Yangon, The Irawaddy/TwoCircles.net, November 7: Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor of India, died on this day in 1862, aged 87, as a prisoner of British in Yangon (then Rangoon) in British-controlled Myanmar (then Burma). Following the emperor’s involvement in the Sepoy (trooper) mutiny and general uprising in 1857-58 against British rule, the 82-year-old monarch and his family were exiled to Lower Burma.
Leaving behind his tattered sandstone palace in Delhi’s Red Fort, the prolific Urdu poet and pious Muslim king led a low-profile life in a small wooden house near Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon for four years until his death.
The British buried the Mughal emperor in an unmarked grace hoping that the tomb would be traced and become an object of veneration and an inspiration for another revolt. The tomb was discovered only in 1991, 129 years after his death. A two-story mausoleum was constructed in 1994 on Zi Wa Ka Road in Dagon Township. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have visited the mausoleum.
Here is a detailed story of Bahadur Shah’s last days by Dr. Syed Ahmed published in TwoCircles.net on May 31, 2012: Dr.Syed Ahmed noted that the then Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, during his visit to Myanmar offered floral tributes at the memorial of last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar which lies at 6 Ziwaka Road in Dagon, Yangon. The Prime Minister, accompanied by his wife Gursharan Kaur and External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, offered prayer at the graveyard/or mazar of the former ruler.
It has been a tradition for the dignitaries from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to pay a visit to the graveyard of the Mughal emperor and pay their respects. It is said that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose started his “Delhi Chalo” campaign in 1942 after paying his respects to the former emperor. Rajiv Gandhi during his official visit to Myanmar in December 1987 paid tribute at the grave. He wrote in the visitor’s book: “Although you (Bahadur Shah) do not have land in India, you have it here, your name is alive… I pay homage to the memory of the symbol and rallying point of India’s first war of independence….”
Bahadur Shah was 82 years old and in poor health when the revolting sepoys (Indian troopers in the British Indian army) from Meerut stormed into his palace in the Red Fort on 11 May 1857. According to William Dalrymple (The Last Mughal, 2006), the sepoys and cavalrymen from Meerut numbering 300 rode into Delhi in the morning and massacred Christian men, women and children they could find in the city, and proclaimed Bahadur Shah as their leader and emperor of India.
Bahadur Shah gave his blessing to the sepoys. A.G. Noorani (Indian Political Trails 1775-1947) writes: “Bahadur Shah was the one around whom both the communities rallied as a symbol of revolt and unity…In him have still been centered the hopes and aspirations of millions. They have looked upon him as the source of honor, and, more than this, he has proved the rallying point not only to Muhammadans, but to thousands of others with whom it was supposed no bond of fanatical union could possibly be established.”
The outbreak started in Meerut and Barrackpore near Calcutta from January to May 1857, and then spread to Lucknow, Allahabad, Ghaziabad, Delhi, Allahabad, Kanpur, Jhansi, Gwalior, Bareilly, Madras, Bombay, and several places in Punjab. Leaders like Nana Sahib, Tantia Tope, Bhakt Khan, Azimullah Khan, Rani Laxmi Bai, Begum Hazrat Mahal, Kunwar Singh, Maulvi Ahmadullah, Bahadur Khan, Rao Tula Ram and Raja Nahar Singh of Punjab led the local uprisings.
Within 4 months, the uprising was crushed by the British with a heavy hand. Poets and princes, mullahs and merchants, Sufis and scholars were hunted down and hanged in thousands. Palaces, mosques, shrines, gardens and houses of Mughal Delhi were destroyed. The properties of the Muslims were confiscated. All the leaders of the uprising were either killed or driven out of India.
Bahadur Shah surrendered on 21 Sept. 1857. The next day, Major William Hodson set out to Humayun’s Tomb to arrest his sons, Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizr Sultan, and his grandson, Mirza Abu Bakr. Hodson took the princes to Sher Shah Suri’s outpost, then known as Kabuli Darwaza or Lal Darwaza. They were stripped naked and shot dead. Since that incident the outpost came to be known as Khooni Darwaza. Hodson paid the price for his misdeeds. A few months after the shooting he was killed at Begum Kothi in Lucknow on 11 Mar. 1858.
With the arrest of Bahadur Shah the four centuries of Mughal rule in India came to an end and the Mughal emperor was made a prisoner. He was brought to the walled city and kept under house arrest. Sadly, the poet was not given even a pen to write while in captivity. He scribbled some of his last verses on the wall with a burnt stick.
Bahadur Shah’s trial began on 27 Jan. 1858 and ended on 9 Mar. 1858. The judges recommended the transportation of Bahadur Shah to Burma. In Oct 1858, Bahadur Shah, accompanied by his wife Zinat Mahal and 2 sons Mirza Jiwan Bhakt and Mirza Shah Abbas and daughter-in-law and wife of Jawan Bhakt, Shah Zamani Begum (generally referred to as Raunaq Zamani, the granddaughter of the emperor), who all chose to follow the emperor departed from Delhi for Calcutta, where they were placed on board a warship called Magara and taken to Rangoon.
In Burma, British Commissioner Captain H. Nelson Davies received Bahadur Shah and his family. The family was lodged in a quarter near the Shwe Dagon Pagoda under the supervision of Nelson Davies. The family was provided 4 rooms each of 16 ft. sq., one allotted for Bahadur Shah, another for Jawan Bhakt and his wife Zamani Begum, the rest for Zinat Mahal and Shah Abbas. Pen, ink and paper were completely forbidden. The family was provided 4 Indian attendants (a chaprasi, water carrier, washer-man and a sweeper).
Bahadur Shah died on Nov. 7, 1862 at the ripe old age of 87. Fearing another revolt the last rites of the emperor were performed without informing anyone. The Janaza was performed by an old Moulana along with the two princes. After a week, Nelson Davies informed London about the death of the emperor. He wrote in his letter: “Have since visited the remaining State Prisoners- the scum of the reduced Asiatic harem; found all correct…The death of the ex-king may be said to have no effect on the Mohamedan part of the populace of Rangoon, except perhaps for a few final triumph of Islam. A bamboo fence surrounds the grave, and by the time the fence is worn out, the grass will again have properly covered the spot, and no vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Moghuls rests.”
The news of the death of Bahadur Shah reached Delhi a fortnight later.
In 1867 the family of Bahadur Shah was allowed to leave the prison enclosure and to settle elsewhere in the Rangoon cantonment. The long confinement made Shah Zamani Begum, who was just around 15 years old, became seriously ill suffering from extreme depression. She started getting blind. To improve her condition she along with her husband was given another house not far from the Rangoon jail. By 1872 Shah Zamani Begum became completely blind. Mirza Shah Abbas married a girl from Rangoon, a daughter of a local Muslim merchant. His descendants still live in Rangoon today. Zinat Mahal lived on alone, comforting her loneliness with opium. She died in 1886. Her body was buried near her husband’s grave. Few years later Mirza Jawan Bakht died of stroke. He was 42.
A delegation of visitors from India visited Burma in 1903 to pay their respects at the burial place of Bahadur Shah. By then, due to long years of neglect, the exact location of the graves of Bahadur Shah and his wife was uncertain. In 1905 the Muslims of Rangoon protested demanding that the grave of Bahadur Shah be marked. The British authorities agreed in 1907 and a railing was erected around the supposed site of the grave, and engraved stone slabs marked, “Bahadur Shah, the ex-king of Delhi died at Rangoon Nov. 7th 1862 and was buried near this spot” and “Zinath Mahal wife of Bahadur Shah who died on the 17th July 1886 is also buried near this stone,” were placed.
Accidentally in February 1991, laborers digging a drain at the back of the Shwe Dagon shrine uncovered the original brick-lined grave of Bahadur Shah. It was found 3 feet under the ground, and about 25 feet away from the supposed graveyard of the emperor.
Over the years, the original graveyard had become a place of pilgrimage for Burmese Muslims. Local Muslims, who believed that Bahadur Shah was a powerful saint, would come to seek his spiritual blessing and favors. A prayer hall was constructed in front of the graveyard with Indian assistance, which was inaugurated on 15 Dec. 1994. Today the graveyard is managed by a trust named Bahadur Shah Zafar Mausoleum Committee. Before the military takeover in Myanmar, the shrine was managed by a trust set up by the descendants of Bahadur Shah.