An Inside View of the Crumbling World Within Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Red Fort

A highly interesting compilation titled "Precis of Palace Intelligence" gives us an insider's picture of Bahadur Shah Zafar's Red Fort inhabited by 2000 people.
An Inside View of the Crumbling World Within Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Red Fort


SEVEN YEARS PRIOR to the first war of Indian Independence, Bahadur Shah Zafar was eking out a living with the pension that the British supplied him. The phrase “eking out a living” can be interpreted in two ways in his context. The first: here was a Mughal who had inverted the relationship between monarch and supplicant. His ancestor Jahangir had made Thomas Roe and other Europeans bow before him as supplicants while his status was slightly higher than that of a pauper shamelessly feeding off British crumbs. The second: the pauperised status did not deter the deluded Bahadur Shah Zafar from basking in the illusion that his Mughal House still commanded the same prestige as before. And he fed the delusion with the selfsame British pension, lavishing it on jewellery, gardens, festivities, parties and extravagant decadence. When the money ran out ahead of the next deposit of pension, he borrowed and borrowed copiously.

Bahadur Shah Zafar’s self-created chimera of Mughal prestige was so incredibly pathetic that he once refused entry to the Nawab of Bahawalpur unless he took off his Kulge. This supplicant also had the temerity to refuse a chair to the British Resident and disallowed the Commander-in-Chief to enter the Diwan-i-Aam on horseback. The same officials who supplied him his regular dole.

And the grand Red Fort was both the grand structural symbolism and reality of this delusion of grandeur. Literally.

An intriguing document titled Precis of Palace Intelligence running into 800 pages furnishes first-hand details of life inside Bahadur Shah’s Red Fort. It is actually a compilation of weekly diaries beginning on January 6, 1851 and ending on January 1, 1854. Every week’s diary bears the signature of the British Resident of Delhi. Its purpose was clearly political: to collect and report intelligence of the activities of Bahadur Shah Zafar to the Governor General. One great value of the document is the sheer wealth of details that it offers about the personal life of Zafar, his begums, his vast harem, his princes and the social and cultural life inside the Red Fort, which housed two thousand people.

The picture is ghastly to say the least.

We’re treated to an orgy of ruin on an epic scale. On the political front, we witness a doddering old nominal sultan in the amorous thrall of his powerful begum. We see his utter political enervation in the manner in which a mere Vizier from Lucknow fools him. We see the Nawab of Oudh flouting this token Mughal’s authority with impunity. We see how he has become a willing pawn in the hands of his courtiers and a physician who wield real power. We see how has completely devoted his life to the pursuit of pleasure via minute details of his daily routine. We see him wasting fabulous sums on weddings. We see his princes and other royalty rivalling each other in maintaining concubines and slave-girls. We notice how bootlegging had burgeoned into a thriving industry because wine-drinking was banned. We see how the Red Fort economy was subsidised by the British pension, which artificially kept the prices low but his begums somehow managed to notch up enormous debt.

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An Inside View of the Crumbling World Within Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Red Fort

We see all portents of an ensuing cataclysm. Small wonder that when it actually ensued, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal, also turned out to be the last great traitor of the 1857 freedom struggle.

Beginning with this essay, we will publish a series containing extracts from the Precis of Palace Intelligence that show the aforementioned picture of life in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Red Fort from 1851-54.

Read on!

Political Activities Of Bahadur Shah

THE KING WAS DEVOTED to his queen Zeenut Mahal whom he had married in 1840. Under her influence he made repeated attempts to make her son Mirza Jawan Bakht (who was only 11 at that time) heir apparent to the throne of Delhi. Under her influence also he treated his elder sons badly. He reduced the allowance of Mirza Fakhruddeen. The king tried to increase the importance of Mirza Jawan Bakht by sending him as his representative on various occasions.

Mirza Hyder Shekoh came from Lucknow and met Bahadur Shah. He gave him the false hopes about the success of his efforts to get the claims of Bahadur Shah recognized through the good offices of Oudh Court. It appears that he circulated in Lucknow the false news that the king was willing to become a Shia. The circulation of this news greatly annoyed the king. He was informed that the king of Delhi had no right to confer titles or khillats on Government servants like Dr. Chaman Lal.

Personal life of the king

The programme of the king was divided in two parts. One beginning with the early morning and the other about four in the afternoon. Though the king was seventy-six years old, yet he was very energetic and used to go out for hunting everyday except when he was ill.

He was not only a good rider but also a great expert in judging horses. He was also a good hunter. The resources of the king were very meagre. He had to depend mostly on the pension received from the British. On the occasion of the marriage of the daughter of Koonwur Debee Singh, he sent the bride, the bridal garments. He gave rupees two thousand to Hukeemm Ahsanoollah Khan on the occasion of the marriage of his daughter.

On the death of Miza Luteef Buksh, the king ordered rupees 200 to be furnished for his funeral feast and burial.

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An Inside View of the Crumbling World Within Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Red Fort

Begum Zeenut Mahal was the favourite wife of the king. Steadily her influence increased. She attended important meetings sitting behind the purdah. In 1853, the king issued a Hookumnamah to all his officers to submit every petition through Nawab Zeenut Mahal Begum. For her sake, he took the unusual step by staying outside Red Fort in Lal Kua in the house of Zeenut Mahal for more than a fortnight.

Nawab Taj Mahal Begum and Shurafat Mahal Begum were other wives of the king. The king had kept a number of concubines. The names of the following are referred to: Khrum Bai, Dilrooba, Pyari Bai, Soojan Bai, Islamool Nissa and Aramool Nissa Khanum.

Among the sons of Bahadur Shah, the following are important: Mirza Jawan Bukht, Mirza Fukhrooddeen, Mirza Mughal and Mirza Abdoola. The king's relations with the Heir Apparent Mirza Fukhrooden were extremely strained.

The king had a great love for gardens. Shahiabad garden, Bagh Roshanara, Surhundee garden, Koodysa Bagh, Bagh Muhaldar Khan, Mehtab Bagh, Hyat Buksh Garden, Shah Bagh and garden in Shahderah were often visited by the king. He even planted a new garden.

The king had a high notion of the prestige of the Mughal House. He refused the admission into the fort of Nawab of Bahwalpur unless he would put off his Kulge. He strongly disliked the idea of giving a chair to the Resident and permitting the Commander-in-Chief to enter Diwan-i-Aam on a horse back.

To be continued

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