1306: Simon Fraser, William Wallace comrade in arms 1622: Charles Spinola, martyr in Japan

1659: Dara Shikoh, deposed Mughal heir

September 9th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1659,* the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb disposed of his primary competition … his older brother Dara Shukoh or Shikoh.

These two sons of Taj Mahal builder Shah Jahan were the principal contenders in a fratricidal four-way civil war for the Peacock Throne. We’ve previously covered this time of troubles via the execution of yet another of the brothers here.

But if the old man had had his way, Dara would have been the winner. For many years it was the firstborn who had been painstakingly positioned as the heir, not excluding possession of the Mughal capital — a circumstance which helped to goad the envious brothers into rebellion when Shah Jahan’s illness threatened to make Dara’s succession a fait accompli.

It turned out, when Aurangzeb emerged victorious, that Shah Jahan had survived just fine: it’s just that it would be his to contemplate in his enforced retirement the destruction of his former favorite. According to the account of Dara’s French physician, when Aurangzeb captured Dara in battle, he had him humiliatingly

secured on an elephant; his young son, Sipah Shikoh, placed at his side, and behind them, instead of the executioner, was seated Bahadur Khan [one of the royal generals]. This was not one of the majestic elephants of Pegu or Ceylon, which Dara had been in the habit of mounting, pompously caparisoned, the harness gilt, and trappings decorated with figured work; and carrying a beautifully painted howdah inlaid with gold, and a magnificent canopy to shelter the Prince from the sun: Dara was now seen seated on a miserable and worn-out animal, covered with filth; he no longer wore the necklace of large pearls which distinguish the princes of Hindoustan, nor the rich turban and embroidered coat; he and his son were now habited in dirty cloth of the coarsest texture, and his sorry turban was wrapt round with a Kashmir shawl or scarf, resembling that worn by the meanest of the people.

Such was the appearance of Dara when led through the Bazars and every quarter of the city [of Delhi]. I could not divest myself of the idea that some dreadful execution was about to take place, and felt surprise that government should have the hardihood to commit all these indignities upon a Prince confessedly popular among the lower orders, especially as I saw scarcely any armed force. The people had for some time inveighed bitterly against the unnatural conduct of Aureng-Zebe: the imprisonment of his father, of his son Sultan Mahmud, and of his brother Murad Bakhsh, filled every bosom with horror and disgust. The crowd assembled upon this disgraceful occasion was immense; and everywhere I observed the people weeping, and lamenting the fate of Dara in the most touching language. I took my station in one of the most conspicuous parts of the city, in the midst of the largest bazar; was mounted on a good horse, and accompanied by two servants and two intimate friends. From every quarter I heard piercing and distressing shrieks, for the Indian people have a very tender heart; men, women, and children wailing as if some mighty calamity had happened to themselves. Javan Khan [a Pathan who betrayed Dara into Aurangzeb’s hands] rode near the wretched Dara; and the abusive and indignant cries vociferated as the traitor moved along were absolutely deafening. I observed some faqirs and several poor people throw stones at the infamous Pathan; but not a single movement was made, no one offered to draw his sword, with a view of delivering the beloved and compassionated Prince. When this disgraceful procession had passed through every part of Dehli, the poor prisoner was shut up in one of his own gardens, called Haidarabad.

Aureng-Zebe was immediately made acquainted with the impression which this spectacle produced upon the public mind, the indignation manifested by the populace against the Pathan, the threats held out to stone the perfidious man, and with the fears entertained of a general insurrection. A second council was consequently convened, and the question discussed, whether it were more expedient to conduct Dara to Gwalior, agreeably to the original intention, or to put him to death without further delay … it was ultimately decided that Dara should die, and that Sipah-Shikoh should be confined in Gwalior. At this meeting Raushanara Begam [Dara and Aurangzeb’s sister] betrayed all her enmity against her hapless brother, combating the arguments of Danishmand Khan, and exciting Aureng-Zebe to this foul and unnatural murder….

The charge of this atrocious murder was intrusted to a slave of the name of Nazir, who had been educated by Shah-Jahan, but experienced some ill-treatment from Dara. The Prince, apprehensive that poison would be administered to him, was employed with Sipah Shikoh in boiling lentils, when Nazir and four other ruffians entered his apartment. ‘My dear son,’ he cried out, ‘these men are come to murder us!’ He then seized a small kitchen knife, the only weapon in his possession. One of the murderers having secured Sipah Shikoh, the rest fell upon Dara, threw him down, and while three of the assassins held him, Nazir decapitated his wretched victim. The head was instantly carried to Aureng-Zebe, who commanded that it should be placed in a dish, and that water should be brought. The blood was then washed from the face, and when it could no longer be doubted that it was indeed the head of Dara, he shed tears, and said, ‘Ai Bad-bakht! Ah wretched one! let this shocking sight no more offend my eyes, but take away the head, and let it be buried in Humayun’s tomb.’


That’s not the way to get a-head! Aurangzeb contemplates his fratricidal trophy. Via dara-shikoh.blogspot.com, which has many other illustrations of Dara’s career.

Dara’s daughter was taken that same evening to the saraglio, but afterwards sent to Shah-Jahan and Begam-Sahib; who begged of Aureng-Zebe to commit the young Princess to their care. Dara’s wife, foreseeing the calamities which awaited her and her husband, had already put a period to her existence, by swallowing poison at Lahor. Sipah Shikoh was immured in the fortress of Gwalior; and soon after these tragical events Javan Khan was summoned before the council, and then dismissed from Dehli with a few presents. He did not escape the fate, however, which he merited, being waylaid and assassinated in a forest, within a few leagues of his own territory. This barbarian had not sufficiently reflected, that though tyrants appear to countenance the blackest crimes while they conduce to their interest, or promote a favourite object, they yet hold the perpetrators in abhorrence, and will not scruple to punish them when they can no longer be rendered subservient to any iniquitous project.

The cultured Dara cuts a charismatic figure for posterity, and given that the Mughal Empire fell into precipitous decline after Aurangzeb — opening the way for British colonization — some can’t help wondering whether India’s destiny could have been entirely different had Dara successfully followed his father to the throne.

* September 9 on the Gregorian calendar; the equivalent Julian date of August 30 is also commonly reported.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Execution,History,India,Mughal Empire,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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