In his portrait Niccolao Manucci has the appearance of a dandy. He is dressed in striped pyjamas, and an angarkha that ill-conceals his paunch. His gait seems hurried and a little unsteady. He is seen carrying a bouquet that reveals a body of shrubbery. It may well be, as someone has noted, a collection of medicinal herbs for making potions. In that case the portrait likely depicts the Venetian’s life in Lahore from 1670 to 1678, where he practiced medicine, and went by the title of Hakim Niccolao. It was a pursuit that nearly got him burnt alive for sacrilege.
From a gunner in Dara Shikoh’s army, to a hakim in Lahore, to an indifferent historian in his later years, Manucci’s life turned in restive spurts. His portrait has nicely captured this quality: it expresses both physical movement and a shiftiness of character, with the subject’s large eyes fixed on posterity.
One can imagine the likely scene when these eyes first beheld Thika Arain, the fierce bandit who “plundered in all directions in the king’s territories.”The Mughal army had finally routed Thika Arain’s men in a battle near Lahore, and captured him alive with his deputy. As Thika Arain was the brother-in-law of the qazi of Lahore the citizenry felt a particular attraction for the spectacle.
To show the power the emperor held over the rebel, Lahore’s governor, Muzaffar Hussain ‘Fidai Khan’ Koka, had Thika Arain and his deputy driven on foot between a file of four war elephants led by their mahouts at a quick pace through the crowds gathered at the Roshnai Darwaza. But the enormous hulk of both Thika Arain and his corpulent lieutenant was not diminished by the pair of elephants fore and aft: they showed to advantage like a pair of precious pearls strung in a colossal necklace.
Manucci’s eyes cared naught for this poetry of proportions, though. Following the condemned prisoners as he made his way between the crowd of onlookers, he only saw organisms to be tapped for an essential ingredient needed for his ointments—axungia hominis or human fat.
The same day his missive arrived at Koka’s court, who sensed the importance the Ventian attached to the request since he had appealed to him directly, bypassing the protocol. At Koka’s orders, the directives were written out to the kotwal of Lahore, granting Manucci’s request. The qazi of Lahore would be kept in the dark in the matter.
After their beheading the corpses of Thika Arain and his lieutenant were secretly handed over to Manucci’s waiting assistants. Working from the manual of the German doctor and theologian Agricola they recovered 504oz or 18 seers of purified fat from the two men. Made into ointment the men would do true penance by alleviating the suffering of the living.
Lahore was soon abuzz with the news of the event and the riled qazi appealed directly to the emperor against Koka. While the delegation sent to the royal court by the qazi was pre-empted and neutralised by Manucci and Koka’s machinations, our hakim was now a marked man.
One attempt on his life quickly followed. One of Arain’s nephews came to avenge the corpse’s honour on him, but upon witnessing how attentively Manucci treated his patients and how well his uncle’s fat was employed in serving humanity, he spared Manucci and left after making a confession to him about his original intentions.
The qazi of Lahore bided his time until Koka was no longer Lahore’s governor. Then sending for Manucci he interrogated him politely, hoping to entrap him into confessing that he had given Thika Arain’s fat to Muslim patients in oral medication, thereby committing sacrilege. He failed in his plans as the ointments were for use on the skin. Thereafter, the two men talked about other matters. n
“On his demanding of me some remedy for a cough [the qazi] had, I told him of various drugs; among other things I said that, as he was an old man, human ‘myrrh’ would be good. He answered that he had already taken it, but it had done him not the least good. Upon this, with a smile, I said openly to him that to me it did not seem much of a thing to give human fat through the mouth by way of medicine, when at the same time he had no scruple in eating human flesh and fat. For that is what is meant by human ‘myrrh.’ He also could not help laughing, and told me such medicines were to be taken secretly only, so that no one knew.”
[p. 212, Storia do Mogor or Mogul India (1653-1708) Vol II. by Niccolao Manucci. Translated by William Irvine, (London: John Murray, 1907)]
Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author, novelist and translator. He can be reached through his website www.mafarooqi.com and on Twitter at @microMAF