books · history

The Serpent’s Tooth by Alex Rutherford

Alex Rutherford’s The Mughul Empire series is a wonderful chronicle of the Mughul dynasty in India, starting with Babur and all the way to Aurangzeb. Although I haven’t reviewed the other books in this series, I recently read The Serpant’s Tooth, which follows Shah Jahan’s story.

Warning: Contains spoilers if you’re not familiar with the Mughul empire’s history. But you can read this for a summarized version of Shah Jahan’s life as an emperor.

The Mughul emperors never had it easy; despite a vast treasury and lavish tastes, they were forever plagued with rivalries, both within and without their kingdom. Shah Jahan’s rule was no different. Favoured greatly by his grandfather Akbar, Shah Jahan or Khusrau had sour relations with his father Jahangir. When finally Shah Jahan did ascend the throne after dealing with a series of bitter setbacks, it seemed as though the Mughul empire was set for a period of magnificence. Shah Jahan had an eye for beauty and a great love for grandiose. He loved architecture and was a generous and open-hearted ruler who enjoyed spending.

The Love Story and Taj Mahal

Shah Jahan’s rule was meant to run into chaos however, with the death of his wife Mumtaz.  Although Shah Jahan had other wives, he had sworn to Mumtaz that he would never have any children with any of them. Shah Jahan had fathered fourteen children with Mumtaz, seven of whom survived to adulthood. Mumtaz died during the birth of her youngest daughter, in a pool of unending blood that consumed her. Her death unhinged Shah Jahan, driving him to the edge of insanity. It is said that he never truly recovered from Mumtaz’s death, choosing instead to dedicate a large part of his life to creating an edifice with which to honour her.

The Shah Jahan-Mumtaz love story is an epic tale of endless proportions, etched forever in our memories by Shah Jahan’s magnificent tribute to his wife  through the Taj Mahal. In a time when polygamy was the norm, especially for Islamic emperors who kept huge harams, Shah Jahan’s relationship with Mumtaz Mahal was progressively monogamous and they shared a deep love which was spiritual and emotional as well as physical. The brilliance of Taj Mahal stands tall as a symbol of love even today.

Shah Jahan’s grief overwhelmed him but his love for Mumtaz overpowered his drive for existence. He lost all the ambitions he had acquired during his happy reign with Mumtaz at his side. He continued to satiate his physical hunger with a series of concubines but nothing ever replaced the hollowness Mumtaz’s death left in his heart. Shah Jahan’s life became a shadow of his love for Mumtaz.

His Children

Shah Jahan’s ascent to the king’s seat had cost his half-brothers their lives but Shah Jahan believed this could never happen between his sons since they had all been borne by the same mother. However, in a kingdom where any son could be the king, even the smallest of differences between siblings could flare up into matters of life and death.

Shah Jahan openly preferred his eldest son Dara, who was kind, scholarly and tolerant. Drawn towards Sufism and open to all faiths, Dara was Shah Jahan’s clear favourite. Shah Jahan’s eldest daughter Jahanara shared her idealogies with Dara and thus had his support as well. Unbeknownst  to them however, clear differences were starting to emerge amidst the younger sons, most noticeably Aurangzeb.

Shah Jahan liked to keep his eldest son close to him in the capital, preferring to hand over his districts to the younger sons to settle disputes, lead battles and sate riots. As a result, Aurangzeb had plenty of chances to gain good military insight and openly win favours and form allegiances and alliances. Aurangzeb was a stringent follower of Islam with little scope for mercy or tolerance towards other religions. He clearly despised his elder brother’s idealogies and the special place he held in their father’s heart. Aurangzeb was also scheming and intelligent enough to keep his ambitions close. In contrast, Dara was unassuming and took hi heritage for granted since he knew he was more or less destined for the throne.

With these seeds sown, Shah Jahan could not have foreseen that when he would take  ill his younger sons would rise in united mutiny against Dara and him. Claiming that the emperor was too ill to handle matters and was clearly being misled by Dara, Aurangzeb drew his battle sword out in open revolt. He wanted to be ruler and enlisted the help of his young brothers with promises of prizes after winning.

Enraged and recovering, Shah Jahan dispatched his massive armies with Dara to fight the brothers. Dara had the advantage in numbers but his lack of military experience proved to make the battle against Aurangzeb one of equal footing. Apparently during their biggest and most decisive battle of Samugarh, thirteen kilometers from Agra, Dara got down from his elephant at a very important moment when the tide was in his favour. Seeing the empty hawda, his army panicked and began to retreat which was the chink in the armor that Aurangzeb needed. Dara was forced to flee the battle and Agra. Armed with his father’s sealed letter he decided to seek help elsewhere.

While Aurangzeb amassed armies and formed alliances, Dara met betrayal at every end. Finally he ended up in Aurangzeb’s custody, along with his sons. Aurangzeb disposed off his younger brothers and imprisoned his father and sister Jahanara, refusing them even the smallest of luxuries. However, Dara’s charities and liberal views had made him very famous with the common men of the capital. Giving way to his deep-seated insecurities, Aurangzeb finally had Dara executed after greatly humiliating him.

Last Days

His father Shah Jahan spent his last days in a prison in the Agra Fort overlooking the Taj Mahal. Aurangzeb sent Dara’s severed head to Shah Jahan and expressed his embittered and suppressed emotions through a series of harsh actions against his father. Denied his wish of being allowed to roam in the gardens of Taj Mahal and feel close to his wife, he chose instead to longingly admire the structure that was his tribute toh Mumtaz from afar. Shah Jahan, it is said, had a desire to create a structure complimenting the Taj Mahal but in black marble on the river bank opposite it but it was not to be. When he finally passed away, Aurangzeb had him buried in the Taj Mahal next to his wife. Regardless of what Shah Jahan had intended his own tomb to be, he had never wanted to be laid in the Taj Mahal, which had been meant for Mumtaz alone. His grave is the only unsymmetrical part of an otherwise perfected structure; which I think is sadly ironical.

Additional Notes: 

Although most of what I’ve written above brings characters out as either entirely black or entirely white, it will do well to remember that real people are grey. Shah Jahan and Dara had their shortcomings and Aurangzeb had his strong points. However, I do agree with the worldview that had Dara ascended the throne, India’s history could have been very different. Despite his leadership and mobilizing qualities, Aurangzeb was strongly Islamic and intolerant in a lot of ways. Dara’s military hold may have been weak, but given good governors and a strong empire with the many alliances he had formed with the Rajputs, Dara may have easily managed to keep the kingdom intact. Perhaps beyond Dara, the Mughul empire would have integrated anyway, made up as it was of the weakest fabric. Or maybe the dynasty would have strengthened and integrated under a series of strong rulers, becoming uniform and cohesive. Either way, the end of Shah Jahan’s rule was meant to be a turning point for the Mughul empire. With Aurangzeb’s accession and an ever-increasing European presence, Hindustan continued to collapse. The Mughul empire remains a rich, insightful and memorable experience interspersed with twists and plots, bringing contrasting stories ranging from an endless love story that gave rise to a splendid monument, right down to the cruelest deaths and sibling wars. But it’s not going to fade from our collective history. Read this series if you want to know more!

More reads:  Dara Shikoh, the forgotten Prince of Islam

Who was more cruel- Aurangzeb or Shah Jahan?

Dara Shikoh, Aurangzeb misunderstood


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