There are few cookbooks, in the annals of the history of culinary arts that are as fascinating or even as quirky as the Nimatnama. Imagine a cookbook written by a medieval king dedicated to another king - the King of Cockroaches! But that’s exactly how Sultan Ghiyath Shah of Malwa starts his book of recipes the Nimatnama (which literally translates to ‘the Book of Delights’). He writes ‘O King of Cockroaches please do not eat this, my offering to the culinary world'. A passionate gourmand and food lover, Ghiyath Shah put together a rare compilation of recipes in the 15th century CE and this is one of the few such pieces from that time.
Ghiyath Shah (1469-1500 CE) was the ruler of Malwa at the turn of the 16th century CE. An aesthete and a lover of the arts; music, dance and painting thrived at his court, giving his capital Mandu, the name Shahidabad or the ‘City of Joy’.
Music, dance and painting thrived at Ghiyath Shah’s court, giving his capital Mandu, the name Shahidabad or the ‘City of Joy’.
But Ghiyath Shah was most famously known for his love for food. He commissioned his court painters to create an illustrated book, compiling recipes of dishes, aphrodisiacs and fine perfumes, which he named Nimatnama or the ‘Book of Delights’. The richly illustrated manuscript was compiled between 1495-1505 CE on the orders of the Sultan and it was completed by his son Nasiruddin, who was the de facto ruler even during the reign of his pleasure-seeking father. Noted art historians such as Milo Cleveland Bleach believe that the Nimatnama manuscript may have been based on similar compilations in the Persian court such as Khavarnama dating back to the early 15th century CE. The Nimatnama is written in a mixture of Urdu and Farsi (Persian) and the script is Naskh, a calligraphic style of writing in the Arabic alphabet. The book is illustrated with 50 wonderful miniatures made in the Persian-Turkic style. Each miniature has Ghiyath Shah at the centre, followed by a detailed explanation of the recipe of a dish.
The Nimatnama is a treasure trove as it tells us about everyday food, popular more than 500 years ago. It is amazing how little, tastes have changed!
The Nimatnama tells us about everyday food, popular more than 500 years ago
The Nimatnama bears testimony to the fact that savouries like vadas, samosas and khandvi were popular even then. Moreover, comfort foods like dal, kadhi and raita or even the humble lassi were also popular in the Mandu court. The ‘Book of Delights’, the Nimatnama also helps us understand how food forms evolved later. For example, the noted food historian Colleen Taylor Sen in her book ‘ Feasts and Fasts: History of Food in India’ points out how naans, puris and chapatis, all popular breads even today, are mentioned in the Nimatnama. However, there is no mention of the paratha. Based on the Nimatnama, Colleen deduces that the paratha may have been a later invention. Also, surprisingly, while more than a dozen rice preparations are mentioned including the khichdi , there is no mention of the pulao.
Another interesting theme that comes through in the Nimatnama is a reference to some of today’s popular dishes which have Persian roots such as shorba (soup), seekh (kebabs), yakhni (meat stew) and biryan (slow cooked rice).
The Nimatnama doesn't just refer to food, it also lists popular drinks like the sherbet and lassi.
Unlike modern cookbooks, the recipes in this work are in no particular order. A recipe for seekh may follow that of vada, followed by that of laddoo and so on. But the personal touch of the food-loving Sultan can be seen from some personal remarks. For instance, there are remarks like ’This is delicious!’ or ‘This is a favourite of Ghiyath Shah!’ at the bottom of many recipes such as that of melon halva, fresh ginger halva and the khichdi of Central Asian fruits.
The Nimatnama has also got tidbits that can come in handy during travels, expeditions and illnesses. There are recipes of concoctions, that when added to food were said to ward off cataracts of the eyes. Also, betel leaves or pan when chewed were said to cure throat infection. During hunting trips, the text advised putting drinking water in hollowed out gourds to make it cool.
The Nimatnama has got tidbits that can come in handy during travels, expeditions and illnesses
There are also foods listed as ‘ganvari’ or ‘gharibi’- poor man’s food for the Sultan, such as millet porridge. This was a favourite on the rare occasion when the Sultan wanted to take a break from rich food! While many of the dishes may look mundane, details reveal that they were fit for the king. For example, the recipe for a simple samosa reveals it was made from venison or deer meat!
The Nimatnama again ends with an appeal to the king of cockroaches. The mystery behind this peculiarity is explained by Norah M Titley, a scholar who has studied the Nimatnama extensively. She explains that there was a superstition in 16th century CE India, that cockroaches would leave a manuscript untouched if the name of their king appeared on it!
Ghiyath Shah died in 1500 CE and was succeeded by his son Nasiruddin. The manuscript most probably entered the Mughal libraries when Akbar annexed the Malwa Sultanate in 1562 CE. We don’t know much about the journey of the manuscript, except that a note on the flyleaf records that it was in the library of Tipu Sultan of Mysore (1750-1799 CE) and was most probably taken by the British when they captured his capital Srirangapatna in 1799 CE. It was rediscovered in the British Library, London in 1959, generating much interest around the world.
In 2004, an English translation of the Nimatnama was published by Norah M Titley, a specialist in Islamic art, at the British Library. Her book ‘The Ni'matnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu’, gives fascinating insights into the day-to-day life of regional Islamic courts in early 16th century India. What is also amazing when you read this work is how so many of these recipes are in use, even 510 years later.
Today the Nimatnama is considered one of the finest surviving examples of regional history Malwa painting, as well as an important source in the study of the culinary history of India.
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