A prince, a saint and a fairy palace

In Srinagar’s once-famed Akhund Shah masjid and the peaceful Pari Mahal

August 06, 2017 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

A prince was in search of a Sufi master to help him on his mystical journey into the world of tassawuf (mysticism). He finally found one in Mian Mir (1550-1635), the Qadriya saint, someone who had impressed his grandfather Emperor Jahangir. The young prince, Dara Shukoh (1615-1659), came in touch with Mian Mir, but before he could become his disciple the saint passed away.

Meeting the spiritual master

In 1639, the young prince set off on a journey to Kashmir, where Mian Mir’s successor Shah Muhammad, popularly known as Mullah Shah Badakshi or Akhund Shah, lived. Mullah Shah was known for his secular approach and that must have influenced Dara. Though earlier Mullah Shah only spent summers in Kashmir after Mian Mir’s death, he settled in Srinagar, residing in a small cell in the mountain famous as Hari Parbat or Koh-e-Maran. His meditation was in darkness.

It was here that Dara visited him one night. Professor Fatima Zehra Bilgrami writes in History of the Qadiri Order in India that when Mullah Shah saw the prince he asked for a lamp to be lit and recited the following verse:

Nai Chiragheist Darin Khana-i Virana-i Ma

Roshan az Aatish-i Ishq-i Tu-Shudah Khana-i Ma

(In this desolate cell of ours we do not have a candle

As the fire of your Love illuminates our abode.)

Dara requested Mullah Shah that “they want to come to his halqa (circle), and they helped him in all possible ways and built a khanqah and a house for him,” writes Prof. Bilgrami. His sister Princess Jahanara Begum, who was following him, also became Mullah Shah’s disciple.

Dara built a mosque known today as Akhund Shah’s masjid on a scarp in Hari Parbat. I recently visited this once-famed mosque, now in a partially ruinous condition. From Makhdoom Sahib’s dargah on a higher spot on Hari Parbat, I could see the remnants of a few petals of the lotus finial, which is supposed to be the only one on a mosque in Kashmir. Fortunately, I could see that repairs are currently under way by the Archaeological Survey of India.

It’s in a large rectangular enclosure with a tank for ablutions, surrounded by apartments for devotees and servants. The mosque itself is a simple and elegant building of grey granite slabs over brickwork, much of which is now exposed. On the entrance of the mosque, I found these lines which have been translated by Ajmal Siddiqi from Persian.

Waman dakhalahu kaana aamina whoever enters it shall be safe

(These lines are from the Koran for Ka’ba in Mecca)

The second line reads:

wallahu mufattihul abwaab

(Allah is the opener of doors)

While Mullah Shah remained safe from the wrath of Aurangzeb and died a natural death in 1661 in Lahore, Dara was executed by Aurangzeb after the latter won the war of succession.

This mosque must have been quite a huge complex, as seen from the ruins of the cells for devotees and visitors, the remnants of the hammam, and the stones. But in its time it must have been beautiful with two fountains: Chashma-i-Shahiyah and Chashma-i-Sahibiyah. The latter was named by Mullah Shah in honour of Jahanara, the Begum Sahiba of the Mughal court.

Inside Pari Mahal

The prince was not content with the mosque complex for his spiritual master alone and constructed a beautiful six-level building dedicated to Mullah Shah, on the ruins of a Buddhist monastery high up on the Zabarwan hills. It was named “Koh-i-Tilwan”, but became famous as Pari Mahal, after Dara’s wife Pari Begum, notes Prof. Bilgrami. While some call it a madarsa and khanqah , many feel it was a school devoted to the study of astronomy.

Unlike the famous Mughal gardens in Srinagar, this garden did not have running water streams and cascades of bubbling water and spouting chutes. Instead, the tanks in it were fed by underground water pipes, perhaps to signify inner resourcefulness and outward calm so necessary for a man with spiritual inclinations.

An ideal time to be at the Pari Mahal is when the sun is setting on the Dal lake. There is an outstanding view of Srinagar from there and the Pari Mahal, brightly lit and visible from the city, twinkles like a fairy palace when seen from the city.

For me there was a sense of peace there, but it wasn’t shared by Walter Roper Lawrence, who, in The Valley of Kashmir, wrote: “Strange tales are told of the Pari Mahal, of the wicked magician who spirited away kings’ daughters in their sleep, how an Indian princess by the order of her father brought away a chenar leaf to indicate the abode of her seducer, and how all the outraged kings of India seized the magician.”

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