for the worse, Babur resolves to make the highest act of intercession – to surrender what is most precious to him in return for his son’s complete recovery.

But here, Babur confounds his advisors. His counsellors believe that he will surrender the Kohinoor – that stunning diamond that came into his possession shortly after the Battle of Panipat. It had been given to them along with other jewels by Raja Bikramjit of Gwalior when confronted by the victorious Mughal forces in Agra. The diamond’s value was estimated at ‘two and a half days food for the whole world‘. While aware of its worth, Babur had never thought of it as anything more than the spoils of war.


When Babur makes up his mind to give up his most precious possession in return for his son’s recovery, his advisers believe he will surrender the Kohinoor.

Babur is clear. When it came to his possessions, nothing is more precious than his own life. A stone, even one as valuable as the Kohinoor, is nothing compared to life which is necessary to experience anything in the first place. Making this prayer of intercession, he circles Humayun’s bed thrice and is promptly overcome by a fever that gives him to exclaim that his intercession has been granted. Sure enough, Humayun stages a recovery almost immediately, while Babur takes ill. He names Humayun his successor and with his chiefs around him he charges them ‘to acknowledge Humayun in my stead’.

Less than five years after Babur establishes his stronghold in Hindustan, he passes from this world. He is initially buried in Aram Bagh, a garden Babur had himself commissioned in Agra, but in accordance with his wishes, his body is later reburied in Kabul in what a descendant will describe as “this light garden of an angel king”.

A Time to Fast, A Time to Feast


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BarburIT IS TIME TO CELEBRATE. For Babur, who has been on conquests since the age of twelve, celebrations have always taken backseat. This time he has taken pause and seen how close he has come to being outplayed off the battlefield. Enjoy, he tells himself, for the world is not to be had a second time.

This feast is to be his first since his momentous conquest of Hindustan. The carpets will be heaped with his Central Asian favourites: breads, samosas, dried meats, grilled meats, pilafs, rice studded with nuts and grapes. It would also feature the culinary marvels of Hindustan and inventive creations at the overlap of both cultures – an irresistible stew made from brinjal and okra; a rich, intriguing preparation of lamb cooked in lentils and his favourite caramelised banana snacks.

There will be a vast spread of fruits including many varieties of the highly regarded local delight – the mango, and of course the fragrant melons of Samarkand, both fresh and dried. The melons, Babur knew, took credit for lifting the gloom of exile from his home territories in Central Asia.

The diplomatic envoys, princes, military officials and other dignitaries begin streaming in from the break of day. They seat themselves upon the many carpets and cushions that have been laid upon the floor of the cool Mahal. In due course, each rises and places their gifts at the front. Then it is time to settle down to enjoy the entertainment lined up for the day.


Though the feast described here takes places in the 16th C, this painting from three centuries later showing awnings outside a hall gives an idea of the shape of preparations. Image: Hall of Private Audience, attributed to Ghulam Ali Khan, 1817.

The preliminary act pits camels against elephants. The next segment sees a more conventional match – between wrestlers. Some guests take sides and put on a show of their own in response to the swinging fortunes of the contestants they are backing.

Once the food is laid out, guests are treated to another programme of entertainment: feats of balance and flexibility performed by troupes from various countries. There is a display of somersaults and finally a colourful local dance that Babur too has the pleasure of witnessing for the very first time.

A Gold Leaf at the Shrine of a Saint


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BarburAFTER A WEEK OF MEDICATION, Babur stages a steady recovery. The whole incident gives him pause. He thinks of how far he has come, how much he has achieved. To some however, it may seem he has not taken the time to relish any of his victories. As he walks down his garden, planned like those geometric masterpieces of Samarkhand and Herat, he thinks of his victories, his territories and the men he has entrusted them to. He thinks of his son, Humayun, his favourite, named after Huma, the bird of legend. Humayun was grown up and now a father, but ever so often Babur wondered whether he had not yoked him with responsibilities too early.


Hazrat Nizammudin Auliya of the Chisthi Silsila, won the hearts of Delhiites for centuries to come. Shown here in an 18th Century painting with his disciple, the poet Amir Khusrow (L).

Babur turns his mind again to the garden, not far from the sarai on a wide thoroughfare. It gives Babur respite from the roil of concerns at the court. But maybe there is more to the peaceful emanations of this setting. Little known to him, these very grounds he now paces had more than two centuries earlier been blessed by the movements of the Chisthi Saint Nizamuddin Auliya, of whom he has heard much. And although it has been more than century since Khwaja Auliya walked this earth, he still attracts considerable devotion in the city of Delhi. His kanqah gives delicious meals for free to all who came at any time.

Babur is well aware of this powerful saint and his mystical presence through the fortunes of Delhi’s erstwhile Sultans. It is hard to ignore the love of the people for this holy man. Yet Babur cannot have imagined that Delhi’s special affection for Nizamuddin Auliya would extend for countless centuries to come. Babur’s own legacy in this domain of public opinion, as he suspects, will remain under a cloud. Yet if the future could speak to him in this moment, he could take some comfort in what it would foretell for his line. For in spite of short-term upheavals, the Mughals would come to be seen as bold architects of Delhi’s most defining eras.

If anyone knows the importance of reaching out, it is Babur. Though a patron of the more politically engaged Naqshbandi order of Sufis, he decides to pay a visit to this the shrine of the reigning saint of the hearts of the people of this ageless city. He makes his way inconspicuously to the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya. Here he bows and donates a gold leaf.

The Imperial Kitchen: Taking No Chances


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AFTER THE POISONING, Babur never again takes a chance with shady kitchen appointees. There is a shake up. The kitchen will be as important as the department of defence. Babur will not only lay the ground for the Mughal Empire but will establish the rank of the kitchen department for coming generations of its Emperors. The Mir Bakawal (Chief Taster and Head Cook) will be the first word, the last word, the lord of all things epicurean. He will also take the brunt of the brick bats. By the time Babur’s grandson Akbar becomes Mughal Emperor, these are the precautions and processes that will be observed before the Emperor is served:

  • A sheet is tented out to block out preparations from prying eyes.
  • The food is sampled; cooks and Bakawals taste it.
  • The Mir Bakawal is the very last to taste the dish, he then doles it out into the dishes.
  • Dishes of copper and China are each covered up in white cloth; gold and silver dishes are each covered in red cloth.
  • The Mir Bakawal attaches his seal to each cloth-covered vessel.
  • The pantry clerk makes a list of all the vessels which he dispatches with the dishes.
  • The dishes are carried by a retinue of servants to the dining hall.
  • The head-end and tail-end of the retinue is safeguarded by macebearers.
  • Also on its way are bags containing freshly baked breads, curds in saucers and stands stacked with pickles.
  • Palace attendants taste the food from each vessel before spreading the embroidered dastarkhwan upon the white sheets laid on the carpet.
  • The attendants arrange the dishes upon the dastarkhwan.
  • The Emperor sits down to his meal which he begins with milk or curd.
  • The Mir Bakawal is in attendance throughout.

(Paraphrased from steps documented by Abul Fazl, vizier of Mughal Emperor Akbar)

The Spoils of War: Bread garnished with Ill-will


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CHASHNIGIR IS A TASTER. ONE OF the many specialists in any kingly residence. Like cup-bearers, shoe carriers and torch bearers. His sole responsibility is to taste food. To ascertain its fitness for consumption. You expect him to be diligent about the one thing he is hired for. So imagine finding that the taster has actively assisted in getting your food poisoned. This is what Babur has to deal with as he is bent over in discomfort.

Now to give him some credit, Ahmed, the chashnigir wasn’t acting on his own. Remember Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi? Remember he gave refuge to Ibrahim Lodi’s family? Ibrahim Lodi’s feisty mother was among that group and it turns out she wasn’t going to be won over by the man who killed her son. After months of waylaying old handlers who had once worked in her son’s kitchens, Dilawar Begum (the mother) began to understand how the kitchens under Babur worked – Not very differently. In fact he had retained a handful of the earlier cooks.


The rabbit stew and fried carrots go down well, it’s the bread that has the poison.

The Begum’s moment comes when she makes the happy acquaintance of Ahmed, the chashnigir. Any simmering discontent is brought to full bloom. The day came to get the plot in motion. The Begum has a packet of powdered poison prepared. She has it delivered to the palace into the hands of Ahmed. For the poison to be effective, it will have to be mixed in the pot with the food as it is cooked. The Begum has emphasised this to Ahmed. But last minute nerves means Ahmed fails to do this. It could also be that he would be risking his own life. Since he is sometimes required by the chief kitchen supervisor/cook, the Mir Bakawal, to taste the food that comes from the pot. Instead he sprinkles the powder on the food that is laid.

The marked-out dish consists of thin slices of bread garnished with poison and topped with fritters. But there are other dishes too: stewed rabbit, fried carrots and lots of dried meat. Babur starts with the meats and coasts along. But touching the bread is inevitable. He has a bit to wipe up the last traces of the stew. Just a few minutes later, he turns unwell. Babur takes a few days to recover from this near-fatal episode of poisoning. But while he is still finding his bearings, his trusted officials have got into action. They get to the root of the episode and inform Babur of the same.

There seems to be much activity around him. Babur, propped up against cushions, has the detachment of the battle weary. He thinks of Dilawar Begum and the charitable treatment he had given her. He thinks – there’s no accounting for what runs through the minds of people you have helped.

Gaining Delhi, her Courtly Cooks and a Dose of Resentment


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BarburWHETHER THE PRAYER WAS OVERHEARD OR NOT, that pot of unripe mangoes was certainly gifted by someone with a taste for action – Daulat Khan Lodi, subedar/governor of Lahore. He along with other malcontents under and around the Sultanate, have called time on Delhi’s reigning Sultan, Ibrahim Lodi. Babur is the power centre to back. Riding on the support of allies and a string of successes, he arrives with unstoppable momentum from across the mountains.

Babur’s army is lighter than the resident heavyweight’s. Their superior, pioneering field tactics and artillery outlast the lumbering, outmoded defenders at Panipat. Ibrahim Lodi falls in battle, his family is given refuge. Babur finally takes over the reins of Delhi. He settles into his new environs.


Babur’s pioneering fire and movement tactics give him victory over Lodi; winning the hearts of his new subjects however, seems beyond his reach.

You’d think all this would put Babur in high spirits. Instead homesickness and melancholia take hold. Long nature walks prove a relief. There are novel trees, flowers, mammals and birds to note. And fruits and vegetables he hasn’t seen before. Always one for discovering new tastes, he has a few of the deposed Sultan’s cooks stay back in the new court and dish out some entertaining local preparations. Little does he know that this leaves the kitchen open to an unsavoury subterfuge that will find its way to his plate.

NEXT -> Food Poisoning: An Exercise in Revenge

Written in the Stars, Answered in the Signs


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BarburIT WOULD LATER BE CALLED VALENTINE’S DAY. But back in 1483, the residents of Andijan in Fergana, had been given their very own reason to celebrate February 14. In that city on that date, Babur was born to a family of no mean standing. Yet his legend has largely to do with what he made of himself, in spite of the burden of expectation.

He was son of the ruler of the Fergana Valley and his loaded pedigree (Timur on his father’s side, Genghis Khan on his mother’s) marked him out from the start. In Babur, the bloodlines couldn’t have found a more willing prince to act on double doses of an appetite for conquest. He would go above and beyond the call of duty and carve his own place in history. 


Soon after Babur prayed for a sign that his India venture was in the stars, Daulat Khan gifted him half-ripe mangoes in honey.

Babur galloped across rolling plains on active missions almost as soon as he was crowned king at the age of 12. But we join Babur in his adulthood, at a quieter moment of contemplation. Ahead of his fifth expedition to Hindustan, he asks for an indisputable sign that this foray is destined. A gift with an undeniably Indian stamp – betel perhaps. Or a mango. Whether it was Providence or the arrangement of an officer itching for action, Babur duly receives a gift of half-ripened mangoes preserved in honey.                                                  

This if anything, was the sign. This conquest was written in the stars. Babur packs up for a fifth expedition to Hindustan.