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The Mughal era was a time of overlapping cultures and religions that shaped the future of South Asia

by Mahmood Hossain

Preserving a profound period in Indian history.

By Mahmood Hossain

Mohabbat humne maanaa zindagi barbaad karti hai, yeh kya kam hai ki mar jaane pe duniya yaad karti hai?” These piercing lyrics are from the song “Teri Mehfil Mein Qismat Aazmaakar” from the 1962 classic film Mughal-e-Azam, arguably one of the greatest films in the history of Indian cinema. Delivered by the lead character Anarkali (portrayed by the magnificent Madhubala), the lyrics translate to: “We admit that love can lead to destroying one’s life. However, it is worth suffering for the sake of love, because lovers can leave a lasting legacy on the world after they have left it.”

Dramatic? Perhaps. But what lies beneath is the deep-seated and unwavering belief in one’s perception of the nature of love and life. This qawwali takes place essentially between two rivals. On one side, there is Bahar, an opponent desperate to win the heart of Prince Salim (known by his imperial name Jahangir, the fourth Mughal Emperor). On the opposite end is Anarkali, a beautiful courtesan that has already won the love of the prince, yet is faced with Bahar and society’s disapproval of their secret love affair.

This qawwali mirrors that of two opposite views in the modern world, strategically fencing and counter-parrying each other. There are forces, like Bahar, that snarkily desire to dismiss and expunge the titanic shift and impact created by the Mughal Dynasty on the Indian Subcontinent. It would be foolish to deny the cultural significance that has intricately woven itself into shaping a part of the world that has given birth to billions. And that same legacy that Anarkali bravely boasts about, reflects the Mughal imprint on the lives of many who enjoy today’s contemporary lifestyle trappings.

Jama Masjid

The Mughals Abridged

The Mughals stamped their influence on architecture, painting, literature, music, and more, reaching the palaces and forts in other regional and local kingdoms. From the Empire’s establishment by Babur in 1526 to its inevitable decline in the early 18th Century, the Mughal Empire wasn’t just one of the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful in the world, but was led by leaders who were patrons of the arts, championed religious tolerance, and contributed to India’s administrative system. India has become one of the world’s most culturally distinguished countries, and the Mughals played a key role in influencing the nation’s modern dance, music, art, and poetry. All of which we continue to consume nearly every day, just like the culinary treasures of Mughlai cuisine, consisting of biryani, haleem, nihari, and korma – we could go on.

It’s a Lifestyle: Through Movie Moments, and Tongue and Chic

These decedents of Turkic Mongols from Central Asia not only brought along with them gulab jamun and barfi but also the revival of spoken Persian to the Mughal royal court and spread it throughout their vast empire. In turn, this led to the development of Urdu, bridging the communication gap between the royals and their subjects, which has now become an official language in India and the national language of Pakistan. Even the ‘filmi dialect’ found in your beloved Bollywood movies derives from these origins. In fact, from scripts and dialogue to movie titles and songs, Urdu has a firm grip on pop culture. To no surprise, filmmakers are still shooting in Hindi-Urdu in a city (Mumbai) where Marathi is the official language, and its actors communicate in English. Moreover, today’s urban Indians speak Hinglish – a unique combination of English and modern Hindi/Urdu.

In fashion, the Mughals had inspired the tailored salwar kameez, and while the textile industry was booming, Emperor Jahangir’s wife Nur Jahan popularised brocade to complement the popular use of muslin, silk, and velvet. She had a keen eye for style and ushered in the cottage industry in the process. There was beauty in their passion behind sartorial excellence, which inevitably became part of the South Asian cultural heritage.

Empress Nur Jahan -20th Wife and Chief Consort of Emperor Jahangir.

In the Arenas of Politics and Economics

India is beautiful as the diverse and inclusive land once ruled by the Mughals, whose natives were majority non-Muslims and retained political unity. Anyone in their right senses would not be able to fathom how certain groups of people could do away with three centuries of the Mughals that are deeply rooted in the country’s history. And let’s not forget their economic impact either. At one point, Mughal India accounted for 95 percent of British imports from Asia, a time when Europeans were heavily reliant on the empire’s textiles: cotton fabrics, yarn, silk, and indigo.

Unfortunately, there are detractors who would like to silence an era that is so deafening it has left a rippling effect through the annals of time. There is an educational system that seeks to manipulate it, and ultimately, eradicate any trace of it. They would have you ignore Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal, Jama Masjid, and the Red Fort. Deny the dyslexic Emperor Akbar’s stance as a global political icon in his 49 years of reign, who accepted all religions during the empire’s expansion. Not to mention the warrior’s resilience of Humayun after being exiled for 15 years only to regain the throne on his return.

In Conclusion

No matter where you’re from or where you reside, your history matters; whether it’s been marred by tragedy or mimics a hero’s journey, you learn from the past, hoping to rectify your mistakes and improve upon the life you live. While the Bahars of the world utter words of discouragement and demand banishment, there will be plenty who convey the message of hope, tolerance, and the preservation of history. Alas, just as the closing lyrics of the same song state: “We will test our fate in the gathering of your court, and we shall watch this spectacle.” In doing so, the truth will always reveal itself through the halls of history. And it will always prevail.

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