Red Fort in the 1850s
History, India, People
How Shahjahan seized the Mughal throne
Storytrails Team
JANUARY 28, 2021

Shahjahan, who ruled between the years 1628 and 1658, was the great Mughal Emperor who built the magnificent Red Fort of Delhi. But Shahjahan was neither the eldest son (he was the third) nor the son of the empress (his mother was one of the MANY wives of Emperor Jahangir). Not surprisingly, Shahjahan’s journey to the throne is a story of gory politics and intrigue. How exactly did he beat the odds to take over the Mughal throne?

A painting of the Red Fort in the 1850s by Ghulam Ali Khan, c. 1852 (Image credits: Wikipedia)

[Detour: Listen to the Storytrails podcast on Stories of Red Fort here]. 


Shahjahan grew up away from the hustle-bustle of his father Jahangir’s household. On the advice of the royal astrologers, he was raised by his grandparents, Emperor Akbar and Empress Ruqaiya Sultana Begum. It was destined, they said, that Ruqaiya would raise an emperor. Though he grew up sheltered from palace politics, he acquired all the education a prince needed: martial arts, law and administration, liberal arts and more.

A painting of Shah Jahan by Bichitr, c. 1630 (Image credits: Chester Beatty Library)

Meanwhile, Jahangir’s eldest son, Prince Khusrau, was being apprenticed in all key posts in the government. Perhaps, one day he would occupy the throne? But unfortunately, the impatient Khusrau made a cardinal mistake in 1606. While he was based in Lahore, he staked his claim to the throne, even when his father, Jahangir, was alive and well. Jahangir crushed Khusrau’s rebellion, and imprisoned him. All Khusrau’s supporters were publicly executed. Khusrau himself was blinded and later executed. His sons too were imprisoned. Shahjahan, till now a dark horse, became closer to Jahangir, and developed wide political connections in the capital. Shahjahan assumed key political and military responsibilities and exhibited excellent leadership abilities. Jahangir’s second son Parviz Mirza was an incompetent drunk, so it was clear that Shahjahan was the potential successor.


But all was not well in the palace. Jahangir was a pleasure-seeker, drifting into addiction. So his 20th wife, Nurjahan became the real power centre. Cleverly, she started plotting and scheming about Jahangir’s succession. She got her daughter by her previous husband married to Jahangir’s other son Shahryar, and her niece Mumtaz married to Shahjahan. Yes, the famous Mumtaz was the daughter of Asaf Khan, Nurjahan’s own brother. With this, Nurjahan had covered all bases. 

Mugahl emperor Shah Jahan and his empress Mumtaz Mahal (Image credits: Wikipedia)

But Nurjahan dearly wanted her son-in-law Shahryar on the throne. The opportunity came when the Persians besieged Kandahar. Nurjahan influenced Jahangir to order Shahjahan to fight the Persians. Shahjahan refused, because he believed that in his absence, she would poison Jahangir and install Shahryar as emperor. This, of course, meant that Shahjahan had disobeyed the imperial command, and so he was promptly arrested. His young sons were sent to Nurjahan’s harem. Shahjahan quickly realised that he had painted himself into a corner, and sought royal pardon. Jahangir probably sensed this background and forgave him; but the cold war between Shahjahan and Nurjahan was hotting up.

Nurjahan, Jehangir, and Shahjahan c. 1624 (Image credits: Wikipedia)

The flash point came  when Jahangir died near Lahore in 1627.  At that time Shahjahan was busy fighting a war in Deccan. Shahryar, then Governor of Lahore, immediately declared himself emperor, using the Lahore treasury to buy off key nobles. 


Now, Asaf Khan, Shahjahan’s father in law, made some brilliant moves to protect his dear son-in-law, Shahjahan’s claim. First, he rescued Shahjahan’s sons from  Nurjahan’s harem, and arrested Nurjahan. This prevented Nurjahan from taking any hostages. Next, he released Prince Dawar Baksh from prison and proclaimed him as emperor. Interestingly, Dawar Baksh was the son of Prince Khusrau who had earlier revolted against Jahangir and been executed. Dawar Baksh was put on the royal elephant and sent with an army to fight Shahryar. Dawar Baksh, a hopeless man without any talent, could not believe his luck! He did not realise that he was a proxy and a red-herring to fool the opposition. The imperial army, which was really commanded by an able Shahjahan loyalist,  destroyed Shahryar’s army anyway.

Shahjahan, accompanied by his three sons: Dara Shikoh, Shah Shuja and Aurangzeb, and their maternal grandfather Asaf Khan (Image credits: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, Shahjahan rushed back from Deccan and was declared emperor. All the nobles fell in line. Shahjahan then executed every possible male rival to the throne. That included Shahryar and many cousins and nephews. Dawar Baksh too was executed. Finally, with all the bloody business behind him, Shahjahan commenced his long and glorious reign as emperor, with Asaf Khan as Prime minister. Ultimately, it appears that the royal  astrologers were right, after all!


[Postscript: Did you know that Dutch master Rembrandt painted portraits of Shahjahan without ever visiting India? Click here for the story: Rembrandt’s Mughals]

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