Not much is known about Zinat Mahal before her marriage to Bahadur Shah Zafar II (at least, no information is easily available to the public). Her place in history begins after she married the last Mughal Emperor at the age of nineteen (he was sixty four). She quickly replaced Taj Mahal Begum as Zafar’s favourite wife, and bore him a son, Mirza Jawan Bakht, onto whom she transferred all her hopes of preservation in a dying Empire. There was only one problem – Mirza Jawan Bakht was Zafar’s fifteenth son and had no immediate claim to his throne.
Undeterred, Zinat Mahal used her influence over Zafar and pressured him into recognising Mirza Jawan Bakht as his heir. However, Zafar’s eldest son was not going to take this lying down.
Mirza Fakhru made a secret pact with the British Resident at the time, Sir Thomas Metcalfe, and the Lieutenant Governor through which he ensured his place as sole heir to Zafar’s throne.
Zinat Mahal found out.
Shortly after, all three British officials who signed the succession agreement were dead, under suspicious circumstances. In the case of Sir Thomas Metcalfe, however, the cause of death was clear – poison.
The knowledge of this pact only increased Zinat Mahal’s desperation to retain her bloodline’s legacy on the throne, so she took a leaf out of Mirza Fakhru’s book and sought help from the British.
By this time a different sort of regime had been employed by the British – one that was far less tolerant and far more violent. The reason for this change was the serious unrest that had begun in Delhi, with Sepoys arriving from Meerut and instigating what would become months of chaotic looting and murdering otherwise known as the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Zafar had been coerced into being the figurehead leader of this movement and as a result, had been assigned sole accountability. The British were now trying to capture Zafar and force him to surrender in order to end the Mutiny.
It was William Hodson who captured three Princes and chose to strip them naked in front of a crowd of onlookers, shoot them point blank and put their bodies on display. While the news of the Princes’ deaths was devastating to Zafar, Zinat Mahal was secretly pleased as this gave Mirza Jawan Bakht a stronger chance at inheriting the throne. But instead of speaking to Zafar this time, Zinat Mahal went to Hodson himself and promised that she would persuade Zafar to surrender in exchange for the safety of herself, her son and her father, along with the assurance that Mirza Jawan Bakht would be the sole heir to the throne of Delhi.
Hodson agreed. The last Mughal ruler of a three hundred year old Empire was captured and imprisoned in Zinat Mahal’s haveli (which still stands in Old Delhi) and displayed to the public like a beast in a cage. British officers boasted of their disrespectful treatment towards him, tugging his beard and forcing him to stand and salaam them. But Zafar was always polite and respectful to them.
Zinat Mahal accompanied Zafar in his imprisonment. By now Zafar was showing signs of a rapid decline in mental health, Mirza Jawan Bakht had fallen in love with one of the harem women, and Zinat Mahal found herself constantly quarrelling with the other wives who had accompanied Zafar.
Hodson did not honour his promise.
Zinat Mahal’s life dwindled into a lonely existence of continuous domestic strife, isolation, and finally exile. To this day no one knows the exact location of her grave.
Zinat Mahal betrayed her husband, murdered a British officer and sabotaged the Sepoy Mutiny, all for her son to become king. But her motivation seemed to come from an intuitive understanding of the impending doom destined for the Mughal Empire. One could argue that if she knew the Empire was coming to an end, there was no point going to such lengths for the throne, but the throne was the only hope she had for her survival.
Zinat Mahal fought hard for her legacy, but alas, it was all in vain. A tale of ambition, desperation, perseverance and hope met a bitter and lonely end.
Dalrymple, William. The Last Mughal. Haryana: Penguin Random House India, 2007. Print.