This is an important historical publication rendered in an engaging narrative style that will entertain the reader. More importantly, it also brings into focus, true to its title, an aspect of a vital historical period otherwise unattended to in such detail. This was the age that was to flower into what may be described as a golden age for India envied the world over for its wealth, its military might and its coveted domination of the world’s trade. But the social effervescence that led to that emergence and its attendant brutality, the glittering cultural synthesis unprecedented in the subcontinent and its inevitable antithesis is recounted here through painstaking research and reference.
This story is set around the lives of the Persian Bairam Khan and his son Abdur Rahim, born of a Meo mother, who has come to command an unrivalled position in the history of India’s Hindi poetry under the title to which he was elevated by the Emperor Akbar, Abdur Rahim Khan-i Khanan. But this is no dry academia. Raghavan succeeds in bringing alive his characters, so rare in a narrative drawn down from historical sources as this book is, so that the reader begins to feel for his characters.
There is a sense of surprise, even shock on the description of the murder of Bairam Khan, built up by the author’s skilful placement of events leading up to it. One feels for the sad end of the Emperor’s favourite, the legendary Birbal, in battle. The last years of Abdur Rahim himself carry the weight of tragedy as one senses the supreme heights to which he had ascended as an intellectual, as a military commander, as a political leader in a hierarchy jostling for high position and to read of his fall, the decimation of his family, his exclusion from the centre of power and his own end after a brief resurgence with the developing veil of mistrust among friends, suspicion of his intentions and dimunition of his reputation in his own lifetime. And the reader becomes participant as Raghavan traces, through reference and suggestion, the evolution of Akbar’s own religious thinking and his attitude towards the clergy exemplified in this book in the personality of the chief judge—Sadr as described in the book—Sheikh Abdun Nabi in whose name a mosque stands at the ITO crossing in New Delhi as today’s headquarters of the Jama’at ul Ulema, India’s principal body of clerics. This relationship evolved from deference, to the beginnings of discord when the Sheikh admonished him hurling a staff at the Emperor in full court, through the institutionalization of the ibadat khana, which still stands in Fatehpur Sikri, to the final disenchantment ending, typically for the times, in the execution of the Sheikh.
There is a single chapter devoted to Bairam Khan, but because these are dramatic times in the history of Mughal India the story is fascinating. Here we have the rise and fall and the restoration of the Mughal empire through the two battles of Panipat, the conquests of Babur, the exile of Humayun and the struggle for ascendancy of his brothers in the true Mongol tradition, the initiation of the alliance with Safavi Iran, which was so closely to inform the history of the relations of the Mughals with Iran well into the eighteenth century and remains often imperceptibly interwoven in India’s socio-cultural fabric to this day, and the accession of Akbar to the throne. In all these developments Bairam played a central role—and given the times that he lived in—only inevitably—to fall from grace, his exile and his assassination by the Afghans whose rule over India he had helped the Mughal to supplant. And here we also read of the initiation of the balance of power in the Mughal hierarchy between Irani, Turrani and Hindustani which was to fructify in the time of Abdur Rahim, and to become pivot in the cultural legacy of the Mughal tradition in Awadh, Hyderabad, Rajasthan and Punjab into the close of the nineteenth century.
The remaining part of the book deals with various phases in the life of Abdur Rahim down to his twilight years in the reign of Jahangir. The history of Abdur Rahim is a bird’s eye view of the rise of Mughal power to its supremacy in India. As mentioned, Abdur Rahim, a Shia, had an Irani father and a Meo mother. Akbar treated him as a son, and Raghavan brings out clearly the empathy that Abdur Rahim had with the Rajputs. There is an interesting discussion about Rahim’s relations with the legendary Maharana Pratap, the ruler of a small kingdom, for whom Rahim, as seen from his letters to the Emperor, felt sympathy and whom he possibly helped leave free to wander after the battle of Haldighati. A fact that Raghavan doesn’t mention in this connection, but what gives credence to this argument is that Pratap was the descendant of Rana Sanga who led the Rajputs against Babur at Khandwa with the support of Hasan Khan Mewati the Meo chieftain, who Raghavan mentions Babur having condemned for this support describing him as ‘this infidel’ . Rahim’s mother was Hasan Khan’s niece.
Of particular interest to the historian will be Chapter 4 ‘The Deccan’ which covers the period of Rahim’s rule of the Deccan. This was the period that elevated Rahim to his most powerful position in the Empire where he became custodian to the imperial princes Murad and Daniyal, singly and on one occasion both together, to lead the Mughal thrust into the Deccan. Burhanpur was the seat of the Mughal viceroyalty in the Deccan from where Aurangzeb was to launch his war of succession. Raghavan gives us an intriguing account of how the personality of Rahim remains imprinted in the present city of Burhanpur, today in Madhya Pradesh. Also discussed in detail are the exploits of Malik Amber, playing the Deccan kingdoms against each other and against the Mughal, sometimes using the Mughal against his rivals and evading military confrontation with militarily superior forces. He preceded the strategy that Shivaji was to adopt so successfully. But Raghavan also describes how this elevation to power was to prove Rahim’s undoing, the breakdown of imperial trust under Jahangir, the intrigues of his rivals in the imperial court, and his own inability to subdue Malik Ambar which led to the rising mistrust that the author suggests was precursor to a similar suspicion that was to arise between Emperor Aurangzeb and his commander Mirza Raja Jai Singh.
I have mentioned the Mughal legacy in different former provinces of the empire. But a major contribution of this work is Chapter 6 ‘Afterlife: Rahiman and Abdur Rahim’, which addresses the legacy of Abdur Rahim. Bairam emerged as a Turkmen icon in Turkmenistan in the 90s, newly freed from the Soviet incubus, as the author has mentioned in his Epilogue. As the title of Chapter 6 suggests Rahim’s legacy is primarily through his Hindi dohas (couplets) taught extensively in schools. Yet Rahim was a formidable Farsi poet and composer of a rich array of sensuous Hindi poetry, the latter of which is readily accessible, leading to his becoming a symbol of Indian religious syncretism. As Raghavan makes clear, Rahim’s own religious leanings seemed to be more conservative as evidenced by his relations with Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi, the most eloquent critic of Akbar’s eclecticism. Yet Rahim’s cultural ethos was decidedly syncretized making him, as the author concludes in the Epilogue, ‘a political symbol of national integration and unity’. The development of this image is an informative tale as Raghavan traces the virtual eclipse through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of Rahim’s poetic legacy. He was not counted amongst the leading Hindi poets of the time. Yet by the late nineteenth century the
ministrations of the instructors at the College at Fort William Calcutta engaged in what the author describes as engineering ‘the great divide’ between Hindi as it emerged in that century, and Urdu—recognizable as part of British policy to nurture hostility between Hindu and Muslim—had begun
to result in the past literary canons of
Hindi and Urdu being viewed as mutually exclusive.
Yet for all its strengths this book cannot be categorized as a great work of history, largely because the publishers have allowed historical fallacies and inadequacies. For example, the author discusses the administrative structure of the Mughal Empire on p. 79. Yet while he describes the jagirdari and how it was enjoyed at the pleasure of the emperor, there is no mention of the watan jagir, exclusive to the Rajputs at this time, although the same chapter ‘The Young Noble’ talks of the process of integration of the Rajput leadership into the empire. Similarly, at p. 90 Raghavan mentions that Abul Fazl held a very high rank ‘by the end of Akbar’s reign’. Elsewhere in discussing the murder of Abul Fazl under orders of Prince Salim the author is obviously aware that Abul Fazl predeceased Akbar. Since the pervasive Chishti influence on the imperial Mughals recurs repeatedly, in the detailed reference to Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi, his relations with the Emperor and with Rahim, it should surely have been mentioned that he was from the Naqshbandi silsila (school). There is reference to the tragic figure of Prince Khusrau, the eldest son of Jahangir, murdered by
his brother, already carrying the name of
Shah Jahan, in 1622. Yet there is no reference to his blinding by his father Jahangir, whose rival for the throne he was sought to be made on the death of Akbar, or of his being son of the princess of Jaipur, a
shortcoming compounded by the failure to mention the title of Mirza carried by Jai Singh of Jaipur the general of Aurangzeb, who was thus a relative of the imperial house. There is no mention of the martyrdom of the Sikh Guru Arjun Dev accused of having supported that prince in the struggle for succession.
Nevertheless, whatever its shortcomings and these are readily rectifiable, the book brings alive a luminous period of the evolution of modern India. It is enriched with illustrations, which although few, are carefully selected and beautifully reproduced. It is only fitting that the release of this extraordinary work corresponds to the endeavour of the Archaeological Survey of India to restore the tomb built by Rahim for his wife Mahbanu Begum, in which he too is interred, located in Nizamuddin.
Wajahat Habibullah is former Chairman, National Commission of Minorities.