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Inside the Moghul dining room...


THE MOGHULS were great gourmets with a whole army of cooks, whose descendants can still be found in the gallie named after them in the Matia Mahal locality of Delhi's Jama Masjid. This gallie of bawarchis is always smelling of tasty khana that is cooked there for weddings, birthdays, funeral feasts and other occasions.

Jahangir was fond of eating and drinking, so were Jahandar Shah, Mohammad Shah Rangila and Bahadur Shah Zafar in his younger days. Besides various dishes of mutton made from a wide variety of goats and sheep -- found from Afghanistan and Kashmir down to the Deccan -- they ate chicken and birds like partridge, duck, kaaz and shikar meat. But they liked to observe a strict decorum during meals, which were shared with only the close family members, and occasionally with guests.

Shah Jahan did not like to eat with the British merchants because they did not wash their hands before and after meals, drank water during the course of a meal and used tissue paper in the lavatory. He regarded them as dirty and not worthy to sit on the same meal-carpet as him.

The emperors ate alone or with family members -- after the food had been tasted by the food-taster and checked in poison- plates -- because of the fear of getting poisoned. Babar was said to have been poisoned by Dilawar Begum, Ibrahim Lodhi's mother, who wanted to avenge the defeat and death of her son at his hands. So the food was tasted first in the kitchen and later in the emperor's presence. The management of the kitchen was in the care of people who were above suspicion. According to the historian R.Nath, "only an extremely honest, trusted, intelligent and experienced officer was appointed Mir-Bakawal -- Master or Head of the Imperial Kitchen. He was assisted by competent officers called Bakawals... several tasters were attached to the department... The victuals were served in dishes of gold and silver bowls of pai-zahar and other semi-precious stones, and earthenware. Pai-zahar was a variety of Zahar-Mohra, from the jade family of light green or greenish yellow colour. It was an antidote to poison."

First the cooks and Bakawals tasted the dishes and then the Mir-Bakawal who attached his seal to them while a clerk made an inventory of the vessels sent to the royal dining room. This was a precaution to guard against the dish being changed on the way, like it happened during the poisoning of Babar. Durbans escorted the kitchen staff right up to the place where the dastarkhwan or tablecloth was spread on the carpeted floor, for the emperors did not eat on chairs and tables. Even bread, pickle and other savouries were sent sealed in bags. When the seals were opened, the Mir-Bakawal tasted the food again before the emperor began his meal, usually with curds after setting aside a portion for mendicants.

Though Akbar ate sparingly, only once in 24 hours, and hardly even in the harem, those who followed him, with the exception of Aurangazeb, preferred to have all their meals in a hearty manner which began with the recitation of the Bismillah-e Rahaman-e-Rahim -- In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful. And they ended by prostrating themselves before God. In the zenana, the chief queen generally presided over the meal, though the harem residents were free to eat in their own quarters unless the emperor joined them on some special occasion. The ladies ended their meals with the exclamation, "Shukr Allah" Thanks be to God.

Akbar drank only Ganga water, special provision being made to fetch it from Soron where the emperor was in Agra or at Fatehpur Sikri and from Hardwar while he was in the Punjab. And in case he happened to be in Rajputana or any other area, Gangajal was carried by kahars travelling with the royal party. Jahangir, says Dr Nath, though equally fond of water from the Ganga, preferred to drink from fresh flowing streams and rivers wherever he was. But Shah Jahan was fond of Yamuna water and couldn't do without it. As a matter of fact, he surrendered the Agra Fort and eventually his kingdom to Aurangzeb because of this. He could have held out longer by drinking well water, but refused to do so after his crafty son stopped the supply of Yamuna water to the fort.

The elaborate meal arrangements continued until almost the time of Shah Alam, though the poison plates, some presented by the Chinese emperor, were in use when the last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, enjoyed venison and his favourite moong-ki-dal, known as Badshah Pasand.

Would it surprise you to know that the Moghuls too observed dry days? Babar, the founder of the dynasty, drank on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays but did not touch liquor on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays. Monday is pir or the first day of the week, Thursday is Jumaraat, an occasion for seeking vows on the eve of Friday (Juma), the day on which according to Islamic belief God created man and the day on which he will destroy it. Jahangir did not drink on Thursday, as it was the day of his accession and on Friday, the Muslim sabbath. Humayun was fonder of opium than wine, which he drank rarely. Akbar drank within reasonable limits and abstained on many days in the week. Shah Jehan followed his example and was a moderate drinker.

In his memoirs, Babar recorded a drinking party held at Bhira (Punjab) on March 5, 1529: "Next morning when the court rose, we rode out for an excursion, entered a boat and there drank `araq'. The people forming the party were Khwaja Dost-Khawand, Khusrau, Mirmi Mirza Quli, Muhammadi, Ahmadi, Gadai, Na'mam Langar Khan, Rauh Dam, Qasum-i Ali (Tariyaki -- the opium eater), Yusuf-i-Ale and Tingri Quli." But the bad flavour of the `araq' forced Babar and the few sitting with him (the others sat separately) to switch over to opium.

Of course the biggest drunkard among the first six Moghuls was Jahangir -- his brother Daniel and Murad died of alcoholism -- who started drinking at the age of 17. The first time he drank was on the banks of the Indus on a day when he was very tired, says Dr Ram Nath. After the drink he felt greatly relaxed. Thereafter wine ceased to intoxicate him and he started taking spirits of `araq'. Twenty cups was his daily quota and after nine years things reached such a pass that his hand began to tumble and someone had to hold the cup for him. It was at this time that the royal physician, Hakim Humam advised restraint. Jahangir took his advice and gradually brought down his intake to six cups a day. But he took a lot of opium all right. Shah Jahan gave up drinking during the Deccan campaign but Akbar Shah's son, Mirza Jahangir, drank himself to death.

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