The depth of Aurangzeb’s fanatical devotion to his faith was best exemplified by an incident in 1645 when he was sent to Transoxiana on the orders of Shahjahan to wrest Samarqand from its powerful ruler, Abdul Aziz Khan. There, in the midst of a violent siege, Aurangzeb remembered that the time for prayer was at hand. He dismounted from his elephant and knelt tranquilly on the battlefield and facing Mecca, began to pray while men around him died like ‘locusts and ants’. “To fight with such a man is to ruin oneself,” said Abdul Aziz Khan and withdrew.
He returned to the Deccan for a second term as viceroy in 1653 after failing to capture Kandahar from the Persians. For the next five years he waged war against the Deccani kingdoms and in the process honed his martial skills. In 1658, using the Deccan as a springboard, he seized the Mughal throne from his father and became the emperor of Hindustan under the name of Alamgir, the world seizer.
He was seasoned by the lance and fighting the infidel was one of the prime objectives of his life. His hatred for the enemies of the Prophet was not confined to the Hindus but stretched to Shiites such as the Muslims from the Deccan.
Aurangzeb belonged to the Sunni sect and shared his people’s contempt for those Muslims who dared reject the first three Caliphs as the rightful successors of Mohammed. Paradoxically, although it was the Hindus who represented the idolatry that he so despised, the Hindu Rajputs of North and Central India were for many years the strongest allies of the Mughals. He knew that for the Mughals to break faith with the Rajputs would be a grave mistake.
Writes Lane Poole: The Rajputs were the bravest of the brave, born fighters, fuelled by a fierce sense of honour and pride of birth, always ready to conquer and die for their chiefs, they rushed into battle maddened with bhang (hashish) and stained with orange turmeric which was an unforgettable spectacle. The truth was that had they all combined, the Mughals could never have stopped them. But happily for the Mughals, the Rajputs were consistently weakened by internal jealousies and thus could always be played off one against the other.
In the days of Akbar, the Hindus were always treated as equals. They held public office, collected taxes, commanded armies and shared in the prosperities and sorrows of the greater empire. However, the iron pillar of toleration forged by Akbar was at times reduced to a wobbly pivot by Shahjahan whose persecution of the Hindus was not infrequent.
But Shahjahan grew mellow in his later years and peace prevailed. Now a Muslim far more intolerant than Shahjahan reigned over Hindustan and the Hindus watched with trepidation as he abolished the practice of weighing himself against gold on his birthday, of anointing his Rajput general’s brows with sandalwood paste and presenting himself at the Royal window every morning. To Aurangzeb, such practices smacked of idolatry.
For 20 years, a nervous peace prevailed between the two communities while Aurangzeb focused all his hostility on foreign enemies, waging war on the northwest frontier and Assam. As he became less rigid in his later years, he allowed Hindus to observe their customs relatively unhindered and even recruited them for the royal ateliers where some of the finest Mughal paintings were produced.
However, at the end of the twenty year Muslim-Hindu detente, Aurangzeb could no longer repress his natural impulses towards proselytism nor could he tolerate reports that the Hindus’ ‘wicked science’ was being taught to pious Muslims across his realm.
In 1678, following the death of Jaswant Singh, his most formidable Hindu ally, the emperor sent troops to annex the Maharaja’s kingdom and forcibly convert his sons to Islam. Thus, with this one tactical blunder, Akbar’s efforts to achieve everlasting peace and reconciliation between the two communities was forever erased.
Across India, Hindus raised indignant cries and to silence them, Aurangzeb, who had already razed their temples and schools in Benares, banned all Hindus from holding public office, from bearing arms, owning elephants and riding in palanquins.
Read more in the next issue of Aurangzeb’s reign of terror.
The Taj Mahal by David Carroll