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A ghost funeral in Chandni Chowk

delhi Updated: May 29, 2008 11:06 IST
Sarat C Das
Sarat C Das
Hindustan Times
Mughal king

In the 19th century when hundreds of minor principalities had divided India, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal king, was reduced to preside over the dwindling empire in Delhi. The last ruler of the Timurid Dynasty, he was the son of Akbar Shah II by his Hindu wife Lalbai. Zafar became the Mughal Emperor upon his father's death on September 28, 1838. However, the East India Company ruled the roost and he remained only a symbolic head as his power barely extended beyond Delhi's Red Fort.

The British allowed the emperor a pension and authority to collect some taxes, and maintain a token force in Delhi. Immersed in Urdu poetry and consummated calligraphy, Bahadur Shah did not show any interest in statecraft or possessed any imperial ambitions.

Yet, as the Indian rebellion of 1857 spread centering around Bahadur Shah Zafar as a uniting force, the Indian regiments seized Delhi and acclaimed Zafar their nominal leader, despite his own reservations. The British tried him for treason and Zafar took refuge at Humayun's Tomb in Nizamuddin East. British forces, led by pernicious Major Hodson, surrounded the tomb and brutally killed numerous male members of Zafar family. Zafar was exiled to Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar) in 1858 along with his wife Zeenat Mahal. Zafar died there at the age of 87 on November 7, 1862. He was buried near Shwedagon Pagoda at Ziwaka Road in Yangon. His wife Zinat Mahal followed his death four years after.

However, it seemed the great Urdu poet's soul remained in Red Fort and the crowded bazaar of Chandni Chowk. Zafar's poetries were about love and mysticism, with Delhi as the backdrop.

It is said that on many Thursday nights, a ghost procession led by the last Mughal king and his beautiful consort went around the Red Fort. The procession was possibly that of one of Zafar's children who died at the hands of the British.

A published account in media says: "The apparition of the King was of average height, with broad shoulders, long arms but unusually short legs. The queen was tall like the letter Alif, as graceful as a cypress tree, with long raven-coloured hair; she had a narrow waist and short feet fitted in sandals adorned with pearls, which glittered in the moonlight."

The people witnessed to this ghost procession say, "The King always wore loose pyjamas and the queen invariably spotted a long, gold-laced gharara, with a golden cummerbund, which reached almost to the ground and rustled in the breeze."

Both apparitions appeared to be grief-stricken, because of the sudden demise of their child. They walked along the procession in measured steps, almost regally. The King's head always mournfully dropped on his shoulder.

While some part of Bahadur Shah's opus was lost or destroyed during the unrest of 1857-1858, a large collection did survive, and was later compiled into the Kulliyyat-i Zafar. Some say since Zafar was in love with his writings and that he revisits his preserved writings in the moonlight.

Yet there is a cynicism about how could Zafar appear in Delhi when he was buried far away in Myanmar where his mortal remains rest in a shrine known as Bahadur Shah Zafar Dargah.