Myanmar – The Shared Destinies Of Two Ill-fated 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)

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on

46 thoughts on “Myanmar – The Shared Destinies Of Two Ill-fated Kings

  1. I read that story while in India and it was good to have the reminder. A sad story out of the many sad stories during the occupation of the Raj.

  2. Sad sad ..
    If we look at history the British were very ruthless and have done so many atrocities. .and now they are the ones who moan the most..

    1. Bikram, the killing happened on both sides. Women and children were murdered. The backlash could have been less extreme and selective. But the value systems of the time weren’t as equitable. You have to remember that the British public was unaware of the atrocities being committed in the name of Empire at the time. London took direct control from the East India Company after this rebellion.

  3. This was a good read.. thank you. I am often told that almost every Indian visiting the city makes it a point to go there. Despite having been to Yangon a few times, it is still pending for me to visit Bahadur Shah Zafar’s tomb.

    The most recent news from Ratnagiri was that Gen.Thein Sien visited the grave of King Thibaw. This was some time in 2012, when he was still in power.

    ‘The River Of Lost Footsteps’ is a good read and has a lots of insights to bravery of Myanmar’s kings and generals and the lawlessness that followed the British annexation. Equally interesting is the story of post-Gen.Aung San era, when Burma shut itself to the world. Future however looks bright, at this moment.

    Also worth reading is Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, a fictional narrative based on Thibaw’s life and how Ratnagiri wasn’t exactly a bed of roses for the family and descendants.

    1. It was the Glass Palace that triggered my initial fascination with Burma. I gather from my research that it is more indifference than fear or mistrust on both sides that is preventing the repatriation of the relics. Probably a matter of time before they return home.

      Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment Arun.

  4. Scheming and skulldugery (I like that word 🙂 ) It seems to have gone on for all time, Madhu. Not a happy ending but I wish you a happy weekend 🙂

    1. It might be some consolation to remember that the British public mostly disapproved of the skuldugery (I like it too:)) of the East India Company 🙂 It was the same in Zanzibar. The public had to raise a hue and cry before the EIC, abetted by politicians of course, would let go of the lucrative slavery business.

      Happy weekend to you too Jo. Was away in Bangalore last week to attend the younger boy’s play. Returning again tomorrow for friends’ 60th anniversary. Am exhausted!

        1. Nah! The good life in my book is being able to trot off to Tavira at the drop of a hat. Not navigating rush hour traffic in Bangalore 😀

        2. 😦 Hope it improves as the day progresses Jo. Expected you to be on some sunny shore by now.

  5. a very moving account of the fall from greatness. How wonderful to be a poet. Far better than to be a king. For the palace finds its followers, and the poet is embraced even after he’s left this world.

    1. You are so right. The power of the pen is certainly more enduring. Zafar would have been long forgotten if it wasn’t for his exquisite poetry. That English translation does not do the original justice. Thank you for your visit and comment Shimon.

  6. A tragic tale, Madhu. What a sad end to a great dynasty. Now I’m wondering about those family members who are alive today. I’m sure they sometimes think of what might have been.

    1. I am sure Sylvia. But it must be easier when you have less to lose. The fall couldn’t have been easy for the main characters in this story 🙂

  7. I don’t think I have read that story before, or even if I have I have forgotten. History, history. 😛 History is hard to remember, sure, but it’s good to refresh sometimes, as it makes one appreciate the present moment and be content with it. I’m quite hopeful that we humans are moving in the direction of peace and contentment.

    Great post and photos, Madhu! 🙂

    1. Nandini, thank you for your lovely comment. Recent events in the country leave me doubtful, but I do hope you are right 🙂

  8. What heartbreaking tales of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It was the owner of a B&B in Colombo who first told me the story of the last King of Mandalay – he recommended reading The Glass Palace before going to Myanmar. I had no idea about Zafar’s unhappy fate and his tomb near Shwedagon.

    As for his poem, I wished I understood Urdu so I could read the original. It reminds me of these powerful words by Shailja Patel, a Kenyan Gujarati poet. I saw it just the other day on Facebook and knew you’d appreciate it:

    my father speaks Urdu
    language of dancing peacocks
    rosewater fountains
    even its curses are beautiful.
    He speaks Hindi
    suave and melodic
    earthy Punjabi
    salty rich as saag paneer
    coastal Kiswahili
    laced with Arabic,
    he speaks Gujarati
    solid ancestral pride.
    Five languages
    five different worlds
    yet English
    before white men
    who think their flat cold spiky words
    make the only reality.

    1. Love the poem James! Thank you for sharing. Shall have to seek out more of Shailaja’s work.

      I love English poetry, but it fails to move me quite as much as Urdu or Persian, and my knowledge is rudimentary. Take Rumi for eg. Or even our own Amrita Pritam who wrote in Punjab (that I read in English incidentally, so that’s a bit of an oxymoron!). Pathos especially falls short in prim and proper English 🙂

    1. Rashid, so glad my post helped you connect better with the place. Appreciate your stopping by to tell me. Have a great day!

  9. What tragic tales of the two monarchs. It is this kind of exploration, deep into the past and relatively off the known places, that makes traveling even more meaningful. We, in Indonesia, are largely unaware of what happened in British India, and based on my recent travel to India it’s a rather mutual attitude despite the close connections of both regions before the colonial time. So thanks for this lesson, Madhu.

    1. Pleasure Bama. It is indeed the historical background that makes seemingly ordinary monuments come to life for me. The mutiny is a fascinating subject and I am still not familiar with all the players and destinations involved. Retracing that history would make for an amazing journey.

    1. No it did not. Sadly not all of the world has left that violence behind. Pleasure to see you here Valentine.

  10. This was a very sad story of history Madhu – amazing how violence grips our world, no matter the time period. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Violence is the constant even in a much freer world. Perhaps humans are incapable of eradicating it. Thank you for reading Mary.

  11. Tragedy…followed in almost every footstep of the colonial world. Interesting is your remark about the language, how inadequate any translation is from one language to another. Especially concerning poetry. That is why we should strive to read in the original language…but that would lock us out from most literature…and not many people have the time to learn more than three foreigh languages.

    1. I do know a bit of Urdu, since Hindi is an offshoot, but I would love to understand it fully just to read more poetry. Persian as well. But like you say lack of time leaves us with no option but to find the best translations. Have a great day Ann Christine.

      1. You too, Madhu. I read somewhere that reading translated poetry is like looking through a dimmed window.

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