When Aurangzeb died close to the age of ninety, there were seventeen legitimate claimants to the throne that included not only his sons but also his grandsons and great grandsons. After the death of the emperor two brothers fought near Agra (in the same battle site that Aurangzeb had fought his brother Dara Shikoh. Prince Muazzam prevailed and killed his brother Prince Azam Shah and assumed the title Bahadur Shah I (or Shah Alam I). Another brother entered the fight a year later and was killed. Bahadur Shah was well in his sixties when he took control of the empire and soon died in 1712. During those five years he was busy fighting the insurgents in Rajastan and Panjab. Then in 1708 the last Sikh guru, Gobind Singh was assassinated by a local Mughal commander. Sikhs under Guru Gobind Singh had already transformed into a radical group after the execution of Guru Teg Bahadur by Aurangzeb. A year later a Banda Bahadur relentlessly stormed Muslim towns and became a thorn on the Mughal emperor’s side.
Bahadur Shah’s son Jahandar Shah succeeded after his death. However, during his tenure he gained a reputation as a womanizing drunk whose outrageous mistress Lal Kunwar took full advantage of the emperor’s condition and enriched herself as well as her brood. Jahandar Shah was killed in 1713 and then Bahadur’s grandson Farrukhsiyar acceded to the throne. With the help of two brothers called Saiyids, Farrukhsiyar restored some sanity to the Mughal rule. Later the Saiyids became intolerable to the emperor and one of them was sent away from Delhi to Deccan and the other was kept in constant watch in Delhi. In Deccan Saiyid Husain Ali Khan colluded with the Marathas and attacked Delhi and using trickery and intrigue seized Farrukhsiyar in the Red Fort. The emperor was blinded and caged and later poisoned as well as stabbed to death. However, prior to his death, Farrukhsiyar had the dubious distinction of aiding the British to have a firm foothold in India, by signing the much-coveted farman (an imperial directive) that would seal the future of British takeover of India.
A wretched youth, Shah Jahan II was made to occupy the throne after the murder of Farrukhsiyar but his rule lasted only three months. The Saiyids enthroned another pawn, Muhammad Shah as the Mughal emperor. He had an unexpected reign of close to thirty years. The Saiyids were disposed off but the emperor had little penchant for ruling. It was during his rule the notorious raids of Delhi by Nadir shah of Persia and the Afghan Ahmad Shah Abdali took place.
Marathas were now constantly attacking Delhi. Of more consequence and humiliating was the plunder of Delhi by Nadir Shah. A Timur descendent, Nadir shah usurped the throne in Persia and seized Kandahar and Kabul. He marched through Panjab and was invited by Muhammad Shah as a guest to Delhi (only because he had neither the will nor the resources to fight him). Within forty-eight hours, using a lame excuse, Nadir Shah ordered a general massacre of Delhi citizens and looted every bit of wealth they could extort out of the royalty as well as Delhi’s citizenry. Nadir Shah remained in Delhi for forty eighty days and departed with millions worth of gold, jewelry and coins. Even the emperor’s throne, the bejeweled peacock throne of Shah Jahan was packed on elephants and carried away to Persia. Another prize, the Koh-I-nur diamond (Humayun’s diamond now passed back into Persian hands). To add insult to injury, the Shah humiliated the emperor by re-crowning him as the Mughal emperor in an ignoble celebration. Later an Afghani, Ahmad Shah Abdali started his incursions into Delhi just for the purpose of looting the capital. In a series of attacks starting in 1748 until 1761, Abdali would not only pillage and loot Delhi, he also cleaned out Mathura, Kashmir and cities in Panjab. From the east the British defeated the Nawab of Bengal and occupied the state of Bengal. The vast Mughal Empire was coming undone at its seams. The fortunes of the British in India were intertwined with the misfortunes of the Mughals.
The raids by Nadir Shah and repeated incursions of Abdali resulted in quick disposal of the next two emperors Ahmad Shah and Alamgir II until in 1759 Shah Alam II ascended the throne. His reign would last several decades. However, he would preside over more loss of territory to the British. When the Nawab of Bengal lost to Robert Clive, Shah Alam II was forced to recognize Clive as a diwan (chancellor) and Bengal slipped to the British hands permanently. Shah Alam II ruled well until his eighties and died as sightless wretch dressed in rags when an army from Bengal led by General Gerald Lake stormed Delhi and Agra. The Marathas like Scindias, Holkars and the Nagpur Bhonsles also had to relinquish power to the British and the English would now boast that they were complete masters of the whole of India.
In 1806 Shah Alam’s son Akbar Shah II acceded to the much diminished empire of the Mughals and ruled until 1837. His son Bahadur Shah Zafar II would be the last emperor of Mughals before the British deposed him in 1858 and the Mughal dynasty would officially come to a dishonorable end. During the sepoy mutiny of 1857, Bahadur Shah II was forced to take the side of the mutineers though he had no power to affect the outcome of the events. The mutineers had outwitted his British sponsors and now the emperor neither had the troops nor the competence. He had no choice but to join the winning side. However, the success of the mutineers was soon reversed and the octogenarian (he was eighty-two years old) was relieved of his empire and deposed in 1858. The British also unleashed a flurry of revenge attacks on Delhi as well as luckless Bahadur Shah. Two of his sons and a grandson were shot while in custody. The emperor was then exiled to Rangoon in Burma where he died in obscurity in 1862.
The glory of the Mughal kingdom established in 1526 by the tiger from Kabul, Babur would end in 1858 and India’s fate was in the hands another expansionist foreign force, the imperial British.
Next: Sultans and Nawabs of the South