Three centuries after his death, the name of Aurangzeb still evokes hatred and revulsion in India. His name is equated with intolerance and fanaticism. Muslim historians pronounce him the ‘man of perfection’ while the Hindus still revile his name.
Historical accounts reveal that he was a man of boundless energy and intelligence, a valiant soldier, a fair and patient judge and a consummate statesman. But it is also true that before he even ascended to the throne, he had murdered his brothers, incarcerated his father and eliminated a small host of secondary kin. He was of course following the traditional practice in Muslim countries of takht ya takhta or ‘throne or coffin’.
His ascendance to the throne in 1658 heralded the decline of the dynasty. It is difficult to defend his endless wars, his persecution of the Hindus and other religious groups, his financial follies and his treachery. Adhering to the rules of the Quran with the ardour of a fundamentalist, he considered it his duty to enforce these rules upon all his hapless subjects.
Once he had spoken, not all the tears of Hindustan could wash away his harsh decrees. His bed was a straw mat. His garment was a simple white robe. His fasts were so frequent and prolonged that his friends feared that he would starve himself to death.
No meat or wine passed his lips and no music reached his ears and so it was decreed for all his subjects who took to fields and cellars for their illicit entertainment.
Muslim chroniclers at court hailed him as a living saint before they too were banned. His ministers and wives trembled when he passed and it was said that even the bravest of his five sons never received a message from his father without turning pale.
Throughout the empire, his mandate for the pious life was spelled out, down to the smallest detail. One’s trousers should not exceed a particular length. Almonds and dates were to be cultivated according to scriptural instructions. No one was permitted to drink from a silver cup or wear robes of gold. The signet of Islam was no longer imprinted on the coins of the realm lest the fingers of unbelievers sully the name of the Prophet.
Censors of public behaviour eavesdropped on conversations, peeped into teahouses and into boudoirs and reported the moral crimes of the nation in lengthy letters to Aurangzeb.
Beards exceeding the length of four fingers were forbidden on the grounds that too much hair might impede the spoken name of
Allah on its way to heaven. Inspectors roamed the streets of Delhi, measuring suspicious looking whiskers and administering shaves on the spot.
Aurangzeb ruled for over 49 years, a tenure that was rivalled in length only by Akbar, his great-grandfather. His long reign was divided into two distinct and nearly equal periods. In the first,
from 1658 to 1681, he resided in Delhi, a city that grew in importance as Agra now languished in provincial obscurity.
For the Mughal patrician, Delhi now represented all that was fashionable and refined. It was the Paris of its age, famous for its luxuriant parks and gardens, fine shops, witty citizens and opulent mansions. Even the austere emperor, by nature a recluse, bowed to the demands of contemporary elegance and appeared before the public in full regalia.
In the second part of his reign from 1682 to 1707, the emperor moved his court to the Deccan and remained there until his death, not once returning to the North, even though his ministry there waxed lazy and corrupt.
The Deccan held great significance for Aurangzeb. His father, then Prince Khurram, was the governor there when Aurangzeb was born. It was the place where this mother, Mumtaz Mahal, died when Shahjahan was in the midst of his southern campaign. There Aurangzeb dallied with the one great love of his life — concubine Zainabadi. The two filled their days with music and dance, and before Zainabadi’s untimely death, Aurangzeb even consented to drink a cup of forbidden wine.
Wrote the Italian adventurer Manucci, “Aurangzeb was quite accustomed to saying that God had been very gracious to him by putting an end to the dancing girl’s life who had tempted him to commit many iniquities and caused him to run the risk of never reigning on account of being involved in vicious practices”.
Reference The Taj Mahal by David Carroll.