On Dara Shikoh

The Mughal Empire- Backstory

The Mughal empire, founded by Babur of the Timurid dynasty in 1526, has contributed much to the cultural legacy of the Indian subcontinent. The Mughals, originally Turkic-Mongol foreigners to the subcontinent, managed to merge and morph their culture with that of the subcontinent in their three hundred year-long rule. The resulting architecture, literature, and art produced has been a part of the cultural heritage of the hundreds of millions of people in the sub-continent.

Flag of the Mughal Empire

Flag of the Mughal Empire

The deaths of Delhi

Much has been lost or destroyed subsequent to the decline of the Mughal Empire. Delhi, which used to be one of the most cultured cities in the world, with beautiful palaces and mansions to employ its many poets and artists, is now no different from any other third world city. The massacre of 1857 by the British annihilated the local population, turning Delhi from a world cultural capital to the haunted husk of a once-regal city. One of the biggest cultural atrocities committed by the British was the destruction of the caravansary at Chandni Chowk, named after the moon-lit canals which ran through it and built by Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara in the 17th century. Only accounts of travellers passing through now remain of the caravansary and keep it alive. Despite the destruction caused by the British, Delhi slowly rebuilt itself, only to be struck again by the mass migrations and violence that took place leading up to Partition in 1947.

An illustrated map of Old Delhi from 1858

An illustrated map of Old Delhi from 1858

The beautiful havelis which had survived the massacres of 1857 were abandoned by their original inhabitants in 1947 and taken over by waves of new migrants coming in from the Punjab and elsewhere. These havelis and other associated buildings, the culmination of centuries of Mughal architecture, were turned into much more functional apartment blocks and government buildings for the new Delhi. And so the final strands of Mughal culture on Delhi, and more broadly on North India, were slowly coloured in and erased. Both mass migrations and the accelerated impoverishment of the aristocratic class dealt the death blow to what was already a fading culture of patronage of and protection for the arts and architecture. The old was taken apart brick-by-brick and replaced by the necessary.

1785 view of the Red Fort from the east. In the foreground the Rang Mahal is on the left, the Khwabgah Jharoka in the centre and the Moti Masjid on the extreme right.

1785 view of the Red Fort from the east. In the foreground the Rang Mahal is on the left, the Khwabgah Jharoka in the centre and the Moti Masjid on the extreme right.

Aurangzeb the Pure

The seeds of the Hindu-Muslim animosity which caused Partition, and which was so cleverly exploited by the British to build their empire, were sown by Aurangzeb, successor to Shah Jahan and emperor of the Mughal Empire from 1658 to 1707. Aurangzeb was the third of Shah Jahan’s four sons, and younger brother to the heir-apparent Dara Shikoh, who had been picked by Shah Jahan as his successor.

A painting from circa 1637 shows the brothers (left to right) Shah Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad Baksh in their younger years.

A painting from circa 1637 shows the brothers (left to right) Shah Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad Baksh in their younger years.

Aurangzeb had always been a soldier and an accomplished tactician. He considered himself above the hedonistic entrapments of the Mughal court and accused his brothers of being alcoholics and womanizers. He was a devout follower of the more literal interpreters of the Quran and was against the spiritual and mystical writings and research of his older brother Dara. Aurangzeb, as well as being a brilliant tactician and general, was also the head of a very extensive network of informants and spies at the Mughal court, a network he had developed along with his sister Roshanara for his own needs.

Dara the Mystic

His older brother Dara was a Sufi mystic of great repute and the author of several important books and translations on Sufism. Dara worked with Sufi philosophers and Hindus pandits to integrate the religion of the Mughal court, Islam, with Hinduism, the religion of the majority in the Mughal Empire. Dara was a known ascetic, giving up the trappings of the Mughal court for a life of research, academia, and development of the arts. He was well-loved by the people for his tolerance of the diversity of religions and culture in the Empire, similar to his great-grandfather Akbar. He had also developed a love of research and academia, which his great-great-grandfather Humayun was known for.

A portrait of Dara

A portrait of Dara

Dara, along with his sister Jahanara, was a disciple of Mullah Shah Badakhshi, who initiated them into the Qadiryyia Sufi order. The guidance provided by the Sufi saint led both siblings to turn their backs on the life of excess and plenty found in the Mughal court, and to live closer to their subjects in the Empire. The Sufi order emphasised struggling against the ego and the trappings of a worldly life. This made both siblings immensely popular within the Empire. Dara’s popularity, his keenness of mind, and his humility led Shah Jahan to appoint him as his chosen successor, much to the consternation of the three other Mughal princes. Dara was a renowned philosopher, a distinguished intellectual, and an accomplished poet, however he was not a general and lacked the cunning that turns a Prince into an Emperor.

Dara Shikoh (with Mian Mir and Mullah Shah Badakhshi), ca. 1635

Dara Shikoh (with Mian Mir and Mullah Shah Badakhshi), ca. 1635

Dara had an unparalleled knowledge of the peoples of the Mughal Empire, more extensive than even that of Akbar. He spent considerable time in travel and contributed to the restoration of several Hindu monasteries and temples. This put him at odds with the more conservative Islamist figures at the Mughal court, who gathered around Aurangzeb as their chosen favourite Mughal prince. These figures viewed Dara’s progressive blending and acceptance of other religions as a threat to their own power, which centered around their presumed authority on religious matters. So when Shah Jahan fell ill and was feared dead, these figures lent their support to Aurangzeb in his attempt to usurp power from Dara Shikoh.

Dara with his army

Dara with his army

Dara’s Betrayal

Dara was no match on the battle-field for Aurangzeb’s military experience. Due to being in ill-favour with Shah Jahan, and showing an earlier aptitude for military command, Aurangzeb had been in almost constant warfare with forces on the Empire’s frontiers. His military experience was bounds ahead of Dara’s and, added with his network of informants, proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for Dara. Dara was betrayed by his own chief commander, who recommended he dismount his war elephant to lend support to the generals who had been decimated in the flanks. His forces, seeing Dara’s elephant without him, thought him killed and the battle lost. The ensuing rout saw Dara flee to Delhi, then to Lahore, mount another unsuccessful challenge to Aurangzeb at Surat with a much smaller force, then finally flee to Sindh where he was betrayed by a friend whom he had twice saved from Shah Jahan.

Sepoys loyal to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb maintain their positions around the palace, at Aurangabad, in 1658

Sepoys loyal to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb maintain their positions around the palace, at Aurangabad, in 1658

At every turn Dara found himself short on luck and military success. This philosopher and theologian lacked the military experience or the cunning necessary to defeat Aurangzeb. Dara was brought to Delhi and paraded around bound and disgraced on the streets, a humiliation surprising in its harshness as Dara was still a Mughal prince. One account has a fakir approach Dara, who is being paraded in rags on an old war elephant. The fakir taunts Dara by asking “What can you do now Prince, you who were once so generous to the poor?”

In response, Dara rips the cloth from his body and drops it for the fakir to scavenge. Dara, who had left behind worldly possessions in his search for spiritual understanding, was now left with little but rags, just as he had sought. This prince, whose love for the arts and knowledge, whose tolerance of diversity and empathy for his people could have spurred a new Mughal golden age was instead decapitated a few weeks later by nobles who accused him of heresy.

Aurangzeb had feared the popularity enjoyed by Dara and could not afford to have him survive for long. Dara’s young son watched as his father tried to defend himself with a kitchen knife. The court nobles employed by Aurangzeb to assassinate Dara fell upon him with swords, and his son could do little but watch.

Shah Jahan, who had been imprisoned by Aurangzeb in Agra, was being tended to by his daughter Jahanara. Shah Jahan was given little information of the going-ons of the Empire after his imprisonment, and so became ecstatic when a messenger announced a gift from his son, Aurangzeb. Upon opening the chest presented by the messenger, Shah Jahan is claimed to have wailed in despair as the chest contained the decapitated head of his eldest son and heir, Dara. Shah Jahan, unable to recover, died of grief soon after.

Aurangzeb’s Reign

Aurangzeb’s 49 year reign expanded the borders of the empire farther than ever before. However, the policies adopted by Aurangzeb created internal divisions which made it impossible for him to hold together the Empire he had inherited, and Aurangzeb spent the latter years of his reign rushing to quell rebellions in different parts of the Empire. His imposition of a jizya tax on non-muslims, the destruction of Hindu temples, and the execution of the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur, created divisions which would in time destroy the empire. The Mughals had always managed to rule only because of the religious tolerance they showed to the diversity of beliefs in India. From Babur to Akbar, Mughal rule had been broadly secular in nature, with Hindus and Muslims both being involved in government and administration.

Aurangzeb in prayer. Parables have him praying in the field of battle.

Aurangzeb in prayer. Parables have him praying in the midst of battle.

Aurangzeb was the last ‘great’ Mughal. After his death the empire slowly fractured into several smaller soobas ruled by local Nawabs. These nawabs fought amongst themselves for land and resources, making easy picking for the East India British company, which played the nawabs against each other. This fracturing was a direct result of the divisive policies pursued by Aurangzeb and the constant warfare he subjected the Empire to. It is an interesting but ultimately pointless exercise to think of how different the world would be today if Dara had triumphed over Arungzeb, if the philosopher had won instead of the soldier. Instead of a legacy of religious division and strife, exploited and further entrenched by the British, it is tempting to think of a united, harmonious and multi-cultural subcontinent. If instead of constant warfare depleting the royal treasury as under Aurangzeb, if Dara-the-Emperor had been able to spend on the construction of universities and seminaries, on researchers instead of soldiers, world history would have been very different.

The capture of Orchha by imperial forces led by Aurangzeb (October 1635)

The capture of Orchha by imperial forces led by Aurangzeb (October 1635)


The history of India is one marked by a narrative which always seems to take the wrong turn, whether it be at the Battle of Plassey, the ill-fated campaigns of Tipu Sultan, or the looting of Delhi by Nadir Shah and his troops. The ascension of Aurangzeb over Dara Shikoh is no different. It is impossible to escape the temporary joy derived in asking- what if things had been different?

Near the end of his days, Aurangzeb seemed aware that he was leaving behind a broken legacy. Dying, he confessed to his son:

                “I came alone and I go as a stranger. I do not know who I am, nor what I have been doing”


A portrait of Aurangzeb in old age

1 Comment

January 14, 2014 · 9:21 am

One response to “On Dara Shikoh

  1. Then the Brits came and messed things up.

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