Book Review: Audrey Truschke’s Portrait of Aurangzeb

Book Review: Audrey Truschke’s Portrait of Aurangzeb

Julius Caesar’s quote, “I came, I saw, I conquered”, fits the sixth Mughal ruler, Aurangzeb. Born in 1618, this Mughal prince was named as Aurangzeb but later took on the title Alamgir. He didn’t do any injustice to his exalted title as he went on to rule over an area of 3.2 million square kilometres (roughly equivalent to modern-day India) with a population of 150 million people for five decades, all with the dint of his bravery and administrative skills. Nearly three-hundred years after his rule, when the RSS-backed BJP came to power in 2014, it tried to tarnish the legacy of this great ruler by labelling him as a religious bigot who destroyed temples, massacred Hindus, and forced them to convert to Islam. With such fictions, the BJP paved the way for renaming Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi as APJ Kalam Raod.

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth
Audrey Truschke
Penguin India, New Delhi, 2017

Primetime news shows have also been used to spread hatred against Aurangzeb and his legacy. Muslims are being abused as ‘Aurangzeb ki Aulad’ (progeny of Aurangzeb). This isn’t anything new that we are witnessing, for history is testimony to the fact that even during the Indian freedom struggle, extremist groups of Congress endorsed Ancient Hindu rule as a golden era and labelled Muslim rule as Kalyug (Black era) of invaders and looters.
As per Truschke, Aurangzeb’s story is caught between two opposing narratives, the Indian and the Pakistani narrative. The former considers him a religious bigot and the other a pious soul. The Main reason for this regional bias against Aurangzeb is fuelled by the fact that most people tend to weigh him on his religious background, which overshadows his achievements as a great visionary king.
Truschke describes Aurangzeb as a polymath who wore many hats: polyglot, jurist, administrator, and soldier well versed in the art of warfare. In intellectual capacity he was second to none. He wrote the Fatwa-e-Alamgiri, a seminal text on Islamic law and jurisprudence. Like his ancestors, he had to fight a bloody war of succession with his brothers to occupy the throne. For that he ended up slaughtering his two brothers and imprisoning his father, Shah Jahan, in the Agra Fort. Shah Jahan was not in favour of him ascending the throne and was supporting his eldest son, Dara Shikoh. This bloody war of succession wasn’t anything new in Mughal times as Mughals fought for crown on the slogan, Ya Takht, Ya Tabut (either the throne or the coffin).
Aurangzeb was an expansionist who tried to expand his kingdom. He occupied many territories which his ancestors had dreamed of but couldn’t achieve. He led his army from the front and spent most part of his life on battlefields to guide and encourage his army rather than issuing farmans in court like his predecessors.
Truschke responds to the bigger question about the perception of Aurnagzeb as a religious extremist through facts. The facts speak a different story altogether. Under Aurangzeb, the share of Hindus working in the administration increased substantially. While Hindus constituted 22.5% of all Mughal nobles during Akbar’s rule, and this figure remained constant during Jahangir’s and Shah Jahan’s rule, during Aurangzeb’s rule between 1679 and 1707 it rose to 31.6%.
As per the author, Aurangzeb didn’t force any religious conversions on Hindus at behest of the sword and this has been recorded by many historians, too. Many Hindus voluntarily converted to Islam in greed of getting higher Mansabs (ranks) in administrative hierarchy. Hindus also commanded Mughal cavalry and army. Truth is that the first expedition to subdue Maratha ruler Shivaji was led successfully by Rajput king Raja Jai Singh on the command of Aurangzeb.
Richard Eaton, one of the leading historians on medieval India, puts the number of confirmed temple destructions during Aurangzeb’s rule at just over a dozen. Mostly, Aurangzeb was a protector of Hindus who never persecuted them for political gain but considered them as part of his administration and his subjects. Aurangzeb measured the success of his kingship in terms of the happiness of his subjects. He believed in justice for all, irrespective of caste, creed and religion. He had the richest treasury of gold and diamonds, but never in his lifetime transacted a single penny from the treasury for his personal gain. He sewed skull caps to earn his livelihood. He had no lust for money and extravagance and believed in simplicity. He banned music and songs, though he was good at both, and put a blanket ban on wine. He had memorised the whole Quran at a young age. All this added to the spirituality of this great ruler who was also called as Zinda Peer (living saint). It’s recorded that he once threw a written prayer into flooded waters, which led to subsiding of the flood. Historians note that he used to dismount from his horse during military clashes in order to pray, an act that gave confidence to his troops that God was on their side.
Even after achieving so much in his life Aurangzeb confessed his shortcomings in religion matters to his sons and grandson and feared the divine judgement on the day of resurrection. He thought he had come in this world unburdened but had left it burdened with sins.
He built the largest mosque of his times but preferred to be buried in an unmarked grave. He died trying to expand the Mughal empire to its greatest extent in history. He came like a stranger and left like a stranger on March 3, 1707. His death proved to be the first nail in the coffin of Mughal rule and within the span of thirteen years, five Mughal kings came and went as compared to previous 150 years when only four Mughal rulers had ruled.

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