08/11/2018 5:04 PM IST | Updated 31/01/2019 4:11 PM IST

Why Mughal Emperor Jahangir Once Wanted To Milk A Lioness

The mysteries of nature were an endless source of wonder for Jahangir, writes Parvati Sharma in her book ‘Jahangir: The Story of an Emperor’.

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A portrait of Jahangir.

Jahangir was the sort of man who took his interests and pleasures seriously. And besides, not only was he possessed of an observant, curious and sceptical mind, he also had a talent for writing with infectious enthusiasm, so it is virtually impossible not to be as carried away as he is when, say, he has the idea of milking a lioness.

'It had been heard from physicians that lion's milk is extremely beneficial for the brightness of the eye,' the emperor once observed. Lions being part of the Mughal menagerie, he thought he might test the theory, but unfortunately, 'however much we tried to get some milk to appear in her breasts, we couldn't'. While a more commonplace mind may wonder how the men charged with milking a lioness escaped with their lives, the emperor was trying to make sense of their failure. 'It occurs to me,' he wrote, 'that since it is an animal of an irascible nature, either milk is produced in the breasts of mothers out of the affection they feel . . . when the cubs drink and suck, or else when its breasts are squeezed to produce milk, its irascibility increases and its breasts dry up'.

While a more commonplace mind may wonder how the men charged with milking a lioness escaped with their lives, the emperor was trying to make sense of their failure

The mysteries of nature were, in fact, an endless source of wonder for Jahangir. It might be, for example, that two of his elephants died after being bitten by a mad dog. Jahangir was astounded that 'an animal with a body so large and big could be affected so by... an animal so small'. It might be that, having just shot a lion, the emperor was possessed of the idea of locating its courage in its entrails. 'I wanted to open it up and have a look,' he writes; and, indeed, it was discovered that 'unlike other animals, whose gall bladders are outside the liver, lions'... gall bladders are located inside'. This, Jahangir proposed, might hold the key to the animal's brave heart.

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A painting representing Jahangir's lion hunt.

Dissecting animals became something of an obsession with Jahangir, in fact; besides examining their innards, he also liked to know what animals ate. In one ghastly but hilarious incident, the emperor came upon a snake swallowing a rabbit. Wanting to observe the process at close hand, Jahangir ordered his scouts to pick up the snake, with its meal, and bring both to him. Naturally, the startled reptile dropped its prey, but Jahangir was unperturbed. He ordered the scouts to stuff the rabbit back in the snake's mouth, 'but no matter how hard they tried they couldn't get it back in; in fact, they used so much force they tore a corner of the snake's mouth'. Now that the snake was unlikely to ever lunch again, they might as well cut open its belly. They found another rabbit in it; one the snake had managed to swallow before it was so rudely interrupted. Soon after, Jahangir happened to shoot a pregnant antelope. When this animal was cut open, it revealed two fully formed fawns, which the emperor had cooked into a do pyaza. The result, he writes, 'was quite delicious'.

As he grew older, this obsession also began to affect how Jahangir rated the 'cleanliness' or otherwise of any animal (and potential food). In his words, 'because of the fastidiousness and caution I have in such matters, I order [animals] cleaned in my presence, and I take it upon myself to inspect their stomachs in order to ascertain what they have eaten'. Should it be that they had eaten anything 'disgusting', Jahangir would strike the species off his menu. Such was the case with drakes ('I saw a domestic drake eating disgusting worms'); waterfowl generally ('from its stomach came . . . a bug so big that if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I wouldn't have believed anything so large could be swallowed'); and herons ('ten bugs came out of its stomach, and they were so revolting that I shudder to think about them').

Sometimes, such dissections were prompted by another kind of curiosity altogether. Once, Jahangir's head scout found a quail lacking the markings that usually tell the difference between male and female in the species. The emperor, however, was clear it was a female. Naturally, they cut it open. The bird was, indeed, female: its little belly spilled out several half-formed eggs.

'How did you know?' everyone asked Jahangir.

'The female's head and beak are smaller than the male's,' replied the emperor, adding modestly 'with much observation and perseverance one gets the knack.'

Jahangir's observation and perseverance were indisputable. Henry Beveridge, editor of Alexander Rogers's nineteenth-century translation of the memoirs, writes that the fourth Mughal would have been a 'better and happier' man if he had been the 'head of a Natural History Museum' instead of an empire. Modern historians have a different take on the matter. Ebba Koch, for example, presents Jahangir as an ideal of Solomonic kingship: a ruler who, as in many of his paintings, brings peace between the lion and the lamb, and in his life 'observes and records nature'.

Jahangir's atelier did, in fact, produce some of the most exact and beautiful paintings of natural life. From turkeys to zebras, Jahangir documented every kind of animal that came to his court; his dodo, writes Koch, is the most accurate representation of the extinct bird that exists. His desire to have everything documented and measured – and as often painted – from a dodo to a zebra, a hermit's cave to a large peach, was possibly a way of measuring (and so knowing, and ruling) his dominions. Besides, as another historian, Corrine Lefèvre has noted, the emperor's curiosity was not so much 'scientific' but rather 'driven by an aesthetic sense which matched beauty (husn) with strangeness: at the core of his curiosity lay the marvels of the Creation known as 'ajaib in the medieval Islamic world and as mirabilia in the contemporary Occident'. And nowhere, perhaps, is Jahangir's fascination with the miracles of nature more apparent than in the emperor's detailed, episodic narrative of his two pet cranes.

Laila and Majnu, as they were named, were saras cranes brought to the court as chicks. Five years later, the eunuch who took care of them told Jahangir that he had seen them mate. The emperor ordered the caretaker to let him know if they ever did it again and sure enough, one dawn, the eunuch hurried in. 'I immediately ran out to watch', writes Jahangir, and provides this wonderfully lucid picture of what he saw: 'The female stretched her legs straight and then bent them slightly. First the male lifted one of his legs off the ground and put it on her back, and then the other.The instant he was seated on her back they mated. Then he got down, stretched out his neck, put his beak on the ground, and circled once around the female. It is possible that they have produced an egg and young will be brought forth.'

One gets the sense that Jahangir would have sat on those eggs himself if he could.

In fact, they had two eggs, not one. The emperor, thrilled, watched how the mother sat 'on the eggs by herself all night' while the father stood guard. 'Once a large weasel appeared, and he ran at it with great vehemence'. At dawn, the father would go to the mother and scratch her with his beak, telling her that it was his turn for nesting their eggs.

One gets the sense that Jahangir would have sat on those eggs himself if he could. When they hatched, the emperor was as protective of the chicks as their parents, maybe even more so. He wanted to see them as often as he could, ordering them 'brought very carefully so they wouldn't be hurt'. Once, noticing the male's tendency to carry his chicks upside down, Jahangir had him kept away until his bona fides were established and 'it was obvious that its action had been affectionate'.

'Jahangir: The Story of an Emperor', by Parvati Sharma.

Parvati Sharma is a writer and journalist who lives in Delhi. This is her first work of history.

Excerpted with permission from Jahangir: The Story of an Emperor, Parvati Sharma, Juggernaut Books.