Dara Shikoh: Lesser-known facts about Aurangzeb’s brother – NewsNine

Prince Dara Shikoh

NewsNine LogoWhat would have happened if Dara Shikoh became the Mughal emperor after Shah Jahan, instead of Aurangzeb? Would we have seen a different India? These are the things that historians have speculated over the years, for Dara Shikoh was someone whose ideology and personality was completely different to that of Aurangzeb. While the latter was mostly an excellent military general who could not be described as someone liberal and broad-minded, Shikoh had a pluralistic outlook and interest in different faiths, along with philosophy, art and architecture. He realised that India was a land with varied religions which co-exist to maintain unity, something which his illustrious ancestor Emperor Akbar realised all those years ago. – NewsNine

Dara Shikoh: The prince who could have changed India’s history

Muhammad Dara Shikoh was born on March 11, 1615, in Rajasthan’s Ajmer, which is the land of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, to whom his father Emperor Shah Jahan had prayed for a son. He was the first son and third child of Shah Jahan and his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Overall, Dara had thirteen siblings of whom six survived to adulthood: Jahanara Begum, Shah Shuja, Roshanara Begum, Aurangzeb, Murad Bakhsh, and Gauhara Begum, and he shared a close bond with Jahanara, who would later gain the respect of Aurangzeb as well after he became the emperor.

Dara Shikoh: A hostage in Jahangir’s palace

When Dara Shikoh was just seven years old, his father, Prince Khurram (later Shah Jahan), rebelled against Emperor Jahangir to capture the Mughal throne. But the rebellion fell flat on its face, as Jahangir quelled it swiftly and deftly. Khurram was welcomed back into the royal family and forgiven for his mistakes four years later. But Jahangir wanted to keep Khurram on a tight leash, and that is why he took his grandchildren, Dara and Aurangzeb, as hostages and kept them at the palace under the watchful eye of his wife Nur Jahan. A young Dara would only meet his father at the age of 13 when Khurram was crowned Emperor Shah Jahan.

Dara Shikoh: A prince who was different from others

Even though the Mughal dynasty rarely ever saw a smooth transition of power from one emperor to his heir, Dara, being the eldest son among six, was groomed to be the future ruler of the Mughal Empire from a very early age. While his brothers were deputed to far-off provinces as administrators, Dara, the apple of Shah Jahan’s eye was kept within the imperial court.

Dara did not have to bother about the distant dusty provinces of the empire and tedious tasks of administration. It enabled him to invest his time in spiritual pursuits. He developed a keen interest and proficiency in Sufi mysticism and the Quran at a young age. Unlike his father and his younger brother Aurangzeb, Dara was a liberal-minded unorthodox Muslim. When he was 25, Dara wrote his first book, Safinat-ul-Awliya, where he penned down the lives of the Prophet and his family, the caliphs and saints belonging to the five major Sufi orders then popular in India. He was initiated into the Kadiri order of Sufis by Mulla Shah. As a devout follower, Dara would later commission shrines for Mulla Shah and Miyan Mir in Lahore. Other works by Dara include Risala-i-hak Numa (The Compass of the Truth), the Shathiyat or Hasanat-ul-Arifin and the Iksir-i-Azam. He also commissioned the Jug Bashist and the Tarjuma-i-Akwal-i-Wasili.

Dara Shikoh: The war of succession

Dara married Princess Nadira Banu Begum on February 1, 1633, at Agra. He loved his wife so much that he never contracted any other marriage. The couple had seven children, and three of them, Sulaiman Shikoh, Sipihr Shikoh, and Jahanzeb Banu Begum, survived to play important roles in future events. It was also in 1633, that Dara was appointed as the heir-apparent to his father. On September 10, 1642, Shah Jahan formally confirmed Dara Shikoh as his heir.

But it would mean little during the war of succession. On September 6, 1657, Shah Jahan fell ill, and fearing that he would never recover, a desperate struggle for power among the four Mughal princes began. Though Shah Shuja made the first move and declared himself Mughal emperor in Bengal, which was then one of the richest provinces in India, and marched towards Agra, Murad Baksh decided to join hands with Aurangzeb for the upcoming clashes. At the end of 1657, Dara was appointed governor of the Bihar province. He commanded a vast army and had the strong backing of Shah Jahan, who had recovered from his illness to remain a strong factor in the struggle for supremacy.

On February 14, 1658, his army led by his eldest son Sulaiman Shikoh defeated Shah Shuja in the Battle of Bahadurpur. According to some historical documents, Dara, as a general, displayed unforeseen military tact and leadership in the field of war. But Aurangzeb and Murad combined to defeat him in the Battle of Samugarh, on May 30, 1658. Subsequently, Aurangzeb took over the Agra fort and deposed Shah Jahan to become the Mughal emperor.

Dara Shukoh paraded in public before being executed by his younger brother Aurangzeb.

Dara Shikoh: His tragic death 

After the defeat, Dara Shikoh retreated and finally reached Kathiawar, where Shah Nawaz Khan, the governor of the province of Gujarat, helped him to rally a new army. But on March 11, 1659, Shikoh was utterly crushed by the forces of Aurangzeb in the Battle of Deora. He fled to Sindh and sought refuge under Malik Jiwan (Junaid Khan Barozai), an Afghan chieftain, whose life he had saved on multiple occasions. But, as fate would have it, Junaid betrayed Dara and turned him and his second son Sipihr Shikoh, over to Aurangzeb’s army on June 10, 1659.

Dara Shikoh was brought to Delhi, placed on a filthy elephant and paraded through the streets of the capital in chains. Francois Bernier, who witnessed the incident, said that “the crowd assembled upon this disgraceful occasion was immense and everywhere I observed the people were weeping and lamenting the fate of Dara in the most touching language. From every quarter I heard piercing and distressing shrieks for the Indian people have a very tender heart; men, women and children wailing as if some mighty calamity had happened to themselves.”

For Aurangzeb, it was not only enough to defeat Dara Shikoh in battle. He also had to quash the love and adoration that common people had for Dara, as his immense popularity posed a political threat to his throne. And so, Aurangzeb declared him a threat to public peace and an apostate from Islam. And then, Dara was brutally murdered by four of Aurangzeb’s henchmen in front of his terrified son. After death, the remains of Dara were buried in an unidentified grave in Humayan’s tomb in Delhi.

Niccolo Manucci, the Venetian traveller who worked in the Mughal court, had given us a vivid description of the death of Dara Shikoh. After Dara was captured, Aurangzeb ordered his men to have his head brought to him. He first inspected the head thoroughly to ensure that it was indeed Dara and then mutilated the head with his sword three times. Then he proceeded to execute a wicked, shameful plan. He ordered the head to be put in a box and presented to his ailing father, Shah Jahan. He ordered that the box must be delivered only when Shah Jahan sat for his dinner. The guards were also instructed to inform Shah Jahan that it was a symbol of love from Aurangzeb to his father. Shah Jahan, without suspecting anything, opened the box. After seeing what was inside, he became horrified and fell unconscious.

Prince Dara Shikoh translating the Upanishads.

Dara Shikoh: His respect for religions and quest for harmony

Unlike Aurangzeb, Dara was a liberal-minded unorthodox Muslim who authored Majma-ul-Bahrain (The Confluence of the Two Seas) which argues for the harmony of Sufi philosophy in Islam and Vedanta philosophy in Hinduism. In it, Dara analytically compares aspects of Islam and Hinduism and extracts the abundant similarities in their core values. He also undertook the mammoth task known as Sirr-i-Akbar (the Great Secret), a translation of fifty chapters of the Upanishads, with the help of the pandits and monks of Varanasi. It was completed in 1657. Some historians also attribute the translation of the Bhagavad Gita to Dara.

Dara extensively read the literature of other religions to understand them. Not only that, but he also conversed with and respected the learned men of those faiths. The Mukalima-i-Dara Shikuh wa Baba Lal depicts a spiritual discussion between Dara and Baba Lal, later recognised to be Lal Dayal, the Hindu mystic from Punjab. Dara also developed a friendship with the seventh Sikh Guru, Guru Har Rai.

As per historical documents, Dara also commissioned a translation of the Yoga Vasistha, apparently after Vasistha and Lord Rama appeared in his dream. The translation is called the Jug-Basisht and has since become popular in Persia among intellectuals interested in Indo-Persian culture.

A great patron of the arts, Dara ordered the compilation of some refined artwork into an album which is now famously known as the Dara Shikoh Album. This album was presented by Dara to his wife Nadira in 1641. After her death, many inscriptions connecting it with Dara were deliberately erased. But some survived, and they still bear his mark. Among the existing paintings from the Dara Shikoh Album, are two facing pages, showing two ascetics in yogic postures, probably meant to be a pair of yogis, Vaishnava and Shaiva. These paintings are attributed to the artist Govardhan.

Dara Shikoh has often been painted as a tragic figure by historians, who was overshadowed by the military genius and expansions of his brother Aurangzeb in the annals of Indian history. Dara was a flicker of hope in an age of religious orthodoxy, someone who understood the diversity of the Indian culture and its many traditions, and someone who could have changed the course of history in our country, had he become the Mughal emperor.

Dara Shikoh established a library which still exists on the grounds of Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, Kashmiri Gate, Delhi. – NewsNine, 8 July 2022

Humayun's Tomb