Cursed by imperial birth

Parvez Mahmood on the life of Emperor Shah Alam II - arguably the most unfortunate of the Mughal Emperors

Cursed by imperial birth
The name Mughal invokes a sense of opulence, extravaganza and authority. While this was true for the first six emperors from Babur to Aurangzeb, the ones who followed found their wealth, power and charm eroding very rapidly – until the last three were reduced to being pensioners of the British.

Of all the Mughal Emperors there is one who was arguably the most tragic figure in that illustrious dynasty. This story is about Prince Ali Gauhar, who reigned as Emperor Shah Alam II. His reign, from December 1759 to November 1806, was a watershed in the sense that he witnessed the British becoming masters of India from being one of the regional players amongst a bevy of contesting powers. The Emperors before him, despite being amongst the less powerful “later Mughals”, nevertheless held vestiges of imperial authority to varying degrees – either themselves or through their regents. But the two who came after him were appointed by the British and were reconciled to being pensioners of the British as such. It was Shah Alam II who relinquished this power and bore the indignity of transforming from being an independent ruler to becoming, effectively, a British subject. However, as compared to the ignominy and miseries that befell him in between, this was only a minor misfortune.

Here is the story of this man, cursed by his imperial birth, who may have led a happier life had he been born a commoner.

A young Emperor Shah Alam II watches a 'nautch' performance - British depiction from the 18th century

Prince Ali Gauhar’s misfortunes began at his birth. He was born in 1728 when his father had been in confinement for fourteen years, and was to remain so for the next twenty six. Ali Gauhar, too, would spend the first 26 years of his life as a captive of his uncle Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangila in the Salatin quarters of the Red Fort. However, unlike the majority of Mughal princes growing up in similar circumstances, he did not become decadent.

The Salatin quarters had become a populous residential colony in the post-Aurangzeb era. The whole place was nothing but a rather squalid and overcrowded slum within the Red Fort, where a rapidly increasing population of Mughal princes, princesses, spouses and their retainers lived. Ali Gauhar himself had thirteen brothers, an unspecified number of sisters and numerous nephews and nieces. There were scant arrangements for education or physical exercise. Some of the closely-built rooms never saw the sunlight or received fresh air. Sanitation was poor, as was the supply of clean water. These royals received meagre allowances from the dwindling finances of the court.

The reigning monarch, or his powerful regents, couldn’t afford to let any living Mughal male member escape from the Fort because each prince of Timurid blood – however diluted by now – was a potential stooge in the hands of rival court factions.

A blind Shah Alam II seated on his throne - the result of his torments at the hands of Ghulam Qadir

This is exactly what happened with Prince Azizuddin, the father of Shah Alam II.

Azizuddin had been languishing in the Salatin quarters ever since the death of his father Emperor Jahandar Shah in 1714, when he was just 15 years of age. In 1754, Imad-ul-Mulk, the regent and virtual ruler, deposed and blinded the titular emperor Ahmed Shah Bahadur. He then looked at the scores of illiterate and incapable princes languishing in that imperial slum and plucked out the meek-looking, religious-minded Azizuddin from his confinement of 40 years and crowned him emperor as Alamgir II. Ali Gauhar, as his eldest son, suddenly found himself the crown prince and was relocated from the slum part of the Fort to the imperial palace!

Alamgir II reigned till 1759 without any authority. The Battle of Plassey (1757) was fought by the British in Bengal during his tenure. By then it had become apparent that Imad-ul-Mulk’s quarrels with the Emperor and his son had reached a point of no return. Fearing for his life, Ali Gauhar fled Delhi in 1758, a year before his father was murdered and replaced with Shah Jahan III.
Ali Gauhar (later Shah Alam II) suddenly found himself the crown prince and was relocated from the slum part of the Fort to the imperial palace

After his daring escape from Delhi, Prince Ali Gauhar appeared in the eastern provinces, hoping to strengthen his position. Soon thereafter, the Rohilla warlord Najib-ud-Daula took control of Delhi with the help of Ahmed Shah Abdali, deposed Shah Jahan III and declared Ali Gauhar Emperor as Shah Alam II. Not feeling secure, however, Shah Alam II stayed in Allahabad and wouldn’t return to Delhi till 1772. During this interval, Najid-ud-Daula, the Marathas and Ahmed Shah Abdali alternatively remained masters of Delhi.

Though he couldn’t enter Delhi, the years 1760-64 were satisfying for Shah Alam II. He was able to forge together a respectable army and was acknowledged Emperor by nearly all the Muslim provincial Nawabs. Then his misfortunes overtook him. In 1764, the combined forces of Mir Qasim of Bengal, Shuja-ud-Daula of Awadh and Shah Alam II were defeated by the British troops at Buxar. Shah Alam II himself was taken as a prisoner by Lord Clive to Allahabad, where he was forced to sign off the diwani (revenue) of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha to the British. There is a painting hanging in the Clive family museum in Wales that depicts Shah Alam II handing over these ignoble treaty documents to Lord Clive. The Battle of Plassey had merely made the British the primary players in Bengal. But the Battle of Buxar made them masters of the entire northeast Subcontinent. Shah Alam II continued to spend the next six years at the Allahabad Fort as a prisoner of the Company.

It was late in the reign of Shah Alam II that the Mughals finally became pensioners of the British Empire

In 1771, the Maratha ruler Mahadaji Shinde was able to free and escort Shah Alam II from Allahabad to Delhi, where he spent the next fifteen years fending off Sikhs and Rohillas with mixed results.

In 1777 the Mughals decisively defeated Rohilla forces and repelled the Sikhs. In 1779, Shah Alam II arranged an expedition to recover Rohilkhand from Zabitah Khan, son of Najib-ud-Daula. The entire family of Zabitah Khan and other Rohilla leaders were arrested, severely humiliated and forced to take refuge in Awadh. Among them was Zabitah’s son, Ghulam Qadir Rohilla, who was castrated and made to serve as a page in the palace. Fifteen years later, he would seek his revenge with tragic consequences for Shah Alam II.

In 1778, Shah Alam II suffered heavy defeats against the Sikhs at Muzaffargarh and Ghanaur. Subsequently, the Sikhs under Baghel Singh occupied Delhi in 1783 and held court in the Red Fort. However, Begum Samru, ruler of Sardhana, came to the aid of Shah Alam II and arranged for the withdrawal of Sikh forces.

A British artist's portrait of Prince Jawan Bakht, eldest son of Shah Alam II, who visited Warren Hastings to ask for help against the Marathas

In 1787, Ghulam Qadir Rohilla, who had reassembled his forces and recovered his father’s lands, returned to attack Delhi but the valiant Bagum Samru, ever loyal to Shah Alam II, yet again came to his rescue with her forces. That she was able to repulse the Rohillas with just a few thousand of her troops and a few cannons shows that Shah Alam II was himself militarily helpless at this point. Ghulam Qadir withdrew and the Emperor invited back the Maratha leader Scindia, who was entangled in Central India, to protect the imperial capital. When the mercurial Rohilla leader learned about this, it reinforced his longstanding grudge against the Mughals.

He returned with the help of his Sikh allies in 1788 and with Begum Samru’s forces stuck on the wrong side of River Yamuna, occupied Delhi and put up in the Red Fort. Ghulam Qadir then proceeded to visit such atrocities upon the Mughals that they will live forever – not only in the history of the Subcontinent but in that of humanity. He had come with a vengeance and acted in a shameful manner.
Iqbal's poem portrays Ghulam Qadir Rohilla as subjecting them to these tortures only to test for the presence of any residual Mughal dignity

He first forced Shah Alam II to appoint him as the Grand Vizier of the Mughal Empire. Next he started torturing him to find his hidden treasures – which he obviously didn’t have. Petty, avaricious and quite insane, Ghulam Qadir was led to believe that the Emperor was hiding Rs. 250 million. He ravaged the palace to locate this. Unable to find anything but a fraction of this amount, he went in to the ladies’ apartments, robbed the princesses and took away whatever he could. In his drunken fits, he asked some of these princesses to dance naked in front of him and his courtiers. It is not known how many of these unfortunate dwellers of the Salatin quarters were molested by these ruffians. Unable to bear such insults, many of these women jumped into the Yamuna river.

Ghulam Qadir then returned to mistreating the Emperor. He pulled out the hair from the unfortunate ruler’s beard to force him to reveal his non-existent wealth. He then further vented his rage on Shah Alam II and himself blinded him in both eyes. He even beheaded five of the servants who tried to help the bleeding Emperor. These tortures and outrages continued for ten long weeks.

The unfortunate Shah Alam II had to bear these indignities helplessly. No other Mughal Emperor was treated in this manner except the disgraceful treatment yet to come of Bahadur Shah Zafar and his household by the British in the aftermath of the War of Independence in 1857.

Allama Iqbal has written a poem titled Ghulam Qadri Rohilla depicting the humiliation of the Emperor and the Mughal princesses. While stating that the Rohilla was heartless and cruel, Iqbal’s message is about the loss of Mughal self respect and courage.

The tomb of Shah Alam II, in a watercolour by Seeta Ram, 1814-15

Though the thrust of the poem is true, Iqbal’s sense of historical timing is flawed. Mughal majesty was lost a long time before this incident. Three decades earlier, in 1757, Ahmed Shah Abdali had forced the marriage of his son to a daughter of the reigning Emperor Alamgir II, the father of Shah Alam II. Abdali himself forcibly married a widow of one of the previous Emperors. Even before that, Nader Shah forced the marriage of his son to a Mughal princess in 1739, a few days after he had carried out the Delhi massacre. He even ordered fireworks and music to accompany the marriage procession when the streets were littered with the corpses of slain Indians.

The vehicle selected by Iqbal to deliver a tragic message is, in my view, also in fairly poor taste. The poem portrays Ghulam Qadir as something of a higher being, who was subjecting them to these tortures only to test for the presence of any residual Mughal dignity. Reading the poem in my youth, I mistakenly regarded Ghulam Qadir as a valiant man who had dared to test or save Timurid honour at risk to his own life – pretending to be asleep with an unsheathed dagger lying by his side to tempt those whom he tormented. I think that is a wrong portrayal of a man who hated the Mughals and was well aware of the breakdown of their power and prestige. He knew he could get away with any outrages. After all, he had used that same dagger to gouge out a pair of royal eyes. He was a person who played with the honour of innocent princesses. To assign him any role as a custodian of moral values, even indirectly, is a failure of good judgement.

When the Maratha general Scindia heard of this outrage against the Emperor, he rushed to Delhi. In the meantime, Begum Samru, too, crossed over to the Red Fort. Ghulam Qadir and his troops decamped, pursued by Scindia. The later caught up with the ruffian and put him to death after slow torture; but not before he had removed the eyeballs of the Rohilla chieftain, put them in a bowl and sent it to the Red Fort. It is said that the blind Shah Alam II felt them eagerly with his fingers.

Shah Alam II stayed under the protection of the Marathas till the British occupied Delhi after their victory in the Second Anglo-Maratha war of 1803. He also accepted the appointment of a British resident.

Shah Alam II died in November 1806 after 47 years of a painful reign. He started his life as a prisoner of his uncle, suffered humiliation throughout his life at the hands of British, Rohillas, Sikhs and his regents, saw Mughal princesses violated in his palace, lived as a blind man for 18 years and died as a pensioner of the British East India Company. The poetically inclined people of Delhi used to make fun of him with the verse,

Sultanat-e-Shah Alam,
Az Dilli ta Palam 

The kingdom of Shah Alam
is from Delhi to Palam

(Palam being a suburb of Delhi some 15 kilometres from the Red Fort)

Shah Alam’s reign was like that of other monarchs of an Empire in decline when a breakdown of state structures and erosion of government authority give rise to rebellions and civil disorder.

Unlike princes of better times, those born in such an era are condemned by circumstances to live a wretched life. Shah Alam II was such – truly an unfortunate Emperor.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: