Aurangzeb’s War of Succession – Mughal EmpireAugust 26, 2008
There were times when we would be more interested with the games period right next to the History class and all our attention would be on how many runs we would be scoring. There were days when we used to memorize the history lessons after cursing it a hundred times. Strange, it seems, when history suddenly becomes one of our most intriguing passions. Suddenly, we want to know and learn what happened before us. This is one such piece of history, which I found interesting. This one documents the means used by Aurangzeb to gain the highest position of Indian Empire. The means he used against his own father and brothers to gain power. But now, we have very less time to indulge in our passions. Do read, if you are one of the gifted ones who still have the time and passion at your disposal. Let us go to the year – 1658.
Shah Jahan’s magnificent reign ended in a long anticipated, convulsive political crisis. When the emperor fell ill, pent-up tensions between the mature Timurid princes exploded into a four sided war of succession. The war pitted Dara Shukoh, resident at court as the designated heir, against his three younger brothers: Muhammad Shuja, governor of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa; Aurangzeb, the governor of four Deccan states; and Murad Bakhsh, governor of Gujarat and Malwa. All were sons of Mumtaz Mahal, and therefore full, rather than half brothers. Despite Shah Jahan’s expressed preference for his eldest son, Dara Shukoh, the Timurid appanage system offered no clear precedent for succession.
This was a bloody struggle fought by formidable opponents; Dara, Shuja, Aurangzeb, and Murad battled each other with that intensity and intimacy reserved for brothers with differing personalities. Each prince shared in the Timurid familial charisma and royal authority which gave all an undisputable claim on the throne. Each brother could draw upon the services of extremely able military and administrative staffs. Each commanded a power base, possessed ample treasure and could muster large, well-equipped armies. Only one contender could claim the throne; all others faced the grave.
In Bengal, Prince Muhammad Shuja immediately crowned himself king at Rajmahal and brought his cavalry, artillery, and river flotilla upriver toward Agra. Near Varanasi, his forces confronted a defending army sent from Delhi under the command of Dara. In mid-February, a well executed early morning surprise attack routed the Bengal troops. Shuja and his surviving men fled down river to Monghyr.
In Gujarat, Murad crowned himself in a public ceremony and prepared to march north. Murad and Aurangzeb had agreed on a joint plan of action. If they defeated their brothers, Aurangzeb would leave to Murad the Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Sind to rule as an independent King and he would rule the remaining territories. In early 1658, Aurangzeb set his army marching north. He joined forces with Murad at the village of Dharmat on the Ghambira river. Here they met Shah Jahan’s army under the command of Jaswant Singh Rathor. In the ensuing battle Aurangzeb’s well handled guns and cavalry outfought the imperial army whose survivors fell back on Delhi in disarray.
At Delhi, Dara rebuilt a 50,000 man army and awaited his brothers at defensive positions on the Chambal river south of Agra. Aurangzeb outflanked him by finding an unguarded fort. The armies met at broad plain at the village of Samugarh on the Yamuna near Agra. On 29th May, in the blazing heat of Indian summer, the climactic battle of the succession took place. Aurangzeb’s superior tactics and better disciplined artillery and cavalry prevailed against the valor of repeated Rajput cavalry charges. Finally, toward the end of the day, Dara dismounted from his war elephant and fled the field on horseback. A full scale rout began.
Aurangzeb occupied Agra city and when negotiations failed, besieged his father in Agra fort. Deprived of access to water from the river, Shah Jahan surrendered on June 8, 1658. The vast treasuries and magazines of Agra fort fell into Aurangzeb’s hands.
Dara stayed only briefly in Agra before moving to Lahore. When Aurangzeb resumed pursuit, tension between him and Murad grew. Despite warnings, Murad entered his brother’s camp for a dinner on 25th June. Here he was disarmed, made captive and quietly sent off to prison along with his son. Aurangzeb enrolled Murad’s leaderless army into his service the next day. Aurangzeb paused in Delhi long enough to crown himself on 21st July in Shalimar gardens with the title of Alamgir or “World-Seizer”. Thereafter he dealt with his brothers from an overwhelmingly strong position.
Shuja, rejecting Aurangzeb’s promises of unthreatened rule in the east, mustered a force of 25,000 cavalry and a flotilla of river boats and marched upriver. In late December, Aurangzeb joined his son Muhammad Sultan for battle against Shuja. Despite the last minute deflection of Jaswant Singh Rother with his Rajput cavalry to Shuja, Aurangzeb’s army greatly outnumbered and outgunned the Bengal army. Defeated and routed, Shuja fled with the remnants of the army.
In the interim, Dara had regained his courage, acquired funds, recruited a 20,000 man army in Gujarat and marched north. But in mid-March, 1659, Aurangzeb’s army over ran Dara’s forces in a bloody three day battle fought in the hills outside Ajmer. A little while later, Dara was arrested in Lahore and brought to Delhi as a prisoner and killed by Aurangzeb.
There followed a year and a half long, grim, water-borne campaign in pursuit of Prince Shuja by an imperial army under Mir Jumla. Shuja fought, retreated east until finally, at Tanda his army was decisively beaten and broken. In early May 1660, Shuja left Decca by boat with his family and a few faithful troops to take refuge with the raiding king of Arakan. Here, suspected of a plot against the king, he met his death. Murad Bakhsh, who was imprisoned earlier was also charged of murder and killed by Aurangzeb.
The succession crisis reaffirmed the unity of the empire and the authority of the victorious Timurid monarch. Partition of the empire into two or more appanages did not take place. Division of the empire was a bargaining point, nothing more. The principal’s knew that whoever acquired the imperial capital and throne would not rest until the partitioned territories – be they in the east or west or south – were recovered.
You could find similar articles in the Non Fiction section of this blog.
PS: It was not only Aurangzeb, who had to fight for the throne – many other princes also did, in the Mughal Dynasty.