Persian men of letters hugely shaped India’s Mughal Empire whose magnificent fragments still amaze the modern world.
How Kashmir's courtly poets came from abroad
Roughly eight million people every year visit the Taj Mahal, the soaring marble marvel on the bank of the Yamuna river in India’s Uttar Pradesh, and countless millions more all over the world savour its beauty via the internet. Some of those onlookers might be aware (or might learn in the process) that they’re admiring the most famous extant example of the art or architecture of the vanished Mughal Empire – the Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, and as all those millions of visitors are dutifully informed, the building’s heart is a mausoleum to Shah Jahan’s beloved consort Mumtaz Mahal, the daughter of an Agra-based family of Persian royalty.
The confluences at work there – beauty and nostalgia, commerce and sentiment, Persian and Indian – are important in understanding not only the Mughal period but also, equally fascinatingly, how the Mughals understood themselves. Mughal Arcdia: Persian Literature in an Indian Court, by Sunil Sharma, a Boston University professor of Persian and Indian literature, delves into just these kinds of confluences, studying not only the mechanics of how the Mughal Empire welcomed and honoured poets to its courts and regional capitals but also how those poets and their successors characterised the Mughal world, particularly when it was in the relatively abrupt process of vanishing into the past.
The empire was born in conquest: in 1526 the Timurid warlord Babur, outcast from the vast Central Asian power-structures that had descended from Genghis Khan, won the first battle of Panipat in present-day Haryana and established the territorial foothold that he and his descendants would quickly extend to virtually the entire Indian subcontinent.
One of those descendants, Akbar the Great, ruled for half a century and ushered India into the 17th century, made attempts at systematic moderate rule, made attempts to reform his law codes and tax codes for greater fairness and, perhaps most famously, really began the Mughal’s extensive court patronage of the arts. Akbar was succeeded by Shah Jahan, who took imperial encouragement of the arts to the highest point it would reach in the Mughal period.
Even before the advent of the Mughals, word had spread to the literati that court positions and patronage might be found in the Muslim kingdoms already established in Central and South India; once the Mughals opened that same kind of welcome in the north, the flow of Persian artists of all kinds only increased. For its poets besotted with the natural beauty of the valley of Kashmir, for instance, the place became “Little Iran” (Iran-i saghir), a kind of nourishing paradise-on-Earth.
This process only accelerated as successive Mughal rulers continued to marry into the ranks of Indian nobility.
With lean and unobtrusive scholarship, and with a prose-line far more accessible than most of his fellow academics, Sharma studies the ways in which that broader paradise-on-Earth was first created and then enshrined in Indo-Persian literature, even among those who didn’t take the gamble of trusting their luck in a foreign land.
“Persian poets who chose not to leave their homes to start a new life in India were entertained by dazzling tales of the liberal patronage of Indian rulers and the strange customs and cultures of India,” and the poets who did leave home sometimes encountered the extremely heady mixture of exoticism and familiarity, beauty and strangeness – and they wrote about it voluminously.
The beauty of the region those poets encountered certainly encouraged paradisaical thinking. Kashmir’s streams and whispering trees and exquisite gardens were temptingly easy to associate with the generosity and seeming benevolence of the Mughals who ruled the land, and this naturally gave rise to characterisations of a Promised Land.
“The valley lent itself perfectly to being viewed as a Persianate Arcadia for Mughal poets and others,” Sharma writes, “especially given its salubrious climate, serene gardens that skillfully combined the natural and artificial, and a seemingly bucolic way of life, all of which exemplified perfectly what the empire stood for.”
With comprehensive scholarship and a good deal of subtle wit, Sharma teases out the role that Safavid poets played in shaping the culture of the Mughal nobility at its heyday.
Of course, paradise found leads to paradise lost and Sharma’s story extends to the twilight of his Mughal Arcadia. When Shah Jahan’s son and successor, Aurangzeb, (referred to by Sharma, with endearing understatement, as “rather austere”) left Dehli in 1688, the court-poet atmosphere that had flourished under Akbar and Shah Jahan had already withered almost to nothing, partly owing to a shift in economic conditions.
“The tumultuous decade also witnessed a shift in the power dynamics among court poets as fewer men of letters came looking for patronage at the imperial level,” Sharma writes. “No longer assured of a lucrative career in India, and with the improvement in the economic conditions in late Safavid Persia, the tide of migrants was greatly reduced.”
Mughal kings and princes could instruct their heirs in the refinement of learning Persian letters but the boom times for expatriate artists of all kinds was inexorably waning.
In a remarkably short amount of time, this Mughal Arcadia had faded not only from memory but from legend. In the 1760s, a scholar of Persian literature named Azar Begdili made brief mention of long-ago colonies of Persian poets writing in other lands. Of India he wrote:
“Because of its great distance, people of Persia have no complete information about the circumstances of this land.”
Sharma is entirely right to conclude his important study by giving his readers the same kind of reminder those millions of Taj Mahal visitors get every year: the arts of Persia hugely shaped the Mughal Empire whose magnificent fragments still amaze the modern world. The empire and the artists are long gone, but their stamp on their world is still very much with us.