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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bahadur Shah Zafar

¤ Bahadur Shah Reign lasted For A Very Small Tenure

Aurangzeb’s son Bahadur Shah, who is commonly neglected because his reign lasted just five years, completes the gallery of the great Mughals. He was an old man of 63 when he came to power but his achievements in those five years would have done credit to most men in their prime. He made settlements with the implacable Marathas, tranquilized the Rajputs, decisively defeated the Sikhs in the Punjab, and took their last Guru into his service. He was travelling throughout his reign and only came to rest in Lahore in the last few months of his life.

¤ The Decline of Mughal Dynasty

From there on, the Mughal dynasty began to crumble at an amazing speed. Many historians blame Aurangzeb and his destructive policies for eroding the common man’s faith in the dynasty. However this is by far an overstatement. Whatever the policies of Aurangzeb, he was very much the emperor till his dying day in 1707. Though his policies did lead to resentment; the blame for the decline of the Mughals must definitely be shared.

If one agrees with the theory that after every golden period a decline must inevitably follow, then the disintegration of the Mughal Empire becomes easy to explain. The golden period of the Mughals is said to be the reign of Shah Jahan. By the end of his reign, the signs of rot setting in were clear for all to see. Aurangzeb is best remembered as a zealot who broke temples, but a closer look reveals that he was no different from his father, Shah Jahan, a bigot who followed an active anti-Hindu policy. However we look at the Taj Mahal and forgive Shah Jahan everything. Shah Jahan, who had the most peaceful reign of all, bought trouble for himself by needlessly starting an expensive Balkh campaign to win back Samarkand. and if he had been firmer with Dara Shikoh, the much-hyped battle of succession would have ended right there. But Dara was his weakness and Shah Jahan let him rule the roost leading to disastrous consequences. So the first part of the blame falls squarely in Shah Jahan’s shoulders.

The golden rays which seemed to be fading at the end of Shah Jahan’s rule were brightened to a large extent by Aurangzeb in his initial years. But the Deccan wringed Aurangzeb the man, the king, the father and the believer of all softer emotions and decorum. He simply lost his sense of balance. He alienated a sizeable portion of his subjects, allies and employees and made unnecessary enemies which cost his successors dearly. During his lifetime, he tried to put down rebellions all over his empire (the Marathas, the Sikhs, the Satnamis and the Rajputs) with one hand while trying to take Deccan by the other. However it was like trying to put out wild fire. Ultimately it was these alternative power blocks that sped up the fall of the Mughals. Not to mention the foreign powers who were already among those present: the British stretching their legs in Calcutta, the Portuguese in Goa and the French testing waters in the South.

of course it did not help matters that the successors of the great Mughals were weak and unworthy of their forefathers. But that was bound to happen some or the other time wasn’t it? So, from the late-18th century the field was wide open for any new power that wanted to try to set up shop in India.

¤ British Take Over The Mughal Reign

A confused state of affairs reigned supreme till the British finally took control. It is hardly surprising that the more insular Brits thought it was the White Man’s burden to set the house in order for the natives who seemed to be their own worst enemies. Clearly it was the twilight zone, when dynasties just linger on for want of something or someone better. But there was yet time, and many invasions, before the British emerged as a power to reckon with in Delhi.

The first of these was led by the famous Persian king Nadir Shah in 1739. At this time the court in Delhi was busy fighting the Marathas and one of their best generals, Nizam-ul-Mulk, was in war against them. Nizam met Nadir when the latter arrived near Delhi and succeeded in changing his mind about sacking Delhi by offering him a booty of 50,00,000 rupees. However here again court politics had the upper hand - one of Nizam’s rival generals convinced Nadir he was settling for too little and that the fabulous riches of Delhi were to be seen to be believed. Naturally Nadir marched over to Delhi in time to have a khutba read in his name.

Unfortunately, around this time a rumour began doing the rounds that Nadir was dead, which was not only celebrated by the inhabitants of Delhi, but also made them bold enough to actually attack a few Persian soldiers. The result? On March 11, 1739, on an order from Nadir Shah his soldiers plundered Delhi and massacred its citizens. The areas of Chandni Chowk, the fruit market, the Dariba bazaar and the buildings around Jama Masjid were burnt to cinders. Each and every inhabitant of the area was killed to make an example. The people of Delhi will still point at the Khooni Darwaza (Bloody Gate) in the old city and tell you about the massacre that took place as if it were just yesterday. The royal treasury was sacked and its contents seized. When Nadir Shah left Delhi after 57 days, he also took along the fabulous Peacock Throne of the Mughals and the Koh-i-noor with him. Along with them went the last vestiges of Mughal pride and splendour.

Moved to much sorrow and tears, Mir Taqi Mir, a famous contemporary Urdu poet wrote about what was left of Delhi:

Once through this ruined city did I pass
I espied a lonely bird on a bough and asked
‘What knowest thou of this wilderness?’
It replied: I can sum it up in two words:
‘Alas, Alas!’

¤ Delhi Rocked by the Afghans

The next invasion that rocked Delhi was led by the Afghans, with Ahmad Shah Abdali, an ex-general of Nadir Shah, as their commander. Abdali led as many as seven invasions into India between 1748-1767. After the drubbing that Delhi got by Nadir Shah the Mughals seemed to have just given up. Abdali was all over the place ransacking Lahore, Punjab and so on, but it seemed like the Delhi court couldn’t care less. It was left to the Marathas to face the Abdali challenge but they lost. In January 1757, Abdali captured Delhi. After pillaging Delhi the Afghans marched on to overrun most of Northern India. It is said that following the ransacking of the cities of Mathura, Brindaban and Gokul, for ‘seven days the waters of the Jamuna flowed of a blood-red colour.’

An outbreak of Cholera in the army forced Adbali to withdraw; but not before he had made the Delhi court cough up around 1,20,000,000 rupees (that the Delhi court could still raise such a phenomenal amount post-Nadir Shah speaks for the unbelievable riches that the Mughals had accumulated). Apart from the money, Abdali also demanded and got Kashmir, Lahore, Sirhind and Multan. It was only on his sixth invasion of India that the Sikhs challenged him in 1764. Later in 1767, they even managed to inflict defeat on him and took Lahore and Central Punjab. However the areas from Peshawar up remained with Abdali. The Urdu poet Mir taqi Mir was witness to the unfortunate and barbaric invasions of Abdali too. He laments:

There once was fair city,
Among cities of the world the first in fame;
It hath been ruined and laid desolate,
To that city I belong, Delhi is its name.

¤ British Got Exhausted India

The India that the British took over was an India exhausted with war and battle; an India badly in need of, and indeed glad of, someone who could take charge. She had gone a round circle in the cycle of history. It was great leap too – from the cultured, sophisticated and erudite civilization under the Mughals to the power hungry and superstitious dark ages of the late 18th and 19th century. The status of women in society fell like never before: Sati, huge weddings which were a drain on the bride’s family, oppression in the form of a rigid caste system (even with the Muslims) and so on which were never a part of Indian ‘culture’ became so now.

No, we were not putting on out best faces for the firangis (colloquial; foreigners).

Most of the action of the British rise to power in India happened offstage, as it were, as far as Delhi was concerned. Delhi comes into the picture as late as in 1911 when the famed Delhi Durbar was held and the shift of the capital to Delhi was announced. This was when Sir Edward Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker were roped in as architects of the famed New Delhi, also called Lutyen’s Delhi, the ninth city of Delhi.

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