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.
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.
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.
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).
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.