Book Review: Historical Biography of Aurangzeb in Urdu

Aurangzeb_ Cover_Final

By Ikramul Haque

Writing is an extremely political act. This means that every attempt to discover and write about the past is shaped by and responds to the contemporary politics in a broader sense. In July 2015, a Member of Parliament from the BJP demanded that the Aurangzeb Road in the heart of Delhi be renamed after APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India. The demand was moved to ‘correct the mistakes made in our history.’ The Delhi government soon capitulated, after which the city employees changed the name in the dead of night. The whole issue generated a debate among intellectuals, politicians and specially academics and historians. This was the immediate context for the beginning of an excellent book, Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth, on Aurangzeb by Audrey Truschke, a scholar of pre-modern Indian cultural history, who finally completed the work and published it in 2017. Three years later, the book is now finally translated in Urdu by Iquebal Hussain and Fahad Hashmi for taking the debate and historical consciousness to a wider public.

The Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth is an important intervention in as much as it dispels the haze around mythical Aurangzeb and brings out the historical Aurangzeb with all of his complexity. The book presents a historical biography of Aurangzeb based on solid historical evidence and equally balanced and objective interpretation of historical materials. Her objective is to not judge Aurangzeb by contemporary standards but to ‘construct a historical account of his life and reign and thereby recover the man and the king from underneath the mounds of misinformation’ (p. 12).

For this to happen, Truschke has adopted a methodology, which is commonly understood as the ‘Theory of Time and Space’. This refers to a historical approach, in which emphasis is given to the context and sensibilities of the time under question. Elaborating her approach, Truschke asserts that ‘Aurangzeb ruled in premodern world of kingdoms and empires, and his ideas about state violence, state authority, and everything else were conditioned by the time and place in which he lived’ (pp. 10-11).

The author challenges the misconception about Aurangzeb who is regarded by some as a bigot and by some as pious. The popular image of Aurangzeb in such communal terms, the author claims, needs to be debunked (p. 137). The book, divided into eight chapters, essentially addresses questions, which have surrounded Aurangzeb for a very long time, and because of which the Mughal emperor and his rule are vilified in public memory of Indian subcontinent including Pakistan. There are three sets of important issues with regard to Aurangzeb that the author discusses in one way or the other. First charge is that the Mughal emperor was too Muslim for India to rule. The advocates of this belief, including Jawaharlal Nehru, go on to believe that it was his religious devotion to Islam and its sharia that led to his anti-Hindu politics. The second issue is a corollary of the first: Aurangzeb’s anti-Hindu politics created ruptures in the long-standing friendship of Hindus, particularly Rajputs with the Mughals. The third issue is the demolition of Hindu and Jain temples and desecration of sacred places of worship.

Truschke agrees to the fact that evidence of temple demolition, conversion, killing of Hindus, implementation of Jizya and ban on music, etc. is available but they do not necessarily confirm the assumption that Aurangzeb was a fanatic bent on destroying Hindus and Hinduism. This is where the task of rational interpretation, appropriate historical approach and incorporation of other relevant historical details becomes crucial.

Responding to the first charge, Truschke admits the fact that Aurangzeb was a devout Muslim. However, she clarifies, his Islamic religiosity did not translate into a permanent state policy. For example, ban on music was limited to the court only, while music flourished under the patronage of princes, princesses and the Mughal nobility. In fact, as Katherine Schofield has pointed out, ‘authors produced more Indo-Persian treatises on music during the reign of Aurangzeb’s rule than in the prior 500 years of Indian history’ (p. 56). That the emperor was anti-Hindu is untenable if the data is interpreted properly. For example, in the war of succession between Aurangzeb and Dara, almost equal number of high ranking Hindu nobles supported both the princes. To the dismay of modern ideologues of anti-Mughal narrative, Aurangzeb incorporated more Hindus in his nobility than all the previous Mughal kings, including Akbar. Hindus rose to 31.6 per cent of the high-ranking Mughal nobility as compared to the 22.5 per cent under Akbar.

Similarly, the charge of destroying temples, due to his religious zeal, falls flat when analyzed in juxtaposition to the other well-known facts. Truschke begins the discussion on the issue with a very interesting question. She asks that ‘a historically legitimate view of Aurangzeb must explain why he protected Hindu temples more often than he demolished them’ (p. 100). This is true that temples were demolished during his reign, but the reason that activated this assault was political, not religious. Moreover, religious institutions have always been subjected to politically motivated destruction in pre-modern period, because the temples were not only a religious place but also an axis of power and legitimacy. This perhaps explains, as Richard Eaton has argued, why some Hindu rulers too destroyed temples. Besides, it should also be remembered that Aurangzeb issued dozens of orders that directed officials to shield temples from unwanted interference, granted land to Hindu communities, and provided stipends to Hindu spiritual figures’ (p. 103). There is, therefore, no reason to believe that Aurangzeb razed temples because he hated Hindus.

The originality of Truschke’s book does not lie much in the content of the book, as she draws heavily on the recent researches. What actually distinguishes her work is her fascinating narrative, which has carefully woven together all the available information to provide an understandable image of a complicated king. Being a scholar of cultural interaction in pre-modern South Asia and well-versed in Sanskrit literature, Truschke has incorporated evidence from Sanskrit documents as well. This is undoubtedly the most accurate, balanced and well-crafted biography of Aurangzeb written in the recent past.

Talking about the translation, I must say that the translation is impressive, lucid, and addictive to some extent. The translators, Iquebal Hussain and Fahad Hashmi, have not only successfully translated the meaning with utmost clarity but have also maintained the spirit, effective communication, essence and satirical charm of the original author, which is apparently the toughest task to achieve. However, here is some food for thought. I would have liked the translators to write a Note or Foreword to the book. Just as the author has contextualized her work and spoken of her politics clearly, it would have been reasonable for the translators too to talk about their inspiration, context or, simply put, their politics behind this venture.

The second issue relates to the expression in Urdu language. Throughout the book, Aurangzeb is given a respectable address. Expressions such as ‘Aurangzeb ne farmaya, Aurangzeb karte the’, etc. abound in the translation. This is not wrong, and there may be an explanation that such expressions are part of Urdu taste and sophistication, which does not necessarily have to do anything with deliberate distortion of a given image. But since Truschke has been very careful in her assessment of the Mughal king and his image, it would have been more appropriate to follow expressions more neutral without granting any open veneration to Aurangzeb. Similarly, it would have been beneficial for readers if non-Urdu names of person, places and books of foreign authors were also written in Roman script alongside the Urdu rendition of the same. It would have helped and increased the possibility of an easy read. Nevertheless, with some of these very small and avoidable errors, the translation, just like the original, is a good read that would go a long way in dispelling the misconception and widening the historical consciousness among Urdu readers.

Ikramul Haque teaches history in Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU), Hyderabad, India.


Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s