Indian History Part 83 Shah Jahan Section I: Early Years

Canberra, 11 November 2020

Although it was common knowledge that Emperor Jahangir had been gravely ill for some time and the possibility of his death was very real, the actual event on his way back from Kashmir came as a great blow to Nur Jahan. Her absolute hold on power and personal enthusiasm had emanated from the fountainhead of the Emperor, even during the time that he was almost completely bedridden. His death robbed her of any legitimacy to rule, especially in a medieval Islamic empire. Almost immediately her brother Asaf Khan, who had so far been dependent on her generosity even for his high position in the royal court, disassociated from her. Nur Jahan was left alone to bury the Emperor in Lahore, while the fate of the Empire lay on the balance: of the two surviving sons of Jahangir, Shah Jahan was far away in the Deccan and Shahryar, although located in Lahore, had only very limited support from the nobles.

There were four princes of the next generation, who could be considered possible contenders to the throne. Dawar Baksh, the son of Khusrau was under the control of Asaf Khan and the three sons of Shah Jahan, who had been left as hostage at the imperial court, were with Nur Jahan. Asaf Khan acted with quick assertiveness, placed Nur Jahan in informal house arrest and took control of Shah Jahan’s sons—Dara Shukho, Shah Shuja and Aurangzeb—who were also his grandsons. He now implemented a plan that he had been concocting for a while to ensure that his own son-in-law, Shah Jahan, would succeed to the throne. This was the primary reason for his moving away from Nur Jahan, immediately on Jahangir’s death. Asaf now send word to Shah Jahan to make haste to arrive at the capital and asked Mahabat Khan to assist Shah Jahan in all possible ways.

Succession Struggle

Since Shah Jahan was far away and the throne could not be left empty for the length of time that it would take for him to reach the seat of power, Asaf Khan took the momentous decision to place Dawar Baksh on the throne as an interim king. Dawar was reluctant to assume this role, and behaved as if he had a premonition of an approaching tragedy. Asaf however prevailed upon him to accept the role. This act on the part of Asaf Khan would have been praiseworthy if it had been committed for altruistic reasons. However, Asaf’s motives were selfish and he was a self-serving person attempting to ensure that his daughter became the queen and to gain approbation in Shah Jahan’s eyes. It is true that Islamic law did not stress the principle of primogeniture in royal succession, but preferred election of the most eligible person to the throne. However, over the years the concept of a tribal election to determine succession at the death of a ruling monarch had gradually given way to heredity and in some cases, usurpation. Asaf Khan’s move was more Machiavellian than one of far-sighted wisdom. Misinformation was spread that Jahangir had named Dawar Baksh to be his successor and Dawar was crowned as Sher Shah on 12th November 1627.

In the meantime Shahryar, tacitly egged on by Nur Jahan, seized the royal treasury in Lahore and proclaimed himself Emperor. He distributed a great deal of wealth to the nobles and soldiers to ensure their support. Shahryar was an insubstantial person: of weak character, inefficient and short-sighted, and with no real experience either in administration or on the battlefield. He now send a force under the command of Mirza Baisanghar, the son of Daniyal and the erstwhile ‘Don Carlos’, to deal with Asaf Khan and his ‘puppet’. However, the Shahryar forces, ineptly led, largely untrained and unwilling, were no match for the imperial army under Asaf Khan. They were easily defeated, Shahryar was captured from where he was hiding in his fort along with the sons of Daniyal. Shahryar was blinded and thrown into prison along with his nephews.

The messenger from Asaf Khan, one Banarsi Das, reached the Deccan after 20 days of hard travel. Shah Jahan started his journey to claim the throne four days later by moving to Ahmedabad and taking over the province as a prelude to marching on the capital. Shah Jahan declared Mahabat Khan the Khan-i-Khan. This act was resented by the Khan-i-Khan Lodi, who continued to be the commander of the imperial army in the Deccan, and he did not join Shah Jahan in his journey. Shah Jahan, now on the move, appointed nobles loyal to him to strategically important positions as he gathered momentum in his march to the north. A further message was received from Asaf Khan wherein he confirmed that Shahryar and all the sons of Daniyal were under his custody in prison. Shah Jahan now passed an infamous order—he asked all of them to be executed; an order that Asaf Khan almost gladly carried out. He then had the Kutba read in Shah Jahan’s name in Lahore, effectively proclaiming him the Emperor.

Thus was started a ruthless trend in the House of Babur, of murdering all male members of the family who could even remotely mount a counter-claim to the throne; a trend that would bleed and undermine the strength of the Mughal dynasty through sowing deep seated mistrust within the royal family. Shah Jahan must single-handedly assume the responsibility for the Mughal princes becoming focused on eliminating all possible opposition to their succession, while discounting all blood relationships. When it came to succession and claiming power, relationship was no longer a matter of the heart for aspiring Mughal Emperors. Babur, Humayun and Akbar would have been appalled at this turn of events.

Shah Jahan moved through Mewar towards Agra. Some reports suggest that Dawar Baksh, the interim emperor, was permitted to ‘escape’ to Persia, while others are vague regarding what happened to him. Literally wading through the blood of his brothers, cousins and nephews, Shah Jahan ascended the Mughal throne in Agra on 6th February 1628, amid great pomp and ceremony that now signified all Mughal occasions. Son of a Rajput princess of Marwar, Shah Jahan had more Indian than Mughal blood in his veins. His sons Dara Shukho and Aurangzeb were brought from Lahore, having been released from Nur Jahan’s control earlier. For the next 18 months, the family settled down in Agra to a life of peace and security that had evaded them for the past six years. Shah Jahan replaced all nobles whose loyalty to him was in the slightest doubt with his own supporters. He also settled a yearly pension of 200,000 rupees on Nur Jahan, perhaps as an act of contrition and atonement to salve his conscience.

The Bundela War

Raja Bir Singh Bundela who had murdered Abul Fazl, supposedly under instructions from then Prince Salim later Jahangir, had risen thereafter to great wealth and a certain modicum of power. He felt sufficiently strong to even encroach on imperial lands, as the Raja of Orcha. He died in 1627 and was succeeded by his son Jujhar Singh. Jujhar came to Agra to attend the coronation as a subordinate king to the Mughal throne. While he was away from Orcha, his son Vikramjit, who was an unscrupulous and cruel prince, humiliated and tortured an old and trusted servant of the state, Sita Ram, who complained regarding his treatment to Shah Jahan. Although Shah Jahan maintained an outward show of friendliness towards Jujhar and granted him a mansab of 4000 horses, he instituted an inquiry into the complaint by Sita Ram.  Jujhar realised that he would be held to account and fled the royal court to his kingdom without the Emperor’s permission or taking leave of him, as was customary. Shah Jahan took exception to this breach of protocol and decided to punish the Raja of Orcha.

The Bundela kingdom was highly resourced and the terrain was not conducive to the rapid movement of troops. Jujhar set about raising extra forces and strengthening his forts to face the Mughal onslaught that he knew would be coming. However, he underestimated Shah Jahan’s determination and the power of the imperial army, while overestimating the impact of the difficult terrain of his kingdom on military manoeuvres. This would be the first military campaign for Shah Jahan as the emperor. He was aware of the need to be successful and also appreciated the difficulties of invading Bundela. He planned the relatively large scale operation with meticulous care. A large force was assembled and placed under the overall command of Mahabat Khan. Shah Jahan himself moved to Gwalior to be near the action on the pretext of a hunting expedition, much like his grandfather’s practice.

The Mughal forces moved towards Bundela from Malwa and Kalpi in a pincer attack, enveloping the small kingdom. The fort at Orcha with its garrison of 3000 was stormed and put to the sword. The Mughal forces also had a subordinate commander in Bharat Singh Bundela, a rival claimant for the Bundela throne. Jujhar realised the dire straits that he was in and offered to submit. His offer of peace was accepted on the payment of a very high fine, reduction in his rank to the one he previously held and on the condition that he would provide a contingent of 2000 cavalry towards the impending Deccan campaign of the Mughals.

Subsequently, Jujhar Singh moved from Orcha to Dhamoni, a strong fort and then ordered his son Vikramjit to escape with his forces from Balaghat, where he was in command of the Bundela contingent given in service of the Mughal army of the Deccan. Prince Aurangzeb, now in nominal command of the imperial forces managed to put down the rebellion. Jujhar and his son were forced to flee from Dhamoni to Chauragarh, pursued by the Mughal forces. At Chauragarh the women in his camp were put to death and Jujhar and Vikramjit fled to the jungles with a small force. Both of them were captured and killed by the Gond tribals. The Mughal army recovered considerable treasure and Bundela was annexed to the Empire. Shah Jahan’s first military expedition was a complete success.

Khan-i-Jahan Lodi’s Revolt

Pir Khan, normally known by his title of Khan-i-Jahan Lodi, was a great favourite of Jahangir’s. He had been entrusted with the governorship of the Deccan, primarily as a counter-balance to Mahabat Khan, who was the commander of the Mughal army in the Deccan, and would probably have colluded with Shah Jahan towards the end of Jahangir’s reign. In the Deccan, the Khan Jahan adopted a policy meant to curtail the power of the Shah Jahan-Mahabat Khan combine. He also did not want any confrontation with the Deccan Shahi kingdoms, looking to facilitate negotiated settlements. He focused on arriving at a negotiated peace with the Nizam Shahi’s of Ahmadnagar so that Shah Jahan could not obtain any help from them. He ceded the entire Balaghat province, Shah Jahan’s erstwhile governorate, to the Nizam Shahi king for a consideration of 300,000 rupees. All actions of Khan Jahan were oriented towards maintaining a peaceful status quo and denying Shah Jahan any possible assistance as and when the anticipated succession struggle erupted after Jahangir’s imminent death.

The Khan Jahan was far away from the seat of power and therefore could not accurately gauge the evolving political situation, which was volatile in the extreme. In addition Jahangir, on whose implicit trust the Khan Jahan’s authority hinged, was also fading fast. He therefore adopted a stance of studied neutrality during the succession struggle, waiting for developments and all the while improving his resources and political position in the Deccan. He settled again with the Nizam Shahi to cede further lands to him, once again for the price of 380,000 rupees. Whether or not this money was paid to the central treasury is doubtful; in all probabilities the amount went to the personal exchequer of the Khan Jahan.

It is certain that the Khan Jahan did not want to become Shah Jahan’s follower and declined to join him on his journey to claim the throne from Dawar Baksh. At the same time, he also did not object when Shah Jahan appointed Mahabat Khan the Khan-i-Jahan, cleverly hiding his resentment. However, he knew what was to come after Shah Jahan claimed the throne, which by this time was almost a certainty. Even so, Khan Jahan Lodi continued in a state of inaction, almost in a state of suspended animation. Finally after weeks of inactivity, he moved to Malwa to prevent Mahabat Khan from taking over the province, assuming that chore to be his duty as the governor, and therefore the supreme commander of all Mughal forces in the Deccan. However, reality was something else, one by one his generals had been deserting him with their forces in tow.

When it became absolutely clear that Shah Jahan was destined to be the next emperor, Pir Khan apologised for his behaviour and sent a costly present to the new Emperor for his coronation. Shah Jahan initially asked Khan Jahan Lodi to return to Burhanpur and continue the governorship of the Deccan, which was gladly accepted. Subsequently, he was replaced by Mahabat Khan and Pir Khan was asked to return to the royal court. Even though he received a cold reception in the court, he was not rebuked by the Emperor. After nearly a year in court and even after Shah Jahan had personally given him a letter assuring him of his personal safety, the Khan Jahan fled from the court.

He and his small band of followers were intercepted by the imperial forces at Dholpur on the banks of the River Chambal. In the ensuing battle, the Khan Jahan managed to escape to the jungles of Jujhar Bundela, although a majority of his followers lost their lives. He escaped from the Bundela forests with the help of the crown prince, Vikramjit, and finally found refuge with Murtaza II, the Nizam Shahi king ruling Ahmadnagar.

A Governor’s Revolt Instigates the Fall of a Kingdom

Murtaza II had been gradually building up his strength and by this time presumed that he could hold the Mughal forces at bay, if required. He bestowed the province of Bir as a personal jagir to the Khan Jahan and also provided him financial support. Shah Jahan was an old Deccan hand and was well-versed with the region and its internecine politics. He now crossed the River Narmada and assumed direct supervision of the expedition to punish Pir Khan, the Khan-i-Jahan Lodi. In the campaign that ensued, Khan Jahan’s forces were repeatedly defeated and suffered heavy casualties. The fighting was particularly vicious and the Mughal forces also suffered considerable losses. The Khan Jahan was driven out of Bir, moved back to Shivgaon and then to Daulatabad. The Mughal forces ravaged the Nizam Shahi lands that led to the beginnings of a famine.

Seeing the plight of his kingdom, Murtaza II now wanted the Khan Jahan to leave Nizam Shahi lands and cold shouldered him. The Khan Jahan, now merely Pir Khan with his titles withdrawn, decided to move to the Punjab. He was pursued relentlessly, driven out of Malwa and fled to Kalinjar. He finally reached the River Indus with a motley crowd of followers. Knowing that defeat and eventual capture was inevitable, Pir Khan decided to make a stand and fight to the death, rather than being arrested and imprisoned, perhaps also blinded. In the ensuing short battle, he was cut down and his head sent to Shah Jahan.

Shah Jahan now converted the rebellion of a recalcitrant senior Mughal noble into an opportunity to invade and subjugate the Deccan Shahi kingdoms—turning a governor’s revolt into an inter-kingdom conflict. This accelerated the fall of Ahmadnagar, the Nizam Shahi kingdom being the first to fall to the Mughals. (For details of these battles from the Shahi kingdoms’ perspective of the Mughal invasion, please see From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History Volume VI: Medieval Deccan Kingdoms)

The conquest of the Deccan proved to be far more difficult for the Mughals as compared to the conquest of North India, which they called Hindustan. Even though nominal conquest of South India would take place, no Mughal—from Akbar to Aurangzeb—could claim to have managed to fully control the Deccan and the Deep South. The region was a many-headed Hydra and even distinguishing friend and ally from foe itself was a difficult task, let alone effectively governing the turbulent region.  

However, before he ventured back into the Deccan, Shah Jahan had a tryst to keep with the ancestral lands of his forefathers, in the Transoxiana region of Central Asia.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2020]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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