“Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal” by Parvati Sharma

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Pity poor Jahangir, sandwiched between his father Akbar I “the Great” and his son Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. No wonder he often gets lost in history, and, if not quite lost, dismissed as an occasionally cruel, always pleasure-loving drunkard who was led around by his wife Nurjahan and whose accomplishments, such as they were, pale in comparison with those of his father and son.

Jahangir the man and his reign scream out for re-evaluation, and Parvati Sharma’s book, which is, as far as I know, the first attempt to write the emperor’s biography in English, and is long overdue. The only access to Jahangir we had was the excellent translation of his memoirs by Wheeler Thackston (replacing the older one by Henry Beveridge) and accounts in the writings of contemporary travelers or ambassadors (Sharma draws frequently on Sir Thomas Roe). We now have al-Assam Samarqandi’s Conversations with Emperor Jahangir in English, too, which curiously does not appear in Sharma’s bibliography. There is a good biography of Nurjahan by Ellison Findley, and articles on various aspects of Jahangir’s reign, the most interesting being one by Ebba Koch in which she argues that Jahangir could be seen as a good example of Francis Bacon’s ideal of a king who had an interest in nature and the sciences. We are fortunate that Sharma has read this particular article, because it’s a good place to start looking for just who this rather enigmatic man was.

We are also very fortunate that Sharma is a novelist, because her book, while well-researched, tells a fascinating story about a real man and the vibrant world he lived in. That, after all, would seem to be the object of any biography that isn’t specifically political, literary or intellectual, although this is not to suggest that biographers should completely omit these aspects from the treatment of their subjects. A novelist, like anyone else, can do research, but can also add a particular tone to the prose which academic historians often cannot achieve, namely that of a narrator who is engaged emotionally as well as intellectually with the subject and displaying an ability to capture in words such things as the splendour of the Mughal court and the way that Jahangir could have been thinking and feeling. Sharma navigates very well between her roles as historian and novelist, and the result is an enjoyable, readable, accurate and informative biography which will certainly contribute to rescuing Jahangir from relative obscurity.

Novelists are usually interested in psychology when it comes to creating their characters, and in this book Sharma uses it to extract Jahangir the man from his background. She does not “recreate” him as a fictional character, however, but uses her novelistic insights to give him life and substance. In this book Jahangir lives, moves around and shows emotions. He emerges as a man of contradictions, but also as someone who was human and occasionally vulnerable. The episodes of ferocious cruelty noticed by foreign observers such as Sir Thomas Roe certainly did happen, but Akbar and Shah Jahan both demonstrated similar traits, much like many Renaissance princes were doing in Europe. This does not excuse any of them from charges of cruelty, but at least suggests that the pot may well be calling the kettle black.

For the most part, Jahangir was a man of wide-ranging interests; he loved nature and was keenly observant to the extent of carrying out instant anatomical demonstrations on various animals (Peter the Great of Russia, a near-contemporary, had them done on live people). Sharma cites Henry Beveridge, the first translator of Jahangir’s memoirs, as suggesting that the emperor would have been a happier man “if he had been ‘the head of a natural history museum’ instead of an empire.” He also appreciated literature and art, often commissioning paintings from foreign artists as well as employing the best Indian artists, and Sharma gives us a fulsome examination of Jahangir as an aesthete in Part VI of her book. Towards foreigners and people who did not share his religious beliefs (Roe thought he didn’t really have any because he was too open-minded, a view discussed by Sharma in a chapter called “Believer/ Unbeliever”) he was generally tolerant, and liked to find out about other peoples’ faiths. A portrait reproduced in this book shows Jahangir holding an image of the Virgin Mary, and there were many paintings depicting him among Hindus, notably one of him conversing with the Hindu mystic Jadrup Gosain, which Sharma includes in her selection of color illustrations.

Jahangir has been rescued by Parvati Sharma not just from obscurity but from historical opprobrium, too.

Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal, Parvati Sharma, (Juggernaut, October 2018)
Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal, Parvati Sharma, (Juggernaut, October 2018)

Sharma also discusses Jahangir’s relationship with his sons, and here we can see the other side of the emperor as he comes up against dysfunction and discovers that even a man as powerful as himself could not fully cope with it. He himself had rebelled against his father Akbar, and he faced rebellions by several of his own sons, including the future Shah Jahan, whom he dubs “bi-dawlat” or “two-faced” in his memoirs.

In his turn, Shah Jahan was deposed and imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb, the protagonist of John Dryden’s eponymous play, the only English play about a Mughal emperor. As Sharma eloquently puts it: “the man who loved and admired his father, who loved and admired his son, may not have been a man who was equally admired by either,” and that, in the end, may have been Jahangir’s tragedy. He cherished his father’s memory; at one point he described Akbar’s face as “radiant”, and exuding “a divine aura.” If Akbar had any reservations about his son, they might have included his heavy drinking (which he tried to control in later life) and his lack of interest in martial matters (although he would campaign several times during his life). The religious toleration noted by observers in Jahangir, however, was directly inherited from Akbar, who had even invented a religion of his own.

For all his talents, his statesmanship (he was a conscientious ruler), tolerance and unbounded curiosity, Jahangir may have had some awareness that future historians might judge him more harshly than he would have liked. Indeed, what they have done is leave him as a kind of transitional figure between Akbar and Shah Jahan, although he is certainly a more attractive figure than the latter, at least as far as we can judge from his own memoirs, which are superbly-written, sometimes humorous, and not without some self-criticism. He might have been self-indulgent, but he was also highly-intelligent, refined and sophisticated.

Jahangir has found the right biographer in Parvati Sharma.

Jahangir, it would seem, has been rescued by Parvati Sharma not just from obscurity but from historical opprobrium, too, in a delicately-balanced, nuanced account which leaves the impression of a man one would like to converse with on a variety of subjects and really get to know.

Sharma quotes William Hawkins, who briefly worked for Jahangir and lived at his court, as observing of the emperor that “both night and day his delight was very much to talke with me, both of the affairs of England and other countries.”

In the end we are left with the impression of a civilized and attractive man, an enlightened and conscientious ruler to the world, but himself a rather divided man, a man who could be kindly but who could also lash out with ferocity when crossed, and whose private life, apart from Nurjahan’s constant love and support, was nowhere near as successful as his public life.

In his Travels (1627), in which he gives a lengthy account of the reign, Sir Thomas Herbert wrote of “Nur [Jahan]’s endless sorrow and the grief of the whole Empire” when Jahangir died. It is good that he has found the right biographer in Parvati Sharma.

 

Correction: The original has been modified to correct Wheeler Thackston’s given name.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.