• Patan dhoka, Lalitpur, Nepal
  • The Journey’s End


    Laxmi Murthy

    The last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s tomb in Yangon weaves threads from across Southasia, finds Laxmi Murthy

    On unremarkable Ziwaka road near the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon lies the tomb of Mirza Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah, one of the greatest Urdu poets known by his nom de plume ‘Zafar’. Reduced to complete dependence even before he was defeated in the First War of Independence against British rule, Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal Emperor, was deposed and exiled to Yangon (then Rangoon) in 1858 where he died in captivity four years later. Considered a Sufi Peer (Saint), he was consigned to a nondescript grave by new rulers determined to decimate the last of the descendants of Genghis Khan.  Ironically, this attempt to humiliate was quite in tune with the Sufi notion of the ephemeral nature of the human body, where pomp and ceremony cannot be substitutes for self-realisation. Although most of his writing was destroyed during the British takeover of Delhi, Zafar’s ghazals are among the finest in Urdu, his Kulliyyat-i-Zafar being one of the surviving examples his work. Writing about his incarceration in Burma[1], Zafar says:

    lagtā nahīń hé jī mérā ūjař’é dayār méń
    kiskī banī hé ālam-e-nā-pāyedār méń

    būlbūl ko pāsbāń se na saiyyād se gilā
    qismet méń qaid likhī tthī fasl-e-bahār méń

    kaeh do in hassretoń se kahīń aur jā bas’éń
    itnī jageh kahāń hé dil-e-dāGhdār méń

    ik shāKh-e-gūl pe baiTh ke būlbūl hé shādmāń
    kānTe bichā diye héń dil-e-lālāzār méń

    umr-e-darāz māńg ke lāye tthe chār din
    do ārzū méń kaT gayé do intezār méń

    din zindagī ke Khatm hué shām ho gayī
    p’hailā ke pāoń soyeń-ge kūńj-e-mazaar méń

    kitnā hé bad-naseeb zafar dafn ke liye
    do gaz zamīn bhī na milī kū-e-yār méń


    I am lonely in the city, barren and dead
    But who has prospered in a transitory world

    Neither guardian nor hunter the nightingale bemoans
    Being caged in the season of spring was ordained

    Send these longings to another abode
    They have no place in a scar-ridden heart…

    A long life I besought, these few days
    Half spent in longing, half awaiting

    Life comes to an end, dusk approaches
    In peace I will sleep, sheltered by the grave

    Zafar the wretched in his death was denied
    A few feet of earth in the beloved’s street

    Neither light for eyes nor solace for heart
    Of use for none, I am fistful of dust

    I have lost my bloom, I have lost my love
    I was born of spring in a garden ravaged by fall

    Why lay a wreath, recite a prayer
    On a forlorn grave, why light a flame

    Not to be heard, not a spirited song
    I am the voice of anguish, a cry of colossal grief.

    (Translated from Urdu by Yasmeen Hameed)

    It took more than a century to discover the exact spot where Bahadur Shah Zafar’s was interred. It was in 1991, when the foundation of a memorial hall was being dug that a mound resembling a grave was unearthed. The unceremonious burial was deliberate. “Abu Zafar,” wrote one Captain Nelson Davies who oversaw the funeral rites, “expired at 5 o’clock on Friday. All things being in readiness, he was buried at 4 pm on the same day, in the rear of the main guard, in a brick grave covered over with turf, level with the ground. A bamboo fence surrounded the grave for some considerable distance. By the time the fence is worn out, the grass will have again covered the spot and no vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the great Mughals rests.”

    Bahadur Shah Zafar’s desire to be buried next to his father Akbar Shah II in Zafar Mahal near the Moti Masjid in Mehrauli in Delhi was never to be. An empty grave or ‘Sardgah’ in a marble enclosure instead marks this spot adjacent to the dargah of Sufi Saint Qutbuddin Bakhtiar. Yet, the humble resting place of this member of the mighty Timurid dynasty is today a space for deep thought, of peace and poetry. The simple mausoleum with its memorial hall accessible to the poor and needy Muslims beleaguered by rising Buddhist chauvinism; giggling school children or lovers seeking privacy, is reflective of the mild-mannered, poetic ruler who allowed the Empire –admittedly already diminished– to slip past his fingers which were busy with quill and steeped in ink. Yet, his exquisite words of wisdom, of philosophy, peace and passion are immortalised for all time to come.

    Sozish-e-dil ko hain kya khaak bujhaate meri,
    Mujh ko ruswaa-e-jahan deeda-e-tar katte hain,
    Aatish-e-ishq se ur jaaen samunder ke hawaas,
    Yeh hameen hain ke jo is aag mein ghar karte hain

    My streaming eyes can only bring public disgrace,
    Impotent are they to quench internal fire;
    With the heat of love, oceans vaporize,
    I alone can bide in the heart of fire.

    [Translated from Urdu by KC Kanda]

    Laxmi Murthy is the Director, Hri Institute and based in Bangalore.

    [1]There is some controversy over whether or not Bahadur Shah Zafar wrote these lines at all, or whether he wrote them in captivity. However, a framed plaque with this poem adorns his tomb in Yangon.

    Entrance to the Tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar
    Tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar

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