Zoya Ansari describes light-hearted
aspect of the Mughal era
The Mughal Empire was a huge enterprise ruled by kindly rulers who firmly believed in keeping their subjects happy and fulfilled. The Mughal ethos was essentially light-hearted and jovial having a strong belief in the value of entertainment and excursion. It encouraged multiple forms of extracurricular activities and invited people to wholeheartedly participate in them. Mughal rule was very flexible and allowed multifarious entertainments to people. It supported the idea that a merry populace is a natural ally to a brooding community. The royal household, therefore, ensured that public entertainment should go on unhindered and did not hesitate to sponsor it.
The Mughal ruling class was itself very fond of engaging in interesting pursuits with the aim to provide them and their large households with attractive engagements and made it a point to encourage them to participate in them. The trickle-down effects of the healthy and attractive practices to relax and enjoy were enormous and the result was that all segments of the population irrespective of their age brackets were able to participate in them. The process and practice of mirthful activities were extremely varied as was quite obvious keeping in view the vastness of the subcontinent but the Mughal examples were so overarching that they had a deep impact on almost all lighthearted activities in the wider society.
The pastimes in vogue during Mughal times were similar to those commonly found today but were different in nature. Chess and playing cards were the most popular indoor games and were enjoyed by the rich and the poor alike. The various types of tiger play and the games of sheep and goats were favorites with the rural population. The Mughal pack of cards consisted of 12 suits of 12 cards each making a total of 144 with different kinds of kings and followers. The names of the last seven suits were renamed by Akbar and reconstituted and as distinguished from the current system of cards, they were all in pictures; the highest represented the King, the second-highest, a vizier and the rest were followers from one to ten. The game was quite popular with the Mughal emperors many of whom were expert players.
The game of chess was equally popular with the emperors, nobles, and commoners alike. Akbar is said to have played the game of living chess with slave girls as pieces moving on the chequered pavement of his court at Fatehpur Sikri. Sometimes international matches were held and bets offered. The game of chaupar was quite popular among the people but no ready-made tables for the game were available in those days. The Mughals, it appears, were not familiar with the game as it existed in India till the time of Akbar who framed special rules and regulations. It was a favorite game of Zaib-un-Nisa, the eldest daughter of Aurangzeb, who spent most of her spare time playing chaupar with her girlfriends.
Nard or backgammon was introduced into India by the Muslims while Pachisi was an ancient Hindu game enjoyed frequently by Akbar. The boards of this game were marked out on a marble square in a quadrangle in the Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri. These games had a vast following and the Mughal ruling class encouraged and helped spread them. Of the outdoor diversions, hunting, animal fights and Polo (chaugan) were the privileges of the few while wrestling was enjoyed by one and all. Of all the Mughal emperors Akbar liked polo the most and even invented illuminated balls which made the playing of games on dark nights possible. The most famous polo-playing fields were Fatehpur Sikri and Agra. The game of hockey, too, is referred to in contemporary records.
Wrestling and boxing were my favorite pastimes during the Mughal Age. Akbar was much fond of boxing and kept a large number of Persian and Central Asian boxers at the court. This was taken as a competitive sport and was played by many who enjoyed playing and watching them. Horse racing was a source of entertainment prevalent among the high-class Mughal nobles. The Mughal era was an exceptional time for horse breeding and the usage of horses was prevalent in many fields of activity. Martial sports like archery and swordsmanship had a special fascination for the people; matches and contests were held and rewards were offered.
Hunting was one of the best means of amusement and recreation during the Mughal times and was indulged in by the king, nobles, and the commoners. The costly and dangerous expeditions were the privilege of the few and the quarry consisted of elephants, lions, tigers, buffaloes, and wild goats. Lion hunting was exclusively reserved for the emperor. Elephant hunting, too, could not be indulged without the special permission of the emperor. Akbar invented a special kind of hunting called qamargha hunt which became very popular with the Mughal emperors who took a lively interest in the game. The shooting of birds was a common hobby and a source of entertainment for all segments of the population. Fishing was in vogue during the Mughal times both as a recreation and as a profession. The use of nets for catching fish was not totally unknown but professional fishermen did not have recourse to it.
Animal fight was one of the popular amusements and recreations of the age. The people had to content themselves with the less expensive fighting of goats, rams, cocks, stags, antelopes, dogs, and bulls to entertain their friends with youngsters favoring fight among bulbuls and sometimes quails. The emperors and the nobles amused themselves with costly and dangerous combats between elephants, tigers, deer, cheetahs, boars, leopards, bulls, and other wild beasts. Cock-fighting was very common among the higher middle class. Ishq-Bazi or pigeon flying was primarily a sport of common folk. Nobles, too, enjoyed it and brought excellent pigeons from foreign countries like Turan and Iran to be trained for the game.
Among other pastimes, reference may be made to public poetic renderings, magic shows, acrobatics, and dramatic performances. Poetic renditions were highly valued and the Mughal court culture was very refined and some of its refinement rubbed on the populace. One important excursion was known as the carnival was common to both the communities. Many carnivals were supported by the imperial government which provided lodging and boarding for the participants. The Mughals actually encouraged such social entertainment occasions and sent high officials to participate in them.
Visiting Sufi shrines was also a formidable excursion for the people and the Mughal government facilitated such events. In fact, many shrines were frequented by the Mughal emperors who shared their devotion with the people. Visiting shrines was recognized as a regular ritual in the lives of all and sundry. Annual gatherings at these shrines provided much-needed outings to people and the Mughal government ensured that they were well taken care of the relevant department of the Mughal government-provided financial assistance along with assigning jagirs for the upkeep of the shrines. Many high-ranking Mughal mansabdars facilitated the gatherings at Sufi shrines and some of them were considered highly devoted. Some Sufi shrines provided financial assistance to the followers which in turn increased the number of devotees in regular events. TW