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Early Modern India

The Mughals: Shah Jahan

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 1 June 2009

Shah Jahan, or Prince Khurram in his early days, was born on 5 January 1592. He was the son of Jehangir and Jagat Gosain, the princess of Jodhpur. He was second in line to the throne after Prince Khusrav.

Khurram showed tremendous potential as a child, and both his father and his grandfather both doted on him. From the beginning of his career, he was given important assignments and virtually groomed as a successor to the throne, and this became even more the case after the rebellion of Prince Khusrav.

Khurram was married to Arjumand Banu Begum, daughter of Asaf Khan and niece of Jahangir's favourite queen, Nur Jahan. He had been assigned 8000 sawar (cavalry) and 5000 jats (foot soldiers) as his personal force, but Nur Jahan favoured her son-in-law, Shahryar, to succeed Jahangir, and this caused a rift between her and her stepson, Khurram. Resenting her influence, Khurram revolted against his father in 1623, but he was soon isolated and defeated. He apologised to his father, and Jahangir forgave his errant but favourite son.

Jahangir died in 1627, and a war of succession started up straight away. Shahryar declared himself emperor in Lahore. This time however, Khurram's father-in-law, Asaf Khan, stood squarely behind the rightful heir. He was also supported by the diwan, Khwaja Abul Hassan, and the general, Mahabbat Khan. Shah Jahan, who was busy on a campaign in the Deccan plateau when his father died, instructed Asaf Khan to kill all the claimants to the Delhi throne, including Shahryar. This order was carried out and afterwards, Shah Jahan crowned himself emperor in 1628.

Shah Jahan was however, merciful towards his stepmother. Nur Jahan was exiled to Lahore with a annual pension of two hundred thousand rupees. Asaf khan was given the post of vazir (prime minister), along with a military retinue (a mansab) of 8000 jats and 8000 sawar. Mahabbat Khan was rewarded with an elevated mansab of 7000 jats and 7000 sawar and given the title of 'khan-i-khana'.

Shah Jahan's initial period as the emperor was spent in quelling revolts by the Bundelas (1628) and his Deccan governor, Khan Jahan Lodi (1629).

Deccan campaign

When Khan Jahan Lodhi, the Mughal governor of the Deccan, revolted against Shah Jahan, he was helped by Nizam Shah, ruler of Ahmednagar. Lodhi had already sold the fort of Balaghat to the Nizam shahi. When Shah Jahan sent a huge army against Lodhi, Nizam Shah had already withdrawn his support to Lodhi. Lodhi fled to the north where he was murdered after a conflict with the local king. Meanwhile, the Nizam shahi was weakening due to internal cracks.

The Nizam Shah's vazir, Fateh Khan (the son of his trusted general, Malik Amber), had usurped the Ahmednagar throne, and installed Hussain Shah as a puppet in place of the Nizam. Fateh Khan played political games with the Mughals, and tried to gain time from the Mughals by signing treaties with them while he simultaneously tried to gather together the forces of Golconda and Bijapur under him to counter the Mughals.

The Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal was built for Shah Jahan's beloved wife, Mumtaj Mahal, but he was later laid there himself, in 1666

In 1633, the Mughal forces under Mahabbat Khan subdued Fateh Khan and sent him and his master as captives to the Delhi court. However, a few nobles, including Shahaji Bhosale (father of the Maratha king, Shivaji), installed a child, Murtuza III, on the Ahmednagar throne and continued the resistance against the Mughals. But by 1636, the rebels had lost the war. Murtuza was handed over to the Mughals, and the Nizam shahi was extinguished. Golconda, along with Bijapur had to accept the Mughal suzerainty.

Shah Jahan appointed his son, Aurangzeb, as governor of the Deccan in 1636, with Aurangabad as his capital. Soon differences arose between the Mughals and the kingdom of Golconda. Prince Muhammed, the son of Aurangzeb, was deputed to attack Golconda in 1646. The Mughals first captured Hyderabad and besieged the fort of Golconda. Qutub Shah, ruler of Golconda, surrendered to the Mughals, and even married one of his daughters to Prince Muhammed.

Meanwhile, Bijapur under its ruler Adil Shah II, was accused of not paying the annual tribute in full, and was attacked on that pretext. Aurangzeb and his army forced a treaty on the Bijapur kingdom in which almost one and a half crores [1] was to be handed over to the Mughals. However, the sum was reduced to one crore.

Aurangzeb had wanted to annexe the kingdoms of Golconda and Bijapur to the Mughal dominion, but was prevented from doing so by Shah Jahan, allegedly at the behest of his eldest son, Dara Shukoh, and his favoured daughter, Jahan Ara. Apparently neither of them wanted Aurangzeb's importance to be increased.

[1] A crore is a unit in the Indian numbering system equal to a hundred lakh or 10,000,000. It is still widely used throughout South Asia, although it has faded from use in Persia.

Shah Jahan, buoyed by his success in the Deccan, decided to regain Kandahar, which his father had lost to the Persians during Shah Jahan's rebellion. He recaptured it in 1638, but later it was lost again to the Persians in 1648, and all subsequent efforts by the Mughals to recapture it failed.

Shah Jahan's reign

Shah Jahan's reign was replete with great architecture, the patronising of the arts, painting, music, and poetry. The famous mausoleum, the Taj Mahal (at Agra), which was constructed for his deceased wife, Mumtaj Mahal, was a tribute to her memory. It is considered to be one of the finest monuments the world has ever seen.

Other notable structures built by Shah Jahan were Shis Mahal (the glass palace), Nau Lakha, Musammam Burj, Moti Masjid (the pearl mosque), Jama Masjid (in Delhi), Lal Qila (the red fort in Delhi), Diwan i Aam, Diwan i Khaas, and Khwab Gah (in Lahore). Shah Jahan constructed beautiful gardens and fountains around them. He also constructed the one hundred and fifty-eight kilometre-long Ravi Canal, and Nahar i Shah, an enlargement of the canal originally built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq.

Shah Jahan was a cultured person, well versed in Persian, Arabic and Turkish, and was a patron to many Hindu poets and writers such as Jagannath Pandit, Chintamani Acharya Saraswati, and Sunderdas. Also, many famous Persian authors such as Abdul Hamid Lahori and Amin Qazwani wrote brilliant works along the lines of Padshahnama and Shahjhannama under his guidance. Shah Jahan was a good singer himself and patronised musicians such as Sukhsen and Sursen.

The war of succession

Lal Qila or red fort

Shah Jahan's Lal Qila, the red fort in Delhi

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Shah Jahan fell ill on 6 September 1657. He failed to present himself before his subjects for his 'jharoka darshan' [2].

Dara Shukoh was Shah Jahan's eldest and favourite son, and was heir to the throne. But this was not acceptable to his brothers, Shah Shuja (governor of Bengal), Aurangzeb (governor of the Deccan), and Murad Bux (governor of Gujarat). Their sisters also individually allied themselves to each of their brothers. Jahan Ara was allied to Dara, Roshan Ara supported Aurangzeb, while Gauhan Ara sided with Murad.

[2] 'Jharoka' means the window and 'darshan' means to present oneself before others.

The eldest of the princes, Dara Shukoh, was a cultured and liberal person, very genteel in mannerisms, and a kind and considerate person by nature. He was a scholar in Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit. He therefore enjoyed the confidence of the emperor. He was also very liberal towards the Hindus (besides being a patron of Sanskrit works), and therefore commanded respect amongst them as well.

Dara Shukoh, along with the imperial army, attacked and defeated Shah Shuja, who fled to Bengal, where he was killed. Aurangzeb immediately made a treaty with Murad, wherein Murad was to get Punjab, Sindh, Kashmir and Afghanistan, and one third of the booty. Dara then turned to face Aurangzeb and Murad's combined army. But Dara, though a courageous commander was no match for the guile and deceit of Aurangzeb. He won over some of Dara's officers, such as Qasim Khan, to his side. Also, some of the emperor's rajput officers such as Jai Singh supported Aurangzeb. Jai Singh used his good offices to win over Dara's rajput men like Jaswant Singh. This rendered Dara's forces very weak and he was conclusively defeated.

He sought refuge with a Baluchi chief, Malik Jiwan, whom he had once saved from the wrath of the emperor, but Malik Jiwan betrayed him and handed over Dara and his family to Aurangzeb. Along with his second son, Sipoh, Dara was paraded in the streets of Delhi in his dirty, journey-stained attire. His other son, Sulaiman, was taken prisoner and later died by poisoning. Dara was charged by a special court with apostasy and was beheaded. His corpse was shown to the public in the streets of Delhi and then buried at the tomb of Humayun in Delhi. Aurangzeb then had his other brother Murad (with whom he had concluded an alliance), put to death.

By 1659 he was master of the Mughal empire.

Shah Jahan had murdered his brothers to ascend the throne. Now his own son Aurangzeb followed in the family footsteps.

Shah Jahan himself was taken prisoner and spent his last eight years in captivity at Shah Burz, in the fort of Agra. His daughter Jahan Ara served him loyally until his final days. Shah Jahan breathed his last in 1666, a sad and bitter man. This marked the end of a glorious and grandiose reign.

Tomb of Shah Jahan

The tomb of Shah Jahan alongside that of his wife inside the Taj Mahal

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Main Sources

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000

Spear, Percival - The History of India, Penguin, 1990



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.