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Posted on 07, Dec 2020

Mughal Culture

What did the Mughals eat?

While most of the historical narratives give detailed information about political developments under the Mughal Empire, there are certain aspects that have not been much touched upon regarding the Mughal past. Mughal eating habits is one of such less focussed upon topics.

In this article, we try to partly answer the question: What did the Mughals eat, with the help of information contained in an important Mughal source, Zakhiratul Khwanin. This work forms an important source for understanding and reconstructing certain socio-cultural aspects of the Mughal Empire. It is a biographical dictionary of Mughal nobles and forms part of Biographical Literature (Rijal). It covers a range of nobles from Akbar’s reign to that of Shah Jahaan’s, till 1651 (A.H. 1061), when the work was completed. Its author is Shaikh Farid Bhakkari who had joined Mughal service sometime before 1592, and having served under several important nobles retired after 1649.

Farid Bhakkari refers to various kinds of eatables laid out during feasts and special occasions and also the kinds which were consumed on a day to day basis. Mention is also found of the cultural underpinnings of the Mughal Nobility where pan, opium and wine appear to be an important part of the Mughal culture.

Mughal Feasts

It has been informed that Said Khan Chaghata, an important amir (noble) of Akbar’s time who used to organize for the first twelve days of the month of Rabiul Awwal , the death/birth anniversary of the Prophet dinners of lavish nature. In these feasts each person was served a meal of nine shirmal loaves and nine trays of dishes as well as a packet of five seers of sweets, wrapped in white cloth with velvet outer cover, to be taken home. There are also references in Zakhiratul Khwanin to other kinds of feasts which were held in the Mughal society amongst these the commemoration (urs) celebrations appear an important occasion for holding feasts. Feasts were also organized by nobles on special orders of the Emperor. Farid Bhakkari informs us of one such feast held on the orders of Akbar by Abul Fazl for Khudawand Khan Dakani, who used to hold a high position in the Nizamul Mulk regime of Ahmadnagar and had risen to a mansab of 3000 under Akbar. In this feast in front of each of Khudawand Khan’s servants nine trays of dishes and one roasted sheep with one hundred loaves were served, while in front of Khudawand Khan, various dishes like roast of fat fowl, partridge, titar (fowl), leafy vegetables (sag) and curries were laid. Farid Bhakkari also mentions that regarding this dinner Akbar said that ‘in India there is no feast more honourable and more elaborate than this.’

Daily Cuisine of Mughals

From Zakhiratul Khwanin we also come to know of the daily cuisine of the nobles. For Example Farid Bhakkari mentions the food consumed by Nawwab Islam Khan Fathpuri, foster brother of Jahangir and governor of Orissa and Bengal, who took millet(jowar and bajra) bread, vegetables or spinach (sag) and dry rice (bhat) of the variety called sathi. Mention of food consumption by Mahabat Khan, an important noble under Jahangir and Shah Jahan, shows how elaborate the daily meals of nobles were. Mahabat Khan’s one-time meal consisted of two trays of pulao (fried rice cooked with meat), two trays of khishka (fried rice) made of kamod rice, thirteen seers of melted butter, two trays of rice-khichri and two trays of millet-khichri and a seer and a half sugar and a dish of meat, spinach (sag) and vegetable curry (salan). One very interesting observation that comes up from reading the text is that khichri figured as an important element in Mughal eating habit. We find a number of examples in the text, one of them being the khichri that was cooked the entire day in Abul Fazl’s establishment during the Deccan Expedition. Among the common dishes mentioned by Farid Bhakkari we also find reference to dal, for which hing was used as a frying condiment.

Pan, Wine and Opium

In addition it appears that certain edibles formed an important part of Mughal cultural life; a number of references in Zakhiratul Khwanin are made to pan, wine and opium consumption which must have become symbols of high cultural life of Mughal society. Itiqad Khan Mirza Shahpur, son of Itimadud-Daula, who was considered a person of the most refined taste in India, had a liking of pan and Farid Bhakkari informs that for him kangiri pan were sent from Burhanpur. Pan as an important element of eating habit of Mughal nobles is also reflected in the incidence where Raja Man Singh proposed paying the Muslim nobles money equivalent to a pan-leaf every day as a compensation for him not being able to dine with them due to his caste. Thus pan appears an important element of consumption by the nobility. There are also a number of references to wine drinking by nobles in Zakhiratul Khwanin, Farid Bhakkari mentions the tempting wine parties of Nawwab Mirza Ghazi Baig Tarkhan, a noble of Jahangir. According to Shaikh Farid these parties were held in such a way that if a hundred year old ascetic would have passed by, even he would have forsaken prayer and fast to join this assembly. From the account of nobles mentioned by Farid Bhakkari it appears that Mughal Emperor had elaborate arrangements for wine drinking, with certain timings fixed for it. Wine and wine drinking also appear to have ceremonial significance, Khan Jahan Lodi was offered the cup of Ram-rangi wine by Jahangir before any other grandees, this, Shaikh Farid informs us, was an expression of the favours enjoyed by Khan Jahaan Lodi. Another element which we find considerable mention of in Zakhiratul Khwanin, is opium. Quite a few nobles are mentioned to be addicted to this intoxicant. Examples of this can be Mirza Ali, an important noble of Akbar, who was addicted to opium and Safdar Khan who was sent as an envoy to the King of Iran during Shah Jahan’s reign, was offered poppy fruit by Shah Safi, and eventually formed a habit of taking opium.

These references to not only the daily food habits of Mughal nobility but to the food served during feasts and the intoxicating edibles like opium and wine help us to develop an idea of how the life of the Mughals was in context of food and its culture. The preference given to khichri by Mughals and their love for wine are interesting.

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Lubna Irfan

Hsitory Professor

Womens's College, AMU Aligarh