Aurangzeb and his times: A reasonable and readable view (Book Review)

Title: Shahenshah- The Life of Aurangzeb; Author: N.S. Inamdar/Vikrant Pande (translator); Publisher: Harper Perennial; Pages: 488; Price: Rs 599

How should we view Aurangzeb, the last of the Great Mughals, and perhaps the most polarising figure in pre-modern Indian history. Was he a ruthless tyrant who did not even spare his family in his power bid and weakened the empire by his bigotry and ceaseless warring, or a determined, conscientious ruler but inflexible in his faith, as roughly par for his times.

The general depiction of Aurangzeb in popular culture – and there has been quite a bit in recent times – is as an ambitious and scheming fanatic, or variant thereof. And in its nonjudgmental, narrative form, this depiction by renowned Marathi writer Nagnath S. Inamdar – finally available in English – is a welcome change.

As Inamdar writes, towards the end of his long life, one of Aurangzeb’s daughters saw him crying after getting news of the death of her elder sister whom he had ordered imprisoned for conspiring with one of his rebel sons. As she expressed her surprise at his reaction, he said: “It was the Shahenshah who put her in jail and it is her father who is crying.”

This, among many others, gives a certain clarity to assessing Aurangzeb – as a tragic, flawed figure, in all his contradictions, and more grey than black or white (like most historical figures). And Inamdar (1923-2002), who wrote 16 well-researched historical novels including on Peshwa Baji Rao and his famous infatuation that served as the basis for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Bajirao Mastani”, well appreciates and ably brings this out.

He tells us his interest in Aurangzeb arose when, while touring Maharashtra, he “wondered how the Mughal Emperor could spend twenty-five years of his life in tents, camps and and living a life of hardship along with thousands of soldiers…. it triggered in me a sense of curiousity to explore the subject further”.

And then Inamdar came across a prominent temple whose priest told him that it had come down in his family that not only had Aurangzeb left it intact, but also sanctioned an annual donation for its upkeep. Further diminishing the idea of a puritanical figure, he found old manuscripts with love sonnets penned by the emperor.

Consequently, his account presents Aurangzeb in all his colours – some never seen or even believed possible. While it begins with him as a prince smarting over snubs by his father, family and court, and worse by secretly traitorous aides (and patiently biding his time), it also shows him so besotted by a concubine that he exercises his imperial prerogative to get her for himself and neglects his work, wives and even prayers in her company.

There is, as mentioned, the doting husband and father but stern and principled ruler, a man of strict faith but canny and pragmatic statesman and effective diplomat, who had no qualms in ordering executions of ‘heretics’ like Sarmad and ‘rebels’ like Guru Tegh Bahadur but also capable of gauging the real intentions of his own religious hardliners.

Though a considerable part is devoted to Aurangzeb’s own eventful family life, the account gives due emphasis to relations with the Rajputs and the Marathas – the ceaseless pursuit of Shivaji but then an indication of arriving at some modus vivendi, the torture and killing of Sambhaji after some initial patronage, but also careful and considerate guardianship of his widow and son Shahu.

It ends with the declining emperor pondering if his struggles have been worth it.

So what should we make of Aurangzeb?

Detractors say he overthrew his father Shah Jahan and imprisoned him till death. But, leaving alone his father and grandfather who unsuccessfully attempted the same, so did Ajatashatru of Magadh. He killed his brothers in his path to the throne – so did Ashoka. He destroyed other religions’ places of worship – so did the Chalukyas, and the Gaud and the Sena dynasties in Bengal.

What Inamdar’s work shows us that we cannot – must not – assess historical figures by norms of our own times, and selective approaches. Aurangzeb was the product of his time and its circumstances and should be viewed in this perspective.

But yes mixing religion with politics is always a bad idea.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at )



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