Zoya Ansari describes an iconic event
Mughals mostly kept their domestic life private with the result that news in this respect came out through informal channels and was mostly considered bazaar gossip. It is precisely due to this reason that the travelogues of foreign visitors were taken with a pinch of salt. The official writers were understandably circumspect and mostly wrote what was declared kosher by the royal family and court circles. Any information on private affairs was scanty and the readers could only know anything much later after a reign ended. The knowledge about marital affairs within the royal family hardly became public when they materialized and information about them came at a much later stage. It is in this backdrop that the marriage of Shahjahan’s son Dara Shikoh was performed publicly indicating the growing confidence of the royal family about their rule and pointing out that Mughals were gradually trying to gel with the wider citizenry.
The marriage of Dara Shikoh was fabulous and he enjoyed great royal favor till the battle of succession later in the reign of Shahjahan. The unfortunate consequences faced by Dara Shikoh during the war of succession gave a tragic ring to his marriage and his happy conjugal life with his devoted wife Nadira. Dara Shikoh’s fate took a painful twist and his tragic end along with the travails faced by Nadira became part of the folklore this prince still commands tremendous attention and debate about his eclectic attitude never ends.
There were inherent contradictions in this marriage as both Shahjahan and his wife Arjumand Bano had decided to avoid the prevailing practice of having marital relations with the non-Muslim ruling class and married his eldest son and heir apparent into the Mughal family. Keeping in view that this change of policy began with the broadminded Dara is ironic indeed because the high imperial ranks were closing in against inter-communal marriages with Shahjahan keeping a beard and all his sons following in his footsteps. Moreover, Shahjahan was the least married of the Mughal emperors and remained loyal to Arjumand Bano till her death in childbirth. This tradition was passed on to Dara who was completely devoted to his wife.
Actually, it was Dara’s mother, Mumtaz Mahal, who suggested the union between her eldest son and the daughter of Jahangir’s late brother Parvez. Marriage between first cousins had become less common in the imperial family after Akbar had objected to the custom but Nadira’s impeccable pedigree made her an exemplary match. She was of doubly royal lineage, as her mother was the daughter of Sultan Murad, Akbar’s second son from a concubine. True, Nadira’s father had been Shahjahan’s rival for the throne but Parvez, unlike Khusrau, had conveniently brought about his own death through excessive drinking. The marriage however could not take place during the lifetime of Arjumand Bano and materialized twenty months after her death. The marriage took place in Agra and was the first public occasion of the Mughal rule.
In November 1632, Dara Shikoh’s family made the formal procession, laden with gifts, including rare jewels, rich fabrics, and one lakh in cash to ask for Nadira’s hand. Afzal Khan, a high-ranking noble hailing from Persia who had been close to Shah Jahan while the latter was still a prince went with Mumtaz Mahal’s mother and sister as well as with Shahjahan’s eldest daughter Jahanara who was entrusted the management of the family affairs after passing of her mother. A host of most important Mughal officials accompanied the entourage including Sadiq Khan, paymaster general, the very rich Mir Jumla, overseer of the imperial household, and Musawi Khan, head of the judiciary and charitable endowments.
The marriage festivities began in full swing three months later in February 1633. The expenditure was duly recorded and it turned out that it was the most expensive wedding ever performed costing an astronomical thirty-two lakh rupees. Of this, ten lakhs came from Nadira Begum’s family, who must have felt obligated to contribute as much as they possibly could. The gifts alone were worth over sixteen lakhs financed with the money that Mumtaz Mahal had set aside for her firstborn’s wedding and from what Jahanara had contributed consisting of rare jewels and bejeweled weapons costing seven and a half lakh rupees and materials for gifting to the emperor’s courtiers worth a lakh and a half rupees.
The procession was undertaken on elephant howdahs of pure gold, umbrellas embellished with pearl ropes costing seventy-seven thousand rupees and a handsome sum of ten thousand rupees was set aside solely for strewing and scattering among the public. A further six lakhs and forty thousand went toward an array of items that a prince and a princess might need for their household such as gold implements, both enameled and plain, silver vessels and utensils, gold-embroidered napkins with gem-studded flowers stitched onto them, varicolored carpets and velvet tents woven and embroidered with gold. Plenty of animals were presented including horses of all types—Arabian, Iraqi, Turkish as well as Kacchi horses from western India.
It probably was the first time that these lavish gifts were widely displayed artfully by Jahanara in the hall of a public audience in Agra. This hall, with its forty pillars, was an opulent wooden structure that Shahjahan built, painted in green and gold and its pillars were like cypress trees. First, the women of the palace were given an opportunity to see the presents in seclusion from the men, and then all the princes, nobles, and other courtiers attended the gift-viewing celebration. Later, Shahjahan made sure that this splendor was recorded for posterity and it was duly done in Padsha-nama penned by celebrated biographer Lahori along with illustrations done double spread portraying the staggering quantities of the presents as well as the rows of elephants and horses flanking a mass of men bearing trays.
The night before the actual wedding the henna ceremony took place in the Agra Fort’s glittering ghusl khana (bathhouse) built by Sher Shah Suri who used to conduct affairs of the state while getting his hair dry after a bath. The bride’s family sent across trays heaped with henna and the ceremony was scintillating brilliantly lighted by candles, lamps, torches, and lanterns. It was reported that almost one million lamps were kindled. Music filled the air for the first time since Mumtaz Mahal’s death amidst a gigantic display of fireworks illuminating the riverbanks, covering an area of at least half a mile in length. Meanwhile, following the custom, the palace ladies, concealed behind a curtain, applied henna to Dara Shikoh’s hands and feet as well as to the fingertips of the elegant guests which they then bound with gold handkerchiefs.
The next afternoon, Dara Shikoh’s brothers, Shah Shuja, Aurangzeb, and Murad Baksh, along with their maternal grandfather Asaf Khan and a host of nobles visited the bridegroom in his house. They then took him in a procession for an audience with his father in Agra’s forty-pillared hall. Shahjahan gave Dara Shikoh a number of gifts, including a special robe, a gem-studded dagger, and sword, a string of pearl and ruby beads, horses, and an elephant. It was only after midnight that the actual marriage ceremony was performed. The qazi also announced the dower, a necessary condition of the Muslim marriage contract according to which Nadira was to receive five lakhs just as Arjumand had done when she married Shahjahan. With that, the wedding was solemnized amidst the loud noise of congratulations and the sound of celebratory drums. TW
Zoya Ansari has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense