(A) Noor’s Homeland.

 

BEAUTIFUL NOOR2 Old map


Avi wef 16 2 2017

Welcome to Noor’s blog page which features stories and musings, ancient and modern from her homeland of Hindustan/India.

I hope you enjoy reading the entries.


“OF SNAKES AND SNAKE PEOPLE.”     #IRULA 

The waning rays of a late-year sun still provided a warming balm over the far corner of my physic garden as I retired there with some ancient Sanskrit texts my father thought I might enjoy.
But whilst passing the adjacent rockery, a glint of brilliant gold flashed across corner of an eye, temporarily dazzling me before there ~ on a slab and taking full advantage of the sun’s welcome donation ~ my eyes focused on a Rat Snake basking peacefully before the shorter, cooler days of winter would necessitate a prolonged retreat under earth’s protective coat.


A harmless serpent, the Rat Snake ~ not one of the venomous and frequently feisty serpents which inhabit and bless Hindustan. “Snakes are venomous ~ not poisonous” as my father would remind me; the general rule being that venom is injected, whereas poison is ingested.

Moving slowly and quietly past, so as to leaving the contented reptile undisturbed, I seated myself comfortably amongst deep cushions placed on a wooden bench ~ my form of basking, I suppose ~ before placing the texts down and returning my focus to the snake; my mind drifting back to the folklore, superstitions and worship which surround snakes and their connection with the peoples of my homeland.

Since ancient times, indeed for centuries, snakes have been feared and revered in Hindustan; worshipped as divinities both in their natural, wild habitat as well as in temples where they are accorded the high status of a Naga ~ the word Naga being the Sanskrit for a deity or being who takes the form of a very large snake ~ whilst females are called a Nagi.


Eyes fixed in adoration on the stilled serpent, a smile invades my features as I recall father patiently explaining snake worship to me when I was small ~ in fact, I don’t think I had reached my fifth year.

We had been walking, enveloped by the choking, golden dust of the wheat fields as a bountiful crop was being cut, gathered, winnowed and stored at harvest time, when a Spectacled Cobra, disturbed and perturbed by human intervention and vibration, glided swiftly, yet gracefully, with whiplash movement across our paths.


Taking my hand as I jumped back in alarm and took cover behind him when the snake momentarily startled me, father gently explained that I should not be afraid, as snakes were important to our estates and should be preserved for the service they provide. For not only were they the catchers of rats and other rodents which fed so greedily on our crops and grain stores, but they were also an earthly manifestation of creation, preservation and destruction.

I already knew that snakes cast their skin as they continued to grow, as I had found them in the fields and collected them; thus, the belief that snakes became “reborn.”
Like the three parts of a life ~ the beginning, the middle and the end. Creation, preservation and destruction.

Father then went on remind me that snakes were regarded by many as divine beings; the most important Gods being Vasuki, the King of the Nagas and Manasa the Queen. Plus, Lord Shiva was commonly depicted with a snake around his neck.


And then father looked down on me and, realising that my rapt attention was waning and tired eyes were fighting eyelids battle to flutter closed, he scooped me up in his arms whilst continuing to chatter on in praise of the snake and a proposed journey as he carried me across the fields towards the sanctuary of our home.

……Father’s words fighting their way through the ever-closing tunnel of my mind as sleep claimed me with a promise he would take me to an important festival called Nag Panchami for the first time that year. A festival where devotees offer snakes ~ especially cobras ~ milk, incense and prayers, both in their natural habitat and as idols, as they seek blessings for the welfare of their families.


Despite my fatigue, I absorbed each and every one of father’s precious words that day, before snapping out of my current reverie and confronting my troubled past; frowning, as I was well aware of the use of snake venom in warfare. Arrow, spear and knife tips dipped in the snake’s translucent means of maintaining life, protection and survival, but adapted by man as a means of injecting the finality of death on their adversaries.

Not to mention its value in Court intrigues.

Exhaling sharply and bowing my head I thought back and wondered if snake venom was the cause of my husband’s sudden demise when I was so young and unsullied by the machinations of the Imperial Court. All it would have taken was the tiniest puncture of his skin ~ venom’s entry so swift and painless that it goes un-noticed as tissues are invaded and subsequently broken-down during the body’s futile resistance to venom’s fatal flow.

Snakes! Such complex and symbolic creatures.

Desire ~ the spiritual sense; the snake representing sensual desire or Kama. Just as those bitten by snakes are rendered vulnerable to suffering and death ~ those who are bitten by desire suffer from the cycle of births and deaths.


Poisonous speech ~ those who inflict venomous speech can cause hurt, pain and suffering and even unleash death when their speech is uttered in the form of curses. Indeed, the snake around Lord Shiva’s neck represents the power of venomous speech; the blessed Shiva holding the venom in his throat to prevent it getting out and causing hurt to others.

Misfortune ~ sighing as I recall the effects of snake venom in bringing misery and adversity to families through the death of livestock or family members. A misfortune illustrated in the game of “snakes and ladders” which was invented in ancient Hindustan.

Thus, the Nagas ~ the snakes ~ are associated in the eyes of many as the bringers of bad luck or misfortune.


Now, exhorting my mind to halt such negative thoughts, I remind myself that the word Naga is used to refer to the body’s outward breath – apana. As a snake moves in subterranean passages beneath the earth, occasionally appearing through holes in the ground, similarly, apana moves through our bodies, the outward breath escaping through the mouth, as a snake would escape the earth.

Nagas ~ so revered, that over a large part of my country carved and sculpted representations of them exist, often at dusty roadsides, to which flowers and food are offered and diyas lamps burned before their sacred shrines. For no-one will kill a Cobra intentionally, and if one is accidentally killed, it is burned with full funerary rites and prayers offered.


Revering the power of the snake, I turn my head towards the rockery once more, gazing at the serpent flowing now into movement; the slow comfort of warmth having trickled through and been absorbed by its reptilian form as it sensuously uncoils and glides into a hole in the ground and away from my view.

And eyes which were gazing at a freshly vacated stone slab now turn south, as a tribe of legend, expert snake hunters and purveyors of snakeskin for all manner of attire, invade the deepest recesses of my mind.

A small tribe, I have only ever heard of in fable and by reputation at my beloved father’s knee. A tribe who live far from my ancestral place of Benares; dwelling so far south that destiny decrees we may never meet….but yet….perhaps….maybe….one day…..and then the ancient Arjuna’s Penance, located in that same place in the south floats across my mind.

One of the greatest artworks in my country which dates back to the 7th century Pallava dynasty of Kings. Such mastery of carving; and in the centre, Nagas descend a water-filed cleft as the Ganges is released from Lord Shiva’s head ~ whilst to one side ~ the penitent stands on one leg offering prayers to Shiva to check the flow of the Ganges to the earth below.

And beside me, the Sanskrit texts lay fluttering in the breeze.

Forgotten.

For my mind has travelled elsewhere.

 

{{Writers notes ~ Village snake catchers render a valuable service in India, clearing them from homes before relocating them to areas away from human habitation.}}


The Irula are an ethnic group living in the southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The name “Irula” means “dark people” in the Tamil and Malayalam languages and is attributed to the tribe due to their dark skin complexions.

The population is estimated at c25,000 and their native tongue is Irula, which belongs to the Dravidian group of languages. Their main employment is snake and rat catching and honey collection, but they also work as labourers during the sowing and harvesting seasons. Fishing is also a major occupation.

The Irula expertise in catching snakes is legendary and at one time they were the leading suppliers of snake skins to the worldwide exotic skin market. As a result of their success, and to prevent the extinction of snakes and other endangered species, the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 was passed. This effectively banned snake hunting, depriving the Irula of their traditional livelihood and the future of these skilled hunters looked bleak.

In 1978 however, with support of sponsors and the Department of Industries and Commerce, the Irula established a self-employment scheme ~ “The Irula Snake-Catchers Industrial Co-operative Society” (ISCICS) which enabled them to continue using their traditional skills.

According to a study conducted in India in 2011, around 46,000 people died of snake bite each year; predominantly at risk being farmers working in the fields.

To find out more about the Irula, I visited the ISCICS recently at their venom extraction centre which is based at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology in Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram), which lies south of Chennai (previously Madras) in the south-eastern State of Tamil Nadu.

Harvesting of snakes is restricted to the four species of venomous snakes which account for majority of deaths in India; the Indian Cobras (Spectacled, Monocled and King), the Russell’s Viper, the Krait and the Saw Scaled Viper.


The Co-operative uses a quota system to ensure they harvest the correct quantity of venom as required by the venom manufacturers and snakes are captured only by licensed members of the Co-operative who are paid on a scale according to the species of snake captured.


The snakes are kept for one month under Government Licence, with venom being extracted once a week for four weeks before the snakes are released back into the wild.

The snakes are kept in individual earthenware pots; their length, weight and sex are recorded at the time they arrive at the Co-operative and they are also marked with a unique code clipped into their scales.

Once collected, the venom is freeze dried and sold to a number of laboratories for the manufacture of anti-venom as well as for medical research.

 

The Irulas also manufacture their own herbal treatments which they say gives them more time to reach a hospital should they receive a bite.

 

 

The scheme has therefore preserved the Irula’s traditional skills by providing economically productive yet environmentally sustainable employment in harvesting snakes ~ and one that does not impact on the local snake population. It has also provided social and economic uplift for the Irula.

In addition, their knowledge of indigenous wildlife is a valuable and much used resource by naturalists and government agencies involved in wildlife work.

In January 2017 two Irula men from Tamil Nadu, plus two interpreters travelled to track down and capture non-indigenous Burmese Pythons in Key Largo, Florida. The Irula and their interpreters were funded by the State of Florida and captured 27 pythons in 4 weeks. 

To complement the work of the ISCICS, the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society (ITWWS) was established 1985. This scheme enhances and empowers Irula women ~ in particular by using their traditional skills and knowledge of medicinal plants in taking extracts from various trees and shrubs and using them in the preparation of products such as herbal teas, shampoos and other organic products, which are then offered for sale.

There is also an ongoing programme where a seedbank of indigenous flora has been created and they also operate a commercial nursery.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the SL and the brief outline of the Irula people. Images where © are my own. My day with the Irula included watching venom extraction ~ but as I had to rely on helpful locals as interpreters, any errors or omissions in this account are entirely my own.


 

THE NAUTCH.   #Nautch

 

“Dancing is the poetry of the foot.” ~ John Dryden.

I love to dance ~ I always have ~ for as long as I can remember.

 

It releases a freedom in me; an explosive trigger releasing and propelling my seemingly weightless spirit to soar upwards, and in doing so, I exit mortality and enter a place of indescribable beauty graced by celestial dancers, angels ~ and my mother.

 

A heavenly jurisdiction that few are blessed to reach; yet it is here, for an all too brief period, that we perform our ethereal dances together.
And it is during this existential interlude that dancing assumes the form of a protective shield ~ temporarily erasing the cruel realities of the world and negating my sorrowful recollection of times past.

 

Navneet (@Navneet_Maid1) smiles and softly plucks at sitar’s sympathetic strings ~ its distinctive timbre resonating with soothing notes as her skilful accompaniment to my early morning exercise. For she knows where I will be going.

Just the two of us, peaceably settled in my yoga room, as I assiduously practice the steps of ancient, classical dance, each thoughtful, controlled breath encouraging the warm, lithe muscles of body, torso, legs, feet, toes, arms, hands, fingers, shoulders, neck, head, eyes and expression to move in fluid, fluent, sensual, synchronisation and interpretation.

 

It matters not that I no longer dance for men; only my husband and, by his invitation, honoured guests were permitted that privilege. And accompanied by the most skilful singers and musicians of the Imperial Court, dance for them I did ~ but as a matter of command, compulsion and duty ~ my outward visage of radiant happiness and obedience a mere skilful mask of concealment at the disgust and humiliation raging inside.

 

Whereas now, in my seclusion, I can dance of my own volition; the liberty of choice, the elation of soul and the love of heart conjoining and embracing me in the sheer joy of freedom and movement.

Beat and tempo increasing, feet stamping and ghungru ~ wound and hovering immediately above tiny ankles ringing out ~ I spin fast now through my steps.

The metallic emissions of the ghungru accentuate the rhythmic aspects of my dance as I seek accurate placement, not only of my steps, but of expression through arms and hands ~ but my vocation becomes so much more than that, as consciousness is lost to a sensuality permeating my entire body and elevating my mind as I seek to penetrate and absorb the skills of the Nautch ~ and to reach beyond them to the Apsaras ~ and ultimately ~ my mother……

 

 

Mind driven into and by the trance of the dance, I wonder if the Nautch, in their rarely performed and most sensuous of dances which would draw them too into irrecoverable trances ~ and finally to the attainment of Nirvana ~ ever experienced ascent from the earth to dance with the celestial in heaven. 

 

 

To dance with the unsullied, the repositories of voluptuous beauty, the Goddesses and celestial dancers of the clouds ~ the Apsaras ~ and to pay obeisance at their elegant, sculpted feet; ankles and legs still adorned with the echo of ghungru bells in a continuing spiritual reminder of times long past.

 

The pristine presence of the Apsaras continuing to enchant as they embrace those who reach them through dance, whilst waiting ever longer for their appreciative audience of lovers they had denied to return.

 

 

……Whilst I continue to dance through the vacant void of a future yet to be filled, and having abdicated my body, I dance before ~ and with ~ my mother…… 

 

 

Do the Nautch in their trances ever dance with the Apsaras and angels as I do now?

 

Is there someone beyond mortality that they too dance to reach? I hope so. I really do, as exiting the hurdy-gurdy spins, I plummet back to earth and fall ~ exhausted in mind, body and spirit ~ to the floor…….Navneet quietly setting the sitar aside before covering me with a blanket as I cool and recover. For she has seen it all before.

 

As a high-ranking member of the Mughal Imperial family, my father (@Zafar_Bahadur1) always kept Nautch girls as part of his household, and as such, they lived under his protection.

Although accommodated in a separate zenana (ladies’ quarters), they were not imprisoned and I would ask you not to think badly of father for keeping these ladies ~ for it was the Nautch, as artistes, who patiently taught me the sensuous and disciplined secrets of dance. Lessons for which I remain forever grateful.

 

 

When I was young ~ at about ten years of age, already married but not yet of an age to join my husband’s house, I would serve at father’s table in the evenings, after which the Nautch would present their professional calling and entertain his male dinner guests.

 

Partaking of further refreshments, drinking, speaking in low voices and uttering murmurs of appreciation at various aspects of the performance, the men would pass the remainder of the evening reclining on the finest Persian rugs, with their bodies supported by sumptuously upholstered silk bolsters.

 

My father never asked or compelled me to serve at table, but as a dutiful daughter, and aware that before long I would be hidden away from the covetous eyes of men in my husband’s household, I considered it a privilege to honour my father’s hospitality by serving food and drinks as well as presenting basins of rose petal scented water and napkins with bowed, covered head and lowered, averted eyes whenever a man arrogantly beckoned in my direction that his hands were soiled.

 

Father remained a man of the utmost probity and integrity ~ and having vowed never to lie with another woman following the death of his beloved Begum ~ he never deviated from his commitment; even with the beauteous Nautch girls dwelling in his household.

 

 

Neither would father tolerate any male guests uttering foul words to the Nautch, misbehaving by word, deed or gesture or offering them payment for services outside their professional art.

 

For those who actually /knew/ my father realised the Nautch he kept were respected and revered for the purity of their art form ~ an art my father helped preserve and perpetuate, whilst others would have it diminished and the dancers disrespected.

 

As tradition dictates, father would continue to offer courtesy and hospitality, even to those who breached his standards of conduct, successfully concealing any insult to his honour by anyone who dared slight the Nautch ~ with the result that few did.

 

And what of the Nautch? Little did we know at the time, but we were witnessing the zenith of their skill, social and cultural standing.

 

Regarded as a gift the Gods had bestowed on my father’s house and living in considerable comfort, no eunuch served to guard the zenana doors, and thus their privacy, from the prying eyes of men; the Nautch being free to enter and leave as they chose, to join another Court if they so wished or even to become free and independent performers.

 

In essence, a relationship forged on trust and respect between my father, the Nautch and male guests in his house.

 

Having attracted devoted admirers, a few Nautch chose to leave for love marriages, but most remained, knowing how vilely their beautiful yet talented minds and bodies might be used and abused elsewhere, as despite being trained dancers and performers, they were frequently enslaved; confined and hired to perform for men, given as gifts or purchased to enhance a man’s status amongst his peers and adorn his harem.

 

But in the protective sanctity of my father’s house the Nautch thrived, and as their dancing days drew to a close, they trained willing young apprentices to dance, as well as in other female arts. For the Nautch were so much more than dancers.

 

They possessed the most refined manners and a ready wit and they were also renowned as being raconteurs of love poetry memorised and handed down through the ages ~ in addition to being talented singers and musicians. 

 

Plus, all were born with an irrefutable knowledge and love of the arts flowing through their veins ~ knowledge which they refined to cater to the whims of their elite patrons and their guests.

Even though I was still very young, innocent and unversed in the ways of men, I was proud of my father for I knew he imposed a strict limit on the enjoyment male guests could gain from the company of the Nautch; and thus, they felt confident under the protection of my father’s house and good name.

 

To my knowledge, none of the Nautch were ever abused whilst under my father’s protection ~ and so they danced on ~ to the strains of sitar, tabla, cymbals and the metallic rhythm of their ghungru.

 

Fluid, sensuous movements capturing and enrapturing men; sometimes building from a slow commencement to twirling and whirling so fast their bodies could barely be seen, colourful glass winking in their richly decorated costumes a blur, whilst feet spun lightning fast circles across the ground, all the while maintaining a gossamer lightness beneath ankle bells beating time ~ and then suddenly……a transition to absolute stillness, the most beautiful of sculpted statues, the mere flicking of toned, defined, shuddering, delicate muscles, surmounted by beguiling, beckoning eyes tempting desperate men towards a Nirvana they would never fully attain or experience.

 

Temptation and sensuality so alluring that it mesmerised men into absolute obedience, enslaved by the Nautch; and as they called out in appreciation of her art form and threw gold coin as her reward ~ she would be gone ~ leaving only male gasps followed by the silence of their memories still seeking her dance in what was now a void space as /their/ reward.

And in the void absented by my mother, I too dance on, celebrating and paying homage to the Nautch, as well as giving thanks for my own freedom from possession and compulsion. Albeit temporary.

 

{{Writers notes:}}

Nautch dancers first emerged and rose to prominence during the Mughal era (1526 – 1857) but they were also a significant presence during the time of the British East India Company and the subsequent British Raj of 1858 – 1947.

 

Originally performers at the Mughal Imperial Court, as well as at the palaces of the Nawabs and rulers of the Princely States, they later performed before the higher echelons of the British Raj before gradually dispersing to the palaces of the smaller Zamindars (aristocrats and landlords).

 

Nautch girls should not be confused with Devadasis who performed predominantly classical ritual and religious dances in Hindu temple precincts to please the temple deities; whereas Nautch performed solely for the pleasure of men.

 

Attributing the name “Nautch” to a female in Hindustan reflected her entrancing skill in dance, and as such, they were a unique class of courtesan who played a significant role in the history, social and cultural life of the country.

 

Sadly ~ and over time ~ the Nautch skills and knowledge of the arts and classical dance became diluted to include popular dance; in part due to the reduced power and finances of many of their patrons, the spread of western education plus pressure from an increased number of Christian missionaries after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

 


And gradually, as dance became stigmatised and shunned by both British and Indians, many Nautch girls were abandoned by their patrons and forced into prostitution to survive ~ so that by the early 20th century, the respectable art of the Nautch had acquired a derogatory connotation; their demise further exacerbated by being driven almost wholly underground by the attention of zealots.

 

A sad end to their art form ~ but long may the Nautch dance ~ in memory and history.

 

 

 


 

“THE DAUGHTER’S TALE.          #StrongWomen       #AMughalGameOfThrones 

1 To Begin

“I know of this Princess, for she was of my time. Not the elder or favoured daughter, but possessed of a brilliant and cultivated mind, circumspect in her choice of allies, destroyer of her adversaries, ambitious and jealous. And her time would come.”

Raised in the Imperial Court during the zenith of the Mughal Empire, she railed against the claustrophobic restrictions of the harem; something of an irony, as it was an institution /she/ yearned to control.

But the Princess was also a pragmatist – observing and listening, carefully cultivating future allies, controlling her jealousy and curbing her ambition whilst biding her time during lengthy sojourns closeted behind the doors of the Imperial Harems of Agra Fort, and latterly, the Red Fort – the centre of government in the newly created capital of Shahjahanabad.

Fort. Fort. And she fought for her place – as does every woman from the moment they are birthed with the disadvantage of their sex. Her exalted place not earned, but bequeathed through the advantage of birth as the daughter of an Emperor. And the ambitious Princess determined, at an early age, that her place in the Imperial Court would not only be retained – but advanced.

Her calculating mind forever advancing too, benefitting from and utilising her extensive education as a means to the ultimate end game. A Princess acknowledged as an eminent scholar as well as a talented musician and poet – her brilliance in all fields admired by friends and foes alike.

But she wanted more. So much more.

2 Roshanara Begum.png
Beware then, the unfavoured Princess – jealous, ambitious, manipulative, perceptive and an intuitive tactician; vital life skills honed razor sharp by the constant ebb and flow of secrets, gossip, innuendo, truths, lies and disinformation constantly conveyed in hushed whispers forever swirling like grains of sand in the wind around the Imperial Harem’s many chambers.

The harem – to which no man has access – unless the keeper of wives and concubines. Even then, he is only permitted access to those he keeps. None are permitted unlimited access, and so are not privy to the innermost secrets of the ladies’ chambers. Unless you are the Emperor. The ladies see to that.

Undermining and outmanoeuvring male and female inquisitiveness, the Princess used her position and considerable wealth to establish a personal network of informants amongst the harem’s ever present eunuchs. With gold coin to lubricate their tongues, the Princess moulded them into compliant and reliable sources of information; absolutely essential in taking forward her pursuit of power. And she looked first towards supplanting the existing Padshah Begum.

But she wanted more. So much more.

For the Princess wanted to wield power, not only within the confines of the harem, but throughout the Empire too. And the eunuchs and everyone else in her employ and inner circle knew not to cross her.

Her parents were potent and prolific producers of children and amongst her four brothers, the first and eldest was her father’s favourite and heir apparent. Promoted throughout his life, and ultimately appointed Governor of Bihar, he was civilised, courtly and supported by an elder sister, who was also their father’s favourite – which caused the unfavoured Princess to rage even more as the elder sister exerted considerable influence throughout the Imperial Harem /and/ Court as the Padshah Begum – a position conferred by their father after the death of their mother.

And the Princess seethed with jealousy when her elder sister was allocated the Mumtaz Mahal, the most magnificent of the zenana quarters in the Red Fort as exclusively hers, thus enabling the admission of forbidden lovers in secret, the younger Princess receiving no such favours – despite both being forbidden to marry.

3 Mumtaz Mahal.png

But she was a Princess sickened too. Sickened by the rumours that the father/eldest daughter relationship went beyond what was accepted as normal parameters. “For would it not have been unjust for the father to deny himself the privilege of gathering the fruit from the tree he himself had planted?”…….the rumours said.

Thus cultivated, fertile resentment, jealousy and ambition continued to grow.

Her second brother? Their father appointed him Governor of Bengal with his capital at Dhaka – but he was of a rebellious nature and it wasn’t long before his covetous eyes turned towards the ultimate prize – the Peacock Throne.

The third brother? Their father appointed him Governor of the Deccan – but he was a sly one, projecting the aura and simplicity of a devout Muslim in public – but what of his private persona?

And her fourth brother? Their father appointed him Governor of Gujarat, but he was so ineffective that he was soon stripped of his titles, their father conferring them on his first and favourite son, which proved to be a costly mistake as it became the catalyst which ignited the simmering tensions between father and sons and eventually resulted in bitter internecine fighting.

But which one of her four brothers did the embittered Princess choose as her ally? Who did she support in the power struggle between her father, his four sons and their resolve to depose him and seize the Peacock Throne for themselves?

Who will win the Mughal Game of Thrones? And who will die?

For the Mughal dynasty never followed primogeniture whereby the throne passed to the eldest surviving son and proclaimed heir. Custom and tradition dictated that all the princely sons could contest for the right to sit upon the Peacock Throne – military might plus influence and support at the Imperial Court being paramount in the quest for success – and survival.

4 Shah Jahan on the Peacock Throne

And the quest of this unfavoured Princess?

She ultimately masterminded the accession to the throne, but not before she had taken the greatest of care in observing and listening silently as well as obtaining and analysing information gleaned from trusted informants before choosing the ally she deemed worthy of her support – and the most likely victor.

Clinically dissecting her brother’s temperaments, ambitions, intelligence, military might and political support, she soon realised that the battle would be decided between just two of her brothers; and she intended to be on the winning side.

Her choice?

Her third brother; a battle hardened warrior and proven tactician commanding military strength in numbers; this despite him being distrusted at the Imperial Court, rarely revealing his true hand outside of his public persona which was permanently cloaked in Muslim piety.

As neither the Princess or her third brother had been favoured by their father, both had taken the precaution of establishing separate but extensive and effective networks of spies and informants; essential for individual survival, but when these were amalgamated by the ambitious pair with victory and the prize of Peacock Throne in their sights, they became formidable adversaries.

And of the rumours that the Princess was both a poisoner and a witch? ShrugsHer brother also was rumoured to have similar skills with poison and in sorcery, so they made the most likely of allies!

5 Shah Jahan embracing his three sons - not MuradMeanwhile their father, in wishing to maintain his iron grip on the throne and claiming he wished a peaceful resolution to the family crisis before it dissolved into open conflict, summoned all parties to Shahjahanabad.

But the spiders web of trusted eunuchs and other informants now permeating the harem and all aspects of Imperial Court life intimated otherwise to their controller and paymistress, the ambitious Princess. And on hearing that their father intended to slay her brother on arrival in Shahjahanabad, she sent dispatches to him with all speed warning of his demise at the hands of their father if he obeyed the summons and entered the capital.

6 The Peacock Throne

And so this plot, one of many which would threaten the ambition of a ruthless Princess, was foiled. Which of course meant her brother was now in her debt and duty bound to show his gratitude with a commensurate reward at a later date

Meanwhile the warring parties continued to monitor each other’s activities remorselessly; on the lookout for anything that might be used as an advantage over a rival.

And the powerful but unwitting and naïve Padshah Begum continued entertaining her illicit lovers – perceiving herself secure in /her/ position as their father’s appointee – whilst a deadly dance of positioning between four brothers and sister circulated around her; their manoeuvres coming to a head when their father fell ill and appointed his favourite son as Regent.

7 Jahanara with lover.png
For that was when the bitter power struggle finally erupted into a vicious war of succession which threatened to destroy an Empire which was the one of the largest, and certainly the richest and most civilised, in the known world.

The second brother was the first to make a move. On hearing that his elder brother had been declared Regent, he declared himself Emperor and immediately marched his troops out of Bengal and headed towards Agra.

Simultaneously, the fourth brother also declared himself Emperor, but besides being a weak administrator, his claim emanated from a position of military weakness, and so, putting discretion before any lust for power, he decided to ally himself with the third brother and the Princess.

And it was only after several months of virulent and bloody campaigning, resulting in great loss of life, that planning, strategy, tactics, military might and influence won the day; the victors being the third son and his primary supporter – the unfavoured but ambitious Princess.

Power! Power that was finally hers. But how would the Princess utilise her new found power? The power /behind/ the Peacock Throne……..for now.

Of necessity she had to rid herself and her brother of their enemies. For they still existed, and far too close to the Peacock Throne for her liking; particularly the threats from within her own family.

Her solution? She determined to exile, purge or dispose of them as soon as practicable, but without the finger of blame pointing directly at her, as she had no wish to be continually looking over her shoulder at looming, threatening shadows.
For the dark threat of death always beckoned, silently stalking from the shadows and more overtly along the corridors of power in the Imperial Court.

8 Hall of the Public Audiences Red Fort Delhi_tonemapped + signedThe Princess quickly persuaded her brother to exile the deposed and ailing ruler – their father – from the seat of power in Shahjahanbad to incarceration in the forbidding sandstone fort of his old capital, Agra.

Her brother then summarily declared himself Emperor – despite his father still being alive.

Yet for the Princess, victory remained bitter sweet – incomplete whilst she lived in fear of her first born brother, for despite his defeat, he still had many allies and considerable military strength and it took two long years of relentlessly pursuing him around the Empire before he was finally brought to heel.

The Princess, well aware that her brother, the erstwhile Regent, would execute her if he ever returned to power, had to strike fast. Only then would her insecurities dissolve. Or would they?

9 Agra Fort IMG_4922_tonemapped + signedBattles, the exhaustion of continual pursuit, desertion, treachery and betrayal finally brought the first born brother down and the Princess wasted no time in bringing her influence to bear on the new Emperor by demanding that he execute their defeated brother as soon as possible – presenting her plan as the /only/ viable option open to them; for not only was the defeated brother the only remaining political threat to their newly acquired positions of power, but he was also popular with the common people. A dangerous mix.

And after the eldest brother was defeated, captured and brought to Shahjahanabad, the Princess took great joy in his humiliation, weighed down by chains and paraded on a filthy, tatty elephant in “procession” along Chandni Chowk, designed ironically by her now deposed sister as the main thoroughfare of their father’s new capital – the road linking the Red Fort with her father’s magnificent mosque of Jama Masjid.

10 Jama Masjid IMG_7479_tonemappedThere was little doubt in the minds of the high born, courtiers and populace alike that the Princess virulently “encouraged” the new ruler to execute their brother, poisoning his mind with views that he was a heretic – for had he not favoured Hindus? An anathema to her pious Muslim brother – despite earlier Emperors setting the tone that their subjects should accept religions of all persuasions.

And thus persuaded, the heinous deed was accomplished by four of the new Emperor’s henchmen who beheaded the defeated brother in front of his terrified young son.

And what of their ailing, imprisoned father? The powerful pair were not so heartless as to separate him from their deceased mother, his beloved wife. Or maybe they were, as he viewed her glistening white mausoleum through the bars of his prison in Agra Fort each and every day.

His living hell – under house arrest on the orders of two of his children and now, grey of hair and beard, countless tears dripped as heavy as the morning dew in the monsoon rains as he awaited news of his favourite son’s campaign to ascend the Peacock Throne as well as his appointed time to join his beloved.

11 Agra Fort IMG_4978_tonemapped + signed

Heartless!

For all her success and power, the Princess continued to seek revenge for every perceived slight she had suffered under her father’s rule – even dispatching his favourite son’s head, wrapped in a golden turban and neatly packaged as gift from herself and the newly installed Emperor to their father in Agra – along with a carefully constructed, cryptic message, that allowed him to hope that his offspring still cared for him and thought of him frequently as he spent his days languishing as their prisoner.

And the heartless Princess scoffed and laughed when his gaoler returned a message saying that when their father received the brilliantly presented package – just as he was sitting down to dinner – he was heartened and overjoyed that his children had remembered him. But when he opened the package and saw the head of his favourite son he fainted away and remained in a stupor for several days afterwards.

And the desecrated, headless body of the favourite son? Buried in an unmarked grave in the site known as the “Dormitory of the Mughals” as there are so many graves there. In Humayun’s Tomb – somewhere.

13 Humayuns Tomb IMG_7657_tonemapped + signed

12 Humayuns Tomb IMG_2393_tonemapped

And a daughter smiled at a father now restrained – whilst her own restraints and ambitions were unleashed – to usurp the Padshah Begum. First.

But what of the other two brothers? The second, having suffered mass desertions which negated his pursuit of the Peacock Throne, fled into exile in Arakan (Burma) where he disappeared from view; but he was never a serious contender.

And the fourth brother, despite originally aligning himself with the victorious Princess and her brother, was executed following a brief trial. His crime? He was found guilty of the murder of an official in Gujarat many years earlier. But as the victors had imprisoned him in Gwalior Fort for three years prior to his “trial,” any threat from him had been long neutralised.

And now – no threats remained. Or did they?

For it was the ambition of a Princess which ultimately turned /her/ into the threat.
To say the relationship between the elder and younger Princesses was tinged with jealously would be an understatement; but when the Princess and her brother emerged victorious, who else other than his loyal supporter and informant could he choose to head the Imperial Harem and supplant the elder Princess as the Padshah Begum?

14 Roshanara and Jahanara

Padshah Begum at last! Ambition realised and victory achieved through feminine wiles, deviant cunning, little mercy and much bloodshed. Although a small mercy was dispensed when the new Padshah Begum permitted the deposed one travel to Agra to care for their ailing father, where she remained until his death.

But she remained alive, and as such, /her/ continuing threat was overlooked.

15 Jahanara 4 The Passing of Shah Jahan + Jahanara

But still….still….the new Padshah Begum wanted more.

For another issue rankled her ever active mind. Ever since the time of the third Emperor, Akbar the Great, Mughal Princesses had been forbidden to marry lest any of their issue mount a challenge for the throne. Bad enough an Emperor having disaffected sons warring amongst themselves, let alone the offspring of daughters who had /no/ line of succession to the Peacock Throne. And so Akbar, in living up to his reputation for perspicacity, ensured this would never happen.

16 Roshana 1

Despite being forbidden to marry, and as her elder sister had done before her, the Princess took lovers – many lovers – and none too discreetly, thus offending her pious brother’s sensibilities and stirring resentment amongst the other wives and concubines of the Imperial Harem whom she ruled with an iron hand; the Princess considering herself untouchable now that she was the Padshah Begum.

And it also gave her great pleasure to accrue wealth on a huge scale, frequently through corrupt methods, levying multiple, unfair taxes and misusing the sweeping powers her brother left in her hands whilst he was campaigning in the Deccan – which he frequently was.

Powers she did not hesitate to abuse in order to further her own aims.

Padshah Begum! And as such, the Princess believed herself inviolable and that no-one could touch her, for as much as her enemies reported her financial and moral turpitude to her increasingly angered and devout Muslim brother, he was too far away to act against her.

But it was during a monsoon season, when her brother had returned to Shahjahanabad and fell ill with a fever from which he was not expected to recover, that the Princess made a mistake from which she would never recover her standing in the Imperial Court.

In order to protect her own power and position after her brother, the Emperor’s “demise,” and acting as the Padshah Begum, the Princess misused the Imperial Seal to make a proclamation in favour of her brother’s nine year old son as successor to the Peacock Throne in preference to his elder brother and rightful heir. Her intention being to reign as Regent on the young son’s behalf.

But her brother recovered; and in hindsight maybe it was a catastrophic error on the Princesses part not to have had him poisoned – just to /ensure/ her position was consolidated after his death.

And on the Emperor’s recovery, it wasn’t difficult for those jealous of the Padshah Begum – and there were many of them – to advise him of her plans, and despite the Princesses long term support for her brother, he publicly disgraced her, ordering her to remain in seclusion and live a pious life in the garden palace and gardens she had created for herself outside the Shahjahanabad city walls.

17 Gardens

But there were also rumours that when her brother subsequently discovered the Princess entertaining no less than nine lovers in the Red Fort harem apartments, he had her discreetly poisoned. Who knows?

Plus, there was a final irony to add to the Princesses spectacular fall from grace, as some years after the natural death of their father, her brother was reconciled with their elder sister and bestowed on her the title “Empress of Princesses.”

Karma you might argue, which eventually saw the elder Princess restored to her former position as First Lady/Padshah Begum – and she outlived the younger Princess by 13 years.

An adversary is always a threat, and if overlooked, can be very dangerous indeed.

Which left only those at the height of Imperial Court circles who knew the truth behind the death of an unfavoured, intelligent, jealous and manipulative Princess – and the truth was buried with her when the Emperor had her laid to rest beneath the pavilion in her peaceful gardens.

I often wonder at the truth behind the death of a Princess of my time – and in parallel with her life I suppose – her final resting place in the beautiful gardens she had created would eventually fall into decay and ruin.

18 Tomb.png

19 Roshanara 2

Roshanara Begum was born on 3rd September 1617. She was the second daughter of the fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. From a young age she tried to exert her influence in the Imperial Court, but after the death of their mother in 1631, it was her elder sister – Jahanara Begum – who rose to prominence when their father appointed her Padshah Begum; the head of the Imperial Harem.

20 Jahanara 2

In seeking revenge for this perceived slight, Roshanara played a major role in the politics surrounding the War of Succession during which all four of Shah Jahan’s sons laid claim to the Peacock Throne. Allying herself with the victor, Aurangzeb, finally allowed Roshanara to usurp her elder sister’s position.
Dara Shikoh, the eldest son, was Shah Jahan’s favourite, nominated Regent, heir apparent and supported by his favourite daughter, Jahanara.

The second son, Shah Shuja, was rebellious, had designs on the Peacock Throne and declared himself as Emperor at one stage. But he was not a serious contender and fled into exile.

Aurangzeb, a pious Muslim, was the third born son. He was ambitious, a hardened warrior and keen to expand the Mughal Empire. Roshanara joined forces with him and became the mastermind behind his accession to the throne. Having imprisoned his ailing father – whom he did not physically mistreat – Aurangzeb declared himself Emperor in 1658 and was crowned a year later.

Murad Baksh, the youngest son, was an incompetent administrator, but this didn’t prevent him from declaring himself Emperor before joining forces with Aurangzeb and Roshanara. Again, not a serious contender for the throne before his execution in 1661 following several years imprisonment.

The Imperial Court relocated from Agra to the newly constructed capital of Shahjahanabad in 1648 – well before the battle between the Emperor and his offspring began in earnest.

22 Hall of the Private Audiences Red Fort Delhi_tonemapped + signed
Roshanara was a brilliant political tactician, capable of making military decisions and it was considered likely that she masterminded the murder of Shah Jahan’s nominated successor – Dara Shikoh – thus enabling Aurangzeb to consolidate his claim to the throne. He installed Roshanara as Padshah Begum whilst their father remained under “house arrest” in Agra Fort; his quarters overlooking their mother’s mausoleum, the Taj Mahal.

23 Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal

24 Taj Mahal IMG_4740_tonemapped

Roshanara continually overstepped the mark though, consistently abusing the powers given to her, and when Aurangzeb succumbed to an illness from which he was not expected to recover, it was rumoured she supported his youngest son as successor so that she could reign as Regent – only to be publicly disgraced when Aurangzeb recovered.
She also accrued great wealth – often corruptly – enjoyed great displays of ostentation and flouted her many lovers. Possibly in frustration at the fact that Mughal Princesses who were the direct issue of an Emperor were forbidden to marry.

Eventually this all proved too much for Aurangzeb, who was frequently absent from Shahjahanabad on lengthy military campaigns in the Deccan.

On stripping Roshanara of her powers, he ordered her to remain in seclusion and live a pious life in the garden palace she had created for herself outside the city walls – and the gardens of Roshanara Bagh survive to this day.

25 Gardens
However, some accounts say that Aurangzeb had her discreetly poisoned when he subsequently caught her red handed with several lovers in the Red Fort harem apartments. Who knows?

Following the death of Shah Jahan in 1666, Aurangzeb was reconciled with Jahanara, whom he eventually restored to the position of Padshah Begum.

What /is/ certain is that after Aurangzeb became Emperor, Roshanara remained afraid of the implications of her actions in supporting him and built a palace outside the city walls where she could conceal herself from the dangers of political intrigue if necessary. The area she chose was in the north of the city in an area of thick forest.

26 Roshanara in her gardens
Unable to marry and having become one of the most notorious women in the Mughal Empire, Roshanara went on to pursue an esoteric lifestyle, living mainly in her garden palace until her death on 11th September 1671 at the relatively young age of 54.
Aurangzeb then had her body interred under the white marble pavilion she had built in Roshanara Bagh – the gardens she had commissioned and designed herself.

27 Tomb.png

28 Tomb.png

29 Tomb

Meanwhile Jahanara died in 1681 aged 67 and Aurangzeb in 1707 at the age of 88.

30A Aurangzeb.png

Roshanara Bagh is a Mughal style garden and one of the largest gardens in Delhi. It features a great variety of plants, some imported from Japan, and the area around the lake is a good spot for bird watching.

32 Gardens
In 1922 the British established the elite Roshanara Club in the grounds and first class cricket has been played there since 1927. Post-independence cricket administrators also gathered there and this led to the establishment of the existing Indian cricket body, the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India.)

There’s no doubt that Roshanara Begum possessed a brilliant mind; but ambition, greed and jealously clouded her judgement and led to her downfall.
And it saddens me greatly that the beautiful pavilion in Roshanara Bagh Gardens where she held court, and is interred, now lies derelict and neglected……..whereas her parents lie beneath the Taj Mahal!

34 Tomb.png

This has been a challenging piece to write. Princess Roshanara Begum was one of the more colourful, interesting, but lesser known #StrongWomen of the Mughal court. There are few descriptions of her and conflicting sources, accounts and opinions surrounding her life – especially the latter years – mainly because the scribes of the day concerned themselves with documenting the history of the major male players rather than the peripheral, unmarried daughters of Emperors…………….. So, I’ll have to leave it there!

#TheDaughtersTale      #RoshanaraBegum    #StrongWomen    #AMughalGameOfThrones
Images where © are the writers own.  ((End))

36 Shah Jahan on the Peacock Throne

“Shah Jahan on the Peacock Throne” – but that’s a story for another day – and time!


“RANI KI VAV.”           #BEFOREYOURTIME

1 TO BEGIN SL +B

1-2-3-4-5-6-7…….Saat – seven levels down through ever cooling air.

1-2-3-4-5-6-7…….Saat – seven times you circled the sacred flame as you consecrated your wedlock.

Saat – seven – an auspicious number and all the more relevant as I reverentially allow it to guide me through a discovery of worship and sanctity, hallowed passageways leading ever downwards as religious observations combine with the gift of functionality.

1A Entrance +B

And so, in the loss of centuries past, I ghost through this place, where Saraswati’s inundation did not discriminate in alluvial burial as she rendered a memorial……obsolete. But obsolete only to those who would have its need, or those who would worship at, or within, the force of its life giving properties.

……..Water.

Absorbing what is past – but not yet dead or buried – forehead and palms press hard against stones birthed from the heartbeat of a woman’s creativity and determination not to be denied, ignored…..or forgotten.

3 Interior of stepwell 2 +B

Clothed in the invisible, intangible silence of long forgotten labours, yet still pristine, unsullied and resplendent in voluptuous beauty, the Apsaras view my progress.  Paying obeisance, I place a hand on the elegant, sculpted feet of one of the spiritual and celestial dancers of the clouds. Their presence continuing to enchant in this vacant void as they wait ever longer for their appreciative audience to return. One day.

4 Pillars 1 +B

5 Pillars 2 +B

And Yogini, the most pulchritudinous of women, also biding their time before they can flaunt their beauty and taunt once more all those who would /be/ them – or /have/ them – as they continue to pay unseen permanent deference and respect to Vishnu in all his sacred avatars and forms. One day.

7 Apsaras 2 +B

Drawn onwards and downwards with no thought of turning back and exiting this long forgotten wonder, ankle bells jingling through abandoned, partitioned corridors – muted echoes of ghazal’s long lost entreaties meld with holy chants and whispered voices, resonating around and through my being – wrapping and overcoming me with expressions of birth, marriage, love, life, labour, grief and death amidst the clash, cacophony and aftermath of battles won and lost as history speaks in this place.

8 Apsaras 3 +B

9 Apsaras 4 +B

Marvelling at sculpted pillars, hundreds, thousands of them, united and flowing in texture, pattern, symmetry, faces and figures. I touch and trace my fingers around numerous shapes and forms in wonder before I turn in fast circles, arms outstretched, head thrown back, ankle bells ringing out through the passageways – their anthem sounding a reminder of rediscovery to the ancient artisans of the extant lives they created in stone as I absorb the whirl of their craft now spinning madly around me, carving its way into my very soul.

“Your work speaks in this place.”

10 Carved interior of stepwell 1 +B

Then just as suddenly I pause. And gradually the still spinning gyrations of body slow and partner with the gyrations of mind as enchanted – hypnotised – as if in a trance, I am drawn ever downwards.

12 Steps +B

Down. My journey through this inverted temple akin to life’s push from the female womb, expelling her gift – her issue – into the fertile well of life; sanctified, blessed and enshrined in this place of everlasting observation.

“Do you still partake of the well?” I wonder.

13 Interior of stepwell 1 +B

But no. Finally I see that you cannot. For your gift to your issue is bare now.     Sterile.     Gone.     Lost.     Abandoned.

Taken by Saraswati when she covered it in her fury.

“Did you disturb the coursing flow of the mind of the Goddess? If not, who?”

Arriving at my destination I bow my head, inhale and exhale deeply and then kneel as the female visionary delivers me comparative contemplation, understanding and the peace that, one day, will be hers

15 Carved interior of well 1 +B

16 Carved interior of well 2 +B

For it was a woman – yes a woman – who built this memorial to a husband lost. Her construction a sacred, monumental yet functional display of mourning. But alas – there came a time when Saraswati ravaged, consumed and choked this temple’s sanctified source and, apart from the statuary of ages past, I am alone in this place.

And I smile at irony of her final message, knowing that – one day – the world will look on this monument and know her name again

17 The Well +B

For /her/ memorial to a lover lost has barely touched eternal consciousness and knowledge; unlike your magnificent, white marble ode to grief, Shah Jahan.

For a woman too constructed an ode to grief, but one built well before your time, Shah Jahan.               #BeforeYourTime

Montage + poem 3

Montage + poem 2

Montage for poem 1 + poem version 2

((Writers notes: The Taj Mahal, the most famous symbol of love and grief, was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan between 1631 and 1648 to commemorate the death of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Petyr edit 1But centuries earlier, a woman had already built a symbol of love and grief to commemorate the death of her husband, Bhimdev I in 1063. She was Queen Udayamati, and with assistance of her son, and Bhimdev’s successor Karandev I, the grieving Queen built a beautiful stepwell called Rani ki Vav (Queen’s stepwell) as /her/ memorial to the one she loved.

Stepwells are also called “Baori” and were built with the purpose of providing animals and people with shade and water. They’re a distinctive form of subterranean water resource and storage systems unique to the Indian sub continent and have been constructed since the 3rd millennium BC. They’re also typical of the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan which have little rain.

Rani ki Vav is in the town of Patan (Gujarat) which was the capital of the Chaulukya dynasty. Situated on the banks of the Saraswati River, the stepwell has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2014.

Petyr edit 2Rani ki Vav was built during the Chaulukya (also known as the Solanki) dynasty and King Bhimdev I reigned between approximately 1022 and 1063AD. To put this into context – the stepwell was built between 1063 and 1068AD – at the time of William the Conqueror’s arrival in Britain.

But stepwells were not merely functional sites for the collection of water and socialising; they also conveyed immense religious and spiritual significance which confirmed the ancient Indian reverence for the sanctity of water, both as a life giving compound and important natural resource.

They were originally constructed along quite simple lines, but evolved over the years to become more ornate; thus reinforcing the sanctity of water when carved stone deities were added as decoration in the step wells.

Rani ki Vav was designed as an inverted temple with the water at its base. It originally featured seven levels, but only five levels of the stepped corridors remain today. As an integral part of the design, the corridors were divided at regular intervals into compartments of pillared multi storied pavilions. This is unique to this stepwell and more than 400 principal sculptures can be seen whilst passing from the beginning of the descent, at ground level, and on through the various levels to the well which lies at the base.

Petyr edit 3The ornate and intricate carvings include sculptures representing the religious, mythical and cultural symbols of the era to which it belongs. It’s estimated that more than 5,000 sculptures in total exhibit the mastery and genius of the artisans of ancient India.

Rani ki Vav faces east and is approximately 64m long x 20m wide x 27m deep, making it one of the largest and most sumptuous structures of its type. The well is at the western end and is 10 meters in diameter.

In the 13th century however, the Saraswati River, whose waters fed into the bodies of the stepwell, flooded the area and deposited large volumes of silt over the step well. It was not until the 1980’s that the Archaeological Survey of India excavated it and found the sculptures and carvings to be in surprisingly good condition. Not much of the actual well is visible now, apart from some sculptured panels in the circular part of the well, the wall being made of brick and faced with stone.

But the exquisite carvings throughout make it one of the finest specimens of its kind and, as befitting its name, Rani ki Vav is considered to be the “Queen” amongst the stepwells of India.

Most of the sculptures pay devotion to the Hindu God, Vishnu, in his various avatars and represent his return to the world. The avatars are accompanied by Sadhus, Brahmins, Hindu goddesses, Jain idols and Apsaras (celestial dancers), as well as beautiful women.

Petyr edit 4Around 50-60 years ago there were also ayurvedic plants growing around the area, and as a result, the water accumulated in Rani ki Vav was considered to be helpful for viral disease etc.

There’s also a small gate below the last step of the well, which guards the entrance to a 30km tunnel. It’s currently blocked by stones and mud, but it leads to the town of Sidhpur near Patan and was used as an escape route for later Kings in times of defeat. Maybe it will be restored. One day.

So here you have it – Rani ki Vav – the oldest and deepest amongst the stepwells of Gujarat and built by a grieving Queen to honour her dead King.

This SL will form a series devoted to #StrongWomen and I’m also posting (I hope!) the link to the UNESCO video which showcases this magnificent stepwell in all its glory. I hope you enjoy it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJGO3ySQ13o

And in closing, many thanks plus #editcredits to @PetyrBaelish for the illustrations used in the second part of this SL.

Much love and I send you peace – Noor. xx ))

#BeforeYour Time       #RaniKiVav     ((End))

Petyr edit 5


 

“TAJ MAHAL.”

#OFPARALLELS     #STRENGTH    #GRIEF    #TRUTHS    #MYTHS    and     #LEGENDS

1 Montage of Agra Fort to begin Blog

Avi wef 23 2 2018

*Announcing renewal and the energy of spring, sap rises and first buds swell as frantic birds claim their territories, swooping from trees and bushes in acknowledgement of reproductive urgency and nature’s prompting to gather nesting material.

And it’s whilst I’m kneeling to offer prayers seeking personal renewal at my father’s tomb in a simple graveyard that my mother comes to me – her all enveloping spiritual warmth invading my senses, stealing away my awareness of season, time, place and present to compensate me with her gift of vision.*

“What is to come, mother?”

Senses heightened, I see, listen and absorb; erasing all mortal physical and mental barriers to allow her spirit to enter as I see, hear, speak and thus become her Seer – her Visionary – before she asks…….

“How many men will share broken hearts and have the strength to share their grief in what are destined to become parallel lives?”

Pausing and uncertain, I reply

“Father perhaps? Grief consuming his entire life after my birth took you from his side, mother. Your passing marked with the simplicity of a plain marble tomb, inscribed with only two Persian scripted words – Mumtaz Begum. A plain tomb in a plain mausoleum as no visible ostentation could have assuaged father’s grief. Yet he found the strength to share his grief with me, and through me to you, whenever you came calling.

Twenty plus years he prayed at your tomb, head bowed, hands clasped, lips moving in the silent entreaty of prayer, body hunched, knees tortured and aching as he sought your companionship, but not even the ache in his knees – an ache craving submission – came close to touching the ache he felt in his heart.

2 Mumtaz Bahadur tomb Blog

Grief compounded by the mental anguish of separation from your resting place – his site of sacred commemoration – when duty to an Emperor and his country removed us far from our ancestral home. A journey which led to his death and burial at the place you come to me now, mother.”

Haltingly I stop, eyes narrowing, failing to fully understand mother’s original question and the cloudy vision she now sets before me

“But why do I see two sets of lovers? Two ladies at peace and two men destined to live on the other side of life’s dark, dividing curtain until the day the curtain shimmers into translucence, melds into marbled, glowing white and lifts, allowing all of them the permanence of reunification.”

*Struggling to interpret the message through my personal mental anguish of loss, I smile as I see my revered and honoured parents’ link hands in the vision – reunited – even though their remains lie interred in lands far apart. A chasm of mortality that no longer separates their souls.

Listening intently as mother speaks again, I lean forwards, placing both hands firmly on father’s grave as she allows me to see what will become parallels of loss, grief, mourning, strength, incarceration and internment*

“Your father was incarcerated – but as an Emissary sent far from his ancestral home on the direction of a man who will one day suffer a far worse incarceration – betrayed and condemned by a son. And this man too will pay obeisance to his beloved through strength founded on loss, grief and mourning. But ultimately he will be the more fortunate, as his death and internment will occur in the land of his beloved.

Know this, Noor. That rich and poor are equalised in loss, and although it will be loss, grief and the anguish of mourning which will result in this man’s vision of commemoration, it will be wealth and position that provide him with the ultimate means to mourn on a world stage.

I see a very public display of grief and mourning; impossible through strength of purpose alone, but combined with the means of a man at the height of his powers, it will result in an enduring and visible commemoration of devotion to an Empress Consort lost.

I see one man’s vision, interpreted and created by tens of thousands as it rises into a seductive symmetry of death beckoning from the opposite bank of a river.

I see one man’s vision subsequently becoming the visual anguish of his incarceration, his hands turning white as he grasps a balcony in a red sandstone fort; a brooding, stark and forbidding contrast to the purity and serenity of a white marble mausoleum taunting him from the opposite bank of a river.

His vision. His creation.

You know his name. Shah Jahan.

You know his Empress Consort. Mumtaz Mahal.

3 Quote IMG_4880 + Taryam quote Blog

A man who will grieve both in freedom and incarceration whilst he anticipates and craves life’s closure – and the world will look upon his legacy forever.”

I exhale in wonder and confusion as a vision appears briefly before me. Both the white mausoleum and the place are unknown to me. And then, as silently as a gossamer curtain drops, the vision is gone. Slowly I close my eyes….and when I open them again….my mother too is gone

Petyr edit 1 USED end of part 1 SL 3 4 2018

((But who were Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal? And what is the truth behind the building of the Taj Mahal?

Shah Jahan was born in Lahore on 5th January 1592 when he was given the Persian name of Shahab-ud-din Muhammad Khurram (“King of the World.”) One of four sons of the fourth Mughal emperor Jahangir, he was regarded as the most competent, and when Jahangir died in 1627, Shah Jahan emerged victorious from the ensuing war of succession to become the fifth emperor, reigning from 1628 to 1658. He took the regnal title of Shah Jahan at his coronation in Agra.

Shah Jahan’s reign is remembered for his architectural achievements and it’s also widely regarded as the golden age of Mughal architecture, during which the Taj Mahal – the pinnacle of architectural beauty – was built as the mausoleum to house the tomb of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.5 IMG_4970 Agra Fort interior BlogIn September 1657 Shah Jahan fell ill and another war of succession, amongst /his/ four sons ensued. His third son, Aurangzeb, emerged victorious, and although Shah Jahan recovered, Aurangzeb placed his father under house arrest in Agra Fort from 1658 until his death on 22nd January 1666.

Having usurped his father, Aurangzeb was crowned as the sixth Mughal emperor on 31st July 1658.

It’s both sad and ironic that Shah Jahan, one of the great Mughal emperors, was incarcerated for the last eight years of his life in Agra Fort where he could gaze across the Yamuna River and see the Taj Mahal – his enduring testament to his favourite wife.

7 View from Agra Fort Blog After his death, Shah Jahan’s body was ferried across the river to be entombed beside Mumtaz. It wasn’t the original intention that he would be buried in the Taj Mahal, so it’s Mumtaz Mahal’s sarcophagus that lies in the centre of the burial chamber with Shah Jahan’s larger one beside her. Ironic too that /his/ internment made the burial chamber the only place in the Taj Mahal complex which fails to reflect Shah Jahan’s obsession with symmetry!

Photography is not allowed in the burial chamber but I managed to source an image.

8 Taj Mahal burial chamber Blog

MUMTAZ MAHAL (“Exalted one of the Palace”) was born in Agra to a family of Persian nobility on 27th April 1593. She was named Arjumand Banu, and as well as being the daughter of a high official in the Mughal Empire, she was also niece to the Empress Nur Jahan –  the powerful chief wife of the fourth emperor, Jahangir.

Arjumand married Prince Khurram (later Shah Jahan) on 30th April 1612 when he renamed her Mumtaz Mahal. They had actually been betrothed since 1607, and during the intervening years Shah Jahan had taken a first wife. After becoming the second, and Shah Jahan’s favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal bore him 14 children, of whom 7 survived, including the Crown Prince, Dara Shikoh. He temporarily succeeded Shah Jahan until he was deposed by Mumtaz Mahal’s sixth child, Aurangzeb, who subsequently became the sixth emperor.

9 IMG_4738 Taj Mahal from Mehtab Bagh Blog

Mumtaz Mahal reigned as Empress Consort from 1628 until her death in Burhanpur, Deccan (present day Madhya Pradesh) on 17th June 1631. She died from post partum haemorrhage following a labour of 30 hours in giving birth to her 14th child, a daughter named Gauhara Begum.

It is quite remarkable that a woman of that time birthed 14 children, with a 50% survival rate during 19 years of marriage – and only fitting that her mausoleum has stood the test of time as an eternal monument to a husband’s love.

THE TAJ MAHAL (“Crown of the Palace”) lies on the south bank of the Yamuna River in Agra. Shah Jahan commissioned it in 1631 and building commenced in 1632. The mausoleum is the centrepiece of the 42 acre complex, which also includes a mosque and a guest house.

11 Taj Mahal Blog

The Taj Mahal is set in formal gardens, surrounded on three sides by crenellated walls. The mausoleum was completed 1643, and the surrounding buildings and gardens were finished about 5 years later.

20,000 artisans were employed on the project under guidance of a board of architects led by Ustad Ahmad Lahuari and the complex was finally completed in 1653 at a cost (at the time) of c32million rupees.

Design traditions followed those of Persian and earlier Mughal architecture such as Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, Itimad ud Daulah (sometimes called the “Baby Taj”) in Agra, as well as Jama Masjid in Delhi which was built during Shah Jahan’s reign. Whilst many earlier Mughal buildings were primarily constructed in red sandstone, it was Shah Jahan who promoted the use of white marble inlaid with semi precious stones.

13 Humayuns Tomb IMG_7648 Blog14 Itimad ud Dualah IMG_5062 Blog15 Jama Masjid IMG_2252 straightened on PIXLR Blog

The Taj Mahal stands on a square plinth and is a totally symmetrical building with an iwan (arch shaped doorway) topped by a large dome and finial.

Four minarets stand at each corner of the plinth, each built at a slight angle, so that in the event of collapse or earthquake, they would fall away from the mausoleum.

16 IMG_4870 Minaret Blog  The main burial chamber, with its lack of symmetry contains false sarcophagi, the two graves being at a lower level.

One the western side of the mausoleum is a Mosque, its Mihrab facing Mecca. And on the opposite, eastern side, is a Jawab (answer), which is thought to have been built purely for symmetrical and architectural balance. It is not a mosque and there is no Mihrab in this building.

17 IMG_4831 Mosque Blog18 IMG_4839 Mosque Blog

And not surprisingly, the Taj Mahal has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.

19 IMG_4834 Taj Mahal BlogPetyr edit 3 USED end of part 2 SL 4 4 2018

MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF THE TAJ MAHAL.

#1 – “The Taj is a Hindu Temple”                                                                                                    The theory that the Taj is a 12th century Shiva temple, built by a Hindu King, which was later converted into Mumtaz Mahal’s mausoleum.

The Mughals actually had “form” for this – according to a Persian inscription on the inner eastern gateway at Qutab Minar in Delhi, the Quwwat-ul- Islam Mosque, which is situated within the complex, was built from parts taken from the destruction of 27 Hindu and Jain temples.

IMG_7597 Signed by @OE

In 2000 however, the Supreme Court of India dismissed a petition asking for the sealed basement rooms of the Taj Mahal to be opened to prove the “Shiva Temple” theory.

This particular petitioner was also known for outlandish claims that the Kaaba in Mecca, Stonehenge in England and the Papacy all had Hindu origins, that the Hindus conquered Italy and that Westminster Abbey was originally a Shiva Temple.

And in 2005, a similar petition was dismissed by the Allahabad High Court, the petitioner claiming that the Taj Mahal was built by the Hindu king Parmer Dev in 1196.

#2 “Shah Jahan started the construction of a Black Taj Mahal”                                          The legend goes that Shah Jahan intended to construct a negative image of the Taj Mahal in black marble on the opposite bank of the Yamuna River to his wife’s mausoleum and that the Black Taj was intended to be his own mausoleum. It was also claimed that work started before he was imprisoned in Agra Fort by Aurangzeb.

The idea originated from the fanciful writings of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a European traveller who visited Agra in 1665. Ruins of blackened marble were discovered across the Yamuna River in the “Moonlight Garden” (Mehtab Bagh) which appeared to support this legend, but excavations carried out in the 1990’s confirmed they were discoloured white stones that had turned black.

21A IMG_4779 The Taj from Mehtab Bagh Blog

A more credible theory was demonstrated in 2006 by archaeologists who reconstructed part of a pool which originally lay in Mehtab Bagh. A dark reflection of the Taj Mahal on the opposite bank could clearly be seen in the water – befitting Shah Jahan’s obsession with symmetry and the positioning of the pool. However, extensive excavations at Mehtab Bagh have failed to find any evidence of the construction of a “Black Taj.”

22 IMG_4852 Symmetry Blog23 IMG_4855 Symmetry Blog  #3 “Craftsmen were mutilated”                                                                                                 Legend has it that on completion of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan ordered the hands of craftsmen to be removed to prevent them from building anything as beautiful again. Some even say he had their eyes gouged out. There is no historical evidence to support either theory.

26 Quote IMG_4846 + Bayard Taylor quote Blog25 IMG_4868 Taj Mahal Blog #4 “The British intended to dismantle the Taj Mahal and sell the marble”                      No evidence exists that Lord William Bentinck, the Governor-General of India in the 1830’s, planned to demolish the Taj Mahal and auction off the marble. His biographer says the story arose from Bentinck’s fund-raising sale of discarded marble from Agra Fort.

29 IMG_4876 Carving Blog  #5 “The silhouette of the finial has magical properties”                                                       This myth suggests that beating the silhouette of the finial will cause water to come forth. To this day, officials find broken bangles surrounding the silhouette – but no water.

#6 “The Taj is sinking”                                                                                                                      Some experts believe there is evidence that the Taj is slowly tilting towards and sinking into the riverbed due to the changing nature of the soil beside an increasingly dry Yamuna River.

The Archaeological Survey of India has dismissed any marginal changes in the elevation of the building as statistically insignificant, adding that it has not detected any structural damage at its base in the seven decades since the first scientific study of the Taj was carried out in 1941.

31 Quote IMG_4834 + Keyserling quote to end Blog

I hope you’ve enjoyed the short SL and accompanying stroll through the history, myths and legends surrounding the Taj Mahal.

All the images, except the one taken inside the burial chamber, are my own.

“TajMahal”  #OfParallels  #Strength   #Truths   #Myths   #Legends       ((End))

32 Agra Taj Mahal to end Blog

 


 

“COME AWAY WITH ME: ABANDONED.”

Petyr edit 4 + poem USED as teaser 10 12 2017    Petyr edit 2 + quote

Petyr edit 1 + quote    Petyr edit 6 + quote USED as teaser 8 12 2017

1 to begin Noor in Zafars study    1A to begin Noor after reading Zafars letter

Petyr edit 4     #ABANDONED.

*Breath hitching, I drop down onto the floor, slumping against the wall, ignoring the comfort and security provided by father’s well used, and much loved desk chair, the seat covered in the finest leather worn, smooth by countless hours of thought and toil, the arms richly patinated by years of use as he would rise and sit frequently, having retrieved a volume from his extensive library to consult on the various issues set before him. An empty chair, covered in cloth, occupying a lonely corner whilst it languishes in storage – but loved none the less.

I also ignore a simple, rush seated chair, beside an equally simple, rustic table – both unused now and pushed up against a far wall – although there was a time when they resided in father’s library too, close to the window, so that he could move his inks, pens and papers across and write on matters he considered of great importance using the light he loved so well*

For the last two days I’ve been labouring in a chilly storage room, compiling an inventory of family artefacts and possessions, as well as examining father’s personal papers to decide what should be moved to, and preserved in, the permanent family archive. And as I near the end of my task, I delve into an old trunk of father’s which contains his most personal of papers – and it’s what I find there that causes me to drop to the floor and slump against the wall.

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Extracting a dispatch and tracing an index finger across the neatly honed script, I realise it mentions a fortified city – one little talked of in Imperial Court circles

And yet I remember asking father about it once, many years ago, and he merely replied that he “thought” he was born during the first year the third Mughal emperor, Akbar, occupied it as his new, red, sandstone capital. I thought at the time it was most unlike father to be so vague.

Puzzled and placing hand on head, I attempt to place my recollection of history in parallel with father’s year of birth

1571 was father’s birth year, but I thought he was born in Agra as that was where the Imperial Court resided. His father was Akbar and his mother one of many junior wives.

But here it says Agra was being replaced. In 1569. Replaced?

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Retrieving a well-worn leather pouch from the trunk, I open it, examine the contents and read extracts from the old papers

“The Imperial Court then relocated to Lahore before returning to Agra where it is to this day.”

Frowning How curious, and so unlike father not to keep an accurate and contemporaneous account of history, especially when it involves our family lineage.

Peering at another fading document, I try to set this discovery in some semblance of order and context in my mind

“In 1569 Akbar decreed this place was to be called Fatehpur meaning “Town of Victory” after he travelled to the village of Sikri to consult with a Sufi Saint by the name of Shaikh Salim Chisti.”

Reading quickly now, finger tracking the lines of the beautifully crafted court Persian from right to left, trying to make sense of this mystery

“Akbar had attained 26 years, had many wives, but no living heir as all the children born to him had perished in infancy. He visited many holy men in his quest to sire an heir and it was Chisti who foretold he would have three sons. Soon after, a senior wife, namely the daughter of the Raja of Amber, was found to be with child and Akbar sent her to live near the sage. Then in the year of 1569, she birthed Salim; later to be renamed as Jahangir.

In 1570 another senior wife birthed a son to be named Murad and in 1572 another senior wife birthed a son to be named Daniyal.

Akbar would not be swayed and was resolute in building his new capital at Sikri to honour the holy man, and when Chisti’s prophecy was fulfilled, he insisted on adding “Sikri” to follow after the original “Fatehpur” naming.

And thus it was decreed that Fatehpur Sikri would become the new Mughal capital”

Father’s earlier notes on our family history indicated Akbar had sired more than one legitimate male heir from his most senior wives; but this document clearly confirmed that Chisti’s prophecy was fulfilled three times over.

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Impatiently, I tip the contents of the pouch into the floor, kneel and quickly examine documents, sliding their history around the surface of the coarse woollen rug in the storage room, excited, yet trying to find a chronological order of history to make sense of a city father barely mentioned

A /new/ capital? But father only told me he was born in the year of its adoption and that he didn’t remember it very well. Or was there perhaps a reason he was reluctant to talk about it?

I know he had shifted to Benares when he was still quite young, but I always thought he had attained at least sixteen years. So he must /surely/ have lived in this mysterious city before that……..

Picking up documents at random, I read on

“An Islamic masterpiece”

“When Akbar left Fatehpur Sikri, the city slowly became deserted, completely abandoned by 1600 due to lack of water supply; but not only was the Emperor a shrewd ruler, he was also ambitious, a noble commander, great administrator and patron of the arts, so consider the other reasons that prompted him to relocate to Lahore. The loss of the singer Tansen, one of the Navaratnas (“nine gems”) of his court affected him greatly. But Akbar was a master tactician; his decision to abandon undoubtedly involving political and strategic considerations. His attitude towards orthodox Islam was evolving towards a new ideology incorporating a fusion of religions, thus supplanting his earlier veneration of Chisti. Not forgetting the close proximity of the belligerent Rajputana with whom he was often in dispute.”

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Thus, I gleaned from the papers that Akbar moved the court much further north, to Lahore in 1585, and when he returned south again, in 1598, it was to Agra – where he established the virulent court which was to destroy my childhood.

Yet from father’s old notes and collection of papers, it appeared that Akbar spent the richest and most productive years of his 49 year reign at the abandoned capital of Fatehpur Sikri.

During my numerous lessons on the history of Hindustan, I was taught that Akbar was a far-sighted emperor, forging alliances with the Hindus by marrying a Hindu princess as well as taking Muslim and Christian wives. He also forged fragile alliances with the restive Rajput leaders – the administration of Hindustan becoming a partnership with Hindu nobles and princes who resented being ruled by “foreigners” following the earlier conquests of Babur and Humayun.

And although Akbar was illiterate, he won a great deal of respect for his wisdom, administrative and military skills, encouraging and gathering around him the most eminent men of learning and education of his age, as he was always anxious to learn from them and to hear what they had to say to him and his court.

Moving an untidy jumble of papers and father’s notes aside for inventory and safekeeping, I glance down and see an old and crumbling parchment envelope, tied with ribbon, fading ink on the outside addressed in my father’s hand – “NOOR.”  Then, with clumsy, trembling fingers I open the document, rise to my feet and pace the room as the secrets of my father’s past are revealed.

3 Noor reading Zafars letter3A Zafars letter

Avi USED 24 7 2016  BENARES IN THE YEAR OF 1625.

Before memory fades and life begins to dim, I set before you the truth in this account, my darling daughter – for ultimately, we must all account for our faults and shortcomings.

An account which I have locked away, secreted in the family archive, secure in the knowledge that you will not read it until after my death.

Yes. I hid my past in Fatehpur Sikri from you, but do not think ill of me—–the motherless son of one of Akbar’s junior wives, barely more than an infant on the day my mother was taken to another part of the Imperial palace and never returned. Nevertheless, I remained in the care of the other ladies of the harem until it was time for me to move to quarters alongside those occupied by the other numerous junior princes of the Imperial Court—sired by any number of different fathers.

Unlike the other junior princes though, I did not indulge my precious and all too short youth in profligacy and indolence in the capital city I never spoke of—preferring to spend my time in learning from, and debating with, the most educated of men, just as the Emperor Akbar did in seeking to assuage and inform his illiteracy.

And it was in the year of 1584, as I was turning towards my teens, that my eyes first alighted on the four year old daughter of a concubine. She had been walking in the ladies gardens and was crossing the public courtyard accompanied by her ayah, singing a light, tinkling, song of laughter as she skipped along, correctly naming all the birds she could see in flight and bathing in the cool waters of the many ornamental fountains.

4 IMG_4700 Ladies garden

As the little girl had not yet taken the veil, I approached and requested her name. She smiled up at me and replied that she was called Mumtaz. I was immediately captivated by her eyes and something about her almost ethereal spirit making her seem wise beyond her years, possessing a vision I could not understand. Something about her mere presence, constricting, commanding and then conducting the now erratic beat of my heart whilst I was rendered almost incapable of coherent speech.

So there and then, and somewhat unwisely as I was in the churning tumult of impending manhood, I vowed to her, in public, that I intended to take her as my wife. Immediately the ayah hurried Mumtaz away from my ill-advised proposal and the last image I carried with me was of a little girl, serious and wise beyond her years, fixing me with an unblinking, knowing stare over her right shoulder until she was removed from my view.

I cared not that any decision on marriage was not mine to take; being of Imperial lineage my future was inextricably bound by court alliances and decisions—-and so it was that I fell from grace and into immediate disfavour for the insolence and temerity of my proposal—especially to one so far below me in status.

Our ancestral lands in Benares were held in trust then, gifted by Imperial patronage, and as I was of junior lineage, I was not deemed sufficiently important to merit lands immediately adjacent to those of the Imperial Court. Our lands therefore remained in the administration of Imperial Court appointed officials until I reached my age of majority of sixteen.

However, in view of my unseemly public behaviour, I was banished from court as soon as the Emperor had taken the decision to relocate the capital to Lahore.

Throughout my youth I had always been careful with my allowances paid by the Court as well as funds remitted from the estates in Benares. And as my wealth continued to grow, and my time in Fatehpur Sikri diminished, I started to listen, quietly but very attentively, for any source of harem gossip, and as this tended to flow as permanently as the sacred rivers, a picture gradually emerged of Mumtaz’s mother who, despite her remaining in the strictest purdah and her very junior status as a concubine in the harem, was a greatly respected, intelligent and educated woman.

5 IMG_4636

And so it was that after witnessing my outburst, realising my time for departure was fast approaching and seeing my ensuing lovelorn state, I was discreetly approached in the dark and quiet of some cloisters by a sympathetic eunuch, Malik. He was also smitten by the wonderful Mumtaz, appreciated she had gifts it was impossible to describe to mortal man or place on paper, and unbeknown to me, he had already vowed to protect her, as best he could, from the cruelty of court machinations.

Malik persuaded me to trust him with all my disposable wealth to discreetly disburse to Mumtaz’s mother if required. Impulsive youth that I was, I immediately agreed. I had no recourse other than to trust him for I had no access to Mumtaz and her mother in the ladies quarters – only he could ensure Mumtaz’s protection, although not without risk to himself.

I also gave him the smallest of notes, sewn into the lining of a small purse and written in disguised hand, urging Mumtaz’s mother to keep her safe, educate her, and by whatever means, bring her to me in Benares when she reached an age of majority. And so, in Malik I trusted.

Soon afterwards, and accompanied by another court official to teach me administration and the efficient running of estates for the few remaining years until I attained the age of my majority, I departed for Benares—-to lands I had never seen, saddened, chastised, impoverished and in despair, knowing that eventually proposals of a “suitable match” at Court would find their way to me; but always, always holding out hope and remaining hopelessly in love with Mumtaz.

And despite still being in my formative years, I swore a sacred vow as I rode out through the gates of Fatehpur Sikri that I would never leave Benares unless, or until, I had Mumtaz by my side.

6 Zafar dreaming of Mumtaz

I waited and dreamed for twenty long years before my bride was brought to me, during which time I garnered further Imperial displeasure by refusing all the matches put before me. And during all the years of waiting, I sought to avoid attracting the attention of the Emperor, but he was always assailed and distracted anyway by the many scheming princes and others seeking Imperial favour and advancement as they jostled for attention and position at court.

Gradually then, the court paid less attention to me – after all I was just a junior prince living quietly and contentedly on his estates, far removed from the court, causing the Emperor no angst, administering his lands effectively and remitting taxes and revenue, in full, to the Imperial coffers when due.

Twenty long years before Mumtaz’s now ailing mother, whose name I never knew and face I never saw, brought her to me, still intact, not wishing her to remain motherless and at the mercy of the Imperial harem. And for all those years this remarkable woman had defended her daughter’s honour with the ferocity of a tigress—and Malik’s assistance.

Despite my youth, I had been right in my initial feelings about Mumtaz. She had been kept safely in the harem, revered and consulted due to her mystic Sufi gifts, the piercing timbre of her voice in rendering ghazals reducing men to tears, her beauty enhanced still more when she danced—head thrown back, weaving, swaying and spinning through the dances of ages—her learning, education, wisdom and her skills in medicine and herbalism all inherited from her mother combining to ensure that no man dared touch her, upon pain of death from one of the Emperor’s execution elephants.

But that protection came to an end with the succession of the new Emperor, your nemesis, Jahangir—his succession widely supported by his two powerful step-mothers, both of them senior wives of Akbar, as well as his powerful grandmother—Akbar’s mother.

I had been right about her Mumtaz’s mother too. She had used my wealth wisely to cultivate “friendships” amongst the other eunuchs, dispensing funds judiciously to ensure the eventual escape of Mumtaz and herself disguised as dancers in a group brought in for an evening’s entertainment in the harem.

Yes – Mumtaz’s mother was a truly /extraordinary/ woman, possessing great personal wealth which she had accrued during her years in the harem, having the care and foresight to limit her “acquisitions” to small, easily moveable and concealed assets in the form of immensely valuable pieces of jewellery, gems and gold coin generously, yet foolishly, heaped on her by “admirers” in the Imperial Court—but she was no fool, and knew their greater interest lay in piercing her daughter’s maidenhood.

These ornaments and valuables, as well as the family journals detailing her ancestral learning in medicine and herbalism she entrusted to Malik’s safe keeping until he released them back on their departure, and they formed the basis of Mumtaz’s dowry, which has since become your own, my beloved daughter.

7 Mumtaz jewellery7A Mumtaz jewellery

And what of Malik, the eunuch to whom I had pledged my trust and all my wealth? He had risen to the position of Khwaja Saras—head eunuch—and it was he who arranged the ladies escape and safe passage to me in Benares when he realised the time was right; a journey made easier for them as the court had relocated to Agra several years previously. So much closer to Benares than Lahore.

7B Map

I owe Malik so much for his honesty, perspicacity and courage, and ever since Mumtaz was brought to me, I prayed, and continue to do so, that any repercussions taken against him were not too severe when the absence of Mumtaz and her mother was discovered—-but alas, I heard no more of him.

You owe that man your life, my daughter.

The rest you know—well—most of it.

I married my beloved Mumtaz immediately and the fruits of our union were quickly blessed with you, my dearest daughter, Noor.

8 Mumtaz with butterfly headpiece

Sadly though Mumtaz’s now frail, brave, wise, modest and trustworthy mother died the day after she saw her daughter married, happy in the knowledge that Mumtaz had finally passed—in love—through the rite of passage into womanhood.

You are probably now wondering if a grave marked her passing, but there is none, for on her deathbed she instructed Mumtaz that she wished to remain in anonymity, to be cremated and her ashes scattered on the sacred Ganges. A woman whose face I never saw and whose name I never knew – not even from your mother’s lips.

Would that the first days of our marriage had not been tinged with such sadness and loss.

The year I spent with your mother was the happiest of my life, and I made a vow on her death bed that I would never lie with another woman or marry again. This vow I have kept.

Forgive me for not speaking to you of Fatehpur Sikri and the part it played in my past, as well as your mother’s, but there some things which are deeply personal, bringing both anguish and joy, and sometimes these places are best left undisturbed as we journey through life—–a journey of falling from grace due to the impetuosity of youth to potential rehabilitation as a senior minister of the Emperor, Jahangir—a position I neither want nor seek.

Believe me when I tell you again my dearest, that my sole intention was always to do everything within my power to protect and keep you from the insidious clutches of the Imperial Court and to allow you to marry for love, as I had done.

In this I failed and when you read this missive, which I know will be after my death, I beg your forgiveness, my daughter, the light of my life, my dearest Noor.

As I close now, I pray for your happiness and that you are living a fulfilling life—a life to be proud of, a life filled with love and encompassing the dignity, wisdom and compassion inherited from my beloved Begum.  But if life has strewn obstacles in your path, I pray that your mother and I have given you the courage and strength to overcome them.

Yours in peace, your ever loving father – Zafar Bahadur.

[Sighing with affectionate irritation at the closing paragraph which became smudged when a tear rolled down and dripped onto the parchment, I fold and place it carefully in a large envelope addressed simply—“NOOR”—tie it horizontally and vertically with ribbon and place it with my most private of papers, which I know my darling daughter will never disturb during my lifetime]

9 The abandoned library poem © to finish part 2 of SL

Petyr edit 4

*Stunned. I slump back down to the ground in silence. Lips trembling. Tears welling. Looking at the smudge on the last paragraph and realising whence it came. A precious tear shed by my father whilst he sat on the simple, rush seated chair presently pushed up against the wall of this room.

Gently brushing my fingers across the smudge, naively hoping for a trace of dampness, I attempt a smile of understanding as to why father had spared himself the pain of telling me about this city, it’s secrets and the part it had played in his past……no /our/ past*

Poor father, his anguish over so many years must have been unimaginable, unable to protect a benevolent eunuch called Malik, or his beloved Mumtaz and her mother whilst they remained within the strictures of the Imperial Court.

And what of my maternal grandmother? A purdah clad concubine, unnamed and unseen, a woman father never spoke of – until now – and the realisation slowly dawns on me that /she/ is the heroine of my past.

A woman of courage, utilising shrewd, calculating intelligence in refusing to sacrifice her remarkable daughter, Mumtaz, to the undeserving.

A woman of intuition, finely honed instincts developed during her time in the harem which persuaded her to trust Malik and father, a boy now grown into manhood, a man she had never even seen. And her ultimate act of trust, even as her life ebbed to a close? Giving her daughter in marriage to my father.

I bless you and send you peace – whoever you were.

And my father? A son of Akbar, sire of too many children to count? The Imperial Court was barely any kinder to him, the son of a junior wife who disappeared without trace before father could even utter her name. A woman lost to us both.

My father. All his life carrying a burden of guilt, a burden of self perceived faults and shortcomings. Not telling me of his life in the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, of his mother’s disappearance, of the circumstances surrounding his proposal to Mumtaz which led to the shame of his banishment and of the part Mumtaz’s mother played in ensuring his marriage to the woman he loved.

A self-imposed, lifelong recognition of the sacrifices made by the three most important women in his life, whilst he led a comfortable, privileged life by virtue of his position in a male dominated court.

I join you, father, in saluting these women, as I salute all the brave women who have little or no choice in their lives other than to exist and survive.

And me? My father gave me love beyond compare, the benefits of an extensive education and the luxury of choice. And although my protection was always at the forefront of his mind; it was ultimately sacrificed when he could no longer escape the notice and summons of the Imperial Court. But that time is past. Dead. Buried.

*Then, looking down again through tear clouded lashes, I open a separate silk pouch, and peering inside I see it contains plans and drawings in my father’s young hand, probably drawn up under the guidance of one of his teachers as part of his education in the arts, geometry, mathematics, building and planning.

I extract them carefully, as they are very delicate, before opening them out and following their route as my writer now takes you on a tour of the Mughal capital city of Fatehpur Sikri.*

Long since     #ABANDONED

((Fatehpur Sikri  was originally surrounded by a massive wall with nine gates – Delhi, Lal, Agra, Bir or Suraj (Sun), Chandar (Moon), Gwaliori, Tehra (crooked), Chor (Thief’s) and Ajmeri.

It’s a vast site, comprising three areas – the Royal Palace, “outside” the Royal Palace and Jama Masjid (the Mosque), but due limited time and the 40+C heat, I confined my visit to the Royal Palace complex, entering through Agra Gate.

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Firstly, and from one of the city courtyards, I viewed the distant “Hiran Minar,” which I included in a SL (“Subjugation”) a few months ago. Towering over the surrounding landscape, it stands 21meters high and is said to mark the spot where Akbar’s favourite execution elephant, Hiran, is buried – the hundreds of protruding stones representing an elephant’s tusks. But historic opinion indicates it was built as the first “akash diya” (lamp to light the sky) or “zero point” …..the starting point for subsequent mile markers (“kos minar” – of which I have also written before) measuring the distance on the royal procession route between Fatehpur Sikri, Agra and on to Lahore.

11 IMG_4629 Diwan i Am11 IMG_463111 IMG_4658

Next I turned to the Diwan-i-Am or Hall of Public Audiences which backs onto the private palace area and has cloisters on three sides of its rectangular courtyard. Besides being used for celebrations and public prayers, Akbar would preside over the courts here, dispensing justice from the middle seat of five, flanked by his advisers. It was built to utilise an echo sound system so Akbar could hear anything at anytime from anywhere in the open space. Justice was dispensed quickly, with execution elephants used to dispatch the condemned.

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Close by is the Diwan-i-Khas or Hall of Private Audiences. It’s quite plain on the outside, but the central stone column was modified in deference to Akbar’s new religion, Din-i-Illahi (God is One), encompassing a fusion of Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist decorative techniques. Although a two storey building, it’s actually a single room, famed for its central pillar with a square base and octagonal shaft, both carved in bands of geometric and floral design. Serpentine brackets support a circular platform on which Akbar would sit, connected to each corner of the building at first floor level by four stone walkways, entered by a staircase outside the building. Akbar would spend long hours here engaged in discussion with representatives of differing religions who would sit along the walls of the balcony connected to the throne pillar by the screened bridges, whilst courtiers would listen from the ground floor.

13 From the Astrologers Chair towards Panch Mahal13B Astrologers Kiosk Treasury and Diwan i Khas (iPhone3)

Always keep the money close! The Treasury building lies next to the Diwan-i-Khas and the Makaras carved on the brackets are mythical sea creatures who guarded the fabulous wealth once stored there.

Just in front of The Treasury is the beautiful Astrologers Seat, a small kiosk with elaborate, serpentine, Jain style carvings on the roof supports. The kiosk may have been used by the court astrologer or treasurer.

14A Pachisi board

In the centre of this vast courtyard is the Pachisi Board or Chaupar and the large game board is visible surrounding the block in the centre. Here, Akbar played Pachisi (an ancient version of Ludo) moving slave girls dressed in yellow, blue and red around as the “pieces.”

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