Dara, unlikely crown prince

Published: November 20, 2015 - 17:04

It is impossible to be in Srinagar and not meditate upon the memory of Dara Shikoh. Born in Ajmer, Dara had travelled throughout South Asia as crown prince of the Mughal empire. But he built a library and retreat in Srinagar in 1650 called Pari Mahal, a sprawling terrace garden around a place of learning. The ruins of this retreat still overlook the shimmering Dal Lake. 

If he had had his way, Dara would have surely liked to live in this paradise reading, writing and talking to the mystic, Mian Mir, the fakir, Baba Lal Das Bairagi, and Pandits Jagannath Mishra and Kavindracharya. He would have painted some more, and composed many more poems: 

We have not seen an atom separate from the sun,

Every drop of water is the sea in itself.

With what name should one call the truth?

Every name that exists is one of God’s names. 

But Dara was the eldest child of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. He was the crown prince. His father had prayed at the shrine of mystic master Muinuddin Chishti in Ajmer for a son and heir to his legacy. 

Shah Jahan did not think twice about grooming Dara to succeed him. Many a historian regrets how Shah Jahan tried to secure the throne for his favourite son without first disarming the other three sons, each of whom was a powerful leader with his own army. 

This was a mistake on the part of the father, for Shah Jahan himself believed that Aurangzeb, the second eldest son, had the best chance of winning the throne. The resolution and intelligence of Aurangzeb proved that he alone could shoulder the difficult task of ruling India, Shah Jahan felt. 

Yet Dara, the favourite, was chosen as the next king. In the eyes of the father, Dara was superior to his brothers both in merit and age. The other sons were worldly and politically wile, Dara was a philosopher and poet. His brothers were given their own territory to govern in different parts of the Mughal kingdom but excessive love and partiality prevented the father from allowing Dara to go away from him. 

In the prime of his life, Dara found himself trapped between the excessive love of his father and extreme jealousy and hate of his brothers, especially Aurangzeb.

His brothers resented Dara because he was a popular prince, and Shah Jahan loved his company. Aurangzeb could not forgive his father for loving Dara too much and him not at all.  

Compared to the dour Aurangzeb, Dara was genial and a man of dignified manners, of comely countenance, joyous and polite in conversation, ready and gracious of speech, of most extraordinary liberality, kindly and compassionate, according to Niccolao Manucci, Italian traveller and writer employed at the Mughal court. 

Dara was courteous in conversation, quick at repartee, polite and extremely liberal. He was a cultured benevolent and warmhearted prince who often interceded to soften the harshness of Mughal rule. 

But Dara also had a mocking tongue and he scorned the nobles both in words and deed and ordered his buffoons to imitate the gait and gestures of the high and mighty amirs. 

Dara was no favourite of the ruling elite. This hurt his fortunes and future. The amirs were worldly creatures, false and opportunistic, lacking the aesthetic and intellectual refinement cherished by Dara. The amirs were also the powerbrokers, without whom Dara could neither win nor exercise power. 

Dara mystified the amirs. His preoccupation with religion and philosophy instead of with power and glory, his artistic conceits and his preference for the company of mystics and people on-a-high, were traits that the powerful could not appreciate. What they looked for in a ruler was valour on the battlefield which Dara did not have. Although personally fearless, he had little experience in leading men into danger and to war. He was too civilised and that proved to be a major handicap in the war of succession with his brothers. 

To make matters worse, Dara damned the mullahs with such remarks as paradise being where no mullah existed!

The men of Allah should have, but the mullahs did not reciprocate Dara’s scorn with love. 

It is often wondered what history would have been like if Dara had succeeded his father to the Mughal throne instead of the stern Aurangzeb. 

What intrigues me more is, what if Dara had been allowed to step aside from the war of succession? What if he had spent more time in Srinagar, doing what he liked best –reading, writing, thinking and exchanging ideas with other artistes and philosophers – while a probably less bitter Aurangzeb had ruled from Delhi? What if?