Re-incarnating Dara Shikoh, a Great Moghul

By Ghazala Akbar

Dara shikoh5Paradise is where no Mullah resides

May no one pay heed to his Fatwas

In a street where a Mullah resides

No wise man is ever found

Shams Tabrizi? Mirza Ghalib? Guess again. This irreverent verse is attributed to Dara Shikoh, a forgotten prince of Indian history, a great

Mughal who never ruled. Dara who? Precisely.

Our fascination with the Mughals is ubiquitous. We name our children, streets and even the odd restaurant after them; we display their portraits, ape their costumes and jewellery. We enjoy the music, the dances and cuisine. We visit their splendid tombs, we picnic in their gardens, we pray in their mosques – but shamefully – scholars and history buffs excepted, our critical appraisal or interest in their reign is limited to, or influenced by maudlin, gossipy, celluloid representations of their romantic entanglements.

The all-time favourite is the legend of Anarkali, an aspiring dancing-girl whose defiant love for Prince Saleem earns her the Emperor Akbar’s wrath and a cruel death. We admire the upwardly-mobile Nur Jehan ruling imperiously from behind – the – lattice – screen, while her spouse Jahangir, overdoses on opium and alcohol.

We grieve for the fecund Mumtaz Mahal dying (not unsurprisingly) in the midst of her fourteenth pregnancy; we approve wholeheartedly of Shahjahan’s extravagance in constructing a monument to their love. Their talented daughter, the poetess Jahan Ara is another sad case of thwarted desire. Denied married bliss (a potential spouse could claim the throne!) she expends her energies in creative works, or consoling her heart-broken father in his dotage.

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Dara Shikoh visits the ascetic Kamal

As for the octogenarian poet, Bahadur Shah Zafar, he arouses our uttermost empathy. We are moved to tears at his fate as the ‘last’ Mughal and his death in impoverished exile. Such is our ire at his British captors, he has now been elevated as a ‘hero’ of the first War of Independence, 1857. And Prince Dara?  Poor unfortunate, headless Dara barely gets a mention. He is relegated to an ‘also-ran’, a loser in a four-way succession race for the Peacock throne in which his brothers, Aurangzeb, Murad Baksh and Shah Shuja also figure.

The course of Indian history is peppered with ifs and maybes — but in the current climate of clashing fundamentalisms, rival nationalist narratives and state-sponsored historical revisionism, there is none as intriguing as the one big question: what if Dara Shikoh, had ascended the throne in 1658 instead of his brother Aurangzeb?

For Dara — like his great grandfather Akbar (1552-1605) — was streets ahead of his times and contemporaries in matters of religion. In an era when Europe was riven with dissension between Catholics and Protestants, both men advocated religious fusion, pluralism and tolerance. While Akbar had tried (unsuccessfully) into forging a ‘new’ State religion, Dara was more circumspect. His measured approach lay within the scope of Sufi Islam and the belief that there are as many different paths to the divine as there are seekers.

Deeply interested in spiritual matters, intellectual and artistic pursuits,

Dara had turned the Mughal court into an arena for religious debate. He read widely. He engaged with holy men — Sufis, Hindus and Sikhs asking questions, continually searching and seeking answers. He funded and collaborated with Sanskrit scholars in the first Persian translation of the Upanishads. He authored several treatises, most notably the ‘Majma ul Bahrain’ (mingling of two seas) in which he sought commonalities between Islam and Hinduism. He even went so far as to speculate that the ‘hidden book’ referred to in the first verse of the Holy Quran might refer to the Upanishads.

Dara’s eclectic views annoyed the conservative establishment but they weren’t shocking in themselves to disqualify him as a contender for the throne. Even after he had been defeated militarily, humiliated and paraded on a filthy, injured elephant through the Delhi streets, he managed to arouse public sympathy. Alarmed at this turn of events, Aurangzeb with the help of the Ulema arraigned Dara for apostasy. His writings were then cleverly used as evidence of his ‘blasphemy’ and partiality towards Hinduism.

Dara was found guilty and put to death, his severed head brought to Shahjahan on a platter. His teenage son Sipihr who had witnessed his father’s execution suffered the classic Mughal punishment for errant Princes: pousta, a highly toxic concoction of narcotics that eventually wastes the body. The other two claimants Murad and Shuja were outgunned, outsmarted and eliminated while their father and sister Jahan Ara put under house arrest.

History, as they say, is about winners, not losers. Consequently it is Aurangzeb that is remembered — respected or reviled — depending on your view. From a purely popular Muslim perspective, he is a pious, devout, austere, militarily astute emperor whose long reign advanced Mughal power and the cause of Indian Islam to its farthest reaches, north and south. As an example of his simplicity, textbooks inform us he stitched and sold caps for his own expenses! His misdeeds are suppressed.

Viewed from the prism of Indian nationalists, Aurangzeb is the arch villain, second only to the 10th century invader Mahmud Ghazni in infamy.  He is loathed as a cruel religious bigot who wantonly destroyed temples, re-imposed punitive taxes and discriminated against Hindus and Sikhs. Such is his reputation that during the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha by the Taliban, it was repeatedly stated (without evidence) that Aurangzeb had commanded his artillery to do the same!

While it is true that Aurangzeb has been vilified in history — the ‘bare facts’ of his forty-nine year reign often subjectively and selectively presented — there can be no denying that out of all of India’s Muslim rulers none have generated more controversy among successive generations than Aurangzeb. A common thread among Imperial and Indian historians alike is that Aurangzeb’s cultural and religious policies alienated his non-Muslim subjects, triggered a series of rebellions, caused a melt-down of central authority and created a deep religious divide culminating in the bloody partition of India 240 years after his death.

The notion that Partition was caused solely by British policies of ‘divide and rule’ is only partially valid. We have to accept that there were antagonisms deep-rooted in historical events; that these were further exacerbated during Aurangzeb’s reign and then exploited by British colonists and indigenous political and religious leaders. In a recent article, geo-political analyst Robert Kaplan sums it aptly: ‘…there is an intimacy to India-Pakistan relationships inflamed by a religious element. Pakistan is the incarnation of all Muslim invasions that have assaulted Hindu North India throughout history.’

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Prince Dara Shikoh with his wife Nadira Banu.

Was the cause then of peaceful religious co-existence and evolution of cultural syncretism irreparably harmed by the accession of Aurangzeb? Could a reign of Dara Shikoh have significantly changed the course of South Asian history?  These speculative questions came to mind as I watched a riveting historical drama, ‘Dara’ currently playing to wide acclaim at the National Theatre in London. Written originally in Urdu by the Pakistani playwright Shahid Nadeem, it has been translated and adapted in English by Tania Ronder and directed by Nadia Hall.

Kudos to the National Theatre for this edifying, thought-provoking production.  Performed by a cast of mostly British Asians ‘Dara’ is a visual treat with splendid sets, costumes and live music evoking 17th century Mughal grandeur. Clichéd as it may sound, it’s almost like a Mughal miniature come to life. The action moves backward and forward in time to create historical and social context — and — barring a few confusing moments, it works reasonably well. The trial scene of Dara — the twisted accusations of his Qazi inquisitor and Dara’s impassioned defence are worth the price of admission alone! ‘Who cares which door you open to enter the light’ he says despairingly.

In recent years there have been other well-meaning attempts to excavate and narrate the story of Dara: most notably ‘The trial of Dara Shikoh’ by the scholar Akbar S. Ahmed and ‘Dara, a play in verse’ by Rajmohan Gandhi, the historian grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. Given our penchant for celluloid history, hopefully a probing, politically- correct cinematic treatment will also follow.

The story of Dara needs a wider global audience. The epic struggle between him and Aurangzeb isn’t just a mere family quarrel, a sibling rivalry for power and glory. Their clash is of 21st century relevance, an in-house battle for the soul of Islam. It mirrors the conflict raging in every Muslim household today and the wider Islamic world. How do we practice the faith: fundamentalist, literalist, supremacist as represented by Aurangzeb or adaptive, interpretative and pluralist as personified by Dara?

With considerable hindsight, the noted historian Abraham Eraly (The Mughal Throne) writes: ‘We do not know what dreams Dara had for India but they certainly would not have been the same as the dreams of Aurangzeb; India was at the crossroads in the mid 17th century; it had the potential of moving forward with Dara or of turning back to medievalism with Aurangzeb. But India’s destiny lay with Auranzeb.’

Alas we will never know whether Dara would have ruled wisely or well. As for the historical verdict on Aurangzeb, the Jury is still out.

In our contemporary world, however, we are victims and witnesses of attempts by ‘Wannabe Aurangzebs,’ to create their distorted versions of 7th century utopias. Perhaps it is now time to forget Aurangzeb’s controversial legacy and banish his ghost. It is time to resuscitate and re-incarnate the spirit of his brother Dara, a truly Great Moghul. We cannot change the course of history, but we need not repeat it.

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