FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE PIONEER, DECEMBER 6, 2009
Shah Jahan: The Rise and Fall of the Mughal Emperor
By Fergus Nicoll
For most of us, Shah Jahan is the guy who built the Taj Mahal, that unsurpassably beautiful monument of love. So, the Mughal ruler enjoys a rather romantic image. The halo around him gets stronger in the knowledge that he spent his last years entirely heart-broken, incarcerated by his ruthless son in a fort overlooking the historic mausoleum. In fact, he is one ruler in the lineage besides Akbar who enjoys general goodwill, unlike Babur and Aurangzeb who are objects of hate. What the film Mughal e Azam did to the Salim-Anarkali love legend, the Taj Mahal achieved for the Shah Jahan-Mumtaz pair. In the hearts and minds of most Indians, fed by sanitized versions of history in schools and colleges, Shah Jahan has been a tender-hearted, liberal and greatly wronged against ruler.
But now we have journalist and author Fergus Nicoll, who demolishes the carefully sustained myth and exposes the Emperor for what he was: a murderous schemer who spared none that threatened or had the potential to threaten his march to the throne. He even played power games with his father, revolting against him. As fate would have it, he did to his father what his son Aurangzeb was to later do to him, only with greater brutality.
But Nicoll is not biased against Shah Jahan, who is the primary character of his eponymously titled book. He presents a remarkable account of the palace intrigues that were the order the day in the Mughal era, and none who wished to survive it could afford to be less than scheming, shrewd and at times merciless. Thus, if Shah Jahan demonstrated guile and crookedness, it may not have been an inherent character trait – one can give him the benefit of doubt – but it certainly was meant to secure his position as the future king in the midst of other demanding applicants. As Nicoll shows, smooth transition of power was never automatically guaranteed to the heir; he had to earn it, often through bloody tussles. Shah Jahan’s father did, Shah Jahan did, and his son did.
If the book is a fascinating account of the rise and subsequent fall of one of the most enigmatic Mughal rulers, it also effectively takes the reader into the Mughal court, its rituals, the ways of sycophants and court poets, the constant switches of allegiance, the opulence of the rulers and those they favoured including queens and mistresses, the logistics of managing an empire and the many battles with adversaries within and outside the kingdom.
The author tells us how, in a span of 32 years as the Emperor, Khurram – for that was Shah Jahan’s real name – came to epitomize both depravity and sublime love. Having admitted that “many of the conventional wisdoms have had to be revisited,” after he went through contemporary documents and correspondences of the Mughal Empire with others, especially the neighbouring Persian kingdom, Nicoll ends up with a highly readable account. One wishes our history books had more of such stuff and style – `History’ as a subject would not be so boring then!