Suman K. Sharma
The year 1664 is drawing to a close. Forty-six year old Emperor Abul Muzaffar Mohiuddin Mohammed Aurangzeb Alamgir is firmly in the saddle to hold unquestioned sway from Patna to Kabul and Kashmir to Madurai. He has put behind him such drastic actions as toppling of the reign of his father Shahjehan, the ex-ruler’s incarceration in the Agra fort and the effective elimination of three of his brothers, their sons and one of his own sons from the scene. Recuperating, however, from a near fatal disease in Delhi’s Red Fort, Aurangzeb is not in the best of his health. Princess Roshan Ara Begum, his favourite younger sibling, persuades him to embark on a trip to Kashmir for a change of air. Astrologers are summoned to work out a sayat – auspicious date and time – for the start of journey. Among the Emperor’s followers is a French adventurer named Francois Bernier. Let us ride himpigggyback to get a first-hand experience of the royal tour to India’s paradise on earth.
But would Bernier (1625-1688) have free access to the Grand Mughal’s establishment? There should be little doubt on this account. For twelve years he has been Aurangzeb’s personal physician. Can anyone get closer to the Sovereign than that? It is a different story that in the name of professional qualifications, ‘Doctor’ Bernier possesses only a three months’ diploma in medicine and is not authorized to practise in his own land. But why should we care? Here, in India, our host has unrestricted access to the person of someone who is the lord and master of one fourth of the world’s population! Bernier is also a protégé of Danishmand Khan, Aurangzeb’s foreign minister and governor of Delhi. Another qualification that this widely travelled man possesses is his canny intelligence and concise language that he uses to convey his observations to the posterity. In fact, it is his Travels in the Moghal Empire that would serves us as our ticket to the historical sojourn.
Preparations for the 18-month long trip delay us for a couple of days. Bernier, a 150 mohur-a- month staffer of the royal court, ranks with a 2-horse cavalry officer (in Mughal hierarchy, a person’s status is reckoned on the basis of the number of horses he is supposed to have at his disposal), he should be decently equipped and accoutered. He acquires a strong Persian camel, two Turkoman horses, a groom, a cook and another servant to walk before his horse carrying a flagon of water; buys tentage, clothes, three bagfuls of utensils, provisions and so forth. The bag and baggage is put in a large bag, which is further secured in a very big and strong double bag made of leathern thongs. The whole thing has become so unwieldy that it takes four strong men to place it on the back of the camel made to sit on its haunches. We embark on the journey at last. Danishmand Khan has been sending message after message to Bernier to join him without further delay.
Passing through the lanes of Delhi we are astonished to see that the city wears a ghostly look, with hardly a man in sight. It transpires that most Delhites have gone away in their Emperor’s trail who left the city precisely at 3 o’ clock in the afternoon of 6th December, 1664, adhering to the sayat pronounced by the soothsayers.
But it seems that arrangements for the royal jamboree are still incomplete as the Alamgir has to spend the following six days in his resort at Shalimar and another two days on the road. The first major halt, Lahore, is 263 miles (423 kilometers) away, about fifteen-day journey. Thanks to the hindsight, you know it would take us more than two months to reach there. The four-fold time lag still remains a remarkable feat of logistics. Consider the numbers first. If Bernier has three followers, the Emperor’s followers, number anywhere between a lakh and three lakhs fifty thousand – comprising thirty-five thousand strong cavalry bodyguard, ten thousand infantry, heavy artillery, light artillery, ameers, umrahs, mansabdars, lesser officers of the court, the haram, maids-in-waiting, eunuchs, families of the soldiers, banias, servants, grooms, camel riders, mahavats, sundry camp followers – that explains why the city of Delhi was left empty when we left it. Add to this the mammoth brass guns, light artillery pieces, other weapons and ammunition, tentage, baggage, equipment, the royal bazaar that has to be hauled on countless elephants, camels, mules and men-porters.
Then there is the system of paishkhanas. From the Emperor himself down to the lowest of mansabdars, no one in authority countenances the least discomfort or a breach of the set routine, whether they are in the capital or on the road. Aurangzeb considers it his kingly duty to hold durbar in aam-khas and ghusl deliberations every single day, and it is mandatory on the part of all officers to be in attendance or forfeit a day’s pay for every absence. There he sits on his takhte-rawdn – field throne. He is a handsome man with large eyes on an intelligent face, full bodied, but without an extra ounce, resplendent in his royal splendor. His insistence on punctilious adherence to court routine necessitates not one but – hold your breath – two sets of camps identical to each other to the minutest details. While the monarch and his followers are in residence at one camp, a paishkhana is put in place at the next stage of the journey and when His Majesty chooses to leave the place, the camp is wound up and carried forward to second next stage as the paishkhana.
The royal camp is a city by itself spread over an area of a square mile. After His Majesty’s quarters are set up in all their gold and brocade dazzle dot in the centre of the location, and the ranking personages assigned their tents in accordance with their status, the remaining space is left for the common followers. Even persons with some influence like our own friend Bernier have to fend for themselves. It is a free for all – requiring brute force and persuasive skills in equal measure to find a suitable plot to pitch one’s tent. At night, a hundred-foot high Aakashdiya – lamp in the sky – guides the stray wayfarers to the camp.
As always, food is no problem for the high and mighty. For the ameers and the like it comes from the royal kitchen. Bernier himself thrives on the generosity of his agha, Danishmand Khan, who makes sure that the firang is provided with the best of everything. But everyone else is not that lucky. Eatables from the bazaar are unpalatable and gritty (don’t trust too much in all that talk of the Mughlai dishes – those are for the elite). Best option is to buy dry rations and cook your own food. The staple fare here is khichri, which in the evocative words of Bernier, is a mess of rice and other vegetables, over which, when cooked, (is poured) boiled butter. Take dahi also, it will keep your tummy out of trouble.
Potable water is a luxury (forget your Aquafina or Bisleri bottles – you are a 17th century traveller on the Grand Trunk Road). His Majesty and his courtiers take nothing but purest of Gangajal, which is cooled with shora – saltpetre (potassium nitrate). But how about us? Look at that servant of Bernier’s who walks ahead of his horse with a surahi in his hands. The tin container holds Gangajal, courtesy of Danishmand Khan again. The servant has instructions to keep the red cotton cloth wrapped round the surahi constantly wet so that the moisture would keep the water cool inside and keep off the dust from entering the container. It is a pity that so many of our co-travellers are sick with Guinea worms and other infestations as they have to slack their thirst with murky water that they chance upon on the highway.
We reach Lahore on 25 February 1665. It is a prominent city with lofty buildings. The Emperor goes hunting and holds darbars. There is much bustle in the region and in exactly a week, we start off for the next leg of the journey towards Bhimber (now in PoK). It is getting hotter and the only generous quantities of lemonade can prevent a sun-stroke.
Going through all the travails of the journey and literally eating the dust on the way, you cannot help wondering why you came here at all. Bernier might have been under a compulsion. But like you, he had to satisfy his curiosity as well – the curiosity of an outsider. Besides, there were other compensations as well. He could not have witnessed such a great pomp anywhere else as travelling with the Great Mughal. And then there was the attraction of the Emperor’s haram on the move. The lofty elephants, the razzle-dazzle of gold, the adornments of the grand ladies and their escort of eunuchs, maids and other female servants – it is a spectacle that far exceeds the imagination of a Bollywood or a Hollywood film producer…But be cautioned you men with roving eyes. In Bernier’s own words –
Truly, it is with difficulty that these ladies can be approached, and they are almost inaccessible to the sight of man. Woe to any unlucky cavalier, however exalted in rank, who, meeting the procession, is found too near. Nothing can exceed the insolence of the tribes of eunuchs and footmen which he has to encounter, and they eagerly avail themselves of any such opportunity to beat a man in the most unmerciful manner. I shall not easily forget being once surprised in a similar situation, and how narrowly I escaped the cruel treatment that many cavaliers have experienced : but determined not to suffer myself to be beaten and perhaps maimed without a struggle, I drew my sword, and having fortunately a strong and spirited horse, I was enabled to open a passage, sword in hand, through a host of assailants, and to dash across the rapid stream which was before me.
Travelling at the bone-breaking speed of 12 miles (about 20 km) a day under a relentless sun, with blisters on his body, the European in Bernier curses the day he embarked on the journey. We arrive at Bhimber, 72 miles from Lahore, in the second week of March. From here, the first halt on the foothills leading to the Valley, the riff raff will have to stay back, and only those with assigned duties will be allowed to proceed further. For His Majesty has ordained that the paradise on earth would not be over-crowded.
But thanks to Monsieur Bernier, we would go all the way to Kashmir in Aurangzeb’s train, following the Mughal Route.
Suman K. Sharma