Indian History Part 83 Shah Jahan Section IV The War of Succession 2. Civil War

Canberra, 1 January 2021

The four sons of Shah Jahan had started preparing for the inevitable succession struggle even before he actually fell ill. Each one attempted to win over as many nobles as possible to their individual camps; and the nobles responded in the only manner they would—attempting to side with the prince who in their opinion had the better chance of success and to protect their self-interest. Their domicile also played a part in determining their affiliations. However, kinship, personal loyalty and ‘tribal’ attachments played only a minor role among the Muslim nobles.

Alignment of the Nobles

The majority of nobles supported Dara Shikoh. In a broad analysis, it would seem that both Shuja and Murad did not enjoy great support, in fact their following was extremely limited. Murad was identified as being an ally of Aurangzeb and therefore it is difficult to distinguish his individual following from contemporary records. Similarly, reports are vague regarding Shuja and his situation was not analysed properly. A conspicuous majority of Rajput nobles supported Dara, obviously because of his religious tolerance. Most of the Rajput nobles aligned themselves on clannish lines with most siding with Dara, who they considered the crown prince. As the war of succession progressed, the clannish groupings receded to the background and ceased to be the dominant factor in Rajput alignment.

There was almost no Rajput support for the three younger brothers for two reasons: they were unfamiliar with Aurangzeb and the other two princes since they had not worked closely with any of them; and the Rajputs, closely following the political developments, seem to have considered Dara’s victory in the struggle to be pre-ordained. The result was that the Rajput bloc stood solidly behind the heir apparent.

Political and Military Developments

From the time that Shah Jahan fell ill, persistent rumours of his death became commonplace within the kingdom. There was widespread belief that Dara was concealing the death of the emperor to secure his own succession. Since access to the sick emperor was controlled by him and strictly limited, even some of the nobles in the royal court believed that Shah Jahan was dead. This situation indicates that Dara Shikoh did not have the trust of the nobles and they considered him capable of playing out a charade of the emperor being alive while he arranged for a convenient transfer of power. If Dara had realised this lack of trust and taken remedial measures, perhaps he could have avoided the fateful turn of events that was hurtling down on him.

It was no secret that the relationship between Dara and his three younger brothers was highly strained. In their common animosity against their elder brother, the three younger ones created a ‘triple alliance’ against Dara, as early as in November 1652, years before Shah Jahan’s partial withdrawal from kingly duties and the meteoric rise of Dara Shikoh. The terms of this alliance has been lost in antiquity and in any case it is highly unlikely to have been a formalised written treaty. The alliance was certainly an informal and vague verbal agreement with promises to assist each other if Dara attacked any one of them and they may have also agreed to divide the empire between themselves after getting rid of Dara at some later stage. The alliance was in reality more a morale-boosting pledge and promise of defensive support in case Dara decided to take action against them at some future date.

Shuja especially realised that at the demise of Shah Jahan if Dara came to the throne, their collective honour, and more importantly, life itself would be in grave danger. All three brothers worried about and feared the possible excesses of Dara after he became emperor. The prevailing uncertainty regarding the actual state of Shah Jahan’s health led to a general sense of chaos in the kingdom and panicky reactions from the less experienced princes. Aurangzeb and Murad being geographically closer to each other started regular correspondence, in code, and kept Shuja informed of the developments.

The Struggle Begins

In October 1657, Shuja violated the tacit agreement of the triple alliance and claimed for himself the entire Mughal Empire. He assumed the grandiose title, Abul-Faiz Nasir ud-Din Muhammad Sahib Qiran III Shah Shuja Bahadur Gazi, issued his own coins and had the Kutba read in his name. Having assumed all the insignia of kingship, he started to march towards the imperial capital to snatch power from Dara. On his way, he ravaged the districts of Bihar and reached Varanasi on 24th January 1658.

Dara Shikoh was more concerned with the growing intimacy between Aurangzeb and Murad and decided to drive a wedge between them. He issued orders, under the emperor’s name, transferring Murad to the governorship of Berar, which was at that time part of Aurangzeb’s territory. Dara’s idea was to firstly degrade Murad’s power, since Berar was a much smaller and petty province as compared to Gujarat; and to create dissention with Aurangzeb, whose territorial holdings were being reduced. The move backfired badly. Murad, in reality or otherwise, refused to believe that a ‘loving father’ such as Shah Jahan would be party to such an order and refused to move to Berar and strengthened his ties with Aurangzeb. Instead of making them draw apart, Dara’s ill-advised move had brought his antagonists closer together.

Around this time Murad intercepted a letter from the imperial court that reported Shah Jahan’s death. This was a spurious letter, but Murad took it as the truth and decided that all his obligations to the central administration had ceased. In November 1657, one month after his elder brother had declared himself emperor, Murad also declared himself emperor of all Mughal territories, had coins struck and the Kutba read in his name, under the regnal title of Murrawaj ud-Din. Murad also violated the triple alliance, which for all intents and purposes was now dead. He send his trusted general Khwajah Shahbaz to Surat and captured the important central treasury located in the city.

Aurangzeb, observed his brothers’ actions, and started a waiting game in a calm and collected manner. However, he seized all the ferries across the River Narmada as a precautionary measure  and waited for an opportune time to make his move. In the meantime he rebuked Murad for initiating precipitate action and asked him to wait for confirmation of Shah Jahan’s death. He also entered into an agreement with Murad, which excluded Shuja and decided to divide the empire between the two of them.

Murad – Consolidation Efforts

Murad was financially weak, even after the capture of the Surat treasury, and could raise only about 10,000 soldiers. He tried to make up for the lack of finances by bestowing high-sounding title to his followers and also distributing some amount of gifts and wealth. He could not afford the bribes that would have ensured the fickle loyalty of the nobles. Murad also attempted to gain the support of the nobles at the imperial court by writing flattering letters to them, asserting that the three younger brothers were a joint force, and that their aim was to strengthen the Islamic religion and its hold on the empire. He also circulated a promissory note, swearing in the name of God and the Prophet, to reward all who helped him as soon as success was achieved. This was a frantic effort and it did not succeed—not even one noble made any attempt to join him.

Murad realised now that he did not have the resources or support to face Dara on his own. He made a concerted attempt to further strengthen his relationship with Aurangzeb, and gradually seemed to have accepted a subordinate role. However, Aurangzeb did not appreciate Murad declaring sovereignty and his sack of the Surat treasury. He made his displeasure very clear in a letter to Murad, a copy of which was also send to Shuja.

Aurangzeb’s Position

In the early days of these momentous developments, Aurangzeb was a worried man. The abrupt an inconclusive end of the Bijapur campaign had diminished his prestige, honour and status in the Deccan; and the rumours of Shah Jahan’s death and the ascendancy of Dara Shikoh meant that his own life was under threat. Aurangzeb knew for certain that if Dara remained in control in the capital and continued to consolidate his power, irrespective of whether their father was dead or alive, he would be out of the reckoning.

While both Shuja and Murad governed provinces that were relatively peaceful with no internal dissentions and therefore could initiate the actions they had with relative ease, Aurangzeb was in a very different and complex position. His province was surrounded by inimical kingdoms—Bijapur and Golconda—and also being hemmed in by the rising Maratha power. He could not take-off to the north without risking the loss of the tenuous control that he had over the Deccan. Further, on 8th October 1657, his senior queen Dilras Banu, to whom he was deeply attached, had died. Aurangzeb was mentally upset at this critical juncture. On the other hand, he also knew that he needed to demonstrate strength, if he was to ensure that none of his nobles deserted him. It was imperative that he too strike a blow, especially since both his brothers had already initiated precipitate action.

Aurangzeb proceeded in his usual calculated and methodical manner. Knowing that he could only initiate action towards the succession struggle after placating the Deccan Shahi kingdoms, he dealt with them first. Credit must be given to Aurangzeb for the correctness of his actions. Since his father the emperor was still alive he conducted all negotiations with the two kingdoms in Shah Jahan’s name, while he himself remained as the emperor’s agent. Bijapur was asked not to attempt to extend its boundaries and Golconda was promised favours if it behaved well during his absence. Aurangzeb also made contingency plans and prepared explanatory excuses to be given to Shah Jahan in case the emperor recovered and once again assumed control of the empire. Then he made preparations, readying his army to take part in the on-coming struggle. He decided that he would go to Burhanpur to enter the contest, but would divert to Daulatabad if Shah Jahan recovered in the interim. Even so, Aurangzeb initiated action only on 11th February 1658, marching out of Aurangabad and reaching Burhanpur on 28th February.

In Burhanpur Aurangzeb started to exercise prerogatives that were strictly not permitted to governors, while still holding back from declaring sovereignty. By Mughal tradition, only the emperor could appoint, promote, demote or dismiss an officer of the state. For the first time Aurangzeb issued a list of his own, promoting many of his followers. At Burhanpur Aurangzeb made extensive preparations for war—he examined the trend of events, calibrated his own position accordingly and also received secret letters of support from some of the nobles in the imperial court.

Dara Shikoh Also Prepares

Dara Shikoh commanded the greatest patronage and had the undiluted blessings of the emperor, Shah Jahan. He could make promises to the nobles—which they knew would be honoured by the emperor, and in fact he did promote a number of them. He ensured that all critical positions in the capital, both administrative and military, were occupied by nobles personally loyal to him and removed those whose loyalty was questionable in his mind. Dara had already initiated actions meant to discomfit both Aurangzeb and Murad. He rewarded all the nobles who had abandoned Aurangzeb at the height of the Bijapur campaign and punished those who were considered close to Aurangzeb. Having thus consolidated his position, Dara decided to deal with Shuja first. He also felt that he needed to bring Murad under control. Since Murad had disobeyed a direct order, he obtained permission from Shah Jahan to initiate military action against him.

Battle of Bahadurpur – 24th February 1658

While Shuja was still camped at Varanasi, Dara send his elder son Suleiman Shikoh and Raja Jai Singh Kachwaha to deal with him. The rival armies met on 24th February 1658 at Bahadurpur, about 5 miles north-east of Varanasi. Although he had been camped at Varanasi for nearly a month, Shuja had not made any preparations for war. The imperial army under Jai Singh attacked the Bengal army and inflicted a miserable and humiliating defeat on Shuja, who fled back to Bengal. He suffered irreparable damage to his reputation and his followers, especially the Persians, started to abandon him. The battle was more of a rout of Shuja’s forces than a pitched contest.  

Dara promoted officers who had performed well in the battle, to seal their loyalty to him. He was unaware that a majority of the imperial nobles would only follow the rising sun, their inborn sense of self-preservation would always make their loyalty suspect. Dara would realise this human frailty soon enough.

Battle of Dharmat – 15 April 1658

Immediately after the defeat of Shuja, it was proclaimed that Shah Jahan had recovered fully and once again assumed control of the empire. Therefore, the younger princes were asked to refrain from any further rebellious activities. With Shah Jahan’s permission, Dara send an army under Maharaja Jaswant Singh to deal with the combined forces of Aurangzeb and Murad. Efforts to resolve the crisis without a war failed because both Aurangzeb and Murad, in reality or as a ruse, did not believe that Shah Jahan was alive. Their contention was that if the emperor was alive, they wanted to pay their respects to him and also free him from the baneful influence of Dara Shikoh, who they claimed had incapacitated him. Dead or alive, Shah Jahan’s writ did not hold sway on his sons anymore.

Aurangzeb marched out of Burhanpur in early March 1658 and joined with Murad’s forces across the River Narmada at a place called Dipalpur. There they signed a formal agreement to divide the empire between them after victory over Dara—the division being one-third for Murad and two-thirds for Aurangzeb. The agreement was however, more a tacit understanding with the caveat that it only held true so long as Murad remained ‘sincere’ towards his elder brother, failing which it would be null and void. The caveat is interesting, it does not mention any commitment on Aurangzeb’s part towards his brother, and of greater importance, that the measure of sincerity from Murad was to be judged by Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb’s ultimate intent is clearly visible in this peculiar one-sided agreement. However, Murad was far too much of a happy-go-lucky personality to have paid much heed to the biased agreement or he may have also harboured different aspirations.

Jahanara, perhaps sensing correctly that Dara’s success in the on-coming struggle was not assured, attempted to reconcile her brothers. She wrote a letter to Aurangzeb, scolding him for making military preparations against his elder brother, who was also the emperor’s nominated successor. Aurangzeb replied giving a long list of complaints against Dara and laying all the blame and responsibility for the current situation and the rift between the brothers on the crown prince. No reconciliation was possible, the dice had already been cast.

Aurangzeb tried to win over Jaswant Singh to his side, but was not successful. This action also shows the modus operandi that Aurangzeb always adopted, bribery and surreptitious actions to wean generals from the other side before military action was initiated. The armies met at Dharmat, close to Dipalpur (in modern Indore district). The battle that followed has been described by some historians as one of the fiercest to have been fought in the sub-continent. The bulk of the imperial force consisted of Rajputs, although there were few Muslim contingents in it. The imperial force was troubled by desertions and changes in loyalty even before the battle was joined. On the other hand, Aurangzeb’s army was cohesive, extremely well-disciplined and brave.

The Rajputs put up a brave fight for a long period of time; then contrary to all traditions of Rajput loyalty, courage and bravery, the army fled from the field led by Raja Jaswant Singh himself, suffering heavy losses in the bargain. The reason for this action has not been correctly assessed. The folklore of Rajasthan reports that Jaswant Singh fled to his kingdom of Marwar, where his own wife shut the gates of the fort in his face, denying him entry, for having dishonoured Rajput dignity by fleeing from the battlefield.

The responsibility for the defeat at Dharmat cannot be laid fully on Jaswant Singh. He fought under difficult circumstances; the army he commanded was a heterogeneous mass with no cohesion, central loyalty and lacked unified command. Even the Rajput contingent consisted of different clans who did not give uncontested obedience to the commander-in-chief. The mix of Rajputs and Muslims at the higher and middle levels of command, as well as in the constitution of the army, destroyed any semblance of unity of command. The Muslims especially were averse to fighting under a Hindu command and there was no central coordinating authority to smooth ruffled feathers. The imperial army was further weakened by some of the nobles shifting their loyalty to Aurangzeb, making it difficult for others to know with any assurance whom to trust and whose loyalty had already been sold to the adversary. The main doubt regarding disloyalty fell on Qasim Khan and his followers. Dara had often suspected his loyalty. It was later confirmed in Aurangzeb’s official biography that at his instigation Qasim Khan purposely held back support to one wing of the vanguard, held by Rajput forces, during the battle.  

The victory at Dharmat considerably increased Aurangzeb’s prestige. He was also able to capture a great deal of wealth and fighting equipment, left behind by the fleeing imperial army. Aurangzeb proceeded towards Gwalior, reached the River Chambal and camped at Samugarh. Some historians identify this place as the modern Samogar, about eight miles east of Agra fort. However, it is generally considered to be modern Fatehbad, 21 miles south-east of Agra. After his victory at Samugarh (described below) Aurangzeb built a commemorative serai, rest house, and a mosque called Mubarak Manzil in the place. Both exist to this day.

Imperial Response

Dara Shikoh was furious at the defeat and swore vengeance. He send summons to all the nobles of the realm from far and wide to report to the capital with their armies. He also instructed Suleiman Shikoh, his elder son fighting in Bengal, to make peace with Shuja and return to Agra post-haste. The army in Bengal was the cream of the imperial army and the one most loyal to Dara. At the time of the Dharmat defeat, Shah Jahan was convalescing in Delhi. Although in indifferent health, Dara persuaded the emperor to travel to Agra, in order to give legitimacy for the action that he was contemplating. It is reported that Shah Jahan contemplated proceeding direct to the battlefield to stop the younger princes from continuing the war. This action may indeed have put an end to the still fledgling civil war. However, Dara opposed the move and therefore the emperor did not insist on carrying out his plan.

In preparing for military action, Dara was intemperate and rude to some of the Muslim nobles, stating openly that he did not need them to win the war. A number of nobles were thus alienated from his camp. He decided to give battle and marched to the plains of Samugarh, against the advice of Shah Jahan who asked him to wait for the army in Bengal to join him before making contact with the rebel armies. This was the last time that Shah Jahan would see his favourite son alive. Dara was arrogant and impatient with anyone who advised caution, which was one of the primary reasons for his eventual defeat and downfall.

Battle of Samugarh – 29 May 1658

Dara assumed command of the imperial army numbering more than 50,000. However, the large number was not an indication of its actual strength or its effectiveness and, more importantly, Dara was no great general, although he was supported by acknowledged generals from the Mughal army. The imperial army struggled under a number of challenges. The most significant was the stand-offish division between the Rajput and Muslim factions within the army. The Rajput forces were ‘the flower of Rajput chivalry’, determined to remove for all times the imputation of cowardice that had been slapped on them because of Jaswant Singh’s ignominious flight from Dharmat. Because of this pre-conceived reason and also because of inherent cultural differences, the Rajput forces marched to a different drum-beat, following their own tactics, and could never act in harmony with the Muslim half of the army.

Dara had decided on a strategy of preventing the rebel forces from crossing the River Chambal so that he could avoid giving battle before Suleiman Shikoh and his forces arrived from Bengal. However, Aurangzeb managed to cross the river at an obscure place and forced the battle on Dara before the strong reinforcements could arrive. The rebel forces were led by tried, trusted and capable commanders—both Muslim and Rajput—who were used to functioning in unison through long association in wars.

Before battle was actually joined, Aurangzeb made one last attempt at making peace with his father. He send an earnest missive to his father detailing his grievances against Dara, which were all committed under the emperor’s signature. Aurangzeb declared that he only wanted to free his father from the evil clutches of Dara, but that Dara had send an army to bar his way at Dharmat and he, Aurangzeb, had no option but to fight his way towards Agra. He now requested Shah Jahan to send Dara to govern his provinces in the Punjab and take over direct rule of the empire. It is unclear whether the letter reached Shah Jahan or was intercepted before that. The fact remains that Aurangzeb did not receive any response from the emperor.

The Battle. The battle started with heavy artillery barrage and rocket fire as well as long-range archery from both sides. Dara’s flanks were guarded by contingents commanded by his younger son Siphir Shikoh and a general, Khalilullah Khan. A charge by Siphir and his general Rustom Khan created havoc in the rebel ranks, but was ultimately driven back. Mortified by this seeming set back, Dara led his centre against the rebel wing that had repulsed Siphir, but this offensive was also efficiently repulsed. The Rajputs then attacked Murad but after a bitter struggle were driven back. Aurangzeb and Murad fought with ferocious bravery and inflicted great losses on the imperial army. Almost in despair, Dara dismounted from his war-elephant and mounted a horse to lead the army more directly. The imperial army, seeing the howdah of Dara’s war-elephant empty, panicked and started to retreat, then flee, which then became a stampede. Dara was taken completely by surprise and could do nothing to reverse the trend, it was too late to turn the tide. He fled the battlefield and Aurangzeb entered Dara’s camp in triumph.  

It was not uncommon for Indian kings to dismount from his elephant during the battle, to continue the fight on horseback or even on foot, to take direct control of a particular phase of the battle and also to demonstrate a do-or-die attitude to the soldiers and officers. Akbar had done it in a critical phase in the battle against the Uzbeg rebels. Unfortunately when Dara resorted to this usually confidence-building measure, the imperial army had already been beaten back three times and there was an air of panic already in the army. The haste with which Dara dismounted from his elephant seemed to the soldiers as a prelude to flight from the battlefield, which intensified the already spreading sense of defeat.

Unlike at Dharmat, in Samugarh there was no collusion by Muslim nobles of the imperial army with the rebel forces. On the other hand, the Sayyids of Barah who were Shias, and Rustom Khan were extremely loyal and fought with great bravery. The Rajput commanders in Dara’s army covered themselves in glory, wiping out the disgrace that was heaped on them after Dharmat. The bravery of the Rathore brothers, Rup Singh and Ram Singh, in this battle has become the stuff of legends with songs and poems written to celebrate the courage of the duo still sung in the deserts of Rajasthan. However, this selfless loyalty to the imperial cause was insufficient to bring about overall victory.

Aurangzeb’s unquestionable victory was based on two factors—his unerring leadership and the extreme bravery, fervour and zeal of Sunni followers. Dara fled to Agra with his son, where he did not even go to meet Shah Jahan because he was completely ashamed of the defeat. He collected his family and set course for Delhi almost immediately. The emperor send instructions to Delhi to place all the treasure of the empire available there at the disposal of Dara. Dara, now on his way to Delhi, was under extreme pressure and facing the vindictive fury of Aurangzeb.

The Aftermath

The immediate result of the conclusive victory was that Aurangzeb became the unassailable, supreme power in the empire. Almost immediately nobles started to flock to Aurangzeb’s ranks, professing loyalty to him; with many disowning not only Dara but the emperor Shah Jahan himself. Aurangzeb once again wrote an apologetic letter to his father, asking for pardon for his actions and as before blaming Dara for the confusion and the calamity of the battle. Shah Jahan made yet another attempt at reconciliation with his third son, sending Aurangzeb the famous sword ‘Alamgir’ as a gift. The attempt was rebuffed. Aurangzeb then marched to Agra and camped outside the town.

Aurangzeb wanted to go into town and see his father. However, his close friends dissuaded him because they had discovered a plot, said to have been fomented by Shah Jahan, to murder him during this proposed visit. They recommended that the emperor be placed under arrest. Aurangzeb send his son Muhammad to remove the imperial guard and take charge of the fort. It is highly possible that had Shah Jahan not been so single-mindedly focused on supporting Dara Shikoh and been sensitive to the aspirations of his other sons, Aurangzeb may have preferred to rule on behalf of the emperor for some years at least. However, even such a reconciliation was not possible because of it was impossible for Shah Jahan to get over his blind love for Dara.

Muhammad placed the fort under siege and when the water supply was cut-off, the imperialists surrendered. There is a report that even at this late stage, Shah Jahan attempted intrigue by trying to instigate Murad to murder Aurangzeb and failing that send Jahanara to her brother Aurangzeb with the message that the empire should be divided between the brothers. It is believed that Shah Jahan was all the while secretly influencing the nobles to ally with Dara against Aurangzeb. Completely put off by the emperor’s unfaltering partiality towards Dara, Aurangzeb rejected all peace overtures from the emperor and the imperial camp.

On 11 June 1658, Aurangzeb entered Agra, supported by a large number of nobles. Shah Jahan was isolated in the harem with a few private servants. Jahanara opted to share her father’s captivity and continued to serve him with unequalled devotion for the rest of his life. After placing Shah Jahan under house arrest, Aurangzeb marched to Delhi.

In Delhi, Aurangzeb crowned himself the Emperor of Hindustan on 21 July 1658, adopting the regnal title ‘Alamgir’, meaning ‘world compeller’.

Doing Away with His Siblings

Murad’s Mischief

Aurangzeb held a grand durbar as the new emperor. Murad was unhappy about the developments and disgruntled with Aurangzeb’s attitude towards him. He had expected to be given a share of the empire. He gathered a force around him and started to ‘assert his will’ in some areas, an euphemistic way of stating that he started to ‘rule’ some regions that he felt he owned. Aurangzeb decided to defang his younger brother through wile subterfuge. He invited Murad for a grand feast to celebrate and discuss the way forward and while Murad was drunk, had him arrested and imprisoned. Murad cursed Aurangzeb roundly for breaking a number of his promises, but was send to Gwalior fort where he was incarcerated in poor conditions.

Aurangzeb did not want to execute his brother without at least outwardly displaying some sort of ‘decency’ and adherence to the rule of law. A while later he had Murad brought to trial for the murder of Ali Naqvi, his old Diwan in Gujarat. The Qazis were obviously instructed to find him guilty, which they did and Murad was condemned to death. He was executed/murdered in his cell on 4 December 1661 and buried inside the fort.       

Suleiman Shikoh Is Neutralised

After ascending the throne in Delhi, Aurangzeb wrote to all the important nobles with the army in Bengal under Suleiman Shikoh to join him in Delhi. Dara’s defeat at Samugarh had already started a gradual depletion in the ranks of the nobles with Suleiman. The invitation or instruction from the newly minted emperor, which was also a veiled threat, made Suleiman’s nobles leave him on various pretexts. The departures, of both Muslim and Rajput nobles, soon turned into an exodus. Suleiman, realising the seriousness of the situation marched to Allahabad and from there to Hardwar via Lucknow and Moradabad. His aim was to join forces with his father in the Punjab as soon as possible, the most sensible course of action available to the beleaguered father-son duo.

Shaista Khan, pursuing Suleiman, drove him into the Garhwal hills where he was finally captured. Suleiman Shikoh was produced before Aurangzeb in chains. It is reported that many of the nobles were sad to see the handsome prince brought down to this level as a captive. Suleiman requested his uncle to give him a quick death as opposed to the slow-poisoning death by the administration of opium that the Mughals seem to have perfected. This process took more than a year during which the individual was reduced to being a complete addict and then gradually faded away losing his mind and physical vigour. Aurangzeb solemnly promised Suleiman that he would not be poisoned and send him to Gwalior fort to be imprisoned. There he was administered slow-poison from the first day, every morning, till he finally died in May 1662. Aurangzeb had wantonly broken a promise that he had voluntarily given to his own nephew without any display of qualms, a blot on his character forever.     

Shuja’s Plight

As Dara was fleeing from the Punjab towards Multan, Aurangzeb returned to Delhi, since he was suspicious of Shuja’s movement from his capital at Raj Mahal to Patna. Carrying out forced marches, Aurangzeb reached Delhi on 30th November 1658. After his victory at Samugarh, Aurangzeb had contacted Shuja and offered him one-third of the empire, in return for his cooperation against Dara. However, Shuja was not as gullible as Murad and did not believe Aurangzeb’s sincerity. He knew instinctively that any kind of kingdom that he got would have to be won, and protected, by the sword.

Knowing that Aurangzeb was in the Punjab chasing Dara, Shuja started to move west, aiming to make a dash and capture Agra. Agra was indeed undefended, but Shuja moved too slowly to capitalise on this situation. By the time Shuja reached Varanasi, Aurangzeb was already in Delhi and had passed instructions to Muhammad Sultan, his son holding Agra, to block Shuja’s path. When Shuja reached Allahabad in early January 1659, Muhammad Sultan was already in Kora nearby. Aurangzeb himself arrived at Kora on 12th January and was also joined by Mir Jumla from Daulatabad.

There was some confusion in Aurangzeb’s army when Jaswant Singh, who had by this time switched sides like a number of nobles, withdrew from the army with more than 14,000 men on account of some slight insult that he had suffered. However, luckily for Aurangzeb, he withdrew to his kingdom rather than joining Shuja. While this misunderstanding was being played out in Aurangzeb’s army, Shuja held back from attacking, thinking that it was one more of his brother’s plots. In the meantime, Aurangzeb displayed cool courage, arranging his forces for the oncoming battle, as if Jaswant’s departure was of no consequence.

Battle was joined on 14th January at the village of Khwaja, 13 kilometres east of Kora. The numerically superior Aurangzeb force was sorely tried by the Bengal army. Shuja was a more innovative and daring general than Aurangzeb would ever be. Aurangzeb’s army was battered at the flanks, but he held fast in the centre, shackling the legs of his own elephant to ensure that it would not run. This action rallied his forces and gradually their numerical superiority started to assert itself, Shuja’s forces were enveloped and engulfed. Shuja fled from the battlefield, pursued by forces under the command of Muhammad Sultan and Mir Jumla.

Shuja made several stands against the enemy on his retreat to Bengal; each time he was defeated and forced to retreat further and his forces whittled down. At this stage, Muhammad Sultan defected to Shuja, enticed by the prospect of marrying Shuja’s ravishing daughter, Gulrukh Begum. Although he re-joined Aurangzeb later, his unforgiving father kept him imprisoned for the rest of his life.

By mid-May 1660, Shuja was driven out of Bengal and took refuge with the Magh pirate king of the Arakan. It is uncertain how his life ended, but the story goes that he was killed by the Maghs after he attempted a coup to take over the Arakan kingdom. It is reported that Aurangzeb carried out the death rites for Shuja after he was driven out of Bengal. Presumably this was to once again demonstrate to the public that he cared a lot for his brothers and brings onto open view his hypocritical cynicism. At the end, the fact remains that after his escape to the Arakan, all traces of Shuja disappear—in actual life and virtually through the death rites.         

Dealing with Dara Shikoh

From his victory on 29th May till 13th June 1658, Aurangzeb did not initiate any action against Dara who had fled to the Punjab. It could be speculated that he considered Dara to be a spent force who would voluntarily leave the country. However, when it was realised that Dara was preparing for a military campaign, he ordered a vigorous pursuit of Dara and his followers. They were hounded out of Punjab and Dara reached Gujarat in January 1659, where he sought refuge. The governor of Ahmedabad received Dara cordially and also gave him access to some of the funds that Murad had left behind.

Dara raised a force in Gujarat and decided to face Aurangzeb again. Raja Jaswant Singh initially promised him support, which was later withdrawn at the instigation of Aurangzeb. The two armies met at Deora (in the modern district of Chattarpur in Madhya Pradesh).

The Battle of Deora

The battle was joined on 22nd March, starting with the usual artillery barrage. Dara had moved in early to the village and entrenched in carefully prepared defensive positions on the high ground, thereby ensuring tactical advantage. Aurangzeb’s forces were forced to fight uphill. Dara had decided on a masterly strategy and had decided that not being defeated was a victory for him.

The battle lasted continuously for an unprecedented three days. However, Dara’s luck did not hold and in one of the night melees, his defensive gun positions were overrun by the adversary forces. The fortress-like defences that had been prepared crumbled very rapidly and Dara was once again forced to flee.

After suffering his second battlefield defeat, Dara fled back to Gujarat, and reached Ahmedabad. He decided then to take refuge with the Baluch chief Malik Jiwan at Dadar. Dara had once saved Jiwan from the imperial wrath of Shah Jahan and considered that the Baluchi owed him in return. The Baluchi chief treated the fugitive prince well while he was within his chiefdom, in accordance with the tribal code of honour, but as soon as Dara moved out of his territory, Jiwan betrayed him to Aurangzeb’s generals. Dara and his younger son Siphir reached Delhi as captives on 23rd August 1659.

Aurangzeb was vindictive and insulted Dara and his son as much as possible—parading them in tatters on a filthy elephant on the streets of Delhi. It was initially proposed to banish him, but Aurangzeb wanted Dara to be killed and sought a reason for murdering him. Aurangzeb, hypocritical to the core in his dealings with his brothers and their offspring, would not rest till all of them were killed but also wanted to ensure that at least a superficial reason was provided for executing each one of them. In reality, he had become frightened of the people rebelling against his treatment of Dara and his sons, who were well-liked. There was open revulsion amongst the population of Delhi at the degradation that Dara was subjected to by Aurangzeb. Dara was brought to trial in a kangaroo court, accused of being a kafir, or an apostate, convicted, and condemned to death.

Dara and Siphir were murdered in their cell on 9th September 1659. Dara’s headless body was paraded around Delhi and then buried in an unmarked grave within Humayun’s tomb. There are unconfirmed reports that his head was placed on a covered plate and served to Shah Jahan. Considering Aurangzeb’s wrath and vindictiveness, that such an action was carried out is a distinct possibility, however bizarre it might seem. A petition had been made to Aurangzeb to spare his eldest brother’s life, but Aurangzeb rejected it, writing in his own hand on the petition, ‘a usurper and mischief-maker deserves no mercy’. This document survives to this day.


Succession struggles within the Mughal dynasty was a way of life. However, the sons of Shah Jahan outdid their illustrious predecessors by the hatred they displayed for each other, their vindictiveness and the extreme ferocity of the conflict. The fact that four princes could raise sufficiently strong armies and contest the throne for almost a year is indicative of the enormous power and wealth that was resident in the empire as whole. The other factor to note was that Rajput nobles and their forces were part of the army of all four brothers, a clear testimony to the integration and acceptance of the Mughals into mainstream Indian politics and religion; they were not ‘outsiders’ any more than the Rajputs themselves.

After crowning himself with a bloodbath of his brothers and nephews, in later years Aurangzeb justified his actions to the court chroniclers by stating that his rule was pre-ordained. He is reported to have said that Shah Jahan had to be deposed because he was spreading anarchy through bad government and his desire to hand over the empire to Dara Shikoh; Dara was unfit to rule because he was an idolater; and similarly dismissed his other two brothers—Shuja as being too ambitious since he declared himself emperor, and Murad having to be executed to meet the ends of justice. He went on to state, ‘If God made me emperor, it was from no other cause than that I had been ever a faithful defender of the Koran. Against my design and my will, which was to live as a poor fakir, I was exalted above other men, because that just Lord, who raises the meek and abases the haughty, had so determined.’ The re-writing of history has been practised by rulers form antiquity.  

The often debated question is, whether Dara—or for that matter Shuja or Murad—would have spared the lives of their brothers if one of them had been the victor in the struggle? This is a vexed question and difficult to answer with any sense of accuracy. To the Mughal emperors, from the time of Humayun, their brothers were the biggest threat to themselves and the stability of their kingdom. From this perspective, there were compelling political reasons to eliminate them and their progeny. The Mughal attitude to any threat to their absolute power was unequivocal and conditioned through generations of succession struggles. From a historical perspective, the result of this particular struggle was not so much about who would rule the empire, but about the future of India. Dara’s rule promised a humane and progressive future and Aurangzeb’s reign was anything but humane and progressive.

‘At the beginning of the war of succession, Father Buzeo, a European padre in Agra had confidently predicted that Dara, despite all his advantages, would be destroyed. The reason? “The people of Hindustan,” said the padre, “are very malicious … [and] such a race required to be ruled by a more malignant king, not by a good-natured man like Dara.”

— Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 371.

It is indeed true that a people get the leaders they deserve.     

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2021]
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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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