Going along the canal road eastwards in Lahore, a neighbourhood named Mian Mir Colony has a shrine of Sufi scholar Hazrat Mian Mir and an unknown tomb — a smallish mausoleum on an elevated platform surrounded by four large playgrounds.
The entrance to the playgrounds is dotted with flower shops, the kind that sell flowers for graves and clay lamps to be lit inside shrines. Some of these flower garlands and lamps have made their way into the tomb, which houses the grave of Princess Nadira Bano. Unfortunately, the oodles of junkies, school-skippers, and street cricketers in the vicinity hardly know the tomb belongs to a Mughal princess.
The main mausoleum is different from Mughal architecture since it lacks an outer dome, and there are walkways on all four sides to reach the grave. When the mausoleum was built, the current playgrounds were actually one large water tank or pool, a last service to the princess who loved water and water lilies. The walkways used today as separators of the ‘grounds’ were constructed as causeways and the elevated tomb was like a floating island in a body of water.
Nadira Bano, known very little through the books of history, was the first and only wife of the Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh, the crown prince selected by Emperor Shah Jahan to continue the lineage of the Mughal Empire. She was born into the royal family as Shikoh’s second cousin, in the year 1618.
Both Shikoh and Nadira were raised in the royal fort, since Nadira’s father, Sultan Pervez Mirza, was the half-brother of Emperor Shah Jahan. Being a princess who was known for her beauty and charm, Nadira was trained to be a poet and artist. Niccalao Manucci, the Italian traveller and historian who wrote the popular Stories of the Mughals, describes her as a romantic, who was fond of poetry and art. So, no surprise there that she fell in love with the popular artist and poet-prince Dara Shikoh.
Waldeman Hansen, in his book The Peacock Throne: The Drama of Mughal India, explains how, after sensing a growing fondness between the young Shikoh and Nadira, Shah Jahan’s wife, and the lady of the Taj Mahal, Empress Mumtaz Mahal asked for Nadira’s hand in marriage from the ever popular Jani Begum, Nadira’s mother, who was happy to say yes. It is said, in Hansen’s book as well as Indu Sunderesan’s Shadow Princess (2010), that Shikoh’s wedding was a theatrical affair. Even by the lavish and pompous Mughal standards, the kind of money splashed at the gifts exchanged between the two families was the most extravagant.
Sunderasan writes about the arrangements in detail, with special focus on opulent garments lined and woven with gold, jewellery studded with exquisite stones, bed linen like they had never seen before and other such gifts. The reason could be Shikoh being the eldest and favourite son of both Mumtaz and Shah Jahan, much to the offense of a younger Aurangzeb Alamgir.
As fate would have it, the wedding was postponed when Mumtaz Mahal, mother of Shikoh, died in 1631, during childbirth a few weeks before the marriage was to take place. The bride and groom were crestfallen as was the entire empire. It took Mumtaz’s eldest daughter, Princess Jehan Ara, to rearrange the marriage party in 1633 and make the biggest wedding of the Mughals a reality, thus uniting Nadira and Shikoh in a relationship that made Shikoh never marry again while living in an era when marrying multiple times was a sign of honour and manliness.
Nadira was enough.
Nadira had eight children, out of which four survived. Shikoh is recorded to have referred to Nadira as his “best intimate friend” especially when he presented her with his most treasured possession — his complete album of paintings, now a part of the Dara Shikoh Collection at the Treasures Gallery of the British Library.
Just after Nadira and Shikoh had been crowned, Nadira was giving royal orders (farmaan) in her own name. Not happy with the turn of events, Aurangzeb went up in arms against them. Historians have consistently said that Shikoh was a liberal and had respect for both Guru Har Rai and the Muslim Mian Mir, while Aurangzeb was conservative.
When the younger brother toppled a poetic emperor with little experience in politics and armed forces, their father Shah Jahan, too, was imprisoned by force. Shikoh was made to flee with his wife and children.
Nadira was a ‘wandering princess’ for several months, for Shikoh was running from one place to another, stopping to fight Aurangzeb’s army when he felt strong, getting beaten, and fleeing again. Nadira chose to be on the run with her husband instead of pleading refuge during wartime. When their caravan reached Lahore, as per William Irvine (in his translation of Manucci’s record), the Rajput Raja Sarup Singh offered help by promising foot soldiers and artillery by the thousand to help Shikoh fight Aurangzeb. The latter himself had been leading the battle against Shikoh until then.
Nadira tried to strengthen the pact by calling Singh her son, and since she was not lactating at that time, she washed her bosom with water and offered the water to Singh who drank it and swore allegiance to the prince Shikoh and his wife Nadira, now his symbolic foster mother.
They say, the unfortunate times are the ones which tell us who our real friends are, and for Nadira, it was the most unfortunate time, when her ‘foster son’ sold his soul to Aurangzeb’s riches and stood her up on the battlefield by not showing up, making the ‘wandering princess’ flee once again.
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Manucci describes Bolan (present-day Baluchistan) as the last stop Nadira’s caravan made. The emperor of Bolan, Jiwan Khan, owed his life to Shikoh not once but thrice when Shah Jahan wanted to have him killed. He received Shikoh and Nadira as royal guests but for sake of money and influence, he sent a messenger to the royal army, becoming a mole. When Nadira learnt of this, she secretly tried to commit suicide, by swallowing a poisonous pill hidden under a precious stone on one of her finger rings, for she could not bear a life of imprisonment or of being a concubine in Aurangzeb’s harem. A loyal courtier Faridun, saw her and stopped her. He begged for a chance to kill Jiwan and make a way for escape. Nadira agreed and gave him Shikoh’s pistol, a gift which was famed to never have missed fire. Faridun put it in a pouch and entered Khan’s court, claiming the pouch to carry a precious gift from Nadira. Khan allowed entrance and when, upon chance, Faridun pulled the trigger, the pistol, for once, missed fire.
Nadira accepted her loss and already weak with dysentery, she took the pill. Her famous speech, quoted by many historians, begins where she declares her love for Shikoh and her two sons. While several accounts hold dysentery as the reason for her death, it is pertinent to mention here that most accounts do not say anything about Nadira at all, except how she died, completely ignoring an important figure in history.
Her last wish was to be buried in the empire. So, Shikoh sent her corpse with a handful of men to Lahore, to have her buried next to his revered Sufi’s shrine. The tomb today is treated like a shrine, a junkie’s yard, a cricket ground, a traveller’s resting place et al. It is crying out for attention and help.