“For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these—It might have been” –John Greenleaf Whittier
Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, had a dream about two of his grandchildren. Even though he had emerged as one of the most powerful emperors in the world, he had suffered more than his share of distress. He was involved in a failed revolt against his father and the humiliation which followed (1622-27). Then after this when he finally became emperor, his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal died just three years later (1631).
So Shah Jahan tried to find happiness in his small grandchildren. Two of them soon became his favorites. One was Suleiman Shikoh ( born eldest son of heir-designate Dara Shikoh). As he was the first grandchild, handsome and talented, Shah Jahan doted on him, calling him Potey Miyan. The other one was Zeb-un-Nissa, daughter of Shah Jahan’s other son, Aurangzeb. Beautiful and scholarly, curious to know many subjects, she easily endeared herself to the emperor.
As they grew up, the valor and courage of Suleiman was more on display, and so was the scholarship of his cousin Zeb, who started writing beautiful verse at a very young age, subsequently using the pen name Makhfi (hidden).
So the fond grandfather had this dream—when they grow up they would be married, and after Dara Shikoh has completed his tenure as King, this twosome would become the most talented and the grandest Mughal royals. Whether or not a formal betrothal was announced is not clear, but the emperor let his desire and plans be known well within the royal family.
However the implications of this proposed match went much beyond the affections of a fond grandfather. In fact if this marriage was realized, it could have a profound influence on the history of India. Suleiman had inherited from his father Dara a strong tendency to work for Hindu-Muslim unity and avoid any discriminative practices.
In the case of Zeb, her scholarship and extensive reading had led to the strong imprint of exceptionally liberal influences. Her closeness to Sufi philosophy is also reflected in her poetry. She could not live easily, despite getting his affection in the early days, in the puritan shadow of her father who was also discriminative and rigid in religious matters. While her father ( Aurangzeb) frowned against music as being contrary to his faith, Zeb gained quick recognition as a good singer.
So if Suleiman and Zeb were to actually become the Mughal king and queen one day, this would lead to a strengthening of the Mughal Empire based on growing unity of their Hindu and Muslim nobles and population. Dara Shikoh had also befriended the Seventh Sikh Guru, a path which his son Suleiman was likely to follow, preparing the ground for even wider unity.
Unfortunately a big hitch gradually emerged in this (at one time almost certain) marriage proposal in the form of the rapidly increasing gulf between the two fathers Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb. The differences appeared to be soon taking the form of enmity. Once Shah Jahan fell ill, Aurangzeb with two other brothers Murad and Shuja revolted.
Shah Jahan and Dara now planned their defense against this revolt. Suleiman, just 22 at this time (1657), took command of a strong force which was sent to confront Shuja near Varanasi. Despite betrayal by an important general, Suleiman earned honors by inflicting a humiliating defeat on Shuja.
Dara led the second force against the combined army of Aurangzeb and Murad. Dara showed much valor at times, but to tell the truth, he was more at home with the pen than the sword and squandered many chances. This as well as betrayal by some led to his defeat. He was humiliated and executed, all in the absence of Suleiman, whose forces were not allowed the time to join his father’s forces, again due to the father’s poor understanding of military matters and the resulting poor planning.
As Aurangzeb became the new emperor, Suleiman found his soldiers deserting him at regular intervals even as Aurangzeb was in hot pursuit. With very few supporters left he sought refuge with the king of Garhwal Raja Prithvichand. The valiant Raja protected his guest till the last, but Aurangzeb managed to get Suleiman deported to him by using deceit. The brave prince was imprisoned, then executed in a jail in Gwalior.
The young prince was widely mourned at the time of his death at the age of only 22, as he was much loved by his people. His death certainly hurt Zeb deeply, and she never married. There was further distress in store for her.
Aurangzeb had started growing distant from his much loved daughter. Her poetry which his spies brought to Aurangzeb appeared to him to speak of some secret love and longing. The puritan father simmered with suspicion—Does she have a secret lover, or is she still longing for that rebel Suleiman?
Matters came to a head when it appeared that she appeared to be siding with her brother Muhammad Akbar who had revolted against his father. Like Zeb, Akbar too was once a much loved child of Aurangzeb. He grew up to be a good warrior and was sent to subdue Rajput kings who were growing restive under the new discriminative Mughal king. Akbar instead teamed up with them and condemning his father’s narrow discriminative policies, rose in revolt. It was not easy to challenge the Mughal empire, however, and Akbar had to next go to the Maratha king Sambhaji and when things did not work out there too he had to go into self-exile in Persia, his escape there helped by Sambhaji.
In the course of pursuing Akbar, forces of Aurangzeb discovered some correspondence between Akbar and his sister Zeb which appeared to indicate her support for him.
Aurangzeb flew into a rage and Zeb was sent to a prison in Delhi where she languished for 20 years before dying in 1702 at the age of 64. However she lives still in her poetry as collections of her over 500 verses still find admirers in South Asia, Iran and elsewhere.
This then is the tragic story of two very talented Mughals whose potential was not allowed to be realized by cruel circumstances and persons–two beautiful flowers that were crushed before they could bloom in all their beauty.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Navjeevan and Man over Machine.