Bhimsen is distressed that landowners are exploiting the peasantry, there are defections to the Marathas, and lawlessness in the countryside. But there is little evidence in his book of the anti-Hindu policies attributed to Aurangzeb today.
The Mughal king Aurangzeb died in 1707 but he lives on in debates in India and Pakistan. In Indian popular imagination Aurangzeb is a fanatical bigot and a precursor to ISIS because he persecuted Hindus and destroyed their temples. Meanwhile, in Pakistan many view Aurangzeb favourably as a champion for Islam, while others lament Aurangzeb’s killing of his brother Dara Shukoh on the grounds that Dara—imagined as peaceable and tolerant—would have been a better king. Historians have analysed numerous sources from Mughal India to show that there was more to Aurangzeb than today’s caricatures. They argue that it is senseless to assess past kings as good or bad based on how tolerant or intolerant they were; in doing so we impose present-day vocabularies and moral judgments on the past and exacerbate communal violence. More importantly, binaries of tolerant/intolerant, good Islam/bad Islam are a product of colonial rule and have nothing to do with how people from the past saw themselves.
How then did Mughal kings and their subjects experience the world? By what standards of right and wrong did ordinary people judge themselves and their kings? A memoir penned in 1707 by Bhimsen Saxena, a Hindu subject of Aurangzeb, can answer these questions. Bhimsen’s memoir was written in Persian and is titled the Tarikh-i Dilkusha, which I translate here as a history that expands or warms the heart. Jadunath Sarkar’s English translation of the text captures Bhimsen’s straightforward way of writing. Bhimsen wrote from multiple vantage points. He was from a Hindu family who had served the Mughals for generations and grew up on stories of Mughal kings. He was a soldier and news-writer for Aurangzeb’s campaigns into the Deccan, which began in 1681, and offers us a rare eyewitness perspective. Finally, Bhimsen was often furious with Aurangzeb but remained deeply loyal to him. This capacity for both rage and devotion towards a king is key to understanding people from the Mughal past.
All Indian kings, regardless of whether they were Hindu or Muslim, were thought to be divinely ordained and in many cases, to have divine qualities themselves. We do not live in a world governed by kings. This means that as ‘modern’ people living in nation-states, we struggle with the idea of sacred governance. While Akbar is seen today as the opposite of Aurangzeb, both kings were sacred to their subjects in different ways. Akbar portrayed himself as a messiah and an embodiment of God while Aurangzeb, given to asceticism, portrayed himself as a servant of the divine. Aurangzeb, hero to some and villain to others in our times, was both and more to Bhimsen.
Bhimsen begins the Tarikh-i Dilkusha by telling his readers that he is facing difficult times and in retirement wants to content himself with stories of old. Bhimsen has seen a great deal of devastation and war and writes that he is living in the Kaliyuga. This last and most destructive of the four ages outlined in Hindu theology is reflected in the physical and moral deterioration he has witnessed, for Kaliyuga is a time in which “firmness of heart, purity of deeds, and improvement of circumstances” cannot be found in either kings or their subjects. This foreboding note grows louder as we proceed through the text.
Aurangzeb first appears in the Tarikh-i Dilkusha as a young prince who was made the governor of the Deccan by his father Shah Jahan in 1636. Bhimsen does not mention ever meeting Aurangzeb but writes that his elders supported Aurangzeb during his struggle for the throne and were richly rewarded on Aurangzeb’s victory. After Aurangzeb proclaimed himself king in 1658, he set off in pursuit of his brother Dara Shukoh who he captured, paraded through the streets of Lahore, and beheaded. Because succession struggles in which brothers killed brothers were common, Dara Shukoh’s beheading is a matter of course: “His body was relieved of the burden of his head,” writes Bhimsen dourly, and does not follow this up with praise or blame. Although Dara Shukoh has been recast today as secular, tolerant, and humanistic—the opposite of Aurangzeb— he is irrelevant to Bhimsen.
Bhimsen moves seamlessly between multiple forms of the sacred. Just as Bhimsen evokes the Kaliyuga in his description of time, he names Hindu gods and holy places in his description of space. He writes that Hindustan has seven famous rivers and is overseen by seven immortals: Aswathama, Bali, Vyas, Hanuman, Vibhishan, Kripacharya, and Parashuram. Furthermore, there are seven blessed places in Hindustan: Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya (Haridwar), Kashi (Varanasi), Kanchi (Kanchipuram), Avantika (Ujjain), and Dwaravati. At the same time, Hindustan is part of the “heaven-protected” empire of a Muslim king and Bhimsen prays for the longevity of Mughal cities. At the beginning of his memoir, he invokes figures from the Quran, such as Jesus and Khizr, the mysterious guide who appears to seekers in times of need. Bhimsen’s reverence for both Muslim and Hindu figures shows us how interwoven what we would call “Hinduism” and “Islam” were for him.
The geography of India is coloured with Bhimsen’s knowledge of pilgrimages and miracles. Bhimsen writes of his father and the Muslim noble Amanat Khan, who went on pilgrimage to the River Godavari together. He also records that in Ellora, there is a miraculous spring in the desert that once healed a king’s skin disease. The healing qualities of the land, its gods and goddesses, and its Muslim king form a composite picture of empire in Bhimsen’s mind. The king is the symbolic centre of this empire and the “shadow of God” on earth. Bhimsen writes that God has made each man an empire and the heart is the ruler of the empire that is man; in the same way, the king is the heart of his empire and he is meant to maintain order in the land. Seeing Aurangzeb through Bhimsen’s eyes means seeing him as the failing heart of an empire but its heart nonetheless.
Aurangzeb’s failures are many. Bhimsen is distressed that under Aurangzeb, landowners are exploiting the peasantry, there are defections to the Marathas, and lawlessness in the countryside. There is however, little evidence in the Tarikh-i Dilkusha of the anti-Hindu policies attributed to Aurangzeb today. In his account of the years 1671-2, Bhimsen writes that these were days in which Hindus were often not recommended to Aurangzeb’s service. However, he adds that this did not affect him because he was an old servant of the court. Similarly, Bhimsen mentions the jizya (imposed in 1679) only once. He does so in his account of the year 1701, in which he writes about how Aurangzeb’s taxation policies were a disaster. Rather than speaking of the jizya as evidence of discrimination against Hindus, Bhimsen writes that corrupt officials are busy filling their own pockets. The jizya is one of many taxes benefiting these officials and Bhimsen appears more offended by corrupt officials than he is by the tax.
In Bhimsen’s view, Aurangzeb’s greed more than anything else, has been his undoing. Bhimsen writes that Aurangzeb’s ambition has sent him on endless military campaigns that have ruined entire cities or subjected them to poor administration. Aurangzeb is nothing like his just and wise father Shah Jahan; Shah Jahan’s subjects were loyal and clean of heart and only required the king to preside over court once a week while Aurangzeb has to hold court twice a day and still his subjects swarm in with uncountable grievances. Shah Jahan placed effective grandees in each principality, but Aurangzeb has put small men with small armies in charge of conquered provinces and “no one gets any justice.” Bhimsen writes that Burhanpur, his birthplace, has been laid to waste and he shares with his readers his memories of Burhanpur in better days.
The learned, urbanised elite to which Bhimsen belongs is an important limb of the body that is the Mughal Empire. But Aurangzeb has abandoned the great cities of his empire and their circles of learned men in exchange for an itinerant life. Subjects cannot feel loyal to a king unless they experience the grandeur of his cities. But: “Ever since His Majesty has come to the throne, he has not lived in the city,” complains Bhimsen. “The inmates of his camp, tired of long separations, have now summoned their families to live with them, which has meant that a new generation has been born and raised in the camp.” This generation, unlike Bhimsen’s, has never seen better days in which kings like Shah Jahan held court in vibrant, peaceful cities. Bhimsen is appalled that “a king like Aurangzeb, who lacks for nothing, is seized with such an obsession for capturing forts that he runs about panting after these heaps of stone.” Little can be expected of lesser men if this is the conduct of a king.
A consistent thread in Bhimsen’s account is his critique of the powerful. Bhimsen assesses Aurangzeb and his rival Shivaji through a similar framework. Bhimsen dislikes the Marathas, who he says have infested Mughal lands, but praises Shivaji for being a good leader to them. However, Shivaji’s acquisitive nature is similar to Aurangzeb’s. Bhimsen writes that Jan Muhammad, a dervish peerless in knowledge, had warned Shivaji against plundering Jalnapur, the village where the dervish and his servants resided. Shivaji ignored the warnings and plundered the town. Bhimsen writes that Shivaji’s death in 1680 could have been a consequence of the dervish’s curse. Bhimsen tells his readers that he privileges the company of holy men and is now indifferent to wealth, presumably because he has seen what greed does to great men.
We might assume that thinking of kings as divinely ordained would mean being unable to criticize them. Yet, Bhimsen possesses a keen eye for the human failings in kings even while sustaining a belief in the sacredness of kingship. Although Shivaji meets his end in a holy man’s curse, Aurangzeb redeems himself. For instance, Bhimsen notes that despite chasing after wealth, Aurangzeb pays his respects to the sufis of the Deccan. Bhimsen records Aurangzeb’s visit to the tomb and shrine complex of the sufi Gisu Daraz in 1687 and says the tomb has an air so pure even kings can benefit from it. Bhimsen also mentions Aurangzeb’s long illness of 1704, which he writes was only alleviated by the prayers of his subjects; these were well-deserved, says Bhimsen, for Aurangzeb was rare in his piety. Of an earlier time in 1697-8, when the king’s encampment in Brahmapuri on the banks of the River Bhima was flooded on account of rain, Bhimsen reports that Aurangzeb wrote a prayer and threw it into the water. Immediately after, the flood subsided. “The king’s prayer was accepted by God, and the world composed again,” writes Bhimsen.
The king’s ability to save his camp points to how in Bhimsen’s eyes Aurangzeb could harness divine forces to his aid when needed and order the world. This is in keeping with the intense personal allegiances kings commanded; kings appeared in the dreams of soldiers and were both spiritual guides and temporal rulers. The twinned authority of holy man and king—shared by Akbar and Aurangzeb—is evident to Bhimsen but inadmissible in a present that splits Islam into orthodoxy and heterodoxy, bad Islam and good Islam. Today, Aurangzeb is seen by both his admirers and detractors as a devout, orthodox Muslim who prayed, fasted, and went to mosques, which means he could not possibly have been the kind of heterodox Muslim who went to sufi shrines, performed miracles, and was revered by Muslims and Hindus.
The kings of popular imagination today are a product of British colonial historiography, which pursued its own agenda of divide and rule by portraying Akbar as syncretic/secular and Aurangzeb as sectarian/religious. Muslim and Hindu intellectuals lined up behind their heroes accordingly. To Muslims, Akbar was overly swayed by Hindus and Aurangzeb was a staunch Muslim fighting to preserve his faith in a hostile landscape. To Hindu intellectuals and politicians, including Nehru, Akbar was a secular, non-denominational leader. In short, Hindu and Muslim nationalists began to imagine Akbar and Aurangzeb along colonial binaries. We have inherited these binaries, stripped medieval kings of their sacredness, and reduced them to hollowed-out figures that represent abstract principles in line with modern sentiments. There was no such thing as a secular king in Mughal India. Men such as Bhimsen could hold ambivalence without imploding precisely because of their orientation towards a divinely ordained king and their rootedness in a sacred geography. Understanding how kingship shaped the psyche can help us refashion our inheritance of the past and excavate older, more dilkusha ways of seeing kingship.
Taymiya R. Zaman is a writer and historian at the University of San Francisco. This article is a modified excerpt from her recent publication, “Nostalgia, Lahore, and the Ghost of Aurangzeb” in Fragments: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Ancient and Medieval Pasts.