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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.