The story of the courtiers of the Mughal era has an uncanny resemblance to today’s politics
While reading Attendant Lords, I was reminded of the words of my professor of medieval Indian history in college that the Mughal period is not dead and, in some ways, still lives amongst us. “The popularity of Mughal dishes and dresses proves that no era is completely dead,” he had said. Of course, these words were spoken in the context of the periodisation of history into ancient, medieval and modern times, but while reading this excellent work by TCA Raghavan, they echoed in my mind in the context of politics.
Normally, in the genre of history, it’s the works on modern and contemporary period that find greater interest among readers because of relatability. Works belonging to the ancient and medieval eras tend to be of interest largely to academics and not lay readers. However, this does not apply to Raghavan’s work.
Attendant Lords is the history of the Mughal times, spanning the reigns of Babur, Humayun, Akbar and Jahangir, told through the biographical story of Bairam Khan and his son Abdur Rahim. Most readers would only be aware of Bairam as a regent of Akbar, and Rahim as the writer of dohas that are studied in Hindi while at school. Raghavan, for the first time as far as I know, has retold grippingly the story of the two nobles in Mughal courts and their rise and fall in great detail.
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The story of the two nobles is interwoven with the history of the times they lived in, thus giving a peek into court politics of the time. It is here that Raghavan excels. It’s interesting to note that if one just replaces the period and names of the nobles with modern times and people, we arrive at the same conclusions. With democracy as the differentiating factor, politics, as it was played out in the Mughal era, bears an uncanny resemblance to contemporary times.
The changing of power equations, the rise of individuals and their decline, and the calculations that played out during the Mughal era are no different to what plays out in modern Indian politics. Therefore, it wouldn’t be wrong to add that it’s not only the dishes and dresses of those times that have continued to live amongst us till today, but politics as well.
Raghavan has traced the origins of Bairam and his rise, taking us through the politics of the time: Humayun’s loss of power at the hands of Sher Shah Suri and his subsequent exile; Bairam sticking out with him though he was lured by the other side; and bounties coming to him when Humayun regains the throne after Sher Shah’s demise. The rise of Bairam sees him being appointed as Akbar’s regent, as the emperor was only 13 years old when he ascended the throne. The next five years see Bairam as a power-drunk man who controls Akbar and, systematically, cuts out other nobles who had crossed swords with him at any point of his life.
Naturally, there arose a clique, which counselled Akbar against the powers and growing clout of Bairam. Akbar takes the reins in his hands and cuts Bairam to size. Out of power, on his way to Mecca for Haj, Bairam is murdered at Patan (Gujarat) by Afghans who had some old-time enmity with him.
His young son, Abdur Rahim, then grows up under the guardianship of Akbar. The story of Rahim and his rise in the court of Akbar is then told in detail, which again sounds very similar to the stories of rise of political leaders in modern times. Equations do change with the death of Akbar and the ascension of Jahangir to the throne. However, gradually, Rahim is back in favour and consolidates his position in the court.
The story of Rahim ends with his fall, as Jahangir’s son, prince Khurram (later emperor Shah Jahan), rebels against his father. Rahim’s ambivalence or calculative politics to be on both the sides to contain any damage to him and his family somehow doesn’t work and he loses from both ends. To cut the story short, his end is exactly like his father’s.
Politics apart, Rahim was also a man of letters and his dohas are on a par with those of Kabir and Tulsidas.
Raghavan is an Indian Foreign Service officer who served in Singapore and Pakistan. He holds a PhD in history from Jawaharlal Nehru University. And even though this is his first book, the research is of a caliber that many professional historians would not be able to match.
Using the personal stories of individuals to trace the history of a period is a style that has largely been abandoned in modern times, especially as Marxist historians came to control history writing. Raghavan has also touched upon literature in the book, which would surely be of interest to those with literary leanings. The book is devoid of any jargon or ideological debates and will surely be loved by anyone with an interest in politics and literature as well.