Is there a plan to bring the last Mughal Emperor back to India?
At Mehrauli’s crumbling Summer Palace, a once opulent building established by India’s Moghul rulers on the southern edge of Delhi, lie four grave plots.
Three of the plots are occupied by the tombs of Mughul emperors – Akbar Shah II, Bahadur Shah I and Shah Alam II. But the fourth remains empty. On a recent walk around Mehrauli, a tour-guide told us the empty plot had been reserved for Bahadur Shah II. As it was, explained the guide, following the Indian uprising against the British of 1857, in which the rebels made Bahadur Shah II their nominal leader, the emperor was convicted and dispatched to live out his years in sad exile in Rangoon. He would die there in November 1862, the last of the once mighty Mughuls.
As we stood gazing at the plots, set in a white marble enclosure that sits close to the shrine of a famed Sufi saint, Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, one of the tour group spoke up: “I read in the newspapers that they are planning to bring his remains back to Delhi.”
Intrigued, I button-holed the man with rapid-fire enthusiasm. When had he read this article, in which paper had it appeared, who had written it? He said he had read it recently but apologised that he could remember no more details.
The reason for my interest was that in ten days I was heading to Burma to cover preparations for by-elections that would ultimately see Aung San Suu Kyi’s party secure 43 of 45 seats that were contested. A report on a project to repatriate the remains of the last emperor would make an interesting additional story.
I asked a friend who had lived in Burma if she knew about any such plan. She said she did not, but she did remind me of another related matter. Namely, a mirror image to the story of Bahadur Shah II, that of a Burmese king – also the last of his line – who was exiled from Burma to India along with his queen for ‘daring’ to challenge the Raj. My friend had even interviewed one of his descendants. [Readers wishing to know more about the sad story of King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat, exiled to India from Mandalay in 1885, might like to try Amitav Gosh’s novel The Glass Palace, which is based around this episode.]
Bahadur Shah II died on the morning of November 7th 1862, the misery of his last years and the relative glory of his earlier days exhaustively detailed in William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal. Dalrymple, who himself lives near Mehrauli, documents that as soon as the emperor died the empire went out of its way to try and ensure he was forgotten and prepared a grave for him at the back of the compound in which he had been held. Quicklime was scattered to ensure the body quickly decayed.
Captain Nelson Davies, the British commissioner, overseeing the operation, wrote of the events of that day: “A bamboo fence surrounds the grave for some considerable distance and by the time the grave 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 Mughuls rests.”
In Rangoon, I learned that Cpt Davies’ prophecy rang all too true. While the city’s Muslims had known the precise spot where Bahadur Shah II’s wife and daughter were buried and subsequently turned it into a shrine, for many years they had only known the rough area where the emperor himself had been laid to rest by the British.
Indeed, even visiting Indian dignitaries could only be taken to the shrine and not the precise burial spot itself. (When Rajiv Gandhi was taken there in 1987 he reportedly wrote in the visitors’ book: “Although you do not have land in India, you have it here, your name is alive. I pay homage to the memory of the symbol and rallying point of India’s first war of independence.”)
It was not until February 1991, when workmen digging a drain at the rear of the shrine uncovered a brick-lined grave and inside found the skeleton of the emperor, that the mystery was resolved. The remains have subsequently been reburied in the basement of the shrine.
When I visited, I found a woman in a blue dress kneeling in front of the tomb Bahadur Shah II’s wife, Zinath Mahal. She said Muslims considered both the emperor and his wife to be saints and she often came to ask for their help. “Whenever my wishes come true, I come here to say thanks,” said the woman, Saina Zenabi. “There are many people who come here. It’s successful.”
On the wall of the shine were photographs of the last emperor, his body and mind broken, along with portraits of his family members. There were also couplets of Urdu verse, said to have been written by the emperor himself. Among them was one in which he spoke of his impending death in a foreign land. “How unlucky is Zafar! For burial, even two yards of land were not to be had, in the land of the beloved.”
Downstairs, in front of the emperor’s tomb, wrapped in green and yellow silk and strewn with flowers, a family were sat on a mat. The air smelled of incense. Mohammed Nasin said that his family had been coming to the spot for many years. “We think he is a saint. He gives good luck,” he said. “He is the holiest person for Muslims.”
One of the shrine’s caretakers, Hafiz Kumar, said that around 10 people came to pray every day and that on November 7th ever year, the day of the emperor’s death, they held a special celebration for the city’s Muslims.
I asked Mr Kumar whether he had heard about any plans to exhume the emperor’s remains and have them returned to Delhi. He looked horrified. “We would not allow it. We believe that God let him die here and stay here,” he replied. “There is no way we would let him be moved.”
Determined to get to the bottom of the matter without upsetting any more of the city’s Muslim population, I contacted the Indian embassy in Rangoon. Officials there were friendly but of little practical help, advising that any inquiries were better taken up with the Ministry of External Affairs back in Delhi.
Finally, the mystery was laid to rest by the department’s spokesman, Syed Akbaruddin. Asked whether Delhi was in talks with the authorities in Burma to repatriate the last emperor’s remains, he said: “There is no discussion at all on what you asked about.” Had there ever been any such talk? He replied: “By my recollection this was when the tomb was found many decades ago and there was some discussion.”
* * *
The story does not quite end there. While it appears the plot of Mehrauli is going to contain just three graves rather than four, at least for the foreseeable future, I did manage to track down the mysterious newspaper report, or at least one of them, about the possibility of the emperor’s return. In the spring of 2007, a piece in The Hindu noted that it had always been the emperor’s wish to be buried in Delhi. It said that a “demand to bring back the remains of the last Moghul emperor,has been raised from time to time, the latest one being the plea by some cultural and historical organisations”.Tagged in: asia, burma, Dalrymple, Mughal
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