A forgotten chapter

A forgotten chapter

There are more than a hundred places in India named by or after Aurangzeb. The Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee has floated a petition to rename one of them, the Aurangzeb Road in Delhi, after Guru Tegh Bahadur.

The petitioners argued: ‘No street is named after Hitler in the West, yet in New Delhi we have Aurangzeb Road.’ The general secretary of the committee added that ‘a public place named after Aurangzeb in secular India is inappropriate.’ We are obliged to confront, yet again, the matter of how to engage with our past.

Aurangzeb, the most controversial Mughal ruler, is no longer remembered for his military genius, his austere lifestyle, his administrative reforms, and the advances in cannon technology during his reign.

History holds him responsible for the disintegration of the Mughal Empire. People remember him as a ruler who dethroned and imprisoned his father, ordered the executions of his elder brother Dara Shikoh, the mystic Sheikh Sarmad and Guru Tegh Bahadur, re-imposed Jizya, forcibly converted people, and ordered the destruction of temples. Maasir-i-Alamgiri (History of Aurangzeb-Alamgir) indeed abounds in instances of religious bigotry. Written under the patronage of Inayatullah Khan Kashmiri, Aurangzeb’s last secretary and the Emperor Muhammad Shah’s temporary Wazir, Maasir was completed three years after the death of Aurangzeb. But Aurangzeb also awarded land grants to temples and Hindus were well-represented in his nobility and administration.

Let us steer clear of religion and explore an entirely different aspect of Aurangzeb’s life. From a letter in Ruqaat-i Alamgiri, we learn that once his son Mohammed Azam Shah sent certain varieties of mangoes to him. The Emperor wrote back: ‘Exalted son, I was much pleased with the dali of mangoes sent by you to the old father. You have requested me to suggest names for the unknown mangoes. When you yourself are very clever, why do you give trouble to (your) old father. However, I have named them sudha-ras (sweet as nectar) and rasna-vilas (relishable to the palate).’ This incident took place a few years before the Emperor’s death, when Azam was the governor of Gujarat or Malwa.

(Incidentally, a mystic text Nain-Vilas, i.e., relishable to eyes, is attributed to Aurangzeb’s daughter Zeb-un-nisa.) Princes and other nobles also sent horses, swords and daggers. In another letter written to Azam, Aurangzeb refers to a horse named Chawa-chandan (soothing to eyes like chandan). In a footnote to the first letter, Ruqaat’s translator Jamshid Bilmoria notes: “Here Aurungzeb shows his knowledge of Sanskrit.” But, why would an old Emperor need to demonstrate his knowledge of a language, which he did not use in court or in private conversations, in letters to his son.

However, the pleasant names mentioned above tell only half the story. The Emperor also liked sectarian names, especially for swords and daggers. In a 1692 letter to Umadat-ul-Mulk Asad Khan, a minister and general who served four generations of Mughals, Aurangzeb wrote that he liked a dagger called Rafiz-i-Kush (Shia-slayer) and ordered some more of ‘same make and name for the state.’ Maasir reports that a decade later the Emperor received and named a short sword ‘the Young Ghazi’. Interestingly, his cannons had secular names like Sher-dahan (sounds like a lion) and Zafarbaksh (bestower of victory).

Likewise, a survey of places he renamed does not reveal an abiding love for sectarian names. Between 1660 and 1681, most of the places renamed were given names like Islam-abad/pur/nagar. In the other half of his long reign, he gave sectarian names perhaps only in three instances, including when he appended Dar-ul Jihad to Hyderabad.

A similar picture emerges if we examine his relationship with the holy cities, which do not figure in Maasir after the 1680s. But in a 1694 letter, Aurangzeb cautioned Inayatullah Khan that ‘having heard about the great wealth of India, Sharif-i-Mecca, for taking an advantage for himself, sends me every year an envoy (for receiving money from me).

This sum of money which I sent is for the needy. We should take care whether the money is distributed among the poor or is wasted by the Sharif... If this is also impossible, why should it not be distributed among the poor of this country (ie, India)? Because the manifestation of the Holy God is reflected in every place.’

By now, it should be clear that invoking the memory of the last great Mughal cannot be a simple task.

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