How the Mughals travelled - II

Parvez Mahmood takes us back in time to a journey with the Mughal court

How the Mughals travelled - II
In part I of this article, I described the composition of a royal Mughal cavalcade. I now depict the spectacle of this caravan on the move. Much of the material presented has been drawn from Alamgir’s travel from Delhi to Kashmir as described by Manucci in his Storia do Mogor, vol 2 and Jahangir’s travel from Lahore to Kabul as recorded in his Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri.

Before their departure, Emperors consulted royal astrologers for an auspicious date and time to undertake the journey. Aurangzeb once started his journey at three in a December morning because his astrologer decided that the time was favourable, although he had to camp outside the city for three days for the preparations to be completed. Similarly on his departure for Kabul, Jahangir writes in his Tuzuk that, “In pursuance of these steps, on the 7th Z?l-Hijja, at an auspicious hour, I left the fort of Lahore.” This was true for all Emperors starting with Akbar.

Imperial standards

After commencing the march at the designated hour, it was customary to make a stop at a distance of about 10 kilometres of two to three days for the followers to catch up, to complete the caravan. When the managers of the logistics had ensured that all elements were in place, the procurements had been accrued and the caravan was complete, the journey was recommenced.

It was a custom in Mughal times that when an army was in the field, to order a trumpet to be blown at nine o’clock at night as a signal that there would be no march on the following morning. The absence of such a trumpet meant that everyone and everything was to be ready to move the next day.
After the Emperor came ten horsemen, four with the royal matchlocks enclosed in bags made of cloth woven with gold. One bore his spear, one his sword, one his shield, one his dagger, one his bow, one the royal arrows and quiver

The Grand Master of the Royal Household, with his engineers, always moved at least a day ahead to choose an appropriate site where the royal tents were unloaded and pitched for the next night. A pleasant spot was chosen for the camp, which was divided in such a way that on the arrival of the army there was no confusion. In the first instance, they fixed the site of the royal enclosure, which Manucci measured to be five hundred paces in circumference. Behind the royal quarters was another gateway, where the women lived. Leaving a wide vacant space, the position of the tents of the princes, the generals and the nobles was arranged. The central space was encircled by scarlet cloth, having a height of three arm-lengths, and this served as separation walls. Around these enclosing screens were posted the field artillery pieces; in front of them was a ditch, and behind them were collapsible inter-connected fences of wood.

At the sides of the gateway, at a distance of one hundred and thirty paces, were two tents, each holding nine horses, most of them saddled. In front of the gateway was a large raised tent for the drummers and musicians.

Palanquin and retinue for a Lady

When the Emperor was to march the next day, the royal kitchen would start at ten o’clock at night. This ensured that the breakfast was served well before daybreak and the entourage was ready to move by the morning prayers. Aurangzeb normally started to move at dusk, immediately after the morning prayers.

The procession was led by heavy artillery, which always marched in front, and was subsequently drawn up as an avenue through which to enter the next camp. Behind them marched a contingent of cavalry that Manucci states to be 8,000 strong. When the light artillery reached the camp, it was placed round the royal tents.

An elephant-drawn carriage

Aurangzeb usually started out seated on a throne presented to him by the Dutch East India Company – which was really an ornate upholstered chair with long bamboo arms – and was carried by twelve men divided into groups of three. In addition, there were three palanquins of different shapes that he could ride when he pleased. There were also five elephants with different howdahs for his use whenever he so desired. His ancestors before him had similar arrangements.

Upon Emperor’s issuing from his tents, the light artillery positioned itself around him to begin the march. It was made up of 100 field-pieces, each drawn by two horses.
The Padishah Begum's procession was led by a number of bold and aggressive men on foot to drive away everybody - noble or pauper - with blows from sticks, and pushes

When the Emperor came out of his tent to begin a march, the light artillery of 100 field-pieces, each drawn by two horses, positioned itself around him. The princes, nobles, and generals thronged round to pay him court. Many of them brought forward some short request, to which a brief answer was given. They accompanied the Emperor to the end of the camp in which they had halted for that day and then departed to their proper place in their own division. Thereafter the Emperor joined the huntsmen, and announced whether he intended to go hunting or not. When he so wished he left the army, and was followed by only the men on foot and the soldiers of his guard. Everybody else continued the march very slowly. A large number of nets were carried along to catch tigers, when they were known to live in the area of the march. If the ruler didn’t wish to hunt, the huntsmen moved to their previously appointed places.

An Emperor surrounded by troops, on the march

On the left and the right of the Emperor marched cavalry that, in the case of Aurangzeb, consisted of 8,000 each. In the rear of these two wings were some mounted huntsmen, each with a hawk on his wrist. Immediately in front of the Emperor went nine elephants with flags; behind these nine were another four bearing green standards with a sun depicted on them. Behind these elephants were nine horses of state, all adorned and saddled. Then came two horsemen; one carrying a standard with Arabic letters on it, the other with a kettle-drum, which he struck lightly from time to time as a warning that the Emperor was approaching.

After the Emperor came ten horsemen, four with the royal matchlocks enclosed in bags made of cloth woven with gold: one bore his spear, one his sword, one his shield, one his dagger, one his bow, one the royal arrows and quiver. Behind the weapons came the captain of the guard with his troops, then the three royal palanquins, and other palanquins for the princes; then came twenty-four horsemen: eight with pipes, eight with trumpets, and eight with kettle-drums. Behind these mounted musicians were the five royal howdah laden elephants.

Trailing them, as described by Manucci in case of Aurangzeb, was a group of seven elephants with three in the middle and flanked by two on each side. The middle one bore three hands in silver upon a crossbar at the end of a velvet covered pole that signified ‘Observer of the Islamic Faith’. The one on the left bore hands in the same style signifying ‘Augmenter and Conservator of the Faith’. On the right of this middle one was an elephant displaying a copper plate upon a staff, with engraved letters in Arabic. Of the pair of elephants on the left flank, one carried a spear, which meant ‘the Conqueror’, and the other carried the head of a fish having a body made of cloth, and when swaying in the wind looked like a great fish that meant ‘Lord of the Seas’. Of the pair of elephants on the right flank, one had a pair of scales, which meant ‘A king dealing with justice’, and the other carried a crocodile’s head, with a body made of fine white cloth, which, when moved by the wind, looked like a real crocodile, signifying ‘Lord of the Rivers’. All these elephants were decorated with valuable ornaments.

A boat bridge across a river

They were followed by twelve more elephants bearing percussion instruments including large kettle-drums, and cymbals that being beaten made a great noise.

Some distance behind these elephants, followed the retinue of the first lady of the Mughal Empire the Padishah Begum. It was led by a number of bold and aggressive men on foot to drive away everybody – noble or pauper – with blows from sticks and with pushes. She rode a very large elephant in a dome-roofed throne that was very brilliant, highly adorned and made of enamelled gold. Behind her followed her 150 female servants riding handsome horses, each carrying a cane in her hand and covered from head to foot with cloaks of various colours. Four elephants marched before her with her standards. The princesses and nobles’ wives were hidden in such a manner that they couldn’t be seen, although they could observe the passersby.

This was followed by several sour-faced eunuchs on horseback and some on foot surrounding first lady’s throne. After these were three elephants with different kinds of howdahs covered in rich cloth. Still farther in the rear were many palanquins covered with different nettings of gold thread, in which travelled her chosen ladies. Following them were some sixty elephants with covered howdahs, carrying her other women. After Padishah Begum’s retinue came other ladies of the harem, each with her own special retinue. The Mughals were extremely particular in such matters and overlooked no detail that could be a blemish on their glory.

Behind the ladies came the large body of rearguard troops with their flags, ensigns and standards, their own marching instruments and baggage carts accompanying them.

Finally in the end was the long train of the camp followers, with their goods, that stretched for a few kilometres on their bullock or horse carts.

There was additional manpower on foot. Some advanced in ordered files on either side of the Emperor displaying scarlet and green pennants, while others held wooden sticks to keep people from drawing near. There were also many horsemen on either side keeping the people back. Yet more workers on foot carried perfumes and continually watered the road ahead.

There were officials provided with a description of the provinces, lands, and villages through which the Emperor passed, in order to explain at once if the ruler asked what land and whose province it was through which he was passing. These men could give him an account of everything down to the petty villages, and the revenue obtained from the land.

Other men on foot marched with a rope in their hands, measuring the route. They began at the royal tent upon the Emperor’s coming forth. The man in front, who had the rope in his hand, made a mark on the ground, and when the man in the rear arrived at this mark and the first man made a fresh mark, he counted ‘two’. They advanced in this fashion throughout the march, counting ‘three’, ‘four’, and so on. Another man on foot held a score in his hand and kept the count. If perchance the Emperor asked how far he had travelled, they replied at once, as they knew how many of their ropes made a kos. There was another man on foot who had charge of the hourglass, and measured the time, and each time announced the number of hours with a mallet on a platter of bronze. Behind all these the Emperor moved on his way quietly and very slowly.

When the advance tents came into sight, the musicians commenced anew to play their instruments until the Emperor had passed through the gateway of the tents. Then the light artillery was discharged, while the queens and ladies congratulated the Emperor on arrival, saying, ‘Manzil Mubarik!’ - Happy journey.

So great was the delicacy with which the royals were treated, that ahead of the column went a camel carrying some white cloth that was used to cover any dead animal or human being – as was frequently the case – found on the road. They placed heaps of stones on the corners, so that the cloth may not be blown away by the wind. The Emperor would sometimes stop and inquire about what lay under the cloth.

The Emperor held courts regularly during the march to conduct business of the Empire, order expeditions, promote or demote nobles, allocate funds for various purposes, punish defaulters, receive couriers, despatch orders, hold private meetings, give public audience and pass various orders. During halts, the tabibs attended to the sick and the dead were given adequate burials.

Bridging activities frequently took place during the march. Jahangir had to stop for three days on the banks of the Jehlum for a bridge to be built because the previous bridge had been washed away by the floods. He himself had crossed on his boat with his harem. He again had to wait in Attock fort for a bridge of 18 boats to be constructed over the Nilab (River Indus) to carry his entourage across.

At this late stage in time, three to four centuries later, it is difficult to comprehend or to accurately portray the royal camp with its beauty, its order, and the multitude of people and animals. Mughal Emperors displayed indescribable magnificence in their travel. There were bazaars, shops, markets, sports, entertainment, gold and silver – in short, all that could be looked for in a flourishing city was to be found in that camp. It moved unhurriedly from one stop to the next at a leisurely speed of 10 to 12 kilometres per day. Jahangir, for instance, took 67 days in his journey from Lahore to Kabul.

This miles-long roving mass of two hundred thousand human beings, an equal number of animals, thousands of horse or bullock carts, and innumerable fluttering flags, banners and pennants, presenting a unique festive look, crawled over plains, deserts, rivers and hills to its distant destination.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: