The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 11, 2000

The mystery of Bahadur Shah’s crown

By K.R.N. Swamy

As he fled from the Red Fort at Delhi, as its capture by the Birtish became imminent on September 14, 1857, Bahadur Shah the last Mughal Emperor, carried with him his most precious treasure: a box containing three beard hairs of Prophet Muhammad that had been with the Mughal royal family since the days of their founder Timur in the 14th century who bequeathed them to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia near Delhi. 

Bahadur Shah the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah did not take any treasures with him, and for all we know he did not have any. By the end of August 1857, the Emperor had been in deep financial difficulties, and faced with a monthly demand for the pay of Rs. 573,000 by his army, was eventually driven to promising the officers all the jewels of his zenana, and when, even that did not appear to satisfy them, rising from his chair he threw before them the embroidered cushion in which he had been sitting and bid them to take that. Then the Emperor went into his private apartments and brought out jewellery and gave it to the officers, saying, "Take this and forget your hunger!" But the officers refused, saying "We cannot accept the Crown jewels, but we are satisfied that you are willing to give your property as well as your life to sustain us".


Then what happened to all his Crown jewels? We have in the memoirs of Mrs Harriet Tytler (1826-1907) the wife of Captain Robert Tytler, who was the Officer-in Charge of the Palace complex of the Red Fort after its capture by the British in September 1857, some details as to the fate of these treasures. As the wife of Captain Tytler, Harriet was allotted the Diwan-I-Am, the grand Hall of Public Audience for her quarters, and in her memoirs, she tells us that she spent "those monotonous days after the siege" in a little hot-weather sleeping room on the second storey of the Diwan-I-Am, "where the King’s mother lived and died". The Diwan-I-Khas, then the mess hall of the officers assigned inside the fort was the palace nearest to her quarters and Harriet lost no time in exploring the palace and all other halls, which were "all hers" to survey. She states that she unearthed "a number of beautiful ornaments, including a length of silk embroidered with passages from the Koran, which was thought to have belonged to King."

The general practice was for the loot to be handed over to the Prize-Agents, a group of army officers responsible for collecting all the "Prizes of War" when the British army captured a city. The Prize Agents then auctioned all the booty and divided the proceeds of the sale among the victorious Army in percentages varying from General to the ordinary soldier. Despite strict orders against the soldiers keeping back and treasures, so much had filled the pockets of both officers and men after the capture of Delhi, that later an unusual number of Non Commissioned officers and men bought their discharge after their return to England and a remarkable amount of oriental jewellery appeared in the shops of those towns, where men of Delhi force were later stationed. A group of British officers even managed to spirit away to London, unknown to the Prize Agents the 46 carat Agra diamond belonging to the Mughal Emperor. The capture of Delhi in 1857 was the last occasion when the Prize-Agents functioned and soon this kind of organised "looting" was stopped by the British Government.


The rooms allotted to the Agents in Delhi were so full of splendid jewels, gold mohurs, finely wrought gold and silverwork, precious clothes and silks, that the place literally overflowed with treasure. The plunder was almost medieval in its richness. The amount in the Agents’ hands were estimated as worth some half to three quarters of a million sterling and this was only a fraction of what had been discovered or what had already been spirited away. The more valuable articles discovered by these Agents were offered for sale in a marquee on the roof of a house overlooking the Diwan-i-Khas. Here in chests and strong iron boxes, displayed on tables and draped over chairs, were hundreds of Cashmere shawls and silks, kincobs and fans, swords, daggers and fowling pieces, pearls and emeralds, rings and bracelets, gold bangles and exquisite filigree ornaments. Harriet Tytler reports "My husband (Captain Tytler), as well as being a very scientific man, was also a great collector of curios. Of course there was no looting for him, as his duties took up every moment of his time, but when the Prize Agent’s sales took place, he bought what few things he could, and knowing what he was about, picked up many rare and beautiful objects. Amongst many other precious things, my husband bought was the crown of the old king (Bahadur Shah). He was not sure at the time that it was the crown, but risked buying it, for to him a very large sum."

After the Tytlers returned to England "The Crown was sold to Queen Victoria for £ 500, an absurdly small sum. But we were hard up and he (Captain Tytler) was promised a good appointment on his return to India if he accepted the offer. The day after it was sold, we received an offer from the Oxford Museum of £ 1000 for it, just the shell of it without a single jewel included! (The Emperor’s Crown was more like a cap, set with diamonds, emeralds and rubies and pearls). Further problems were in store for the Tytler family, as Captain Tytler had sent the two "throne chairs" also, with the Crown to Queen Victoria for approval. "Having heard nothing for a while, Captain Tytler contacted Sir Charles Wood, Secretary of State for India and was told that Her Majesty was under the impression that the chairs were also included for the £ 500!". Afraid of making himself unpopular and therefore losing the promised appointment, Tytler let the matter drop although he was convinced that he had been swindled by the British Sovereign. His wife was sure that Sir Charles Wood did it all. "I feel sure he either kept the chairs himself or presented them to the Queen in his own name". But as per the archives of the British Royal family, Sir Charles Wood did in fact contact the Queen’s Consort-Prince Albert and on 19th January 1861 wrote "I cannot at all make out what the owner would expect for them (the chairs) and the skull cap (the crown)". Today the Crown of the last Mughal Emperor of India is in the vaults of the British Royal family.

Captain Tytler came back to India and eventually got his "appointment" by being posted as Superintendent of the Andamans in 1862, and he ruled over the islands for two years. During the period, he ensured that the highest peak in the Andamans was named after his wife and today Mount Harriet is in the world map perpetuating her name forever. But the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah did not even get the six feet of land, he had kept for his grave in the shrine of Khwaja Muhammad Bakhtiar Kaki at Mehrauli near Delhi, as he died in Rangoon in November 1862.