Exploring the last Mughal's poetry as it intertwined with his life

  • Rana Safvi, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 31, 2015 12:27 IST

Emperor Shah Jahan entered the Qila-e-Mubarak (The Blessed Fort) through the gate facing the Yamuna on 17th May 1648. This magnificent fort in Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi) was to be an enduring symbol of Mughal glory. Though the fort, now called Red Fort, is still a symbol of Indian power, the Mughal legacy didn't last long. The Empire disintegrated with the Mughal defeat at the Battle of Buxar in 1764 that established the East India Company in India. The British then got the right to collect revenue from Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.

It was famously said of Emperor Shah Alam (1759-1806):
'Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli te Palam,'
The kingdom of Shah Alam is from Delhi to Palam

Mirza Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad was the eldest son of the Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah II but not his favourite or chosen successor. An acknowledged Sufi master with several disciples, he was also a poet whose nom de plume was 'Zafar' or victor. By the time the 62-year-old Bahadur Shah II ascended the throne in 1837, the Mughal Emperor no longer received nazr (tribute) and coins issued under his name had been abolished. A titular head, his pension was much reduced and he was in debt.

Pious and spiritually inclined, he spent his time contemplating God and writing Sufiana kalam (mystical poetry) one of which describes his own plight:
Yaa mujhe afsar-e-shahaana banaaya hota
Yaa mera Taaj gayayana banaaya hota
Either you should have made me a Royal Officer
Or you should given me a Crown like a Beggar's Bowl

In 1856, Lord Canning wrote to the British Resident of Delhi: "A lot of the elements of the glory of the Badshahi have finished… It is, therefore, not difficult to think that on the death of the Badshah by just a few lines on paper the title could be abolished." With the death of Emperor Bahadur Shah II, the royal family would have to vacate the Qila e Mubarak too.

It was in this scenario that, on the morning of 11th May 1857 a group of sepoys from the Meerut cantonment of East India Army came to the Fort demanding the restoration of Bahadur Shah II as the Emperor of Hindustan. On the following day, an unused silver throne lying in one of the rooms of the Fort was dusted and brought out and Bahadur Shah II was crowned Shahenshah e Hind. The sepoys had already rebelled against the usage of cartridges for the Enfield rifle, said to be laced with fat of pig and cow. After killing British officers in Meerut, they escaped to Delhi and succeeded in capturing it.

Bahadur Shah II, though initially hesitant to join the rebel sepoys soon joined in whole-heartedly and issued a royal farman declaring it was the imperative duty of all citizens, Hindu or Mussalman to join in the uprising. From 11th May to 14th September 1857, Delhi was once again under Mughal rule. These were, as the saying goes "char din ki chandni phir andheri raat." (Four days of moonlight and then darkness.)

These four months first witnessed the murder of the British by the rebellious sepoys and then later, retaliatory killings by the British.

Bahadur Shah Zafar personally tried to stop the murder of Europeans under his protection in the Fort. He exhorted the sepoys in the name of humanity and religion but to no avail. To a man of his temperament, this brutal bloodshed was galling:
Zafar aadmi uss ko na jaaniyega, vo ho kaisa hi sahib-e-fahm-o-zaka
Jisse aish mein yaad-e-Khuda na rahi, jisse taish mein khauf-e-Khuda na raha
Zafar doesn't count human a man, be he a man of understanding and charity
If he doesn't remember God in moments of happiness, or doesn't fear God when angry.


The Ajitgarh mutiny memorial (left) in Delhi; Miniature of Bahadur Shah Zafar, Mughal king, India. (HT File Photo)

By mid September, Delhi was back under British control. The Mutiny memorial on the Ridge in Delhi gives a timeline of the 'Revolt' of 1857.

The last two lines read:
Capture of the Palace - Sept 19th
City finally evacuated by the Enemy - Sept 20th
Ai vaaye inqilaab zamaane ke jaur se
Dilli Zafar ke haath se pal mein nikal gayi
Alas! What a revolution, due to cruelty of the age
Delhi slipped out of Zafar's hands in a moment

On 21st September 1857, the British were ensconced in the Red Fort and the Emperor and his sons fled, seeking refuge in Humayun's Tomb.

The following day, the Emperor's close confidant, Mirza Ilahi Bux, disclosed his whereabouts to the British. Major Hodson negotiated the surrender and took his captives back to the Red Fort. On the way, the major ordered Bahadur Shah Zafar's sons Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizr Khan and his grandson Mirza Abu Bakr to descend from the carriage and disrobe. He then shot them dead at Khooni Darwaza near Firoz Shah Kotla.

It is said that after his defeat, Bahadur Shah Zafar announced:
Ghaaziyon min bu rahegi jab talak imaan ki
Takht-e-London tak chalegi tégh Hindustan ki
As long as there remains the scent of faith in the hearts of the valiant
The sword of Hindustan shall flash from here till the throne of London

The reality was different. The Emperor was held prisoner in a dingy room of his ancestral fort during the summer of despair for the residents of Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), when numerous residents of the walled city were either killed or rendered homeless.
Zafar's poem on the travails of his city became so popular that the British banned it:

Gayi yak ba yak jo hawa palat, nahin dil ko mere qaraar hai.
Karu'n iss sitam ka main kya bayan, mera gham se seena figar hai.
The winds of fate changed suddenly, my heart is inconsolable
How can I describe the pain, my chest is heavy with melancholy

yeh riyaya-e-Hind tabah hui,Kahu'n kya jo un pe jafaa huyi.
Jisse dekha hakim-i-waqt ne, Kaha yeh to qabil-i-daar hai.
Indians have been ruined, one can't describe their oppression
The new rulers condemned everyone they saw worthy of the gallows

On 27 January 1858 the Emperor of Hindustan was tried for "rebellion, treason and murder" by a Military Commission in the same Diwan e Khaas where he used to recite his poems to great applause.
On March 9, it was decided that Bahadur Shah Zafar would be exiled. Seven months later, he was exiled to Rangoon in Burma with two of his wives, two remaining sons and a few servants.
kar chuke tum nasiihate'n ham ko?
jaao bas naaseho Khudaa hafiz
Have you done giving me sermons?
O admonisher stop now, Khudaa hafiz

Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, died at 5am on Friday, 7 November 1862 and was given a hurried and ignominious burial in Rangoon.
Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar, dafn ke liye
Do gaz zameen bhi mil na saki ku-e-yaar mein
How unlucky is Zafar, for burial
He could not get 2 yards of land in the land of the Beloved

Note: All poems are by Bahadur Shah Zafar

(Rana Safvi is founder and moderator of #shair, a popular forum for poetry lovers on Twitter. She tweets as @iamrana)

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