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The naturalist with a hint of cruelty

Mughal emperor Jahangir was fascinated by the natural world around him, but he liked to hunt as well
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First Published: Thu, Oct 11 2012. 07 27 PM IST
A painting representing Jahangir’s lion hunt, circa 1615. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A painting representing Jahangir’s lion hunt, circa 1615. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Updated: Fri, Oct 12 2012. 03 05 PM IST
The great naturalist among the Mughals was Jahangir. His father had left him a large and peaceful empire, which Akbar built through war and conquest (whether on the battlefield or, as often, in the bedroom). Jahangir’s interests were different. He kept a superb diary, as good as the one maintained by his great-grandfather Babur. Jahangir’s, however, was full of observations about the natural world with which he was fascinated.
Here’s an entry from volume II of his memoirs, Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri. The year is 1618.
“At this time the mating of the saras, which I had never seen before, and is reported never to have been seen by man, was witnessed by me. The saras is a creature of the crane genus, but somewhat larger. On the top of the head it has no feathers and the skin is drawn over the bones of the head. From the back of the eye to six finger-breadths of the neck is red… The female having straightened its legs bent down a little: the male then lifted up one of its feet from the ground and placed it on her back, and afterwards the second foot, and, immediately, seating himself on her back, paired with her. He then came down, and, stretching out his neck, put his beak on the ground, and walked once round the female. It is possible they may have an egg and produce a young one.”
In fact they do. Jahangir has half a dozen entries on these cranes, who travel with him everywhere he goes with his armies. All the animals that Jahangir encountered, and many were gifted to him from foreign places, he records with the same meticulousness. You could tell purely from his accurate descriptions that he is observing a turkey. His curiosity about animals is that of a true naturalist, and that makes him unusual among Indians.
Once a python is found with a large belly. Jahangir has the snake cut open and it is found to have swallowed a deer. Jahangir is amazed the snake could get an animal of that size down its mouth (he doesn’t know what we do, through Discovery Channel, about double-hinged jaws). He gets his courtiers to force the animal again down the python’s mouth, without success. He then has the corners of the snake’s mouth slit open but still the deer’s carcass doesn’t fit. Jahangir then records this in his diary.
The emperor loved walrus teeth, hawking and above all, he loved hunting. His favourite wife Noor Jahan was also a hunter. She kept purdah on an elephant’s howdah from where, according to European travellers, only the musket’s barrel showed. Jahangir records her as once killing two tigers with two shots.
From the time of Babur, the Mughals hunted as their favourite pastime. Jahangir gave up shooting (not hunting) to honour his father, who by the end of his life, had become vegetarian. Jahangir later gave up all forms of hunting as an offering to God, if God would save his grandson through Khurram (later Shah Jahan). The boy is saved and Jahangir stops hunting, but starts it again after he falls out with Shah Jahan and the son rebels. I needed to de-stress, Jahangir tells us.
The Mughal form of hunting was through a qamargah. This was a circle in the jungle that was 50 miles (around 80km) in circumference, formed by 100,000 soldiers who slowly closed in till the circumference became about 4 miles and held thousands of animals. Into this circle, Akbar would step armed with a gun, bow and arrow and often only a sword. The slaughter would begin and once lasted four days. Nobody else was allowed to hunt till the emperor was done.
Jahangir could become cruel when denied a chance to hunt. Once, according to his diary, two drum-beaters and a guide mistakenly come into the clearing while he has taken aim at a nilgai (blue-bull antelope). The animal flees. Jahangir has the guide executed and the two poor drum-beaters hamstrung. This means that the tendons behind their knees were sliced off, leaving them crippled for life.
Such cruelty came naturally to someone who was absolute sovereign over 100 million people and all of their land, and it gives us a glimpse into his character just in case we thought he was a gentle lover of nature.
• • • • •
Head Count
A list of animals emperor Jahangir hunted.
Volume I of ‘Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri’ has two instances where the emperor makes a full inventory of the animals he has hunted. First a short list of a current hunting season, and then a longer one of what he had hunted till then in life.
In three months and 10 days in 1610, Jahangir records having hunted the following:
Tigers: 12
Deer: 9
Chinkara (gazelle): 44
Hog deer: 3
Blackbuck: 68
Does: 31
Foxes: 4
Bears: 5
Hyenas: 3
Hares: 6
Nilgai: 108
Fish: 1,096
Eagle: 1
Bustard: 1
Peafowl: 5
Herons: 5
Partridges: 5
Brahmini ducks: 1
Saras cranes: 5
Patal and Dhik: 2
Total: 1,414
At the age of 50, Jahangir kept a record of what he had hunted thus far in life, beginning at the age of 12 (both ages in lunar years).
Quadrupeds: 3,203, of which
Tigers: 86
Bears, cheetahs, foxes, otters and hyenas: 9 each
Nilgai: 889
Mhaka antelope: 35
Chital, chinkara, mountain goats: 1,670
Rams and red deer: 215
Wolves: 64
Wild buffalo: 36
Pigs: 90
Rang: 26
Mountain sheep: 22
Arghali (wild sheep): 32
Wild ass: 6
Hares: 22
Birds: 13,964 of which:
Pigeons: 10,348
Hawks: 3
Eagles: 2
Kites and pariah kites: 28
Owls: 69
Goldfinch: 12
Sparrows: 41
Doves: 25
Ducks, geese and cranes: 150
Crows: 3,276
Crocodiles: 10
A total of 17,167 creatures.
• • • • •
Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.
Send your feedback to Aakar at replytoall@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Oct 11 2012. 07 27 PM IST
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