Power, then as now, brings its own price. Neither life nor death was kind to this unfortunate son of Jehangir. Recounting one of the most tragic yet inspiring stories to come out of Mughal India…

The Great Fort, Agra, August 28 1605. Inside the gilded chambers of the Royal Quarters a man lay on his bed, dying. Select queens of the zenanaand senior courtiers were gathered around, as was a younger man of royal countenance in his mid-thirties. It was upon him that the gaze of the sinking man finally rested. He was not to know, even if he was in any position to reflect on it, that the prince had been smuggled into the room in the nick of time.

He raised his head painfully and nodded, beckoning the prince forward. With a servant supporting him reverently, the sick man placed the robes and turban of kingship in the younger man's hands in a formal yet curiously tender gesture. Then he fell back on the cushions; his eyes roved around the room one last time before glazing forever.

The wails of the women from the anteroom began, marking the end of one of the defining reigns in the annals of Hindustan. For almost half a century, Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar had been master of the largest empire since Asoka. He was the greatest of the Mughals, an empire-builder of genius, whose name shines undimmed through the passage of centuries not just for what he achieved by force of arms, but for the brilliant administrative edifice through which he governed, and for the religious syncretism and tolerance that he brought to polity.

Akbar was a man far in advance of his time. So potent was his persona that only those most gifted and possessed of a strong sense of self-worth could stand up to him. It was a trait that was to have fateful consequences for his heirs.

Akbar had three sons: Salim, Murad and Daniyal, born to him in 1569, 1570 and 1572 respectively. Yet, by 1605 only Salim still lived; the other two had self-destructed through addiction to opium and alcohol. At the time of his father's death, Salim too had become over-fond of stimulants and subject to the most capricious mood swings when in the grip of arrack and opium. Between 1600 and 1605 he also led a series of revolts against Akbar, and war between father and son was averted only through the intervention of Akbar's senior begums, and by Salim's own realisation that he was militarily no match for his father.

In despair over the succession, Akbar's mind turned to one who, by widespread consent, had all the requisite qualities to succeed him: Salim's eldest son Khusrau. Khusrau was born in October 1587 to Salim and Man Bai, a Rajput princess from Amber. She was reportedly highly strung, but no trace of this showed in her son in the early years. Khusrau soon grew up to be a court favourite. Edward Terry, a clergyman at the Mughal court writes of him: “He had a pleasing presence and excellent carriage, was exceedingly beloved of the common people, their love and delight”. At 18, Khusrau was everything his father was not: personable, brave, and a talented battlefield commander.

Struggle for power

Inevitably, in the years just prior to Akbar's death his court was a political cauldron, “a snake-pit of intrigue” between the rival camps of Salim and Khusrau. So distressed was Man Bai at the vicious infighting that she committed suicide by an overdose of opium in May 1605.

By October, the succession was poised on a knife-edge. Salim was backed by Akbar's senior wives who wielded considerable power behind the scenes; Khusrau by the duo of Man Singh, the Raja of Amber, and Aziz Khan Koka (Khusrau's uncle and father-in-law respectively). These two were amongst the most influential nobles in the Mughal durbarand Khusrau's star seemed clearly in the ascendant. Khusrau himself was convinced that he was destined to be the next ruler of Hindustan, addressing his own father in terms of equality as ‘Bhai' or brother rather than as a father.

No sooner was Akbar laid to rest than events began to move at breakneck speed. At a meeting of the senior umracalled to decide the succession, Akbar's handing of the robes of kingship to Salim tipped the scales in favour of the Salim faction, which carried the day. On November 2, 1605, Salim ascended the Mughal throne as Nuruddin Mohammed Jahangir Padshah Ghazi. One of the first acts of the new Emperor was to have Prince Khusrau confined to his quarters in the fort, with only his wife to keep him company.

Chroniclers at Jehangir's court record dismissively Khusrau's descent into melancholy at this time, even attributing it to deficiencies in character inherited from his mother's side. But this was a young man who had been offered a giddy vision of power afforded to very few, encouraged by many, including his illustrious grandfather, to believe in his manifest destiny — only to have it crushed in the space of just hours.

Whatever be the reason, Khusrau's character now underwent a shift as the disappointment ate into him like a cancer. Goaded on by a wide network of informants and sympathisers, he made his move on April 15, 1606. During a visit to the tomb of his grandfather Akbar at Sikandra near Delhi, he slipped past his guards and, with a small band of soldiers faithful to him, struck out northwest towards Lahore.

The rebellion

The news of Khusrau's flight sped through the country like wildfire. Malcontents of every kind — disaffected Chugtai and Rajput clans and several frontier tribes — flocked to his banner as did some senior Akbar loyalists.

However, Khusrau did not foresee the swiftness of the Mughal response. For once, Jahangir acted with speed and decision. The newly appointed governor, Dilawar Khan, raced from Agra to Lahore in just 11 days and strengthened and sealed the defences before Khusrau's army could reach the city. Simultaneously, a punitive force of over 50,000 was assembled at Agra and launched towards the enemy. Unable to break Lahore's defences, Khusrau had no option but to turn and fight.

The armies met on the north bank of the Ravi on April 27, 1606. Fighting in heavy rain, which turned the battlefield into a mud soup, the rebels were routed and Khusrau captured and brought before his father in chains. Jahangir's retribution was ruthless. The rebel soldiers and their commanders were impaled alive on stakes by the hundreds, and Khusrau forced to ride between the screaming men to witness their agony up close.

A more fateful outcome was the summary execution of the Sikh Guru, Arjan Dev, whose only fault was to bless Khusrau on his way to Lahore; an act dictated purely by the canons of hospitality, and which in no way could be construed as supportive of the rebellion. The result was a scarring of the Sikh psyche that would reverberate for centuries.

Khusrau's life was spared, but he was condemned to a fate almost as terrible. Either immediately after the rebellion or a year later, holding him complicit in a further plot against him, Jahangir ordered Khusrau blinded.

In a measure of the popular feeling that Khusrau could still arouse, several voices at court, including those of Jahangir loyalists, pleaded for him to be spared. But the Emperor was adamant and in one contemporary account, the act was done by wire inserted into his eyes, causing a pain “beyond all expression”. He was then thrown into a dungeon. Through it all, the victim bore himself stoically, uttering not a word of remonstrance.

Thus was a much-loved prince of Hindustan cauterised from the circles of power and condemned to live out the remainder of his life in darkness and obscurity. But the saga of Khusrau was not ended. Its highest moments were yet to come, and would stand testament to the extraordinary transcendence of the human spirit.

Soon after the blinding of Khusrau, Jahangir — possibly in a fit of remorse — ordered his physicians to see if they could restore his son's vision. With their efforts, Khusrau was spared the horror of total blindness; a thin haze of light penetrated his eyes so that he lived in a shadow world where people moved as ghost images across a screen. Jehangir then even began to allow Khusrau into court, but to little effect. As the monarch observed, “He showed no elevation of spirit and was always downcast and sad, so then I forbade him to see me any further…”

Still, Khusrau was far from being reduced to a non-entity. Significantly, whenever the Mughal Emperor travelled out of Agra, the royal convoy would more often than not have Khusrau in its wake, shuffling along in leg chains. Once when Jahangir embarked on a long hunting trip, he had Khusrau walled up in a tower. This was a prince whom the ruling elite still feared for his hold on the popular imagination. Admiration for the prince had even grown since his blinding, his stoicism then and after widely commented on by observers at the time.

Khusrau had another priceless asset: his wife, the daughter of Aziz Khan Koka. In the years that followed, through all their trials and tribulations, husband and wife remained passionately devoted to each other. Though Jahangir had made it clear that she was free to do as she pleased, she refused to leave Khusrau, instead tending to him lovingly, and remaining by his side even when he was walled up in the tower.

The Khusrau affair

And so the years passed. Then, in 1616, there occurred a series of events that came to be known as ‘ the Khusrau affair'. Jahangir had been now on the throne for 11 years. Apart from Khusrau, he had sired three sons, two of whom, Pervez and Shahriyar, were effete. The last, Khurram, was a brilliant general with exceptional military and administrative gifts. In 1615, he had covered himself with glory by subjugating Mewar, which had been a thorn in Mughal flesh for decades, and his claim to succeed an ageing Jahangir seemed complete.

However, by this time the Emperor was only a figurehead. Real authority had long since passed, with his consent, to the woman who ruled in all but his name — the Empress Nur-Jahan. And in the rise of Prince Khurram she saw a threat to her dominance.

Nur-Jahan was a consummate player in the game of power. In a bid to neutralise Khurram, she approached Khusrau for the hand of Ladli Begum, her daughter by her first husband. The adventurer Pietro Della Valle has left a fascinating account of what followed. First Nur-Jahan informed Khusrau of that which he knew already: that Khurram had demanded the custody of Khusrau from Jahangir. Khurram claimed that he feared another plot against Jahangir by his half-brother. This fooled no one, for by now it was patently clear that Khusrau was incapable of mounting anything like a conspiracy. Khurram was simply taking steps to remove all rivals in his path.

But Khusrau still commanded many loyalties. The same begumswho had supported Jahangir against Khusrau earlier now worked hard for his safety, and, as a compromise measure, Khusrau's custody had been given to Nur-Jahan's brother, Asaf Khan. Now if only Khusrau would consent to marry her daughter, Nur-Jahan promised him not only his freedom but also that she would throw her weight behind him in the succession.

It was a master stroke by a master strategist, except that Khusrau refused. His reason for doing so stunned Nur-Jahan and her clique: love. His wife was his beacon, the one person who had stood by his side through all the years and he would have nothing whatever to do with another woman. Remember this was an age when large harems and polygamy were the undisputed norm. And the Prince's options were very likely laid out starkly before him: the throne, or at the very least freedom and luxury versus certain death. Then perhaps we can get a glimmer of the incredulity that Khusrau's answer must have evoked. His wife, according to Della Valle, begged him on bended knee to accede to Nur-Jahan's plan and save himself, but Khusrau “could never be prevailed with”.

Throughout 1616–17, Nur-Jahan and Asaf Khan worked on Khusrau, but he remained steadfast in his refusal to contemplate another woman. Finally they gave up and turned instead to the pliable Shahriyar. Khusrau's usefulness to the Empress was at an end, and now she made no further effort to stall his transfer to Khurram's custody. Khusrau had effectively signed his own death warrant. In 1617, he was given over to Khurram (known now by the honorific Shah Jahan) who had him quickly moved to Burhanpur in the Deccan. Khusrau was now a man on borrowed time.

The end came in January 1622. The most widely accepted account is that a slave of Shah Jahan's named Raza Bahadur sought to enter Khusrau's chambers in the middle of the night. When Khusrau refused him entry, Raza Bahadur broke open the door and rushed in with some accomplices and fell upon Khusrau. Khusrau shouted out to wake his servants and, despite his partial blindness, defended himself bravely but to no avail. He was strangled and then re-arranged on his bed to make it appear as if his death was natural.

The aftermath

Early next day, his wife was the first to discover him. Her shrieks soon wakened the palace. On January 29, Jahangir received word from Shah Jahan that Khusrau had died of qalanj, colic pains. But, as word of Khusrau's death swept across the empire, there was a public outpouring of grief as had not been seen for a long time. The popular verdict was overwhelming: murder. As far west as Gujarat, people were heard to cry for vengeance against those who had shed the blood of an innocent. Jahangir himself seems to have not been unduly distressed at the news; his ire was reserved for Shah Jahan for seeking to conceal the truth of Khusrau's death from him. On the Emperor's orders, Khusrau's body was exhumed from his makeshift grave, sent to Allahabad and consigned in a mausoleum next to his mother's in a garden, now called Khusrau Bagh.

A movement soon came into being that proclaimed Khusrau a martyred saint and shrines sprang up wherever his body had rested on its way to Allahabad. So popular were these shrines that a contemporary Dutch observer wrote that “both Hindus and Moslems went there in vast numbers in procession each Thursday … to his worship”. Until, that is, Jahangir ordered them destroyed and the worshippers driven away.

Despite this attempt at canonisation, it seems fair to say that, as with life, death has not been kind to this unfortunate prince. In one of history's great ironies, the man who most likely killed him — Shah Jahan — is universally celebrated for leaving us with that sublime monument to man's love for a woman: the Taj Mahal. Devoted though he was to his wife Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan had liaisons with many women after her death. Rather, it is in the unfolding of his brother's life, in Khusrau's searing affirmation of the centrality of one love, that we see its most enduring monument.

The author is a research and innovation entrepreneur. Email: raman.aroon@gmail.com