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Reviving a forgotten tale of living Mughals

New Delhi, Aug. 25 (Reuters): Their ancestors had one of the best addresses in India — the Red Fort, Delhi.

But the descendants of the country’s grand Mughal rulers are today a forgotten family, living miles from the capital’s imposing sandstone fort in a little, rented house near Hyderabad.

And, like millions of other Indians, they, too, have to stand in line and buy a ticket to enter the Delhi fort, where the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was enthroned in 1837.

“No one knows who we are and where we come from,” rued 80-year-old Begum Laila Umahani, who says she is a fourth-generation descendant of the last Mughal ruler.

“A few who recognise us, treat us with a little respect and at other times, become oblivious and doubt our lineage,” she said in a documentary film on the lives of the Mughal descendants.

The half-hour film, The Living Mughals, which has been made for the Doordarshan, traces the history of the Mughal descendants after Bahadur Shah was exiled to Burma in 1857 by the British rulers.

Just like the average Indian, Umahani and her family struggle to make ends meet.

Umahani’s son, Masihuddin Tucy, drives to the market on a scooter to buy vegetables and other provisions. Tucy, an expert on traditional Mughlai cuisine, works as a food consultant with a leading hotel chain. He and his brother, Ziauddin, send their children to ordinary schools where few know of their grand heritage.

“We wrote to Indira Gandhi, who was the Prime Minister then, and we urged that the Mughal descendants be provided befitting employment. But the situation was difficult,” recalls Ziauddin.

“Subsequently, I joined the marketing department of the government of Andhra Pradesh as a supervisor. I was grateful to get the job, and I knew I had to work hard,” says the Hyderababd resident whose father made a living running cycle-rickshaws.

It’s a long way from the glittering life of the Mughals, who ruled most part of the country for more than 300 years from 1526.

The extravagant rulers built some of the most spectacular buildings in the world, including the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri, a fortified residence on the outskirts of Agra.

The royals, who sat on the legendary Peacock throne studded with the Kohinoor diamond, were draped from head to toe in silk and brocade wearing seven-stringed pearl necklaces, emerald-and-ruby-studded tiaras or turban ornaments.

Their fetish for the fabulous didn’t end there: the Mughals travelled on tinsel-topped elephants, had 300 cooks to make their meals and a stunning collection of daggers and scabbards encrusted with gems, ruby boxes and bejewelled jade cups.

“It’s amazing that one of the premier families of India that contributed so much, now live in anonymity,” Arijeet Gupta, the director of the documentary, said. “They live like ordinary, middle-class people. They are real people who have to fight to make ends meet,” he sighed.

The journey to anonymity began after Bahadur Shah was charged with treason and exiled to Burma after the1857 revolt against British rule.

He became a forgotten footnote in history and died four years later, best-known for his epitaph which he wrote himself: “How unlucky Zafar is, for his burial he couldn’t even get two yards of earth, in my beloved country.”

The family in Hyderabad traces its roots to Bahadur Shah’s son, Mirza Quaiush, who escaped from the British army and fled to Kathmandu in neighbouring Nepal.

Historians say it is difficult to trace what happened to the Mughals after they were deposed because many of the records were destroyed.

“After 1857, the Mughals were terrorised, they were just fleeing for their lives — and they didn’t have any identity cards,” said Narayani Gupta, an historian in Delhi.

“Nobody doubts that they trace their roots to the Mughals,” the historian added.

“I am proud to belong to the Mughal family,” said Begum Umahani. “But when I think of what happened to Bahadur Shah Zafar, I am saddened. Although I was not born then, the punishment he was given breaks my heart,” she added.

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