The general perception of the Mughals as benevolent and romantic monarchs has been heavily coloured by films and comic books. How many of us know what the Mughals were really like? The truth is that not many of us are aware of the horrendous cruelty that the Mughals were capable of, a cruelty that was not surprising considering the fact that Babur’s father descended from the Turkish conqueror, Timur the lame or Tamerlane and his mother descended from the warrior ‘born with a clot of blood in his fist’, Genghis Khan. Anyone shocked by the indescribable cruelty of Babur and his heirs must recall that the blood of these two demonic warriors ran in their veins. This strain of cruelty that the Mughals inherited from their Tartar and Mongol ancestors meant that from the emperor down to the lowest faujdar had very little regard for human life.
Every Mughal emperor exhibited a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality — there was something good and evil in all of them. Although Babur was a compassionate and a tolerant sovereign, he could descend into the realm of the barbaric with ease. Babur was known to order human gladiator fights where he would often jump into the ring to polish off a hapless loser who died too slowly. It was not beyond his nature to indulge in unprovoked murders and like his ancestor Timur, who played polo with the heads of his victims, Babur dotted the Indus valley with triumphal mounds of severed heads.
Babur and every Mughal emperor who followed him to the throne embodied contradictory characteristics — sinister and naïve, surprisingly lenient and indescribably cruel, scholarly and ignorant, extremely religious and unashamedly self-indulgent. Cruelty was not uncommon to the Mughal women and the beautiful Mumtaz Mahal was no exception. Mumtaz Mahal was not only cruel but she was a bigot, a religious fanatic and an archenemy of Christianity.
Since the 16th century, Portuguese Christians had been steadily migrating to Hooghly, a trading settlement coast on the northeast of India, near modern Calcutta. Although these immigrants were a largely unscrupulous lot, indulging in piracy and slave trade, the punishment scarcely fit the crime when Shah Jahan, goaded by his queen, ordered the whole colony to be razed to the ground. His soldiers carried out their emperor’s orders with brutal efficiency, decimating the Portuguese fleet and all its men along with a boatload of women and children who were swallowed up by the black waters while their Jesuit leader, Father Frahlo held a crucifix aloft. That day, 4,000 prisoners were made to march from Hooghly to Agra, a distance of 1,200 miles. The survivors were brutally disposed of — the priests were thrown beneath elephants and the rest were sold as slaves.
The instigator of this holy war was none other than Mumtaz Mahal, whose sarcophagus bears the chilling inscription immortalising her hatred of infidels — Lord defend us from the tribe of unbelievers. Ironically, Shahjahan, who was equally antagonistic towards Christianity, would chose one of that faith to design the tomb of his wife. It is known that up to the time of the British occupation of India, any non-Muslim who dared to enter the Taj Mahal was put to the sword.
The Mughal emperors were an unpredictable lot, which made them even more dangerous. Death or other brutal punishments could be the consequence of harmless human errors. The men and women who attended to their royal masters in the courts and within the forbidden confines of the harems were easy targets of bouts of rage and capricious acts of cruelty.
Jahangir penned his memoirs called Tuzk-e-Jahangiri, also known as Jahangirnama in which he relates how two drum-beaters and a guide mistakenly came into the clearing when he had proceeded to take aim at a nilgai (blue-bull antelope). The animal fled and the furious Jahangir had the guide executed and the two hapless drum-beaters were hamstrung, in other words their tendons behind their knees were sliced off, which left them crippled for life.