This article was published in Dawn, The Review, in August 2000.


Prince Salim, the would-be emperor Jahangir, is being taken to the gallows for rebelling against his father, the emperor Akbar. He turns around to face a crowd that has gathered, not to see the bloodsport, but out of devotion to the noble prince. “Remember this as my dying wish,” the prince addresses them. “Always take sides with the man of feeling rather than the man of power.” Having said that, he turns around and walks his way up to the gallows with dignity. Alas! This is Dilip Kumar, and not Jahangir.

Emperor Nuruddin Jahangir, the fourth crowned Mughal of India was a remarkable character from a human point of view. He was a man of lofty contradictions and a prince who refused to be anything other than his human self – staying true to his evils and his virtues in a remarkable manner. In the process he missed many lessons that he could have learnt from life. It could be said that he failed to grow up but there is something in his imperfection that evoked empathy, and it is probably more than a coincidence that no other Muslim king of India has triggered the imagination of so many poets, folk artists and dramatists as Jahangir has.

To begin with, Jahangir, or Prince Salim, as he was known in his youth, was a man without a central focus in life. He was the firstborn son (but not the only one) of the mightiest Indian emperor, Akbar the Great. He had a strange genetic history of liberalism, springing out of crossbreeding between religions. His father was born of a Sunni man and a Shia woman and in turn married a Hindu princess. Later, he invented something like a religion of his own without ever using his enormous political power to coerce people into accepting it. Thus, the religious identity, which is the first formative factor in a child’s life, could never play an important role in the psyche of Prince Salim. While Akbar remained a serious seeker of truth all his life, no matter how deviant, Prince Salim could never recognize the importance of any institution at all.

Being the son of the most powerful man on earth meant something to Salim that is very difficult to understand in an age like ours. He was sure of his inheritance as a course of nature. It was coming to him just as day follows night. But he was also aware, somewhere deep down, that he wasn’t suited to the role. He didn’t have the iron nerves of his father, who had carved the empire Salim was going to inherit one day. Salim’s obsession with art, especially painting and poetry, seems to have been his main gate for escape. He couldn’t grow up in political acumen, so he had to find some other means of telling himself that he nevertheless was a prince. But he did excel himself in understanding aesthetics once he chose it as his personal emblem of royalty.

The fact that Urfi, the legendary Persian poet of India was one of his earliest devotees should be taken as a hint of Salim’s natural talent for recognizing good poetry, for Urfi was known for his bad temper and tactless behaviour. Salim also used to boast about his understanding of painting by claiming that if several painters in his court were to complete a painting he would be able to point out the specific portions executed by each individual painter!

His obsession with beauty soon turned into a pleasure principle, whereby he could lose his nerves at the slightest hint of confrontation and betray his worst side in ruthless acts of cruelty. Once, when a servant was found guilty of treason he ordered him to be skinned alive in the fashion of ancient Persian emperors! It is said that Akbar literally shivered when he learnt about the incident. “How could I believe this!” Akbar is reported to have exclaimed, “I can never witness the slaughter of a goat, and this is our prodigy who orders humans to be executed in such manner!”

Akbar might not have had the nerve to do such things, but the fact that all three of his sons died of alcoholism may be just an indicator that strong trees are not ideal shelters for small shrubs growing under them. Akbar was too real to be true and yet too true to be ignored. The strongest reaction he evoked in those closest to him must have been an insatiable desire for escape.

We don’t know enough about the two younger sons’ relationship with their father, since they died too early. But what we know about Salim’s interaction with his father clearly suggests a love-hate relationship. Towards the end of Akbar’s reign, Salim stood up in an open rebellion and executed the best-loved companion of his father, Abul Fazl, the great genius of Persian literature in India. It is said that Akbar could never recover from this personal grief. Soon afterwards, Prince Salim surrendered and came running to his father’s lap. Unlike the stern Prithvi Raj of Mughal-i-Azam, the historical great Mughal didn’t order him to be sent to the gallows but merely imprisoned him for a few days in his own house (obviously a palace!).

At a political level, however, Akbar did get disappointed in his son and began looking for an alternate heir to the throne. His most obvious choice was Salim’s own son Khusrau, with Prince Khurram, another son of Salim, as a runner up.

Historical evidence is quite vague on the causes of Salim’s uprising. Obviously there is room for speculation, and two of most “popular” legends name two different women. One is Anarkali, the royal slave girl, and the other is Mehrunisa, who later became known as Nurjahan.

We don’t know if the story about Salim’s affair with Anarkali is true or not. But the earliest versions, irrespective of their authenticity, present a picture very different from what we have seen in the theatres. Anarkali, as the story goes, was a concubine of emperor Akbar who made the grave mistake of casting a sidelong look, probably with a smile, at Prince Salim while attending on the emperor. The emperor caught a glimpse in the mirror, and suspected that Salim had enlisted Anarkali in a plot against his life. That wasn’t far fetched either, since Akbar’s plans to disinherit Salim had become obvious by that time. The story tells us that Anarakali was buried alive in Lahore and when Salim finally came into power he built a decent tomb for her. Later generations found a Persian love couplet written on the alleged tomb of Anarkali in Lahore, and autographed by “majnoon Salim.”

It is true that even in his later days as an emperor, Salim was quite capable of making a public confession of his fondness for a woman, but if the story of Anarkali is true, then the most significant parts were the ones left out of the popular romance. Firstly, this wasn’t a teenage crush: Salim was roughly 35-years old when the incident is said to have happened. Thus, if the incident is true, it is a remarkable example of a middle aged prince acting like a hot-blooded adolescent and only confirms Akbar’s judgment upon Salim that he would never grow up. Secondly, Salim may never have intended to marry Anarkali let alone make her his queen. Akbar’s political interests had obliged Salim to marry four princesses at a very young age, and his personal quest for beauty had already landed him with a few hundred concubines in his harem. Whoever first recorded (or invented) the story of Anarakali was most certainly looking at it as a story about purely physical passion. Salim was one historical character who could give a deeper meaning to sexual desire even at the most physical level and without elevating it to the spiritual plain.

The case of Mehrunisa, however, is different. It is said that Prince Salim met her when he was young, and fell in love with her. The Persian beauty, however, was married away to an Afghan adventurer, apparently due to interference from Akbar. We haven’t been told why Akbar was opposed to this match, since one of the several brides he had already given to Salim also came from a similar social background as Mehrunisa. Nevertheless, as the story goes, Mehrunisa’s husband was killed a few years after Salim’s accession to the throne. A little later, they got married.

Mehrunisa was given the title of Nurjahan (actually, Nur-i-Jahan, or the light of the world), which was complimentary to Salim’s own royal title of ‘Jahangir’, or the one who seizes the world. Together, the two titles symbolized a wishful legend: it was as if Salim had grabbed the world like one mighty conqueror and found that its real worth lied in a woman of beauty! His affection for Nurjahan revealed itself in unthinkable excesses. Nurjahan would seat herself behind him in the court, mostly with her hand on his shoulder as an obvious gesture of moral support. Her name was inscribed on the coins, along with Jahangir’s, and the latter would openly state in public, “Go to Nurjahan Begum with your official applications. I have sold my empire to her for a cup of wine…”

No other king in a patriarchal society like that could have done all this and still hold respect in the eyes of his subjects. But the people had gotten used to Jahangir’s eccentricities by then.

The years between Jahangir’s accession and his marriage to Nurjahan (1605-1611), present a very different side of his character. For a short while in his life, he took up the role of a shrewd statesman and played it rather well for his own interests. He ensured his accession to the throne against Akbar’s will (who had probably nominated Khusro as his heir) by enlisting the most fundamental Sunni faction of the court, who were pitted against the alliance of the Shias and Hindu Rajputs. Once on the throne, he decided to behave like a king, and actually overdid that as well. He declared his famous twelve edicts, which were politically very correct. Some of them were token gestures for some kind of “Islamization”, such as a ban on the production and consumption of alcohol within his empire – of course, it didn’t imply restriction on his own alcoholic habits as the king was above the law. He also forbade mutilation as an official punishment (obviously trying to correct his personal image), and declared a small reduction in his own daily consumption of alcohol. However, his most representative act was the installation of a golden “chain of justice” which was tied to a bell near the king’s private chambers. It was announced that anyone seeking reprieve against injustice could call upon the king at any odd hour. This melodramatic gesture earned him the desired affect: “Jahangiri insaaf” remains a figure of speech in some people’s language even today. Ironically, the golden chain that earned him an instant fame as a just ruler was also an ancient tradition of the same Persian emperors from whom he had learnt his methods of cruelty.

Thus, Jahangir put in a lot of personal effort to live up to the role of an emperor in those early years. Fortunately for him, Akbar had left a stable empire and all that was required from Jahangir was that he put up a good show. In that Jahangir couldn’t be surpassed, and as if the superfluous gesture of the golden chain wasn’t enough, he also began keeping a royal journal, or Jahangirnameh, recording each of his pompous gestures in an even more pompous language. Copies of this journal were often given out as a sign of the king’s personal affection towards a dignitary.

It can be imagined that the efforts of living up to an emperor’s image dried away most of Jahangir’s energies and probably his personal happiness too. Of energy he found an endless resource in his third son, Prince Khurram, who should stand out as the most cunning figure in the gallery of the Mughals. Throughout the final deadlock between his own father and Akbar the Great, Khurram had kept himself popular with both the parties, and when Jahangir finally came to the throne, Khurram patiently waited for his own chance of nomination as his father’s heir. He had the qualities that his father had desired to see in himself but had never succeeded: resilience, patience and self-control. Quite characteristically, Jahangir gave him the title of Shahjahan (more accurately, “Shah-i-Jahan”, or the king of the world). Following the typical symbolism of “Jahan”, this title symbolized the fact that the “world” Jahangir had “seized”, was being given out to Khurram to rule upon. The titles give us an insight into Jahangir’s psyche. Being the man of excesses that he was, he could seldom speak in terms of anything less than “the entire world,” and quite characteristically of his relentless nature, he was actually giving away his burden to Nurjahan while making a promise of it to Khurram. When Nurjahan switched her favours upon Khurram’s younger brother Shaharyar, Khurram finally called it enough.

Khurram’s rebellion against Jahangir was not an adolescent adventure unlike Jahangir’s own revolt against Akbar. This one was a tactful blow upon the dignified image of Jahangir as a peaceful and composed monarch. It’s true that Khurram met several defeats at the hands of the royal forces, and his title was changed by Jahangir from Shahjahan to “Bedaulat”, or the fortune-less. Yet, Khurram’s general Mahabat Khan, at one point, kidnapped the king, the queen and the entire royal entourage and held them hostage for quite a while. The lesson Jahangir had avoided to learn all his life now became evident to everyone who had the eyes to see: a king cannot rule through borrowed strength and still be a king.

It is unlikely that Jehangir might have learnt his lesson. By this time he had become an alcoholic, taking pride in his special brand of liquor: a cocktail of strong spirits and opium, “the strongest wine to be served anywhere in the world,” as he described it in his royal journal. He died of alcohol excesses and a heart attack in 1627 AD. It is said that the immediate cause of his death was provoked by the death of a young servant on his summer trip to Kashmir. This young servant was trying to gather game for the king when he went a bit too far over the cliff and fell off. Jehangir, who could watch the most inhuman tortures performed on his enemies without as much as blinking his eye, could not suffer to see a faithful servant meet his death in his service. He fell into a stupor and never recovered.