In the late 15th to early 16th centuries, Central Asia was one of the most prosperous places in the world. Situated at one of the hubs of the Silk Road, its traders ranged from India to Persia and China. Ruled by Turko-Mongol conquerors such as Amir Timur the Lame, it played a vital role in the great migrations of nomadic peoples and the cultural effervescence of the Islamic world at the time. Whether in painting, poetry, or military endeavours, it was a fascinating fusion of Mongol, Turkic, and even Chinese forms and styles.
The courts of Timur’s descendants were havens for talented, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural young noblemen. It is the story of of these descendants, and of these noblemen, that TCA Raghavan brings vividly to life in Attendant Lords: Bairam Khan and Abdur Rahim, Courtiers & Poets in Mughal India.
The two titular Attendant Lords that Raghavan has selected perfectly illustrate the early ethos of one of late medieval India’s greatest empires. Bairam Khan served as commander-in-chief to the second Mughal Emperor, Humayun, and as regent for the third, Akbar, during his minority. His son, Abdul Rahim, was Akbar’s personal protégé, one of his son Jahangir’s foremost courtiers, a highly-respected patron of the arts, a general, and a talented poet in Indian vernacular languages. Their lives, their tragedies, and their personalities shine through the work. And above all hangs the shadow of the power of the Great Mughals, enigmatic, unknowable even to their closest friends and attendants.
Raghavan deserves credit for his close and critical reading of contemporary sources, which serves to vividly reconstruct the complexity of 16th century life. From court protocol to treachery, battles, witty insults, and anecdotes from ideologically opposed observers, from Sufis to orthodox Ulemas, he fits them all into the extraordinary story of Bairam and Abdul Rahim, and simultaneously makes an excellent point on how difficult it is to ascribe simple black-and-white motives to historical figures. For example, was Bairam Khan loyal to Humayun out of a deep-seated sense of obligation to the Mughal dynasty? Or did he calculate that Humayun would eventually reclaim his throne and then raise him to the uppermost echelons of the nobility as a reward?
The book is filled with poems by, and about, the Attendant Lords. Though not much material is available on Bairam Khan’s work, Abdul Rahim is even today highly regarded as a poet, especially for his work in dialects such as Awadhi, Braj, and medieval Hindi. His poems, such as the Barvai Nayika Bhed, often build off older Sanskrit archetypes, adapted to his own times. He writes in Persian and Sanskrit together; many of his works start with invocations to Hindu deities; his poems reflect the deep erotic overtones of older Indian literature – in many ways, as the author argues, his poetry reveals the beginning of the Mughal fascination with Indian culture and their eclectic evolution from a Central Asian to a South Asian dynasty.
Overall, Attendant Lords is a fascinating (not to mention timely) look at an aspect of Indian history that is often glossed over, or politically appropriated. It seems fitting to end with a poem from the Shi’a poet Urfi, who was attached to the court of Abdul Rahim Khan-iKhannan:
The lamp of Somnath is (the same as)
The fire at the Sinai.
The light spreads all around from that.