The birthplace of modern India

Of course I am exaggerating a little, because nothing as big as a nation has a single origin. But you could make a case that the British Raj took the First War of Independence of 1857 as an excuse to destroy the old India. Today’s nation, in a sense, is a work of restoration, made up by sticking together recoverable bits of the old with serviceable new pieces from elsewhere. When you stand at the tomb of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, random thoughts like this are inevitable.

After the war was lost, the British Raj was established and Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled to Yangon to live out the last days of his life. This was a mirror of the exile of Burma’s last king, Thibaw, to Ratnagiri. Bahadur Shah was a poet, and perhaps one of the most famous poems attributed to him starts with the line “Lagta nahi hai dil mera, ujre dayaar mein” (I find no pleasure in this derelict city). The problem with this neat story is that city is more likely to be Delhi than the then-little port of Yangon, apart from the fact that there is a recent dispute about the authorship of this ghazal.

Tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar in Yangon

When Bahadur Shah died in 1862, his body was buried in secrecy. Over the years a tradition grew which said his body was buried in the mosque in Yangon named after him. The photo you see here is a modern tomb constructed next to the jamaatkhana (prayer hall) of the mosque. The grave with the neon crown is supposed to be the emperor’s and the other two are supposed to be of two of his wives.

Strangely, an excavation in the late 1980s revealed a hidden grave one level below this, and studies eventually led to the conclusion that the hidden grave genuinely contained the remains of the last Mughal emperor. In 1994 Myanmar and India together constructed the little underground memorial which you see in the featured photo. It stands directly below the traditional spot in the other photo.

Myanmar has a treasure trove of British documents from these last years of Bahadur Shah’s life, stored as pdf files in its national archives. They were first described in William Dalrymple’s book on Bahadur Shah, but I’m sure there is material enough for many historians in Yangon.

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

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