Historical Figures® News: Shah Jahan: The Blood Behind the Glitter

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Shah Jahan: The Blood Behind the Glitter

A history resource article by  © 2014 reprinted with permission 

George Stuart's multimedia sculpture of Shah Jahan
admiring the 56-carat Blue Table Diamond embedded in an
ornamental pin designed for his turban.
 Photographed at
the Museum of Ventura County in Ventura, CA
A few months ago when I visited the "Diamonds Are Forever" exhibit at the Museum of Ventura County in Ventura, California, it was a treat to see George Stuart's latest 1/4 scale sculpture of Shah Jahan, the ruler of the Mughal Empire at its zenith in 1627 CE.  The sculpture, modeled after a miniature painting of the fabulously wealthy Shah serenely contemplating the beauty of the 56 carat Table Diamond,  belies the ruthless nature of this warrior king, however.

Yes, Shah Jahan is the ruler famous for building the breathtaking Taj Mahal as a memorial tribute to his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.  This is the same Shah Jahan who reveled in wearing a special velvet brocade from Ahmadabad (that only he was allowed to use) and a qaba made of gold with blossoms fashioned from jewels  and fastened with pearls.  This Shah also ordered the interior of his palaces to be decorated with mosaics made from pieces of mirror so candlelight in the evening would produce a shimmering, hypnotic effect and ordered the construction of over a thousand gardens. His elegant palaces were embellished with delicate floral motifs embedded with jewels .  But, love was hardly a hallmark of his rise to power, thanks in part to his fierce Mongol and Turkic forefathers and the complex machinations of the Mughal royal court.

Shah Jahan's ancestry was no ordinary birthright. He was descended from the merciless Mongol invader, Ghengis Khan, on his mother's side and on his father's side the infamous Amir Timur, known as Tamberlane to the Western world. Scarcely less notorious for his barbarism than the Mongols, the Turkish ruler had invaded Hindustan in 1398, massacred its inhabitants and brought back riches beyond his wildest dreams: trays of gold and carved ivory and mounds of jewels – rubies, pearls, emeralds, turquoise, topaz and cat's eye, and diamonds said to be so valuable they might have fed the world for a day. - PBS, The Mughal Dynasty

To gain the Mughal throne, Shah Jahan, originally Prince Khurram, third son of the fourth Mughal emperor, Jahangir, and grandson to the legendary emperor Akbar the Great, would need every ounce of his ancestors' fierce resolve as he ordered the deaths of two (possibly three) brothers, two nephews and all remaining male Timurid cousins to remove any possible contenders to the throne by the time of his succession.



This familial bloodshed was a direct result of Shah Jahan's father, Jahangir, not naming an heir before his death and the lack of primogeniture (succession determined by birth order) in Mughal culture.

The first of Shah Jahan's siblings to fall was his eldest brother, Khusrau Mirza.  Prince Khusrau is said to have had an amiable disposition that endeared him to his grandfather, Akbar, and the liberal party within the Mughal court.  As his father, Jahangir's excessive indulgence in wine and opium became increasingly debilitating, powerful factions within the Mughal court favored Khusrau as the successor to his grandfather, Akbar, instead of Khusrau's father, Jahangir.

Mughal Emperor Jahangir receives a prisoner. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The tension at court became so intense  that Khusrau's mother, the Hindu princess Man Bai (later called Shah Begam), her heart torn between her husband and her son, committed suicide on May 16, 1604.  Meanwhile Jahangir reconciled with the aging Emperor Akbar, who then appointed Jahangir his official successor shortly before Akbar's death on October 17, 1605.  This left Prince Khusrau flapping in the wind so to speak.

Now Emperor Jahangir placed Khusrau "under strict surveillance" (imprisoned) in Agra.  But the young prince escaped and fled to the Punjab with only a small contingent of horsemen.   However, on April 27, 1606, Prince Khusrau was recaptured and, after another abortive escape attempt, was blinded by order of his father.

According to Mughal tradition, the blinding of an heir to the throne symbolically blocked the heir from succession.  Normally, this would have protected him from any future heirs fighting to ascend the throne.  But, Jahangir, feeling remorseful for the punishment, asked his physicians to restore Khusrau's eyesight.  According to court sources, the physicians were only partially successful.

Shah Jahan must have surely remembered the reconciliation of his father, Jahangir, with his grandfather, Akbar.  So, in 1617 when a rebellion broke out in the Deccan region of the empire and Jahangir, urged on by Nur Jahan, ordered Shah Jahan to lead a relief army to the area, far from his father's court, the prince refused unless Jahangir agreed to let Shah Jahan take Khusrau with him, claiming his request was a result of "the tender affection he held for him."
Mughal Emperor Jahangir and Prince Khurram entertained by Nur Jahan.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

"Shah Jahan was worried, and rightly so, that in his absence, at the very least, various factions would consolidate their power behind his back and, at the most, he would lose what he thought to be the just dessert of his labors.  And so he pressed for Khusrau to accompany him to the Deccan, in the hopes of depriving Nur Jahan of his popular brother as a candidate for the throne." - Ellison Banks Findly, Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India

In 1621, Shah Jahan received word that Jahangir was seriously ill.  Perhaps fearing a death bed declaration of succession, Shah Jahan had his eldest brother secretly strangled (or stabbed through the heart depending on the source) on January 26, 1622 and reported to Jahangir that Khusrau had contracted an illness and died.  The Empress Nur Jahan's father subsequently "died suddenly" in January of that year as well.

 Emperor Jahangir received a second letter, though, from a noble in Burhanpur indicating Khusrau's death may have been planned.

"Upon receiving this second letter, Jahangir became furious and wrote back to the nobles in Burhanpur 'a very angry letter...enquiring why they had failed to write to him the truth...' It was then that Jahangir ordered Khusrau's body exhumed and brought to Allahabad and committed Khusrau's surviving family to the care of his still living father-in-law." -  Ellison Banks Findly, Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India

Jahangir then ordered Shah Jahan to return to court and give a personal account of Khusrau's death to the emperor.  (This would indicate that the exhumation did not reveal any obvious wounds - so much for the "stabbed through the heart" source)  Instead, Shah Jahan gathered his forces and prepared to march against his father.

But in March of 1622, Shah Abbas I of Persia besieged and captured Qandahar fort.  This direct challenge to Mughal supremacy required a swift response.  Empress Nur Jahan urged her husband to order Shah Jahan to lead a relief army to Qandahar.

Detail from painting of Shah Abbas I of Persia at court.  Image courtesy of
Wikipedia.
"...we assume that Nur Jahan intended these orders to place Shah Jahan in a difficult situation;  if he refused to go, he would be denounced as a rebel and crushed, most likely, by the imperial armies; but, if he left the Deccan for Kandahar he would lose the base of power he had spent so long in cultivating.  Moreover, if he was far off in Kandahar fighting and Jahangir died, Shah Jahan might miss his chance for the throne."  -  Ellison Banks Findly, Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India

Rather than incur his father's wrath again, Shah Jahan simply delayed using the monsoon season as an excuse.

Shah Jahan feared that in his absence Nur Jahan would attempt to poison his father against him and convince Jahangir to name Shahryar the heir in his place. It was this fear which forced Shah Jahan to rebel against his father rather than fight against the Persians." - Vidya Dhar Mahajan,  Jahangir. Muslim Rule in India (1970: 5th ed.)

17th century painting of a Mughal couple.  The prince in this painting resembles
Shah Jahan's youngest brother, Prince Shahryar.  Prince Shahryar married the
daughter of the powerful Empress Nur Jahan who hoped to have a grandson that
would eventually rule the Mughal Empire.
 Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

But to test his brother's influence at court,  Shah Jahan petitioned his father for ownership of a "jagir" (lands awarded for military success) assigned to Shahryar, now son-inlaw to Nur Jahan and Jahangir's latest favorite son, and sent a force to procure them. Shahryar sent a force to defend his lands and the two forces fought, resulting in many deaths on both sides.  Jahangir was so enraged that he awarded the disputed lands to Shahryar and appointed Shahryr to command the Qandahar expedition, declaring Shah Jahan "unworthy of all the favours and cherishing I had bestowed on him."

In response, Shah Jahan marched toward Agra, the location of the Mughal treasury.  But his father anticipated this move and had the fort of Agra reinforced then ordered his second eldest son, Parviz (also spelled Parwez or Parvez), and the emperor's trusted and experienced general Mahahbat Khan to lead the imperial armies against Shah Jahan.  The imperial armies routed Shah Jahan's forces at Baluchpur and Shah Jahan was forced to retreat.

Once back in the Deccan, Shah Jahan began to cultivate alliances with the Golconda Sultanate (not under the control of the Mughal) and representatives of the new English factories of the south.  Reinforced and rearmed, Shah Jahan marched northeast and conquered the Mughal province of Orissa.  He then turned his sight on Bengal governed by Ibrahim Khan, Nur Jahan's uncle.  Following a bloodbath known as the battle of Rajmahal, Shah Jahan's forces hunted down and killed Ibrahim Khan on April 10, 1624.

In this detail of a hunting scene from the Jahan Nama, Shah Jahan is depicted firing a matchlock rifle, a weapon widely
used in Mughal warfare.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
When Shah Jahan advanced to take Allahabad, however, the imperial forces under Prince Parviz and Mahabat Khan intercepted him and Shah Jahan fled back to Golconda where he was once more reinforced.  Shah Jahan and his allies laid seige to Burhanpur but they were again thwarted by the forces of Prince Parviz and Mahabat Khan.  Then Shah Jahan fell seriously ill.  Fearing his cause lost, Shah Jahan appealed to his father for forgiveness.

"At the instance [insistence] of Nur Jahan, Jahangir replied in March of 1626 that if Shah Jahan surrendered Rohtas and the fort of Asir and sent his sons Dara Shikoh and Arangzeb to court, he would give him full forgiveness and the province of Balaghat."   Ellison Banks Findly, Nur Jahan: Empress of Mughal India

Mughal painting of Prince Paraviz with a holy man c. 1610


In October 1626, Jahangir was notified that Prince Parviz had died of delirium tremens (the DTs - according to one source or alcohol poisoning according to another source) in Burhanpur.

The DTs are triggered by the withdrawal of alcohol from a severely addicted alcoholic.  (Before modern medical interventions were developed, the DTs resulted in death in about 35% of the cases.)  Although Prince Parviz was known to be a longtime alcoholic, it would be highly doubtful that the prince would have refused alcohol himself.   He was superior in rank to anyone else at Burhanpur since the prince's co-commander Mahabat Khan had been sent to govern distant Bengal by the constantly scheming Empress Nur Jahan.  So, who would have forcefully withheld alcohol from him?

Alcohol poisoning, on the other hand, would have been more logical, but it would also have been easy to imitate with other available concoctions.

Shah Jahan's "exile" province of Balaghat made Shah Jahan the geographically closest member of the royal family to Prince Parviz.  So, this is why some historians think Shah Jahan could have been instrumental in accelerating this brother's demise as well.

Anyway, this now left only Shah Jahan's youngest brother, Shahryar, as the remaining impediment to the throne.

By now badly enfeebled, Emperor Jahangir died October 28, 1627 while returning to Lahore from Kashmir.  Neither remaining heir apparent were present, but Shah Jahan's father-in-law, Asaf Khan, quickly confined Nur Jahan (his sister) and dispatched a messenger to Shah Jahan.  In the meantime, Asaf Khan got the majority of court nobles in the emperor's camp to proclaim Dawar Bakhsh, the young son of the ill-fated Khusrau, emperor, solely as a place holder for Shah Jahan.

Then Asaf Khan gathered his forces and marched on Prince Shahryar at the palace in Lahore.

Painting of a Mughal commander approaching a fortified city.

"Shahryar used the seven million rupee treasure in Lahore fort to mibilize a large, disheveled, army of hastily assembled mercenaries.  He was easily defeated by Asaf Khan just outside Lahore.  Captured alive in Lahore Fort, Shahryar was made to submit formally to Dawar Bakhsh and then imprisoned and blinded." - John F. Richards, The Mughal Empire

Within twenty days Shah Jahan received the news of his father's death and set out for Agra.

"On the way to Agra, Shah Jahan sent a firman to Asaf Khan, written in his own hand, to do away with all potential contenders to the throne - Shahryar, Dawar Bakhsh and his brother Gahrasp, and Daniyal's two sons [Daniyal was a deceased brother of Jahangir]." - Abraham Eraly, The Mughal Throne: The Saga of India's Great Emperors

So, on the night of February 2, 1628, all of the remaining Mughal princes were seized and put to death.

Sadly, the Shah's own offspring took this lesson to heart and in turn Shah Jahan's second son, Aurangzeb, ended up defeating and ordering the executions of his three brothers as well.

A poignant watercolor of Shah Jahan's son Shah Shua as a child.  Image courtesy
of Wikipedia.


When Shah Jahan was a youth, his grandfather, the famous Akbar the Great, had insisted that Shah Jahan study Turkic language and culture. In the case of the Ottoman Empire that meant Mehmed II's law, passed in 1477 that codified fratricide:  "For the welfare of the state, the one of my sons to whom God grants the sultanate may lawfully put his brothers to death."

Mehmed II only had to slaughter an infant half brother and its mother since the rest of his brothers were already dead by the time he ascended the throne.  But when Mehmed III became Sultan, the law justified his slaughter of 19 brothers by strangulation with a ritual bowstring.

Apparently, Shah Jahan was a very good student.

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