Listening to music was one of the main recreations enjoyed by the Mughals and they took out time to indulge in this everyday, in between working hours. Music and singing performances were enjoyed to the full at festivals and all kinds of celebrations, as were recitals by the poet laureate and other eminent poets at the court. However, the Mughal emperors also had other indoor amusements. One of them was wrestling.
The emperors had several wrestlers in their service, including Iranians, Turks and Indians. Tournaments would be organised to show off their strength and techniques, especially at festivals and celebrations and when foreign emissaries visited the court.
The court wrestlers received monthly salaries; in addition, if they performed well, the emperor rewarded them with robes of honour, elephants, horses and other gifts. Babur writes in his memoirs about some famous wrestling contests which he commissioned from time to time. A match was held between Sadiq and Kalal, in which Sadiq vanquished Kalal and won the contest. Babur awarded Sadiq a sarapa (head to foot dress), a saddled horse and 10,000 tanks as his prize. Kalal also received a consolation gift of 3,000 tanks from the emperor.
Babur witnessed another wrestling contest at Lahore between Dost Yasin Khan and the champion of Lahore. Dost vanquished his opponent after a long struggle. Babur recognised the talent and skill of both the contestants and awarded them a sarapa each.
Wrestling was considered a manly sport, worthy of the nobility and gentlemen. Young men’s physical training included lessons and exercises in wrestling under the supervision of a master — an ustad. The young nobles therefore, were well versed in the art of wrestling and sometimes wrestling contests took place between nobles and servants for entertainment. At Karamnas, Muhsin, the cup bearer, challenged Shadman to a wrestling contest and was thrown by him. On another occasion a wrestler from Audh defeated a Hindustani champion.
Once Humayun, for his own entertainment, ordered the nobles of his court to wrestle with one another. The emperor and the princes also joined this unique wrestling contest; the emperor himself wrestled with Imam Quli and Hindal with Mirza Yadgar Nasir.
In Akbar’s court there were many wrestlers of repute, such as Mirza Khan Gilani, and Muhammad Quli Tabrezi, who was also known as Sher Hamla (aggressive as a tiger). In one contest between Haibat the Tahamtan and Jog Sobha, Haibat, contrary to the rules of sportsmanship, viciously slashed Jog Sobha’s hand. Akbar was infuriated and gave him a stunning blow so that “that gigantic form fell senseless like a weakling.”
During Jahangir’s time, a wrestler, Sher Ali, came from Bijapur to the emperor’s court. He wrestled with all the prominent wrestlers of the court and none of them could beat him. Jahangir honoured him with the title of ‘the wrestler of Dar al-Saltanat’. Shahjahan was also very fond of wrestling and watched wrestling contests very often.
Mughal emperors also employed jugglers and acrobats to perform their tricks in the court for entertainment. Jugglers, from various parts of India, came to the Mughal court in the hopes of being allowed to perform and receiving rich rewards. Once, when Babur hosted a reception for some ambassadors, the acrobats performed some truly amazing tricks. “ They arranged seven rings”, writes Babur, “one on the forehead, two on the knees, two of the remaining four on fingers, two on toes, and in an instant set them turning rapidly.”
Once, jugglers from Karnataka (south India) showed wonderful tricks at Jahangir’s court; he writes about them in his memoirs: “one of them played one end of an iron chain, five and a half yards in length and weighing one seer and two dam, into his throat and slowly swallowed it with the aid of water… after this he brought it out.
Pigeon flying was also a popular pastime, especially in Turkistan, where even rulers and princes were fond of this sport, such as Umar Shaikh Mirza of Farghana. His great-grandson, Akbar, emperor of Hindustan, was also fond of pigeon flying, and called it Ishq-Bazi (love affair). He had thousands of pigeons of different kinds, breeds and colours. They were divided into different groups and given names like Shirazi, Shustari, Kashani, Jogya, Qumri, etc. Wild pigeons were known as gula.
The pigeons were trained to perform the most beautiful and charming feats, such as the Charakh, i.e. swift whirling around, performed by a particular kind of pigeon called Lotan.
Akbar had nearly 20,000 pigeons, out of which 500 were Khassa. The nobles, aware of the emperor’s fondness for pigeons, presented him with birds of quality as gifts. Aziz Khan Kukaltash once gave Akbar a pigeon which became his favourite; he called it Mohana (lovely). Once, an Uzbeg ambassador brought for him the best pigeons of his country and a kabutarbaz (pigeon handler/trainer). Jahangir, Shahjahan and Alamgir were also fond of pigeons.