Recalling the days when Yamuna held sway over the Moghuls

The recent floods in the Yamuna brought to mind the influence of the river on Delhi, its rulers and people. Akbar and Jahangir mostly stayed at Agra but continued to maintain a close relationship with the Yamuna (Jamuna then). Akbar had boats tied in the river so that he could sleep peacefully on hot, unbearable summer nights; so did Jahangir. When Shah Jahan moved his capital to Delhi he enjoyed boating on the river but at night the inmates of his harem — concubines, princesses, and maids of honour — went through the River Gate in the Red Fort for boating and bathing, accompanied by eunuchs, who served as bodyguards.

It is worth mentioning that when Prince Salim (Jahangir) reached the age of adolescence, he was made to swim in the river from Agra Fort to Sayyid-Ka-Bagh during the annual Tairaqi-ka-Mela, held in the monsoon months. The prince braved the currents of the flooded river and landed on the other side, where he offered chiraghi (lamps of honour) at the bagh and won the title of ‘ustad-e-tairaqi' (ustad of swimming) from Mir Macchili, the best swimmer at the Moghul court.

Urdu writer Ismat Chughtais's grand uncle, Master Qamaruddin was no less and used to swim from Delhi to Agra whenever the mystic mood seized him.

Though the swimming fairs of Delhi were not so popular, yet princes and princesses did swim in the river at night during sawan-bhadon to escape the public eye.

Escape from Marathas

Prince Jahandar Bakht, eldest son of Shah Alam, jumped into the river from the Shah Burj of the fort in 1787 to escape the Marathas. He later made his way to Lucknow to seek the help of the Nawab of Oudh and of the British.

Bahadur Shah Zafar's Palace Diary gives an idea of his river cruises: “29 April, 1851: proceeded across the river on a shooting excursion. Hussain Mirza Nazir reported that two children of the dhobis were found in the Mahal.” (Incidentally, Bahadur Shah had told a deputation of dhobis that his kingdom did not extend to the other side of the river). The same day at 4 p.m. he again went across the river on a shoot. The next day too he crossed the river on a shooting excursion and was informed that Ashraf Ali Khan, while returning on an elephant over the wooden bridge, was thrown down when a leg of the animal went through a plank which had given way under its weight.

On May 1, 2 and 3 he went on more river excursions. On May 4 he was presented with two boxes of opium received from Patna, after his shooting trip. On May 12 at 4 p.m. it was reported that Mirza Kalan, son of Mirzah Kaus Shekon, aged 17 was carried away by an alligator while fishing in the river. Hearing this His Majesty was much grieved. On December 25, Christmas Day, the Emperor crossed the river and shot game.

Then six years later, on the night of May 10-11 1857, during the uprising, the sepoys from Meerut crossed the river and entered Delhi through the Rajghat Gate creating panic in the royal court and the city which was to last for several months and cost Bahadur Shah his throne.

As for the river floods, during the reign of Aurangzeb the river overflowed its banks and flooded Delhi right up to the Red Fort and Daryaganj. The river is said to have been tamed by the prayers of Hazrat Kalimullah, whose shrine is situated opposite the fort. The recent flood had no such saviour.