The Ni'matnama: A Foodie Sultan's Book Of Delights
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Detail of a page from the Ni'matnama, depicting preparation of samosas in the court of Ghiyath Shah.

Ghiyas-ud-Din Shah — better known as Ghiyath Shah — was the fifth sultan of Malwa (present-day Madhya Pradesh and southeastern Rajasthan), and the second from the Khilji dynasty to rule the region. When he ascended the throne in 1469, he made his intentions clear: having spent three decades supporting his father, the previous sultan Mahmud Khilji, he intended to hand the reins over to his son and heir apparent Nasir-ud-Din, and devote his reign to the pursuit of pleasure. 

So dedicated was Ghiyath Shah in this quest to experience the best that late medieval life on the Indian subcontinent had to offer that his capital of Mandu came to be known as Shahidabad, or the City of Joy. 

By no means does this imply that Shah was given over to dissolution, though some accounts make note of his “roving eye”. He was known to be religiously and culturally-inclined, observant of all mandates concerning prayer and dietary habits. He was an aesthete, an epicure, with a love for the arts. Having spent so much of his life as a military leader, it was perhaps natural for Shah to want to spend the rest of his days in accordance with the deepest desires of his heart. 

Shah was known to collect artists, and his palace had a bevy of beautiful women trained in bearing arms, and the arts. They would be his frequent companions as he took in the beauty of his surroundings, or sampled some new delicacy from the royal kitchen. Above all, it was this last — food — that Shah was a true connoisseur of. 

Sometime towards the end of his life, Shah began compiling a manuscript unlike any other. Dated circa 1495-1505, Shah’s manuscript was completed by Nasir-ud-Din after his father’s death in 1500. It is known as the Ni'matnama. 

In the Ni'matnama, Shah recorded recipes for not only feasts and everyday meals, but also those for perfumes, essences, aphrodisiacs and medicines, advice pertaining to diet (for instance, what kinds of fish to eat and which to avoid; what foods to never combine with milk) and the use of various ingredients (what use the various parts of a plant could be put to, for example, from roots to bark to flowers and produce), the many possible methods of preparing one particular dish, and so on. No detail was too trivial for Shah to get into. 

Wikimedia Commons. Detail of a page from the Ni'matnama, depicting preparation of various types of kheer.


Take for instance, his eloquence on the samosa: An illustration in the Persian miniature style included in the Ni'matnama depicts Shah seated on a low throne, while two cooks prepare samosas in his presence (one filling the dough, the other handling the wok), and a group of courtiers hold up a platter filled with the savoury snacks for his approval.

Shah lists several varieties of fillings for the perfect samosas, including milk solids kneaded into a dough; or, a paste of wheat deep-fried in ghee, then sliced and placed among roses to imbibe their fragrance, before being crushed and mixed with musk, camphor, spices and herbs, to form the filling. Minced meat mixed with onion, garlic, ginger, brinjal pulp and rosewater infused with saffron strands also makes for a “delicious and very good” samosa filling. There are extensive directions for preparing a filling made of venison or minced mountain sheep meat. 

There are as many methods listed for preparing different kinds of kheer and milk-based sweets. One — for a wheat-and-cream delicacy — begins with “Buy a yellow or black cow. Feed it on sugarcane, green grass, cottonseed, date sugar and also coconut, cinnamon, pulses, partridge eggs and bamboo leaves...” before going into how the milk must be boiled and skimmed, and what other ingredients must be added to complete the dish. There’s plenty of focus on the visual aspects of the food too: Shah advises that phirni be coloured with red or green paste to add to the novelty factor when presented before a diner. There’s a failsafe method for covering cooked rice with gold warq, and a how-to for spicing ghee-rice with ambergris.

Shah was very interested in the practical aspects of food. Be it how water could be cooled in gourds when on hunting expeditions in the summer, or the right way to prepare millets, or the health benefits of chewing betel leaf (one of the illustrations is titled “Enjoyment Of Betel” and has Shah is kneeling on a stool, putting a paan into his mouth. An attendant holds a golden bowl filled with more betel leaves, even as another attendant — kneeling before Shah — offers him a second paan), his Ni'matnama covers it all. On the subject of betel leaf chewing, Shah was particularly loquacious, describing the correct process of consumption at great length. 

Many of the recipes listed in the Ni'matnama are still in use over five centuries later, a sign of how comprehensively it was able to chronicle the food habits of not only a rarefied echelon but even the day-to-day and mundane. Shah began his manuscript with a quirky salutation: “O King of Cockroaches, please do not eat this, my offering to the culinary world”, a nod to a superstition that roaches wouldn’t eat up your tomes if their ruler was addressed in them. Shah need not have worried. His Book of Delights is still delighting readers and gourmands, long after his last edicts on enhancing edibility were recorded in it.