torture of the mughal rulers of india -- 4/19/22

Today's selection -- from The Anarchy by William Dalrymple. Ghulam Qadir and his Afghan Rohilla conquered and tortured the Mughal ruler of Delhi and his family in 1788.

"Ghulam Qadir moved quickly. The royal guards and the princes were immediately disarmed. The guards were expelled from the Fort and the princes locked up in Aurangzeb's white marble Moti Masjid. Then Ghulam Qadir, in what would at any other time be regarded as an unpardonable breach of etiquette, sat down on the cushions of the imperial throne next to the Emperor, 'passed an arm familiarly round his neck and blew tobacco smoke into his sovereign's face'. So began what the Maratha newswriter described as a 'dance of the demons', a reign of terror which lasted for nine weeks.

"That evening, Ghulam Qadir retired to the camp he had set up in one of the palace gardens, the Hayat Baksh Bagh. The following morning, the 30th, the Rohilla returned to the throne chamber. 'When the King saw him trespassing onto the Privy Seat (sarir-e khas), he began reproaching him softly: 'I trusted our verbal agreement and the oath you swore on the Holy Quran,' said the Emperor. 'I see I was deceived.' 

"While he was still speaking, the Rohilla summoned Prince Bedar Bakht. Ghulam Qadir stepped forward, and took the Emperor's dagger from his girdle, then without a word sent the Emperor off to the imperial prison of Salimgarh, and placed Bedar Bakht on the throne. Drums were beaten and coins struck in the name of the new Emperor, Bedar Shah. 'The Emperor could only bite the hand of astonishment with the teeth of reflection.'

"According to the newswriter's despatch, 'Ghulam Qadir then demanded from [the boy's grandmother] Malika-i-Zamani Begum the promised money.' 

She came from her mansion in the city to the fort and said, 'after searching the people of the imperial mahals and the Begums, I shall provide you the money. If you act by my advice, all your affairs will flourish.' 'The money and the property in the fort now all belong to me,' replied Ghulam Qadir. 'You have to give me what you promised.' 

Ghulam Qadir then confiscated all the money, furniture and wardrobes of Shah Alam, and the jewels and gold and silver vessels from the imperial stores. Then he searched the Begums and the princesses and seized whatever ornaments and clothes were found, so that even the clothes they wore were taken away and they were left with only their noses and ears intact. Then, stripping the male inhabitants of the fort, and the inhabitants of Delhi who had gone there for safety, he turned them out and seized all their property. He began to dig up the floors of the houses. He remarked, 'Shah Alam attempted to ruin my house, and in concert with the Marathas and Mirza Najaf Khan went to Pathargarh and dishonoured my women. Even now he wishes to summon Scindia and devastate my house. I have no option but to take retribution.

An image of Shah Alam II after being blinded by Ghulam Kadir. The image is attributed to Khairullah (c. 1800)

"The cupola of the golden mosque was stripped of its gold leaf.. 'With the complicity of the Nazer Mansur Ali Khan, they stretched out the hand of oppression on the people of the city.' Before long, Rs25 crore of jewels had been disgorged from the city's jewellers and bankers. While he looted the city and the palace, according to Azfari, the Rohilla, 'day and night gave himself over to great quantities of various intoxicants, particularly to bhang, bauza [beer-like booze] and ganja' .

"Gradually, Ghulam Qadir became more and more savage. The servants began to be hung upside down and tortured over fires to reveal hiding places of the Emperor's treasure. 'Some maid-servant dancing girls and providers of pleasure favoured by Shah Alam were brought in without veil or covering; they were taken to the daira camp where they were made to pleasure drunken louts.' The Head Eunuch Mansur Ali was dragged through a latrine and left nearly to drown in the sewer beneath: 'Ghulam Qadir called out to his henchmen: "If this traitor (namak-haram) doesn't produce the seven lakhs rupees within the next watch, stuff his mouth with excrement!'" When the eunuch protested that he had saved Ghulam Qadir's life as a baby, the latter replied, 'Do you not know the old proverb, "to kill a serpent and spare its young is not wise"'

"According to a report sent to Warren Hastings, 'the new King Bedar Shah was not allowed a change of raiment and was obliged to beg Ghulam Qadir for a rupee to buy a meal; but the Rohilla refused to see him when his Majesty went on foot to beg. The old Queens of Muhammed Shah [Rangila] who had seen Delhi in its utmost splendour before the invasion of Nader Shah, were forced from their Houses and their property ransacked. Shah Alam was seven days without any food but coarse bread & water.'

"Ghulam Qadir was convinced that the Emperor was still hiding many of his treasures from him, so on 10 August he summoned him and the princes back from the Salimgarh prison. According to Khair ud-Din, the Rohillas first 'ordered that Prince Akbar and Prince Sulaiman Shukoh should be bound and whipped by the carpet spreaders ... so that blood gushed from their mouths and noses. Shah Alam exclaimed, 'whatever is to be done, do it to me! These are young and innocent.' Then Ghulam Qadir said to some truculent Afghans, 'Throw this babbler down and blind him."'

"Shah Alam looked straight at Ghulam Qadir and asked: 'What? Will you destroy those eyes that for a period of sixty years have been assiduously employed in perusing the sacred Quran?' But the appeal to religion had no effect on the Afghan. 

Those men threw him down, and passed the needle into his eyes. They kept him down on the ground by striking him with blows from sticks, and Ghulam Qadir asked derisively if he saw anything. He replied, 'Nothing but the Holy Koran between me and you.' All night long he and his children and the women of his palace kept up loud cries. Ghulam Qadir remained that night in the Moti Mahal and hearing these cries, he writhed like a snake, and directed his servants to beat and kill those who made them. But the men dreaded the questioning of the day of judgement, and held back their hands. 

The next day, Ghulam Qadir said to Bedar Shah, 'Come out and I will show you a sight.' Ghulam Qadir then went to Shah Alam, and said, 'Find me some gold, or I will send you to join the dead.' Shah Alam reviled and reproached him, saying, 'I am in your power, cut off my head for it is better to die than to live like this.' 

Ghulam Qadir Khan jumped up and, straddling his victim's chest, ordered Qandahari Khan and Purdil Khan to pinion his hands to his neck and hold down his elbows. With his Afghan knife [contrary to the usual practice of blinding with needles] Qandahari Khan first cut one of Shah Alam's eyes out of its socket, then the other eye was wrenched out by that impudent rascal. Shah Alam flapped on the ground like a chicken with its neck cut. 

Ghulam Qadir then gave orders that the needle should be passed into the eyes of Prince Akbar, Suleiman Shikoh and Ahsan Bakht. The imperial ladies then came out from behind their curtains, and threw themselves at the feet of Ghulam Qadir; but he kicked them in the breasts and sent them away saying, 'Pinion all three and I will consider what to do with them another time.' He then ordered some followers to beat them until they were senseless and throw them back into prison. Then he called for a painter, and said, 'Paint my likeness at once, sitting, knife in hand, upon the breast of Shah Alam, digging out his eyes.' He then forbade his attendants to bring any food and water, either to Shah Alam or his sons.

"That night three valets and two water-carriers tried to relieve the Emperor's thirst. Ghulam Qadir ordered all five, in succession, to be killed, and their bodies left to rot where they had fallen, next to the sobbing Emperor.

"On the 25th, Ghulam Qadir turned his attention to the imperial princes. Just as he may once have been turned into a catamite, so now it was his turn to humiliate the males of the royal house. …

"In despair, a few of the princes threw themselves over the ramparts of the palace and were drowned in the Yamuna. In time, several others died from hunger: 'Salty the Eunuch (Namakin Khu/aja-sara) entered to announce that a ten-year-old child of Shah Alam had just expired of thirst and hunger. But the Rohilla shouted: 'Just dig a hole where it fell and throw it in, and don't bother to change the clothes it was wearing!"'

"In the days which followed, Ghulam Qadir broke the last remaining taboo as he turned his attention on the sacred, forbidden royal women. On 29 August, the Dowager Empress Malika-i-Zamani Begum was stripped of her clothes and left in the sun without food or water. The same day a number of the younger princesses were stripped naked, minutely searched 'in every orifice', fondled, flogged, then raped. Victorian translations of the sources have censored these passages, but the Persian original of Khair ud-Din tells the whole brutal story. One evening, Ghulam Qadir was told of 'the beautiful daughters of Mirza Hika and Mirza Jhaka; so that evening, he had those poor unfortunates brought to the Moti Mahal and had them placed before him without veil or covering, and lost himself in gazing on their beauty'.

He then invited in his like-minded most intimate henchmen into that private place to show them those peerless beauties and then gave them each to be enjoyed at leisure and in sin. When Bedar Shah heard what was going on, he beat his head and chest and sent a mace-bearer to that lying trickster to stop it. The official came back making excuses, saying: 'What can a servant like me say to a warlord like him?'

Bedar Shah then appealed to Ghulam Qadir in person, shouting: 'You cannot behave like this, it's outrageous, even to the daughters of your enemy! The sins of the fathers are not to be visited on their children! Not once did Shah Alam even look disrespectfully at your father's daughters or sisters! Stop behaving like this!' But Ghulam Qadir just threw a stone at him: 'I want to have these girls sent into my harem as my concubines.'

"As Azfari put it: 'If even a fraction of the calamities and misfortunes of this time be described, if it be heard, anyone hearing it would go deaf. And if your hearing were to survive, and if you were still capable of compassion, your gall bladder would surely burst with sorrow.'"



William Dalrymple


The Anarchy


Bloomsbury Publishing


Copyright William Dalrymple


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