Padshah Shah Alam II

This monarch has two qualities which appear to be hereditary in this house: first, he is marvellously devout, and second, devoted to women. He passes his life among them, having no less than 500 in his seraglio, who, for the most part, have others to serve them, and the latter is often the object of the Padshah’s ardour. In moments of weariness, which, considering the age of the prince must be frequent, he arms himself with a Koran and a rosary, to pray and meditate. I have seen him surrounded by faqirs and mullahs, listening to them with an air of contemplative submission, which appeared astonishing to me. These mullahs would get up and jump, dance, turning on their feet, swinging their arms in the air with prodigious rapidity, and perform a hundred other extravagant things, which did not appear worthy of the respect with which the Emperor attended this strange spectacle. Sometimes the mullahs would approach his person with their arms extended in front, the fists closed, one against the other. The Padshah would rise, applying his hands on the fists of the mullahs, and then pass his hands sanctified by this contact over his face and beard, with such seriousness that I was greatly tempted to laugh.

His avarice

Our Mughal Emperor is avaricious to an inconceivable degree. I believe that this is the strongest of all passions that torment him. Some of the anecdotes which they tell me can scarcely be believed. The magnificent welcome that his predecessors gave to the doctors of the law who happened to come calling from Arabia and Baghdad, has been mentioned earlier. There came one such gentleman in recent times to Delhi. The prince would not tire of discussing spiritual matters with him. He admired his teachings and the purity of his life. After having kept him for several months and having drawn from him all the clarifications that he sought for his own satisfaction and edification, he sent him a gratuity of a mere Rs 50! The good apostle was not really all that detached from the good things of the world, therefore he regarded this petty sum as an insult to his own dignity. He threw down the pouch and trampled it underfoot. The Mughal omrahs felt humiliated by the miserliness of their Emperor; they got together and raised a sum of Rs. 20,000 to mollify the learned doctor.

The sons of Shah Alam

I have already mentioned the great number of male children of whom Shah Alam is the father. The eldest of these is named Jawan Bakht. The second is Farkhunda Bakht. Both these names have a special meaning that refers either to the status of the Padshah’s family, or some other circumstance. Thus Jawan Bakht, which literally means, jeune bonheur (youthful and lucky), refers to the joy which Shah Alam, then confined in the citadel, felt when he was informed of the birth of his first son. It was to him, as I have already said, that Abdali handed over the administration of public affairs in Delhi, after driving out the grand vizier, the murderer of Alamgir, who was plotting so many other bloody plots.

These two princes are not taken as seriously in court as their birth demands. Jawan Bakht does not meddle with anything; he is always close to the Padshah, which shows that he does not make much of it.

Farkhunda Bakht, the second son, has fallen out of favour. It is said though that he is certainly worthy of it and has more intelligence than most of these princes. He occupies himself with his studies and has a good collection of Arabic and Persian books, and he spends a good deal of his time turning their pages.

The expenses of both these princes are extremely limited. The Padshah, their father, on the pretext of his own financial embarrassments, gives them almost nothing beyond what is strictly necessary. They are already grown men, the eldest being about 30, and the younger around 27 or 28, but neither of the two is married. However, following the customs of the country, they have been given some female slaves to sweeten their celibate lives. They are obliged to pay and maintain them, so the second, being poorer, has only one. His brother is better equipped in this respect.

Akbar Shah

But the third son, who is named Sultan Akbar, is incomparably much better treated than his two older brothers. This prince came into this world when his father was wandering in the eastern provinces in search of fortune. He is most tenderly loved and refused nothing. Akbar is around 18 years of age and has a regular seraglio, well furnished with 18 women. The Padshah wanted to marry him to a daughter of the new King of Kandahar, who is a cousin germane to the young prince. At the same time, he is counting on marrying one of his daughters to the eldest son of the same King.

Shah Alam’s family

The Padshah appears to be a tender and affectionate father. He readily caresses his children in public, particularly those who are just emerging from childhood. I have already said that he has a good number of them, without counting the daughters, of whom they never speak, I was told in Delhi that he has 27 male children, all alive and swarming, and he is yet of an age when he can be expected to further augment the numbers of the heirs of Timur-leng. Whenever he makes a public appearance he usually has three or four of his sons around him. On several occasions, I have seen him leaving the fortress for an excursion into the countryside, accompanied by many of the young princes, also mounted on horses like the Emperor, and exerting to show their strength and skills by performing different sports and exercises before him. At other times I have seen this prince, passing from one apartment with some of his youngest sons, of three, four, five or six years, carried behind him. Eunuchs would be charged with these noble burdens.

The number of the Padshah’s children proves that the family of Timur-leng is not likely to fade away, but these princes are by no means its only hope. It is estimated that there are more than 80 shahzadas kept in confinement, all of whom are provided with wives, and the majority have children.

Miserable conditions of life

These unfortunate victims of a stupid and unnatural policy were confined to a quarter of the citadel, which had been prepared for them in earlier days for this sad purpose. Here they lead a pitiable life and the vast majority, die of boredom and misery. They receive a pension for their subsistence, the amount of which is fixed and regulated by the sovereign, which is more or less considerable, varying according to the support they receive from the parents or relatives of their mothers, or their proximity to the present Padshah.

For the most part, they have but one room and a kitchen, and there are some other smaller attached rooms – in short, the accommodation of their apartments is extremely cramped. Only women are allowed to serve them. They are too poor to have eunuchs and the customs of the country will not permit them other domestics. The gate that leads to their quarter is guarded by a company of cipayes, who are under the control of the nazir, who is one of the confidential eunuchs of the Padshah, and he is ordinarily the commandant of the citadel.

Some of these shahzadas receive but Re. 1 a day as subsistence, others may get two, three, four or five. The Padshah has three brothers who are also confined, but he gives each of them Rs. 300 a month for the support of their families. A brother of Muhammad Shah who was still living when I arrived in Delhi received Rs 18,000 per annum and was said to have a considerable sum of hoarded cash. He was considerably less uncomfortable than the others. He sometimes meets the Padshah who receives him with a lot of sincere respect.

This prince whose name I cannot recall just now died at a very advanced age sometime after my arrival at this court. Although the deceased had relatives in the prison who were much closer to him than the Padshah, this prince seized his inheritance which normally should have reverted to Ahmad Shah, the blind and deposed Padshah who was a nephew of the old shahzada. This prince enjoyed the reputation of being witty and intelligent and was fond of Arabic and Persian literature. He left behind a substantial library of some 400 volumes (which is a substantial number for a private library in the Orient), all carefully bound. It is said that Muhammad Shah would have liked to pass the crown to him, had he been in a position to dispose of it thus.

Ahmad Shah, whose tragic history has been recounted elsewhere, is also kept in this prison. I do not know what he receives by way of an allowance, but this poor prince, blinded and deposed by his own vizier (as I have recounted earlier) praises the humanity of the reigning Padshah, who treats him with great courtesy. He often consults him, and sometimes he shares his meals with him.

All these princes of the Imperial blood, lead, as we have seen, extremely unfortunate and dreary lives. The money allocated for their subsistence is not always disbursed regularly. When the delay becomes excessive, they raise a din from the middle of their prison, and since it is not very far from the Imperial apartments where the Padshah usually resides, he can hear every word they shout. When I arrived, for two months nothing had been disbursed to the shahzadas. Their ordinary purveyors had stopped supplies and it was said that for two days they had not had anything to eat. Their lamentations were so loud and unceasing that the Padshah who did not have any cash, actually placed some precious stones in pawn with the sahukars of Delhi, to satisfy their just demands.

It is easy to understand the impatience of these poor princes because the sums they receive as allowances are so petty. It was not without reason that they assembled together to cry out to the Emperor in concert, “Send us your men to cut our throats. That death will be sweeter than the life which you are making us suffer!” Their cries affected the Emperor greatly because the complaints were entirely justified. He immediately sent to the shahzadas’ quarter all the foodstuffs that could be scraped together from the palace. Then he sent for Abdullah Khan and ordered him to find the money to pay the unfortunate princes their just dues. Some valuables were pawned, and they raised a sum of Rs 2 lakh and this sum added to what the Padshah contributed from his own side, was used to pay off the dues.

Excerpted with permission from Soldier of Misfortune: The Memoirs of the Comte de Modave, translated from the French by GS Cheema, edited and annotated by Jean Deloche, Manohar Publishers and Distributors.