Zoya Ansari looks at highly
sophisticated courtly rituals
The Imperial Mughal court was rated as one of the ideal imperial courtly formations and its foundations was so firmly established that they became the role model for all following governance patterns. Mughal court practices evolved over time and comprised multiple governance patterns adopted both from within the practices prevalent in the subcontinent as well as influences coming from beyond the borders. True to the prevailing theory of kingship, the courtly ethos revolved around the person of the ruler and there was no distinction discernible in his personal and official existence. As was the need the court was a stickler for rigidity of routine and worked like clockwork.
The strong functional aspect of the Mughal court was based upon the movement of the emperor and the four successive rulers from Akbar to Aurangzeb adhered to the rigours of protocol to the letter and maintained high level of energy and vigour. The routine of the Mughal court was designed with a ritualized existence in which the preeminence of the emperor always was paid due attention to and he was served promptly and respectfully and was venerated and respected by all and they were eager to fulfill his will.
The content of royal court of the Mughal Empire contained various aspect of Persian and Central Asian attributes and it was essentially a combination of tribal mode of association and sophistication considered essential for observation of authority. As was appropriate the court focused on the sovereign, mirrored his status as the heart of society. Whenever he appeared, which was three times a day and once a night, his courtiers celebrated him with great joy and flattering. Its centrepiece was therefore the throne which gave physical form to the function of the sovereign as the central figure. This glory was required to be manifested for claiming exalted status and commanding authority.
In the Mughal dispensation the emperor was the fountain of all temporal authority and to some his authority bordered the celestial, therefore he was supposed to outshine any other existence. In court, status was determined by spatial proximity to the emperor. The placement accorded to the emperor also reflected the position accorded to a courtier for the simple reason that he basked in reflected glory of the emperor and his proximity to the imperial authority was a sign of his importance in the eyes of the emperor.
Since the emperor was the venerated person, therefore, meeting him was a privilege to be duly acknowledged by presenting him with a gift. A courtier never approached the emperor empty handed and he offered gifts of variable value that the emperor accepted in part or full depending upon the relationship he maintained with the courtier concerned. In diplomatic relations, gifts were regarded as a sign of honour and respect. Ambassadors performed the important function of negotiating treaties and relationships between competing political powers. In such a context gifts had an important symbolic role.
The fulcrum of the functioning of court was the emperor whose working day began at sunrise with personal religious prayers and devotions and then appeared on the outer balcony known as Jahroka-e-darshan to show his glimpse to his people. Below, a crowd of people including soldiers, merchants, craftsmen, peasants and women with sick children waited for a view of the emperor. Aurangzeb abolished this tradition considering it to be tribalistic in nature and against Islamic decorum. Jharoka-e-darshan was introduced by Akbar with the objective of broadening the acceptance of the imperial authority as part of popular faith but that was abolished by Aurangzeb who termed the practice as un-Islamic.
After spending an hour at the Jharoka, the emperor walked to the public hall of audience known as Diwan-e-Aam to conduct the primary business of his government. State officials presented reports and made requests. Two hours later, the emperor proceeded to Diwan-e-Khaas to hold private audiences and discuss confidential matters of the state. Here high level intelligence reports sent by the sting of reporters stationed at all important places in the Empire were discussed and decisions taken accordingly. Also in Diwan-e-Khaas, high ranking ministers of state placed their petitions before him and tax officials presented their accounts. Occasionally, the emperor viewed the works of highly reputed artists or building plans of architects.
On special occasions such as the anniversary of accession to the throne, Nauroze, Eid, Shab-i Barat and Hindu festivals the court was full of life. Perfumed candles set in rich holders and palace walls festooned with colourful hangings made a tremendous impression on visitors. The most festive occasion was however a weeklong celebration of Nauroze, the Iranian New Year on the vernal equinox, during which the emperor specially visited the Meena Bazaar organised by royal ladies and ladies of the aristocracy. Other royal events included the solar and lunar birthdays of the monarch and on his birthdays, the monarch was weighed against various commodities which were then distributed in charity.
Once the emperor sat on the throne, no one was permitted to move from his position or to leave without permission. Social control in court society was exercised through carefully defining in full detail the forms of address, courtesies and speech which were acceptable in court. The slightest infringement of etiquette and protocol was taken note of and punishment was awarded on the spot. Mughal court was very stringent in observing its routine and even personnel were appointed to smell the courtiers for determining they had consumed alcohol before attending the court.
An important factor was the forms of salutation to the ruler indicated the courtier’s position in the hierarchy: deeper prostration represented higher status. The highest form of submission was sajda or complete prostration. It was a tribal custom homogenized by Persian practices that was followed initially by the Mughal emperors but under Shah Jahan who was tilted towards Islamic patterns of governance, these rituals were replaced with chahar taslim and zaminbos. The protocols governing conduct of diplomatic envoys at the Mughal court were equally explicit. An ambassador presented to the Mughal emperor was expected to offer an acceptable form of greeting either by bowing deeply, kissing the ground or else follow the Persian custom of clasping one’s hands in front of the chest.
Mughal protocol demanded grandiose titles for the ruler such as Abu ul-Muzaffar Shahab ud-Din Mohammad Sahib Qiran Thani Shah Jahan Padshah Ghazi. The emperor in turn granted high-sounding titles to his nobles and these high-sounding and rhythmic titles created an atmosphere of awe in the audience when announced by ushers. Plenty of emphasis was placed on announcing the titles and special care was taken to pronounce them correctly. Mughal coins carried the full title of the reigning emperor with real protocol. The royal protocol was fully observed when emperor granted titles to men of merit and most men cherished such titles. The granting of title was a mark of emperor’s recognition and subsequent favour. The title Asaf Khan for one of the highest ministers originated with Asaf, the legendary minister of the prophet king Suleman. Other awards included the robe of honour, khalat but very highly valued garment was known as khalat-e-fakhira or a garment once worn by the emperor and imbued with his benediction. Jeweled ornaments were often given as gifts by the emperor who was rated as one of the richest monarchs of his times. TW