In January 1656 CE, an English ship sailed from Persia and into the harbour at Surat in India with an unusual passenger. Stepping off the vessel was 18-year-old Nicolo Manucci, the son of a poor spice pounder from Venice but a lad with big dreams. Nursing a “passionate desire to see the world”, the teenager had stowed away in a boat from Venice and landed in Surat after a dramatic two years in Turkey and Persia.
Manucci was a man without a plan and he ended up spending the rest of his life in India at a time when Mughal power was at its zenith. In his book, A Venetian At The Mughal Court (2021), Marco Moneta recounts the adventurous and wildly entertaining life of Manucci, with generous extracts from Storia do Mogor, a narrative written by the remarkable 17th century firangi.
In the 60-odd years that Manucci spent in cities all across the subcontinent, he went from being a wide-eyed teenage runaway to an adventurer, a court physician, an artilleryman, a diplomat and a writer. Moneta’s book offers deep insights into the reigns of the great Mughal Emperors, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, through the eyes of Manucci and more.
In this excerpt, we get a glimpse into the pitiable final days of Mughal Prince Dara Shukoh and, through an eyewitness account, of his murder at the hands of his brother Aurangzeb.
With his monthly pay of eighty rupees, Manucci joined Prince Dara’s army as artilleryman. There followed turbulent years, filled with battles, marches, sieges and flights as Prince Dara engaged in a fratricidal struggle for the succession to Mughal throne.
Manucci was present at the famous and decisive Battle of Samugarh (29 May 1658), in which Dara’s army suffered the first severe defeat from his brother Aurangzeb. After exhausting marches, he reached Lahore, Multan and the fortress of Bhakkar, in Punjab, where Prince Dara had taken refuge. He was appointed captain of the European artillerymen and wounded on the shoulder as he bravely defended the fortress from attack by Aurangzeb’s generals.
Finally, he witnessed from the fortress of Bhakkar, and with consternation, the ultimate defeat of the unfortunate prince in the Battle of Deorai (April 1659). Manucci witnessed the prince’s flight towards Persia—which he narrated with great passion—and which ended in September 1659 with Dara’s capture, his humiliating exhibition in Delhi’s public square and beheading. (...)
Dara’s only hope for safety was to reach Persia, where he could seek refuge with the Safavid emperor. But in his situation, the harsh march in extreme weather conditions with Aurangzeb’s soldiers in pursuit, the undertaking seemed desperate. Despite the scarcity of water, the exhaustion of horses and men, the lack of animal feed, Dara and his family crossed the Rann of Kutch, forded the Indus River and finally left Mughal territory.
At this point, Aurangzeb’s troops turned back. It was June 1659 and the prince, though in desperate conditions, appeared to have saved his own and his loved ones’ lives. But the events that followed show that this was not so. Dara’s family firmly opposed his idea of migrating to Persia, because a trek across the desolate Bolan Pass and the dangerous regions of Kandahar would prove to be deadly for his beloved wife Nadira Banu, who was already seriously ill.
Dara, therefore, interrupted the journey and sought shelter for his family and what was left of his followers. The best person to approach seemed to be the zamindar (Afghan landowner and chief ) Malik Jiwan. Some years earlier, Shah Jahan had sentenced him to death from trampling by elephants, but Dara had saved him by persuading his father to grant his pardon. The prince, therefore, counted on his gratitude, and indeed Malik welcomed him into his home, showing every respect and care.
However, in the meantime, Nadira Banu died. Dara, overcome by grief, sent the body with an escort to Lahore, to be buried in the cemetery of the sainted Mian Mir, his spiritual guide. Then he granted the men who were still with him the freedom to choose between returning to their own homes and following him to Persia.
Almost no one chose to accompany him. Practically alone, he and Malik travelled to the Bolan Pass. Fate, though, had perfidiously written the final act of his tragic life. The very person who was greatly indebted to him betrayed him; the covetous and ungrateful Malik deceitfully handed over the unhappy prince, his son and two daughters to Aurangzeb’s men, who marched them back to Delhi.
Given Dara’s great popularity, and fearing popular upheavals, when the prisoners were paraded down the streets of the city, they were surrounded by an imposing formation of armed soldiers and horsemen with unsheathed swords. Manucci was not present here, as he was on his way back to the capital, after he and his companions were forced to abandon the Bhakkar fortress. That tragic exhibition was witnessed instead by Bernier, who left a vibrant record of it:
Dara was hoisted onto an elephant, with his second-born son
Sipihr Shukoh beside him, and behind him, in the place of the
executioner, Bahadur Shah (really Aurangzeb’s slave Nazar Beg).
This was not one of those splendid elephants from Ceylon or Pegu
as he was accustomed to riding, with gilt tackle, richly embroidered
harnesses and seats with painted and gilt parasol baldachins, but an
old wretched animal, ugly and filthy, with an old torn harness and a
miserable seat without covering.
Dara was not wearing one of those
necklaces of large pearls that princes are used to wearing, nor did
he wear rich turbans and cabaie, or embroidered clothes. He was
merely covered by a dirty white gown of course cloth, and a turban
of the same material, with a skimpy cashmere shawl or scarf on his
head, like a modest servant, and his son Sipihr Shukoh was dressed
in the same manner. In this miserable state he was made to enter
the city and parade through the greatest bazars, where trading was
done, so that everyone could see him and be convinced that it was
indeed Dara (. . .) In truth, from every terrace and every store came
mournful cries, shouts and laments, and insults and curses against
Jiwan Khan. In brief, men and women, young and old (the Indians
are indeed very tender at heart) cried and showed great compassion;
but nobody dared to move, nobody unsheathed a spade.
On the same night as the parade, Aurangzeb privately consulted his ministers concerning his brother’s destiny. The majority was in favour of a death sentence, for the sake of the state. But Aurangzeb hesitated; he did not wish the sentence to appear like a strictly political act. So the malleable theologians of the emperor judged the prince to be guilty of deviating from Islam and declared him to be an apostate, an accusation that in Islam required capital punishment.
A sudden revolt of Delhi citizens against the traitor Malik Jiwan (recently ennobled) caused his precipitous end. During the night, Nazar Beg and some slaves found Dara’s cell and, after sending his son away, pounced on him and literally tore him to pieces. His head was brought to Aurangzeb as proof of the execution. The rest of his body was buried in a reinforced crypt in the grave of Humayun, who was Babur’s son. It is said, though it is probably just a legend, that in front of his brother’s severed head Aurangzeb said: ‘As I did not look at this infidel’s face during his lifetime, I have no wish to do so now.’
Excerpted with permission from A Venetian At The Mughal Court (2021) by Marco Moneta (translated from the Italian by Elisabetta Gnecchi Ruscone) and published by Penguin Random House.
Also, catch Marco Moneta and Elisabetta Gnecchi Ruscone in a LIVE Discussion on LHI Circle, on 1st December 2021 at 7:00 PM (IST). Subscribe here.