Myanmar – The Shared Destinies Of Two Illfated Kings

This is a riches to rags story.

Of the journey of the King of Delhi from his jewel encrusted chambers in the Red Fort to a tiny tenement in the by-lanes of Rangoon.

Replicated, just twenty seven years later, by the ouster of the occupant of the exquisite Glass Palace in Mandalay and his exile to modest lodgings in a remote town in West India.

Bahadur Shah Zafar II, poet king of an empire almost reduced by then to the boundaries of the city he inhabits, is a reluctant monarch. Installed, at the mature age of sixty two, by the very imperialist forces who later snatch the last vestiges of his dignity as revenge for his symbolic and equally reluctant command of the Indian rebellion.

It is the mutineers who choose him. When the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 gathers momentum across the Gangetic plains and seeks a figure of authority acceptable to all to rally around. The bloody wake of their march to Delhi incurs the wrath of the (East India) Company, leading to the siege of Delhi and the massacre of a large section of the population upon its fall.

Zafar’s refuge in the Humayun’s tomb complex with his two sons and a grandson, proves short lived. He is apprehended by Major William Hodson, who then continues to arrest and personally shoot (behead?) the three unarmed young princes in order to scare off a mob of protesters at the Kabuli gate (also referred to as Khooni Darwaza or ‘Gate of Blood’ for the many atrocities committed beneath it through Delhi’s gory history.)

A short trial in Jan. 1858, ends with the beleaguered 83 year old king’s banishment to Burma, along with his wife, two sons and a daughter in law. He dies four years into his exile and is hastily buried in an unmarked grave in a lane near the Shwedagon Pagoda.

The rest of his large family is murdered or expelled, and the Red Fort and all its riches plundered. The few known descendants of the evicted Mughals live abject lives today. One great granddaughter is reported to be residing in a Kolkata slum.

Royal Family of Burma

Queen Supayalat (centre) flanked by King Thibaw Min and her sister, Princess Supayagi. ( Image courtesy Wikipedia)

Thibaw Min, son of a minor (exiled) queen of King Mindon Min, is not the first choice to head the Konbaung dynasty either. But the 19 year old prince manages to ascend the throne in 1878, with the help of Mindon’s chief consort who arranges his marriage with her eldest daughter (his half sister) Supayagyi.

Her bold and ambitious second daughter Supayalat inveigles herself into the nuptial ceremony, and edges out her own sister from the king’s affections. The massacre of all members of the royal household perceived to be a threat to Thibaw follows. Instigated, it is believed, by the scheming mother in law, with the possible knowledge of the younger queen.

British forces are already entrenched in Southern Burma by this time. One too many Anglo Burmese skirmish in 1885, throws up an excuse to annex Upper Burma. For the first time in the history of the country that deifies its monarchy, a palace is deliberately defiled by the dusty marching boots of British soldiers.

There was no ceremonial procession. Instead, Thibaw and his young family, together with a train of servants, were led towards a few ordinary bullock carts…large crowds of ordinary people had gathered along the avenues leading from the walled city…as their king passed them by, men, women, and children instinctively knelt on the ground…with his attendants holding a tall white umbrella over his head, and a crush of English, Burmese and Indian onlookers all around, the twenty-eight year old Thibaw walked onto the ship, never to see Mandalay or Burma again.
~  ‘The River Of Lost Footsteps’ by Thant Myint-U

Their first port of call is Madras (now Chennai, the city I call home) where Supayalat delivers her third daughter: Myatpaya (aka Madraspaya!). The proximity of Madras to Burma, prompts yet another move to Ratnagiri on the West coast, initially to a bungalow that is still called Thibaw ‘Palace’, and a while later, to Outram House. Here, the lord of the dazzling Lion Throne of Burma and his young family, eke out a living in forced isolation on a shrinking stipend that does not stretch to the middle of each month and mires them in deep debt with local moneylenders. And here, into the lap of their misery, they welcome Princess Four: Myatpayalay.

Later, the dynasty that once preferred incestuous marriages with half siblings to sullying the purity of its bloodline, has to cope with the ignominy of their older daughters’ dalliance with servants. The heartbroken king succumbs to the shock. Supayalat and the princesses are allowed to return to Burma after the passing of Thibaw and Queen Supayagyi, but the eldest Princess: Myatpayagyi, returns to her Marathi lover who eventually abandons her. Their impoverished descendants continue to live in Ratnagiri.

The grandchildren of (the third) Princess Myatpaya (who marries a royal cousin) and Princess Myatpayalay, live mundane middle class lives awaiting the recognition and reparation of their legacy. But the Junta has been in no hurry so far to acknowledge them or to seek the repatriation of their ancestor’s relics, for fear of arousing an already rebellious population.

So Thibaw lies forgotten, beside a less loved wife in a desultory plot in Ratnagiri, whose mangoes are better known today than the royal resident who once had the entire town in his employ.

“Once I had the same footing as the King of Siam, the Emperor of China, the Emperor of Japan, and other Kings. It seems to me rather inconsistent to address such a King as His Highness, even if he be an ex-King. I shall be very glad if I am allowed to keep my titles and honours, namely, ‘His Majesty’…. ……Personally any form of address will be acceptable to me, I do not seek for shadow when I know I have lost the substance. But I feel it very much when they address me as ‘His Highness’ as it reminds me of my fall…”
~  ‘The King In Exile’ by Sudha Shah

Bahadur Shah Zafar’s poignant poems bemoan his forgotten status, and the likely absence of candles on his sarcophagus. But despite every effort by the colonial authorities to ensure his grave is never discovered, he isn’t forgotten! A preliminary memorial is raised in the presumed location of his hasty burial on the insistence of the local Muslim community, until workers accidentally stumble upon his original tomb in 1919.

The Dargah of Bahadur Shah Zafar in Yangon.

The sarcophagus of Bahadur Shah Zafar in the crypt beneath the Dargah

The sarcophagus of Bahadur Shah Zafar in the crypt beneath the Dargah

Another view of the sterile, tiled space.

A dargah (shrine) is built above the spot to house his remains and those of his wife and granddaughter. it has since evolved into a pilgrimage site with Zafar elevated to the status of wish fulfilling Sufi Pir (Sufi saint)! No matter that the frail, old king died lamenting his own unfulfilled wishes. One of which was to be interred in a grave within the dargah of Sufi Saint, Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki in Mehrauli.

An Indo-Burmese caretaker who speaks fluent Tamil points to the Urdu verses on the walls of the stark hospital like crypt. I recite the final couplets after him from memory. Each moving syllable evoking the last Mughal’s deep despondence. And the lost footprints of two royal dynasties waylaid by history.

I asked for a long life, I received four days,
Two passed in desire, two in waiting.

The days of life are over, evening has fallen
I shall sleep, legs outstretched, in my tomb

How illfated is Zafar! For his burial,
Not even (a plot of) two yards did he receive
in his beloved land.”

~ Bhadur Shah Zafar.
(Translated – rather ineffectively – from the original in Urdu)