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Betrayal Through Poisoned Food Changed Mughals’ Dynamics

Web Desk (April 24, 2018): Italy is a country that teeters under the weight of the art it carries. Milan, city of commerce and fashion, is an aberration, dismissed by the Romans as an uncivilised, uncultured place. But there is a museum in Milan that has a painting by Peter Paul Rubens titled The Last Supper.

In the painting Jesus is blessing the bread and the wine he is preparing to offer the apostles, having told the appalled and disbelieving men that he is about to be betrayed by one of them. Only Judas stares out of the painting, his eyes filled with a dark, haunted knowledge that is deeply unsettling for the viewer.

The food is exactly in the centre of the painting and it is impossible not to conflate the idea of betrayal and treason with that of sustenance and nurture. This is an ancient conundrum and it is one that tormented the great Mughals of Hindustan through the 200 years of their reign.

When Babur, of the Turkic Timurid dynasty, rode into India in 1526, he first sent a polite request to the Afghan Sultan of Delhi, Ibrahim Lodi. He dispatched a hawk with a message, asking that the Sultan give back “the country which from old had depended on the Turks.” Not surprisingly, Lodi demurred, and so a battle was fought at Panipat. Lodi was killed and Delhi changed hands, once again. Lodi’s mother and family were taken into Babur’s care.

Mother’s murder plan

But Lodi’s mother, Dilawar Begum, had murder on her mind. With the help of the Hindustani Chashnigir, the food taster, she smuggled poison into Babur’s meal of fried hare, carrots and bread. Babur was violently sick, but survived the poisoning and after a few swift acts of retribution, wrote to his anxious family waiting in Kabul; “Thank God,” he wrote, “I have lived to see another day.” He survived to found an empire, one of the greatest the world had ever seen, but he was deeply troubled by Dilawar Begum, that “ill-omened” old lady’s attempt to kill him despite what he considered his own exemplary behaviour in giving sanctuary to Lodi’s household.

This first betrayal through tainted food would corrupt the Mughals’ dynamics with food and drink far into the future generations.Babur’s son Humayun, having cavalierly lost his kingdom somewhat precipitously, spent years in exile in Persia, living on the unpredictable and precarious hospitality of the brilliant but eccentric Shah Tahmasp.

The Shah meticulously oversaw the food on offer for his Hindustani guests himself; he ordered sherbets of lemon and rosewater, cooled with snow. Fresh jams made from watermelons and grapes. Soft white bread and 500 types of meats. But there was a price to pay for the extravagance of this feasting. Shah Tahmasp wanted the Sunni Humayun to convert to Shia Islam and when Humayun diplomatically prevaricated, there were arbitrary displays of violence and blood-letting. Humayun finally rode back into Hindustan with 12,000 Persian soldiers and 500 crimson tents and re-claimed the throne of Hindustan. But the Mughal Padshahs would increasingly have an abiding fear of being poisoned, even as their cuisine developed into one of the most celebrated and sumptuous the world had ever seen.

Pampered chickens

Under the long reign of Akbar the Great, Mughlai cuisine became a refined art of exquisite and sometimes baffling details. The best produce from all the corners of the empire were brought to the imperial kitchens — rice, butter, duck, and waterfowl. The chickens of the palace were ‘fed by hand with pellets flavoured with saffron and rosewater, and massaged daily with musk oil and sandalwood’ to improve the flavour of their meat.

Dishes were created, blending Central Asian techniques with Hindustani spices, which travelled around the globe and spread the fame of the Mughal empire: naan, poultry cooked with finely ground onions known as ‘do-pyaaza’, a Turkic dish called the ‘sanbusa,’ later samosa, dum pukht and harissa.

But the Mughal empire had also become an immensely wealthy one by the end of Akbar’s reign. The stakes had changed and now the Mughal throne was one worth killing for, and food and drink became increasingly suspect.

Alcohol, opium and intoxicants had long been consumed by the Mughals of Hindustan. By the time of Jahangir’s reign, rampant alcoholism was the leading cause of death within the nobility, followed by stomach ailments.

Two of Jahangir’s brothers died of alcoholism, and Jahangir himself struggled to control his drinking habit, writing of his attempts to bring down his consumption from “twenty cups of doubly-distilled spirits, fourteen during the daytime and the remainder at night,” to six cups of a “wine and spirit mixture” with the help of Nur Jahan.

As the empire grew richer, brothers and cousins were killed to secure the throne, old notions of brotherhood and family were scuffed by the impossible allure of this glittering throne.

The emperor’s food

A favourite mode of eliminating noble competitors was by poisoning through ‘poust,’ a drink of raw opium made from soaking poppy seeds overnight in water. A famous victim was the unfortunate Suleiman Mirza, the charismatic and popular son of Dara Shikoh. Aurangzeb imprisoned him at Gwalior fortress and force-fed him poust for a year, at the end of which he died debilitated, trembling and demented.

By the time Shah Jahan became Padshah Ghazi, every sliver of food was suspect and every drink bled the fear of poison. It was always women who guarded the most precious things of the empire; the lives of the young princes, the jewels of the Mughals, women’s safety, and the emperor’s food.

Two women in particular were entrusted with the supremely dangerous task of safe-guarding Shah Jahan’s food — his daughter Jahanara Begum, and the Sadr-e-Anas of the zenana, Sati al-Nisa Begum. These two women supervised every dish brought before the emperor from the kitchens, where they were sealed before being presented to Shah Jahan.

Each meal was then begun by the recitation of the Bismillah-e-Rahman-e-Rahim, with Sati al-Nisa standing quietly by, and was ended by loud, thankful exclamations of Shukr Allah as another meal had been successfully survived.

In the end Shah Jahan was undone not by poison, but by the ambition of his own son Aurangzeb, with Jahanara faithfully by his side till the end. Perhaps, the Last Supper and its fateful consequences might have had a different outcome had there been a woman among the 12 disciples.

Coutesy: The Hindu