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     Volume 6 Issue 47 | December 7, 2007 |

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In Retrospect

The Last of the Mughals
A Tale of Two Princesses

Azizul Jalil

“Sister, if ever you need anything, just let me know.”
Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister of India whispering into the ear of
Shahabzadi Qamar Sultan, direct descendent of Bahadur Shah Zafar.

I had often wondered about the surviving members of the Mughal royal lineage. The last Mughal Emperor of India and a poet Bahadur Shah Zafar died in 1862 in Rangoon, where he was exiled by the British after the failed mutiny of 1857. When the Mughals were deposed, many of their records were destroyed and the immediate family members were wandering around for many years for their lives, hiding their true identity. Could the Mughal royal family line have vanished in the last one-hundred and forty-five years since Bahadur Shah's death?

That question was answered by William Dalrymple's book “City of Djinns.” He has written a number of books including The White Mughals and Sacred India. The City of Djinns tells the story of the sufis, eunuchs, Djinns and about Shahjahan, Aurangzeb and the brutalities of the successive wars. But to me the most interesting part was the few pages on the last of the surviving Mughals of the imperial line, one of whom he met in Delhi in the early nineties. Though Dalrymple did not mention it, one other survivor living in Hyderabad had approached the government of India for recognition and assistance as the heir to the Mughal throne. There is some controversy as to who has the most claim to the extinct Mughal throne. I would like to share their stories with those who have a nostalgic fascination for the living Mughals. The following is based on Dalrymple's book, articles in The Hindu and The Milli Gazette of 2001 and a BBC news report of 2002.

Begum Qamar Sultan
According to Shahabzadi Qamar Sultan, she was the granddaughter of Fateh-ul-Mulk, the heir apparent of the last Mughal Emperor. Fateh was poisoned in a court intrigue years before the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. His six-year old son, Mirza Farkunda Zamal, luckily survived both this and the Mutiny. A nurse had smuggled out the child from the Red Fort and hid him in a jungle around Mehrauli, adjacent to Delhi when the British reoccupied the city. Much later, when it was safe for Mirza to reveal his identity, the British awarded him a pension. He was even given an honoured place in the Delhi Darbar of 1877. This man was Shahabzadi's father.

The ninety-year old princess was born in the first year of the twentieth century. Dalrymple describes his meeting with her: “wrapped in an all enveloping white salwar kameez, she chewed paan from an elaborately incised silver box. She was very old and very deaf. Her old-fashioned courtly Urdu was difficult to understand and her daughter (Pakeeza Sultan Begum) translated for me.” They had hard times after independence but despite Nehru's encouragement, she did not seek any charity from the government. An interesting anecdote relates to the old princess throwing the last family heirloom of beautiful inlaid jade daggers down the well of the house during the partition of India in 1947 for fear that the police might arrest them for keeping lethal weapons.

Pakeeza Sultan mockingly said: “It was all my great-grandfather Aurangzeb's fault. If it was not for him we would still have the empire.” In any case, when she and her siblings pass away, the direct line of the great Mughals will end. Neither her brothers or sister or she herself had any children. Her only nephew had died young of typhoid. Her mother had a sister but she also did not have any child. After independence, her brothers went to Pakistan and her sister emigrated to England. Pakeeza lamented about the sad condition of the Red Fort, where during a visit she had to buy a ticket. It might just disappear in time. As to why she is staying on in India and not joining her brothers in Pakistan, she said: “Delhi is our home-for all its faults we love this city. After all, we built it.”

Begum Laila Umahani

The other family with the Mughal lineage is headed by Begum Laila Umahani, who lives in Asmangarh, a small city in Hyderabad. She has a glorious family history to tell-only there are not many takers. She claims to be in the direct line of Bahadur Shah. She had taken her claim to Indira Gandhi and subsequent governments in Delhi, but to no avail. She lives in a rented house with her two sons, Ziauddin and MasiduddinTucy. Her husband died earlier. A documentary film about this family- 'The Living Mughals' was shown in India a few years back.

According to Begum Umahani, after Bahadur Shah's exile, Mirza Quaish, his son by his first wife Begum Ashraf Mahal, fled to Kathmandu. After he secretly returned to India, Maharana of Udaipur gave him shelter. The second generation, Mirza Abdullah moved as a fugitive to Nagpur, Aurangabad and finally to Hyderabad, where the Nizam helped him. His son, Mirza Pyre was married to a member of the Nizam's family. Begum Umahani is his daughter and is the fourth generation. She wishes to be recognised as the only surviving Mughal of the royal line. Her son, Mashiuddin prefers to call his family Aulad-e-Babar (sons of Babar.) He informs that the family enjoys great respect in Uzbekistan, which even offered them citizenship. He regrets that though Bahadur Shah Zafar was a leading figure of the first war of independence in 1857, the Indian Parliament does not have a picture of him.

No final judgment needs to be passed on the legitimacy of claim of either of the two families to the Mughal succession as nothing material is involved. But one can understand the sentiment and the pride of the two old princesses in wishing to be recognised for carrying the torch of the great Mughals.

Azizul Jalil writes from Washington.


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