Gandhi in a New Avatar: Advisor to Savarkar on Mercy petitions

Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee & Sucheta Mahajan

The Authors

The Indian Express, 13 October 2021, tells us that Shri Rajnath Singh, the Indian Defence Minister, has claimed that “A lot of falsehood was spread against Savarkar. It was repeatedly said that he filed multiple mercy petitions before the British government. The truth is he did not file these petitions for his release. Generally a prisoner has right to file a mercy petition. Mahatma Gandhi had asked that you file a mercy petition. It was on Gandhi’s suggestion that he filed a mercy petition. And Mahatma Gandhi had appealed that Savarkar ji should be released. He had said the way we are running movement for freedom peacefully, so would Savarkar.”. He also said that “You can have differences of opinion, but to see him condescendingly is not right. The act of demeaning his national contribution will not be tolerated”. (Note the threat. Setting up Godse temples and hero worshipping him can be tolerated but no criticism of Savarkar!)

What are the facts?

Rajnath Singh’s statement is presumably based on documents pertaining to the year 1920: a letter from ND Savarkar, brother of VD Savarkar and Ganesh Savarkar, to Gandhiji, Gandhiji’s reply, and an article in Young India by Gandhiji.

The facts are somewhat at variance with the claim made by Rajnath Singh.  The first mercy petition was filed nine years earlier by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1911 itself, within six months of his conviction, and numerous other petitions followed in subsequent years, without any evidence or claim of it being at Gandhiji’s suggestion! To quote from one such petition, submitted personally to the Home Member, Sir Reginald Craddock, when he visited the Andamans jail in 1913, for his release, offering to be loyal to the British Government:

“If the Government in their manifold beneficence and mercy release me, I for one cannot but be the strongest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress. I am ready to serve the Government in any capacity they like, for as my conversion is conscientious so I hope my future conduct would be. The Mighty alone can afford to be merciful and therefore where else can the prodigal son return but to the parental doors of the Government?”

Further, as testified by GS Khoparde, a Savarkar supporter’s question in the Imperial Legislative Council on March 22, 1920, “Mr Savarkar and his brother had once in 1915 and at another time in 1918 submitted petitions to Government stating that they would, during the continuance of war, serve the Empire by enlisting in the Army, if released, and would, after the passing of the Reforms Bill, try to make the Act a success and would stand by law and order”. In his reply, the Home Member, Sir William Vincent, confirmed that : “Two petitions were received from Vinayak Damodar Savarkar – one in 1914 and another in 1917, through the Superintendent, Port Blair. In the former he offered his services to Government during the war in any capacity and prayed that a general amnesty be granted to all political prisoners. The second petition was confined to the latter proposal”.

Thus, it is very clear that Savarkar had submitted numerous petitions between 1911 and 1920, without any advice or prompting from Gandhi,. offering loyalty to the British government, and expressing his willingness to serve them in any capacity.  Therefore the Defence Minister’s statement that Savarkar did not file mercy petitions but did so only on the advice of the Mahatma is not borne out by the actual historical record.

So where does Gandhiji come into the story? Only in 1920, when N D Savarkar, the younger brother of the two Savarkar brothers who were in jail, wrote to Gandhiji seeking his advice, when he found that the list of prisoners being released under the Royal Proclamation of Clemency by the British did not include the names of the brothers. Gandhiji replied saying it was difficult to give advice but suggested that he might draft a brief petition. In addition, he wrote an article in Young India on 26 May 1920, titled Savarkar Brothers, where he refers to the Royal Proclamation of Clemency and notes that while many other political prisoners had been released under this but the Savarkar brothers were not.

He says “Both the brothers have declared their political opinions and both have stated that they do not entertain any revolutionary ideas and that if they were set free they would like to work under the Reform Act…” (Government of India Act of 1919) “They both state unequivocally that they do not desire independence from the British connection. On the contrary they feel that India’s destiny can be best worked out in association with the British.”

It is to be noted that nowhere in Gandhiji’s article is there an appeal for Savarkar’s release, as stated by the Defence minister. “Mahatma Gandhi had appealed that Savarkar ji should be released.” Gandhiji questions the government decision not to release them as they appear to pose no danger to “public safety” or “danger to the state”, but does not appeal to the British. Nor does Gandhiji anywhere say in his article, as claimed by the Defence minister, that “the way we are running movement for freedom peacefully, so would Savarkar.” On the contrary, Gandhiji is emphasizing that the Savarkar brothers do not want independence, and want to work under the Reform Act.

There is a strange irony in this entire episode. That Mahatma Gandhi is being roped in to establish Savarkar’s nationalist credentials, that too on such flimsy grounds! The attempt is to create a picture in the public mind that Gandhiji and Savarkar had a close relationship, to the extent that the latter took Gandhiji’s advice on such crucial issues as mercy petitions and that Gandhiji appealed for his release. It is a clear attempt to try and normalise Savarkar’s begging for mercy when numerous other nationalists refused to do so and  Gandhiji even demanded the severest punishment for himself.

What are the facts, which we are expected to forget?

In January 1948, when Gandhi was assassinated, Savarkar was arrested as he was suspected of being the mastermind behind the conspiracy. Sardar Patel, who was overseeing the whole case as the Home Minister, being a fine criminal lawyer, was personally convinced of Savarkar’s guilt, otherwise he would not have agreed to put him up for trial. He told the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in unambiguous terms, ‘It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through’. (Durga Das, Sardar Patel Correspondence, 1945–50, Vol. VI, p. 56.)

In response to the Hindu Mahasabha’s disclaimer, Patel wrote to Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the Hindu Mahasabha leader, on 6 May 1948:

“…we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that an appreciable number of the members of the Mahasabha gloated over the tragedy and distributed sweets…. Further, militant communalism, which was preached until only a few months ago by many spokesmen of the Mahasabha, including men like Mahant Digbijoy Nath, Prof. Ram Singh and Deshpande, could not but be regarded as a danger to public security. The same would apply to the RSS, with the additional danger inherent in an organization run in secret on military or semi-military lines.” (Sardar Patel Correspondence, Vol. VI, p. 66.)

Patel further pointed out to Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, ‘The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of Government and the state’. (18 July 1948, Sardar Patel Correspondence, Vol. 6, p. 323.)

The Chief Minister of Bombay, B.G. Kher, explained the political situation in Maharashtra to Patel, ‘The atmosphere of hatred against the Congress and Mahatma sought to be created by the Hindu Mahasabha culminated in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at the hands of a few Maharashtrians’. { B.G. Kher to Patel, 26 May 1948, ibid., Vol. VI, pp. 77–78.)

Savarkar was eventually not convicted in the Gandhi Murder Trial due to a technical point of criminal law: for lack of independent evidence to corroborate the testimony of the approver.

However, the Commission of Inquiry set up in 1965 under Justice Jiwan Lal Kapoor, a former judge of the Supreme Court of India, got access to a lot of evidence which was not available to the trial judge. Two of Savarkar’s close associates, A.P. Kasar and G.V. Damle, who had not testified at the trial, spoke up before the Kapur Commision, now that Savarkar was dead, and corroborated the approver’s statements. It is possible that If they had testified at the trial, Savarkar would have been proven guilty. In fact, the Kapur Commission came to a conclusion very similar to that of Sardar Patel: ‘All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group’.( Report of Commission of Inquiry into Conspiracy to Murder Mahatma Gandhi, 1970, p.303, para 25.106.)

Immediately after Gandhiji’s assassination, the Government of India, with Sardar Patel as Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, banned the RSS and put some 25,000 of its members in jail.  The Hindu Mahasabha chose to dissolve itself when confronted with a ban. Tainted by its link with Gandhiji’s murder, the Hindu Mahasabha beat a tactical retreat and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, its main leader, founded the Bharatiya Jan Sangh in 1951. This was to be the main political vehicle of Hindu communal articulation from then onwards, its frontline political party, till it merged into the Janata Party after the Emergency and then was replaced by the BJP.

It is indeed ironic that the political forces who lay claim to being the most ardent nationalists today played no role at all when the actual struggle for India’s freedom was being fought. Savarkar, after his release from prison in 1924, never took part in any anti-British politics. In fact, he was the originator of the theory of Hindutva, which defined authentic Indians as those whose fatherland and holy lands, pitribhumi and punyabhumi , were in India, thereby excluding Muslims and Christians, whose holy lands were outside India, from the fold. The Hindu Mahasabha also became increasingly loyalist in the 1930s and 1940s. Though the loyalist tendency was there earlier, initially some of its leaders participated in Congress-led movements. But from 1937 onwards, when Savarkar became the President and undisputed leader, they joined the Muslim League in competing for the crumbs thrown from the Imperial table.  The outbreak of the Second World War brought the differences with the nationalist forces out into the open. While the Congress provincial ministries resigned in protest against the British Government’s decision to make India a party to the War without her consent, Hindu Mahasabha leaders offered cooperation to the British, and advocated that Indians participate in the war-effort and join the Army. Savarkar, as President of the Mahasabha, appealed to Hindus ‘to participate in all war-efforts of the British Government’ and not to listen to “some fools” who “condemn” this policy ‘as cooperation with Imperialism’.( Savarkar, Hindu Rashtra Darshan, pp. 203ff.)

In private, Savarkar told the Viceroy in October 1939 that the Hindus and the British should be friends and made an offer that the Hindu Mahasabha would replace the Congress if the Congress ministries resigned from office.( Linlithgow, Viceroy, to Zetland, Secretary of State, 7 October 1939,  Zetland Papers, Volume 18, Reel No. 6.) 

In accordance with this pro-British policy, when the Quit India movement was going on in 1942, and the entire nationalist Congress leadership including Gandhiji was in jail, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee of the Hindu Mahasabha was a minister in the Fazlul Haq Ministry in Bengal. The Hindu Mahasabha also formed coalition governments with the Muslim League in Sind and the NWFP. It is another matter that all this loyalism could not get them electoral success and they suffered a rout in the 1946 elections!

The RSS too, as an organisation did not participate in any of the major battles for freedom from colonial rule. The RSS was founded in 1925, and apart from the Simon Commission Boycott in 1928, at least two major movements, the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930–34 and the Quit India Movement of 1942 were launched by the Congress after that date. In none of these did the RSS play any part. Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS did go to jail in his individual capacity in 1930, but he kept the organisation and its members away from the Civil Disobedience movement. The government was very clear that it had nothing to fear from the RSS. A Home Department note on the RSS reported that, ‘At meetings of the Sangh during the Congress disturbances (1942), speakers urged the members to keep aloof from the Congress movement and these instructions were generally observed’.

It is of course legitimate to ask why there was a silence on Savarkar in the RSS and Jan Sangh-BJP camp for over four or five decades after Gandhiji’s murder. Was it because it was politically suicidal to mention Savarkar as he was associated in the public mind with Gandhiji’s  murder, and now that much time had lapsed, it could be assumed that public memory was short and Savarkar could now be resurrected? Also, with the new public emphasis on ‘Hindutva’ as part of the new aggressive phase, it was difficult to ignore the original creator of the concept. Further, for a party claiming to be ‘nationalist,’ it is a little embarrassing not to have any freedom fighters to show. Therefore, in a desperate effort to discover nationalist icons, Savarkar was sought to be cast in that mould.

A nationalist veil is drawn over Savarkar’s communalism by remembering him as Krantiveer, the Andamans revolutionary. That Savarkar shamed the revolutionaries by repeatedly asking for pardon in the Andamans and that he never took part in any nationalist activity after his release as he had promised to the British government, was sought to be forgotten. And in 2003, when the BJP-led NDA government was in power, despite considerable opposition, Savarkar’s portrait was installed in the parliament. One would imagine that even if there is a whiff of suspicion about Savarkar this should not have happened. And now the latest: an effort to legitimize Savarkar by normalizing his embarassing mercy petitions as being sanctioned by the Mahatma! The aim is also to project a close and friendly relationship between the two, and thus hide the fact that they had nothing in common. Savarkar as the ideologue of Hindutva and leader of the Hindu Mahasabha was a consistent and vehement critic of Gandhiji, especially of his non-violence and inclusive attitude towards the Muslims. There could not be a sharper contrast between their formulations of who India belongs to. Savarkar clearly says that “India must be a Hindu land, reserved for the Hindus”. He unambiguously asserts that Hindus should be “masters in our own house, Hindusthan, the land of the Hindus”. (Hindu Rashtra Darshan, pp 92, 63). Gandhiji, on the other hand, in his  famous speech in Bombay in August 1942 where he gave the call for ‘Quit India’, declared unequivocally: “Those Hindus who, like Dr. Moonje and Shri Savarkar, believe in the doctrine of the sword may seek to keep the Mussalmans under Hindu domination. I do not represent that section. I represent the Congress. The Congress does not believe in the domination of any group or any community. It believes in democracy which includes in its orbit Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Jews—every one of the communities inhabiting this vast country….Millions of Mussalmans in this country come from Hindu stock. How can their homeland be any other than India?”

One cannot help thinking what a contrast there is between Savarkar and his men, and revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh who prided themselves on never asking for clemency, choosing to suffer all punishment, including death. In fact from the very early days Indian nationalists had evolved the practice of bravely accepting responsibility for committing anti-British acts, face trials, using the trials for further propagation of nationalist goals and then willingly accept imprisonment, exile or even death as punishment.

It is pertinent to note that Savarkar’s habit of petitioning the government for release from internment and making offers of good behaviour did not end with his release from British jails in 1924. Within three weeks of his arrest in connection with Gandhiji’s murder, on 22 February 1948, he made a representation to the Police Commissioner from Arthur Road Prison expressing his ‘willingness to give an undertaking to the Government that … [he would] refrain from taking part in any communal or political public activity for any period the Government may require in case I am released on that condition’. Even the most brilliant advocate would find it difficult to prove that this too was on Gandhiji’s advice, unless of course so strong was the bond between the two that the atheist Savarkar could claim communion with Gandhiji’s spirit!

Some Controversial and Discriminatory Measures of Aurangzeb: Music “Ban”, imposition of Jizya and Attitude towards Temples

There are three very controversial and disputed measures initiated by Aurangzeb during his five decade rule: the Imposition of Jizya, a discriminatory tax on Hindus, the demolition of temples and the ban of music which was considered “un-Islamic”.

Let us here analyse these three measures of Aurangzeb.

All these three measures were discriminatory and aimed to humiliate the non-Muslims.


It has been points out that it was 22 years after his ascent to the throne that Aurangzeb decided to impose the jizya on the Hindus, and this may have actually been a response to the outbreak of rebellions of the Marathas, Sikhs, Jats and others. Certain classes of Hindus, including government officials, were exempted from the jizya, while, at the same time, Aurangzeb made arrangements for the zakat to be collected from Muslims. ML Bhatia in his book writes that “It is also stated that long before jizya was imposed, Aurangzeb had ordered the abolition of a number of unauthorized taxes which placed heavy burden on the Hindus” (p. 52). He admits that one of the aims of imposing the jizya, as the court ulema saw it, was to degrade the Hindus, and this naturally caused considerable ill-will and resentment among them. That the financial aspect of the jizya was not seen by the ulema as equally important as its symbolism is reflected in the fact that the total collection from the jizya was only slightly more than the money spent on collect- ing it, with much of the money collected going into the pockets of corrupt officials. And as for the resumption of tax-free land grants to Hindu priests and yogis, this was only a temporary measure in the wake of Hindu-led rebellions and that when these subsided the edict was allowed, for all practical purposes, to lapse.

Jizya was a discriminatory tax, alright. And of course it was humiliative, but then the Rajputs were exempted, the Brahmins were exempted and all those who were in the Mughal service were exempted! In terms of collection, the jizya was graded: the richest man was to pay Rs.12/= per annum, while the less prosperous was supposed to pay Rs.8/= per annum. According to Jadunath Sarkar, it was ` 3 ¼ , 6 2/3 and 3 1/3 per annum for the three classes.

The most pinching aspect of the Jizya was that it was a tax on the poor, who had to pay an average of one month’s salary as tax.

Temple Destruction:

As early as 1669 orders were issued (says JN Sarkar) to demolish all the schools and temples of the ‘infidels’. Thus for example, the Maasir-i Alamgiri notes, the Temple of Malarna in Jaipur was demolished.

When the Rathor Rebellion was on the verge of breaking out and Aurangzeb had decided to award the tika to Inder Singh, the widow of late Jaswant Singh vehemently protested and through a letter written to Aurangzeb, reproduced by the Waqai Ajmer in Bikaner Archives, offered to break every temple in the Jodhpur region if Aurangzeb agreed to award tika to her candidate and not to Indar Singh. Aurangzeb refused. However this letter does reveal that it was widely believed that the emperor would be please by vandalising the temples. Aurangzeb’s refusal however reveals that he resorted to temple destruction only in certain situations.

It was, however in 1679 itself, only after the Rathores had revolted, that the orders for the destruction of temples were given. Probably these orders were partly in retaliation of the Rathore rebellion, for a number of temples were demolished in Jodhpur. Some of the most famous shrines demolished were the Somnath (Gujarat), the Vashvanath (Varanasi) and the Keshava Rai (Mathura). In January 1680 Aurangzeb ordered the demolition of three temples standing on the edge of Udai Sagar. If we believe SR Sharma, at Udaipur 172 temples were broken. In Chitor the number stood at 63.

Contrarily we also have well-documented evidences of Aurangzeb’s patronage of various Hindu religious institutions, namely temples, maths, grants to Brahmins and pujaris:

Land grants were renewed to the temples at Mathura, Banaras, Gaya, Gauhati, and others, while the emperor is known to have donated ghee for the navadeep in a few temples, including the Mahabateshwar temple at Agra;

Gifts were offered to the Sikh gurudwara at Dehradun;

Madad-i ma’ash grants, as listed in the Rajasthan documents, were continued to a math of Nathpanthi yogis in parganaDidwana, sarkar Nagor;

Grants were also made to Ganesh Bharti faqir and his successors in pargana Siwana with the instructions that the faqir should not be disturbed so he could ‘pray for this sultanat’.

The Vrindavan document of 1704 referred to a parwana which sanctioned the rights of Chaitanya gosains who had founded Vrindavan and established pilgrimages in Braj Bhumi, and recognised the right of Brajanand Gosain to receive a fee from the followers of the sect on account of kharj sadir o warid, that is, expenses on guests and travellers from each village. In effect, it was a government levy for the benefit of Brajanand Gosain and his Vaishnavite followers.

We have a farman of Aurangzeb which he issued to Balaji temple of Chitrakut. It begins with the symbolic Allah-o-Akbar (Allah is great) incantation. Below the invocation is the royal seal of Aurangzeb, whose orders saw the destruction of several Hindu shrines. And then comes the farmaan (regal notice), extending royal patronage to the Balaji temple and its erstwhile priest. Mahant Balak Das, Penned on the 19th day of Ramzaan in the 35th year of Aurangzeb’s tenure (June 16, 1691), the farmaan is now a part of Chitrakoot’s folklore.

From the above description, Aurangzeb’s patronage to temples appears without doubt. And yet some temples were attacked, while others were spared. This aberration in the emperor’s attitude can be explained by only one rationale: it was not iconoclasm, but reprisal for rebellion or political misconduct or disloyalty to the emperor.

This exposition can be applied to understand the attack on the Vishwanath temple at Kashi, the Keshav Dev temple at Mathura, and several prominent temples in Rajasthan. In 1669, during a zamindar revolt in Banaras, it was suspected that some of them had assisted Shivaji in his escape from imperial detention. It was also believed that Shivaji’s escape was initially facilitated by Jai Singh, the great-grandson of Raja Man Singh, who had built the Vishwanath temple. It was against this background that Aurangzeb ordered the destruction of that temple in September 1669.

Around the same time, in a Jat rebellion that had erupted in the neighbouring regions of Mathura, a patron of the local congregational mosque was killed, leading to Aurangzeb’s order in 1670 to attack the Keshav Dev temple at Mathura. Temples in Marwar and Mewar were also attacked following the death of Maharaja Jaswant Singh to reprimand and crush the Rathor rebellion and the development of a Sisodia– Rathor alliance. These included temples in Khandela patronised by rebel chieftains; temples in Jodhpur maintained by a former supporter of Dara Shukoh; and the royal temples in Udaipur and Chittor patronised by Rana Raj Singh after the Rana entered into an alliance with the Rathors that signalled the withdrawal of loyalty to the Mughal State. It may be observed that the Rathor rebellion was not a reaction or a protest against the re-imposition of jizya. Instead, this re-imposition, as Abu’l Fazl Ma’muri observed in the context of the suppression of the Satnami revolt and prior to the emperor’s expedition to Ajmer, was meant for ‘the affliction of the rebellious unbelievers’.

Farman of Aurangzeb and Balaji Temple of Chitrakoot

Jizya and temple destruction were both discriminatory policies. But then we have evidence of grants to the temples as well. A number of documents published in the Journal of the Bombay Historical Society as well as the Pakistan Historical Society mention a number of such grants to hindu temples by Aurangzeb. These documents testify to a number of villages being sanctioned for the upkeep of the temples.[eg. The Vrindavan temples and the ‘Nonidhara Temple at Bahraich].

A Contradictory Policy?

So was there a contradiction in the personality of Aurangzeb? It was not. There was a contradiction in the situation which reflected in the policies of Aurangzeb. Nothing can stay static and yet survive. Aurangzeb knew that change was called for. However, he committed the mistake that he forgot that the religious revival was not the solution for the Mughal problems.

Let us take contemporary evidence. Bhimsen is the author of Nuskha-i Dilkusha. His is an eye-witness account of the military expedition in the Deccan. He was the peshkar of Dalpat Rao Bundela, an outstanding officer of Aurangzeb and is extremely critical of Aurangzeb’s Deccan policy. According to him Aurangzeb followed a policy of qila’ giri while the Marathas controlled the lands. Because of this policy, the area from where formerly gold coins were realized, now not even copper was forthcoming. Thus Bhimsen was quite critical of Aurangzeb, but then what is important to mark is that never does he criticize Aurangzeb on religious ground. He mentions the imposition of jizya but without any rancour.

No Hindu writer of Aurangzeb’s period, whether it is Bhimsen, or Isardas Nagar, the author of Futuhat-i Alamgiri or Sujan Rai Bhandari are critical of Aurangzeb on the grounds of the re-imposition of jizya or the destruction of the temples. These contemporary historians are infact silent on the religious policy of Aurangzeb and from their rading it appears that neither the line taken by Hindu communal historians, headed by Sir Jadunath Sarkar, and followed by S.R.Sarma, and Ashirbadilal Srivastava, nor the line taken by Muslim communal historians headed by Shibli and followed by I.H.Qureshi and others satisfactorily explains the religious policy of Aurangzeb and the stresses and strains to which the Indian Society was subjected to during the second half of the 17th Century.

In fact both the set of arguments are not supported by the contemporary accounts of Bhimsen or the others. Prof. M. Athar Ali deals with this problem in his book as well as in one of his papers.

According to his general assessment, in order to assess the results of Aurangzeb’s religious policy, one should imagine, not the India of the 19th Century with a new national as well as religious consciousness, motivating the various sections of the people, but of a period when vital loyalties to one’s caste or master superseded to a considerable degree other claims upon one’s conscience. In so far as Aurangzeb was careful to respect some privileges, e.g., exemption of the Rajputs from jizya or to exempt temples commanding great devotion (e.g., Puri or Thanjavur Temples) or temples built by loyal officials, he on his own part, recognized that there was a limit beyond which it was impolitic to go.

But above all, according to Athar Ali, one should remember that Aurangzeb’s policy could not be implemented as rigorously as it could be prescribed on paper. This was particularly true in relation to the temple destruction. A few prominent temples could not be saved; but local shrines were often a matter of adjustment with local officials, as the official news-reports from Ajmer testify.

On the whole, while one might deplore the long term effects of Aurangzeb’s Religious policy, specially the way it echoes poison and embitter modern minds. Its short term effects were probably not very significant. To a writer like Bhimsen, who though loyal to the Mughal cause, is also capable of being a friendly critic, the real problem with Aurangzeb was the increasing economic pressure on the peasantry, in which connection he lists the jizya, and the way Aurangzeb was concentrating on taking forts while leaving the country to the Marathas. He does not seem to think that Aurangzeb’s religious measures by themselves had any role in his difficulties. So also Manucci, whose long discourse on the ills of the Mughal Empire in the last years of Aurangzeb’s reign, does not even once brings in the question of any popular hostility aroused against Aurangzeb on account of his religious policy.

One may, on the whole, say that given Aurangzeb’s personal inclination, his religious policy was framed to win some sectional support in a period of political difficulty. The support he won on this basis was probably limited; the support he lost was perhaps even more limited. But the ills of the Mughal Empire were far more deep rooted than to be cured by such measures, or for that matter, be made much worse.

Aurangzeb and Music:

It is generally stressed that one of the worst sufferers during the reign of Aurangzeb was the art of Music. It has been argued that Aurangzeb being a bigot was against music which he banned soon after ascending the throne. There has been an overwhelming reliance on just two near contemporary sources, Manucci’s Storia do Mogor (begun 1699) and Khafi Khan’s Muntakhab al-Lubab (begun 1718). According to Manucci, he not only ‘banned’ music from the court but also arrested those from whose houses he heard its sound. He would also break the instruments. This resulted in a ‘great destruction of musical instruments as well.

However we have a different kind of information as well.

After the death and execution of Dara, we have evidence (cited by Jadunath, vol. III) that Aurangzeb demanded from Shahjahan women singers of Dara. Why? – ‘As there is no skilled songstress with me whose music may soothe my ears!’

Even after 1668 when the ban on music is said to have been imposed, we find that music still remained not only as part of court functions – the ensemble – but also within the haram. Manucci himself tells us that music remained allowed for queens and the princesses. Manucci also provides us with the names of 33 Superintendants in the haram who were ‘overseers of music’. They had Hindu names – Surosh Bai, Chanchal Bai, Dhyan Bai etc – who were however Muslims. Each had under her charge about 10 apprentices. Manucci further informs us that each queen had her own set of musicians.

In a letter reproduced both by Ruqqat-i Alamgiri and Rag Darpan, written to his son Muhammad A‘zam Shah around c.1690 Aurangzeb demonstrates that, at least in private, the exact opposite was the case. In praising his own father’s way of life, he wrote:

After sunset he retired from the ‘Divan-i-Am’, offered evening prayers and (then) entered his special private chamber. There were present sweet tongued historians, eloquent story-tellers, sweet-voiced musicians [qawwalani khush al-han]. . .In short, His Majesty passed, till midnight, the hours of day and night, in this manner, and (thus) did justice to life and sovereignty. As (my) paternal love regarding (my) son is from the heart (i.e. true) and not from the pen (i.e. false), I was obliged to write and inform (my) dear son what was good and valuable.

bherī or dhol, from the chapter on instruments. Ghunyat al-Munya (British Library IO Islamic 1863, f. 47v)

It conclusively demonstrates contrary to expectation that he considered the patronage and performance of music, at least in relation to the qawwals, to be essentially ‘good and valuable’. In this letter he strongly recommends Shah Jahan’s practice to his son. It is impossible to argue on this basis that Aurangzeb actively discouraged his subjects from listening to music.

That his patronage was not simply a concession to court ceremonial is demonstrated by Bakhtawar Khan in the Mir’at-i ‘Alam, which describes Aurangzeb as possessing a ‘perfect expert’s knowledge’ of, and enjoying, the musical art. The high-ranking nobleman Faqirullah described Aurangzeb’s favourite singers and instrumentalists by name in 1666 in his musical treatise Rag Darpan, and noted the emperor’s enthusiastic enjoyment of their talents.

We have further evidence to show that music in fact was never buried deep!

More musical treatises in Persian were written during Aurangzeb’s reign than in the previous 500 years of Muslim rule in India, and all of them make significant references to current music making.

The two major Persian language works on music, the Rag Darpan and the Tuhfat ul Hind were written during Aurangzeb’s reign. Both works are very crucial for Hindustani music history. Rag Darpan was written in 1665 by Faqirullah, an expert of music recruited in Mughal service during the reign of Shahjahan. Under Aurangzeb he was not only bestowed a title, Saif Khan, but also elevated as the governor of three subas: Kashmir, Allahabad and Multan. The work is a translation of the famous treatise on music, Man Kautuhal originally written at Gwalior under Raja Man Singh Tomar (1486-1516).

Tuhfat ul Hind, on the other hand was written by a person known either as Mirza Jan / Mirza Khan / Mirza Muhammad. It is in five parts, of which one is totally devoted to music. One of its chapters deals with tala (musical metres). This work was written either for Aurangzeb or for his favourite son Prince Azam, a great patron of literature, poetry and music.

As Prince Azam was only fifteen years old in 1668, and died in the same year as his father, Katherine Butler Brown points out, his entire career as a patron coincided with the years of Aurangzeb’s supposed ‘ban’. A‘zam was famous for his superior musicianship. According to Bindraban Das, (Safina-i Khushgu), he was unequalled in his knowledge of the fundamentals of music and dance, and even the great masters asked his advice. He possessed a perfect command of many genres of Hindavi poetry, and he was above all famed for his excellent musical compositions.

Not only music continued to exist but it also actively evolved during this reign. this is demonstrated by the modern works of Bonnie C Wade and Katherine Butler Brown. Thus from a Sanskrit work – an important text on music – prepared during the same reign (1665) Sangitaparijata of Ahobala, we come to know that the tambur, a drone instrument, came to be indigenized and was available both in its fretted and unfretted version.

The reign of Aurangzeb was a reign of popularisation of music. The Mirzanama of Mirza Kamran, written no earlier than 1672, shows that musical patronage continued as customary amongst the Mughal amirs. The popular masnavi of Muhammad Akram Ghanimat, Nairang-i ‘Ishq, written in 1685, makes extensive (if partly allegorical) commentary on the presence of musicians and dancers at mehfils he attended, one of whom he famously fell in love with. A large number of Aurangzeb’s amirs are remembered as patrons of music during his reign, including many who were his close associates and relatives. The father of Aurangzeb’s principal wife, Shah Nawaz Khan Safavi, is described in the Ma’asir al-Umara’ as having ‘given his heart to rag. . . He gathered together singers and instrumentalists, the like of which were not to be found in any other place at that time’.


The above discussion brings out the fact that all these measures of Aurangzeb are not so simple to interpret. At the time of Rathor Rebellion Prince Akbar had written a letter to his father reminding him of the fact that he (Aurangzeb) could never have gained the thrown but for the support of the Rajputs. The fact that most Hindu nobles had kept supporting Aurangzeb is well established. So why was he imposing Jizya and demolishing temples? He took these measures only in face of rebellions against his rule. For 22 years he did not think of Jizya, as no revolt had occurred. He forbade Rani Hadi to demolish temples in Jodhpur inspite of her offer, simply because there was no need. No rebellion had occurred. And when an area became zor talab, he had no option.

Similarly the curtailment of music was also aimed as an economic measure. The music was never “buried”, it in fact flourish, and even percolated down to the masses. His son too was into music and dance!

Aurangzeb was nothing but a sovereign dictator whose policies were aimed at furthering his empire.

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi



Religion under Aurangzeb: Some Early Measures

There were a number of early measures initiated by Aurangzeb which have been interpreted as ‘religious measures’. Were they taken in order to pamper the Turani Hanafi Sunni Muslim orthodox elements? For example such practices as tuladan (weighing against gold & silver) as well as jharokha darshan were stopped. Khafi Khan informs that Aurangzeb ‘gave up sitting at the jharokha and ordered people not to assemble for the ceremony’. Prohibition was imposed on the consumption of wine. The usual way of saluting (the chahar taslim) was also discouraged. The science of astrology was also banned and the patronage to the astrologers was withdrawn: no almanacs were to be made heretofore.

Then in 1664, Surat was sacked by Shivaji. Around the same time, Aurangzeb ordered that the custom duties on goods imported by the Muslims should be half as compared to the duty levied on the goods imported by the non-Muslims. This enhancement of duty by100% on goods imported by non-Muslims as compared to their Muslim counter-parts was apparently a discriminatory action of Aurangzeb. But some historians have tried to give and extended interpretation to this obviously discriminatory measure: a compensation for the lack of Muslim commerce!            

After this measure, the Muslims started importing goods belonging to the Hindu merchants in their own name and divided the surplus customs duty. This resulted in a loss to exchequer. Ultimately Aurangzeb withdrew the customs duty from the Muslims altogether.

Just after the accession, Aurangzeb ordered that the nobles should not wear the coloured garments: colours which were prohibited in Islam. Then he banned music which was considered un-Islamic. Musicians protested against this, and when Aurangzeb was going to offer prayers riding an elephant, musicians carried a fake funeral, all the time weeping. When asked, Aurangzeb was told that music had died and they were carrying its bier. Aurangzeb retorted bury it so deep that it never comes out again!

Sir Jadunath is of the opinion that it was banned because of religious considerations. But RP Tripathi is of the opinion, that in the same year in which the music was banned, the allowances of the princes and princesses were also curtailed. As we have already discussed that the early years of Aurangzeb were marked with a financial crisis. Thus to Tripathi, ban on music was an economic device curtailing unproductive matters.

 But one of the most important and relevant action taken by Aurangzeb in this connection was the liberal attitude towards the madad-i ma’ash holders (revenue free grantees). Madad-i ma’ash was maintenance grant to ulema and mashaikh so that they may pray for the long life of the emperor and the prosperity of the empire without concern for their maintenance. 90% of the recipients of such grants were Muslims. Sole justification for this was only that they should concentrate undisturbed in their academic pursuits. This grant was only in the form of land; rozina or daily cash allowance was very rare. In 1670’s and 80’s, Aurangzeb was having political problems with the zamindars: as has been argued, the Jat rebellion, the Rathore rebellion, etc were all zamindar uprisings. Ninety percent of the zamindars were Hindus; and by and large (i.e., around 70%) of the Jagirdars were Muslims. That is why Sir Jadunath Sarkar defined it as a ‘Hindu Reaction’. Secondly, the zamindars were concentrated in the villages. What Aurangzeb did was that to counteract the growing influence of the zamindars in the rural areas, he (a) created Muslim zamindars at the village levels to counteract the growing influence of the Hindu zamindars; and (b) He made madad-i ma’ash holders permanent and in some places, hereditary – just at par with the zamindari rights.   

We have the evidence from Tarikh-i Aurangzeb of Abul Fazl Mamuri. Mamuri says that before his departure from Deccan (before 1681), Aurangzeb was faced with a Jagirdari crisis. Mamuri used the phrase: hama ālam bējāgīr mand.

Before his departure for the Deccan, Mamuri says, Aurangzeb exercised care and caution in granting promotions or fresh appointments to the Rajputs. And the jagis so saved, by placing restrictions on promotions and appointments to Rajputs, became loaves and fishes which Aurangzeb gave to the Muslims to consolidate them behind the throne. It appears that Aurangzeb succeeded in his plans.

We have seen that the institution of the monarchy had been weakened by the way Aurangzeb ascended the throne. A new prestige had to be added to the institution of the monarchy if the same process was to be avoided: and that is why Aurangzeb made a deliberate attempt to attach religious sanctity to the institution of the monarchy. That is why Aurangzeb chose to be known as Alamgir and zindapir. He made a determined and deliberate attempt to prove his vigour and to emerge as a vigorous king by sanctioning military expeditions. He failed as natural geographical barriers had been reached during the reign of Shahjahan. And when he failed on the political front and a chain reaction started, he tried to conceal his failures behind the shield of emphasising on Shariat. Ultimately, the die was cast and the day of all precautionary measures dawned when in 1679, his youngest son Prince Akbar revolted and wrote a very nasty letter to his father in which he pointed out that ‘you are responsible for the death of Shah Shuja, Dara and so forth, and now it is you who are teaching morality…’. But the fiasco, with which the rebellion of Akbar ended with his flight to Persia, is the conclusive evidence that Aurangzeb had succeeded in binding the Muslim aristocracy behind the Mughal throne by emphasising the Shariat laws. It was in the same year that Jizya was imposed. Why did Aurangzeb not impose the jizya from 1658 to 1679? What was the sudden need now?

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi

Aurangzeb and the Muslim Orthodoxy

Qazi Abul Wahhab

During his reign, Aurangzeb did increase the role of the ʿulamāʾ and promulgated laws that overtly conformed to the dictates of the sharīʿah. The Mughal historian Khāfi Khān notes, “the Emperor gave such extensive powers to the Qāḍis in the civil administration and general and detailed affairs of the state that it become a cause of jealousy and envy of the leading nobles of the Empire.” Prohibitions of the use of intoxicants, of extravagant pilgrimages to Hindu places of worship, and of music and dancing were decreed. The state systems of taxation were brought in line with the sharīʿah, and patronage of court astrologers ceased.18 As a result, subsequent generations of ʿulamāʾ as well as a number of modern scholars have declared Aurangzeb as a champion of orthodox Islam, arguing the triumph of the reforms of Sirhindī. Others have challenged that view, suggesting that the records indicate that Aurangzeb’s practice was more eclectic, especially later in his reign, and have argued that political considerations outweighed any commitment to religion.

While scholars continue to debate his motivations and how the legacy of Aurangzeb is to be portrayed, what is evident is that the ʿulamāʾ perceived his reign to enhance their influence in the imperial court.of court ulama under Aurangzeb.

From the time of his accession to the time when Shahjahan expired, Aurangzeb’s tenuous position as king was augmented by Qazi Abdul Wahhab. He provided the legal sanction to his disputed accession in 1658. Starting from the Shaikh ul-Islam and the chief imperial qazi in Delhi, this carried all the way down to the local level, including the vast chain of muhtasibs or censors of public morals. These ulema were, in effect, government employees, paid in cash as well as in the form of tax-free lands by the state. They manned the courts, acted as conduits for information to the Emperor and also served as an important source of legitimacy for the regime.

But was this elaborate hierarchy of religious specialists, trained in the shari’ah, truly able to function in the manner that is made out by pro-Aurangzeb propagandists? On the one hand we have the evidence that this apparent ascendancy of the theologians was resented by the general nobility. At a time when Shivaji had attacked the Mughal subahdar, Shaista Khan, who met with a humiliating defeat and was recalled, Aurangzeb tried to give the command to another noble, but the man retorted, “why appoint me or anyone else, ask the lashkar i dua to raise their hands in prayers!”

We also know that the system was riddled with corruption and inefficiency. Many qazis were indeed upright but many others were not, and some used their position to extort money from the public. One Qazi was caught drunk, another found in indulging in unethical acts. The muhtasibs were charged with enforcing Islamic laws and morality, but were often unable to do so, particularly when it came to local Muslim elites, many of who were given to a life of wanton luxury, including usury, drinking and music, which the “orthodox” Sunni ulema condemned. We have evidence that numerous Sufis protested against the harshness of the muhtasibs, particularly on the issue of banning music. Despite the ulemas’ insistence on the strict following of Islamic jurisprudence in matters related to revenue collection, the traditional revenue system remained intact. Likewise, local caste panchayats, even among local Muslim convert groups, continued to be allowed to function and decided disputes on lines that sometimes contravened the shari’ah as the court ulema understood it. Despite stern opposition from the “orthodox” ulema, partly for what these ulema saw as some of their unwarranted beliefs and practices but also because of jealousy owing to their mass support, popular Sufis, including those who preached the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud or the “unity of existence” and sought to stress the oneness of Hindus, Muslims and others, continued to flourish. Furthermore, the “orthodox” ulema, were unable to present a united front, were often at odds with each other and riddled with internal jealousies and rivalries.

Far from causing a radical break with the Mughal precedent, Aurangzeb’s religious policies, in particular his attitude towards the orthodox Sunni ulema, represent, in many senses, a continuation of it. As before, under Aurangzeb, sections of the ulema received generous royal support, and they, in turn, proved to be a major ideological pillar for the regime. Although Aurangzeb was certainly more generous with his patronage of the ulema than several of his predecessors, he did not allow them to dictate state policies. Though they were given prestige, the ulema remained, in the final analysis, subservient to the state and lacked an effective independent voice to enforce their views. While Aurangzeb sometimes sought their advice on matters of the shari’ah, he often dispensed with their views altogether, preferring his own opinions to theirs. As before, the shari’ah, in the sense of fiqh or historical Muslim jurisprudence, remained only one, although in some spheres major, source of law under Aurangzeb, and it was often supplemented, even supplanted, by imperial edicts and customary laws, some of which were directly in contravention of the shari’ah as the “orthodox” Sunni ulema viewed it.

Our sources provide many instances to substantiate this argument. Aurangzeb’s imprisonment of his own father and murder of his brothers, which brought him to power, were, of course, just two of these instances, but there were others as well. When the imperial qazi refused to read the khutba in his name, Aurangzeb had him summarily dis- missed, and, later, when the Shaikh ul-Islam refused to supply him with a fatwa legitimising his plans to invade the Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan, he caused him to meet with the same fate.

Aurangzeb did take certain other steps that were calculated to win the approval of the “orthodox” ulema. One of his major achievements in this regard was to commission the compilation of a code of Hanafi law, named after him as the Fatawa-e Alamgiri, the collective work of several ulema. Bhatia opines that in itself this did not represent a major development in Islamic law as it was simply a digest of secondary sources by earlier ulema for the guidance of the qazis or judges, and, despite it, the qazis continued to hand out judgments according to their own understanding and interpretations of the shari’ah.

Aurangzeb’s religious policies, in particular his attitude towards the orthodox Sunni ulema, represent, in many senses, a continuation of it. As before, under Aurangzeb, sections of the ulema received generous royal support, and they, in turn, proved to be a major ideological pillar for the regime. Although Aurangzeb was certainly more generous with his patronage of the ulema than several of his predecessors, he did not allow them to dictate state policies. Though they were given prestige, the ulema remained, in the final analysis, subservient to the state and lacked an effective independent voice to enforce their views. While Aurangzeb sometimes sought their advice on matters of the shari’ah, he often dispensed with their views altogether, preferring his own opinions to theirs.

Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi

A Date with Mujaddid Alf-i Sāni, Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi

The first view across the green fields
The complex
The Tomb of Shaikh Ahmad & his sons

I never ever thought of ever having a date with Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi Mujaddid-i Alf-i Sāni, the Redeemer of the second Millennium who lies buried at Sirhind in Punjab. But destiny willed otherwise and the Shaikh beckoned me to his tomb at Sirhind!

Shaikh Ahmad of Sirhind was an uncompromising orthodox with whom I can never see eye to eye. Like Jahangir, I also believe that he had “opened a shop of sedition” and strife between communities.

I had heard of the Shaikh from my childhood when we used to go to Agra to visit the tomb of Qazi Nurullah Shustari who had been allegedly done to death due to Shaikh Ahmad’s insinuations. Again I heard of him when I read one of Professor Khaliq Ahmad Nizami’s piece where he alleged that Nur Jahāñ caused the incarceration of the Shaikh as she was a Shia and held him responsible for the execution of the Shia Qazi!

My real exposure to the Shaikh was however when I was doing my MA in history and Professor M Athar Ali taught us about him and his movement. It was a much more moderate view of Sirhindi which I had heard so far! And then I read Yohanne Friedman’s detailed article on him. And then ultimately I went through the pathbreaking article written by Irfan Habib where he analysed the thought and writings of Shaikh Ahmad threadbare.

Belonging to the Naqshbandi Silsila (Order), Shaikh Ahmad was a disciple of Khwaja Baqi Billah, buried in Delhi. He believed that Islam had been severely contaminated with heterodoxy. Shi’ism and Hindus had both so polluted the true faith, that the true piety had disappeared and that as a new millennium was starting, there was the need of a Redeemer. He believed that he himself was that great Redeemer who was destined to save the religion of Islam: he was the Mujaddid of the Second Millennium.

He wrote letter after letter to various nobles (and interestingly none apparently replied or even acknowledged these letters) that to sit with Shias and Hindus was similar to eating food with dogs!

Sirhindi also wrote a treatise under the title “Radd-e-Rawafiz” to justify the slaughter of shias by Abdullah Khan Uzbek in Mashhad. In this he argues:

“Since the Shia permit cursing Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and one of the chaste wives (of the Prophet), which in itself constitutes infedality, it is incumbent upon the Muslim ruler, nay upon all people, in compliance with the command of the Omniscient King (Allah), to kill them and to oppress them in order to elevate the true religion. It is permissible to destroy their buildings and to seize their property and belongings.”

In one dream included in his Maktūbāt, he narrated how he while being taken to heavens to meet God, passed the stages of the Four Pious Caliphs and with the exception to the Prophet (thankfully) he reached closest to the God!

He wrote that in this dream when an angel led him towards heaven, he reached a stage where there was a beautiful mansion which he was told was of the fourth Caliph, Imām Ali. He proceeded further and reached a second mansion which was that of Uthman. He was urged to go further and thus he reached the mansion of second Caliph. He then went further where he found the mansion of Abu Bakr the first Pious Caliph. However, his journey didn’t end there, as he was beckoned to go beyond these limits and go closer to God than any of them!

Jahangir was left with no option but to throw him in jail in 1610-11 where he remained for around a year. In the Tuzuk Jahangir says that Shaikh Ahmad had opened a dukan of sedition and strife which had to be quelled. Subsequent to his release the nature of his letters changes. The second volume of his Maktubat are now devoid of rabidly communal claims as contained in volume one. All the rhetoric against the Hindus and Shias is now gone! He is ultimately said to have died by 1624. He however remained popular even after his death.

Later day Mujaddidi sources also allege that he played an active role in the execution of the Shia divine, judge and scholar Qazi Nurullah Shushtari. The contemporary sources of the period however are absolutely silent on this issue.

The Mujaddidi sources, especially those like Rūd i Kausar and Āb i Kausar stress his political role. The compilations of his letters in three volumes, Maktūbāt i Imām Rabbāni, have letters which he allegedly wrote to many high nobles of Akbar and Jahangir where he is found critical of Akbar’s and Jahangir’s religious views. He is also found exhorting the nobles to act against such moves. The Mujaddidi sources also claim that it was due to Shaikh Ahmad that Jahangir got the throne: Jahangir’s accession was a triumph of Islam!

Unfortunately these claims are belied by history! No historical source of the period mention him or his alleged role! Even Jahangir on coming to the throne took measures, and openly declared that he was following the footsteps of his father and that his religious views were the same as that of his father! And this finds support from the newly discovered Jahangiri source, the Majālis i Jahangiri compiled by Abdul Sattar Lahori!

Further, Irfan Habib has perceptively pointed out: yes the letters written to various nobles by Shaikh Ahmad are there in his own collection. But did any of the alleged nobles ever reply back to him? We have no evidence that any grand noble was ever in his influence or ever took any notice of him. It was just self claim and posturing!

While on a visit to Patiala for a conference, I had the chance to visit the “shrine” of this orthodox saint at Sirhind, now called Fatehgarh Sahib.

At Fatehgarh Sahib, I skipped the Jahangiri Bāgh and Palace complex, but decided to visit the tomb of the controversial saint. It was as if he was beckoning me! So after visiting a few early Mughal period tombs and the Gurudwara, we headed straight to where the Shaikh lies buried: in fact the only “Muslim” shrine or structure in the whole region which is “living” and “thriving” with visitors and curious travellers like us!

In spite of his own teachings to not revere the dead, a big shrine has been built over his grave, an annual Urs is also held despite his teachings and chadors (grave covering cloth) are offered.

His dargah appears like any other dargah of a Sufi who’s rituals he was critical about: the same type of reverence being showered to the grave, the rituals of chadorposhi and the mujawirs eyeing your pocket for nazrana! However the whole layout of the complex as well as the main shrine, reminds one more of the Gurudwara architecture of the nearby area.

The complex spans over several courtyards, individuals tomb structures as well as simple graves of the devotees of the Shaikh. One of the prominent tomb is that of an Afghan king, Shāh Zaman and his wife.

The portal
The entry gate
The large passage which leads to the shrine
A subsidiary structure in the complex
Grave of Sirhindi
Tomb of Shāh Zaman

I had no wish to meet him at a spiritual level, but as a historian I had a date with him on 19th March 2017: it provided me neither with spiritual solace or satisfaction as a historian: as the place is nothing but a modern structure- a whim of some modern disciple of the Naqshbandi Silsila, the only chain of Sufis who have nothing to do with Imam Ali!

Emergence of Mughal School of Architecture under Akbar

It was the period of Akbar which laid the foundation of the Mughal Architecture as it developed in India. Traditionally speaking, there are a number of architectural features which are associated with the reign of Akbar. According to Percy Brown these salient features were:

The structures were chiefly executed in red sandstone with insertions of white marble introduced for purposes of emphasis.

The construction, in principle, was of the trabeate order, and the use of arcuate and trabeate was in almost equal proportions.

The technique of building construction was not far removed from a wooden archetype, a method of construction that was still practised in the more northern parts of the country, like Punjab and Kashmir.

 The dome was of the “Lodi” type, sometimes built hollow but never technically of the true double order.

 The pillar shafts were usually many-sided and the capitals were almost invariably in the form of bracket supports.

As to the ornamentation, carved or boldly inlaid patterns were common while painted designs were often introduced on the interior walls and ceilings.

As the Mughals considered themselves to be the heirs of the Timurid tradition, they borrowed heavily from the Iranian style which had developed under the Ilkhanids, Timurids, and Muzaffarids. When Babur came, he brought along with him two Iranian architects, Ustad Mir Mirak Ghiyas of Herat and Ustad Shah Muhammad of Khurasan. Recent researches have also shown that the Indo-Muslim architecture, as it developed in Medieval India, heavily borrowed stylistic, idiomatic (characteristic forms, architectonic and decorative), axiomorphic (form appropriate to the purpose of the structure) and aesthetic traditions from Iranian, Trans-Oxonian and regional Indian styles. Mughal architecture borrowed extensively from Delhi Sultanate, Sharqi, Gujarat, Malwa, Bengal,and Rajasthani styles as well as from styles abroad, so much so that it has itself been defined as a synthesis of this foreign and indigenous styles.

It should be borne in mind that much of this borrowing and the synthesis of the Iranian and Central Asian style with the Indo-Muslim style of architecture in India took place especially during the reign of Akbar. It was a period when a large borrowing of ‘Indian’ traditions in the field of art, literature, painting, music and architecture takes place. These were seamlessly diffused in the newly emerging Iranian and Timurid idiomatics, axiomorphics and aesthetics.

During this reign structures were generally constructed on Central Asian and Iranian plans while the surface decorations, more or less, were as per the traditions more closer at hand.

The Iranian / Timurid Influences:

1. The Iranian four- centred (as well as the two centred) pointed arch which came to be identified as the typical Mughal arch during the reign of Akbar.

2. A plan which has been labelled hasht bihisht or nonipartite plan. [Humayun T – chamfered, square etc]

3. the ‘arch-and-panel’ articulation

4. The stellate vaults (the Chahar taq) based on cruciform domed-chambers [a square vaulted chamber spanned by four large intersecting arches, resting on massive wide piers, form a cruciform with an open square in the centre. This square is then turned into a polygon or circle with the help of smaller arches, supplemented by the decorative ribs rising from the main arches. In this chahartaq plan, the Iranian architects improvised a new type of a vaulting system, now generally known as the Khurasanian vault. The Khurasanian (multi-partite) vault was invoked by the Timurid architects by reviving the Ilkhanid and Seljuq stelliform vault on the system of intersecting arches

The Indegenous Influences:

1. As far as the residential structures are concerned, it appears that the Akbari architects preferred the indigenous plan known in India since the Mauryan times, the well known catuhśālā plan. [Jodhbai Palace, Jahangiri Mahal]

2. The surface decoration: carvings, ‘Lodi domes’, the use of trabeate roofs etc

3. Templar Mosques: the triplication of the sanctuary, Secondly we find the placement of the mosque on a high plinth or platform, Thirdly greater sacrality is given to the western liwan through a gradual hierarchy starting from the portals.

4. This process, however, a two way process: if the temple architecture had its influence on the mosque construction, the Akbari temples were not left far behind in this process of shared heritage and feature exchange. The Govind Dev Temple at Vrindavan, Mathura has a typical cruciform plan covered with a well developed Timurud chahartaq Khurasanian vault. This temple along with Madan Mohan Temple and Jagat Kishore temple resemble the elevations and surface decorations of Akbari red sand stone structures at Fathpur Sikri and else where.

5. The most distinguishing feature of the Akbari architecture was the use and combination of the post-and-beam trabeate technique of construction with the arcuate. From the ‘Akbari Mahal’ and ‘Jahangiri Mahal’ at Agra Fort to almost all the structures at Fathpur Sikri to the Vrindavan temples, this blending of the two very diverse techniques is encountered. So much so that even when a building is domed or vaulted, the dome or the vault is deliberately hidden below a flat platform giving the structure a classic trabeate shape. The trabeate style is further accentuated by providing heavy brackets to the drooping eaves. It seems that the Akbari architects were trying to hide the arcuate elements of the structures.

6. Secondly the Akbari architect dispersed these visually hidden vaulted and domed chambers around vast open spaces which were linked to each other through elaborate post-and-beam colonnades. Some of these colonnaded structures were super-imposed to form two or more stories. Two examples of such constructions are the Khilwatkada structure in the daulatkhana-i Anuptalao and the chaharsuffa (Panch Mahal) in the buffer-zone between the Shabistan-i Iqbal and the daulatkhana.

7. The Khilwatkada structure is a double-platformed post-and-beam construction on top of which is constructed the khwabgah with a covered (hidden) circular vault. This structure appears to have been loosely based on the palace of Mahmud Begra at Sarkhej.

8. However the most distinguishing feature which can be discerned from the study of the development of architecture under Akbar is that though the post-and-beam tradition might have been derived from the local indigenous trabeated examples, the Akbari architects, known as muhandis (geometricians), tempered it with their recently acquired geometrical knowledge of weights and measures. The trabeate structures of Akbar are lighter and slimmer as compared to their cousins in Rajasthan-Gujarat-Malwa tradition. Secondly, as Koch puts it, the use of red sand stone, apart from its symbolic connotation of being the colour of the sovereign, ‘glossed over stylistic clashes resulting from the amalgamation’ of heterogenous architectural traditions of the Timurid, Central Asian and the more indigenous styles of the Delhi Sultanate, Bengal, Rajputana, malwa and Gujarat. The symbiotic result was the secular architecture of Akbar which was ultimately to result in the Taj, the most indigenous and famous of the Mughal monuments.

Akbar’s strive at religious and cultural reconciliation, in particular between his Hindu and Muslim subjects, has been used to explain the arts created for him, especially his architecture. Akbar built more and on a larger scale than any Indian ruler before him, we owe to his patronage the great Mughal fortress palaces of Agra (1564-1570s), and Lahore (completed 1580), the suburban residence Fathpur Sikri with its monumental mosque (1571-85), and Humayun’s tomb at Delhi (1562-71), to name just the most outstanding architectural achievements of his reign.  It is however not quite clear to which extend Akbar was personally interested in architecture; Abu’l Fazl has remarkable little to say about it, and the Jesuit observer Monserrate refers to it as an occasion for Akbar to demonstrate his physical prowess, when he mingled with his builders and carried blocks of stones.  The official Akbari view on architecture can be obtained from Qandahari, another historian, who claimed that Akbar designed parts of Fatehpur Sikri, and who represented the architecture of his emperor as a testimony to his rule:

“…a good name for kings is [achieved by means] of lofty buildings …That is to say the standard of the measure of men is assessed by the worth of [their] building (`imarat) and from their high-mindedness is estimated the state of their house.”


“Whosoever saw the spacious expanse of that place (makan) and the arrangement of ornament (nuzhat) of that edifice (bunyan) [ the Agra fort]  found the affairs of the kingdom and means of authority in full accord with this order and the high and low, in consonance with allegiance and obedience.”

           These statements of Qandahari justify the interpretation of Akbar’s architecture as a “lithic expression of his policies,” to borrow a phrase from Giles Tillotson who argues against it. However, art historians have too easily drawn an equation between the forms of Akbar’s architecture and his Weltanschauung (philosophy of life). A common practice, which goes back to British notions of the nineteenth century, is to describe arches and vaults as “Muslim”, and brackets and beams as “Hindu”, and their common use in one building as an expression of Akbar’s tolerance. 

         Abu’l Fazl saw the use of Indian forms rather in regional terms; he tells us that the buildings of the Red Fort of Agra “were built in the beautiful styles of Gujarat and Bengal.” Gujarat in particular had, as no other region of India,  absorbed older local  forms in its Muslim architecture, thus  the Gujarati  buildings types and  forms adopted in Akbari architecture could be read as “Hindu”, if one wanted to disregard their historical development. A particular telling example comes from the so called Astrologer’s Seat at Fathpur Sikri. Its prominent caterpillar (ilika-valana) or serpentine brackets are a characteristic element of the architecture of Gujarat and thus they have caused this pavilion frequently to be cited as evidence of the direct imitation of Gujarati Hindu or Jain religious architecture. But the structure has a much nearer forerunner in an Islamic building of Gujarat, in the mukabbar kiosk in the courtyard of the Jami` Masjid in Cambay, constructed in 1325.  This means that Akbar’s builders made with the Astrologer’s Seat a reference to what they considered a trans-culturally successful regional style of India.

Another Indian style which was highly influential for the architecture of Akbar was the ornamental sandstone tradition of the early Delhi sultanate. It had gone out of fashion during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Delhi but continued   uninterrupted in provincial centers like Bayana or Kannauj, creating an architectural heritage from which early Mughal architecture could draw its inspiration.

When we want to regard Akbari architecture as a testimony of his rule, it seems more likely that its intention was to bring “the regional” on to a supra regional imperial level. Selected styles and forms of Hindustan were merged with building principles and forms of Timurid Central Asia, and these components were given new emphasis by magnified proportions, by a new approach to structural logic, reflected in décor and detail, and, at least in the heartland of Mughal building activities at Delhi, Agra and Fathpur Sikri, by the unifying medium of the red sandstone which had a high symbolic value. Red had been since ancient times the color of kings and was also used exclusively for imperial Mughal tents. In India, the old Shastric texts, such as the Vishnudharmottara (probably eight century), recommended red stones for the buildings of the kshatriyas, the warrior and kingly caste, and white for Brahmins, the priestly caste. By adopting red sandstone as their preferred building material and by highlighting it with white marble, the Mughals revived a practice of the early sultans of Delhi and associated themselves architecturally with what they considered their counter parts, the uppermost ranks in the Indian social hierarchy. Since the red sandstone had royal properties linked to both the Muslim and Hindu tradition, it worked, if we are allowed to make this cross disciplinary comparison, even better than the Persian language as an unifying appropriating element.

• Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi