A tale of two graves

In the courtyard of Ahmad al-Sirhindi’s dargah in Punjab, the graves of a Badshah and a Begum lie among those of other Afghan nobles.

ByLt Gen H S Panag
A tale of two graves
Lt Gen HS Panag
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A kilometre west of Titar Lodge Farm (my farmhouse) stands the 390-year-old dargah of Ahmad al-Fārūqī al-Sirhindī (1564-1624), aka Mujaddid Alf saāni – the ‘reviver of the second millennium’. He belonged to the Naqshbandi Sufi order and is claimed to have descended from a long line of ‘spiritual masters’ with the first being ordained by the Prophet himself to interpret and spread the message. His urs on December 10 gets a large number of visitors from all over the world. The courtyards around the mausoleum are dotted with a large number of graves mostly of the people of noble descent who felt privileged to be buried next to their spiritual master. The elite of Afghanistan considered the Sufi master their spiritual ancestor. Many an Afghan nobleman, who died during the campaigns in India, lies buried here.

The graves of Zaman Shah and Wafa Begum.

As a 12-year-old, I often heard the popular Punjabi saying – “Khaada peeta laahe da, baki Ahmad Shahe da (Whatever we eat and drink is ours, the rest belongs to Ahmad Shah),” with reference to the numerous invasions of Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of modern Afghanistan. With juvenile curiosity awakened, I very often visited the Rauza Sharief (shrine of the exalted) to discover the graves of the Afghan invaders. On one such visit, the then Khalifa Sahib, impressed by my interest, took me to a less visited part of the dargah and showed me a one-room tomb with two graves. He said that these belonged to a Badshah and his Begum from Afghanistan. Beyond this, he knew very little. The tomb was made of marble with excellent inlay work. Fascinated by this ‘discovery’, I delved deeper into the history of the 93 years following the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1708 until the establishment of the Sikh Empire in 1801.

With the death of Aurangzeb, Mughal power waned and what followed for the next hundred years is a fascinating period in the history of Punjab where the Sikhs, Marathas, Persians, Afghans, the East India Company, Gorkhas, foreign soldiers of fortune and the remnants of Mughals vied to control territory and consolidate power. Alliances changed by the year. It was like coalition politics with individual and collective party-hoppers, except that power was sought with the sword and not the vote.

The Mughal Empire suffered from a crisis of leadership. It was defeated and plundered by the Marathas, Persians, Afghans, Sikhs and the East India Company which finally annexed it. Persians came, looted and went back. Having seized control of central India, the Marathas plundered Delhi many times and forayed north-west into Punjab. They won many, ‘winner takes all’, pitched battles against Mughal and Afghan Governors right up to Lahore. However, they failed to consolidate and were defeated by Ahmad Shah Durrani in the third battle of Panipat in 1761. The Maratha confederacies failed to unite to contest the British and eventually lost their empire. Afghans relied on mobility and focused on loot. They were the predominant power west of Delhi for 52 years from 1748 to 1800.  However, despite loosely controlling the territory through Governors and protectorates, they did not have the numbers or the acumen to consolidate and rule, and eventually lost to the Sikhs. The mercenary soldier, George Thomas, based at Hansi, plundered south-eastern Punjab towards the end of the 18th century.  The Gorkhas under Amar Singh Thapa captured most of the present day Himachal Pradesh until defeated by the Sikhs at Kangra. The Sikhs, divided into 12 Misls (confederacies), relied upon guerrilla warfare, swarmed all over Punjab, united when required to deal the coupe de grace on the Mughals and the Afghans, and finally became rulers of Punjab by 1800.

The subject is vast and there is many an interesting facet of history waiting to be narrated. Let me begin by resolving the mystery of the graves of the Afghan Badshah and his Begum. The Badshah buried in the dargah was indeed once the King of Afghanistan – Zaman Shah Durrani (1770-1844), who was the fifth of the 33 sons of Timur Shah Durrani (ruled 1772 to 1793) and the grandson of Ahmad Shah Durrani (ruled 1747 to 1772). He was the governor of Kabul when his father died. He defeated his rivals, his brothers, with the help of Sardar Painda Khan, chief of the Barakzai tribe, to ascend the throne in 1793 at the age of 23 years. He extracted an oath of allegiance from the final challenger, his step-brother Mahmud, and in return relinquished the control over the governorship of Herat. In so doing, he divided the power base between Herat and his own government in Kabul, a division which was to remain in place for a century. Kabul was the primary base of power, while Herat maintained a state of quasi-independence. Kandahar was fought over for the spoils.

He attempted to repeat his grandfather’s and father’s success in India, but his attempts to recapture lost territories were foiled by the Sikh Misls.

In his own lands, things went well for Zaman, at least initially. He was able to force Mahmud from Herat and into a Persian exile. However, Mahmud established an alliance with Fateh Khan Barakzai, the son of Painda Khan who had been killed by Zaman Shah, and with his support he was able to strike back in 1800, and Zaman Shah had to flee towards Peshawar. But he never made it; on the way, he was captured, blinded and imprisoned in the Bala Hissar fort in Kabul. He was rescued when his brother Shujah Shah Durrani became the king after toppling Mahmud Shah Durrani in 1803. He lived in ‘blinded’ luxury upto 1809 when Mahmud Shah Durrani again seized the throne. While his brother, Shujah Shah was captured by the Governor of Attock, he managed to escape with the zenana (ladies of the house) of his brother and his own to Lahore and sought asylum from Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1810. And therein lies the tale within the tale.

When Zaman Shah was attempting to reestablish Afghan control over Punjab beginning 1796, he was contested by the 16-year-old Ranjit Singh, head of the Sakerchakia Misl. Over the next three years, there were many a battle between the two. Fortunes changed many times. Despite his young age, Ranjit Singh with the help of his mother-in-law managed to unite the forever warring Misls and got the better of Zaman Shah. By 1799, the Misls controlled the entire territory between the Sutlej to Jhelum. In 1801, Ranjit Singh was appointed the Maharaja. It was an irony of fate that 11 years after their last battle in 1799, the blind Zaman Shah as part of the zenana came begging for asylum to Ranjit Singh. Ranjit Singh was magnanimous. He first allowed Zaman Shah to stay at Rawalpindi and, in 1911, received him with full state honours at Lahore.

The Begum buried at Sirhind along with Shah Zaman was not one of his wives, but his sister-in-law, Wafa Begum, the wife of his brother Shujah Shah Durrani, who was overthrown by Mahmud Shah Durrani in 1809. He escaped but was caught and imprisoned by the quasi-independent Governor of  Attock, Jahandad Khan Barakzai who then handed him over to his brother, Atta Mohammad Khan Barakzai, the Governor of Kashmir.  Wafa Begum was a lady of substance and was determined to get freedom for her husband and win back the throne of Afghanistan. She escaped from Kabul and along with Zaman Shah and was given asylum by Ranjit Singh in 1810. She sought a meeting with the Maharaja and promised him the famous Kohinoor for getting her husband freedom from the Governor of Kashmir. Maharaja Ranjit Singh was also keen to add Kashmir to his empire. He invaded Kashmir ironically in conjunction with the Afghan Wazir Fateh Khan in 1813. Such were the alliances and counter-alliances of opportunity those days. Though the Sikhs were diplomatically outmanoeuvred by Fateh Khan and failed to seize Kashmir, Ranjit Singh’s general, Dewan Mohkam Chand, managed to free Shujah Shah. He was brought back to Lahore but was reluctant to handover the Kohinoor and in turn got in touch with the British resident at Ludhiana. Ranjit Singh put the family under house arrest and eventually forced them to part with the Kohinoor in June 1813.

Convinced that Ranjit Singh had no interest immediately in invading Afghanistan, Wafa Begum escaped to Ludhiana in November 1814 and was given asylum by the British with a pension of Rs 18,000 per annum. Zaman Shah was already living there with a pension of Rs 24,000. The ‘great game’ was on and the British were very keen to place a ruler of their choice in Kabul as Dost Mohammad, the Amir of Afghanistan, was negotiating with the Russians. In September 1815, Wafa Begum in conjunction with the British organised the escape of Shujah Shah from Lahore. He was also given asylum and a pension of Rs 50,000 per annum by the British.

Wafa Begum now earnestly got down to planning the invasion of Afghanistan. She negotiated with the Amirs of Sindh, borrowed money from the legendary moneylenders of Shikarpur to raise a ragtag army to invade Afghanistan. The first attempt was made in 1818 via Sindh which failed before it could start due financial problems and lack of support from the Amirs of Sindh. The second attempt was made ironically with the cooperation of Ranjit Singh, who was promised Peshawar as his reward, with Shujah Shah attacking from Sindh via Kandahar and Ranjit Singh through Punjab towards Peshawar. Shah Shujah was defeated at Kandahar, but Ranjit Singh seized Peshawar.

Wafa Begum then managed to convince the British to invade Afghanistan. Prolonged negotiations ensued with the British and Maharaja Ranjit Singh to launch a two-pronged invasion of Afghanistan. The Army of Indus was to attack via Sindh and the Khalsa Army from Peshawar. Unfortunately, Wafa Begum died in 1838 and was buried alongside the mazar of Ahmad al-Fārūqī al-Sirhindī at Sirhind. She was the main planner for invasion which did take place in 1839 and Shujah Shah once again became the King of Afghanistan. Dost Mohammad Barakzai, the then king, managed to escape and was given asylum initially by Ranjit Singh and later by the British. In that era of fast changing loyalties, all players always had a backup plan.

Thus began another bloody saga in the history of Afghanistan. In two years’ time, Shujah Shah was overthrown and the British garrison at Kabul was killed almost to the last man during the battle at Kabul or during the promised ‘safe passage’ retreat towards Jalalabad. Only Assistant Surgeon William Brydon managed to escape to Jalalabad. Ironically, Dost Mohammad Barakzai once again became the king and the Barakzai clan ruled Afghanistan until 1973.

Zaman Shah never went back to Afghanistan when his brother was reinstated and died at Ludhiana in 1844. He was buried near the grave of Wafa Begum. Interestingly, the warped story of the graves of the ‘ Badshah and his Begum’ was recently narrated to me by the present Khalifa. Like one of his predecessors in 1960, he too was oblivious of the history behind the graves. Just imagine if the graves were better maintained and a storyteller is present to tell this epic tale, what a great tourist attraction it would be.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @rwac48


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