The last Mughal chapter

More than 150 years after his death, the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, remains hostage to modern politics

What strikes the mid-morning visitor to Bahadur Shah Zafar’s tomb in Yangon is its serenity. Sitting just south of the city’s most famous landmark, the Shwedagon Pagoda, the burial spot of the last Mughal emperor seems to be content to remain inconspicuous. It’s a place for quiet contemplation; and if you’re hungry, a little canteen serves up puri-aloo and chai. One might imagine Zafar himself would find it an agreeable spot, though he would surely be stupefied by the location.

It was Mughal emperor’s misfortune to be swept away in the great revolt that erupted across the northern plains in the blazing summer of 1857. The fate of his dying dynasty was sealed when revolting sepoys entered Delhi and corralled him to their cause.

After they crushed the rebels, the British held a trial and convicted Bahadur Shah for his supposed involvement in the uprising, even though the octogenarian emperor ruled little beyond Delhi, and was more poet than warlord.

Secrecy

Bahadur Shah was packed off to Yangon (or Rangoon as the British called it) along with his some of his family and attendants. He died there four years later in 1862, aged 87. The British buried him in secret.

The Mughal line was snuffed out, along with memory of Bahadur Shah — or so it seemed until the beginning of the 20th century — when some local Muslims began petitioning the British to commemorate the spot. The authorities reluctantly agreed, and as William Dalrymple notes in The Last Mughal, ‘a simple engraved stone slab’ was erected on the spot, acknowledging that Zafar had been buried nearby.

In 1991, construction workers laying a drain stumbled upon the emperor’s grave. With backing from the Indian government, Yangon’s Muslim community built the current structure, which also functions as a dargah for Bahadur Shah, whom local Muslims consider a pir or saint.

Three symbolic graves on the ground level represent Bahadur Shah, his wife Zeenat Mahal, and his granddaughter Raunaq Zamani. Koranic verses play gently on a speaker, while fans whir rhythmically in the adjacent prayer hall.

A marble plaque in Urdu, Farsi, English, and Tamil simply tells us that the ‘ex-king’ was buried nearby along with Zeenat Mahal.

Bahadur Shah’s real burial spot lies one floor below, draped in flower petals. The quiet atmosphere of the mausoleum reminds one of some of Delhi’s lesser-known dargahs. But unlike those modest places of worship, the last Mughal’s resting place is also a product of modern politics.

Ever since the rebellious sepoys made Bahadur Shah the figurehead of their uprising in 1857, the dreamy and frail emperor’s name has borne potent symbolism.


Bahadur Shah

In 1943, the Indian National Army’s leader Subhash Chandra Bose held a parade near Zafar’s burial spot in Japanese-occupied Yangon, describing him as “the man under whose sacred flag freedom-loving Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs fought side by side”.

The discovery of Bahadur Shah’s grave has also intensified a diplomatic tug of war between India and Pakistan. While Pakistan has positioned itself as the sole rightful inheritor of Zafar’s memory, India has quietly sought to keep it out of matters pertaining to dargah.

In 2001, Pakistan’s Chief Executive General Pervez Musharraf visited the mausoleum and announced a $50,000 grant for a new structure. But local authorities, eager not to upset India, never approved the new construction and assured Delhi they would respect its interests in the dargah.

India has also stepped up its profile. Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi visited the shrine in 2012 and 2017 respectively, as did, at other times, President APJ Abdul Kalam and external affairs ministers Jaswant Singh and Salman Khurshid.

Amid the posturing, there have also been murmurs about bringing back the remains of the last Mughal to India.

The question came up during Manmohan Singh’s visit, and the following year, BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, who was then in the opposition, tweeted that she would “welcome and support the demand to bring back the mortal remains of Bahadur Shah Zafar for burial in Delhi.”

Interring Zafar in Delhi’s Red Fort would certainly be appropriate. Before he died, the exiled emperor had written a lament for himself, mourning that he would be buried far from his homeland.

However, it’s unlikely Zafar will return to the subcontinent anytime soon. The government of Myanmar will hardly want to upset India or Pakistan by letting either take back the emperor’s remains. And Yangon’s own Muslim population will not want to give up Zafar. For this community, a jumble of South Asian and local ethnicities tied together by faith, the tomb of the last Mughal emperor provides a powerful link to their identity.

Master of his fate?

What’s more, Zafar’s fate is echoed by that of King Thibaw, the last indigenous ruler of Myanmar, whom the British overthrew and exiled to Ratnagiri, Maharashtra in 1885.

This tragic colonial history binds both countries and provides useful symbolism on which ties can be further cemented. Consequently, as former diplomat Rajiv Bhatia notes in his book, India-Myanmar Relations, both countries decided soon after their independence that “the remains of the last Mughal emperor and of the last Burmese king should be left where they were — in Yangon and Ratnagiri, respectively.”

As in heat of the rebellion of 1857 more than a century-and-half ago, the last Mughal is not the master of his own fate.

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