Bahadur Shah Zafar's Profligate Spending Financed by British Pension

The second and concluding part of our series on life inside Bahadur Shah Zafar's Red Fort shows how he and his royalty indulged in extravagant spending and led a reckless life.
Bahadur Shah Zafar's Profligate Spending Financed by British Pension

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An Inside View of the Crumbling World Within Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Red Fort
Bahadur Shah Zafar's Profligate Spending Financed by British Pension

Bankrupting the Economy

MIRZA JAWAN BUKHT was the favourite son of the king. His marriage was an important event of those days. Preparations for his marriage were started much earlier than the actual date of marriage. Bahadur Shah Zafar took a loan of Rupees 95,000 for his marriage. Betrothal, Mehneedee procession and Chowtah ceremonies were celebrated with great pomp and show. Both Zauq and Ghalib composed congratulatory poems on the occasion. Huge sums of money were spent on the fireworks and illuminations. Dancing parties and musical concerts increased the charm of the marriage.

The king presented the bride with some gold anklets, a pearl necklace, forehead ornaments and other jewels. Walee Dad Khan, the father of the bride, gave the following things in marriage dowry: 80 trays of clothings, 2 trays of jewellery, a golden canopy, vessels of silver and copper, 4 thousand rupees in cash, an elephant and 4 horses with embroidered trappings and 2 riding camels, etc.

Sale of Office to the Highest Bidder

The influence of Hakim Ahsanulla Khan was tremendous. This Hakim was not only a great physician of his times but was also the Prime Minister of the king. In all important matters concerning the Court, he was consulted. Mostly he used to write the shooqas of the king and the king used to affix his signet on them.

Mahboob Ale Khan remained the Nazir ( Chief Administrator) throughout this period. He was responsible for the proper distribution of the pension. The pension of the East India Company was the mainstay of the inhabitants of the Palace. He had the power of turning out of the Red Fort all undesirable persons, which was considered to be a very shameful thing for a person.

The other officers were Kotwal of the Fort, Mufti, Qazee, Mookhtar, Mootsudee of the jewels office, captain of the Boys' Battalion, Meer Toozak (Maker of ceremonies), Water carriers to put out the Fire, the English Clerk, Mr. George to translate Persian letters into English and vice versa, the Darwan of Nagar Khana, Shooqa writers, Chobdars and gardeners, etc.

Offices were sold to the highest bidder. The post of the Captain of the Boys' Battalion was sold for Rs. 2,200, while Jankee Das was appointed Mukthiar of Begum Taj Mahal on payment of two thousand rupees. Every officer had to present a nazar on various festivals and on every occasion the king passed by his house.

Judicial System

The king was the head of the Judiciary. All the cases were sent to him for final judgment, though Kotwal, Qazee and Mufti used to assist him. He favoured compromises. Some of the Sulateens had also started filing suits in the Civil Court of the city, but it was considered very undesirable.

Gamblers were very severely punished. They were confined to jail and were fined heavily. Wine-drinking was also forbidden.


Gambling, theft, wine-drinking, setting houses on fire, abduction and enticing away of women, forgery, corruption, embezzlement of money, suicide and interfering in the privacy of others were some of the crimes of those days.

Social Conditions

Most of the princes used to keep concubines and slave girls. Some of the slave girls were released from bondage and were allowed to marry whomsoever they liked. Mostly the princes used to marry among their own families and the dowry was usually fixed at 5 lakhs of rupees.

Divorce was discouraged. Once a great hue and cry was raised on one divorce and all the police and military of the king was called for controlling the mob. Widow remarriage was encouraged.

Diet and Dress

The inmates of the Red Fort used to make a great use of spices, four boxes of which were sent every month by the British Government from Calcutta.

Wine-drinking was prohibited in the Palace, but a number of them used to stealthily bring wine into the fort. Fish, Meat, Deer, Pigeons, and Rabbits were generally consumed. Goats and camels were sacrificed on Eid. The king was fond of mangoes and oranges. Wells were the main source of drinking water. Various persons used to make search for sweet water. Ice was used in summer.

Some of the Princesses used to wear jewels, gold ornaments, and rich clothes. But the ladies observed pardah. Every prince had to present a nazar on the occasion of his marriage, circumcision, departure from fort for Mecca, Lucknow, Ajmer and other places. The king also used to give monetary aid on such occasions.

Alligators were a great source of nuisance and they used to devour human beings. Therefore special measures had to be adopted for catching them.


Hunting was a popular hobby of the princes. Nujufgurh Jheel, the other bank of the Yamuna, and gardens around Qutab were popular hunting areas. Nautch girls and singing were also very common on festive occasions. Bullfights, buffalo fights, ram-fights, dogs chasing jackals, cock-fighting, flight of the pigeons and wrestling-matches were popular pastimes.

The game of Chess was also popular. Kite matches were a great source of pleasure to all. Hunting of hares was also a hobby of some of the princes. Some of the youth used to practice archery. Most of the princes spent some months of the year at the Qutub.

Religion of Bahadur Shah Zafar

Bahadur Shah was not an orthodox Musulman. He also believed in astrology. Sookhanand and Bismillah Beg were the chief astrologers of his court. He used to distribute alms on the occasions of the eclipses.

Bahadur Shah II had a great respect for the Pirs. Kaleh Sahib was his chief priest. The King also honoured Muslim saints of the past ages. He used to pay homage to the Dargah of Qutub Sahib, Nizamood Deen, Shrine of Shah Mardan, tombs of his ancestors at Qutub and other places.

Like a true Muslim, he had also made up his mind to go to Mecca, but with very great difficulty he was dissuaded by the British Government to give up his intention.

Economic Conditions Of The Inhabitants Of The Fort

Things were very cheap in those days as it was subsidised by the pension of the British. A very good horse could be obtained for 200 rupees. Even elephants could be purchased for 250 rupees. Elephants used to have silver howdahs.

The main source of income of the princes was the pension given by the East India Company. Out of the pension given to the king, he used to allot a monthly allowance to various princes according to their relations with the king.

Some of the princes and princesses like Taj Mahal Begum were extravagant and had to borrow money and were under perpetual debt paying very heavy rates of interest.

Closing Remarks

THE PICTURE OF LIFE inside Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Red Fort is clearly one of carefree living, profligate spending and decadence on an epic scale. All financed and therefore controlled by the East India Company ruling from Calcutta. To maintain just 2000 people walled inside a large building. The fate of the people outside the walls was pretty much decided by Zafar’s officers available for sale to the highest bidder.

It was thus unsurprising that when the First War of Independence erupted in 1857, Bahadur Shah Zafar was singularly unprepared to lead it. In fact, he refused to lead it given the fact that he had displayed an active distaste for all things valorous and heroic. And the people responded in kind. With contempt. As we have shown in an earlier essay, commoners addressed him with obscenities, taunted him as a budda (old man) and yanked his beard.

Yet, we have Mughal-addicted history-writers celebrating his doddering regime.


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