The last days of Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar in Burma

By Dr. Syed Ahmed for,

Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, during his recent visit to Myanmar (erstwhile Burma), offered floral tributes at the memorial of last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar which lies at 6 Ziwaka Road in Dagon, Yangon. Prime Minister, accompanied by his wife Gursharan Kaur and External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, offered prayer at the graveyard/mazar of the former ruler, who died four years after he was exiled to Yangon following his defeat in the 1857 war of independence.

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It has been a tradition for the dignitaries from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to pay their visit to the graveyard of the Mughal emperor and pay their respect. It is said that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose started his “Delhi Chalo” campaign in 1942 after paying his respect to the former emperor. Rajiv Gandhi during his official visit to Myanmar in Dec. 1987 paid his tribute to the grave. He wrote in the visitor’s book placed at the grave: “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 Zafar [Photo Courtesy:]

The Great Uprising of 1857

Bahadur Shah was 82 years old and in poor health when the revolting sepoys from Meerut stormed into the palace on 11 May 1857. According to William Dalrymple (The Last Mughal, 2006), 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. 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 honour, 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 Barrackpur from January to May 1857, and then spread to Lucknow, Allahabad, Ghaziabad, Delhi, Allahabad, Kanpur, Jhansi, Gwalior, Bareilley, 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 strong hand. Poets and princes, mullahs and merchants, Sufis and scholars were hunted down and hanged. 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 drove out of India.

Bahadur Shah surrendered on 21 Sept. 1857. The next day, Major William Hodson set out to Humayun 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. Since the incident the outpost came to be known as Khooni Darwaza. Hodson paid the price for his misdeeds. A few months after the shoot-out, 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.

Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh signing the visitor’s book during his visit to the Mazar of Bahadur Shah Zafar, in Yangon, Myanmar on May 29, 2012.

Last Days of Bahadur Shah

Bahadur Shah’s trial began on 27 Jan. 1858 and ended on 9 Mar. 1858. The trial recommended the transportation of Bahadur Shah to Burma. In Oct 1858, Bahadur Shah accompanied, according to William Dalrymple, 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 then 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 was performed without informing anyone. The janajah was performed by an old Moulana along with the two princes. After a week Nelson Davies informed about the death of the emperor to the higher officials in London. 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 one of his couplet Bahadur Shah had lamented on the irony of his fate thus:

Umr-e-daraaz maang ke laye the char din/Do aarzu mein kat gaye, do intezar mein
Hai kitna badnasseb Zafar dafn ke liye/Do gaz zameen bhi mil na saki koo-e-yaar mein.
Na kisii kii ankh ka nur na kisii ke dil ka qarar hun/Jo kisii ke kam na a sake main vo ek musht-e-Gubar hun
Na to main kisii ka habiib hun na to main kisii ka raqiib hun/Jo bigar gaya vo nasiib hun jo ujar gaya vo dayar hun
hamane duniyaa mein aake kyaa dekha/dekhaa jo kucch so Khvaab-saa dekhaa/hai to insaan Khaak kaa putlaa/lekin paanii ka bulbulaa dekhaa)

I had requested for a long life a life of four days/Two passed by in pining, and two in waiting/How unlucky is Zafar! For burial/Even two yards of land were not to be had, in the land (of the) beloved./My life gives no ray of light, I bring no solace to heart or eye/Out of dust to dust again, of no use to anyone am I/Barred the door of the fate for me, bereft of my dear ones am I/The spring of a flower garden ruined/Alas, my autumn wind am I/I came into the world and what did I see?/Whatever I saw was just like a dream/Man is moulded from clay but/I saw him as a bubble of water.

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.

Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh and his wife Smt. Gursharan Kaur pray after offering chadar at the Mazar of Bahadur Shah Zafar, in Yangon, Myanmar on May 29, 2012.

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 became uncertain. In 1905 the Muslims of Rangoon protest demanding that the grave of Bahadur Shah should be marked. The British authorities agreed in 1907 and a railing was also erected around an supposed site of the grave, and the engraved stone slab, 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,” was placed.

Surprisingly, in Feb. 1991 labourers while digging a drain at the back of the 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 earlier supposed graveyard of the emperor. This original graveyard has over the years become a popular place of pilgrimage for the Burmese Muslims. The local Muslims, who believed Bahadur Shah as a powerful saint, come to seek his spiritual blessing and favours. A prayer hall was also 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.

[Photo Courtesy: PIB]