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There’s Aurangzeb & Then There’s Aurangzeb: We Need to Know More

Aurangzeb was much more then just a ‘temple destroyer,’ writes Milind Dongre.

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Hindi Female

Ek ‘Aur’-angzeb! An-other Aurangzeb! I will be soon visiting my 5-year-old nephew. Kids of his age, whose ever-lasting energies can exhaust their entertainers in no time, are generally quick to learn things and their grasp of things can be enviable for many.

Aurangzeb was much more then just a ‘temple destroyer,’ writes Milind Dongre.

My nephew demands a new story every time he goes to bed, and hence, his parents constant nagging for new stories. Storytelling and story reading has become a part of their everyday routine.

Stories are instrumental in shaping the imagination of children – they create a world of wonders, a world of possibilities. More importantly, stories are tools of history and stories of one’s past are relived, re-imagined in evocative details for the younger generations who can then become proud inheritors of a past rich in culture and civilisation.

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Unlike other vacations, this time around, my vacation is being ‘literally’ prepared – reading stories of faraway lands, unknown tales, fables and age-old stories with differing perspectives.

I come from the western part of Maharashtra where popular culture is replete with heroic tales of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and his foot soldiers, mavale. Stories about the sovereign king and ‘powade’ – the lyrical genre consisting of songs in praise of the great Marathas – recount in vivid detail Shivaji’s valour in taking on the Mughals, his astute statesmanship, his guerrilla warfare, his cunningness in dealing with Shayast Khan or the killing of Afzhal Khan, and off course, his famous escape from Agra.

My nephew will receive his dose of exploits of the courageous and defying Shivba along with the glorious history of Marathas of that period. But, then, unlike my childhood, I don’t want my nephew to be initiated merely to Shivaji and his exploits of establishing a Hindu rajya.
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For all the greatness of Shivaji, I think, shouldn’t undermine or belittle his most dreaded adversary. All throughout my childhood and later, I saw Shivaji pitted against Aurangzeb – the emperor who expanded the Mughal empire and ruled over the same for 49 years, who killed Dara Shukoh, who imprisoned his father, Shah Jahan, to usurp the throne.

The atrocities committed by this Muslim emperor, his ruthless repression of (Hindu) rebellions and the demolition of temples are fodder for a facile reading of history as a conflict of power between Hindus and Muslims.

Such a reading is simplistic as different forms of identity construction were at work in 17th century India. If religion can be a primary way of defining oneself today, the Hindu-Muslim divide as we see it today didn’t exist in those times when one would be rather defined by one’s caste and/or region.

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It is needless to say that Aurangzeb’s life has been used conveniently to suit interests of history writers. If on one hand, colonial historians used him as a tool/strategy to divide and rule – subsequent generations of history writers in India demonised the emperor for obvious communal reasons, while on the other hand, he has also been seen by others as a devout practitioner of Islam, a king who sewed religious caps and personally undertook the writing of the Quran.

The apparent vilification of Aurangzeb can be unearthed by the observation that Aurangzeb, as a real historical figure, falls in line with all the ‘Muslim zealots’ not welcome in India’s present or in its past by virtue of their religion and religiosity.

Aurangzeb and his generations are therefore suitable to be perceived as threats to India’s social fabric, unlike Dara Shukoh who was ‘Indian’ (or less Islamic) enough to be spared from vilification.
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Aurangzeb has become the biggest ‘what if’ historical figure of Mughal India, and one can always imagine a different course of history under Dara Shukoh’s regime. While Dara Shukoh prima facie gives the impression of a more secular ruler thanks to his interest in philosophy, his pursuit of translations of Upansihads to Persian, his recognition and embracing of Hindu ideas, customs and his interactions with ascetics of different faiths, Aurangzeb comes to be seen as an orthodox, zealous tyrant and bigot. Known for his expansionist agenda, he has been charged of destroying the culture of tolerance from during Akbar’s time.

His cruel acts of violence, massacre of millions of Hindus, and destructions of thousands of temples are ideas inscribed in our collective memory. It is, therefore, no wonder that efforts such as renaming a road dedicated to this emperor in India’s capital intend to erase him from our public memory.

In such a situation, understanding historical figures like Aurangzeb on their own terms, as per the times they lived in, becomes an important pursuit. For example, one can rationalise his killing of his elder brother.

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To go by the saying, ‘Ya takht ya taabut’ – either the throne or the grave – one needs to acknowledge that killing one’s brothers was the order of the day in those times, and the all the sons of a king had equal claim to the throne.

Had Aurangzeb not killed his elder brother, the latter would have done it himself. In fact, after imprisoning his elder brother, Aurangzeb is known to have asked Dara Shukoh how he would have treated him if the roles were reversed, and the elder brother’s answer will astound us today.

Dara Shukoh said he would have given Aurangzeb a harsher treatment – with his body parts butchered and displayed on the four main gates of Delhi. If one were to look at Aurangzeb today, he was a die-hard ‘professional’ committed to the sultanate.

His primary obsession all throughout his life being his empire for which he committed cruelties like removing Sambhaji’s eyes and “lightening him of the weight of his shoulders” or killing his brother. Another aspect is not to view him simply as a bad king for his atrocities, nor as a good king for his religious affiliations and devotion.

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It is, rather, to understand what defined his ideas of a just ruler and accordingly assess him on that basis. As Audrey Trasuckhe suggests in her book ‘Aurangzeb – The man and the myth’, Aurangzeb’s expansionist agenda clashed with his idea of ‘justice’ based on certain wider Islamic traditions and commitment to political and ethical conduct.

He was a pious Muslim, more devout than any of his predecessors, and his later years must have been full of remorse of his expansionist agenda conflicting with his principles of just rule.

His more than humble exit inscribed in a tomb near Khuldabad, Maharashtra, is telling of his denial to be remembered, of his willing self to pass into oblivion. A ruler with a guilty conscience in his dying years and remorseful of certain acts has as much a story to offer as much as a ruler resisting an empire spread across present day India.

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Let it be noted that Aurangzeb discarded his principles of just rule regardless of Hindus and Muslims when it came to furthering his interests of expansion of the sultanate. For example, despite the indications of the Ulama to spare Muslims, he crushed rebellions at Islamic kingdoms of Golconda and Bijapur.

Taking into account Aurangzeb’s crushing of Hindu rebellions of Rajputs and Marathas as his ‘only’ ones, is, therefore, a selective reading of history. For that matter, he would have been ready to crush anyone that disturbed his imperial interests.

Trasuckhe also suggests that Aurangzeb employed Hindus in his administration, and during his rule that dates from 1679 to 1707, the intake of Hindus to the ranks of mansab increased by around 50 percent – from 22.5 percent to 31.6 percent.

He recruited administrators based on their skills, and state officers Raja Raghunatha and poet Chandar Bhan Brahman were on his pay rolls. He particularly cherished the company of Raja Raghunatha, who has been described as acting vizier of the empire by French traveller François Bernier.

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One should accept the common omission that the emperor also consulted Hindus ascetics (Bairagi Hindu Shiv Mangaldas Maharaj) on a number of issues. His orders on restricting festivities include not only Holi; he took similar stances related to Muharram and Eid as well.

During his initial and later years of his emperorship, he also recognised the Hindu roots of customs like weighing oneself in gold and distributing the same among the poor and adopted them, suggesting his grandson, Bidar Bakht, to do the same.

Describing the Hindu and Jain temples in Ellora, Aurangzeb said, “Ellora is one of the finely crafted marvels of the real, transcendent artisan (God).” Today, there is a general misperception about Aurangzeb for his anti-Hindu sentiments echoed in his action of destroying temples in Banaras and Mathura.

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As Richard Eaton has indicated, among thousands of temples, only a handful, just over a dozen or so were destroyed during Aurangzeb’s regime. When he did destroy temples, it was motivated by political reasons.

His order for demolition of Kashi’s Vishwanath temple for instance was guided to punish temple associates and ensure their submission to the Mughal Empire. The Mughal emperor did believe in equal treatment to all religions provided his imperial interests were left untouched.

The image of an austere, ruthless emperor who abstained from alcohol all his life may get a sobering effect if one were to account his appreciation of music (though I admit that one’s appreciation about music and arts do not necessarily bear on one’s political interests and should be kept aside when assessing a ruler).

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His later years were spent in company of Udaipuri, a musician. Similarly, on a pleasant note, his wrath on receiving bitter mangoes attests his love for mangoes whose varieties like ‘Sudharas’ and ‘Rasnabilas’ owe their names to Aurangzeb.

What is indeed striking about the Emperor shown in new light by Trasuckhe’s book is his world view that framed his ideas of just rule and his commitment towards to same. His letters are testimony to his unbearable burden of his acts.

Letters to his sons in his later years of life reveal Aurangzeb’s ideals of tolerance and justice to his people. “The greatest conquerors are not necessarily just rulers and vice versa...” he wrote.

I find it difficult to imagine Aurangzeb saying these words considering the way he has been portrayed to me. I therefore imagine telling my nephew a story of a pious king who was committed to the idea of Justice, obsessed of being a just ruler as much as his idea of just rule was at times partially and problematically based and shaped by his religion.

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(Milind Dongre is on his way to earn his PhD in French. He spends his time teaching, reading, ruminating and listening music once in a while. The views mentioned in the article are the author’s own and The Quint does not endorse them)

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Topics:  Delhi   Muslim   Hindutva 

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