Stories of royal romance from Mughal India

Pran Nevile

THE Mughal India presented an exotic view of the Orient. Royal harems were famous the world over for their hordes of ravishing beauties, dripping with pearls and diamonds. Great patrons of dance and music, the Mughal rulers also adorned their courts with beautiful and highly accomplished singing and dancing girls.

There are several fascinating accounts of royal romances between princes and kings and these lilting and swaying beauties on whom they bestowed special favours and openly acknowledged their relationship with them. Jehangir fell in love with the beautiful but unfortunate Anarkali. Dara Shikoh was charmed by a dancing girl called Rano Dil and married her, giving her the same status and dignity as other princesses. Even the puritanical Alamgir is said to have been infatuated with the celebrated courtesan Zainabadi who captivated him with her unrivalled melodious voice and exquisite physical beauty. It was her sudden and premature demise that ended the affair but love tales of Aurangzeb and Zainabadi have been handed down to posterity in folk lore. Later, he married another dancing girl and gave her the status of a queen with the title Bai Udaipuri Mahal.

Lal Kunwar’s romance with Jahandar Shah (1712-13), the grandson of Aurangzeb was indeed the most colourful and surpassed every other royal romance. A descendent of Tansen, the great musical genius and one of the gems of the court of Akbar, Lal Kunwar came from the family of kalawants (musicians). She captivated Jahandar Shah with her bewitching beauty and charm at a very early age. She was a consummate singer and the melodious strains of her voice and graceful dance movements enthralled everyone. Her sparkling wit and vivacity of temper added to her charm and enhanced her personality. Lal Kunwar’s singular beauty and radiance are described in a long Persian poem by a contemporary writer, which ends thus:

Ba Khubi Lal Kunwar nam-i-u-bud

Shakkarguftar, sin-andam-i-u-bud.

(Lal Kunwar, her very name is most befitting. Sweet in speech, her body was white as silver).

Lal Kunwar became Jahandar Shah’s favourite concubine at an early age and their mutual attachment was so intense that she kept him company even in the battlefield. When Jahandar Shah had triumphed over his brothers, and ascended the throne, he raised Lal Kunwar to the status of a queen. She was made empress and dignified with the title of Imtiyaz Mahal (chosen of the palace). She was even given the royal insignia and allowed to display the imperial standard. Five hundred troopers (ahadis) followed in her train. She was provided with an annual allowance of two crores of rupees for her household expenses, exclusive of clothes and jewels. The emperor, fond of luxury and pleasure, spent much of his time in the company of Lal Kunwar who exercised considerable influence over him. Her whole family was ennobled — father, brothers and brothers-in-law. They were appointed to the mansabs and given jagirs. Some of the finest confiscated mansions in Delhi were given to them.

Indeed, the whole court was given over to the pleasure of music, dance and wine. According to a contemporary account, people of all ranks gave in to a life of ease and pleasure. Courtesans and other groups of public entertainers were in demand. Pubs and taverns sprang up, liquor flowed and the sound of music and dance was heard all over Chandni Chowk. The kalawants gathered at the palace to drink with the emperor, who entertained them for fear of offending Lal Kunwar. Thus, the prestige and dignity of the sovereign suffered a setback and the king appeared to be a piece in the game of chess moved here and there by the kalawants.


There is an amusing anecdote about the appointment of Lal Kunwar’s brother as subedar of Agra. The wazir Zulfikar Khan demanded a bribe of 1,000 sarangis for issuing the firman (document). Lal Kunwar complained to Jahandar Shah who asked his wazir as to what he would to with so many sarangis. He replied that since sarangi players were preferred to nobles for appointment as subedars, it had become necessary for nobles to learn this art in order to qualify for imperial service. This reply induced Jahandar Shah to cancel the appointment.

Jahandar Shah was so enamoured of Lal Kunwar that he went out of his way to gratify her whims. In defiance of all propriety, he would even go with her in a bullock carriage to visit the markets and taverns. One night, after visiting various gardens round the city, they entered a tavern where they got intoxicated. While leaving, the woman who owned the shop was rewarded with the grant of the revenue of a village. On reaching the palace, Lal Kunwar was so drunk that she had to be taken out of the carriage and had to be carried to her room by her maid servants. The emperor remained fast asleep in the cart which was taken to the stable by the driver. Not finding the emperor with Lal Kunwar, the servants were alarmed and woke her up. Lal Kunwar was shocked to see that the emperor was not by her side and fell down crying. People went running about in all directions till the emperor was found fast asleep in the cart. Another account relates how the emperor and Lal Kunwar delighted in grand illuminations organised three times every month. This led to a shortage of oil which was made up for by the use of ghee. They enjoyed watching the fireworks and the elephant fights. The festival of Dasehra was celebrated with the emperor himself setting fire to Lanka, the mimic fortress of Ravan. Then, it is said that one day the emperor and Lal Kunwar were watching the river from the palace roof when a boat full of men crossed over. Lal Kunwar said, “I have never seen a boatload of men go down.” A hint was enough. Boatmen were ordered out with a load of passengers, and the sweetheart’s wish to see drowning people struggling in water was at once gratified.

It is difficult to establish the veracity of these stories since the highborn nobles and learned men who had lost their pre-eminent positions were greatly prejudiced and despised the lowborn Lal Kunwar and her kinsmen who were promoted to high ranks. One writer has gone to the extent of saying that the days of Noor Jehan were revived for her; that coins were issued in her name as they had been issued in the name of Jahangir’s favourite queen. There is, however, no evidence anywhere of such coins and Lal Kunwar’s influence in political matters was practically non-existent.

Lal Kunwar was also deeply attached to Jahandar Shah, whose infatuation for her knew no bounds. He was basically a liberal and a peace-loving person who had acquired the crown more due to an accident than because of his physical or intellectual prowess. He had great respect for religious mendicants and along with Lal Kunwar, he often visited them and kissed their feet. He honoured the astrologers and made offerings at the shrines of saints. It is held that he bathed every Sunday along with Lal Kunwar in the tank at the shrine of Sheikh Nasir-ud-din Oudhi, called the Chiragh-i-Dilli, in the hope of getting blessed with an offspring.

Lal Kunwar remained by the side of Jahandar Shah in the battlefield. During the decisive battle with Farrukh Siyar, it was Lal Kunwar who came to the rescue of the emperor and took him to safety on her elephant and escaped to Delhi. There is a touching account of their travelling to Delhi together in a bullock cart. The emperor had shaved off his beard and moustache and changed his clothes. Hiding in daylight and travelling after dusk, they reached Delhi after a five-day ordeal.

Soon, thereafter, through the treachery of his wazir Zulfikar Khan, Jahandar Shah was taken prisoner and lodged in the Red Fort. At his request, Lal Kunwar was allowed to join him. On seeing her, he is said to have exclaimed joyfully, “Let the past be forgotten, and in all things let us praise the Lord.” A few days later, he was put in fetters and sentenced to death. When the group of men entered the prison room, Lal Kunwar shrieked clasped her lover round the neck and refused to let go. Violently forcing them apart, the men dragged her down the stairs. Then under orders from Farrukh Siyar, the new emperor, Jahandar Shah was beheaded. Lal Kunwar was sent to the settlement of Suhagpura, where the widows and families of deceased emperors lived in retirement. He was buried in the vault of Humanyun’s tomb at the side of other members of the family. Not far away from there, near the entrance to the Delhi Golf Club on the Zakir Hussain Road, there is a redstone mausoleum known as Lal Bangla which is supposed to contain the tomb of Lal Kunwar.