Within hours of Emperor Jahangir’s death, there was pandemonium. Nur Jahan called for an emergency meeting of the amirs, but no one turned up. Parvez succumbed to an illness brought on by his chronic alcoholism and died in Burhanpur. In Lahore, Shahryar declared himself Emperor and had the khutba (formal prayer) read in his name. With no one to advise him and the treasury suddenly in his grasp, the prince went berserk, throwing away money to the tune of seventy lakh rupees in a bid to buy off all the nobles.

At this juncture, after decades of being a loyal member of the imperial retinue, Asaf Khan finally got his chance to play kingmaker. He placed his own sister, Nur Jahan, under house arrest. Dara Shukoh and Aurangzib, who had been held hostage by the Empress, albeit transitorily, were transferred to his care. And he dispatched his fastest courier to Khurram, urging him to march towards the capital.

Asaf Khan realised that it would take Khurram weeks to arrive at the capital. In the meantime, to thwart Shahryar’s fledgling ambitions, someone else was needed as a rival candidate. Dawar Bakhsh, a son of Khusrau, was propped up, and declared Emperor. In a masterstroke, Asaf Khan then hurried to Agra with an army, took the city and caught Shahryar completely unawares. Brought back to Lahore, he was promptly thrown into prison and blinded. The road to the imperial throne was now wide open for Khurram. Setting off, he sent an important despatch to Asaf Khan: to take into custody Dawar Bakhsh and any other Mughal prince at large.

Mounted on an elephant, Prince Khurram entered the capital. A squadron of veteran cavalrymen accompanied him, their swords ready, just in case. But the people of Agra were ecstatic.

They remembered the handsome dashing prince who had brought such glory to the empire: swarming around the party, they cheered him all the way to the palace. On 2 February 1628, Khurram was crowned under the title of Shah Jahan – Emperor of the World.

Asaf Khan was instructed to deliver the Emperor’s sons to him. The young princes left Lahore, and on 26 February, reached Akbar’s mausoleum at Sikandra. Here, the company camped again, but Mumtaz Mahal, separated from her sons for so long, could wait no longer. She rushed onwards and met her sons at their tent. Next day, the party reached Agra, and Dara was shown into Shah Jahan’s durbar, to make his salutations. The Emperor bent his head forward and Dara performed the procedure of nazar, scattering coins over his father’s head, to ward off evil influences. Formally instated as a prince, Dara was awarded a daily allowance of a thousand rupees, with two lakh rupees from the treasury as his share of the imperial bounty.

Once again, everything seemed to have gone back to the way things were before. And yet, they were different. But what exactly was this difference? Dara couldn’t tell. No one had thrown shackles around his feet, starved him; not a hair on his head had been touched. Even so, something had happened to him during that long year spent in gilded captivity, shuttled from one fort to another, guarded night and day. Things he could never imagine had taken place. He had learnt that it was possible for those nearest to you, to hurt you. Your own father, your son. Why was that?

No one in the palace spoke about it much, but he knew that Shahryar and Dawar Bakhsh had been put to death. There had been questions around Khusrau’s death too. But they were family. What did kinship stand for, then? All he seemed to arrive at these days were questions.

It was summer, and late afternoon. Dara wore a light cotton jama, with a woven pattern of little blossoms – and through the hem of the fine muslin, his pale green pyjamas showed through hazily, their delicate folds tapering from the knee down to the ankles; it was a perfect replica of a suit his father had worn earlier that season. No fawning attendants to irritate him, he ambled around the private quarters, humming softly, touching the richly carved pillars one by one.

The hall opened to a private courtyard. Directly above him, was a ceiling carved with intricate leaves and tendrils; that curved and intertwined, inlaid with traceries of semi-precious stone. Beyond that – the vast, endless vault of the sky, cloudless, gleamed like a large, unbroken slate of topaz. The sky was alive but also burning. Its heat reached him even where he stood in the shade, so that within moments, beads of perspiration formed around his temples and the line of fabric where the turban sat tight on his head produced a subtle itch.

Sunlight slanted across the courtyard, throwing everything in the background into a deep shadow. And in that thin line between light and dark, fine particles of dust appeared, rising, floating, but going nowhere.

The marble slabs beneath his feet, the hot afternoon that met his face, these beads of sweat. And the light – what was light, what was the sun, for that matter – if not fire? Here, then, were all the elements of nature present. Together, these constituted the universe. But what did it all really mean? What did the word “element” mean? You can think of them as symbols, one of his tutors had said. And what was a symbol? This or that quality of man resembles an element of nature, the tutor had explained.

Poets made much of them. The goodness of the saint was like an inner flame. The Great Sikander was a lion in battle. Such, then, was the use of symbols. But what if the sun and moon, the flame and the lion, this heat, this visible and yet ungraspable dust rising from the ground in the courtyard – what if all these were metaphors for something else, something so beyond human conception that no man, except perhaps a great dervish, could even imagine that they existed?

Dara leaned slowly, resting his back against a pillar and an enigmatic smile formed on his lips. A eunuch, approaching this way, was quite unaware of his presence. Suddenly, as the prince appeared only a few feet away, he instantly smiled, greeted and bowed low, his back stiff and alert.

But Dara’s gaze was far away.

Excerpted with permission from Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King, Avik Chanda, HarperCollins India.