Monthly Archives: June, 2019

Water aesthetics: Life around water structures in Medieval India

Water as a utilitarian and ritualistic element has been important throughout the history of the Indian subcontinent. Rgveda has associated water with the idea of creation and so has the Islamic doctrine.  This association of water with the divine attribute of creation in almost all the pre-modern civilizations seems to have been the result of the life sustaining quality of this natural element.  Apart from acquiring it from natural sources, civilizations have also succeeded in controlling, diverting and manipulating water. The architecture used in this process is called water architecture and in Indian context this architecture manifested in many building types including wells, step-wells (baolis), well houses, ponds, reservoirs, pools, tanks etc.

These water structures were not only spaces of utilitarian and economic activity but they also emerged as upholders of many socio-cultural aspects of public life like pleasure and entertainment. The architecture and the presence of the element of water made these structures visually appealing which must have been an important factor in the arrangements of pleasantries around them.

A Sultanate period baoli known as Ghandak ki Baoli in Mehrauli.

A Sultanate period baoli known as Ghandak ki Baoli in Mehrauli.


Social gatherings and parties:

There is a considerable information about the social gatherings that were organized around water architecture.  Ibn Batuta writing in the 14th century AD talks about Tank of Sultan Iltutmish at Delhi. He tells that it was the place on the western side of which were two built platforms. These platforms had stairs which led to the water of the tank and beside the platforms were domes containing seats for the people to sit and enjoy the view. These domes were the haven of pleasure and amusement seekers reports Ibn Batuta. Further in the centre of this tank was a great pavilion built of squared stones which was two storeys high. This structure could only be reached by boats when the tank was filled with water but at other times it could be walked to and inside the domed structure there used to live world renowned fakirs. This reference comments upon the nature of social gathering at such water structures and their public spirit. The other major tank at Delhi is also mentioned by Ibn Batuta, regarding which he writes that this Hauz-khas was larger than the Hauz of Iltutmish and on its sides were about forty domes and around it the musicians lived and performed and such was the significance of the presence of musicians there that the place had come to be known as Tarababad (House of musicians). This was a site of organization of a large market as well which was described to be one of the largest in the world. The space around the hauz was also marked by a number of mosques including the one congregational mosque and many smaller ones. In these mosques female and male reciters used to perform the tarawih prayers during the month of Ramazan and there were a considerable number of women who attended the prayers. These references hint upon the essence of public pleasantries as experienced in the vicinity of the visually relieving and physically soothing structure of a tank.

Hauz Khas, originally Hauz-i-Alai. (Source: Wikepedia)

Hauz Khas, originally Hauz-i-Alai. (Source: Wikepedia)

The pleasurable element associate with these tanks at Delhi seems to have survived till much later time. There is mention of this tank as a space for parties and gatherings during the Lodi period (16th century AD). A source reports that one of the nobles under Sultan Sikandar Lodi, Miyan Zabar-ud-Din used to spend 8 months of his year in Delhi. About his stay at Delhi it is said, “… he used to go on every Monday to the Hauz-i-Shamsi (Shamsi tank) along with his friends, among whom were included the scholars, Mashaikh, Sufis (Saints), poets, scientists, Qawals (singers) and musicians and held a party on its bank. He maintained a large kitchen from where victuals were freely distributed.” This reference acts as an important marker of the persistence of the nature of the pleasantries as was experienced around the Hauz of Delhi from Tughlaq to Lodi period. Further the presence of Jahaz Mahal on the bank of the Hauz-i-Shamsi with its clearly Lodi architectural features also asserts the continued occupation of the site and most probably it was this structure or a similar structure that must have been used by Miyan-Zabar-ud-Din for his extravagant parties.

A glimpse of public pleasantries along the water bodies can be had from a reference to a later Mughal Shahjahanabad. It is informed that the bank of dariya (river/ lake) was an important space of gathering of the crowd and of performers for showing off their skills.

Jahaz Mahal, a Lodi period water pavilion on the tank Hauz-i-Shamsi

Jahaz Mahal, a Lodi period water pavilion on the tank Hauz-i-Shamsi



Sports and Hunting:

Apart from the parties, performances and public gathering that went on in the vicinity of the water structures, they were also sites where the sport of hunting could be pursued. This pursuit could be made both by the royals and by the common travelers. It is significant to note that when passing through the country of Champarin, Peter Mundy came across two large tanks which were lying on the outskirts of the establishments he visited. He informs that there was abundance of fowl in both these tanks and when they stopped by them on their journey, they did manage to kill some of these fowls. Not only did the fowling take place in such structures but there was scope for fishing as well which was an important activity undertaken. Mention can be made here of a town which is called by Peter Mundy as Puttatalaw (Patthar-talao, Patari), it is said that by the side of this town was a Large Tank where the king used to stop by on his journey from Agra to Burhanpur. And it was in this tank that the Emperor enjoyed the sport of fowling and fishing. The lake under the city of Fatehpur Sikri is reported to have a store of fishes as well.

The water aesthetics along with public gathering, music, food, sport and parties present an interesting picture of public pleasure as was experienced around water structures.

A Sultanate period baoli at R.K. Puram Delhi

A Sultanate period baoli at R.K. Puram Delhi



Women and water architecture:

On the front of gender these spaces became domains of female expression and also acted as sites of gender interactions. The public nature of the spaces made these interactions discreet. Anecdotes mentioned in Waqiat-i-Mushtaqi , an important source of Afghan history, mentions many stories of forbidden love and most of them unfold in the theater of water structures. One of these stories takes place at the site of a well at Bhogaon, which was the stronghold of Rai Pratap the Rajput chief during the reign of Sultan Bahlul Lodi. It is reported that there was a girl who was drawing water from this well and a student who was passing by the place stopped by to have some water. On looking at this beautiful girl the student was captivated by her beauty and fell in love and refused to take water to drink from any other women who were present there but this woman. She agreed to give him water but got irritate because of the fact that he couldn’t drink water and continued to stare at her face, this made the woman angry and she asked him to jump in to the well. The lovestruck man soon jumped into the well and ended his life. There are more such anecdotes reported.  Ovington, a traveler in Mughal India gives a detailed analyses of the ornamentation and beauty of the Bania women who used to come to collect water from the well. He writes about their gold rings, bracelets and anklets which they show off when they go to collect water. These women might have come to well to collect water and gossip with the other women but they also were visible and accessible in these public spaces. These references  suggest that the public water structures were spaces of interaction of genders and of discreet, forbidden love in addition to being sites of regular mundane life activities.

Water spaces of medieval times then can be understood to have been lively places of much public activity, party and other pleasures and pleasantries. They also sometimes acted as means of subversion of social norms regarding gender.

What did the Mughals eat?

While most of the historical narratives give detailed information about political developments under the Mughal Empire, there are certain aspects that have not been much touched upon regarding the Mughal past, Mughal eating habit is one of such topic.

In this article, we try to partly answer the question: What did the Mughals eat, with the help of information contained in an important Mughal source, Zakhiratul Khwanin.  This work forms an important source for understanding and reconstructing certain socio-cultural aspects of the Mughal Empire.  It is a biographical dictionary of Mughal nobles and forms part of Biographical Literature (Rijal).  It covers a range of nobles from Akbar’s reign to that of Shah Jahaan’s, till 1651 (A.H. 1061), when the work was completed.  Its author is Shaikh Farid Bhakkari who had joined Mughal service sometime before 1592, and having served under several important nobles retired after 1649.

Farid Bhakkari refers to various kinds of eatables laid out during feasts and special occasions and also the kinds which were consumed on a day to day basis. Mention is also found of the cultural underpinnings of the Mughal Nobility where pan, opium and wine appear to be an important part of the Mughal culture.


Babur feasting at Kohat, Baburnama, fol. 137r, AD 1597. National Museum, New Delhi.

Babur feasting at Kohat, Baburnama, fol. 137r, AD 1597. National Museum, New Delhi.

Mughal Feasts

It has been informed that Said Khan Chaghata, an important amir (noble) of Akbar’s time who used to organize for the first twelve days of the month of Rabiul Awwal , the death/birth  anniversary of the Prophet dinners of  lavish nature. In these feasts each person was served a meal of nine shirmal loaves and nine trays of dishes as well as a packet of five seers of sweets, wrapped in white cloth with velvet outer cover, to be taken home. There are also references in Zakhiratul Khwanin to other kinds of feasts which were held in the Mughal society amongst these the commemoration (urs) celebrations appear an important occasion for holding feasts. Feasts were also organized by nobles on special orders of the Emperor. Farid Bhakkari informs us of one such feast held on the orders of Akbar by Abul Fazl for Khudawand Khan Dakani, who used to hold a high position in the Nizamul Mulk regime of Ahmadnagar and had risen to a mansab of 3000 under Akbar. In this feast in front of each of Khudawand Khan’s servants nine trays of dishes and one roasted sheep with one hundred loaves were served, while in front of Khudawand Khan, various dishes like roast of fat fowl, partridge, titar (fowl), leafy vegetables (sag) and curries were laid. Farid Bhakkari also mentions that regarding this dinner Akbar said that ‘in India there is no feast more honourable and more elaborate than this.’


Daily Cuisine of Mughals

From Zakhiratul Khwanin we also come to know of the daily cuisine of the nobles. For Example  Farid Bhakkari mentions the food consumed by Nawwab Islam Khan Fathpuri, foster brother of Jahangir and governor of Orissa and Bengal, who took millet(jowar and bajra) bread, vegetables or spinach (sag) and dry rice (bhat) of the variety called sathi. Mention of food consumption by Mahabat Khan, an important noble under Jahangir and Shah Jahan, shows how elaborate the daily meals of nobles were. Mahabat Khan’s one-time meal consisted of two trays of pulao (fried rice cooked with meat), two trays of khishka (fried rice) made of  kamod rice, thirteen seers of melted butter, two trays of rice-khichri and two trays of millet-khichri  and a seer and a half sugar and a dish of meat, spinach (sag) and vegetable curry (salan). One very interesting observation that comes up from reading the text is that khichri figured as an important element in Mughal eating habit. We find a number of examples in the text, one of them being the khichri that was cooked the entire day in Abul Fazl’s establishment during the Deccan Expedition. Among the common dishes mentioned by Farid Bhakkari we also find reference to dal, for which hing was used as a frying condiment.


Pan, Wine and Opium

In addition it appears that certain edibles formed an important part of Mughal cultural life; a number of references in Zakhiratul Khwanin are made to pan, wine and opium consumption which must have become symbols of high cultural life of Mughal society. Itiqad Khan Mirza Shahpur, son of Itimadud-Daula, who was considered a person of the most refined taste in India, had a liking of pan and Farid Bhakkari informs that for him kangiri pan were sent from Burhanpur. Pan as an important element of eating habit of Mughal nobles is also reflected in the incidence where Raja Man Singh proposed paying the Muslim nobles money equivalent to a pan-leaf every day as a compensation for him not being able to dine with them due to his caste. Thus pan appears an important element of consumption by the nobility. There are also a number of references to wine drinking by nobles in Zakhiratul Khwanin, Farid Bhakkari mentions the tempting wine parties of Nawwab Mirza Ghazi Baig Tarkhan, a noble of Jahangir. According to Shaikh Farid these parties were held in such a way that if a hundred year old ascetic would have passed by, even he would have forsaken prayer and fast to join this assembly. From the account of nobles mentioned by Farid Bhakkari it appears that Mughal Emperor had elaborate arrangements for wine drinking, with certain timings fixed for it. Wine and wine drinking also appear to have ceremonial significance, Khan Jahan Lodi was offered the cup of Ram-rangi wine by Jahangir before any other grandees, this, Shaikh Farid informs us, was an expression of the favours enjoyed by Khan Jahan Lodi.

Another element which we find considerable mention of in Zakhiratul Khwanin, is opium. Quite a few nobles are mentioned to be addicted to this intoxicant. Examples of this can be  Mirza Ali, an important noble of Akbar, who was addicted to opium and Safdar Khan who was sent as an envoy to the King of  Iran during Shah Jahan’s reign, was offered poppy fruit by Shah Safi, and eventually formed a habit of taking opium.


These references to not only the daily food habits of Mughal nobility but to the food served during feasts and the intoxicating edibles like opium and wine help us develop an idea of how the life of the Mughals were in context of food and hunger. The preference given to khichri by Mughals and their love for wine are points of interest.

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