On a nondescript road radiating from Yangon’s popular Shwedagon Pagoda, I see a small crowd of local pilgrims milling at the gate of a fading yellow-and-white building. Much of its facade and minarets are hidden behind the branches of a mango tree, but I look up at its archway which reads: “Dargah of Bahadur Shah Zafar.” This is indeed the mausoleum of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II, and though less frequented by tourists, it is historically significant to the Mughal history of India.
Delhi’s Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II, was exiled to Burma (now Myanmar) after the British contained the 1857 uprising. He spent the twilight of his life in a prison in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and died there in 1862, aged 87, not far from where I stand.
The atmosphere inside is sombre, even more because the rain has just stopped, leaving behind a cloudy, grey day. His tomb is shrouded in dark green satin with a yellow border. A beautiful white cloth embroidered with Quranic verses hangs from the ceiling. Vases with plastic flowers are arranged neatly along the edges of the grave. Sweets are distributed as offerings, incense suffuses the room, and psychedelic lights rotate from the ceiling. Women and men, heads covered, sway to the music of their own voices reading the holy book. Black-and-white portraits of Bahadur Shah’s wife Zinat Mahal and sons Mirza Jiwan Bakht and Mirza Shah Abbas hang from wood-panelled walls.
Interestingly, Bahadur Shah who wrote poetry under the name of Zafar, had beautifully described his own end, estranged in a foreign land. William Dalrymple in The Last Mughal points out that though he was buried according to Islamic rites, his grave was intentionally obscured because the British wanted to ensure that “no vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Moghuls rests.”
The location of his actual grave became known accidently only in 1991, when the area was dug up for construction. The tomb has now become something of a Sufi shrine for locals, though he was not a Sufi saint.
As I sit among pilgrims, somewhat lost in the thrum of their chanting, I notice tourists saunter in with bulky lenses hanging from their necks. More than a century after his death, the tomb of the last Mughal emperor is slowly gaining prominence among history buffs, as Myanmar throws open its doors to tourists.
The dissonant chants and the scent of incense linger with me as I walk out of the mausoleum. The last Mughal’s grave has been saved from eternal obscurity, but it is yet to find its rightful place among the historical landmarks of Yangon.
Appeared in the August 2015 issue as “Resting Place”.
Prathap Nair quit his job to travel and write a few years ago. He has travelled on the TransSiberian train, walked the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia and hiked up Mt. Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. He likes the unpredictability of loosely planned solo travels.