The Two Mughal Princes Who Stood in the Way of the British East India Company

From William Dalrymple's Cundill Prize-Nominated The Anarchy

As Siraj ud-Daula was marching south to exert his authority on the Company, 1,000 miles inland another young Mughal prince, also in his early thirties and whose destiny would also be fatally entangled with that of Clive and the Company, was trying to exert his authority in the Jat stronghold of Hansi, some hundred miles to the west of Delhi.

The prince, an affable and humane intellectual and litterateur, “good to the point of weakness,” according to the Comte de Modave, was not really cut out for a punitive expedition, and his passage was marked by rather less success than that of the ruthless and bloodthirsty Siraj ud-Daula.

Prince Ali Gauhar, Shah Alam, was a tall, handsome, well-built man gifted with all the charm, sensitivity and learning that Siraj ud-Daula lacked. He was no soldier, but he was an exceptional poet in several languages; it was in this field, rather than in the arts of war, that his interests lay, even though he was personally renowned as courageous in battle and a fine swordsman.

Jean Law, who wrote so scathingly of Siraj ud-Daula, came close to describing the young Shah Alam as a perfect prince: “He is above average height with attractive features, but a surprisingly dark complexion,” he wrote.

The Shahzada has had the best education and has benefited greatly from it. All that I observed seemed favorable. He is well versed in the Oriental tongues, and in history. He is familiar with the Arabic, Persian, Turki and Hindustani languages. He loves reading and never passes a day without employing some hours in it . . . He is of an enquiring mind, naturally gay and free in his private society, where he frequently admits his principal military officers in whom he has confidence. I have often had this honor.

It was the Prince’s ill fate that he was born during an era when naked aggression and brute force seemed to yield more reliable results than either charm or conciliation. As he put it himself,

through the perfidiousness of the nobility and vassals, this anarchy has arisen, and everyone proclaims himself a sovereign in his own place, and they are at variance with one another, the strong prevailing over the weak . . . His Majesty’s sacred heart is exceedingly disturbed to reflect that if he does not vindicate the honor of his own family and Empire, it will lessen his dignity in the eyes of those who follow appearances alone . . . In this age of delusion and deceit, His Majesty places no dependence on the services or professions of loyalty of anyone.

Since the dramatic contraction of the Empire during the reign of Muhammad Shah Rangila two decades earlier, the hinterlands of Shahjahanabad had succumbed to a feral, dog-eat-dog disorder, where every village was now a self sufficient, fortified republic, at war with its neighbors. As the Mughals gave little or no assistance to these village republics in times of trouble and invasion, the villagers saw no reason to pay their taxes.

The prince’s job, according to the Shah Alam Nama, was “to chastise those villainous Rajas who had stepped outside of the pale of obedience and those Zamindars who, out of the darkness of their hearts, had turned rebellious, so that they should be reprimanded and brought in line.” It did not work out quite like that. When the prince tried to get Hansi to submit and pay its dues, the townsmen merely shut their gates, then attacked and robbed his camp under cover of darkness.

Shah Alam had been born in the Red Fort, a grandson of the Emperor Bahadur Shah I. He was brought up and educated in the prince’s “cage”—the salatin quarters of the Red Fort where the princes were raised in some comfort, but with no freedom to leave their prison. He was only 12 when Nader Shah rode into Delhi and looted the Mughals of almost all their treasures; and he grew up constantly aware of what his dynasty had lost to the Persians, Afghans and Marathas, and the urgent need to rebuild.

But in 1753, rather than coming together and fighting back, the Mughals had destroyed themselves yet again in a new civil war which brought to a close any foreseeable hope of an imperial recovery.

Following a court conspiracy against him, the Vizier Safdar Jung, Nawab of Avadh, had battled it out in the streets of Delhi with his former protégé, the 16-year-old Imad ul-Mulk, the teenage megalomaniac grandson of Nizam ul-Mulk. The civil war between the old vizier and his teenage replacement raged across the suburbs of the city for six months, from March to November, with the old and new cities of Delhi held by rival factions.

At 17 Imad ul-Mulk decided to depose his other great patron, the Emperor himself.

The fighting reduced the space between them to ruins. The poet Sauda wrote that the danger of assault was now always present in Delhi so that even in the middle of Shahjahanabad, men would go out fully armed in the evening to mushairas[poetry recitals] as though they were heading into battle: “See the perverted justice of the age!” he wrote. “The wolves roam free: the shepherds are in chains.”

The new vizier had been brought up by his puritan father, Ghazi ud-Din, with great strictness and austerity, spending his days under the care of tutors and mullahs, and on the Friday Muslim Sabbath with the company of only eunuchs. He was never allowed to mix with children of his own age or attend performances by musicians and dancing girls. The result was precocious intellectual achievement; but this was undermined by unbounded ambition and profound amorality that led to his turning on all who helped him, starting with his patron Safdar Jung.

The latter had earlier intervened to save Imad’s family estates on the death of his father and had him appointed at the age of 16 to the important court position of imperial paymaster. “To all appearances, the young Imad ul-Mulk was a handsome young man with a charming and amiable manner,” wrote Jean Law. “Safdar Jung regarded him like his own son and could scarcely have imagined he was actually nursing a serpent at his breast.”

His natural charm and talent enabled him to achieve complete domination over the mind of the Emperor . . .and he had absolutely no scruples with respect to honor when it was a question of attaining his objective and was quite ready to  sacrifice his benefactor . . .

His conduct was marked only by an extreme cunning and revolting cruelty. He is always seen with a rosary in his hands, but his apparent piety was like that of Aurangzeb—nothing but sheer hypocrisy. Piety is most to be feared when it is carried to excess. Barely confirmed in his appointment as Vizier, he now plotted against all who had served him best.

Safdar Jung’s Old Delhi stronghold—the area around Purana Qila—was looted and destroyed, never to recover. According to Ghulam Hussain Khan, “Old Delhi, which used to be even wealthier and more populous than the new city, Shahjahanabad, was plundered and sacked so thoroughly that an infinity of people lost their consorts and children, and were totally ruined, besides numbers that were massacred.”

Eventually he had no option but to retreat back to Avadh. Safdar Jung never recovered, and “his shock and grief at his fall sent him to an early grave” less than a year later.

Having successfully conspired to bring down his first benefactor, Safdar Jung, at the tender age of 16, at 17 Imad ul-Mulk decided to depose his other great patron, the Emperor himself. Emperor Ahmad Shah Gurgani and his mother, the Qudsia Begum, were found hiding in the garden in front of the Rang Mahal of the Red Fort. They were both thrown into prison, and Imad ul-Mulk had their eyes slit with hot needles.

In Ahmad Shah’s place, Imad ul-Mulk chose as his puppet the 55-year-old Alamgir II, who had no experience of government and who he knew he could control. From the beginning Alamgir was, as Law put it, “more slave than king.”

So it was at the age of 26 that Shah Alam, the eldest son of Alamgir II, suddenly found himself freed from the salatin “cage” and appointed the heir apparent of the crumbling Empire. He was given the titles Ali Gauhar and Shah Alam, Exalted of Lineage, Lord of the World, and forced to take an interest in politics as well as his first and most personal passion of poetics.

But it was still literature that lay at the heart of his world. Under the pen name “Aftab,” the prince became a prolific and respected author in Urdu, Persian, Punjabi and especially Braj Bhasha, in which language he wrote copious, passionate odes to Lord Krishna, Shiva and to goddesses Kali and Sarasvati; many of his works were later gathered at his own request in a diwan(collection) he entitled the Nadirat-i-Shahi.

He also later composed a dastan romance entitled the Aja’ib al-Qasas. Shah Alam was a Sufi by inclination. In contrast to his father, the Emperor Alamgir II, a strict puritan who followed the narrow path of the new Emperor Aurangzeb, Shah Alam believed that God could be found not in the rituals of the mosque, but in all the wonders of God’s creation:

Don’t waste your time in the mosque and the Ka’ba, oh Mullah,
Go and search for the footprints of the divine beloved everywhere.

Throughout his life, Shah Alam was a particular devotee of the great Sufi Qu’tb ud-Din Baktiar Khaki, whose shrine was in the middle of the Mughal monsoon resort of Mehrauli. Steeped in Sufi literature and thought, his verses often make the link between the earthly fecundity of the monsoon, the season of joy, love and longing, and the Sufi spirituality of his favorite saint.

His favorite raag, or musical mode, was the now lost monsoon raag, Raag Gaund, which was designed to be sung in the rains and to evoke its many pleasures:

Oh the season for meeting my dear has come!
The frog, peafowl, and cuckoo are calling; the koyal is crying.
The rains and the waters, the thunder roars and the clouds gather,
now our eyes are longing to drink
The lightning flashes and shakes my very life; my dear, how will you
The great beauty of the green earth pleases, and the clouds circle
all around
This pauper makes his pilgrimage to beg a boon of lord Qu’tb

Yet amid these Sufi reveries, the prince was becoming increasingly fearful of the very man who had just brought his father to power. The Vizier Imad ul-Mulk, nearly a decade his junior, made no secret of his jealousy of the handsome Crown Prince.

According to the Shah Alam Nama, Imad ul-Mulk, “whose heart was full of malice and deceit, could never tolerate anybody else enjoying success. The immense popularity of the Prince was not something that he countenanced with any pleasure. In fact, it displeased him greatly. He set about scheming and plotting. His evil ways caused a discord in the whole realm. The thorn of his tyranny created mayhem in the garden of the kingdom and his dark soul brought desolation in the realm.”

So when, in the middle of Ramadan, at the height of the April heats, Imad ul-Mulk summoned Shah Alam back from his expedition to Hansi, larding him with flattery and saying he wished to honor him in the Red Fort, the prince was understandably suspicious. He was particularly nervous as in truth it was not just taxes he had been collecting in Hansi.

According to the Mughal chronicler Khair ud-Din, “The Emperor resented the almighty airs and graces of Imad ul-Mulk and even more so his own dependence on him, so he began cultivating anyone at court who was in any way alienated from him. Within a short time, relations between them became patently acrimonious, which led to disorder and corruption in the body politic.”

The Emperor gave leave to Shah Alam to come out of the Red Fort, ostensibly to re-establish royal authority in Hansi and the surrounding districts to gather taxes, while secretly giving him instructions to raise a sizeable army in order to counter any hostile intentions on the part of Imad ul-Mulk, and to use his brave and devoted warriors to take the wind out of that wretch’s sails.

The prince slowly returned to Delhi, anxiously considering his options, stopping to camp at several Mughal gardens on the way and making a pilgrimage to pray at his favorite shrine in Mehrauli. Several friends at court had ridden out to Haryana to warn him to be very careful, telling him that he was walking into a trap.

They told him that Imad ul-Mulk, far from wishing to honor him, actually intended instead to cast him back into the salatin “cage” from which he had been so recently released, as soon as he stepped inside the Red Fort. All the while, Imad ul-Mulk continued his charm offensive, sending messages of welcome and friendship, and “large trays of cooked delicacies, pots of flowers and boxes of paan,” telling him he was waiting to receive him in the Red Fort.

But the prince, increasingly suspicious, sidestepped the ambush and instead took up residence in the great mansion of Ali Mardan Khan on the northern edge of the city, part of which had once been used as a library by the Sufi prince Dara Shukoh.

“Imad al-Mulk pretended to make friends with the Prince and continued to flatter him,” wrote Khair ud-Din. “Eventually Shah Alam decided to make it look as if he had swallowed these deceptively flattering proposals.”

As Imad ul-Mulk had suggested, he sent off some of his troops to his revenue-estates, to put them in order, and to gather taxes to pay the troops’ salaries. But his most reliable followers he kept by his side. He stationed the infantry and cavalry guards in his service and posted jezail-marksmen and musketeers on the battlements, towerbastions and the fortified entrance gateway, where he installed rocket operators and watchmen.

For a fortnight Imad ul-Mulk tried to lull him into a false sense of security; then one day, he announced that he would ride out with a company on a pious visit to the shrine of Qadam Sharif, the Prophet’s Footstep [just to the north of where the prince was staying]. There was little water in the Jumna, so they approached the mansion of Ali Mardan Khan across the fording place of the river, and through the markets towards the main entrance gateway.

They surrounded it from all four directions, like a ring surrounds a finger. Stationing his own troops around the perimeter of Ali Mardan Khan’s mansion, ostensibly as a guard of honor, Imad ul-Mulk then ordered his men to take the Prince into custody. The troops attacked the mansion from all sides, some breaking through the walls, others climbing onto the roofs and firing their muskets down into the courtyards. Some of the Prince’s companions offered a desperate resistance and were mown down.

According to Ghulam Hussain Khan, the prince “had only a few men left with him, but these were determined and resolute.”

Mounting their horses, they advanced on the back part of the house, where there was a certain breach in the wall which looked down on the river, and falling unexpectedly on their enemies, they in a moment cut their passage through them, strewing the ground with their dead.

The Prince slew two men with his own hands, and he behaved throughout the whole action with so much personal prowess and heroic conduct, that the heroes of old times would have bit the finger of astonishment had they witnessed his valor. The enemies ashamed to see their prey ready to escape, crowded after them and pursued hotly. In this extremity that intrepid troop turned about, rushed upon their pursuers, raising their swords as if they were battle-standards and put the foremost to flight, killing many of them.

By evening, numbers were beginning to tell against the prince: he had only 400 companions, while Imad ul-Mulk had over 1,500 troops, including 60 European mercenaries equipped with the latest muskets; the prince’s troops, in comparison, were mainly armed with “the lance, the sabre and the bow.”

“Then Mir Jafar and Ali Azam Khan, who were among the bravest, spoke to the Prince to fire him up to fight his way out, resolving”:

Let us be ready for death and make a sudden attack on the enemy. If successful, we will break many skulls and necks, and make our escape; otherwise, we will go down in the annals of the brave with eternal honor. The Prince was seated, listening eagerly, and, roused by his companions’ words, rose with a few fearless fighters to enter the fray, fighting heroically, cutting down many of the enemy. His companions’ bravery came to the rescue in the midst of the cut and thrust: rapidly and skillfully, they began their escape from the melee.

But on the way out of the gully, their enemies crowded around them, wounded the Prince’s horse, and tried their utmost to get hold of the Prince’s person. Ali Azam Khan, with his accustomed bravery, called out to the Prince: “Shah Alam you are destined one day to be a resource to an infinity of people, and your life is therefore more precious today than ours. Run forward and gain some distance; I will undertake meanwhile to stop the enemy until you have outdistanced them. I will fight and clear a passage for your escape, even at the cost of my life!”

So saying, he jumped off his horse and stood bravely fighting manifold enemies like a roaring lion; wounded many times oveR, at last he fell to the ground.

By this time, the Prince had ridden on some way out of the town and passed out of the grasp of his enemies; he eventually reached the military camp of his [Maratha] friend, Athil Rao, who lauded his bravery and ordered tents erected for the Prince and his companions. After entertaining the Prince and his party for some days, he accompanied them eastwards to Farrukhabad, where he was offered a tribute-gift of 3 lakhs Rupees. The Prince passed on to the territories of the Rohillas, who hastened to welcome the royal party, providing hospitality as custom required.

The prince waited at Farrukhabad for a few days hoping that more of his supporters would join him. Knowing now that Imad ul-Mulk would stop at nothing to have him killed, the prince decided not to return to Delhi but instead he “resolved to move East so that he could take charge of Bengal and Bihar [Purab] which were prosperous and rich provinces.”

These he resolved to try to take back from the control of the Nawab governors who had stopped sending their proper dues to Delhi. “This world,” he announced, “is like a garden of flowers interspersed with weeds and thorns, I shall therefore resolve to root out the bad that the faithful and good among my people may rest in quietness.”

The prince fully expected the uncertainty and pain of the life of the exile, and “turned his face to the path of the wilderness in sole reliance on God.” He was not optimistic about his chances but was determined to do what he could to regain his inheritance.

According to the Shah Alam Nama, Imad ul-Mulk, “whose heart was full of malice and deceit, could never tolerate anybody else enjoying success.

Yet as soon as word spread of his bravery in Delhi, and it became known that a new young, popular and dashing Mughal prince was intent on heading eastwards to restore the Empire and end the half-century of anarchy, followers began to travel across Hindustan to join this new Akbar.

What was at first just a trickle grew into a torrent and then a flood; before long the prince found himself being supported by many old Mughal families whose fortunes had been wrecked by half a century of civil war. According to Ghulam Hussain Khan, within a few months of his leaving Delhi nearly 30,000 troops had rallied to his standard.

Among these was Ghulam Hussain’s own father, whom the queen, Zinat Mahal, Shah Alam’s mother, had secretly sent from the Red Fort to act as his adviser: “The Prince had with him several persons of character and distinction, all attached to his fortune; but all in as much distress as their master.”

On the Imperial Prince first coming out of Shahjahanabad, his circumstances were initially so distressing and his poverty so complete, that few would think of assisting him or following his fortunes. Everyone was, besides, in dread of the Vizier Imad ul-Mulk’s resentment . . .

But my father undertook to prepare some field equipage with some other necessaries, and to bring into his service, on the fame of this expedition, and in the hopes of bettering their fortunes, as many disbanded Mughal soldiers as they could persuade to join them.

As soon as it became certain that Shah Alam intended an expedition into the provinces of Bihar and Bengal, and that he was imminently coming to Azimabad [Patna], there was not an inhabitant who on the strength of the good government which they had formerly experienced from the Prince’s ancestors, did not pray for victory to him, and for prosperity to his undertaking.

They seemed to have but one mouth and one heart on that subject, though not one of them had yet received any favor from him, or tasted the crumbs that might have fallen from the table of His Goodness.

But in truth, Shah Alam was already too late. The Bengal he was heading to was in the process of being changed for ever by a new force in Indian politics: the East India Company and, in particular, the machinations of Robert Clive.


From The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, used with permission by Bloomsbury.

William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple is the bestselling author of In Xanadu, City of Djinns, From the Holy Mountain, The Age of Kali, White Mughals, The Last Mughal and, most recently, Nine Lives. He has won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award, the Ryszard Kapuscinski Award for Literary Reportage, the Hemingway Prize, the French Prix d'Astrolabe, the Wolfson Prize for History, the Scottish Book of the Year Award, the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, the Asia House Award for Asian Literature, the Vodafone Crossword Award and has three times been longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize. In 2012 he was appointed Whitney J. Oates Visiting Fellow in Humanities at Princeton University. He lives with his wife and three children on a farm outside Delhi.

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