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A crown of thorns

Bahadur Shah Zafar was a pacifist yet he became the symbol of a violent uprising, writes Piali Ray.

india Updated: Dec 06, 2012 22:54 IST
Piali Ray

Zafar the wretched, in his death was denied
Few feet of earth in the beloved’s street
Neither light for eyes, nor solace for heart
Of use to none, I am a fistful of dust
I have lost my bloom, I have lost my love
I am born of spring in a garden ravaged by fall
Why lay a wreath, recite a prayer
On a forlorn grave, why light a flame
Not to be heard, not a spirited song
I am the voice of anguish, a cry of colossal grief

This ‘voice of anguish and a cry of colossal grief’ was that of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, who died in Rangoon (now Yangon) on November 7, 1862.

After his defeat following the revolt of 1857, the emperor was sentenced to death. Later, on the grounds of his old age, the British government reduced it to life imprisonment and exile. The emperor and his family were ignominiously transported from Delhi to Calcutta on a bullock cart and from there despatched to Rangoon in a warship called Magara in 1858.

The chief convenor of the Islamic Centre of Myanmar, Al-Haj U Aye Lwin, narrated to me that after imprisoning Bahadur Shah in the Rangoon Central Jail, the British felt it would be a better idea to transfer him to the cantonment area. He was put in a shabby stable in solitary confinement. He was even denied a pen and paper, as the authorities believed in the adage ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. But he was undeterred: he etched his feelings with charcoal on the walls of the stable.

The doorway of the mausoleum on 6 Ziwaka Road, near the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda, bears the sign ‘Red Fort’ to remind visitors of the home Zafar yearned for till his last day, but could never return to.

On the main floor, there are three graves — one that was earlier believed to be that of Bahadur Shah, another of his wife Zeenat Mahal and the last one of his granddaughter Raunaq Zamani. In 1991, it was discovered that Zafar was buried somewhere else.

During restoration work, a grave stretching horizontally from north to south and measuring 9 ft in length, 6 ft in breadth and 7 ft in height was found some three-and-a-half feet under the ground. An inscription proved that it was the grave of the last Mughal emperor.

Zafar suffered a stroke and was dying when the British government, fearing another revolt, got everything ready for the burial. He passed away at 5 am on November 7, 1862, and was buried at 4 pm the same day in a brick grave, which was camouflaged by turf.

Captain Nelson Davies, who was in charge of the subterfuge, wrote: “A bamboo fence surrounds the grave, and by the time the fence is worn out, the grass will again have properly covered the spot, and no vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Moghuls rests.”

Bahadur Shah was born in 1775 to Akbar Shah II and a Hindu Rajput Lalbai. The empire had been disintegrating rapidly during his father’s reign and by the time he came to power, it barely extended beyond the Red Fort.

When the sepoys arrived in Delhi and appealed for his support against the British, he stood with them even though he did not subscribe to the indiscriminate violence perpetrated by the rebels, and was disturbed by the chaos in Delhi.

The irony is that Bahadur Shah was a pacifist; and yet he became the figurehead and symbol of a violent uprising.

Piali Ray is a senior history teacher at the Calcutta International School
The views expressed by the author are personal