Early in June 1658, following victory over his eldest brother Dara Shikoh at Samugarh in the fight for the Imperial throne, Aurangzeb received a sword called Alamgir — ‘World-Seizer’ — as a present from his father, the Emperor Shah Jahan.
This might sound like a fitting gesture from a proud father to a successful son, however nothing could be farther from the truth. Emperor Shah Jahan was a sick man, having taken astringent aphrodisiac ‘to restore the vigour of his youth’, and was not expected to recover. His four sons had duly embarked upon a bloody struggle for succession and while Shah Jahan strongly favoured Dara Shikoh, it was Aurangzeb who emerged victorious, crowning himself Emperor in Delhi on 31 July 1658 and taking the same title as the sword, Alamgir.
The subsequent fate of Aurangzeb’s three brothers — and indeed of his father, the deposed Emperor — reveals much about his calculation and determination, and also of the mores of the times. The eldest brother, Dara Shikoh, was executed in 1659. After being stabbed to death his head was removed and, according to one report, sent to his father before his body was paraded through the streets of Delhi tied to an elephant.
The youngest brother, Murad Bakhsh, was executed two years later following a trumped-up charge. Only Shah Shujar escaped fratricide; it was presumed he had been killed in 1661 following a failed coup against the ruler of Arakan.
For the remaining seven years of his life, the deposed Emperor, Shah Jahan, was forced to defend his legitimate claim to the throne from within the fort at Agra, famously overlooking the Taj Mahal where his beloved wife Mumtaz lay. When Aurangzeb cut off the water supply, Shah Jahan surrendered within days.
The Emperor Aurangzeb Enthroned, Mughal India, Circa 1730. Gouache heightened with gold on paper. 11 7/8 x 8 3/8in. (27.8 x 21.2cm.) Sold at Christie’s on 10 October 2013 for £6,875
It did not end there. Dara Shikoh’s two sons were imprisoned in Gwalior Fort, located in central India, where the eldest, Sulaiman, was made to drink opium water until he died, and where the youngest, Sipihr, remained until he succumbed to natural causes. Aurangzeb ordered Dara Shikoh’s two wives to accept his hand in marriage; Udepuri did so, and the union was successful, but Ranadil decided to mutilate her own face rather than comply. Such were the vagaries of the time.
While Aurangzeb’s actions sound extreme to modern ears he was effectively left with little choice in the matter. There could only be one man left standing in the fight to rule over the Mughal Empire.
He never seemed able to consolidate his conquests or savour any prolonged period of peace. He died doubting his legacy, and trusting only in the mercy of his faith
Aurangzeb is considered to be the last great Mughal Emperor. As a devout Muslim, orthodoxy became increasingly important during the course of his reign and as an act of piety, Aurangzeb sought to limit the excesses and extravagant ways of the Mughal court. Unlike his predecessors he believed that the state treasury should not cover the expenses of the royal court.
He also introduced the jaziya that required non-Muslims to pay an additional land tax. This lost him much support from his Hindu and Sikh subjects and his reign was marred by near constant rebellions.
As Emperor, Aurangzeb enjoyed considerable military success, conquering the Deccan after the sieges of Bidar, Bijapur and Golconda, and the continued war against the expanding Maratha Confederacy, yet he never seemed able to consolidate his conquests or savour any prolonged period of peace. He died in his 88th year doubting his legacy, and trusting only in the mercy of his faith.
The Mughal court had a tradition of producing historical biographies for each of the Emperors to emphasise their lineage and greatness. These were often finely illustrated works of art produced in the royal atelier. The Alamgir-namah followed suit for the first 10 years of Aurangzeb’s reign, but it was discontinued around 1670 as part of the Emperor’s austerity measures. Around the same time, Aurangzeb also began to suppress artistic expression, particularly productions of music, dance, poetry and works of art from the workshops at court.
From this period onwards we rely on private accounts of proceedings at court, including the Maasir-I-Alamgiri of Saqi Must’ad Khan. However it is the Storia do Mogor, by the Italian adventurer Niccolao Manucci, who spent most of his life in India, which provides more intimate (though not always reliable) information about court life.
‘Blood-Thirsty’, a personal sword of the Emperor Aurangzeb (reigned 1658-1717). Mughal India, second half of 17th century. Sold for £68,500 in our Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds sale in London on 23 April 2015
Manucci records the names of 27 swords that were the personal property of Aurangzeb. Their names are mostly epithets like ‘Infidel Slayer’ or ‘Helmet Cleaver’ and are poetic as well as being redolent of intent. Manucci also tells us that these swords ‘have gold hilts covered with costly stones’. The practice of naming swords within Islam goes back at least as far as the famous sword Zulfikar, from the first half of the 7th century A.D. This was the sword that belonged to Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.
Indian blades were made from crucible steel known as wootz, which though beautiful were brittle and subject to breakage. A blade needs to combine hardness (in order to take a sharp edge) with temper (the ability to withstand a degree of bending), and blades of European manufacture were much in demand for these qualities. These blades were known as firanghi (‘foreigner’) and formed an important part of the trade with India from Europe. They were typically cut with fullers or ‘blood channels’, made with a single cutting edge, and frequently stamped with a maker’s marks or a short inscription.
European blades by association with sophisticated European firearms were viewed as highly desirable objects during the reign of Aurangzeb. It is therefore no surprise that the Emperor chose a prestigious European blade such as this to form part of his personal armoury.
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