Where the Mughals got their music - I

The majestic musical tradition of the Mughal court was possible only through the merging of many diverse influences. Ambrin Hayat explains

Where the Mughals got their music - I
That music is the food of the soul is such an oft repeated cliché that it has actually lost its meaning in the fast paced, high-tech, high-voltage world that we live in today. However, the reality remains that music is one of the basic human instincts. Forty thousand years ago the Neanderthals or perhaps the early humans, made the earliest known musical instrument, the Divje Babe Flute. Although there is a controversy as whether it is a musical instrument or not, but if it is, it is so far the earliest indicator of music in human history. In this particular case, using the femur bone of a bear, the instrument was developed by piercing holes in a piece of a bone. To support the argument that it is a musical instrument, similar flutes made out of bones of the birds and other animals were also discovered in a cave in Germany, as far back as at least 40,000 years.

Some researchers are of the view that it is quite possible that our branch of humans’ preference for and ability to create music separated and eventually sustained them over the Neanderthals. It is possible that our species survived because of our musical leanings!

Syrian music tablet

It is possible that our species survived because of our musical leanings!

China, which hosted one of the earliest civilizations in the world, along with the Egyptian, Babylonian and the Indus Valley civilisations, was also producing music in ancient times. Several flutes dating almost 9,000 years have being found along the Yellow River area.

The Egyptians were creating profound music in ancient times. The earliest musical traditions in Egypt are associated with the goddess Bat. The goddess was believed to be the creator of music. Bat was depicted as a cow, subsequently when goddess Hathor entered the Egyptian realm, as she too was depicted as a cow and had similar attributes attached to her, including music, the two cults of these earliest known goddesses merged under the goddess Hathor. Ancient Egyptians believed that the world was civilized through music.

The goddess Bat

Throat-singing, based on harmonic overtones, is a vital part of traditional Mongolian culture

The Uzbek musical tradition of toi is a deeply entrenched aspect of that culture

In the forlorn halls of a museum in Damascus, Syria, sits an intriguing tablet, inscribed not with figures or characters of a long forgotten language but surprisingly with musical notes. This music composition on a clay tablet, which is called the Ugarit Tablet, was written 3,400 years ago, clearly indicating that a society as far back as then was getting together to enjoy and create music.

Persians greatly enjoyed music in the ancient era. There is evidence that both the Elamites (2,700-539 BCE) and then the Achaemenids (550-330 BCE) played music. The musicians enjoyed a high status in society. And musicology was taught as part of serious sciences, much like mathematics.

Persian music was evolving and going through its own metamorphosis since ancient times. As mentioned earlier, the Persian culture had its own ancient sources to refer to and to build its own musical traditions on those foundations. It was in the later part of the Sassanid dynasty (224-628 CE) that the Persians started documenting their music in a more organised form, which has survived until today. Zoroastrian rituals from the Sassanid era became a good source of reference for musical traditions of that era.

The goddess Hathor

Divje-Babe Flute

Khusrau Pervaiz, also known as Khusrau II, who ruled from 590-628 CE, was the last monarch of the Sassanid Empire. During Khusrau II’s reign many known musicians became part of the imperial court. Bamshad, Barbad, Sarkash and Nakisa were highly accomplished musicians who were given the honour to be part of the court. The presence of these musicians in the exalted halls of the royal pavilions is a testament to the fact that music was held in high esteem and was a vital part of the imperial culture of the Persian Empire. With serious study and development of music, Khusrau’s reign is considered the golden period of music in Persian history.

Iran’s western border is protected by a vast mountain range called the Zargos Mountains. This mountain range was formed millions of years ago due to the collision of the Eurasian and the Arabic tectonic plates. The mountains are mostly made up of limestone. In some places the limestone rocks show marine fossils that were entrapped millions of years ago. Major oilfields of Iran are found in the foothills of the Zargos Mountains. During the Sassanid era 4 CE-6CE, large rock reliefs known as Taq-e-Bostan were carved on to the rocks of Zargos Mountains, which depict the life of the court and commemorate special occasions in the life of the emperors of the dynasty. In one of the reliefs in Taq-e-Bostan, Emperor Khusrau II is shown on a boat. While the emperor is hunting, the women musicians sitting around him on the boat are playing a musical instrument called Chang, which is similar to the present-day harp.

Traditional Uzbek musicians, whose style would have been familiar to the first Mughal Emperor Babur

The Hurrian Hymn to Nikkal - one of the oldest pieces of music that
we have access to

The Central Asian region is considered one of the origins of civilisation as we know it. This ancient region hosted some of the earliest tribal societies of humans. When these tribes were forming the basis of many arts and crafts that we see in different regions of the world today, at the same time they were perhaps also indulging in music. Later, the region became part of the larger Persian Empire and the cultural interaction affected all aspects of life. The Shashmaqam music of 6 musical modes formed the basis of the musical tradition of the region. The Uzbek musical tradition of toi is a deeply entrenched aspect of that culture, and thus forms a very significant part of Uzbek people’s life. At every step of life, a specific form of music related to that aspect is present in Uzbek culture.

The Mongols have a unique tradition of singing where the songs are a set duration of about 4 minutes but the syllable is extended to large periods of time. This musical tradition, called the long-song, covers a diverse genre from philosophical to spiritual to romantic. The songs often use the horse as a symbol. A unique and distinct form of singing is throat singing where two different tones are sung simultaneously. Mongolian music was highly regarded in the Imperial Chinese courts ever since the Yuan Dynasty of Mongols which unified China as we know it today. By the 16th century, Mongolian music masters were writing music to be played in the imperial Chinese court.