It was on 17th May 1648 that Emperor Shah Jahan entered the Qila e Mubarak (The Blessed Fort) through the gate facing the River Yamuna.
This fort built in the city of Delhi named after him- Shahjahanabad- was his legacy to Delhi. A magnificent Fort from where the Mughal Empire would be ruled. It was to be an enduring symbol of Mughal power and glory in the whole world.
Unfortunately for him, though the Fort now called Red Fort is still a symbol of Indian power, the Mughal legacy didn’t last very long. The Empire disintegrated after the death of his son Aurangzeb with the defeat of Mughal forces in The Battle of Buxar in 1764 legalizing the position of East India Company in India. The British even got the right to collect revenue from Bengal, Bihar and Orissa.
It was famously said for 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. He was a Sufi in his inclinations and had taken the oath of allegiance with the famous Sufi master of his era Maulana Qutbuddin. In fact Zafar himself was an acknowledged Sufi master and had several disciples himself. He would distribute charms and amulets to the afflicted and desirous. He was a poet of note and his nom de plume was ‘Zafar’ or victor.
He ascended the throne in 1837 at the age of 62, with the title of Bahadur Shah II, at a time when the Mughal Emperor no longer received nazr (tribute) and coins issued under his name have been abolished. There was no reference to the Badshah in the seals of the Governor and he was reduced to being just a titular head. His pension had been reduced and as per legend he was in debt to local moneylenders to sustain himself and the large royal family. The pious and spiritually inclined Emperor had all the time in the world for himself and to spend it in devotion of God and writing Sufiana kalam (mystical poetry).
The poet Emperor 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
An account of the events of 1857 written by Khwaja Hasan Nizami in Urdu called ‘Begumaat ke Aansoo’ ( Tears of the Begums) describes a typical day of the Emperor in his Diwan e Khaas (Hall of Private Audience). This was the same hall where his ancestor Shah Jahan sat on his peacock throne and dispensed on matters of state.
The mace bearers would announce that ‘Zill-e-Ilahi’ ( shadow of God on earth) was about to distinguish the gathering with his exalted presence and the Shadow of the very institution of Emperors, Bahadur Shah Zafar would seat himself on the marble throne there and after formalities of greetings were over, would announce that he had written a new ‘ghazal’ and would recite its first verse.
The nobles would immediately raise their voices in enthusiasm and as the Emperor read each verse, one noble would approach the throne and praise it in flowery prose.
Perhaps it was his own Sufi leanings and piety, which helped the aging monarch to come to terms with his tenuous position.
Kah do in hasrato’n se kahin aur jaa base’n
Itni jagah kahan hai dil-e-daagdaar mein
Tell these desires to find another abode
Where is the place in this wounded heart
There is something ironic in the fact that as the flame of the Mughal Empire was flickering and dying out, there was a literary and cultural resurgence and the shamma –e- firozaan (lamp presented before poets at start of a mushaira or poetic soiree as a sign for them to read their poems) of poetry was burning the brightest.
This was the period when seven of the brightest stars in the firmament of Urdu poetry were glittering in Delhi led by Mirza Ghalib. These included the Emperor’s own master Ustad Ibrahim Zauq and Momin Khan Momin. In the words of one of his own very popular ghazals:
Baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi tau naa thi
Jaisi ab hai teri mehfil kabhi aisi tau na thi
( Never was it so difficult for me to speak
Never was your gathering as now at its peak)
In 1856, Lord Canning added the last nail to the coffin by writing to the British Resident in Delhi, “A lot of the elements of the glory of the Badshahi have finished and it is no longer as bright as it was. Most of the rights of the Badshah 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.”
It was planned that on the death of Emperor Bahadur Shah II the Mughal royal family would have to vacate the Qila e Mubarak too.
Hamne duniyaa mein aake kyaa dekhaa
Dekhaa jo kuchh so Khwaab-saa dekhaa
On coming into this world, what did I see?
Whatever I saw it was like a dream
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, under whose banner they would fight the British usurpers.
On 12th May 1857 an unused silver throne lying in one of the rooms of the Fort was dusted and brought out and Bahadur Shah II was crowned the Shahenshah e Hind. He was the people’s choice under whom men of all region, religion and profession were gathering to restore the pride of Hindustan.
The sepoys had already rebelled against the usage of cartridges for the Enfield rifle, which was said to be laced with fat of pig and cow. After killing the British officers in Meerut they escaped to Delhi and succeeded in capturing it.
Though initially hesitant to join the rebel sepoys he was persuaded and then joined in whole-heartedly. Bahadur Shah II issued a royal farman declaring it was the imperative duty of all his citizens, Hindu or Mussalman to join in the uprising.
From 11th May to 14th September 1857, Delhi was once again under Mughal rule: as the saying goes
“char din ki chandni phir andheri raat.”
Four days of moonlight and then darkness.
These four months saw murder and mayhem first of the British and Europeans by the rebellious sepoys and then the British.
Bahadur Shah Zafar personally tried to stop the murder of the 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 unnecessary and 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 don’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.
By mid September the tide of fortune changed in the favour of the British troops and their ‘native allies’. Delhi was back under their 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 while the Emperor and his sons fled to Humayun’s Tomb to seek refuge.
‘Capture of the King of Delhi by Captain Hodson’, 1858.
(though technically it was a surrender as the Emperor could easily have defended the fortified tomb against the 100 odd British soldiers.)
Bahadur Shah II, last Mughal emperor of India, in the custody of a British cavalry officer.
On 22nd September, the Emperor and his sons were betrayed by his close confidant Mirza Ilahi Bux who disclosed his whereabouts to the British and advised him to surrender to the British forces. Major Hodson negotiated surrender with the Emperor and took back his captives to the Red Fort.
On the way Major Hodson, ordered the two sons of Bahadur Shah Zafar : Mirza Mughal , Mirza Khizr Khan and grandson Mirza Abu Bakr to descend from the carriage and disrobe. He then shot them in cold blood at Khooni Darwaza near Firoz Shah Kotla.
It is said that after his defeat he said
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
However the reality was different. The British in preparation for a trial, held the Emperor as a prisoner in a dark and dingy room of his ancestral Fort.
A summer of despair began for the residents of Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi). The men and women of the walled city were either killed or rendered homeless.
Zafar wrote a poem on the travails of his city while in British captivity. That poem became so popular amongst the hapless populace of Delhi 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
From 27 January 1858 the Emperor of Hindustan went on trial 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.
The prosecutor declared “To Musalman intrigues and Mahommedan conspiracy we may mainly attribute the dreadful calamities of the year 1857. The Mutineers were in immediate connection with the prisoner at your bar,”
On March 9 at the sentence was pronounced that “the prisoner, as the head of the Mahomedan faith in India, has been connected with the organization of that conspiracy, either as its leader or its unscrupulous accomplice…” It was decided that he would be exiled and not given a death sentence as Major Hodson had guaranteed him safety of life.
Seven months later Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled to Rangoon in Burma along with two of his wives and 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
On Friday, 7 November 1862 at 5 am, he breathed his last under house arrest 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 ( only 2 sayings are common lore which I have stated)
This article came out in Hindustan Times on 31st May 2015