Coping with the summer, Mughal style

There aren’t any records of how high summer temperatures rose during Shahjahan’s day—either in Dilli or across the rest of the northern plains—but one can safely assume that they probably wouldn’t have been much different from today’s broiling heat. So how did the Mughals survive the summer?

For the Emperor, his court, and the very wealthy, the solution was to leave the plains and spend the summer in the cool green Kashmir Valley.

A view of the mountains and lakes in Kashmir.

A view of the mountains and lakes in Kashmir.

For those who were forced to stay behind—or before and after the annual Kashmir jaunt, even for the others—there were other options to make the summer more bearable.

1. Tehkhaanas: The most common (for those wealthy enough to have proper houses) was to retreat into the tehkhaana. The tehkhaana, or basement, used to be fitted with carved screens (somewhat like ventilators in Raj-era bungalows) to let in light and air. Tehkhaanas were much cooler than the ground-level sections of the home, so entire families would move into the tehkhaana once summer arrived.

The stone grills flanking the central arched platform lead into the tehkhaana, at Delhi's Haveli Khazanchi.

The stone grills flanking the arched platform are of the tehkhaana, at Delhi’s Haveli Khazanchi.

2. Khus tatties: The fragrant roots of khus or vetiver grass (Chrysopogon zizanioides) were—and still are—used to make mats known as ‘khus tatties’. Hung as curtains across windows ad doorways, khus tatties would cool the air passing through. Sprinkling the khus frequently with water helped to make them even cooler.

The fragrant vetiver or khus, the roots of which were (and are) used to make 'khus tatties'.

The fragrant vetiver or khus, the roots of which were (and are) used to make ‘khus tatties’.

3. Terrace and outdoor bedrooms: While they spent the summer days in their tehkhaanas, the rich would move upstairs for the night—to sleep on the open terraces of their flat-roofed homes, where the night breeze would provide enough respite from the heat. For the poorer people, sleeping out in the open was the only option, since their huts usually lacked roofs solid enough to bear the weight of sleeping families.

4. Ice, cooling drinks, and kulfi: To keep cool, the wealthy resorted to cooling drinks: lassis made from yoghurt and cold water; lime juice mixed with sweetened water; and a range of sherbets—flavoured with everything from rose water to oranges, lemons and sandalwood—were drunk. These were, where it could be afforded, cooled with ice (which was usually fetched from the Hindu Kush Mountains and carefully stored). Water was also cooled, where ice was not available, by using saltpetre (known in Hindi as shora).

A Mughal goblet, for sherbet, among the most popular drinks to help ward off the heat.

A Mughal goblet, for sherbet, among the most popular drinks to help ward off the heat.

Interestingly, large and wealthy households invariably had a servant—known as the aabdaar (‘aab’ means ‘water’) whose job it was to ensure that sufficient quantities of potable water were kept well-chilled for use.

Other methods were used to keep cool, too. For instance, kulfi (still very popular) was consumed. Garments were typically of muslin, sometimes so light and flimsy (especially when they were meant to be only worn at home) that a garment would be discarded after just being worn once. Frequent baths, hand fans, staying indoors during the day, and travelling—if one had to—only between sunset and sunrise, were some of the other ways of beating the heat.

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10 thoughts on “Coping with the summer, Mughal style

  1. I love these methods of staying cool.

    Pakeezah was from a much later period, but I love the mesh curtains made of cane used in place of doors. The large marble houses with pools of water and fountains. The thin muslin kurti and churidar that the actors wear.

    That lovely scene comes to my mind when Meena cools off by changing into white muslin churidar/kurti and lies beside a sunken pool and throws her hair in water.

    Of course, the glamour is perhaps overdone in movies, but yet it does look so appealing.

    In any case, there was more vegetation in Shahjahan’s time and lesser CO2 emission. That’s for sure :)

  2. Love the goblet. :-) Were surahis not invented then? I remember(we didn’t have a fridge) having surahis which cooled the water to just the right amount of coolness, unlike the fridge. I thought this a very intelligent mind of whoever/however it came into being. Some potter perhaps.

  3. Ava: Yes, those thin mesh curtains of cane (‘chik’) are very cool, no? I’m pretty sure they must have been in use back in Mughal times too, since most Mughal rooms didn’t have doors – just arched doorways which were shielded according to the weather (quilted curtains in winter, and – I guess – chiks or muslin curtains during summer). Chiks would’ve been better because they provide more privacy, yet are cooling.

    Agree re: the vegetation – and this concrete jungle probably HAS pushed up general temperatures over the past century.

    I know which scene you mean from Pakeezah! Makes me want to put my hair down and trail it in a fountain. Sadly my hair is all too short. ;-)

  4. pacifist: I guess surahis were in existence. Matkas certainly were, so I don’t see why surahis couldn’t have been. The coolness that a surahi (or even, if you don’t have a surahi, a matka) imparts to the water, is quite special. Not teeth-achingly, tongue-numbingly cold… just right. :-)

  5. We had matkas in school in each classroom with a ladle and a glass for drinking water. Much later, someone donated the money for an electric drinking water cooler in a public area, and the matkas (or gharaas as they would be in Punjabi)disappeared.

  6. bawa: Mmm. Yes, I remember a couple of the schools I was in when I was very young also had gharaas/matkas. But my mother was so paranoid about the quality of drinking water (it HAD to be boiled!), that my sister and I always used to drink only from our water bottles – even if the water was tepid.

  7. Hmm, so things didn’t change that much until the advent of the air conditioner, which actually causes the environment to heat up even more. I remember khus tatties, chiks, kulfis, and sleeping on the terrace during summers in Delhi when I was a kid. We also used to dry wet clothes eg saris inside the bedroom, so the evaporation cooled and humidified the place

  8. Monideepa: You’re very right! It seems things did remain pretty much the same until air-conditioning became common. I remember sleeping on the terrace, too, whenever I used to visit relatives in Delhi as a child. It actually used to be very cool, and one could sleep comfortably.

    Another trick we children used to sometimes employ was to sprinkle a little water on the bedsheets and on ourselves – it used to evaporate (much like those wet saris you mention) and cool us. :-)

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