While visiting Yangon on January 25, 2012, Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan, insisted on visiting a very special monument, where he laid a floral wreath: the mausoleum of Bahadur Shah Zafar, commonly called Zafar (“Victory”), the last Mughal Emperor of India, who ruled from 1837-1857. The president also gave a US$50,000 cheque to the mausoleum’s caretaker.
He wrote in the visitors’ book: “I pay my tribute to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Emperor of the great Mughals, who saw the sun set on a majestic era, but never lost patience, never abandoned grace and never ceased being a mystical poet.” Why was this visit two years ago so important to the president of Pakistan?
Born in 1775 into the prestigious imperial Timurid dynasty (a Sunni Muslim Persianate dynasty of Turco-Mongol lineage), a famous Urdu poet, a devout patron and a refined calligrapher, Zafar became the Mughal Emperor at the late age of 62 when his father died on September 28, 1837. But he ruled as a puppet king; he never took much interest in public affairs. Rarely in history have poets made great generals.
Then, in 1857, came the first revolt of the Indians against the British occupation. Known as the Sepoy Mutiny, historians consider it the most important anti-colonial revolt of any launched against a European empire in the 19th century. Zafar found himself with part of his family exiled to Rangoon in British-controlled Burma.
Zafar publicly supported the rebellion almost in spite of himself. Against his will, Sepoys – native peasant-soldiers enrolled in the East India Company – made him their commander-in-chief, because they saw him as the only leader who could unite all Indians, Hindu and Muslim. Despite his protests, Zafar was implicated in the killings of 52 Europeans.
The British tried him for “treason” and “aiding rebels”, but in the eyes of the Indian nation Zafar became a heroic national freedom fighter. He was found guilty on all charges. Under these chaotic circumstances, the British would not compromise with the Mughal rulers. They sought to take over the country, and within a year had created the British Raj (1858-1947).
Zafar was not sentenced but exiled. He went with his wife, Empress Zeenat Mahal, and some remaining members of the imperial family, though most of them were killed post-haste in Delhi by the British Major William Hodson, who presented Zafar the decapitated heads of his three sons.
The former ruler’s departure from Delhi marked the end of a long era: the Mughal rule of the Indian sub-continent for more than three centuries, between the mid 16th and early 18th centuries. At its peak, the Mughal Muslim Empire, which originated in Persia, ruled about a quarter of the world’s population. Under it, the Indian economy remained prosperous. It had created a uniform currency and road system, unified the country and given rise to great cities. The Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, the Agra Fort and Shalimar Gardens in Lahore are among the finest examples of monuments built by the Mughals, most of which are now UNESCO World Heritage sites. It had been a period of great intellectual and artistic excitement, to which Zafar himself greatly contributed.
Zafar’s captors told him he would be shot “on the spot like a dog” if he attempted to escape. After five years of a very sad exile in colonial captivity, a wretched and frail Zafar died in Rangoon on November 7, 1862, at the age of 87, profoundly humiliated. Just before death he wrote, “Not to be heard, not a spirited song; I am the voice of anguish, a cry of colossal grief. […] Life comes to an end, dusk approaches; in peace I will sleep, sheltered by the grave.”
Soon after, in 1876, Britain’s Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. Hastily, the British buried Zafar according to Islamic rites. Later, his wife and granddaughter, Raunaq Zamani, were buried alongside him.
The British wanted Zafar’s tomb to be lost and forgotten, and hoped to leave no trace that could allow the body to be identified. Thus the exact place of Zafar’s grave was unknown for almost a century, though Yangon’s Muslims knew for a long time that the Emperor was buried somewhere within a definite compound to the south of Shwedagon Pagoda. Grass had covered the spot, which was surrounded by a simple bamboo fence.
On February 16, 1991, however, workers digging a drain for a new building stumbled upon the brick-lined tomb. It contained an inscription, and the body’s identity was quickly confirmed. To the excavators’ surprise, the almost intact skeleton of the Emperor was found wrapped in a silk shroud covered by floral petals only about three-and-a-half feet (one meter) under the ground. The anonymous tomb, much larger than most, laid in a north-south position.
A mausoleum, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s “Dargah” (Sufi shrine), was built a couple of years later at the precise place of the grave. The current hall, dedicated to the memory of Zafar, was inaugurated on December 15, 1994 by Myanmar’s minister for religious affairs, with the assistance of the Government of India and the presence of the Indian Ambassador. It’s been oft-visited ever since.
Finding Zafar’s Dargah at 6 Ziwaca Street near U Wisara Road in Dagon township – south from the Shwedagon Pagoda – isn’t difficult and definitely a worthwhile excursion, especially on the weekend. It is still a very busy place of pilgrimage today, notably for Myanmar’s Muslims, who honour Zafar as an “emperor-saint”, Indians, and any visitor interested in the history of the Mughals and the British Raj.
Beautiful prayers are daily said and sung in wide separate prayer rooms for men and women, who offer loads of flowers and fruits to their beloved emperor-saint. The walls of the two-storey mausoleum are covered with engraved marble plaques. Nine steps lead to a crypt, where men sing the Koran at the top of their lungs and play drums, swinging their bodies from right to left. A canteen welcomes the visitors under a mango tree in the entrance courtyard. The whole place is full of life.
Zafar’s eventful life, of course, is not the only case of an exiled monarch in the complex history of Burmese-Indian relations. In a strange irony, Thibaw, the last King of Burma (1878-1885), was exiled twenty-seven years later in the opposite direction – from Burma to Ratnagiri, India, having suffered defeat in the Third Anglo-Burmese War and forced to abdicate the throne. He died there in 1916.
For more on the subject of Zafar’s tragic destiny, William Dalrymple, a Scottish writer, has beautifully captured the story in his bestseller The Last Mughal.
Calls to bring the last Mughal Emperor’s body back to India and make a special burial for him in Mehrauli, a village near Delhi where his father and grandfather are buried, have grown since 2007, the 150th anniversary of the Indian Sepoy Mutiny. An active campaign started last year to have the remains returned, and an empty grave in a marble enclosure is ready to welcome him – a popular cause that accords with Zafar’s own last wish. Also, in 2009, a trust was launched in India to trace Zafar’s descendants. This is not the end of a story rich with unexpected developments.