The Rohu Fish & the Mughals



The Labeo Rohita, popularly known as the Rohu or Rui fish, is a delicacy in the Gangetic plain and Bengal. A recipe for fried Rohu, even finds mention in Manasollasa, a Sanskrit encyclopedia and book of recipes complied in the 13th century. But did you know that beyond being just food, the Rohu fish enjoyed a particularly exalted status in the Mughal court. It symbolized the highest authority that flowed from kingship – the honor of the Mahi Maratib.


The Mahi Maratib was the highest honour in the Mughal Empire, something similar to India’s ‘Bharat Ratna’

The Mahi Maratib was the highest honour in the Mughal Empire, something similar to India’s ‘Bharat Ratna’, the French ‘Legion of Honour’ or the British Knighthood. It symbolized honour, bravery and strength and the Mughal emperors only conferred it upon their highest dignitaries. It comprised of the giant face of Rohu fish, with scales and iron teeth mounted on a large pole. Beyond it, was attached a long fabric, symbolizing the fish’s body which inflated when air passed through the fish’s mouth. It was always carried in processions, accompanied by golden spheres on poles on its either side. Together, they were known as ‘Mahi-o-Maratib’ or ‘Fish & the (two) dignities’.

This honour of the Mahi Maratib was instituted by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan sometime around 1632 CE. But the origins of this Fish standard go further back in time. It is the subject of much debate in history circles. One theory traces the fish honour to Central Asia - to the Sassanian ruler, King Khusrau Pervez of Persia (r. 591-628 CE). It is believed that Timur adopted this from there when he went centuries later. The tradition continued with his followers. But others question this theory as this standard was never officially used in Persia or by the Mughals from Babur to Jahangir.

Shah Jahan, c. 1630
Shah Jahan, c. 1630|Wikimedia Commons

Another theory, more plausible, traces its origins to the Hindu kings of South India. It is supported by none other than Abdul Hamid Lahori, the Court Historian of Shah Jahan, who in the Badshahnama writes that the Fish honor ‘used to be conferred in old times by the Sultans of Delhi. The practice was borrowed from them by the rulers of the Deccan’. There is some historic truth in this. The first known reference to the Fish as an imperial honor in North India, is during the reign of Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq (1320-1324), the father of the infamous Muhammad bin Tughlaq.


In the south, the Fish had long symbolized kingship, through its association with Matsya avatar of Lord Vishnu

The origin aside, you would ask, but why the Rohu fish? Well this could have been because it was probably the most prized fish that was found in the River Ganges and highly desired. In the south, the Fish had long symbolized kingship, through its association with Matsya avatar of Lord Vishnu. It had also been the official emblem of the Pandya kings of Tamil Nadu and appears in the buildings of the Vijayanagara empire.

In the court of Emperor Shah Jahan, the Mahi Maratab was such a prestigious honour, that it was only conferred on the highest generals -only those mansabdars who commanded more than 6000 zat sawars (horsemen). But in the 18th century, as the Mughal power collapsed, the emperors began handing it out left, right and center, so to say, as sops to curry favour and gain allies. It was awarded to the Maharajas of Bikaner, Jaipur, Jodhpur , the Maharaos of Kutch, Nawabs of Bengal and Awadh, the Nizams of Hyderabad and even the Rajas of the tiny kingdom of Ratlam!

Sikandar Bagh gateway, Lucknow
Sikandar Bagh gateway, Lucknow|Flickr Commons

A peculiar example of this, is in 1784, when Mughal emperor Shah Alam II conferred the Mahi Maratab on Maratha General Mahadji Scindia in gratitude, for liberating him from the Rohillas and taking back control of Delhi. Incredulously, 19 years later, the same Shah Alam II would again confer the Mahi Maratab on General Gerald Lake of the British East India company, for defeating the Scindias and taking control of Delhi in 1803! Lord Lake was the only European to be awarded this honour. With the advent of the British empire, the honour lost its significance and gradually faded into oblivion at the Mughal court. But it did thrive in the regional courts, desperate to iterate their new authority. For instance, nowhere was the fish insignia more visible than in Lucknow. The Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila had conferred the title on Safdar Jung (1708-1754), whose descendants would rule Lucknow as Nawabs. To signify their exalted status, the Nawabs made sure that the fish symbol was present on every Nawabi building in Lucknow, on all official insignia, on coins and even their main palace, which was called ‘Macchi Bhawan’, or the fish palace . The Nawabs even had a gigantic barge, in the shape of a fish, on which they cruised the Gomati river. The Nawabs of Bhopal also adopted the fish symbol on their crest and it can also been seen on the old buildings of Bhopal.

Today, the original Mahi maratab insignia made of copper, can be seen in numerous princely museums across India, in Bikaner (Junagarh fort), Kota (Garh palace) , Gwalior (Jai vilas palace) , Bhuj (Aina Mahal) and Hyderabad (Chowmohalla Palace). It remains a symbol of a time, when the humble Rohu fish, symbolised power, prestige and honor.

Cover Image Courtesy: www.metmuseum.org


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