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This edited article about the Moghuls originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 646 published on 1 June 1974.
Tavernier, the great French jeweller, had seen some wonders in his time, but nothing to compare with the sight he saw on visiting Delhi in the year 1636. Looking not unlike a fantastic bedstead, it stood on four golden legs, an enamelled canopy being supported by twelve emerald pillars. Each pillar bore two peacocks worked in priceless gems and a tree, covered with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and pearls, linked the birds. Perched on one of the glistening branches of the tree was a magnificent parrot, carved from a single emerald. Built under the supervision of the court jeweller over a period of seven years, this incredible piece of furniture had cost ten million rupees, or about one million and a quarter pounds.
It was the Peacock Throne of the Emperor Shah Jahan.
If Barbar was the most likable of the Moghul emperors, Akbar the greatest and Jahangir the cruellest, it is safe to say of Shah Jahan that he was the most magnificent. Indeed, he was probably the most magnificent ruler who ever lived. As an emperor he had a good many faults, but his style of living set a standard of Oriental luxury that has remained as a legend down the centuries.
The secret of Shah Jahan’s seemingly bottomless purse lay in the fact that Moghul rule allowed for no parliaments, councils or committees to stand between the people and their king. An ordinary peasant could and sometimes did appeal direct to his emperor for justice, which gave a pleasantly personal touch to everyday affairs. On the other hand, it was taken for granted that literally every penny of the country’s revenue went through the king’s hands.
And with a man like Shah Jahan on the throne, the revenue was more than likely to stay there.
Extravagant perhaps, but this grandson of the great Akbar did not waste his money. True, he had an absolute passion for expensive entertainments, particularly those involving fireworks. But his artistic taste was the best of any of the Moghuls, and when he ordered new buildings or works of art there seems little doubt that he demanded and received the best of value.
Shah Jahan was a curious mixture of a man in many ways. One has to admire him for his good taste, but there is no getting away from the fact that he was deplorably mean in other matters. When his kingdom was struck by famine in 1630 he only contributed about as much to his starving people as he usually spent on a fireworks party.
And this was no ordinary famine. It was witnessed at first hand by an English merchant called Peter Mundy who travelled through the stricken area on business when the famine was at its height. Mundy paints a grim picture, complaining that for most of the way he found it difficult to find room to pitch his tent because of the dead who covered the ground. Also, he observed that the living were reduced to cannibalism in order to remain alive. Inevitably cholera followed, and the outbreak was so severe that at Mundy’s headquarters at Surat, no less than seventeen of the English traders died out of a total of only twenty-one.
Yet the emperor did have a warmer side to his nature. He was devoted to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the mother of no less than thirteen of his children. Mumtaz Mahal appears to have been as generous as her husband was tight-fisted, and was well known for her works of charity. She also had a good head on her shoulders, and when asked to make a difficult decision, Shah Jahan would often leave his Hall of Audience and ask the advice of his Queen. When this remarkable woman died at the age of 39, her husband was broken-hearted and at once set about planning a worthy memorial.
Probably nobody else in history could have produced the “Taj Bibi ka Roza” or, as it is known outside India, the Taj Mahal. Only Shah Jahan could have thought of it or, for that matter, have afforded it. And only at the height of the Moghul empire were there 20,000 craftsmen skilled enough to take on the immense task that was to last more than twenty years. Designed by the Persian architect, Ustad Isa, the result is a white marble mausoleum of such breath-taking perfection that it is generally accepted today as the most beautiful building in the world.
The first part of Shah Jahan’s reign was peaceful by the standards of the day, and he held his great empire together without difficulty. Even in spite of the huge sums spent on building mosques, palaces and the superb Red Fort at Delhi, there always seemed to be money enough. And Shah Jahan’s jewels were legendary. He had two special strongrooms built, each 70 ft square and 30 ft high. Both were packed tight with valuables, but even so his experts were always on the lookout for more treasures worthy of being added to the royal collection.
Even allowing for wealth inherited from Jahangir and Akbar, Shah Jahan would have been unable to maintain such an expensive way of life had it not been for the European traders who were arriving in ever increasing numbers. British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, they were all eager to buy spices, tobacco and a host of Eastern products for which there was a ready market in the West. And they paid in gold.
Never a man to turn down profitable business, Shah Jahan was pleased to see the newcomers. And, not surprisingly, he was outraged when he heard that the Portuguese settlers in Bengal were taking advantage of the royal hospitality.
The emperor had raised no objections to the strangers building a fort, and he had even turned a blind eye to their habit of taxing tobacco, despite the fact that such revenue rightly belonged to the king. But when the Portuguese began rounding up the local peasants and forcibly converted them to Christianity before shipping them off as slaves, Shah Jahan’s rage was understandable.
One wonders at the arrogance of those 300-odd settlers who were prepared to treat one of the Moghul emperors with such contempt. And certainly they were not long in discovering that it was no petty chieftain they were dealing with.
“Expel the idolators from the dominions!” was all Shah Jahan said, and his governor in Bengal hurried to obey. Well knowing the fate that would await him if he did not report a victory, he flung against the little fort an army estimated at 150,000 men. The result can be imagined, and the slave trade in Bengal died as quickly as it had begun.
The latter half of Shah Jahan’s reign consisted of a long-drawn-out battle for power between his four sons. In 1657 the emperor fell ill, and although he recovered, he was never allowed to sit on the throne again. He lived on for seven years in semi-captivity, frail, rambling in his mind and endlessly counting his jewels. By the time he died, most people had forgotten he was still alive. Nevertheless he was given a suitably impressive funeral and buried, as he would have wished, in the Taj Mahal, beside his beloved Queen.