Tag Archives: palace

Dynasty Lost (and Found again)

25 Jan

On my last day in Yangon, I went back to the Schwedagon Pagoda and sat in contemplation of all the history it has stood witness to one last time. I then gathered myself and wheeled around exiting from its South Entrance. I headed down the hill and followed some general directions I had found on the internet that would lead me to the site I was looking for: the tomb of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II.

The Red Fort - Delhi, India (2009)

The Red Fort – Delhi, India (2009)

I had learned about Bahadur Shah a few years earlier during a trip to India. It was a story that gripped me– this was the 17th Emperor of the Mughal Dynasty. The end of the line of 3 centuries of a Dynasty that had begun with Babur the Great who was a descendant of Tamerlane and claimed ancestry with Genghis Khan. The dynastic lineage he spawned would include Humayon, Akbar the Great, and Shah Jahan — who built the Taj Mahal. Babur was laid to rest in what today is Kabul in Afghanistan. Nearly all the other Mughal kings were buried in magnificent mausoleums sprinkled around Delhi, Agra, Fatehpour Sikri, and other areas of North India. Yet, the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, had died in 1862 in Rangoon and was virtually forgotten until 1991. The British had removed him from his palace in the Red Fort in Delhi because of his part in the Indian rebellion or “mutiny” of 1857. At the time, the British East India Company had already begun what was to be their long-term occupation of India which initially began as a trading outpost and then morphed into a military colonizing force stretching from Calcutta down to Madras, across to Bombay, and up to Delhi. A band of Indians who could see the handwriting on the wall if these British forces continued their entrenchment in the region attempted to overthrow the British provisional government and troops who were in Delhi. The leaders of this group approached and enlisted the help of Bahadur Shah and although he had extremely diminished power and extended little influence outside of the walls of the Red Fort, he still wielded a symbolic appeal that could be used to rally the people under the banner of getting rid of a foreign occupier. The results of the uprising were catastrophic. The British crushed the rebellion and killed two of Bahadur Shah’s sons who had participated in the skirmishes. The British general presented Bahadur Shah with each of his son’s heads afterwards. After a 40-day trial in which the British “proved” Bahadur Shah’s role in the mutiny, he was convicted of various conspiratorial charges and treason and sentenced to exile in Rangoon where the British had set up another outpost. In 1858, Bahadur Shah and his wife marched with what was left of the royal court east from Delhi to Rangoon.

Stone Marker found near Bahadur Shah's tomb

Stone Marker found near Bahadur Shah’s tomb

He died in Rangoon 4 years later at the age of 87. He was buried on the same day of his death by the British. His grave was lost until 1991 when during excavation of a road just below the Schwedagon, Burmese construction workers hit a brick-lined structure that upon further investigation turned out to hold Bahadur Shah’s coffin. They also found a stone marker written in English, Urdu, and Burmese that made reference to the “Ex-King of Delhi” being buried near this spot. In his years of exile, Bahadur Shah wrote poetry, created beautiful calligraphy, translated Sufi texts, and reflected on his long life. He was acutely aware of what it would mean to die in exile as the last Mughal Emperor. In one of his final poems, he wrote the following (as has been translated into English), “Poor Zafar! Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved”.

Mausoleum of Humayon - Delhi, India

Mausoleum of Humayon – Delhi, India (2009)

While his ancestors such as Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan, and others are still remembered and their mortal remains lay in some of the most incredible monuments ever built, Bahadur Shah was hastily buried in a shallow grave in a foreign land. The pages of history quickly swept by him. His descendants would fade into obscurity [a news article some years ago wrote of the existence of some of his descendants who are now apparently paupers in Kolkata – begging for money in train stations]. Yet, something interesting happened after Bahadur Shah’s grave was rediscovered in Yangon.

Taj Mahal (Shah Jahan's Mausoleum) - Agra, India

Taj Mahal (Shah Jahan’s Mausoleum) – Agra, India (2009)

The Indian government assisted the Burmese in creating a shrine for the king, and this compound also includes the tombs of his wife and daughter whose graves were found nearby. As renewed interest in Bahadur Shah and his life caught on, people began to pay attention to his writings and commentaries were published about his poems, his translations of important Sufi texts, and other works.

Mausoleum of Akbar - Fatehpour Sikri, India

Mausoleum of Akbar – Fatehpour Sikri, India (2009)

Shrine of Bahadur Shah II

Shrine of Bahadur Shah II – Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) (2011)

When I arrived at his shrine, I was amazed by how many people were there. I thought maybe there would be just a few caretakers and I would be the only visitor. But, there were many people of all ages streaming in and out of the shrine. Some were having picnic lunches in the prayer hall, and others were sitting around the tombs of Bahadur Shah and his wife praying and socializing. These people were all also Muslims. I saw an immediate parallel between their devoutness at Bahadur Shah’s shrine and the Buddhist centrifugal pull of the Schwedagon Pagoda just up the road.

Tomb of Bahadur Shah

Tomb of Bahadur Shah

In watching the people at his shrine, it struck me that these people did not come here to pay tribute to Bahadur Shah because he happened to simply be the titular “last Mughal”, but rather because they held a saint-like esteem for him and his accomplishments as a poet and dervish.DSCN3102 His shrine emanated its own sacred energy within the shadow of the Schwedagon Pagoda.

Two and half a years after my trip to Myanmar, the country has definitely changed. Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, and instead, is a member of the Burmese parliament. The country has begun to open itself the world community, all political prisoners have allegedly been set free, and the tourist sector in the country is experiencing a boom. This could all be for the best as long as the government and people balance this growth with their traditions and preserve the incredibly legacy and monuments of their country. However, there are concerns about what appear on the surface to be ethnic or religious intolerance and violence — especially in Rakhine state where the Rohingya people  (an ethnic group originally from what is now Bangladesh and who are Muslims) are being persecuted by the Buddhist majority there.  But, what I saw at the shrine of Bahadur Shah shows that the Burmese people can certainly embrace different religious practice in the face of coming socio-economic change.  While his small shrine has none of the grandeur or awe-inspiring design of the mausoleums of his ancestors, it also lacks the museum-like austerity of those shrines.  Instead, Bahadur Shah’s shrine is alive and provides a peaceful site of contemplation and community for a Burmese religious minority. It is a refuge — and that’s perhaps more of an enduring legacy than that of any other Mughal Emperor.


19 Jul

Old Age and Death.  Siddhartha encountered these on his next 2 trips. The concept of Sickness had unsettled him, and now these next 2 provoked. They baited him. They were part of an arc connected to an unseen cycle. But what?  He would not ponder this until much later. “I will get old. This body of mine will surely break down and become feeble. Then death. End. And yet we gleefully glide through…for that?” That stirring he had felt now rose to his heart and he felt deep sadness and regret. We enter into this life and the journey seems to only be about leading us out. He was bogged down with this and his heart ached – not out of disappointment but something deeper – as if his life had been unrequited. He did not cast blame on anyone for this for he was just now starting to learn. That was not the fault of his father who only had loved and protected his son.  The perceptions of reality and collective consciousness of a peoples get passed on like any other legacy. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. It results in stability and heritage (most of time). But, at other times it may result in stagnation and after a while those same old perceptions and social mores become the shadows we watch and accept. We forget what makes them. Or we choose not to remember. Siddhartha was stirred. That could only come within. It was not something that could be taught. When he was moved to go out again even after the sleepless nights that had ensued after his grappling with the visions of Old Age and Death, he tried to brace himself for what he could possibly encounter next.  He walked far down the road leading away from the palace. He saw again some of the other past visions on his way and he took them in. Still they were strange to him but he continued on until he saw some weird amalgam of all the visions he had so far absorbed. It came in the form of a man who was crooked and breathless like the sick man he had first seen, wrinkled and white-haired like the old person he had seen, and draped in nothing more than a cloth – just like the one that had been wrapped around the dead man he had seen.  What was this then? He approached the man and asked him.  The man was surprised by the inquisitive nature of the Prince. Siddhartha was dressed in his regal robes and his long hair was perfumed and combed straight back.  The man sensed who Siddhartha was. He replied, “I am only a man who has long left his home. Determined never again to return until my search for a way out of suffering in this world comes to an end.”  Siddhartha had never heard such a riddle. “Do you mean until you die?” he replied. Siddhartha’s recent discovery of death was fresh in his mind. He viewed it with such finality that he could only interpret what these words had meant was that the only way to find a “way out” of suffering was to end your suffering, and the only “end” had to be death.  That’s how it had to be. The man smiled at Siddhartha and answered, “Death does not end suffering in this life. It just passes it on to the next.”  Siddhartha could say no more. He stood silently and looked at the man with a blank expression. He felt warmed however. As if standing by a fire just in its infancy. Its flames still light hues of orange and delicately trying to darken and get stronger. But, not yet anywhere close to roaring. The man smiled again at Siddhartha and walked away.  This strange man had been the tinder. That stirring that had so gripped Siddhartha had now reached his mind. It brought him focus. He knew what he had to. He would have to leave the palace and his family, and like the wandering man, he too had to figure out a way out of suffering. Otherwise, death would come between him and everyone he had ever loved anyway. And what would then be the point of remaining confined within those walls and being content to allow the dancing to simply play out while watching and doing nothing?  He could never be happy with that especially after what he knew now.  He had to cast himself out. But, he wanted to say good-bye first. It seems you always have to begin with good-bye.

The Elephant

17 Jul

He was born on a night with a big snowball of a moon. Luminous. Whether he sprang from the Lotus flower or the loins of the White Elephant that entered the Queen’s room – neither matters. People are wont to ascribe divinity to conception everywhere and in various contexts and so it was with him. What matters though is that he was born a man like all the rest. Yet, unlike all the rest he would be sheltered and know no struggle. His father was the head of a warrior clan and Siddhartha would lay siege to only the comforts and delights of the royal grounds at Lumbini. His father did name him Siddhartha, but not right away. The name was not given for at least 5 days or more. Was this indecision on his father’s part? Or merely the same contemplative nature that Siddhartha would himself come to know? He grew into a prince and it was expected he would take his place alongside his father and continue the Gautama line. But, then that fateful day happened. He had already married and had a son when it did. Something lacked – although he knew not what, nor was he seeking some greater understanding. Some people today may get to the point in their lives when they realize it’s not the big love that they are meant to find, but more that person or thing which makes them simply strive to be better, to work harder, to reach farther into themselves and their lots. A catalyst that leads to purpose and possibly happiness. Siddhartha didn’t reflect on such things. He didn’t need a muse, a religion, or philosophy. He was complete within the walls he lived. He had all the pleasures of the body and mind that any man would ever need — and more. Nevertheless, he sought to venture outside the walls of the palace that day and it could have been just a frivolity. A princely gallivant. His father though was not so glib about this. He had known about his son’s trip outside the palace and had ordered his men to sweep away any unseemly and undesirable sights from the road and the perimeter outside the palace. Siddhartha came out of the main gate and was met with the familiar tidy smiles on the faces of his subjects and took in the clean sweet-smelling odors permeating from the surrounding vendor stalls. He continued down the road completely unaware of the staged scene before him. Out of the corner of one of his eyes he noticed something. He stopped and walked over. Incomprehensible. He was seeing something not smooth, tight, flush, or angular. How could he know the opposite of such things when he had never seen or experienced them? “Crooked”, “frail”, “bent”. These words had never passed his lips. His long dormant instincts may have flickered for an instant and there may have been a faint recognition of what this was. But, he could only stare. They say he was 29 when it first hit.

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