The house that Dara Shukoh built

And the story of why it is called a library

April 16, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 01:15 am IST

The wise see not a second in essence

We and you are mere calling cards

See One contained evident in many

See One hath formed in shapes many

Prince Dara Shukoh

(translated from Persian by Gyani Brahma Singh Brahma)

An important translation was taking place in Banaras and Manzil-e-Nigambodh. Many Brahmin priests and Sanskrit scholars were involved in it. It was the Persian translation of the Upanishads, published in 1656 AD as Sirr-e-Akbar (the greatest mystery). It was a labour of love by Emperor Shah Jahan’s beloved son, Dara Shukoh.

This was taken by François Bernier to France. It reached Anquetil Duperron, who translated it into French and Latin. The Latin version reached the German philosopher, Schopenhauer, who was greatly influenced by it and called the Persian Upanishads “the solace of his life”. It awakened an interest in post-Vedic Sanskrit literature amongst European Orientalists.

The loss of Manzil-e-Nigambodh

Though Sirr-e-Akbar has survived, Manzil-e-Nigambodh, mentioned in the book’s preface according to Professor K.R. Qanungo, has been lost and all we have is a building known as Dara Shikoh’s library on Delhi’s Lothian Road inside Ambedkar University. Even the prince’s name is not spelt correctly, either here or on the road in Delhi named recently after him.

Along with the Qila-e-Mubarak, the city was also being built with mansions, gardens, boulevards and magnificent gateways from 1638 to 1648.

One of these mansions was Manzil-e-Nigambodh. As the heir and favourite of his father, Dara must have been given the land of his choice. He chose the piece of land near Nigambodh ghat. He built his magnificent mansion at the cost of ₹4,00,000 between 1639 and 1643. Today all that is left is a colonial building with ionic pillars.

Stephen P. Blake, in his book Shahjahanabad: The Sovereign City in Mughal India 1639-1739, reconstructs a typical mansion of an important personage based on contemporary accounts: “A thick wall of stone and in some cases even a moat surrounded the haveli or nasheman (mansion or seat). A lofty gateway (also called the naqqar khana ) housed the soldiers of the daily guard and the drummers, trumpeters, and other household musicians. A large forecourt surrounded by a row of rooms under an arcade lay immediately aside.”

He goes on to say there would be stables, apartments for the household staff, storerooms, workshops, etc needed to make life comfortable for the great man. The living quarters would be divided into public and private spaces. The private spaces would be off limits to all but the prince, or Amir, and the women, children and servants. These apartments would be elaborately furnished with silk and brocade curtains, cushions, fine carpets and chandeliers, and designed with gardens, fountains, pools and canals. A mosque and a hammam were an essential Mughal feature in all great houses. Since this was along the river, it would have had its own boathouse and boats, giving the prince easy access to the Qila. There would be underground rooms (Tehkhana) for escaping the heat of the summers. The public space would have an audience hall and a library. It was here that the Amir would draft state papers or compose poetry. In the case of Dara Shukoh, he probably held religious discourses and wrote his philosophical treatises in this area. Shah Jahan visited Dara in this palace twice: in 1654 and 1655. One can only imagine the grandeur of this mansion, which must have been second only to the Qila.

Unfortunately only some parts of the original structure are present at the back. The cusped arches and columns stand a mute witness to the ups and downs of fate. But why did it fall into such bad times?

Damage and repair

Since Dara Shukoh himself was disgraced and killed by his brother Aurangzeb, his possessions too would have been downgraded. After Dara’s death, Prince Muazzam, Aurangzeb’s son, lived in this mansion. Blake says that since it was damaged in 1739 during Nadir Shah’s raid on Delhi, it was probably divided into two. In 1743, Safdarjung, son of Sadat Khan, got the palace from Mohammed Shah Rangeela in exchange for an offering made by him. Between 1803 and 1842, the British residents used it as a Residency.

From 1842 till 1858, it housed the classrooms of the Delhi College and the residence of the principal. In 1857, the building suffered great damage, and the principal, J. Taylor, was killed. After 1858, a district school was established here whose principal was Ram Chander. The confusion leading to it being called a library rises from a marble plaque put up in the school in or after 1904, which said this building was Dara Shukoh’s library made in 1637. Its present falling ceiling and peeling paint are sad reminders of the tragic life of the intellectual prince to whom India owes a big debt for encouraging debates on religion and getting many of the Hindu sacred texts translated into Persian.

The welcome news is that INTACH has taken up the task of restoring it.

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