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Connecting Dots between the Kings in Exile: Bahadur Shah Zafar and Thibaw Min

At present, India and Burma have prosperous political and economic relations between them. Besides, they also share a history, the foundation of which was laid by the British Government in the late 19th century. The British never had any motive to form any favorable connection between these neighboring countries. In fact, to crush both the Burmese and the Mughal empires, they exiled their kings to foreign countries, which later connected bridges between Burma and India. How did this happen?


Let’s turn back the clock and explore the tale of the kings in exile- Bahadur Shah Zafar and Thibaw Min.


POLITICAL SITUATION

Bahadur-Shah-Zafar
Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar

Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal Emperor of India. After the death of Aurangzeb, the Mughal empire started declining. Apart from the Marathas, the growing power of the Britishers worsened the situation. Due to increasing sepoy mutiny against the British, Bahadur Shah Zafar was declared as the emperor of India under whose name all rebellions took place.


One of such rebellions that changed Bahadur Shah Zafar's destiny took place on 16th May during the famous revolt of 1857. On a dark night, the sepoys reached the Mughal court in Delhi and killed 52 European prisoners at the royal palace despite Zafar's protests. It is believed that it was a well-planned conspiracy to implicate the king into the rebellion. Well, if it is true, then the mutineers definitely succeeded. Zafar, who was more famous for his Urdu poetry rather than his administrative skills, could neither tackle the rebels efficiently nor protect his people.

Since all rebellions took place under his seal, Zafar was considered to be the chief accused and was captured by the British at the Humayun's tomb on September 20, 1857. As if snatching his empire was not enough, the Britishers shot Zafar's two sons and a grandson the very next day. After the trial, the old king was exiled to Rangoon in Burma, along with his beloved wife Zeenat Mahal and their two remaining sons. Rather than making comfortable arrangements for their travel befitting the former royals, they were sent off to Burma in bullock carts.

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Capture of Bahadur Shah Zafar

Almost 30 years later, history repeated itself but in Burma. Upper Burma, King Thibaw's kingdom was rich in oil, rubies, teak, and rubber. This attracted the East India Company and led them to start the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. The prime motive of this organization was to utilize the resources in Burma for trade with India. Predicting the threat, Queen Suplayat, Thibaw's wife, in an attempt to crush the British power, joined hands with the French. This alarmed the Britishers, but they waited for a perfect chance to capture the territory.

Thibaw-Min
King Thibaw with his wife and daughter

Very soon, the Britishers got the opportunity they were waiting for when in 1885, the King charged penalties on Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. In opposition, the British declared war on Upper Burma. Thus the third Anglo-Burmese war began and swept away all the regions that were under the control of the King. The Britishers were happy with the victory, but they were not satisfied with the capture. They wanted to suppress the fame of the King, so they decided to exile the emperor and queen to Ratnagiri in the far corner of India. Again the favored mode of transportation was bullock carts.

Thibaw-Min
"King Thibaw Leaving Mandalay" painting by Saya Chone

LIFE IN EXILE

After completing their long journey from Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar and his family boarded a ship named Magara to cross the Rangoon river and reach Burma. In Rangoon, they were provided with a shabby, wooden house opposite the grand monument, Shwedagon Pagoda. The location was also carefully selected to disgrace the emperor as much as possible. Often people visited the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, but Zafar remained unnoticed and unrecognized by everyone.

Bahadur Shah Zafar, a descendant of great Mughal kings such as Akbar and Shah Jahan, was reduced to obscurity in a foreign land. He only had a small house in a location that was almost invisible to passersby. The man who once had vast palaces, exquisite tapestries, and luxurious furniture was now imprisoned in a tiny house with torn curtains, filthy walls, and an old shaded window.


For a king whose ancestors had ruled for over 300 years, it is quite natural for him to feel despair at such a dishonorable treatment meted out to the royal family. Cursing his fate, Zafar wrote many poems filled with grief and agony.

Poems by Bahadur Shah Zafar

His poems convey the feeling of helplessness and loneliness during his last days. It was only his poetic works that gave him some respite. The king left many of his writings that still resonate in the minds of his people forever.


But for King Thibaw, the entire scenario was a bit different.

Thibaw and his family were initially transported to Madras (now Chennai), where the queen gave birth to their third daughter. Later, the royals were sent to Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, on India's far west coast. Unlike Zafar, however, a grand palace known as the Thiba Palace was built for the Burmese royals. Despite their comfortable surroundings, the royals had a difficult life. The king received pensions on a regular basis, but they were insufficient to cover the family's expenses. As a result, he frequently sold his only possessions, some Burmese rubies, to meet the family's financial needs.

Thiba-palace
Thiba Palace

Whatever the differences were, one thing remained common between both the rulers- the longing of their motherland. A wish that never came true.


LAST RITES AND PRESENT SITUATION

As Zafar approached 87 years of age, his health started deteriorating rapidly. He was spoon-fed but soon found that difficult too, as his throat got paralyzed. He became lean and weak. His face and body grew skinny, and his feet and hands trembled. On November 7, 1862, he breathed his last. His last desire was to be buried in his motherland, but it was never fulfilled. The British buried him near the same house without even marking his grave. His wife Zeenat passed away 20 years after Zafar’s death. By then, everybody had forgotten where his grave was located. So, she was buried roughly near the place where the Britishers assumed her husband's grave was. The last rites of their son were also conducted similarly.

But the Burmese were not as indifferent and rude to the royal family as the Britishers were. After more than 100 years of the demise of the Mughal royals, a mausoleum was built in their honor after Zafar's skeleton was discovered accidentally. Today, this dargah is a living monument. Tourists from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and India visit the mausoleum in Burma to hear stories of Zafar. The locals also refer to him as "baba''.

Bahadur-shah-zafar-tomb
Bahadur Shah Zafar Dargah in Yangon by Marcin Konsek

Meanwhile, in Ratnagiri, King Thibaw died in exile by the end of 1916. The king was entombed within the premises of Thiba Palace. Although his wife, Queen Supalayat, was allowed to return to Burma, she was denied permission to take the king's coffin along. Today archeologists say that there are not many details left on the king. The locals also have little connection with him as he was to them a foreigner. However, his daughter, Princess Phaya, is highly respected by the locals as she had willingly chosen to stay in Ratnagiri and make the small town her home. At present, Thiba palace is a museum and a popular tourist destination.


Pratha Kirthika

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Kirthika Nandhakumar

Pratha Content Writing Intern



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