The Mughals were known to be ruthless in their quest for power and none was more brutal than the hated Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb’s journey to the throne was a bloody one and he came to power over the bodies of his three brothers. The story of Dara Shikoh symbolises those brutal times when brothers did not hesitate to turn on each other for the coveted imperial throne.
Dara Shikoh, the favourite son and heir apparent of Shah Jahan was born in 1615. His name in Persian means Darius the magnificent. When he was 12, his grandfather Jahangir died and his father, Shah Jahan succeeded him as Emperor. Dara was known for his intellectual pursuits and was a fervent patron of the arts, music and dancing, which were frowned upon by the bigoted Aurungzeb. He believed in the peaceful coexistence of all religions. These qualities made him a heretic in the eyes of the fanatical Aurangzeb. The various courtiers and power brokers who thronged the court considered him an eccentric. As was customary for all Mughal sons in those times, Dara was appointed at an early age as a military commander of 12,000 soldiers and 6,000 horses in 1633 which is roughly equivalent to a modern division commander or a major general. In 1642, Dara was formally anointed the heir to the imperial throne by Shah Jahan who granted him the title of Shahzada-e Buland Iqbal or ‘Prince of High Fortune’ and promoted him to the command of 20,000 soldiers and 20,000 horses.
When Shah Jahan fell ill in 1657, this was the trigger for a struggle for succession among the four Mughal princes who were hungry for power and had been waiting for the opportunity to strike. While Shah Shuja struck first by declaring himself emperor in Bengal and marched towards Agra, Murad Baksh decided to ally himself with Aurangzeb. Dara was vanquished by Aurangzeb and Murad in the battle of Samugarh in 1658. Aurangzeb proceeded to take over the Agra fort and deposed Shah Jahan.
Following his defeat, Dara was on the run with Aurangzeb in hot pursuit moving to Delhi,Lahore, Multan, Thattain Sindh and finally raised an army again with the help of the Governor of the province of Gujarat. Following a last ditch effort to claim the coveted throne, Dara was routed in the battle of Deorai near Ajmer in 1659. Shackled in chains, and pa raded through the streets of Delhi on an elephant, Dara knew that his end was near. Aurangzeb feared his popularity with the common people which made Dara too much of a threat. Dara was placed underimprisonment. The task of murdering Dara was entrusted to a slave called Nazir who had been educated by Shah Jahan but had at one time been ill-treated by Dara.
One day as Dara was in his apartment with his son Sipah Shikoh engaged in boiling lentils when Nazir and four other henchmen burst inside. “My dear son,” cried Dara, “these men have come to murder us!” Dara seized a small kitchen knife and made a pathetic bid to fight off his executioners.
Whilst one of the men secured Sipah Shikoh, three others pinned Dara to the ground and Nazir decapitated his wretched victim. The head was carried to Aurangzeb who ordered that it should be placed in a dish of water. The blood was washed from the face so that Aurangzeb was certain that it was indeed Dara. When he saw the face, he shed tears and said, “Ah wretched one! Let this shocking sight no more offend my eyes.” The head was taken away and interred in Humayun’s tomb.
Aurangzeb never forgave Shah Jahan for supporting Dara and incarcerated him in the Agra fort where he died aged 74 after a confinement of seven and a half years in 1662. He was buried by eunuchs and menial servants beside his beloved Mumtaz Mahal.
The victory of Aurangzeb over Dara symbolised the triumph of intolerance and bigotry which had ominous implications for the future of India.