One name which frequently crops up in 17th century CE Mughal history, is the name of Mir Jumla. A fascinating survivor, adventurer and ‘man for all times’, the rise of this man is quite unparalleled, even for a time when rags to riches stories were common and the subcontinent was the land of opportunity, which attracted ambitious young men from all over.
Mir Jumla started off as a clerk, became a diamond merchant, amassed a massive fortune and became one of the most important people in Mughal India. Jumla was an extremely ambitious man whose actions would change the course of history for cities and states like Golconda, Gandikota, Chennai, Dhaka, Cooch Behar, Assam and even the Mughal Empire. He is also said to have been the man who gifted the Koh-i-noor Diamond to Shah Jahan and would go on to back the right side - as Aurangzeb’s mentor, in the war of succession. At the same time, he ran a huge business empire that spanned from Persia in the East to Burma (Myanmar) in the West.
Here is the story of an extraordinary man who lived in an extraordinary time.
The most comprehensive account of the life of Mir Jumla is published in the book ‘The life of Mir Jumla: The General of Aurangzeb’ by historian Jagdish Narayan Sarkar. In the book, Sarkar examines Persian records, English and Dutch correspondence, Tamil, Telugu and Bangla sources and even Ahom records to paint a picture of this man. It traces the journey of the son of a poor oil merchant from a village in Iran and how he went on to influence the course of Indian history.
Mir Jumla was a self-made man from a very humble background. He was born Mir Muhammad Said Ardestani in 1591 CE, in a small village in Ardestan in Persia, to a poor oil merchant named Mirza Hazaru.
Jumla was an extremely ambitious man whose actions would change the course of history
He began his career under a Persian merchant who would supply horses to Golconda. But extreme poverty forced him to seek his fortunes in India. During those times, India was the place to be for youngsters across Persia and Central Asia. Mir Jumla arrived in Golconda sometime between 1615-1625 CE and started working as a clerk at the office of a local diamond merchant.
The Golconda Start
Golconda is where Mir Jumla’s luck changed. In the 17th century CE, Golconda was the diamond capital of the world and merchants from all over the world came here to trade in this stone. Jumla started his independent diamond trade and became a wealthy diamond merchant.
Golconda is where Mir Jumla’s luck changed
Then, like moneybags often do, he decided to bribe his way to the top and secure a government position. He bribed the Qutub Shahi administration and received a lucrative job an administrator of the Masulipatnam port, one of the most prominent ports on the Eastern coast of India. He exceptional performance had him recalled to Golconda and elevated to the post of Sar-i-Khail or Wazir (Prime minister) to the then ruler, Abdullah Qutub Shah (1626-1672 CE).
In his new position, Jumla is said to have kept the administration happy by dishing out favours and gifts to powerful people. The Sultan’s mother was gifted a four storied palace named Hayat Mahal with a bed of solid gold weighing 12 maunds (480 kgs) along with gold utensils, priceless fabrics and jewelry. He soon became the favourite of the king, Abdullah Qutub Shah.
It is said that Abdullah Qutub Shah would not purchase any diamond or jewellery without the approval of Mir Jumla. Jumla’s influence is evident from the English factory records of December 1639 CE, where he is referred to as ‘The chief governor under the king who governed the whole kingdom’.
Carving a Kingdom
Being the Prime Minister of Golconda, seems to have only made Mir Jumla even more ambitious. By the mid-17th century CE, after the collapse of the Vijayanagara Empire, South India was ruled by tiny principalities, who kept quarreling among each other. These squabbling states served as easy game for the armies of Bijapur and Golconda. In 1646 CE, Mir Jumla was deputed to conquer these lands and extend the Qutub Shahi kingdom.
Mir Jumla had Other Plans!
Being the Prime Minister of Golconda made Mir Jumla even more ambitious
Mir Jumla conquered Nellore, Tirupati, Gingee and reached the outskirts of the British settlement of Fort St. George. But his biggest victory was the conquest of the fort of Gandikota from its Reddy rulers. Gandikota was among the most powerful forts on the banks of the Pennar River. The only way to the fort was a narrow path, only 7-8 ft wide at some places, cut into the river gorge with a steep precipice into the river below. Through this narrow road, Mir Jumla took heavy cannons all the way up and bombarded the main gate of the fort, rendering it useless. The Gandikota army surrendered and Mir Jumla established his own semi-independent kingdom at Gandikota. He confirmed to the English, their trading rights in Fort St. George and established civil administration in his domain.
Keeping an Eye on Business
Mir Jumla was not just audacious, he was also canny. As he worked his way up the ranks to finally be a king himself, he never lost sight of what had got him so far - money! Now, ‘loot’ was added as another lucrative source of wealth. Business in diamonds was soaring, he had his own diamond mines and even enjoyed a monopoly over the local trade. Mir Jumla’s diamond haul, would put today’s De Beers Empire to shame. One account states that he owned 20 maunds of diamonds (around 800 kgs)! He also established a monopoly over the much desired calico textiles which he sold to the English and Dutch at a 50% profit margin.
One account states that he owned 20 maunds of diamonds (around 800 kgs)
Jumla also built a huge overseas business empire. His agents were stationed in Burma, Aceh (Indonesia), Maldives, Persia and Arabia. He had a fleet of 10 ships, which were manned by English and Dutch sailors. We find names such as Roger Adams (1642 CE), Richard Walwyn (1647 CE) and John Gayton (1646 CE) among Mir Jumla’s employees. In exchange for calico, Mir Jumla procured rubies from Burma, spices from Indonesia and rice from Madagascar.
Soon Mir Jumla became so powerful that Abdullah Qutub Shah became wary of his power. In fact, the situation deteriorated to a point that Mir Jumla began to feel insecure and seriously considered returning to his Persia with his wealth. But fate had something else in store for him.
Prince Aurangzeb, who had been appointed by his father Shah Jahan as Subedar (governor) of Deccan had observed Mir Jumla’s career with admiration. He now asked Jumla to join the Mughal service. Initially Jumla was not so sure, but when his wife and children were arrested and imprisoned in the Golconda fort by Abdullah Qutub Shah, his mind was made up. He defected to the Mughals and secured the release of his family using Aurangzeb’s influence.
Shah Jahan, who had heard so much of Mir Jumla summoned him to Delhi. After a long journey through Nanded and Burhanpur, Mir Jumla reached Delhi in 1656 CE. Such was his fame by then, that the who’s who of Delhi came to greet him. Nicolo Manucci, the Italian traveler and writer, notes Mir Jumla’s landing in Delhi: ‘Wherever he passed, governors of places came out to greet and escort him.’ On 7th July 1656 CE, he was received by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. In this meeting, Mir Jumla presented several diamonds from Golconda as nazar (gifts) to the Emperor. Many historians believe that the Kohinoor diamond was part of this.
The Delhi Years
Thanks to his fame as a fine administrator, Mir Jumla was appointed as Wazir (Prime minister) of the Mughal Empire. By this time Jumla had also grown very close to Aurangzeb and this invariably drew him into the simmering tensions within the Mughal Court. The Emperor’s favourite, Dara Shikoh took a dislike to him while he (Mir Jumla) served as Aurangzeb’s ally in Delhi.
In a private letter to him, Aurangzeb went to the extent of saying that he considered Mir Jumla to be a guardian and protector. This brought Mir Jumla even closer to Aurangzeb.
Mir Jumla was drawn into the simmering tensions within the Mughal Court
The alliance between Aurangzeb and Mir Jumla would go on to play a crucial role during the war of succession following Shah Jahan’s illness in 1658 CE. Dara had Mir Jumla dismissed from office, as he was considered too close to Aurangzeb.
At this juncture Aurangzeb sent Mir Jumla to fight against his second brother Shuja in Bengal. After a series of battles on the Ganges river, Shuja was defeated and fled to Arakan in Burma with his family. Soon after, Aurangzeb appointed Jumla as the Governor of Bengal.
Move to Bengal
In 1660 CE Mir Jumla was around 69 years old, when he came to Bengal as Governor. Soon after taking office, Mir Jumla started a large number of construction activities in Dhaka. He built two roads, two bridges and a network of forts. The Mir Jumla gate of Dhaka city, remains of his bridge and a cannon named ‘Bibi Mariam’ can be found in Dhaka even today and are the reminders of his rule.
Aurangzeb appointed Jumla as the Governor of Bengal
Along with this massive construction work, Mir Jumla also began to expand Mughal dominions in the East. He invaded the Koch kingdom of Cooch Behar and forced the Raja of Cooch Behar to submit to Mughal authority. Interestingly, when Cooch Behar was conquered, he gave explicit orders to Mughal soldiers that common people must not be harassed or looted in any way. In 1662 CE, Mir Jumla proceeded to invade the Ahom kingdom of Assam. But ironically, this last campaign of Mir Jumla's life turned out to be a disaster. Mughal solders had to fight in very difficult terrain and suffered heavy losses. Supplies ran out and many lives were lost. Mir Jumla lost two thirds of his army and they had to retreat.
On his way back from Assam, he became extremely sick and passed away on a boat on 30th March 1663 CE. He was 72 years old when he died. He was buried on a hillock, in Thakurbari, in present day South West Garo Hills district near the Assam-Meghalaya border, where his grave still stands.
A Man of his Times
Few men could have packed so much into a single lifetime. Mir Jumla’s life was truly spectacular and his biographer, Jagdish Sarkar has managed to piece together his story well. But what was Jumla like, as a man?
Mir Jumla’s life was truly spectacular
Jagdish Sarkar gives us some clues. Through from humble origins, contemporary accounts portray Mir Jumla as a polished man who was ‘master of both sword and pen’. Sarkar, himself stresses on Mir Jumla’s versatility. He writes ‘He was a man of varied interests, ranging from shoes to diamonds, and from trade to war and government’. He also loved to live very well. When he received the French diamond trader Jean Baptiste Tavernier in Gandikota, for instance, he served the delegation Spanish wine and a Shiraz . This was in 1652 CE!
Mir Jumla was also a brilliant soldier and a tactician as is clear from his campaigns. Records however show he was also sensitive. During his Assam campaign, when he heard that his soldiers were starving he refused to eat anything except what his soldiers ate.
Mir Jumla played an important role in 17th century India as a business magnate, minister and general. As Sir Jadunath Sarkar quotes from a chronicle of Golconda called Qutbnuma-i-Alam ‘What he did was written on a page of time’. And that is how we look back at his life.