Tales of the Diwali of the Pharaohs, which lighted up the pyramids and the whole Nile area, and later its adoption by the Persians, is said to have inspired the Mughals to fall in love with the festival of lights. When they saw how it was observed in Delhi, they began to hail it as Jashan-e-Chiraghan.
It was made into an occasion of court celebration, despite the orthodox ulema frowning on it as an unislamic practice of devil worshippers in which the owl, the bird of omen was sacrificed to the goddess of wealth. Owls are still sacrificed, after being bought at high prices -- sometimes as much as Rs 1 lakh each -- by those who believe in the superstition. But for the Mughals Diwali was just a night of illuminated fantasy.
The Rang Mahal in the Red Fort was the venue of Diwali and Basant celebrations during the time of Mohammad Shah (1720-1748). Holi, however, was celebrated in the front lawns, while the Diwali diyas lent lustre to the mahal. Mughal connection with Diwali actually began in the reign of Akbar at the Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, where the palaces of Jodha Bai and Raja Birbal were also situated.
Jahangir and Shahjahan had milder Diwali celebrations and Aurangzeb was content with receiving gifts from his Rajput generals like Raja Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur and Jai Singh I of Jaipur. His grandson, Jahander Shah ruled for just about a year and celebrated his Diwali at Lahore with concubine Lal Kunwar.
All the oil in the city is said to have been bought by the dandy emperor to light up the night but, exaggeration apart, there were enough Telis there to cater to the needs of the hoi polloi-and some of them were more than mere oil sellers, for the saying in Lahore, as also in Delhi, was ‘Parhhein Farsi aur bechein tel’ (Study Persian and sell oil). Some of these men where intellectuals, who had to resort to such lowly jobs because of the difficult circumstances.
Diwali was considered, even by the orthodox Muslims, a festival of natural joy of God’s creation, though some of them had reservations about eating kheel which, incidentally, was mostly sold by Muslim bharbhujas or gram roasters. Besides Muhammad Shah Rangila (colourful), his predecessor Farrukhsuyar had ordered Diwali illuminations at the Delhi Gate he had built on the Agra-Delhi road.
The Sayyids of Barah, who had put him on the throne and some other puppets, including Muhammad Shah, belonged to 12 villages in what is now UP and where Diwali was celebrated with great enthusiasm by Hindu and Muslim peasants. So they were not surprised at the emperor’s unusual spectacle.
A special feature of the Mughal celebrations at Shabh-e-Barat and Diwali was the bursting of crackers close to the walls of the Red Fort under the supervision of the Mir Atish (Firework in-charge) during successive emperors.
According to historian R. Nath, in an age when there were no matches, the permanent source of fire was Surajkrant.
At noon of the day when the sun entered the 19th degree of Aries, and the heat was the maximum, the (royal) servants exposed the sun’s rays to a round piece of shining stone (Suranjkrant). A piece of cotton was then held near it, which caught fire from the heat of the stone. This celestial fire was preserved in a vessel called Agingir (fire-pot) and committed to the care of an officer.
The fire was used in the palace and renewed every year. Camphor candles called kufuri-shama were placed on 12 candlesticks of gold and silver to light up the palace as a daily ritual, Dr Nath asserts. This was obviously done on a grander scale at Diwali when the Akash Diya (the Light of the Sky) was lighted with greater pomp, placed atop a pole 40 yards high, supported by 18 ropes, and fed on several maunds of binaula (cotton-seed-oil) to light up the darbar.
Just imagine the huge lamp lighting up a Diwali night and casting its glow right up to Chandni Chowk where rich seths had their own lighting arrangements, with mustard oil diyas on every building. A giant-size statue of Tesu Raja and his wife Jhainji, symbolized by illuminated pots, was also taken out for immersion in the Yamuna.
(R.V. Smith is a historian of Delhi)