Going by all present evidence, History, in particular the Mughal era, is back with a bang – and is here to stay. When it comes to the most controversial and charismatic of all the princes in the dynasty, the veneration and renewed interest of the central administration is now reaching its apogee. In September of last year, at a special symposium in New Delhi to commemorate his life and ethos, he was upheld as “The Emblem of Indianness”. Soon thereafter, a special research chair was set up in his name at the Aligarh Muslim University. And now, the Ministry of Culture has tasked a seven-member panel of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to locate his grave, and submit a report within three months.
But first, a fundamental clarification. The name is Dara “Shukoh”, not “Shikoh”, as he is continually referred to by political commentators, departmental functionaries, and most bafflingly, historians and archaeologists. Because within this single misspelt alphabet, there is a world of difference. “Shukoh” in Persian denotes ‘glory’ or ‘majesty’, a worthy and likely appellation for a Mughal Prince. “Shikoh”, on the other hand, stands for ‘terror’, which when used in conjunction with the person’s first name, effectively dubs him a terrorist, presumably not the intention of the experts!
The ASI certainly has its work cut out, and not the least of its challenges has to do with its intended approach. In place of identifiable artifacts, the search is supposed to be based on textual evidence and oral tradition. The latter may provide suitable material for soap operas or a Bollywood flick, but is unlikely to provide the bulwark for any serious scientific investigation. With regard to textual evidence, here too the challenge is compounded in that the contemporary chronicles either don’t agree with each other or may prove difficult to authenticate. The Shahjahannama may well allude to a specific Quranic verse. However, there is a counterview that the cenotaph marking Dara Shukoh’s grave specifically does not contain any inscription from the Quran or Hadith, due to the fact that Dara, at least on paper, was executed on the charge of apostasy. In any case, the caprices of the elements over the centuries have effaced the inscriptions of quite a few cenotaphs located in the open terrace of the main mausoleum, as well as elsewhere within the premises. If the grave happens to be one of these, how would the inscription help in identifying it?
Now, consider a major anomaly among the sources. The Alamgirnama mentions that the body of Dara Shukoh was buried inside the Humayun’s tomb complex. Niccolao Manucci, famed for his touch of the dramatic, claimed that while the headless corpse was buried hastily in the Humayun’s tomb, the head itself was interred in the Taj Mahal, as a painful reminder to the captive and deposed emperor Shah Jahan, each time he happened to gaze out of the Agra Fort towards the mausoleum of his departed wife. On such “textual evidence”, should we now authorise an excavation beneath the Taj Mahal?
Arriving at conclusive evidence, as required in any scientific project, is painstaking, time-consuming and considerably expensive. For example, intensive DNA analysis is theoretically possible, from a longlist of candidate samples collected from graves within the premises. Such analysis too has its share of difficulties, including possible DNA degeneration or external, bacterial contamination. And even if a proper DNA profile was to be found, it would still have to be matched against an authentic and unique DNA, such as that extracted from an article used by that person or a match to his parents. In the former case, one candidate could be the sword-and-scabbard set of Dara Shukoh, currently in the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London. The latter takes us back again to the Taj Mahal.
All of this, though, leads to a much larger question. After expending substantial time, energy and funds, if Dara Shukoh’s grave were indeed to be unambiguously identified, what actual purpose would it serve? Would a separate cenotaph be raised over it? A signboard with pious words in a garish font, ascribed to the Prince, for the edification of the passing visitor? Or an interesting addition to the repository of questions for civil service examinations? Even with the most well-intentioned of motives, here’s the rub. A glorious posthumous rehabilitation does not insulate us against the vagaries of the future or even the challenges of the present. Two decades after his death, the distant and almost unsung grave of Napoleon was dug up, the body of the late emperor exhumed from its resting place in St Helena and given a befitting reinstatement in the heart of his beloved Paris. But for all its grand monumentality, does the Hotel des Invalides guard against potential economic crises – or while we’re about it – provided the French government with a solution blueprint for addressing the demands of the Gilets Jaunes?
If we are to indeed celebrate Dara Shukoh, aren’t his literary and theological works and his deeply syncretic ethos, more important to remember and follow, than a knowledge of the precise location of his mortal remains? If his life’s work were to be encapsulated into one phrase, it would be the title of his startingly original book, Majma ul Bahrain, or The Mingling of the Two Oceans, the oceans in question being Hinduism and Islam. Quoting from this treatise:
“Now, thus sayeth this unafflicted, un-sorrowing fakir Dara Shukoh that after knowing the Truth of Truths and ascertaining the secrets and subtleties of the true religion of the Sufis and having being endowed with this great gift, he thirsted to know the tenets of the religion of the Indian monotheists. And having had repeated and continuous discussion with the doctors and perfect divines of this Indian religion … he did not find any difference, except verbal,in the way they sought and comprehended Truth.”
Three-and-half centuries after his death, how close are we to achieving this ideal?
Avik Chanda is the author of Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King
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Updated Date: Mar 01, 2020 09:54:44 IST