This is a description of a day in the life of a Mughal Queen. The second chapter is the story of how Mughal King Jalal-U-Din Mohammed Akbar and his wife deal with an Afghan invasion. The only thing is, The King's army is strong but the Afghans are backed by a strange new, mystical power.
Agra, India- 1575. India; land of rivers, mountains, diversity, spirituality, plenty and many other glorifying adjectives. It is said that people exaggerate about things that they love. However, the beauty ofIndia and its culture leaves no room for exaggeration. It is said that nothing is perfect... what is forgotten are the words ‘except India’. From the cool hilly regions of the north, the vast lush plains of the Ganges plain, the dry, arid yet beautiful deserts of the west and intricate temples and rice fields in the south; India displays it’s diversity in nature, people and places. Some customs and traditions seem strange to some and yet incredibly alluring ultimately defined by the poet Amir Khusro who grew up in the old Delhi sultanate. This is his voice: ‘Indiais our beloved motherland, a Paradise on Earth. Intelligence is the natural gift of its people. There can be no better guide to life than the Wisdom of India.’
Miriam sat under the shade of a sprawling mango tree in the centre of the shahi gardens gently stroking the rabbits scampering around near the cushions on which she was reclining. The fragrance of jasmine and tamarind hung heavy and lazy in the warm air as the blazing sun sank underneath the horizon. The last few rays of sunlight glinted of the fabulous golden, jewel-encrusted arches of the palace. Somehow, she felt happier in the garden. The Moghuls saw gardens as palaces without walls. It was said in the holy Qu’ran that paradise was a garden split into quarters by four rivers, and in the centre the very Throne of God Himself; this is where she was. Miriam dipped her fingers into cool, refreshing waters of the canals that flowed around the garden from the extravagant fountain at the centre. The soothing, warm breeze blew her hair into the falling blossoms of the delicately scented sandalwood trees. She twirled around the images of red cedars, magnolias, trees of sweet fruits, salty nuts and sugar palms blurring into one colourful smudge on the face of the earth. The gentle chirping of pure white doves was nearly drowned out but the call to prayer being sung from the masterfully carved marble minarets of the palace mosque. Beyond the palace walls she could hear the beat of the Tablas and the drone of the harmonium and sitars as the devotees in the Hindu mandir sang devotional songs to the goddess’. Miriam drifted off into a daydream. ‘What a perfect land and life this is?’ Her eyes lazily closed and she drifted into sleep.
An hour passed. Miriam was woken by the Royal Herald shouting ‘Azeem aur shaan Shahensha Jalaludin Mohammed Akbar tashrif laareheh hai!’ Her husband was riding into the garden form the other end in a howdah upon the back of a beautifully decorated elephant. ‘Ah, the beauty of an Indo-Islamic culture. The combination of the two most sophisticated cultures of the world merged together to create an new language, culture and if the plans of my husband succeed a new, united religion that combines Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain, Jew and Buddhist beliefs. What incredible achievements this Indo-Islamic synthesis has made! It has heralded an age of unity! An age of science! An age of art! An age of social justice! An age of reason! Perhaps this is the hallmark of all great civilizations: the ability to conserve their own genius as well as absorb and incorporate that knowledge in their own culture? Indiahas always had the ability to do that. As my husband says: It cannot be wisdom to assert the truth of one faith over another. In our troubled world so full of contradictions, the wise man makes justice his guide and learns from all. Perhaps this way the door may be opened again whose key has been lost’ Miriam thought. In a flurry of joy she called for her elephant driver. She had to over-powering urge to take a ride around the city filled with self- satisfaction and hope of the coming of a new age.
As they left the serenity of the palace she was consumed with the hustle and bustle of the largest city on earth. The bazaar was the international centre for trading the world’s finest luxuries. Rickety stalls had been hurriedly raised up on the side of the already narrow alleys. They all had a canopy of pure white cotton shading the vendors and buyers from the relentless yet sustaining sun. She was nearly blinded by the dazzle of gleaming fiery red rubies, large, clear diamonds (this was the only place on earth where they could be bought), emeralds as green as the lush fields of the Ganges plain, sapphires as deep blue as the snow melts from the great Himalayas and the most beloved of the Moghuls, the spinels, brown and shiny like the freshly flooded paddy fields.
When she reached another sector of the sprawling market her sinuses were filled with the pungent aromas of various Indian spices, chili powder, black pepper, tamarind, cardamom, cumin, crushed mint and tea leaves saffron and cinnamon. She dismounted and the common people were dazzled by her beauty. Her golden, finely embroidered silk sari and her bouncy, curly hair were a sharp contrast to the unwashed rags of the common people. However, the people loved her. MostQueens would not even want to look at their citizens from the safety of a high elephant. They lived in a dream world and had never seen reality. The citizens bowed their heads and swept the air ahead of them up and down three times as a sign of respect. The citizens kept their heads bowed and did not look at the Queen. Miriam disliked this greatly and laughed ‘Arreh! Am I that ugly? Please people continue as you were. I may be royalty but I still remain human.’ She had said that in Hindi, the language of the common people not the overly courteous Persian of the Mughal court. These were one of the many reasons the people loved her and cautiously life returned to normal. She excitedly skipped over to a fruit seller’s stall and plunged both her hands into a deep bag of almonds and pulled out to large handfuls. She held them to her nose and closed her eyes as she savoured the warm, musky odour. She politely asked the vendor how much they were. He shyly replied ‘Fivesikon for one kilogram…your Majesty.’ Miriam laughed at how she had made such a burly young lad so nervous. ‘I’ll take three kilograms, please.’ She gave him the required amount and she handed her a wrapped up package whilst looking at the ground. She tenderly lifted up his chin and looked him straight in the eyes with her kohl rimmed cat like eyes that seemed like they were studded with a large, sparkling sapphire in each, his face lost all colour with fear. ‘You really do think I’m ugly don’t you?’ she said. She giggled like a schoolgirl and ran off back to her elephant her long, scarlet red scarf trailing behind her.
In another sector she stopped at the Hindu temple from where she had heard the sweet music of devotional songs. She respectfully covered head respectfully with her scarf, whipped off her leather sandals that were cushioned with silk and decorated with gold leaf. She stepped through the elaborately decorated doorway that was watched over by statues of the deities Shiva, with his simple lion cloth, cobra as a scarf and a kettle drum tied to his trident in a dancing position as he dances the dance that has created and will destroy our universe. With him stood Vishnu, with his many arms carrying weapons to defend his loyal devotees. Between the two was the deity that this particular temple was dedicated to, Shakti. As she walked in she rang a bell above her head to invoke the spirit within her and the music stopped. The musicians and dancers looked at her and quickly bowed their heads. ‘Please, continue…’ the devotees slowly began playing again but would not look up. ‘Must we do it the hard way? Everybody back to normal! And that’s an order!’ Hurriedly, the devotees returned to full swing so as not to displease the Queen. Miriam walked up to the altar and passed her hands through a holy flame and swept her hand through her head as a sign of taking the blessings of the Mother Goddess. She bowed to her and stood up with her hands together. She admired her image. A strong yet beautiful woman riding on the tamed lion of ego, defeating the demons of sin with her many weapons and yet, she remained a symbol of the female power in the world, strong yet tender. ‘If only men would understand our potential…’ She thought. She quietly sat down with the congregation and became absorbed in the music of the tablas, harmoniums and sitars. She stared blankly at the hypnotic bharatnatiyam dancers. With each beat of the tablas their anklets would jingle. As they moved they made elaborate gestures called mudras each one of the thousands having a different meaning. They re-enacted stories form Hindu mythology in their intricate and colourful dresses that are so quintessentially Indian. Miriam could not contain herself any longer. She sprung to her feet and tried to copy the dancers. She slowly tried the mudras however, for some she got her legs in a tangle and fell over. When she did she burst into hysterics and her people laughed with her. After her third fall she decided to move on. She skipped out of the temple twirling as she went in a moment of ecstasy. These are the kind of gems of moments that she would gladly sacrifice her royal status for; she was a patron of extravagant simplicity. She found her elephant and asked her driver to take her to her husband’s new cityFathepur Sikri, a few miles south of Agra.
The city was centered around the tomb of Akbar’s favorite spiritual guide. Saint Salim Chisti was the one who had predicted the birth of his son. Akbar was so pleased that he held mass celebrations in Agraincluding a singing contest, the winner of which would receive nine million rupees. Miriam remembered that day well and the Sufi qawalli or sung poem talking of Salim Chisti’s greatness played in her head. ‘Ya gareeb nawaz’ (Oh, one who looks after the poor) she pondered on the beauty of that and other lyrics of that song such as ‘beqaso ki taqdeer, toone hai sawari’ (The destiny of the ones in despair, you have changed for the better). She thought she could hear the drone of the harmonium and multi-pitch and multi-leveled voices of the Sufi choir with a steady beat of clap as percussion as she entered the modestly decorated mausoleum. She picked a few rose petals that poked through the gaps in the engravings and lovingly showered them onto Chisti’s tomb. She contemplated how the Sufi cult was the way forward to unity and how they had been the catalyst in Hindu-Muslim communal integration. It was the cult that shared one basic principle with both Hinduism and Islam: Achieving enlightenment through non-attachment. The Sufis encouraged the progress of science and art, which is what she prayed for with open palms in front of the tomb and quietly backed out. She requested her driver to take her home.
On her return journey she saw a sword fighting display in one of the squares. She noticed that they were using Damascus steel swords, the finest in the world. Their lightness and strength had allowed the Rajputs of Rajasthan to successfully defend their land from the might of the Mughal Empire. She watched them as the two men ducked and jumped and lunged and parried. The children cheered when their favourite man had a thrust at his foe and sighed when he was forced to duck. They cheered them on as their bloodlust grew. All the innocent children booed when at the end of the fight the two men saluted each other and packed away their equipment. They were harshly disciplined by the iron hand their nearby parents who had not yet informed them that the fight was only a display.
As she neared the palace she took a moment to admire the large Arabic calligraphic inscription above the palace gate. It read, ‘Jesus, Peace Be upon Him, said this: The world is a bridge, cross it but build no house upon it for the world endures for but a moment and the rest is unknown.’ She passed a strange man in tight clothes and very fair skin rushing about, holding a letter. ‘Can I help you, sir?’ she asked in her sweet, melodious voice. ‘Khat…Shahensha.’ He replied in a heavily foreign accent each word he spoke in Urdu strained his vocal cords. ‘Letter Emperor?’ She though ‘Oh, he must be an ambassador!’ She took the letter from him, trying not to be too forceful but she hoped he would understand the reason for her rudeness. She bowed her head in thanks and the fair man gave her a confused look. She recognized the strange lettering on the envelope as English and read the translated letter: From the desk of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of England, Fidai Defensor. The singular report of Your Majesty’s humanity has reached even these most distant shores of the world. Yours Sincerely, Queen Elizabeth of England.’Miriam was stunned for a moment. Why had this powerful foreign Queen used the word humanity. She laughed to herself ‘My husband is proof that not all rulers are greedy, evil monsters. Humanity and rationality: my husband’s greatest qualities.’ She was so proud of him.
She dismounted once again and headed straight to her quarters. All buildings in the palace were either red clay fortifications or administrative or living areas that were plastered with gold leaf, covered with intricate engravings many with much symbolism and encrusted with every kind of precious stone known to the Mughals. Its brilliance was breathtaking. Miriam was amazed that she was able to sleep with so much light reflecting around her like a golden aura. She pushed back the laced cotton curtains of her bedroom and fell back onto her red silk sheet, covered herself with her soft, colourful Kashmir cotton blanket, wearily waved the candles out and fell into a deep sleep, contemplating Jesus’ quote.