Aurangzeb’s Eunuch Slave Bakhtawar Khan and His Passion for History

 

Shreejita Basak

Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi - 110067, Delhi, India.

*Corresponding Author E-mail: basakshreejita@gmail.com

 

ABSTRACT:

Eunuch slaves were an integral part of the haram establishment in Mughal India. This specialised group of slaves primarily functioned as guards and superintendents of the women’s apartments but with the passage of time were also appointed in important administrative and military posts. Aurangzeb’s eunuch slave Bakhtawar Khan opted for a unique pursuit while operating parallelly in both domestic and administrative capacities. He chose to become a historian. His passion for the study of history, which he nurtured from an early age, received further encouragement when his master, Aurangzeb, came out victorious of the war of succession, ascended the Mughal throne and promoted his trusted eunuch slave from a regular attendant to the post of the dāroghā of the khawāses. The paper explores the career and contributions of Bakhtawar Khan with a focus on his literary and intellectual ventures.

 

KEYWORDS: Slavery, Eunuch, Historian, Aurangzeb’s slave, Mughal empire.

 

 


INTRODUCTION:

The institution of slavery and the practice of slave trading are of particular significance in the history of medieval India for there was not only a steady demand for slaves in the imperial and aristocratic households, but there was also, from time to time, established markets for military slaves in the various parts of the subcontinent.1 The extent of the importance of the institution may also be discerned from the fact that the era of the first few rulers of the Delhi Sultanate who previously were all slaves, gained popularity in history as the rule of the ‘slave dynasty’. For Richard Eaton, the history of slavery in South Asia cannot be restricted to a single narrative as he believes that every instance of slavery in this part of the globe was shaped by a ‘unique conjunction of contingent factors’ which requires to be studied and understood against its unique background, and by engaging in this exercise one would be able to look beyond slavery as a ‘monolithic’ phenomenon which involves a ‘triumphant march from bondage to “freedom.”’2

 

He prefers to look at slavery as a historical process as opposed to an ‘institution’, as the various categories of slaves were fluid and as a historical process slavery forced the slaves towards a greater socio-cultural assimilation with their host societies.

 

The original enslavement of slaves, irrespective of socio-cultural contexts, was primarily dependent on two conditions—capture in war and impoverishment.3 The first was when the defeated population of a battle was imprisoned by the army of the victor and absorbed into slavery; while the second happened when parents out of utter destitution (caused by a series of factors ranging from war to natural calamity to hike in taxation) sold off their children to the specialised dealers in this trade. Those entering slavery as war captives were generally the cultural ‘outsiders’ for they would be recruited and absorbed in a society distant and alien from their own, while those entering it from destitution were usually cultural ‘insiders’ for their masters would generally be local moneylenders, chiefs and tax farmers.4 Despite the factors responsible for their initial enslavement, a feature that remained intact in slavery was that the slaves usually changed hands many a times in their lifetime either as gifts, or as tributary payments, or as cash purchase. In the Indian subcontinent slaves primarily belonged to either the domestic, where their services were used in the multitude of activities associated with the management of the household, or to the military, where they were trained and equipped to assist in armed expeditions on behalf of their masters. However, there was an interesting third category of slaves who could be employed both at these spaces interchangeably. This was the exceptional category of eunuchs, the only slaves who could be employed both at the domestic as well as the garrison who often functioned as agents and negotiators between the two.

 

This brings us to the question of who is a eunuch? The term ‘eunuch’ comes from the Greek eunoukhos, first used by Hipponax,5 which meant someone abstaining from procreation either due to natural reasons or due to physical mutilation. With the passage of time, however, the term eunuch came to be applied only for those men who were emasculated, usually quite early in life, with the intention of producing major hormonal changes. The surgery was typically carried out on a pre-pubescent boy, as the chances of his survival was much higher than an older man undergoing a similar procedure. It would be conducted by a group of merchants and surgeons without caring much about the question of consent. This also meant that the boys would be kept in the dark regarding the consequences that followed the surgery, including the possibility of death. The mortality rate from the surgery was so high that those who survived the procedure came to be regarded as near-exotic specimens fetching very high prices at the slave markets. The functions and responsibilities that these eunuch slaves were entrusted with, varied from one culture to another. However, the most important role that they were assigned irrespective of the culture that they are employed in, was that of the guardian of the women’s apartments. Guarding the seraglio was such a primary aspect of their duty that, over the centuries, eunuchs practically came to be equated to the women’s quarters. 

 

The concept of the third gender was not absent in pre-Islamic India. Islam’s contribution, however, was the assignment of historical roles to the eunuchs as opposed to the religious and mythological ones ascribed by the Brahminical religion.6 Interestingly enough Islam only talks of those who are born without the defining features of either a man or a woman. The Prophet, while being critical about cross-dressers, carefully evades the topic concerning those who are manufactured into eunuchs through surgery. In all probability, the process was viewed as one not in alignment with the notions of the ‘normal’ and was therefore considered a sin. It is rather intriguing to note, however, that despite all the injunctions against it, eunuch-making continued in the different parts of the Islamic world stimulated by a rather stable demand. The proliferation of the concept of the haram (sanctum sanctorum) during medieval India encouraged the demand for eunuchs to reach new heights in this part of the globe. The medieval Indian eunuch came to be called a khwājasarā or simply a khwāja. The predecessors of the Mughals, the Delhi Sultans, were heavy recruiters of eunuchs, as is evident from the innumerable examples, including those of Malik Kafur and Malik Sarwar. The Mughals, on the other hand, despite issuing farmāns against the practice of eunuch making, continued to employ them in not just their seraglios but also appointed them to important administrative and military offices. Accounts left behind by Europeans like Peter Mundy, Edward Terry and Niccolao Manucci help with the understanding of a eunuch in the Mughal times, albeit from the perspective of an outsider. Edward Terry, the early seventeenth century traveller to India writes,

 

They do not cut their chickens when they be little to make capons and therefore they have no creatures of that name, but men, their eunuchs, called there Cogees, or capons, in their language; so made, when they be very young, and then deprived of all that might after provoke jealousy and therefore they are put to be attendants on their women, the great men of that nation keeping many of them, a soft tender people tener spao, as Juvenal calls one of them, that never come to have any hair on their faces.7

 

He further adds,

The women there of the greater quality have eunuchs, instead of men, to wait upon them, who in their minority are deprived of all that might provoke jealousy.8

 

The seventeenth century traveller Peter Mundy writes in his travelogue, A Coja is one whoe hath his testiccles cutt out, and are alwaies about great men, whoe imploy them in matters of greatest trust, of which the Cheifest is to guarde their weomen, theire treasure, etts. Sometymes they are made Commaunders in the warrs, and prove good and resolute Soldiers, as this is by reporte, whoe is one of that sorte. There are likewise others called Cojaes, but they are many tymes grave auntient men of respect and place, as Coja Abdull Hassen, Coja Tahare and Coja Mahmud etts., alsoe [as they say] others that have bene att Mecha [Mecca].9

 

It is at this context that this paper takes a look into the career and contributions of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s (1658-1707 A.D.) trusted eunuch Bakhtawar Khan, whose case stands out on account of his qualifications as a historian. Bakhtawar Khan, despite holding a minor position in the hierarchy of Mughal nobility, was a great patron of art and literature. The exact date of Bakhtawar Khan’s birth is unknown. However, ‘in his account of Mullāh Khwajah in the Riyad-al Auliya, which he wrote and completed in 1090/1679, Bakhtawar alludes to the fact that he was sixty at that time.’10 This particular information helps in determining the year of his birth to circa1620 A.D. When and under what circumstances was he made into a eunuch is a mystery as neither he nor his contemporaries delve into the details of the days prior to his eunuch-hood. Sources suggest that he initiated his career in the imperial service under prince Aurangzeb as a plain reporter around 1654 A.D. and was eventually appointed as a personal attendant to the prince during the years of the war of succession (1657-58 A.D.).11 That he was in constant attendance to his master is proven by his mention amongst Aurangzeb’s trusted men in the Battle of Dharmat (1658 A.D.) against Jaswant Singh and in the Battle of Khajwah (1659 A.D.) against Prince Shuja. He was also a part of the group pursuing Dara Shukoh, when he fell a prisoner, after the Battle of Samugarh (1658).12 During Aurangzeb’s second coronation (1659 A.D.), Bakhtawar Khan served him in the capacity of a whisk bearer. He was gifted the title of Khan that very year. On 27th of March 1670, on the occasion of the Aurangzeb’s fifty fourth lunar birthday, Bakhtawar Khan identified as the ‘darogha of the khawases’, was presented with a crystal-handled dagger.13 In the year 1674 A.D. he was raised to a mansab of 1,000 by the emperor.14 The gradual rise in his career, therefore, may be traced between the years 1654 and 1674 A.D. during which he escalated from being an ordinary attendant to becoming the chief of the khawāses.

 

Bakhtawar Khan’s most important contribution, however, was the compilation of the Mirat-ul Alam,15 which according to Bernard Dorn was ‘most valuable Universal History’.16 In the Mirat the author categorically mentions his special interest for the study of history.

 

Bakhtavar Khan says in his preface that he had been from his youth a passionate student of history, and that prevented by frequent travelling from having many books at hand, he had often wished to provide himself with a substitute in the shape of a complete historical vade-mecum. It was not, however, until after the accession of his royal master that he found himself in a position that enabled him to carry out his plan. The result was the present work, which was completed in the year…A.H. 1078 [1668-69].’17

 

The eighteenth-century biographical album, the Tazkirat-ul Umara similarly recognises Bakhtawar Khan’s ‘good understanding of history’.18 Alexander Dow in his History of Hindostan describes Bakhtawar Khan as ‘a man of letters, who led a private life near Faridabad, within a few miles of Agra.’19 Apart from the Mirat-ul Alam, he authored other works, including the Aina-i Bakht, Bayaz, Riyaz-ul Auliya.20 A comparative study with other contemporary writings on the history of Aurangzeb reveals small yet significant differences in the khwājasarā’s style of writing that contributed towards his merit as a historian. He mentions in the Mirat that he was not a commissioned author and that his decision to write was driven by a couple of factors—to ‘satisfy his intellectual interest in the science of history’ and ‘to recount the virtues and illustrious acts of the ruler of the esoteric and exoteric worlds [Aurangzeb]’.21 The latter appears to be the stronger reason which gets reflected further in his selection of the ‘universal history’ approach.22 Despite Bakhtawar Khan’s religious and political views being in perfect alignment with those of his master’s, his writing is devoid of unnecessary hatred towards those holding conflicting views. He severely condemns Aurangzeb’s opponents in attempts to highlight him as the sole champion of Islam, and yet his scholarship may be classified as one bereft of exaggeration. On the contrary, the Mirat is laced with minute details often overlooked by his contemporaries, including Muhammad Kazim, the author of the official history of Aurangzeb’s reign, the Alamgirnama.23 Moreover, he assures his readers that he is not the kind to fall for gossips, and bases his work not on rumours but on ‘the word of reliable people’ and ‘only after thorough investigation’.24 Bakhtawar Khan’s trait of corroborating evidence—one of the attributes of a responsible historian—cannot be overlooked, and it is a combination of all the above qualities that places him way ahead of his times.

 

Furthermore, his involvement with intellectual pursuits was not limited to his own authorship. Must‘ad Khan provides with a number of anecdotes which suggest that Bakhtawar Khan acted as an intermediary between the emperor and many renowned scholars of the time. One of them from the year 1683 A.D. goes as:

 

The emperor learnt that the great scholar Mullā ‘Abdullah, son of Mullā ‘Abdul Hakim Siālkoti had died. The Emperor favoured his four sons and widow with robes and increase of stipend. This prince of scholars, with all his learning was strongly inclined towards piety (faqr), and had secular learning united with spiritual knowledge. The Emperor, who recognized wisdom and sanctity, knew the true value of such men, and while he was staying at Ajmir, wrote him a letter with his own hand, offering the sadrship to him. And that intimate courtier Bakhtāwar Khan, who on account of his friendship with scholars and hermits was the intermediary of their applications to the Emperor, was ordered to write to the Mullā on his own behalf giving him a hint of the matter. After the farmān and the letter had been received, the Mullā wrote in reply to the Khan ‘(The present) is the time of separation, (from the world) and not a time of acquiring fame in this world. In obedience to the Emperor’s command, I am going to the Court and shall secure the blessing of visiting the tomb of Khwaja Muinuddin and interviewing the Emperor.’ The Emperor liked these words from this chief of wise men. As he had written, he came to Ajmir and stayed at the Court for some days, constantly enjoying the Emperor’s company. After performing the pilgrimage to the saint’s tomb he returned home with the Emperor’s consent and died there (shortly) afterwards.25 [emphases added]

 

That Bakhtawar Khan was in close contact with a number of poets, scholars and intellectuals of the time and encouraged many of them to produce important pieces of writing is also evident from a number of scholarly works dedicated to him. Abu Bakr Akbarabadi compiled a book on fatāwā and dedicated it to Bakhtawar, Mulla Muhammad Nafi’s book on the Hanafi law Khulasat-ul Khaniya and Hakim Abdullah’s treatise on rhetoric Risalah-i Humdum-i Bakht were both written on Bakhtawar Khan’s suggestion. Bahadur Ali bin Jaafar Allahwardi Khan’s Shahnama-i Bakhtawar Khani similarly exhibits his association with the eunuch noble. Besides, the Makatib of Rasa‘a contains several letters in his name. He patronized a number of poets, including Arshi Alawi Mawhib, Qaysar Abdul Latif, Tahsin, Wahdat and others.26 The author of the Maasir-i Alamgiri, Must‘ad Khan too was brought up under the guidance and patronage of Bakhtawar Khan.

 

He pursued his interests in the study of history in conjunction with the classic role of a eunuch superintendent in Aurangzeb’s haram. One of the prime duties of a servant working in this capacity was to supervise royal weddings and Bakhtawar was a witness to a number of them including those of Aurangzeb’s eldest son Muhammad Sultan’s to Murad Bakhsh’s daughter Dostdar Banu Begum, and Dara Shukoh’s son Sipihr Shukoh’s to Aurangzeb’s daughter Zubdatunnisa Begum.27  As an intimate attendant he was entrusted (1675 A.D.) with the task of taking securities from the astrologers of the emperor and princes declaring that they would not construct almanacs for the next year—an order also spread to the provinces.28 A glimpse of Aurangzeb’s closeness to and dependency on this eunuch slave can be predicted from the description of Bakhtawar’s death as recorded by Must‘ad Khan.

 

On Monday, the 19th February 1685/15th Rabi. A., Bakhtawar Khan darogha of the Khawases died, after thirty years of service. His Majesty was very sorry to hear of the death of this confidential companion, wise minister, and highminded man. By his order the bier was brought near the ‘adalat-gah; the Emperor himself acted as the Imam, followed the bier a few steps, read the fatiha, distributed alms, and had the whole Quran read, and the corpse sent to the tomb which the deceased had previously built at Delhi. He was a great friend of scholars, hermits and poets and tried to further their desires. He was an expert in the classic style and knowledge of history, wrote the Mirat-ul Alam, and was unrivalled in good breeding and benevolence to mankind…29

 

This was one of the only two occasions recorded on which the Aurangzeb was seen participating in the last rites of a eunuch, the other one being that of Darbar Khan, who died the same year.30 Charles Rieu notes that the ‘circumstantial account of his death, found at the end of the present copy, was written by his adopted son and favoured pupil (probably Muhammad Saki, afterwards Must‘ad Khan), who says that he had assisted his master in the composition of this work, and had after his death obtained from Aurangzib the permission to publish it. It is here stated that Bakhtavar Khan died after a short illness in Ahmadnagar, on the l5th of Rabi’ I., A.H. 1096…’31 It is likely that he more than one office for Must‘ad Khan records that after his death ‘Yalangtosh Khan Bahadur succeeded him as a darogha of the khawases, Hakim Muhasan Khan as darogha of the jewellery department and Mir Hidayetullah as that of the gold-ware.’32

 

Bakhtawar Khan had erected innumerable structures during his early days in Aurangzeb’s service and had ‘exhausted all the possibilities of public works according to the notions of the time’.33 Bakhtawar Khan’s careful selection of the types of construction projects he invested in is representative of his pious nature. He built a sarāi near Shahjahanabad and named it Bakhtawar Nagar. Adjacent to it he constructed a mosque, a well and a bath, following the morphology of sarāi in general. This place was further adorned by a market with shops (katra), a garden and a step-well. Within half a karoh from the sarāi was a spring emerging off of the ridge across which he constructed a bund in order to make a tank for the thirsty. He is also said to have laid the foundations of the village of Bakhtawarpur.34 These are only a few from the long list of public work undertaken by Bakhtawar Khan.35 Constructing tombs and mansions for themselves and contributing to the welfare of the people was undoubtedly a way for the eunuchs to exhibit their power and status. This is perhaps why despite the fact that they could never produce heirs who could eventually inherit or look after the acquired property, they did not cease from exhibiting their material extravagance. Interestingly however, Bakhtawar Khan is commemorated in the pages of history not as much for the structures he had commissioned to be constructed, as he is for his literary and intellectual contributions. His case stands out because he did not limit himself to the confines of imperial duty and utilised the perks that came along with the years of service to the Mughal throne and the close relationship he nurtured with his master, to pursue his appetite for knowledge and wisdom, especially his passion for the study of history.

 

REFERENCES:

1.      For example, while the Delhi Sultans established their sway over the larger part of northern India with the help of the military slaves pooled in from Central Asia, the Bahmani Sultans of the Deccan followed a similar strategy by importing large numbers of slaves from Ethiopia or the Habash. These Habashi slaves continued to form a substantial section of the army of the five successor states (Ahmadnagar, Golconda, Bijapur, Bidar and Berar) which came into existence after the disintegration of the Bahmanis.

2.      Richard M. Eaton. ‘Introduction’. In Slavery and South Asian History, Edited by Indrani Chatterjee and Richard M. Eaton. Indiana University Press, Indiana. 2006; p. 1.

3.      Ibid., p. 5.

4.      Ibid., p. 6.

5.      Margaret Miller. Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century BC: A Study in Cultural Receptivity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 1997; p. 213.

6.      Serena Nanda. Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Toronto. 1999; p. 23.

7.      Edward Terry. A Voyage to East India: Wherein Some Things are taken Notice of, in our Passage Thither But many more in our Abode there, Within the Rich and the most Spacious Empire of the Great Mogul. London. 1777; p. 89.

8.      Ibid., p. 284.

9.      Peter Mundy. The Travels of Peter Mundy in Europe and Asia 1608-1667. 5 Vols. Edited by Richard Carnac Temple. The Hakluyt Society, London. 1914; vol. II: p. 164.

10.   Bakhtawar Khan. Mirat-ul Alam. Edited and translated by Sajida S. Alvi. Research Society of Pakistan, Lahore. 1979; p. 16.

11.   During the war of succession among Shahjahan’s sons, all four of them were accompanied by eunuch slaves who played critical roles in the causes of their respective masters. Shahbaz Khan thus served Murad Bakhsh, Khawaja Basant was beside Dara Shukoh, Bakhtawar Khan served Aurangzeb, while Khwaja Ishrat Shah Shujai defended Shah Shuja’s interests.

12.   Bakhtawar Khan. Mirat-ul Alam. p. 17.

13.   Saqi Must‘ad Khan. Maasir-i Alamgiri. Edited and translated by Jadunath Sarkar. The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta. 1947; p. 61.

14.   Ibid., p. 85. According to Kewal Ram, he received a mansab of 1,000 in the tenth regnal year. Lala Kewal Ram Agarwal. Tazkirat-ul Umara. Translated by S.M. Azizuddin Hussain. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi. 1985; p. 36.

15.   There is a dispute over the authorship of the text. H. M. Elliot is of the opinion that it was not Bakhtawar Khan but Muhammad Baqa who composed the Mirat. ‘It will be seen, therefore, that the real author of these various works is Muhammad Baqa, though he is the person to whom they are least ascribed, in consequence not only of his attributing his own labours to others, but from the prominence which his editors have endeavoured to give to their own names.’ However, Sajida S. Alvi, the editor of the Mirat is of the opinion that the work was indeed Bakhtawar’s own who was assisted by Muhammad Baqa and Must‘ad Khan with the compilation. Henry Miers Elliot. The History of India as Told by its Own Historians. Translated by Henry Miers Elliot. Edited by John Dowson. 8 Vols. Trubner & Company, London. 1877; vol. VII, pp. 150-153.; Bakhtawar Khan. Mirat-ul Alam. p. 16.

16.   The Mirat is described as ‘a most valuable Universal History; written, in Persian, by Bukhtaver Khan, who by travels and assiduous study had qualified himself for the task of a Historian.’ Bernard Dorn. History of the Afghans: Translated from the Persian of Neamet Ullah. 2 Vols. The Oriental Translation Committee, London. 1829; vol. I: p. xiv.

17.   Charles Rieu. Catalogue of the Persian Manuscripts in the British Museum. 3 Vols. London. 1879; vol. I: p. 126.

18.   Kewal Ram. Tazkiratul Umara. p. 36.

19.   Alexander Dow. The History of Hindostan: From the Death of Akbar to the Complete Settlement of the Empire under Aurungzebe. 3 Vols. John Murray, London. 1792;  vol. III.

20.   Bakhtawar Khan. Mirat-ul Alam. pp. 19-20.

21.   Ibid., p. 13.

22.   Bakhtawar Khan chose the universal history genre beginning his work with a description of the creation of the universe and ending it with highlighting Aurangzeb’s period. ‘It indicates the author’s belief in the closely continuation of historical process, the climax of which was Awrangzeb’s period—perhaps for him the most important link in that chain.’ Ibid., p. 24.

23.   Ibid., p. 31.

24.   Ibid., p. 56.

25.   Must‘ad Khan. Maasir-i Alamgiri. pp. 141-42.

26.   Bakhtawar Khan. Mirat-ul Alam. p. 17.

27.   Must‘ad Khan. Maasir-i Alamgiri. p. 61.

28.   Ibid., p. 90.

29.   Ibid., p. 155.

30.   Ibid.,‘On Thursday, the 26th February, 1685/ 2nd Rabi. S., Darbar Khan Superintendent (nāzir) of the harem (mahal) died. He was an old, high-minded, and benevolent officer, devoted to His Majesty, who simultaneously ordered his bier to be brought and himself acted as the Imām at the funeral prayer. The corpse was sent to Delhi…’

31.   Charles Rieu. Catalogue of the Persian Manuscripts. vol. I: p. 126.

32.   Must ‘ad Khan. Maasir-i Alamgiri. p. 155.

33.   M. Athar Ali, Mughal Nobility under Aurangzeb. Asia Publishing House for the Aligarh Muslim University, Bombay. 1966; p. 166.

34.   Elliot. The History of India as Told by its Own Historians. vol. VII: p. 150.

35.   Athar Ali. Mughal Nobility under Aurangzeb. pp. 165-66.

 

 

 

 

Received on 01.05.2023         Modified on 24.05.2023

Accepted on 10.06.2023      ©AandV Publications All right reserved

Res.  J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2023;14(2):77-81.

DOI: 10.52711/2321-5828.2023.00016