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Shah Jahan’s wily princess

Published: 27th June 2013 12:38 PM  |   Last Updated: 27th June 2013 12:38 PM   |  A+A-

Roshanara-Begum

François Bernier was a French physician and traveller whose memoir, Travels in the Mughal Empire, offers fascinating insights into the Mughal empire, including anecdotes about Shah Jahan’s daughters — Begum Saheb, the chief princess, and Roshanara Begum, the light of the princesses or princess of the enlightened mind.

Writes Bernier: Begum Saheb was handsome, lively and passionately beloved of her father which aroused unsavoury rumours. It is believed that Shah Jahan justified this attachment on the decision of the Mullahs. According to them, it would have been unjust to deny the king from gathering fruit from the tree he himself had planted. Shah Jahan reposed unbounded confidence in his favourite child and she watched over his safety. She was so cautiously observant that no dish was allowed on the royal table that had not been prepared under her supervision. Thus it was not surprising that her ascendancy in the Mughal court was nearly unlimited, she regulated the humours of her father and exercised powerful influence over the most weighty concerns.

Catrou was another historian who said: the beauty of Begum Saheb united a mind imbued with great artifice. Her attachment for Shah Jahan  and the profusion of love he bestowed on his daughter, caused a suspicion that crimes might be blended with their mutual affection. This was a popular rumour which never had any foundation other than in the malice of the courtiers. The princess accumulated great riches by means of her large allowances and of the costly presents that flowed in from all quarters. The affairs of her brother Dara prospered and he retained the friendship of the king because she attached herself steadily to his interests.

In return, Dara cultivated with assiduous attention the goodwill of this valuable ally and it is thought that he made her a promise that in the event of his ascension to the throne he would grant her permission to marry. This pledge was a remarkable one because the marriage of a princess was a rare occurrence in Hindustan since no man was considered worthy of a royal alliance. Furthermore, an apprehension was always entertained that the husband might become too powerful and could aspire for the crown.

Bernier relates two anecdotes related to the amours of the princess. Writes Bernier: Love adventures are not associated with the same danger in Europe as in Asia. In France, they excite only merriment; they create a laugh and are forgotten. But in this part of the world, few are the instances where they are not followed by some dreadful and tragic catastrophe.

It is said that Begum Saheb, although confined in a Seraglio and guarded like other women, received visits from a young man of not very exalted rank but of an agreeable person. However, Begum Saheb was surrounded on all sides by members of her own gender whose envy she had long provoked and thus it was impossible that her conduct should escape attention. Shah Jahan was apprised of her guilt and resolved to enter her apartments at an unusual and unexpected hour.

The intimation of his arrival was too sudden to allow her the choice of more than one place of concealment. The frightened young man sought refuge in the enormous cauldron used for the baths. The king’s countenance betrayed neither surprise nor pleasure. He discoursed on ordinary topics but finished the conversation by observing that the state of her skin indicated neglect and it was proper that she should bathe. He then commanded the eunuchs to light a fire under the cauldron and did not retire until they gave him to understand that his wretched victim was no more.

After a period, Begum Saheb formed another attachment which also had tragic consequences. Her next object of desire was a Persian nobleman who was popular in the whole court. A leading courtier proposed him as a husband for Begum Saheb, a proposition that was ill received by Shah Jahan.

He had already entertained suspicions of improper conduct between the young man and the princess and made up his mind on his course of action. The king presented a betel leaf to the unsuspecting young in the presence of the whole court which the young man was obliged to masticate. Little did he imagine that he had received poison from the hands of the smiling monarch. Dreaming of future bliss, he withdrew from the palace and ascended his palki.

However, such was the potency of the poison that he died before he reached home.

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