Courtly culture of the Mughals

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


June 1, 2023

Courtly Culture Of The Mughals

Zoya Ansari recollects the quintessential Mughal trait

Courtly Culture Of The Mughals – Mughals’ was a very refined dynasty and greatly valued their dignity and royal status tremendously and were very touchy about the respect shown to them as the rulers. They were extremely conscious of their royal standing and took serious exception to any breach of protocol they had designed for their court. As Mughal was the first and only dynasty that ruled the subcontinent and were acknowledged to be royals descending from the families of Chenghis Khan and Amir Taimur, therefore were very proud of their ancestry. Keeping in view their exalted status the Mughals devised exact and dignified courtly culture evolved through an assertion of imperial authority and at times subtle resistance to it.
The king’s presence filled the whole empire and symbolic obeisance was due to him everywhere and the king was adamant for the fulfillment of his royal position, etiquette and protocol. The Mughal monarch never ignored ignorance of his royal privilege and strictly enforced all forms salutation at his court. His court was a very formal place and it was governed by strict rules of protocol that remained the basis of its existence.

It is recounted that Mughal Emperor Humayun returned to reclaim his empire with the Iranian help and he also brought with him the court rituals re-defining the position of the ruler vis-à-vis the nobility and aristocracy. He introduced Kournish and Taslim that were converted it into a highly institutionalised form when the receipt of an order of the Emperor stipulating that even food from his kitchen sent to him required the presenter to perform the ritual.

Kournish was always to be performed with the right hand and doing so with the left was a grave insult. It was described as a regulation regarding the Kournish and the Taslim that asserted that show of respect to the king is recognition of his being the source of peace and comfort for the subjects is obvious enough but the embedded meaning is more profound, for it teaches subjects true humility, essential for their spiritual well-being. Whereas some rulers had accepted the bending of the head as a sign of submission, Akbar had commanded the palm of the right hand to be placed upon the forehead and the head to be bent downwards.

Of Taslim it was mentioned that the regulation was that favoured servants place the back of their right hand on the ground and then raise it gently and as the person stands erect, he puts the palm of his hand upon the crown of his head. In this pleasing manner he makes a submission of himself. Taslim was Humayun’s creation which followed a playful accident with his son Akbar. Humayun gave his own large cap to the child who had to hold it on his head with the hand as he bent to do Kournish to express his gratitude. Humayun was pleased with the gesture and its form and adopted it as the manner of performing taslim.

Paibos implied kissing the king’s foot and was first introduced as part of Indian court culture by Sultan Balban although clearly it did not originate with him. Of Sassanian origin it is not clear whether it was confined to the court or was a routine observed in the harem as well. But it was commented that Humayun’s sisters and other ladies of the harem, begums, obtained the honour of kissing his feet notwithstanding. In the court, too, it is unclear if this performance was expected of everyone present; the proximity it allowed to the king’s person makes it likely as a reserved privilege, not an open access. Indeed, the mention of paibos is usually preceded by the term honour at least mildly suggesting its rarity.
When Jahangir’s son Khurram, later Shah Jahan, returned with the imperial nobles after a victorious campaign in the Deccan, the Emperor received them in a more than routine ceremony. The first to be allowed audience with him was the Khan-i-Jahan and was selected by the emperor for the honour of kissing his feet. On such an occasion, the Emperor would normally express his pleasure with the person by placing his hand on the courtier’s back. Aurangzeb too permitted his son Muazzam to kiss his feet. If the King was not sitting on the throne, the courtier’s submission to him could be indicated by his kissing the carpet on which the King might be sitting. Outside the court’s precincts, if the King were mounted, kissing the horse stirrup and his Majesty’s thigh would be adequate.

To these rituals signifying humility, Akbar added another that would elevate him to the status he was not too reluctant to claim, if only covertly: that of a divine entity. This was prostration, sajda, before him in court. Once again sajda has its history in the Sassanid, Byzantine and some Muslim polities, in all of which prostration was conferred as a special privilege on a select few and in India to Sultan Balban whose claim to divinity was far more audacious than Akbar’s. But since Balban’s death in 1286 the performance of sajda had lain in disuse. Akbar’s revival of it, softening it by calling it zaminbos, kissing the ground went along with his proclamation of Din-i Ellahi which had made him the head and spiritual guide of the members of the sect.

Sajda however ruffled the sensibilities of the hardliners among theologians and protests followed. Human beings owed prostration, total submission, to God alone not to another human being, regardless of his status and stature, they argued. Even though many among men have become inclined towards performing prostration and count it as a source of blessing upon blessing, since some of the perverse and dark-hearted men look upon prostration as man-worship, Akbar from practical wisdom ordered its discontinuation forbidding even his private attendants from performing it on days of public court
Jahangir, too, fancied himself the spiritual leader of the sect his father had founded and therefore continued with the prostration ritual. The resentment of the ulema even against private prostration was at last heeded. Between Kournish and sajda, the latter being the ritual of a more definitive surrender, the two stood in a hierarchy vis-a-vis one another. Indeed, Kournish came to be so identified with the King that it was performed even when his written commands, farmans or any of the Emperor’s ensigns were received anywhere within the boundaries of the empire, or when food was sent from his kitchen to the high nobles who stood guarding his palace by turns, or when any present was received from him.
Sajda was banished from the king’s public or private assemblies by Shah Jahan almost as the very first act after ascending the throne. Shah Jahan though kept some form of such distinction and while abolishing sajda, retained zaminbos, which too was terminated in his tenth regnal year, owing to its semblance to sajda. Every time when the favoured grandees bow down to perform it out of extreme loyalty, he stopped them because sajda is performed before God alone. This banishment was widely applauded and was soon forgotten as part of Mughal courtly culture. The Weekender


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