An old man sits hunched over his prayer mat as dawn breaks over the horizon, his white beard soaked from tears shed through the night. No one would believe that this troubled figure is the sixth Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb Alamgir. The year is 1707, and Aurangzeb is nearing the end of his life. In these final days, he recalls his full life, which expanded the Mughal Empire, and writes anguished deathbed confessions to his sons.
Aurangzeb’s ascension to the throne had been turbulent, marked by infighting and betrayal. His cruel treatment of his brothers after emerging victorious was used to define his personality. However, is it fair to judge him so harshly for something many before him had done? This article will primarily focus on the war of succession that led to Aurangzeb’s ascension to power. It will also address other historical and contemporary rulers who employed the same tactics to secure their throne, and yet are seen in a more forgiving light than Aurangzeb, the most loved, hated, and controversial Mughal emperor.
Close up of Emperor Aurangzeb, from ‘Aurangzeb holds court’, as painted by (perhaps) Bichitr. ( Public Domain )
What were the Rules of Mughal Succession?
Most kings relied upon the concept of primogeniture, which basically meant that the right of succession belonged to the first-born male child. However, the Mughals refused to set up clear rules of succession, causing numerous battles of succession between rival princes. In fact, the absence of defined succession laws may have been what led to the destabilization of the Mughal Empire , according to many historians of the 19th and 20th centuries.
There is an alternative way to look at the Mughal decision to ignore the need for rules. Munis D. Faruqui challenged the above view in his book, “The Princes of the Mughal Empire, 1504-1719,” where he suggested that historians minimize the role Mughal princes played in forging empirical power. He wrote:
“…from the day that princes were born, and for the duration of their lives as princes, they were critical actors on the Mughal stage. Their centrality ultimately derived from the competitive political energy that framed Mughal succession struggles over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Especially after the 1580s and Emperor Akbar’s decision to no longer grant his sons semi-independent territories, the rules of this contest were simple and are best summed up by the terse Persian phrase: ya takht, ya takhta (either throne or funeral pyre).”
As Faruqui said, the competition for the throne had only two outcomes; the victor would control the empire, and the loser or losers would face death. In an atmosphere where such competitiveness was fostered and even encouraged, it is little surprise that the Mughal princes were known to maim and kill their competitors. The young princes would be trained from an early age to be independent-minded, ruthless, and tough; these traits would be refined as they reached maturity.
Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar , the third Mughal Emperor, had narrowed down the list of legitimate competitors to only include sons of the emperor. Nephews and male cousins had been stripped of their right to compete for the throne. Akbar had faced many problems caused by relatives in the past, and therefore chose to exclude them from the list of legitimate candidates.
Akbar even encouraged his sons to travel and cultivate their influence. He introduced the young princes to powerful people, with whom they would forge alliances. The princes would woo and nurture their relationship with important allies, who would play an essential role in the future. Another important element of succession is that when a prince won the throne, he would pardon the allies of his competitors to win their loyalty. That is why throughout the Mughal rule, nobles were unafraid to take sides; they would back the prince they believed most likely to succeed. Even if their chosen prince lost, they would not suffer consequences.
Faruqui explained further:
“One crucial impact of such frenetic activity was this: imperial political, social, and monetary resources remained in constant circulation, which created powerful and widespread investment not only in individual princes but also in the dynasty as a whole.”
Emperor Aurangzeb at the Siege of Golconda ( Public Domain )
Aurangzeb Alamgir’s Fight for the Peacock Throne
Born on November 3, 1618, Aurangzeb was the son of Prince Khurram (future emperor Shah Jahan) and his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. He was born during his grandfather’s reign, the fourth Mughal emperor, Jahangir. Aurangzeb was the third of four brothers; his brothers Dara Shikoh and Shah Shuja were older, while Murad was younger. These four full siblings would compete with one another for the throne.
As a young prince, Aurangzeb was provided with an excellent education along with his brothers. However, beyond education, the brothers’ childhood was characterized by brotherly rivalry. Birth order was irrelevant to securing the throne, so Aurangzeb knew that if he could outmaneuver his siblings then he would be the next in line to inherit the lustrous Peacock Throne.
Shah Jahan made his favored children known; his eldest son Dara Shikoh and second-eldest daughter Jahanara were always rewarded over their other siblings. However, there was a moment when Aurangzeb received his father’s recognition, when Shah Jahan and his sons were attending an elephant fight, a favorite hobby of the Mughal elite. One of the elephants charged toward Aurangzeb in a rage without warning. To defend himself, Aurangzeb speared the elephant’s head, which only angered the creature more. Aurangzeb survived the encounter, and his bravery was recognized by all present, including his father.
To everyone’s surprise, Dara had fled during the life-threatening encounter. In surviving illustrations, Dara is portrayed in the background, safe from harm. At this moment, Shah Jahan saw himself reflected in his son, Aurangzeb. It reminded the emperor of his own heroic act, repelling a raging lion in 1610, while his father, Jahangir, had watched on.
When Aurangzeb was sixteen years old, Shah Jahan sent him away from the court, to help run the empire. For the next twenty-two years, from 1635 to 1657, Aurangzeb fought and defended his father’s kingdom. Shah Shuja and Murad were also given provinces to look after; they each played a part in the empire’s expansion. All except Dara, who remained at court, close to his father. This preferential treatment created resentment among his brothers.
Another point that intensified the brothers’ rivalry was the preferential treatment of Dara’s son, Sulaiman Shikoh. In 1657, Aurangzeb wrote a letter to his elder sister, Jahanara, complaining that “despite twenty years of service and loyalty, he is not considered worthy of the same level of confidence as his brother’s son [i.e., Sulaiman Shikoh].” However, what ultimately destroyed Aurangzeb’s relationship with his father and older siblings was when he was invited to court, only to be warned by his sister Roshanara that his family was planning to kill him.
After years of rivalry, everything boiled over when Shah Jahan fell gravely ill and rumors about his death began to circulate. The war to secure the throne, and finally gain recognition, began. Murad joined forces with Aurangzeb, signing a qaulnama (contract) that once they achieved victory over Dara, they would divide the empire between them.
The combined forces of the two princes won the battles of Dharmat (April 1658) and Samugarh (May 1658) against the imperial forces. A new round of negotiations was started, led by Jahanara, who was acting on her father’s behalf.
“Working on behalf of Shah Jahan, she broached the possibility of dividing the empire five ways among Dara Shikoh (the Punjab and neighboring regions), Shuja (Bengal), Murad (Gujarat), Aurangzeb (much of northern and central India), and Aurangzeb’s oldest son Muhammad Sultan (the Deccan). Around the same time, Shah Jahan engaged in secret negotiations with Muhammad Sultan to try to persuade him to abandon his father and accept the Deccan as his patrimony.”
The furtive negotiations by Shah Jahan, to turn a son against his father, led to the situation declining more quickly. Aurangzeb and Murad emerged victorious, but then Murad tried to entice Aurangzeb’s troops to switch alliances. Murad distanced himself from Aurangzeb, upsetting the emperor. Despite all the challenges, in the end, Aurangzeb captured the throne, and there was no need for the empire to be divided. The now-former emperor Shah Jahan was imprisoned, Dara and Murad were executed, and Shah Shuja escaped, dying in exile.
Painting depicting the Peacock Throne, Delhi, circa 1850 ( Public Domain )
The Mughal Dynasty and the Prize of the Peacock Throne
Humayun: The First Mughal Succession
The founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur, did not establish any official succession rights before his death. Although Humayun had been declared the next emperor, he faced multiple attacks from kinsmen who believed that they had a stronger claim to the throne. His brother-in-law, Muhammad Zaman Mirza, fought long and hard against Humayun, but surrendered and ultimately lost his life. Humayun even faced opposition from his half-brothers, but in the end emerged victorious. Although he had faced betrayal by his brothers and was encouraged to kill them, Humayun followed his father’s dying words: “Do nothing against your brothers, even though they may deserve it.” During his rule, he cleared away the competition, paving the way for his son’s smooth succession. One hundred years later, Aurangzeb may have attempted to follow some of these lessons in his failed alliance with his brother Murad.
Mughal emperor, 17th century ( Archivist / Adobe Stock)
Akbar’s Shifting Succession Selection
During Humayun’s war to reclaim the throne, his half-brother Kamran Mirza kidnapped his son Akbar and held him hostage. The young prince was even used as a shield to prevent Humayun from attacking. Luckily, Akbar was rescued by Maham Anga, his wet nurse. By the time of Humayun’s untimely death in 1556, he had barely established his authority since reclaiming control of his empire. Akbar inherited his father’s unstable territory at the young age of 14, and would spend most of his life fighting and expanding the borders of the Mughal Empire. He faced opposition from his half-brother, Mirza Hakim, who controlled Kabul at the time.
As mentioned previously, Akbar had limited succession to only the emperor’s sons. However, Akbar himself created competition between his heirs when he decided to name his grandson Khusrau as heir apparent, rather than his sons. Historian Munis D. Faruqui wrote: “Through his elevation of Khusrau, Akbar appears to have sought to impress on all concerned parties, but especially on Salim [future emperor Jahangir], that he was willing to supersede their claims to the throne if they questioned his authority.” There can be little doubt that Akbar wanted a fiercer competition for the throne, given the way he was arranging it. Perhaps he wanted to test who would be the best candidate to take control of the Mughal legacy he had created.
In the end, the premature deaths of Murad and Daniyal, both from alcohol poisoning, spared the Mughal Empire from its first war of succession. Another change that occurred a few days before Akbar’s death, was a gathering of nobles. They declared that his eldest son Jahangir would be the next emperor, rather than his eldest grandson Khusrau. In his last act as emperor, Akbar reconciled with his son and made him the heir apparent.
A six-foot high, life-size portrait of Mughal emperor Jahangir, considered to be one of the rarest and most desirable 17th century paintings ever to go for auction, 1617 ( Public Domain )
Jahangir: Cruelty and Violence for Power
Jahangir followed his father’s example, vigorously suppressing the political aspirations of family members. His deceased brother Daniyal’s three minor sons were forced to convert to Christianity as a ploy to ensure that the nobles would not support them. He repeatedly imprisoned, banished, and publicly degraded his uncle Mirza Hakim’s sons and grandsons. He even blinded his eldest son, Khusrau, before imprisoning him in 1607.
Jahangir did not take much part in the running of his empire, choosing instead to remain constantly intoxicated with wine and drugs. At first, he favored his son, Khurram (the future Shah Jahan), granting him all the favors due to an heir apparent. In 1622, under orders from Khurram, Khusrau was murdered.
By the mid-1620s, Jahangir began to simultaneously favor three major contenders: his two sons, Parviz and Shahryar, and his grandson, Dawar Bakhsh, son of the deceased Khusrau. Jahangir encouraged Dawar Bakhsh to seek retribution for his father’s death; in an imperial communication Jahangir wrote, “to take vengeance for his father’s murder by putting that wretched one [i.e., Khurram] to the sword.”
Having three contenders for the throne created turmoil, and in 1626 a supporter of Prince Parviz named Mahabat Khan rebelled and held Jahangir and most of the imperial court under arrest. It all came to an end when in October of the same year, Parviz died suddenly from alcohol poisoning.
Upon Jahangir’s death in 1627, Khurram watched from the sidelines while the two remaining contenders, his brother Shahryar and nephew Dawar Bakhsh, went to war with one another. In the end, Dawar Bakhsh emerged victorious, but little did he know that all the nobles supported Khurram and awaited his return. As Khurram approached Agra, he sent a message to his father-in-law and supporter, Asaf Khan, to imprison his remaining rivals: Dawar Bakhsh; Dawar Bakhsh’s younger brother Gurshasp; the blind Shahryar; and his uncle Daniyal’s surviving sons, Tahmuras and Hushang.
In the third week of January 1628, Khurram issued a proclamation that would set a violent precedent for future princely rivalries. He sent the order for the imprisoned princes to be put to death. Khurram then crowned himself as emperor, taking the title of Shah Jahan, which means “king of the world.” Years later, his grandson Aurangzeb would trace his grandfather’s bloody footprints to the throne.
Shah Jahan Portrait, 17th century (Nathan Hughes Hamilton / CC BY 2.0 )
Shah Jahan’s Succession: A Brutal Brotherly Bloodbath
During the reigns of previous Mughal emperors, all members of the royal family had mentionable roles. That changed during Shah Jahan’s rule, when the focus was primarily on the direct sons of the emperor. With his determination to reduce the number of princely competitors, he even went so far as to prevent his daughters’ marriage, denying them the chance to have children. Although he expressed clear preference for his eldest son, Dara Shikoh, to succeed him, his four sons preferred to imitate their father and engage in a bloody war of succession, eventually won by Aurangzeb.
Past as Prelude
The history of royalty is stained with sibling rivalries that have often ended bloodily. As sad as that fact is, the murder of family for power or position is a common occurrence in history and mythology.
One of the first recorded stories is that of the sons of Adam, Cain and Abel . Cain murdered his brother, Abel, because of jealousy. In mythology, there are similar stories, like that of Romulus killing his twin, Remus for control of Rome. In Egypt, Set murdered Osiris to seize his brother’s throne.
Cleopatra VII , the most well-known Egyptian queen, had all three of her siblings murdered to seize complete control of the Egyptian Empire. When she was made co-ruler alongside her brother and husband Ptolemy XIII, her sister Arsinoe plotted to overthrow Cleopatra and take her place. In the end, with the aid of Rome, Cleopatra emerged victorious.
Looking at the Ottoman Empire , there is the example of Mehmed III, who murdered nineteen of his brothers, a few nights after his ascension. While fratricide (the act of killing one’s brother) was not a part of the legal foundation of the Ottoman Empire, it had been legalized by Mehmed II. Mehmed II had fought a long and difficult civil war against his brothers Suleyman, Isa, and Musa. The war had lasted eight years and drained the empire of resources, weakening it. To prevent future wars, he deemed that killing the contenders to the emperor’s throne would bring peace. There are many more examples; however, the point remains that many royal families across the world took drastic measures to ensure their dynasty’s survival.
Aurangzeb was a product of his time; he learned from a system that his forefathers had set up. Although Dara Shikoh was executed, his body was treated with respect and buried in Humayun’s tomb. Debate over his reign as ruler is separate topic, but in terms of his succession, he simply continued a family legacy.
Top Image: Stylized depiction of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Source: Towseef / Adobe Stock
By Khadija Tauseef
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