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1636: Mission to the Mughals: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Tuesday, February 7, 2017 06:43 EST



Agra, Red Fort
August, 1634

    Her favorite garden was quiet but for the buzz of insects and the musical sounds of water over stone. Most of the court were at Mother’s tomb while the emperor oversaw some detail of its construction. His absence and the oppressive heat left the Red Fort unusually quiet. Jahanara was taking full advantage of that quiet, enjoying a mango julabmost, idly crunching the flavored ice between her teeth while pondering the next few lines of the poem she was composing. The scroll was ready before her, as were ink and brush, but she would commit nothing to paper until the verse was ready in her mind.

    One of the harem eunuchs entered the garden and approached her small pavilion. As was proper, he knelt some distance away and waited to be recognized, sweating in the afternoon sun.

    Taking pity on him, she handed the remainder of the julabmost to Atisheh, tipping it to indicate the Turkic guard maiden was free to drink it if she chose, and said simply, “Speak.”

    “Begum Sahib, your brother’s wife, Nadira Begum Sahiba, inquires whether you are available to come to her sometime this afternoon?”

    Sudden concern stabbed her. Nadira was pregnant with Dara’s first child. “Did she say why?” Jealousies ran deep in every harem, and poisoning a rival to end a pregnancy was far from unknown.

    “It is some matter that Shehzada Dara Shikoh brought to her attention, Begum Sahib. Something between him and an amir,” a brief hesitation and licking of lips, “whose name escapes this witless servant.”


    The eunuch bent forward over his large belly, head nearly touching the grass. “Begum Sahib, I beg forgiveness; it is a worthless slave who forgets too much of his mistress’ business to ever warrant the trust placed in him.”

    Jahanara nodded, understanding the subtext quite well — Nadira had not told the slave the name of her husband’s guest, clearly wanting to surprise her. Or the prince himself wanted to limit the ears that would hear the amir’s name.

    Interest piqued, she spoke: “I will attend Nadira Begum once I am finished here. Take word to her and comfort in knowing that she will not hear of your lapse in memory from my lips.”



    “You do me great honor, Shehzada Dara Shikoh,” Salim said, bowing low over rich carpets. It was not often a lowly amir found himself invited into the inner chambers of one of the Princes of the Blood. So private was the interview that only the carved sandstone of a jali separated the men from the prince’s harem. A rare honor indeed.

    “It is I who is honored to have you as guest.” Dara waved a hand at a cushion beside him. “Please, take your ease and tell us of your travels and the fate of Father’s mission to the west and this city the Jesuits claim appeared with a snap of Shaitan’s fingers.”

    A wordless sound of surprise escaped the jali at this announcement of Salim’s most recent adventures. Careful not to look too closely at the screen and therefore see the forbidden, Salim crossed to the offered seat and bowed deeply again. While they had been students together, that had been long ago, and he wanted to show the prince every respect. He decided it was better not to ask who was watching from the harem, assuming the prince would tell him if the prince wished him to know.

    So close was the rich cushion to Dara Shikoh that Salim was suddenly very glad he’d had opportunity to bathe and perfume himself before the audience. He leaned on his injured arm as he sat, wincing as the movement pulled at the wound. He ignored the pain, hoping it had not been pulled open: far easier to replace a bit of blood than the cotton tunic purchased for this interview. Or worse yet, to spill blood on a cushion or carpet worth more than his yearly income.

    The prince’s slaves entered and presented refreshments on trays of ornate plate of gold. “First, take refreshment before you tell us of your adventures and the fate of Baram Kahn.”

    Salim protested, only to have the Dara direct a mischievous grin at the jali while speaking to him: “Salim, allow me to fill your belly before you fill our ears. It will serve to whet our appetite for your news.”

    A throaty, musical note of feminine laughter issued from beyond the jali.

    Dara ate little himself, but encouraged Salim to try some of the more exotic dishes.

    Too nervous to take note of what he was eating, let alone enjoy the delicacies offered, Salim managed to eat a few sweets and was sipping a deliciously cool drink when a soft voice issued from beyond the jali: “The amir is hurt, brother.”

    Dara stopped packing his pipe of opium and looked at Salim, brow arching. “You were injured in our pulu match?”

    Mortified, Salim glanced at his arm. Sure enough, blood stained the sleeve. “It is nothing, Shehzada, a momentary disagreement between flesh and arrow.”


    “Robbers on the road here, Shehzada.”

    “A plague. Some hillmen never learn.”

    Salim nodded. “They are a problem in every kingdom.”

    The female voice returned: “Hillmen or robbers?”

    Unsure if he should respond directly, Salim did not answer.

    Another wicked grin from Dara. “My sister, the Begum Sahib, would have an answer, I think.”

    Clearing his throat, Salim spoke. “Begum Sahib, not all robbers are hillmen, though it has been my experience that the more successful are.”

    Another woman giggled, but the penetrating questions continued through it. “Then you were not attacked by hillmen, were you?”

    “I thought them Bhils, from their lack of horses and skill at archery. I would not be before you if they had such knowledge.”

    “And you are a proper hillman, are you not?”

    Salim nodded. “My village is just this side of the Khyber Pass, Begum Sahib.”


    He nodded again. “Yusufzai, yes.” He glanced at Dara, found the young prince looking at him, eyes glittering.

    “Our forebear passed through there after many great battles.”

    “A similar tale is told in my family, Begum Sahib,” Salim answered, thoughtlessly.

    The Princess of Princesses pounced on it. “Similar, only?”

    “Oh, you’ve done it now!” Dara chortled.

    “Stop it, Dara! I will not beg Father to have this man trampled by elephants simply for disagreeing with me on points of history!”

    Dara laughed outright, then held his breath.

    Salim prayed silently.

    The moment stretched like the skin of a drum.

    Softly, the Begum Sahib spoke again: “Though I might consider going to him if the amir does not answer promptly.”



    The prince doubled over on his cushion, laughing hard and loud.

    “Yes, Begum Sahib. Our family history claims that Emperor Babur took for one of his ten wives the daughter of one of our greatest chiefs, a beauty named Bibi Mubarika. Thus, he and his army had the way opened for them through the Khyber.”

    “Don’t let my little brother — or Father’s generals — hear you say that,” Dara said between fits of laughter.

    A delicate sniff from beyond the jali. “Aurangzeb will not hear it from me, Dara.”

    Hoping to return the conversation to safer ground, Salim ventured: “It is that marriage, in a roundabout way, which brings me to serve the emperor, Begum Sahib.”

    Dara gestured at his guest. “The amir Salim is also a fellow student of Mian Mir’s teachings, sister.”

    Salim nodded. “The saint is wise, and asked me to accompany Baram Kahn on his mission.”

    Dara looked at the jali. When there was nothing further from Begum Sahib, he gestured Salim to continue.

    “Nur Jahan’s man, Baram Kahn, is dead. Poisoned by someone in the kingdom of Thuringia. It was done so that he would not bring back word of the future and what happens to this land.”



Agra, Red Fort, The Harem

    “Thank you, Shehzada Dara Shikoh,” Amir Salim Gadh Visa Yilmaz said with a bow. The man turned and faced the jali, bowing nearly as low as he had for Dara.

    She willfully turned away from the impure thoughts that rose up as she looked into the man’s pale green eyes, aided by the fact that he could not see her strong reaction.

    Nadira, sitting beside her, nudged her with an elbow.

    She looked at her sister in law. A great beauty, and cousin through their mothers, Nadira was also a friend to Jahanara. When Mother died, Jahanara had been left with the responsibility of planning Dara’s marriage celebrations, during which she had come to know and appreciate the kind and gentle spirit of her sister-to-be. Such spirit was not common in the harems of powerful men.

    Nadira bent close, whispering, not unkindly, in her ear: “Do not make your brother kill the honorable — and very handsome — amir for loving what he cannot have, Begum Sahib.”

    Jahanara winced.

    Obeisance paid, Salim departed with a horseman’s rolling gait.

    The Princess of Princesses tried — and failed — to avert her gaze from his strong, broad back.

    Nadira giggled softly, shaking her head.

    Dara, meanwhile, picked up one of the books the amir had left behind and muttered, “Fascinating.”

    Fingers twitching with the desire to read them for herself, she cautioned him: “And dangerous, brother.”

    He glanced at the jali, frowned, “Well, of course.”

    “If it is true, how do we present this information to father?”


    “Well, I haven’t seen the images he gave, and his story beggars belief.”

    Dara, more excited than she had seen him since his wedding day, picked up the books and two flat pieces of paper Salim had called “photographs” and walked toward the jali. One of his eunuchs opened the concealed portal, ensuring his master did not have to slow. A few more strides and Dara was standing over his wife and sister.

    He handed Jahanara the image. It was on a piece of paper, glossy on one side, no bigger than a large man’s hand. The subject within was of a large white-marble building of enormous size and great beauty, surrounded on all four sides by matching minarets with a great giant onion of a dome in the middle. Lettering in the latin alphabet, inked in lurid red, lined the top of the image.

    Nadira, leaning to look over her shoulder, asked, “What did he say this reads?”

    “Greetings from the Taj Mahal! Greatest of The Seven Wonders of the World!” Dara answered from memory, smiling fondly at his wife. “They even have the coloring of the letters the correct red, to honor the colors of the family war-tent.”

    “But what –”

    “It is a corruption of mother’s title,” Dara answered her question before it was fully voiced.

    Nadira even scowled prettily, “Mumtaz Mahal becomes Taj Mahal? How does this happen?”

    “I presume it happens after near four hundred years and across several languages, my love.”

    “But how do you know it’s accurate, light of my heart?”

    “Father’s plans are set and construction begun.” He tapped the photograph. “Mother’s tomb will look like this, though you cannot see the Moonlit Garden across the river.”

    Tears filled Jahanara’s eyes. To think her father’s grief had carried across the centuries and thousands of kos to peoples so distant caused her heart to ache — not for her father, but for her own fate. She would, as a daughter of her house, never marry, never know the heat of a love that would make a man like her father grieve so terribly he would build a monument to their love that would last through the ages.

    She lowered her head, shamed by the depth of self-pity she felt. It seemed extraordinarily sinful in the face of what the amir had told them the future histories contained: that two of her brothers would be executed and her father left to wither and die, while Aurangzeb expended the strength of the empire in bloody attempts to suppress the Hindu religion and conquer the remainder of the sub-continent.

    Fear and concern for the future of her family rode self-pity and shame down under flashing hooves. Jahanara cleared her throat. “I am willing to believe the amir, but how do we tell Father?”

    “Don’t you mean what?”

    “No, I mean how.”

    Dara shrugged. “I didn’t think he needed to –”

    She interrupted: “Father will not be inclined to overlook anything less than full disclosure, Dara. The amir told us that the remainder of Baram Kahn’s followers should return within the month.” She gestured at the books, “and that they have more of these.”

    “Yes, but –”

    She held up a hand. “Father will find out if we withhold information — Nur Jahan will make sure of it — first Aurangzeb, and then Father, will be told what we have learned today.”

    Dara sighed so deeply his wife laid a hand on his arm. “I still hold hope that we might yet get Aurangzeb to abandon his religious bigotry and open his heart to Mian Mir’s teachings.”

    “An admirable — even saintly — hope, Dara. Unfortunately, there are far fewer saints in the world than sinners.”

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