Lifestyle & Culture, The Mughals in India

For the Love of Poetry: Mughals & Mushairas

Urdu is arguably the most romantic language of the Indian subcontinent. Acoustically, it is light and lilting, delicate on the ears and sophisticated even in simple sentence constructions. When expressed with skill in Urdu, the complexity and nuance of an emotion deepens. It is the language of love and poetry. That my late grandfather could speak, read and write in Urdu was and remains a matter of pride for me. Unfortunately, very few native speakers of the language remain in present-day India, a far cry from the 18th century when it was the national language of the region.

Urdu Shairi & the Ghazal

Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775 – 1862)

Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775 – 1862)

Urdu poetry or shairi as we recognize it today took its final decisive shape in the 17th century when Urdu was declared the official language of the Mughal court. The following decades witnessed a phenomenal rise in Urdu poetry and ushered in the age of legends such as Ghalib, Zauq and Mir.

Urdu shairi is based on a system of measure, and has a very rigid form. There are several types of Urdu shairi, one of which is the hugely popular ghazalGhazal literally means “to talk to/about women”. Traditionally, ghazals mainly deal with the topic of love – more specifically, unattainable love. The poet is the distraught, spurned lover who tries to gain the affection of an aloof, disdainful, sometimes cruel beloved. Each verse of a ghazal is a complex but complete description of the topic. It requires great skill on the part of the poet to reduce the most complex of emotions into the fewest of words while maintaining sophistication of thought and word.

Kahan woh maha jabeen aur hum, kahan who wasal ki raaten,
Magar hum ne kabhi tha ek yeh bhi khwaab saa dekha,
Zafar ki sair is gulshan mein hum ne par kisi gul mein,
Na kuchh ulfat ki boo paai, na kuchh rang-e-wafa dekha.
Whither I, whither my moon, and whither those nights of love?
But to see such a dream had once been my fate;
Although, I (Zafar) combed the garden, I didn’t see one bloom,
Not one lively scent of love, not one streak of faith.
– Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775 – 1862)

Mushaira: The Poetic Symposium

Zafar Khan and his brother in the company of poets and scholars in a garden. c. 1640-50/

Zafar Khan and his brother in the company of poets and scholars in a garden.
c. 1640-50

The proliferation of media outlets and rapidity of communications today would be shocking to the public of late 18th century India, when newspapers and modes of communication were limited to the local-run Delhi Urdu Akhbar and the British-run Delhi Gazette. Over time, Urdu poetry evolved to become a more intimate and personal way of responding to the social and political tribulations of the period.

The commonest form of poetry recital was a mushaira, or a poetic symposium, where poets would gather to read their compositions crafted in accordance to a strict metrical pattern, agreed upon beforehand, even while meeting a certain loftiness of thought.

The intensity of the mushairas that developed in Delhi were legendary, helping popularise Urdu as a language of poetry in the Mughal court. A culture was built around taking lessons in poetry writing; it even became fashionable for royalty to learn Urdu shairi. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor of India, was an accomplished poet in his own right. He had a habit of setting his court difficult poetic tasks, such as the challenging art of tazmin – the adding of an extra line to the couplet so as to turn it into a three-liner without losing the sense of rhythm.

Zafar also received his own pupils for composition and helped correct their verses. The court diary records him as taking “A khasburdar and a female – Piram Jan – as pupils in poetic composition.” From her name, Piram Jan appears to be a courtesan, and the fact that Zafar publically tutored courtesans is interesting evidence of the high social status that better courtesans enjoyed in Mughal Delhi, and the degree to which many of them were renowned for their poetic talents.

The novel was made into a movie starring Rekha. Umrao Jaan, 1981

The 1899 novel Umrao Jan Ada was made into a Bollywood movie starring Rekha. (Umrao Jaan, 1981)

In what is widely considered Urdu’s first novel, writer Mirza Hadi Ruswa tells the story of a cultured courtesan-poetess named Umrao Jaan. The novel, titled Umrao Jan Ada, was published in 1899 and presents a lavish portrayal of mid-19th century Lucknow’s decadent society and the mushairas of the time. In fact, the narrator of the novel meets Umrao Jaan at a mushaira, where she first coquettishly hides behind a purdah (curtain) and invisibly calls out her praise with wah-wahs. Later, Umrao Jan emerges and, at the request and subsequent delight of the crowd present, recites the following lines:

Galat andaaz hii sahii voh nazar
Kyun mere haal par nahii hotii
Ay adaa ham kabhii nah maanenge
Dil ko dil kii khabar nahii hotii
Even if that gaze is brazen,
Why does it not rest upon me?
Oh Ada, we shall never concur-
A heart knows nothing about a heart.

In Farhatullah Baig’s The Last Mushai’rah of Delhi, Baig presents a fictionalised but well-informed account of how enchanting a Mughal mushaira must have been:

The courtyard has been filled so as to raise it to the level of the plinth of the house. On the wooden planks were spread cotton rugs. There was a profusion of chandeliers, candelabra, wall lamps, hanging lamps and Chinese lanterns so that the house was converted into a veritable dome of light… From the centre of the roof were hung row upon row of jasmine garlands… the whole house was fragrant with musk, amber and aloes… Arranged in a row, at short intervals along the carpet, were the huqqas, burnished and brightly polished…
The seating pattern was arranged so that those assigned places on the right of the presiding poet had connections with the Lucknow court, and on the left were seated the Delhi masters and their pupils.

Hookahs, paan and sweets would be passed around. A spirit of friendly competition and camaraderie would emerge. After the Bismillah was proclaimed, the personal representative of the Emperor arrived from the court with the Emperor’s own ghazal. Verses and couplets were passed back and forth, one inspiring the other, and while the others shouted their approval with wah-wahs, lesser skilled poets grew silent and reticent. The recital would continue till dawn, and climax with the mushaira’s most accomplished poet reciting his verses.

Hazaaron khwahishen aisi ke har khwahish pe dam nikle
Bahut niklay mere armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikle
A thousand desires like these, each desire enough to consume me,
Many wishes have been fulfilled, yet many more still remain.
– Mirza Ghalib (1797 –1869)
Lifestyle & Culture, Mughal History, The Mughals in India

Anarkali and Salim: A Mughal Love Story

“Emperor Akbar was so enamoured of her ravishing beauty that he named her “Anarkali”, meaning “pomegranate blossom”, for her flushing red complexion.”

There is a mausoleum in the south of Lahore’s Old City, a site of immense speculation and mystery, and, if rumours of 1611 are to be believed, the only remaining sign of a bitter argument between father and son. The mausoleum is an elegant octagonal white-washed stone building with 8 corner turrets, each topped with a domed kiosk, a masterpiece of solid masonry work of the early Mughal period.

Photo by Junaid Hussain

Photo by Junaid Hussain

In the mausoleum sits an extraordinarily beautiful sarcophagus, a tomb of pure marble and exquisite workmanship, “one of the finest pieces of carving in the world”, according to some 19th century scholars. This tomb is the final resting place of Anarkali, the protagonist of our great enigma, one half of our 17th century royal romance riddle, and the point where all the threads start to unravel.

On the sarcophagus are etched the 99 names of Allah. Two years, namely Hijra 1008 and 1024, are also inscribed, which correspond to AD 1599-1600 and AD 1615-1616 respectively. On the northern face of the sarcophagus is the following inscription, written in Persian:

Ta qayamat shukr goyam kard gar khwish ra

Ah! gar man baz beenam rui yar khwish ra

“Ah ! If could I behold the face of my beloved once more;

I would give thanks unto my God

Unto the day of resurrection”

Accompanying this eternal profession of love and passion is the inscription Majnun Salim Akbar which can be translated as “The profoundly enamoured Salim (son of) Akbar”.

And so the plot thickens.

Key Players

There are three main characters in this love story.

  1. Anarkali
  2. Crown Prince Salim; Future Emperor Jahangir (1569 – 1627)
  3. Emperor Akbar (1542 – 1605)

The Mughal-e-Azam Version

The most popular version of Anarkali and Salim’s illicit love story was immortalized in one of Bollywood’s greatest epics, Mughal-e-Azam (1960), “The Emperor of the Mughals”. Mughal-e-Azam was the highest-grossing film of its time and is popularly regarded today as the greatest Bollywood film of all time.

(I’ve seen it at least 3 times; my father, while waiting for his tea to boil, still drums out the tune to “Pyar kiya to darna kya”, a song that’s become a popular way of laughing off romance-related woes.)

Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim; Madhubala as Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim; Madhubala as Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

According to this version of the royal romance, popularised by the Bollywood movie, Anarkali’s real name was Nadira Begum. Originally of Turkmen origin, Nadira came to Lahore with a traders’ caravan. She held a mujra (dance performance) in the court of Emperor Akbar, where the latter was so enamoured of her ravishing beauty that he renamed her “Anarkali”, meaning “pomegranate blossom”, for her flushing red complexion.

Emperor Akbar’s eldest and heir apparent, Prince Salim, fell in love with Anarkali, but his father did not approve of the relations between the two. The dancer was of low birth and not fit to be the queen of the future emperor of Hindustan. The lovers ignored Emperor Akbar’s disapproval and continued to meet clandestinely. Unable to punish his own son, Akbar took his wrath out on Anarkali and sentenced her to death by being bricked alive in a wall.

(In the 1960 movie, because Indian audiences can hardly bear to see heroines die, Emperor Akbar releases Anarkali at the last minute, in exchange for banishment from the kingdom. Which really wouldn’t explain the tomb in Lahore at all. Or fit with the personality of an Emperor. But never mind all these glaring discrepancies, because I don’t buy this version at all.)

The Version Where Anarkali is Killed Over A Smile

A Mughal harem in the miniature style of the time.

A Mughal harem in the miniature style of the time.

So, the rumour in the walled city of Lahore was that Emperor Akbar had a special liking for Anarkali, as she was well-versed in poetry, literature and music, all of which were dear to the emperor.

She was admitted into the Mughal harem and became a concubine of the emperor’s. It was a well-known fact that the entire court knew Anarkali was the emperor’s “most favoured person”.

One day, while seated in a room lined with mirrors, Emperor Akbar noticed Anarkali returning Prince Salim a smile. Akbar, who knew the character of his sensuous son better than anybody else, was outraged by the suspicion of an affair between the crown prince and his own slave girl.

In fact, Akbar was so infuriated that he ordered her to be built alive into a wall. After all, if word got out that his concubine was sleeping with his own son, the Shehenshah-e-Hindustan (King of Kings of Hindustan) would become the laughing stock of his own land. Salim, unable to save her from this cruel end, commissioned a tomb to her memory in Lahore after his accession to the throne.

(This is more in keeping with the personality of an emperor, and Akbar did have a reputation for arrogance. Besides being a delicate nest of politics, a royal harem is, after all, a symbolic manifestation of the Emperor’s libido, and hence his “manliness”.)

The Semi-Incestuous Version

The earliest mention in historical record of the love affair between Anarkali and Prince Salim comes from the account of one William Finch, an English merchant who arrived in India in 1608, 3 years after Prince Salim ascends the throne as Emperor Jahangir.

Finch’s story, though the first, is by far the most scandalous version of the love affair between Anarkali and Prince Salim. In 17th century English, Finch notes:

“a faire monument for Don Sha [Daniyal] his mother, one of the Acabar his wives, with whom it is said Sha Selim had to do (her name was Immacque Kelle, or Pomgranate kernell); upon notice of which the King [Akbar] caused her to be inclosed quicke within a wall in his moholl, where shee dyed, and the King [Salim: Jahangir], in token of his love, commands a sumptuous tombe to be built of stone…”

So it turns out that Prince Salim was having an affair with his father’s wife! Oh my, does it get much more scandalous than this? We know her name was Anarkali because Finch mentions that the mother of Prince Daniyal bears a name meaning “Pomegranate Blossom”. Upon notice of the affair with the Crown Prince, she was enclosed within a wall of the palace on Emperor Akbar’s orders, where she died. Later, as a token of his love, Prince Salim alias Emperor Jahangir builds a grand marble tomb in her name.

Photo by Junaid Hussain

Photo by Junaid Hussain

(It’s clear to me that Akbar and Salim were enamoured with the same woman, Anarkali. I can’t imagine the epic Mughal-e-Azam reflecting this version of history where father and son fight like roosters over the same woman. But I’d pay good money to see it.)

Festivals, Food & Culture, Food History, The Mughals in India

It’s Fit For Royalty: Food Culture & The Mughal Empire

Whenever I think of India, I think of the Mughals. To me, the two are one and the same, synonymous, identical, superimposed upon each other, so that history, legend and fact are interchangeable.

What do you think of when I say Mughal?

Rich curries and pilaf, pistachios and almonds, apricots and peaches, a cuisine of refinement, sophistication, extravagance.

By the time the last Mughal was deposed by the British in 1858, Hindustan was changed forever. Three centuries of Mughal reign left behind an enduring legacy of culinary art that permanently altered the landscape of Indian cuisine. The Mughals were lavish and extravagant, connoisseurs of beauty. Courtly food of the Mughal Empire was sumptuous, rich and complex. Curries and gravies were made thicker and richer with creams and yogurts, and it was not uncommon for food to be decorated with fresh flower petals and edible thin foils of silver and gold.

Photo by Karan Verma CC-BY-SA 2.0.  An example of biryani cooked in the Mughal dum pukht style.

Photo by Karan Verma CC-BY-SA 2.0.
An example of biryani cooked in the Mughal dum pukht style.

Under Mughal rule, cuisine was distilled to perfection and refined into an art form. Biryani is one such dish that was polished in the royal kitchens of the Mughal Emperors. The word biryani comes from the Persian birian. It is basically a dish of rice and meat, not unlike the pilaf. This is no coincidence, because the word biryani was used interchangeably with pilaf as late as the sixteenth century. What we do know for sure is that as a cuisine, the biryani or pilaf was refined during the reign of the Mughals. Flavours were enhanced using exotic spices. The curry was made rich and smooth with cream and yogurt. Imperial cooks threw in spices like cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, and nuts such as cashews and almonds. The result was a fragrant, heady and flavourful dish fit for royalty. Till today, biryani is one of the cornerstones of Mughlai cuisine.

Diners took their place atop rich carpets. The centrepiece of the imperial spread was a dish of rice cooked with ghee, spices and meat. After their meals, they rinsed their hands with perfumed water poured from jugs held by servants.

The Mughal Emperors impressed courtiers, nobles, foreign guests and dignitaries at their dining table. The menu, finalized by the hakim (royal physician), would consist of about 100 dishes, each prepared by one cook. Diners took their place on the ground, atop rich carpets laid with protective white sheets. The centrepiece of the imperial spread was usually a dish of rice cooked with ghee, spices and meat: the pilaf. This was accompanied by a huge variety of game bird, fish, lamb, venison and beef cooked in different styles. After their meals, they rinsed their hands with perfumed water poured from jugs held by servants.

Emperor Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire

Emperor Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire

On normal days – as though any day in the life of a Mughal Emperor could ever be called normal – the Emperor ate his meals with his queens and concubines. Served by eunuchs, daily meals were no less extravagant. The Mughals followed the Indian custom of the time by beginning their meals with pickles, freshly sliced ginger and lime. They also ended the meal with chewing on betel nut, or paan. What they introduced was the tradition of desserts, that is, the eating of something sweet at the end of the meal, rather than at the start or in the middle.

While Emperor Babur had only disdain for mango, the jewel of Hindustan, Emperor Jahangir introduced it to the courtly tables. “Of all the fruits,” he says, “I am particularly fond of mango.”

Mughal cuisine was strongly influenced by the Persian cuisine of Iran, which featured dried fruits and nuts, ingredients commonly used by imperial cooks in meat and rice dishes. In fact, under the Mughals, fruit was not merely a food product. It was a symbol of sophistication and their elevated position in society. At the time of the Mughal rule, fruits and nuts were thought of as incredibly opulent and luxurious. Hence, a gift of fruits was a sign diplomacy and even a matter of protocol.

When Babur, India’s first Mughal Emperor, looked about his newly conquered northern territories, he did not like it. Coming from a food-loving culture, Hindustan seemed to him a land stripped of romance. He writes in The Baburnama, “There is no grapes, quality fruits, mask melons, candles”. He did not fancy the local Indian food, which lacked the spices and flavours he was accustomed to in his native Samarkand. And while he had only disdain for mango, the jewel of Hindustan, Emperor Jahangir introduced it to the courtly tables. “Of all the fruits,” he says, “I am particularly fond of mango.”

From Kashmir, they imported peaches, plums, apricots, apples, grapes and pears. They drank juices flavoured with essences. From the mountains, they brought down ice to keep their sherbets and desserts cool and palatable.

The formal gardens of the Mughal Empire were planted with fruit trees.

The formal gardens of the Mughal Empire were planted with fruit trees.

The Mughals were nothing if not lavish. From Kashmir, they imported temperate fruits unavailable in Delhi’s climate such as peaches, plums, apricots, apples, grapes and pears. They planted formal gardens of fruit trees over conquered territories and drank juices flavoured with essences. From the mountains, they brought down ice to keep their sherbets and desserts cool and palatable. Emperor Babur often drank heavily at his lavish feasts and smoked copious amounts of hashish. Emperor Akbar had his own kitchen garden which he watered daily with rosewater because it added to the flavour of food when cooked. Emperor Jahangir admitted to drinking at least twenty glasses of wine daily in his youth. Luckily, as he grew older, he decided on a less indulgent approach: “I drink wine solely to promote the digestion of my food.”


I want to see Dalrymple’s Delhi: the century-old mithai stall at the corner of Chandni Chowk, the old havelis, Nizamuddin’s whirling dervishes. I want to hear the Urdu of Ghalib and see not alleys and roads but Shahjahanabad, the greatest and most beautiful city the Mughal empire has known. In the City of Djinns, Dalrymple walks the fine line between travel memoir and two thousand years of history, and deftly balances both with expert skill. He summons catacombs, hidden tunnels and the ghosts of eras past, superimposing them on modern Delhi. The result is something absolutely magical.

Book Review

Book Review: City of Djinns by William Dalrymple