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Remember history? The class in school where we had to memorise dates of battles and coronations. Dreary and awful – what a waste of a perfectly interesting subject.
Am contemplating this topic because I’ve just had the most historically awesome road trip with my six year old. We had been reading books on Mughal emperors – me because I have taken a new interest in historical novels and she because she was gifted a children’s book – Razia and the Pesky Presents that was just perfect for her clowny princess-story-loving self. So when we got a chance we spent a weekend exploring Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj Mahal (firmly on the beaten path of all tourists).
It was amazing. At Fatehpur Sikri we came across Akbar’s many wives – the Sultanas of many different religions. We gazed with wonder at his throne in the Diwan-i-Khas – set on top of a thick, beautifully carved pillar, with four bridges leading to the four edges of the room where argumentative philosophers sat and debated the hot issues of the day (mostly religion). He was one of our greatest Emperors, yet not such a great husband or father, and it was slightly absurd of him to build this whole new extravagant capital in the middle of nowhere on a whim.
She didn’t want to go to the Taj Mahal (“Its so bo-o-oring!”), but when we got there, we staked out a place in the shade where we could gaze at the white magnificence of the most beautiful (and ridiculously extravagant) building on earth. As we sat there, I told her everything I knew about Shah Jahan (I had just read the book). Both children, even my little toddler, listened open-mouthed to the tale of young Khurram, born under extremely auspicious stars, adopted by his grandfather Akbar to be raised by the Emperor himself, persecuted later by his father Jehangir (or rather his father’s extremely ambitious new wife Noor Jehan). He fell hard for his first wife – named Mumtaz Mahal after marriage – and stayed in love with her throughout her life, as any street urchin in India will tell you. They were loving parents to all of their children (Mumtaz died during childbirth of her 14th), which is why it was particularly hurtful for him to see how horrid and intolerant Aurangzeb turned out. Aurangzeb decided that the vast majority of the people in his kingdom were “infidels” and subject to persecution. He also committed fratricide, executing his own brother Dara Shikoh. although, as Aurangzeb pointed out to his father (while imprisoning him for the rest of his days), Shah Jehan had killed his own brothers too after Jehangir’s death. We talked at length about Roshanara and Jahanara, Aurangzeb’s sisters, two prominent Mughal princesses with very different personalities.
The kids may have been too young for this stuff, but they loved it. Afterwards my toddler wanted to tell his own story (it was about a tiger and a deer, who fell down, and that was it), and then my daughter got up to recount the funny episodes of Razia Sultan’s story from the book. She explained to me (and it’s true) that Razia did not like the title Sultana, because that is technically indicative of an Emperor’s wife, rather than the Emperor himself (or herself, in her case).
We know more now about the Mughal emperors than I did in the height of my studies on the subject. It’s all so interesting. And neither of us know a single date of a single incident – battles or coronations or anything.