Book excerpt: This is how Delhi reacted to Aurangzeb’s killing of Dara Shukoh

In her new book on the history of Chandni Chowk, historian Swapna Liddle writes about how the people of Delhi expressed their grief over the execution of Mughal prince Dara Shukoh by his brother Aurangzeb.
Mughal emperor Aurangzeb holds court, as painted by (perhaps) Bichitr; Shaistah Khan stands behind Prince Muhammad Azam.(Wikimedia Commons)
Mughal emperor Aurangzeb holds court, as painted by (perhaps) Bichitr; Shaistah Khan stands behind Prince Muhammad Azam.(Wikimedia Commons)
Updated on Feb 16, 2017 09:12 PM IST
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New Delhi | BySwapna Liddle

Defining the urbanity and cosmopolitanism of the city was the example set by Dara Shukoh. The prince had been declared the heir apparent by Shahjahan and enjoyed great influence and wealth through the generous affection of his father. The prince had an intellectual, even mystical, bent of mind and was open to new ideas and people. He spent considerable time in the company of learned men of all faiths and persuasions. He included among his friends the Flemish Jesuit priest, Father Busee, as well as Sarmad, an Armenian Jew who had converted to Islam and adopted unorthodox beliefs and an extremely ascetic lifestyle, which included giving up wearing clothes. Dara also regularly consulted the astrologer Bhawani Das.

Dara Shukoh’s years in Shahjahanabad were particularly productive for him in terms of intellectual output. His efforts to make a study of Hindu scriptures with the help of learned men of that faith led to his writing two important works. One, completed in 1655, was the Majma-ul-Bahrain (‘The mingling of the two oceans’). In this Dara sought to trace parallels between Sufism and Vedanta, coming to the conclusion that ‘there were not many differences, except verbal, in the ways in which Hindu monotheists and Muslim Sufis sought and comprehended truth.’ In 1657 he completed a translation of the Upanishads into Persian.

Less than ten years after the inauguration of the capital, there was a crisis that threw the capital, as well as the empire, into turmoil. On 16 September 1657, Shahjahan fell seriously ill. As he appeared neither in court nor at the Jharokha-e-Darshan, soon rumours started circulating that the emperor was at death’s door, or even that he was dead. There was great unease among people in the city who anticipated anarchy and disorder. For three days, shops were closed and there was a dearth of supplies. The bankers sent news to other parts of the country through their network of couriers, that the emperor was already dead. The three sons of Shahjahan—Aurangzeb, Shuja and Murad—who were in distant provinces, received similar news from their agents at the court.

By 24 September the emperor was somehow able to manage an appearance at the Jharokha-e-Darshan, to reassure the people that he was still alive. To further convince people that he was well on the road to recovery, zakat taxes of Shahjahanabad district to the tune of 750,000 rupees were remitted ‘in celebration of the emperor’s improvement’.

However the emperor was far from well, and Dara Shukoh was entrusted with much of the management of affairs of state, at the same time as his nomination as the successor was confirmed.

By the end of October, Shahjahan had recovered enough to set out on a journey to Agra, hoping that the change of air would do him good. In the meanwhile, however, civil war was brewing, and the empire soon erupted in a contest for power between the four princes. In this, Aurangzeb was soon able to gain the upper hand. He comprehensively defeated the forces of Dara Shukoh at the battle of Samugarh in June 1658.

Shah Jahan accepts a falcon from Dara Shikoh (circa 1630). Source: The San Diego Museum of Art (Wikimedia Commons)
Shah Jahan accepts a falcon from Dara Shikoh (circa 1630). Source: The San Diego Museum of Art (Wikimedia Commons)

With Dara on the run, Aurangzeb immediately laid siege to the fort of Agra, forcing its surrender and imprisoning his father in the palace, where the latter was eventually to die on 31 January 1666. Having imprisoned Shahjahan, Aurangzeb returned to Shahjahanabad. Murad Baksh, who had been on Aurangzeb’s side in Samugarh but was deemed to have independent ambitions, was imprisoned. He was kept for a while in Salimgarh in Delhi, then in Gwalior, where he was executed in 1661.

In Shahjahanabad, on 31 July 1658, suggested by the astrologers as an auspicious date, Aurangzeb assumed the crown of his ancestors. The ceremony took place, not in the Red Fort, but in Shalimar Bagh. Though by this time Shahjahan and Murad Baksh had been imprisoned, Shah Shuja and Dara Shukoh were still at large. Maybe that is why the new emperor did not feel confident enough to proclaim his accession within the walls of Shahjahanabad.

The pursuit of the other two princes continued; Shah Shuja was defeated at the battle of Khajua in January 1659, and eventually disappeared into Arakan, never to be heard from again. Dara Shukoh was pursued westward by the imperial forces, and suffered successive defeats until he was left with a very small contingent. Finally in June 1659, in Sindh, the zamindar of Dadhar, Malik Jiwan, treacherously captured him and handed him over to Aurangzeb’s generals. A few days before this, confident that he had vanquished his enemies, Aurangzeb celebrated a second coronation ceremony. This was held in the Diwan-e-Khas-o-Aam on 15 June 1659, where Aurangzeb sat on the famous Peacock Throne, adorned with fabulous jewels, that had been commissioned by his father.

Dara Shukoh and his son, Sipihr Shukoh, were brought to Delhi in September, and were subjected to public humiliation on the orders of the emperor. Shabbily dressed in tattered clothes and with their feet chained, they were seated on an elephant and paraded through the streets of the city. The sight of the prince sitting abjectly with bowed head in the open howdah moved the crowd that had gathered, and there was a public outcry.

Malik Jiwan, who had handed over Dara and his family to their enemies, was honoured with rewards and titles, but the people of Delhi demonstrated their strong disapproval of the role he had played. When he entered the city two days after Dara had been paraded through the streets, he and his party were set upon by a mob, and, ‘assailing Jiwan and his companions with abuse and imprecations, they pelted them with dirt and filth, and clods and stones, so that several persons were knocked down and killed, and many were wounded’.

People standing on the roofs of their houses threw excrement and ashes from pots on their heads, and Jiwan Khan barely escaped with his life into the palace. The atmosphere in the city that day verged on rebellion, only just kept in check by the kotwal and his policemen.

Despite this strong public opinion in Delhi, Aurangzeb remained firm in his determination to wipe out his brother. For some days Dara was kept prisoner in the garden of Khizrabad, some miles to the south of Shahjahanabad. Meanwhile, legal opinions were obtained that justified his being put to death on charges of apostasy and heresy. He was executed and his head brought for inspection by Aurangzeb, who then ordered that the body be paraded once more through the streets before being buried in the tomb of Humayun.

Some months later, Sarmad, who had been close to Dara Shukoh and scornful of Aurangzeb’s authority, was also held guilty of blasphemy and executed.

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, Pages: 176, Price: Rs 399 (Soumya Srivastava/HT Photo)
Publisher: Speaking Tiger, Pages: 176, Price: Rs 399 (Soumya Srivastava/HT Photo)

The death of Dara Shukoh and the exile of Shahjahan brought an end to the civil war, but the miseries of the people were not over. The disorders of war had been combined with a drought, which had destroyed crops and led to an acute shortage of foodgrains. This led to an influx of the starving poor into Shahjahanabad from the badly affected districts, and large numbers came and camped in the streets and bazaars of the city. Many took refuge in the area surrounding the city, which was dotted with tombs and ruins of earlier cities.

By imperial order ten langar khanas, or free kitchens, were set up within the city walls, and twelve outside, to provide food to this starving population. These were in addition to existing free kitchens that used to distribute raw and cooked food to the poor. Many taxes, particularly those on the sale and transport of grain, were remitted or abolished altogether, to bring down prices.

Some years into the reign of Aurangzeb, certain fundamental changes came about in the social life of the city. Aurangzeb was of a puritanical bent of mind, and set about correcting what he thought of as a moral laxity that had set into society in the capital. Measures were taken to ban the consumption of alcohol and intoxicants, and to shut down taverns and brothels. Though Christians are said to have still been permitted to brew alcohol, these activities were shifted to the suburbs and sale was prohibited.

A spate of reforms came in 1668. Prohibitions were placed on singing and dancing as occupations, and the court’s patronage to these artists was also discontinued. Those whose occupations were hit by these prohibitions did protest, and seem to have found creative ways to do so. For instance, a large group of singers took out a mock funeral procession below the Jharokha-e- Darshan, carrying a bier, which they said bore the corpse of music. Aurangzeb’s response to this kind of protest was to try and insulate himself from it; he discontinued the practice of jharokha darshan altogether, claiming that it was irreligious.

In the same year, a greater austerity and orthodoxy was introduced by the emperor in court ritual. The practice of weighing the emperor against precious metals on his birthday was discontinued, and so was music at court. The stone elephants flanking the Akbarabadi Gate of the palace were removed, presumably because statues were suggestive of idols.

Soon after, it was ordered that fabrics woven with gold and silver threads were not permitted by Islamic law and, therefore, were no longer to be worn be courtiers, or made a part of ceremonial robes—khilat. In 1675, the preparation of annual almanacs by the royal astrologers was prohibited. In 1677, the celebrations that used to take place on the anniversary of the emperor’s coronation were also discontinued.

Around the same time, Aurangzeb made drastic cuts in the imperial patronage of painting, particularly portraiture.

Not all the arts were discouraged, however. Calligraphy was something that the Mughal emperors cherished and practiced themselves, and Aurangzeb was no exception. He wrote excellently in both the nastaliq and naskh variants of the Perso-Arabic scripts, mostly writing Quranic templates. Ten years into his reign, Aurangzeb discontinued the practice of history writing at court, but not all kinds of writing were abandoned.

His eldest daughter, Zeb-un-Nissa, was a well-educated woman. She was adept in Arabic and Persian, and wrote both prose and poetry. Moreover, she had a good collection of books, and employed and patronized many writers, poets, calligraphists and learned men.

The emperor’s relationship with his subjects in the capital continued to deteriorate as his reign progressed. His unpopularity in Delhi was evident in certain incidents that took place in the following years. In 1673, when he was returning after Eid celebrations, a man flung a stick at his sedan chair. The stick bounced off the corner of the sedan chair and fell on Aurangzeb’s knee. However the man, whose sanity was in doubt, was released without punishment. Similar incidents happened with increasing frequency. In October 1676, when Aurangzeb was returning from the Jama Masjid, a man threw two bricks at him, one of which hit his sedan chair. The man was a follower of the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur. The latter had been executed almost a year before, at the kotwali. Though Aurangzeb had not been in the city at the time, the act was believed to have been carried out on his orders. It was a political execution, as the Sikhs, particularly Guru Tegh Bahadur and his followers, were at the time rising up to challenge Mughal authority.

Around the same time, two other attacks were made on the emperor. Once, when he was mounting his horse in front of the Diwan-e-Khas-o-Aam, a complainant threw a stick at him, which missed. On another occasion a man rushed at him with a raised sword as he was mounting his horse to return from the Jama Masjid. All these men were arrested. The emperor was also subjected to insolence—one day a water carrier casually cried out a greeting to him on the steps of the Jama Masjid.

Excerpted with permission from Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi, Swapna Liddle, Speaking Tiger/YES Institute

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