On an oppressive day in September 1657, Shah Jahan falls so seriously ill that he is not able to present himself for his daily darshan at the jharokha of the Qila-e-Mubaarak at Shahjahanabad for several consecutive days. This seemingly innocuous dereliction of duty will have catastrophic consequences. It will lead to the longest and most bitterly fought war of succession in Mughal history and, in the long run, to the end of Shahjahanabad as glittering imperial capital. It will also bring about an astounding reversal of fortunes for the favoured siblings, Jahanara and Dara Shikoh.

Dara Shikoh and Jahanara are constantly by Shah Jahan’s bedside and all other visitors are strictly forbidden. Jahanara supervises the emperor’s food, to guard against poison, and “soup of mint and manna” are given as remedy for his acute water retention and swelling of limbs. Dara also forbids all couriers from travelling on the roads so as to prevent information from reaching his brothers. The gates to the palace are bolted and only supremely loyal Rajput troops are trusted to guard the palace gates. Dara tries to muzzle the agents at court who are loyal to his brothers and so temporarily imprisons Isa Beg, Aurangzeb’s personal vakil at court. But another crucial source of information for Aurangzeb remains at court – Roshanara Begum. Roshanara is now forty years old. She has lived a muted life in the shadow of her glorious sister, whose every action is celebrated.

Jahanara is so universally loved and personally discreet that Roshanara knows she is beyond rumour and scandal. But there is one person who is not so faultless, and who can be brought low – Dara Shikoh.

Dara Shikoh, wearing a sehra of pearls on his turban and his hands stained with henna, in the Hindu tradition.

From the zenana of Shahjahanabad, Roshanara observes and forwards to Aurangzeb Dara’s many transgressions. She knows he has slowly but steadily antagonised the Ulema and even many of the nobles because of his fascination with mysticism and eclectic Hinduism. He is accused of being “constantly in the society of brahmins, yogis and sanyasis, and he used to regard these worthless teachers of delusions as learned and true masters of wisdom”. She learns of his scandalous friendship with the naked mystic Sarmad, an Armenian Jew who has converted to Islam, lives with a young Hindu man and taunts the orthodox clerics with his heretical verses. Roshanara is also aware of the fact that Dara Shikoh has made powerful enemies within the nobility due to his arrogance. “If Dara had a failing”, agrees Manucci, it was that he “scorned the nobles, both in word and deed, making no account of them”. Nor does Dara endear himself to the Ulema when he declares that “paradise is there where no mullah exists”. Dara himself is ill-advised, being contemptuous of the opinion of others. “He spoke disdainfully to all those who ventured to advise him, and thus deterred his sincerest friends from disclosing the secret machinations of his brothers.” Roshanara notes all these things about Dara and she bides her time carefully. Amidst the gaunt topography of her life, Roshanara is waiting for her destiny to reveal itself. And few at court suspect the extent of her rancour or the depth of her ambition. Roshanara is “very clever, capable of dissimulation, bright, mirthful, fond of jokes and amusement, much more so than her sister begum sahib”. Dissimulation, at least, is a trait Roshanara shares with Aurangzeb and “all was done in great secrecy”, says Manucci, of their long-range communications, “with much craft, so that his brothers could neither know nor suspect anything”. And so, following Shah Jahan’s illness, while Shah Shuja and Murad Baksh impetuously declare themselves padshah, Aurangzeb waits.

Then in January 1658, he marches north, towards Agra, where Shah Jahan has been moved to, with the purported and pious aim of “liberating” the old padshah from the noxious influence of the apostate and idolater Dara and establish peace in the empire.

Five months later Aurangzeb, along with his ally Murad Baksh, is advancing upon Agra itself. On a day in May so hot that “many strong men died from the heat of their armor and want of water”, Dara Shikoh and his imperial army have been effectively routed. From within the zenana, Shah Jahan and Jahanara are appalled at the defeat of their beloved shahzaada. Dara sends a disconsolate message to his father and sister, lamenting that “what has now happened to me is what you foretold”. Shah Jahan had advised Dara to wait for Suleiman Shikoh, his twenty-five-year-old charismatic oldest son, who was fighting Shah Shuja. But Suleiman Shikoh is waylaid and abandoned, and will end up in the stark, rugged hills of Garhwal, under the protection of that raja. Dara is devastated by his loss, the fickle loyalty of his generals who hustle over to Aurangzeb’s winning side, by the conflicting orders from his sentimental father who did not want to have his younger sons killed. Jahanara sends out a faithful eunuch with valuable jewels for Dara. She sends a message also expressing “her deep grief, telling him that she was even more discomfited than he; but she had not lost all hope of some day seeing him reign peacefully”. But Jahanara will never see Dara alive again. He goes to his haveli, takes what precious stones he can carry, and leaves for Delhi with his three wives, his daughter, Jaani Begam, his young son, Siphir Shikoh, and a few servants.

Jahanara Begum

From the zenana, Jahanara sends a long, anguished letter to Aurangzeb, encamped outside the city. “His majesty is free from all bodily infirmities”, she assures Aurangzeb. “He is devoting all his attention to the improvement of the condition of his subjects and the maintenance of peace in the empire.” She then berates Aurangzeb for his “unbecoming and improper action” in taking up arms against his brothers. It is clear that Jahanara now understands the true object of Aurangzeb’s determined hatred, “even if your expedition is due to antagonism to prince Dara Shukoh”, she acknowledges, “it cannot be approved by the principle of wisdom, for according to the Islamic law and convention, the elder brother has the status of a father. His majesty holds the same view.” In a distant echo of Humayun she tells Aurangzeb that “for the life of a few days in this transitory and evil world and its deceitful and deceptive enjoyments are no compensation for eternal infamy and misfortune. Don’t, don’t, for the virtuous do not behave like this.” She urges Aurangzeb, instead, to write to Shah Jahan so that “efforts (can) be made for the fulfillment of your wishes”.

But Jahanara has underestimated the corrosive loathing that Aurangzeb has for Dara, whom he blames for his father’s cold criticism throughout his career.

Obedience to the imperial diktat has been easy for Jahanara, cherished as she has always been. She cannot or will not see how destructive Shah Jahan’s constant undermining of Aurangzeb has been. And how, somewhere, Aurangzeb is also a creature of his family’s casual disdain. Aurangzeb replies with a meandering letter, blaming Dara for all his ills, claiming, disingenuously, to be acting only in self-defence. He then lays siege to the fort at Agra, cutting off its drinking water in this relentless month of June and the people in the fort capitulate within three days. Aurangzeb and his men take over the fort, its jewels, rich robes, gold and stores. Shah Jahan is, effectively, imprisoned within the zenana of the palace. At this stage, Jahanara goes to meet Aurangzeb in what will be their last meeting in many years. It is clear that Shah Jahan and the women have realized that the stakes have changed considerably. Violence has uncoiled, in the inferno of a June day, and Aurangzeb’s ragged ambition will not be denied. There is, possibly, a realisation that a reckoning will come for all the thwarted years during which Aurangzeb has been kept from the court and from the love of his father. Perhaps Jahanara guesses that it is for the very life of Dara Shikoh that she must now plead.

A Mughal zenana

When Jahanara reaches Aurangzeb’s private apartments, she is not greeted with the customary great signs of deference that are usually shown to her. Instead, she is taken to Aurangzeb’s zenana, where she meets with her brother privately. This is the first time that Jahanara has had to ask anything of Aurangzeb, it has always been the other way around. For decades Aurangzeb has laid his many humiliations and slights in front of her, for her sympathy and her validation. Now Jahanara appears before her brother to ask for what is most precious to her, the life of Dara and the honour of her father. But this is not her court and her zenana. It is Aurangzeb’s military encampment and he has taken over Dara’s imperial red tents. Aurangzeb’s men are posted everywhere, battle-hardened men, loud and raucous in their victory, even in the leaching June sun. Jahanara has a proposal for Aurangzeb, to partition the Mughal empire between the four warring brothers and Aurangzeb’s oldest son. The Punjab and its territories would go to Dara, Gujarat would continue to be the fief of Murad Baksh, Bengal would be Shah Shuja’s, the province of the Deccan would be given to Aurangzeb’s oldest son Sultan Muhammad, and the rest of the empire, along with the title of Buland Iqbal and heir apparent is to be Aurangzeb’s. This is an old Timurid solution towards warring mirzas, all of whom are equally entitled to rule.

Half a century later, on his death bed, Aurangzeb will propose just such a settlement between his fractious sons, all old men themselves. But for now, Aurangzeb is implacable.

He will not tolerate Dara, or his claims, in any way whatsoever. He rails against the “infidel” Dara and claims he will save the empire from such an unbeliever. He refuses to meet with Shah Jahan, will never see his father again, and Jahanara comes away, defeated by the hate in her brother’s heart.

Aurangzeb holds a darbar at Agra, distributing mansabs and titles to his noblemen. Murad, wounded after his bravery in battle and therefore a dangerous adversary for Aurangzeb, is imprisoned and will eventually be killed. At the fort in Agra, stripped of his regalia, his soldiers and his court, Shah Jahan, once Shadow of God on Earth, is a prisoner. He is allowed his zenana, and the once-famous women of Shahjahanabad – Aurangabadi Begum, Fatehpuri Begum and Sirhindi Begum – are all incarcerated with the fallen padshah. Shah Jahan is also allowed a few dancing and singing girls, Jahanara Begum, and a view of the Taj Mahal. Aurangzeb allows him his royal cook, and says he may choose a favourite dish which he may eat every day. The cook, pragmatic and surprisingly far-sighted, suggests that Shah Jahan not choose a complicated dish, but that daal can be prepared differently every day of the year. Faithful to her father and tormented by the fate of her beloved Dara, Jahanara is a constant presence by Shah Jahan’s side for all the years of his imprisonment. She lays aside her lavish lifestyle, her busy trade and diplomatic dealings, as easily as she would a faded cloak. She is never heard to appeal to Aurangzeb or to complain in any way about her treatment. Just as she had once shared her father’s glory, she now shares his destitution and his bitter grief. Her only desire is to console Shah Jahan and ease his burden. The glory and the magnificence of empire are now for Roshanara.

Excerpted with permission from Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire, Ira Mukhoty, Aleph Book Company.