From a very early age, the Mughal children were groomed to fight for the throne; they had to know the ropes of battle in order to achieve the highest power, that of the emperor. Bloodshed and murder was a part of the system, if one had to fulfill their greatest desire.
Only the fittest may survive, was sort of an unannounced motto of that era. We are ignorant of many brutal, gruesome incidents that have taken place for the sake of the system, in that time, which includes the story of Ashoka, who killed his hundred brothers for power. Another such story, that requires acknowledgement, is of the downfall of one of the most important characters that shaped the history of the Mughal Empire.
It is needless to say that back in that time, the population of the subcontinent, both the impoverished and the privileged, was extremely orthodox; not many supported the idea of change in the conventional system. The people desired for a ruler that would only lead them to success; who would not let them lose under any circumstance. Secularism was practised in Akbar’s reign, and people from all religious backgrounds could be a part of the Mughal court, as long as they were capable enough to attain that position.
Even though everyone seemed liberal minded, the hunger for a powerful and strong emperor led to the downfall of one of the potential leaders of the Mughal era. Inheritance to the Mughal throne was not based on Primogeniture (the law or custom by which the firstborn son inherits the throne or family estate), but the sons needed to compete for military success. Under the scorching heat of the sun, without any form of protection, on the back of an unadorned female elephant, a man made his way to face his death, with his young son seated behind him and a muscular, yet anxious looking, eunuch accompanying him.
This was by far one of the vilest forms of disrespect for anyone, but there he was, the most pampered and favorite son of Mughal emperor Shahjahan, amidst a sea of commoners somberly observing the pathetic and wretched scene proceeding before them, in a dirty and coarse attire. He was Prince Dara Shikoh, the first son and heir of emperor Shahjahan- the one already entitled to the throne after his father. Given his upbringing and ancestry, the cruelty that Dara Shikoh had to go through was unimaginable, that too because of his own younger brother, Prince Aurungzeb.
Dara and Aurungzeb were three years apart, born in 1615 and 1618, respectively. Amongst all the children of Shahjahan, Dara received the most affection and privileges. Growing up, while his brothers were all sent to different parts of the subcontinent, Dara stayed in Delhi, under the surveillance of his father. He almost never left the safety of the court, following his father’s accession to the imperial throne.
Staying within the court vicinity, he barely ever faced struggles or fights that he had to resolve and also did not have to govern any of the states, unlike his brothers. Thus, he lacked some of the basic skills of putting up a fight or even guiding the troops in the battlefield. Dara was an intellectual with a knack for reading, writing and learning. Knowledge occupied the highest pedestal in his life. He aspired to break religious differences by relating the teachings of the holy Quran and the Upanishads.
His diverse and unique perspective led him to understand the hidden similarities in different religions. Some say he was straying away from Islam and inclining towards Hinduism when Dara discovered that both Hindu scriptures and the Quran believed in the idea of only one God and started giving importance to their cultural beliefs. In some ways, their forefather Akbar’s ideologies reflected in Dara. Aurungzeb, on the other hand, had a different frame of mind. He did not promote the idea of secularism as much as Dara Shikoh or even Akbar.
He joined hands with the people who sought to enhance Muslim principles, and they began to detest the impression of Dara being the ruler. They would not want to allow their potential emperor to be someone who did not strictly practise Islam. Aurungzeb began to instill the concept of Dara’s fascination towards Hindu culture into the public mind, especially the Muslim scholars and preachers of the society.
Moreover, since Aurungzeb had the greater experience in governing states, the general public had accepted him as an exemplary ruler. Their anticipation was justified as Aurungzeb was very much capable of handling the title like his father Shah Jahan. He was an excellent fighter with strategic planning and a cunning mind. These were the qualities necessary to claim the position of an emperor.
In the year 1658, a decisive battle for the throne took place between Dara, the apparent heir, and his two younger brothers Aurungzeb and Murad Baksh, the fourth son of emperor Shahjahan. It was the battle of Samugarh. Dara Shikoh retreated towards Samugarh after Aurangzeb had defeated Dara’s forces during the Battle of Dharmat. The battle began when Dara Shikoh ordered his cannons to start firing towards Aurungzeb’s army.
Murad Baksh, associate of Aurungzeb and a formidable fighter, took out the strong commanders of Dara Shikoh and weakened his forces, even though Murad was seriously wounded and his horse was killed. While Dara’s troops went to retaliate to Murad Baksh’s attacks, Aurungzeb bombarded Dara with heavy cannon doses, causing massive disarray among his ranks.
The outcome of the battle was decided when Dara Shikoh descended from his elephant at the most critical moment. His elephant then quickly fled from the theater of war, which was evidence enough for Shikoh’s battalions, who mistook this event to indicate the death of their leader. Thousands of Dara Shikoh’s armies then surrendered to Aurungzeb as the ode to his victory played in the background.
Although Dara Shikoh was the most powerful man in the Mughal Empire after his father Shahjahan, he knew little about the art of war and military command. This unfamiliarity reflected in the battlefield, where his loosely knit army eventually crumbled under the ferocious assault by Aurungzeb and Baksh. Despite having the Rajputs and the Deccan Sorwars in his team, Dara Shikoh failed to attain the throne from the clutches of his younger brother Aurungzeb. Although, Dara was instructed to wait for his son to join him in the battle, but the situation did not allow him to do so.
Aurungzeb had already managed to trap Sulaiman so that he could not help his father. At the end of the battle Dara fled and sought, to seek refuge from a king, who betrayed him and informed Aurungzeb about Dara’s whereabouts. Dara Shikoh was later captured by Aurungzeb, along with his son, after his father, Shahjahan, surrendered and was imprisoned in the Red Fort.
Dara Shikoh and his son had to face the utmost contempt when they were paraded down the streets of Agra and were declared “non-Muslim”, and a threat to public peace, by his own blood, Aurungzeb. The end result was the execution of both son and father under the command of the victor. But Aurungzeb’s woes had not ended until yet another fierce battle between him and his older brother, Shah Shuja- the Battle of Khwaja.
According to a Venetian traveler, Niccolao Manucci, who worked in the Mughal court, upon Dara’s capture, Aurungzeb ordered his men to bring his head up to him and he inspected it thoroughly to ensure that it was indeed Dara Shikoh. Aurungzeb’s cruelty towards Dara surpassed all forms of humanity when he sent the mutilated head to their father, Shahjahan, with clear instructions to be delivered only when the old king sat for dinner.
Shahjahan was beyond horrified to see what unfolded when he delightedly opened the box that his successful son had sent for him. There it was, the mutilated head of the former emperor’s most beloved heir- the son designated to the title “Badshahzada-i-Buzurg Martaba”, the Prince of High Rank. A major advantage that Aurungzeb had over Dara, was the support of the public due to Dara’s perspective and curiosity when it came to religion. Besides that, Aurungzeb was highly capable of governing battles and army men, unlike Dara.
Dara was nothing like an ordinary Mughal child. He was pampered, loved and adored by his father, Shahjahan. Whatever the Mughal children were allowed, Dara had the most. He was a great patron of the arts, more inclined towards philosophy rather than military pursuits. These traits of his were frowned upon by most people. It is justified to say that Dara Shikoh had a lot of shortcomings when it came to fighting for power.
He was not shrewd or scheming, rather thirsty for learning. His whole life was spent acquiring information regarding his field of interest, so that when the time came, he struggled to cope with the system. He tried, but failed, and maybe, the result was for the empire’s best interest. Dara lacked the governing abilities that Aurungzeb had mastered in his time away from home. But Dara Shikoh was a great man, a romantic with only one wife that he loved dearly- Naira Banu Begum.
Dara Shikoh has heavily contributed to our history- his translation of the Upanishads to Persian, which were then translated to different languages and helped to exchange the information all over the world. He is also credited for the commissioning of several exquisite examples of Mughal architecture, which include the tomb of his wife in Lahore, the Shrine of Mian Mir also in Lahore, the Dara Shikoh Library in Delhi, the Akhun Mullah Shah Mosque and the Pari Mahal garden palace, both in Srinagar, Kashmir. These structures are still existing and highly appreciated, courtesy of Prince Dara Shikoh.
He was a peace-lover, a liberal minded, unorthodox Muslim. If it was not for the bitter struggle for the imperial throne, Dara Shikoh might have been one the greatest philosophers the history of the Indian Subcontinent would have ever come across.