The Mughal Succession War of 1657-1661

The Mughal Empire of India was the first empire to achieve actual supremacy on the subcontinent. Founded by the Timurid prince-adventurer Babur in 1526 the empire experienced its greatest period during the reign of his grandson, Akbar. In Akbar’s declining years, his son Salim (the later Emperor Jahangir) rose against him, the first such incident of what would become a Mughal tradition. Shah Jahan, the 5th of the “Great Mughals” experienced this for himself following an illness that unexpectedly struck him down in September 1657. It did not take long before the emperor’s sons began fighting to succeed him, regardless or whether he recovered or not. Even though there were four sons in dispute only two mattered: the eldest, Dara Shikoh and the third, Aurangzeb.

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Dara Shikoh, eldest son of Shah Jahan.  By NADEEM NAQVI (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.


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Aurangzeb as a cavalryman. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


The two brothers’ rivalry came to a head quickly. In 1652, Shah Jahan moved to deal with the issue of the Deccan Sultanates on the southern border by appointing Prince Aurangzeb as governor of the Deccan for the second time (his first being from 1636-1644). Mughal involvement in the south stretched back to the beginning of the century when Akbar annexed the Sultanate of Ahmadnagar. The newly conquered territories would prove troublesome under the pressure of a guerrilla war until Shah Jahan finally secured it. He then reduced the two remaining Deccan powers, the Sultanate of Bijapur and the Sultanate of Golkonda, to vassalage in 1636. Aurangzeb considered this state of affairs to be unacceptable. To a man of simple, fundamentalist, Sunni Muslim convictions like him the sultanates (which were heavily influenced by Hinduism and Shi’a Islam) represented a blemish it was his duty to destroy. To this end, he recruited the services of Mir Jumla, a Persian general, and merchant prince, and together they launched an assault on Golkonda in 1656. However, at the height of their success orders came down from Delhi to stop the war. The Sultan had appealed to Crown Prince Dara Shikoh, who in turn persuaded Shah Jahan to call off the campaign. Dara was not a man of warfare but more of a man of intellectual, religious, and artistic pursuits. In the crown prince, the peoples of the empire saw a champion, and the empire’s enemies saw a man they could manipulate. Nevertheless, Dara Shikoh was no simpleton, and he actively moved to check the growing ambitions of his younger brother. Aurangzeb was forced to content himself was a massive indemnity and move on. The following year Aurangzeb and Mir Jumla invaded Bijapur and again on the cusp of victory Shah Jahan called it off on pressure from Dara Shikoh. This time Aurangzeb wrung out even greater concessions than he had from Golkonda, forcing the Sultan to cede land as well pay the indemnity. Up to this point the rivalry between Dara and Aurangzeb, which extended back some years, had taken place within legal bounds, a game of political chess.  However, when Shah Jahan was announced to be ill with an acute case of constipation in September, the game changed. The emperor was confined to his bedchamber, and soon the news leaked he suffered from swelling of the limbs and high fever. Rumors flew Shah Jahan was dying or permanently incapacitated. It was all his sons needed to rise against him.


From left to right: Shah Shuja, Aurangzeb, and Murad Baksh as young adults. By Cordanrad [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The early stage of the resulting civil war seemed to be a four-way contest, but it was soon cut down. Dara Shikoh, who held direct Imperial support (thanks to Shah Jahan’s partial recovery and support on October 18) was strongest and had the armies in Delhi, Agra, and the Rajput rajas supporting him. Aurangzeb commanded the elite armies of the Deccan and the forces of Mir Jumla.  Finally was Shah Shuja (the second son), governor of Bengal, and Murad Baksh (the youngest), governor of Gujarat. Shah Shuja moved first, proclaiming himself emperor and crossing the Ganga River in force. Dara Shikoh moved quickly and sent an army under the Kacchwaha Rajput Mirza Raja Jai Singh and Prince Sulaiman (Dara’s eldest son). Near Varanasi/Benares, the Bengali army was defeated, and a pursuit ordered after Shuja in February 1658. By now Aurangzeb, who had carefully bided his time and brought Murad Baksh (Murad, like Shuja, had made himself Emperor) into his orbit, was moving north. With both of his greatest allies, Prince Aurangzeb tried to breach northward through Malwa. Dara Shikoh reacted by sending an army under the Rathore Rajput Maharaja Jaswant Singh and the loyalist commander Qasim Khan. On April 15, 1658, the forces of Aurangzeb won a great victory over the Imperial forces at Dharmat. Success was owed mainly to the European-manned artillery that Mir Jumla hired on his patron’s behalf. Until only a few decades previous, the Turks (both from Central Asia and the Ottoman Empire) were the premier artillery crews on the subcontinent. But the Europeans, especially the French, had proved superior for while possessing technically inferior pieces the European crews were better trained, able fire more accurately and faster than any in India. The rebel victory at Dharmat shifted the momentum of the war as well as the odds into Aurangzeb’s favor. Taking advantage of the change, the ulama (the Islamic scholars and jurists) condemned Dara Shikoh and charged him with heresy, playing right into Aurangzeb’s hands. He declared his object was to free their father from Dara’s heretical influences, and that the crown prince had illegitimately taken power. Shah Jahan could only protest ineffectively from Agra as defections from the Imperial army, previously a small trickle accelerated into a flood as the majority Muslim contingents went over to Aurangzeb and Murad. Those contingents that did not defect, such as the army of Qasim Khan, chose to stand on the sidelines and take no side in the civil war. Forced to rely more and more on his Rajput allies, Dara Shikoh assembled an army and marched south to block the road to Agra at Dholpur, where the road north crossed the Chambal River.

However, the rebel princes proved to be more cunning than anticipated. Aurangzeb quickly became aware of Dara’s fortifications at Dholpur and knew better than to try to cross there. He enlisted the aid of the local Rajput strongman, Champat Rai, who showed him a crossing further east of Dholpur where he could cross the Chambal and end behind the lines. As a precaution, he left his camp near Gwalior standing and crossed the river on May 23. Dara Shikoh only became aware of the deception well after Aurangzeb and Murad had crossed and hurried to find another river crossing at which to block the way to Agra. He finally found it at Samugarh, near the Jamuna River. On May 28, Dara and Aurangzeb faced off on the field for the first time but neither side fired a shot. The Crown Prince had lost his nerve, only highlighting his inexperience and making Aurangzeb look even better. The following morning the decisive battle was joined. Once again, Aurangzeb’s European-manned artillery played a crucial role. However, even more importantly was the differences between the two armies and their commanders. Dara Shikoh’s last military experience had been a military blunder in Qandahar fighting the Safavids decades previous; he was untried, and his Muslim soldiers viewed him with suspicion. His army was an ill-disciplined polyglot of inexperienced recruits and rash (though valorous) Rajputs. By comparison, Aurangzeb was a hard military man, possessed of restless energy, with experience under his belt who attracted the loyalty of his men. His army was all battle-tested veterans of the Deccan Wars or experienced mercenaries, many having been there long before Aurangzeb took command. Nevertheless, the tide of battle favored Dara Shikoh until he committed a series of tactical blunders. As a result, he lost his cavalry, including the Rajputs, and his center became spent without even engaging the enemy. Aurangzeb had only sat put, intending to fight a defensive battle. His patience was rewarded, even though Murad Baksh broke ranks and was nearly killed by Dara’s cavalry. The battle was lost when Dara Shikoh dismounted his elephant on the advice of Khalilullah Khan, a mole working with Aurangzeb, and rumors spread the Crown Prince was killed. Even though Dara quickly mounted a horse and tried to rally his men, he could not gain control of them. Their discipline broke under the weight of hard fighting, almost constant bombardment, and in the Imperial center, nearly continuous marching. Aurangzeb saw his chance and ordered the advance, meeting no resistance. The civil war was over for all practical purposes.

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The battle of Samugarh, May 29th, 1658. By Payag ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Dara Shikoh fled to Agra, collected his wealth and his family and fled to Lahore. Aurangzeb triumphantly entered Agra in his brother’s wake on June 8, 1658. Once there he dropped all pretense of rescuing the Emperor and besieged Agra Fort. The Emperor surrendered on the pleas of his son’s leading commanders and was declared mentally incapable. The Emperor’s sole comfort was Aurangzeb’s decision to allow Jahanara, his older sister (the eldest child over all), to care for Shah Jahan in his old age. After taking care of things in Agra, Aurangzeb marched towards to Delhi and at Mathura had Murad Baksh arrested during a drinking bout on June 25. The younger prince’s military forces went over to Aurangzeb without trouble as he had already taken care of their pay-off.   He soon Delhi to great fanfare and soon seated himself on the Peacock Throne. He then made himself Emperor under the reign name Alamgir (Conqueror of the Universe) on July 21 but dispensed with the full ceremonial until he was certain his throne was secure. He had good reason to fear. In the east Shah Shuja was still at large and the loyalists under Jai Singh and Prince Sulaiman were in close pursuit. Aurangzeb feared that they could link-up and pose a significant threat to him. In the west, Dara Shikoh evaded capture, but Aurangzeb always had his agents in pursuit. The possibility of Dara going into Persia and the seeking the aid of the Safavid Emperor Sulaiman I (much like their ancestor Humayun had sought the assistance of Emperor Tahmasp I) was a real danger.

Aware of these threats, Aurangzeb moved quickly to deal with them. As Dara could not be found yet, the new Emperor turned his attention to Jai Singh, Prince Sulaiman, and Shah Shuja. The former two were dealt with more easily. Jai Singh and his lieutenant, Dilir Khan, had already learned of the events at Samugarh, of Dara Shikoh’s flight, and Aurangzeb’s ascension to the throne. They judged the situation to not be in their favor and decided to recognize Aurangzeb as emperor. But Jai Singh’s Rajput honor would not allow him to turn over Prince Sulaiman to his uncle. Instead, he advised the prince to flee and try to find his father in the Panjab. Aurangzeb was enraged by this news but delighted at Jai Singh’s decision to swear fealty. After this, an exchange of letters started between the emperor and Shah Shuja. Despite flowery declarations of brotherly affection by Aurangzeb, the older prince was suspicious and made secret preparations to march on Delhi. In October, this became apparent and Shah Shuja issued a declaration of his intent to march on Agra and free Shah Jahan from confinement in the Fort. Support swelled for the Bengali forces as they marched out from Rajmahal and loyalists turned out in droves to join. Varanasi (the site of Shuja’s previous defeat) surrendered peacefully, which Shuja repaid by forcing the merchants to give him their gold to supply his treasury. He then marched on, and by the third week of December he was advancing to the city of Allahabad in modern Uttar Pradesh. Aurangzeb was not still during these events, and he also gathered his forces, now bolstered by the addition of the Rajputs who had sworn fealty (for this campaign principally Jaswant Singh). Mir Jumla, who had returned to the Deccan, was also recalled and given orders to join with the emperor.

After much maneuvering, the two forces faced each other and set camp on the flat plains of Kajwa. On January 4, 1659, Jaswant Singh sent messages to the camp of Shah Shuja asking him to attack the Imperial camp shortly after midnight. For Jaswant was intending to betray the emperor, loot the camp, and return to his fief. This way the Bengali army could attack and sweep the field, defeating Aurangzeb and end the war. The Rajput leader distrusted his new master and was chiefly concerned with the welfare of his kingdom, which he believed would not prosper under Aurangzeb. At midnight, January 4-5 the Maharaja kept his word and attacked. The Imperial army lost half its number to either death or defection, and the Emperor lost his previously overwhelming numerical superiority. The resulting battle of Kajwa on January 5 was the most closely fought battle of the war.  Due in no small part to Prince Shah Shuja’s use of war elephants. War elephants in the real sense of the word had become rare in Indian warfare and had seen only limited action since the advent of the Delhi Sultanate centuries previous. However the tide of military change went more slowly in Bengal, so elephants still featured prominently there, which influenced Shah Shuja. The elephants came into play against the Imperial left wing and proved impervious to gunfire, arrow fire, and lance wounds. Once they turned towards the center Aurangzeb ordered his matchlock men to shoot the riders off their mounts, which finally defeated the elephants. In the end the Emperor was victorious by the two elements that had served him so well at Dharmat and Samugarh: his superior European artillery and the veteran status of his core army. Also, while both wings were routed, the center, always led by Aurangzeb personally, held on. Shah Shuja caused his army to rout by dismounting his elephant and fleeing on horseback, like Dara Shikoh had done at Samugarh,. Shah Shuja, however, was able to recover in better order and still posed a threat. Aurangzeb, however, was still more concerned with Dara Shikoh then anyone else and left the matter of Shuja in the capable hands of Mir Jumla, and left for Delhi.

Mir Jumla and Shah Shuja would fight many battles in the first three months of 1659, but affairs finally came to a close that April. On April 5 the Imperial forces dealt the decisive blow at the battle of Maksudabad, reducing Shuja to a fugitive. The prince flittered around Bengal, evading capture until he accepted an offer of asylum from King Sandathudamma of the Burmese kingdom of Arakan. Shah Shuja left India on May 12, 1660, and never returned. He was eventually murdered, with his entire family, by Sandathudamma, but for what reasons remain unknown. Meanwhile, Aurangzeb had little time to rejoice over Mir Jumla’s victory, for Dara Shikoh was moving in force.

The former Crown Prince had led an eventful life underground. He had run in every direction across the Panjab, through Sind, and eventually into Gujarat. All along the way Dara tried to gather support and a new army. But the situation had changed from a year previous. The events at Samugarh, Aurangzeb’s coronation, and the defeat of Shuja had made any attempt to dislodge the Emperor seem fool hardly at best. While Dara Shikoh still commanded the affection and loyalty of many non-Muslims in the empire his power base had mostly abandoned him. Aiding Dara in his recruitment efforts was his youngest son, Prince Sipihr. Eventually, father and son found the support they sought in Gujarat from Shah Nawaz Khan, the governor. From Gujarat, Prince Sipihr was sent ahead into Rajasthan to bring the Rajputs into the fold. Up to this point, Dara had been altering his plan on the run and on reaching Gujarat his first idea had been to flee into the Deccan and link with the forces of Bijapur and Golkonda against Aurangzeb. But the safety of Gujarat and Aurangzeb’s campaign of disinformation had caused the former Crown Prince to think he could dash to Agra and free Shah Jahan. For that reason, he had sent Siphir to prepare the way through Rajput territory, and the kingdom of Jaswant Singh. Jaswant was initially agreeable to the plan and agreed to supply forces in February 1659. But Jai Singh intervened and persuaded Jaswant that it would smarter to back Aurangzeb. He, therefore, changed his mind and left the army of Dara Shikoh in a dangerous situation. The emperor was delighted and was already in Rajasthan by March. Dara could neither go forward to Ajmer as the Rathore Rajputs of Jaswant Singh had changed sides or backward to Gujarat as Aurangzeb would catch him quickly. Instead, he opted to take position at the defile of Deorai, hoping to defeat his brother’s far larger army in detail. The battle of Deorai lasted from April 12 to April 14 with the final victory of Aurangzeb. In this fight, the Imperial victory was owed to the hard fighting spirit of the Rajput cavalry and Dara Shikoh’s well demonstrated military incompetence. Dara and his family would flee again and make for Persia. But they were betrayed by Malik Jiwan Khan at Dadar near Bolan Pass on June 9. Aurangzeb, who had finally ascended to the throne in full pageantry and ceremony on June 5, immediately ordered his older brother brought to Delhi.

The final act of the succession conflict now opened. The prisoner train bearing Dara Shikoh and his family arrived in Delhi on August 23 under the authority of Prince Mu’azzam. Aurangzeb wanted a public display of his triumph and so paraded a chained and destitute Dara through the streets of Delhi with his son Sipihr on August 29. The next day a trial was held, as the Emperor sought to end all threats to his rule by legal means. The ulama condemned Dara Shikoh has an apostate from Islam, not just a heretic as they had before and delivered a verdict of death by beheading. The former Crown Prince’s body was buried unceremoniously in the Tomb of Humayun in an unmarked plot. The head was sent to Agra as a “gift” to Shah Jahan and Princess Jahanara in the Fort. Prince Sipihr, because of his youth, was spared his father’s fate and became a ward of the Imperial Court. The fate of Shah Shuja has already been covered. However, Mir Jumla did use Shuja’s activities in Bengal as an excuse to war with the Ahom dynasty of Assam (a venture that ended in failure and the Persian adventurer’s death). Murad Baksh, languishing in Gwaliar, or Gwalior, was executed on December 4, 1661, as punishment for his murder of the Chancellor of Gujarat, Ali Naqi, in 1657. His son, Izid, was spared like his cousin Sipihr and made a ward of the Imperial Court. The last challenger to Aurangzeb then was the eldest son of Dara Shikoh, Prince Sulaiman. After being allowed to escape by Jai Singh in 1658 the Prince had tried to join his father in the Panjab through the Himalayas via Haridwar but Aurangzeb had foreseen such a possibility and had the road blocked. He thus eventually came into the protection of Raja Prithvi Singh of Garhwal, a Hindu kingdom in the same region. Prince Sulaiman found protection in the Garhwal capital of Srinagar for a year and half before he was betrayed by the royal heir, Medni Singh, and handed over to Imperial authorities on December 27, 1660.

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Modern Srinagar City. By Sauood07 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

The prisoner train arrived in Delhi on January 2, 1661. Aurangzeb initially made promises to treat his eldest nephew lightly (comparatively), his fate being to be confined for life in Gwaliar. But the Emperor instead had Prince Sulaiman killed by slow poisoning, and the Prince died in May 1662. Alternatively it said that Sulaiman was dying of poisoning, but death itself was delivered by the executioner’s ax.

With the death of Prince Sulaiman, Aurangzeb now sat unchallenged on the Peacock Throne and would continue to do so for the next 49 years. Except for Prince Akbar, none of Aurangzeb’s sons rose against their father. Aurangzeb did attempt to preempt any conflicts after his death by dividing the empire among his heirs, but this only drove the conflict harder. In this way, the Mughal tradition of fratricidal conflict continued until well into the era of regional fragmentation, ending only after the events of the reign of Emperor Alam II, the great-great-grandson of Aurangzeb.




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