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The sexy Mughals


City of Djinns: A Year In Delhi by William Dalrymple

The foppish, snobbish Indian Muslim nobility were no different from the French and English aristocrats. They were as cultured, sophisticated and sensual. Eighteenth century Indian Muslim aristocrats visiting each other exchanged poems like the Restoration wits — with one difference: the poems were not self-composed but written by popular contemporary poets and copied beautifully in the finest calligraphy.

Sex was the ruling passion. Elephants would be seen standing outside courtesans’ houses in old Delhi in the evenings while the noblemen were entertained inside. A famous courtesan used to appear in society completely nude — decorated only in body paint. The paint was ingeniously applied, however, to create the illusion she was fully dressed.

These and other vignettes enliven City of Djinns, William Dalrymple’s wonderful book on Delhi. He has a hundred tales to tell, about present-day Delhi and the past. But most fascinating are the ones about Mughal India.

Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the famous Taj Mahal in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, was highly sexed. He had innumerable affairs; there was even gossip about his relationship with his favourite daughter, Jahanara. Manucci, the Italian traveller, alluded to him “harvesting his own fruit” without sounding the least bit shocked. The noblemen and generals, however, did not like their wives’ affairs with the emperor — and he had to pay for it in the end. His son, Aurangzeb, seized the throne, throwing him into prison and killing his other sons.

Aurangzeb was the most religious of the Mughal emperors — and the most bloodthirsty. He persecuted Hindus and Sikhs and destroyed temples, sparking rebellions across the country. Had it not been for him, her family would still be ruling India, said a woman who claimed to be descended from the Mughals when Dalrymple met her in Delhi.

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Naipaul on “the last great Indian kingdom”

I am reading William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns after finishing VS Naipaul’s Magic Seeds. The two books couldn’t be more different. Dalrymple’s book is a delightful read, rich in anecdotes about modern Delhi and loving evocations of its past. Dalrymple admires the Muslims who ruled Delhi for centuries for their beautiful buildings, their love of poetry, music and the arts, the courtliness of their manners and the sophistication of their society which was hedonistic and given to sexual pleasures. He shows the beauty of Muslim India. Naipaul, on the contrary, shows how destructive it was.

He does it almost as an aside in his novel. Magic Seeds is the sequel to Half a Life. Willie Chandran is encouraged by his radical sister in Berlin to join Maoist guerillas in India and ends up in prison, but is eventually released and returns to London. There is a long account of his guerilla activities, his prison days, how and why he is released and his life in London. But there are a couple of pages early in the book where Willie, in south India, meets Joseph, an academic who is a Maoist sympathiser, who brings him up to speed about local history.

Joseph tells him about the destruction of the Hindu kingdom of Vijaynagar by the Muslims in the 16th century. It was total destruction. There is still Old Delhi, Taj Mahal, the Red Fort as well as numerous other places dating back to Muslim rule. But only the ruins remain of Vijaynagar, in what is now the state of Karnataka, the capital of which is Bangalore. Even the Indian historians I read in my school and college days had little to say about Vijaynagar.

I have no idea why Vijaynagar was neglected. Naipaul has written about it before. His anger is almost palpable here, where Joseph describes the destruction to Willie:

All the land of India is sacred. But here we are on especially sacred ground. We are on the site of the last great Indian kingdom, and it was the site of a catastrophe. Four hundred years ago the Muslim invaders ganged up on it and destroyed it… They levelled the capital city. It was a rich and famous city, known to early European travellers. They killed the priests, the philosophers, the artisans, the architects, the scholars… The only people they left behind were the serfs in the villages, and they parcelled them out among themselves. This military defeat was terrible. You cannot understand the degree to which the victors won and the losers lost. Hitler would have called it a war of annihilation, a war without limits and restraints, and this one succeeded to a remarkable degree. There was no resistance. The serfs in the villages policed themselves. They were of various low castes, and there is no caste hatred greater than that of the low for the low, one sub-caste for another. Some ran before and after the horses of their lords. Some did the scavenging. Some did the gravedigging. Some offered their women. All of them referred to themselves as slaves. All of them were underfed. That was a matter of policy. It was said that if you fed a slave well he would want to bite you…

Oh. And they were taxed and taxed. There were forty kinds of taxes… this was the origin of our sacred Indian poverty, the poverty that India could offer to the world. Thirty years after the destruction of the last Indian kingdom the conquerors built a big gate of victory. That gate of victory is now an Indian heritage site. The destroyed city has been forgotten…

Dalrymple took exception to Naipaul’s “failure to recognise Islam’s contribution to India” in an article in the Guardian.