Scents and sensuality

William Dalrymple in The Economist:

ChaliSurrounded by thick forest on a hilltop plateau lost in the jungles of central India, Mandu is reached by a narrow road that corkscrews steeply up a near-vertical ravine. At the top lies a landscape of fallen palaces, shattered domes and overgrown arcades – all that remains of one of the most singular experiments in pleasure that the world has ever seen. In 1469, Ghiyath Shahi succeeded to the throne of the Sultanate of Malwa, which then controlled much of the region. In his accession speech, the new sultan announced a major change of state policy. For 34 years, he said, he had supported his father in enlarging his dominions by the sword. Now, he declared, he would no longer seek to extend his territories. His son, Nasir Shah, would assume responsibility for the day-to-day running of the state. In the meantime Shahi proposed to give himself up to the pleasures of this world, in the hope that his subjects would also share in the delights of this life, as a foretaste of those in the next. Shahi set about his new policy with gusto. He filled Mandu with 16,000 beautiful female slaves and the good-looking daughters of his feudatory rajahs; to house them, he set about constructing lavish palaces with lotus- and star-shaped pleasure pools. According to their talents and proclivities, some were taught dancing and drama, others the art of music, singing or flute-playing. A few were trained as wrestlers. The brighter princesses were given a thorough education and invited to join the sultan at meals, or else trained to run the administration, keeping accounts or administering the state factories. The walled hilltop citadel was henceforth defended by an army of 500 armour-clad Abyssinian women.

Meanwhile the sultan set to work recording the things that gave him the most intense pleasure. His book, the “Ni’mat­nama” or “Book of Delights”, survives today in the British Library, having passed through the eager hands of the Mughals and Tipu Sultan before being packed off in 1799 to the greyer skies of London by the conquering East India Company. The book is one of the greatest records of the life and pleasures of the bon viveur ever written. It includes advice on all manner of matters, such as hunting expeditions (don’t leave home without a picture of your beloved, camphor to have rubbed into your feet, your best sparrow hawk, and a cheetah or two). There are pages of recipes, which range from ten different ways to concoct the perfect samosa (don’t forget to add saffron, fried aubergines and ginger) to instructions for making the medieval Indian equivalent of Viagra: Ghiyath swears by sparrow brains fried in milk and ghee – eat this, he writes, and smear a mixture of balsam oil, cardamom, Tibetan musk and honey on your penis, and the combination will produce “strong lust…desire returns, joy is bestowed on the heart, there are erections and semen flows.”

More here.