Red Fort in the 1850s
History, India, People
How Shahjahan seized the Mughal throne
Storytrails Team
JANUARY 28, 2021

Any history textbook will tell you that Shahjahan was a great Mughal emperor. But did you know that he was neither the rightful legal heir nor a favourite son? Yet, he managed to ascend the most coveted Mughal throne.

We all know that Shahjahan, who ruled between 1628 and 1658, was a great Mughal Emperor. But Shahjahan was neither the eldest son (he was the third) nor the son of the empress (his mother was one of the many wives of Emperor Jahangir). In fact, he was not even the first choice for the throne. Not surprisingly, Shahjahan’s journey to the throne is a story of gory politics and intrigue. How exactly did he beat the odds to take over the Mughal throne?

A painting of the Red Fort in the 1850s by Ghulam Ali Khan, c. 1852

Shahjahan grew up away from the hustle-bustle of his father Jahangir’s household. On the advice of the royal astrologers, he was raised by his grandparents, Emperor Akbar and Empress Ruqaiya Sultana Begum. It was destined, they said, that Ruqaiya would raise an emperor. Though he grew up sheltered from palace politics, he acquired all the education a prince needed: martial arts, law and administration, liberal arts and more.

A painting of Shah Jahan by Bichitr, c. 1630

Meanwhile, Jahangir’s eldest son, Prince Khusrau, was being apprenticed in all key posts in the government. He was Emperor Akbar’s favourite as well. Perhaps, one day he would occupy the Mughal throne? No. Unfortunately, Khusrau had a tense relationship with his father Jahangir, and in 1606, he made a cardinal mistake. He rebelled against his own father. Jahangir not only crushed Khusrau’s rebellion, he also imprisoned and blinded him. All of Khusrau’s supporters were publicly executed. His sons too were imprisoned. Shahjahan, till now a dark horse, became closer to Jahangir, and gradually developed wide political connections in the capital. Shahjahan assumed key political and military responsibilities and exhibited excellent leadership abilities. Jahangir’s second son Parviz Mirza was an incompetent drunk, so it was clear that Shahjahan was the potential successor. And just to be sure that there were no other contenders to the throne, Shahjahan quietly arranged for the assassination of his blind brother, Khusrau.


Detour: But why were the succession battles in the Mughal dynasty so violent? Watch this short video for that story: The triumphs and tragedies of Shah Jahan



But all was not well in the palace. Jahangir was a pleasure-seeker, slowly drifting into addiction. So his 20th wife, Nurjahan became the real power centre. Cleverly, she started plotting and scheming about Jahangir’s succession. She had one of  her daughters, by her previous husband, married to Jahangir’s other son Shahryar. And she got her niece, Mumtaz, married to Shahjahan. Yes, the famous Mumtaz was the daughter of Asaf Khan, Nurjahan’s own brother. With this, Nurjahan had covered all bases.

Mugahl emperor Shah Jahan and his empress Mumtaz Mahal

But Nurjahan dearly wanted her son-in-law Shahryar on the throne. The opportunity came when the Persians besieged Kandahar. Nurjahan influenced Jahangir to order Shahjahan to fight the Persians. Shahjahan refused, because he believed that in his absence, she would poison Jahangir and install Shahryar as emperor. This, of course, meant that Shahjahan had disobeyed the imperial command, and so he was promptly arrested. His young sons were sent to Nurjahan’s harem. Shahjahan quickly realised that he had painted himself into a corner, and sought royal pardon. Jahangir probably sensed this background and forgave him; but the cold war between Shahjahan and Nurjahan was heating up.

Nurjahan, Jehangir, and Shahjahan c. 1624

The flashpoint came  when Jahangir died near Lahore in 1627. At that time Shahjahan was busy fighting a war in Deccan. Shahryar, then Governor of Lahore, immediately declared himself emperor, using the Lahore treasury to buy off key nobles. 


Now, Asaf Khan, Shahjahan’s father in law, made some brilliant moves to protect his dear son-in-law, Shahjahan’s claim. First, he rescued Shahjahan’s sons from  Nurjahan’s harem, and arrested Nurjahan. This prevented Nurjahan from taking any hostages. Next, he released Prince Dawar Baksh from prison and proclaimed him as emperor. Interestingly, Dawar Baksh was the son of the late Prince Khusrau who had earlier revolted against Jahangir. Dawar Baksh was put on the royal elephant and sent with an army to fight Shahryar in Lahore. Dawar Baksh, a  man without any political or military experience, could not believe his luck! He did not realise that he was a proxy and a red-herring to fool the opposition. The imperial army, which was really commanded by an able Shahjahan loyalist, destroyed Shahryar’s army anyway.

Shahjahan, accompanied by his three sons: Dara Shikoh, Shah Shuja and Aurangzeb, and their maternal grandfather Asaf Khan

Meanwhile, Shahjahan rushed back from Deccan and was declared the emperor. All the nobles fell in line. Shahjahan then executed every possible male rival to the throne. That included Shahryar and many cousins and nephews. Dawar Baksh too was executed, as he had outlived his usefulness.


Finally, with all the gory business behind him, Shahjahan commenced his long and glorious reign as emperor, with Asaf Khan as Prime minister. 

It appears that the royal  astrologers were right, after all!


Did you like that story? Listen to our podcast for more stories of the Red Fort

Stories of Red Fort | A podcast by Storytrails


Did you know that Dutch master Rembrandt painted portraits of Shahjahan without ever visiting India? Read that story here: Rembrandt’s Mughals

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