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Burhanpur: Mughal Splendor and Drama

The Ahukhana

In India, one can scarcely travel a hundred miles without encountering a clump of ancient or medieval ruins. Except historians or the odd local enthusiast, few cares about these monuments. Most of the monuments maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India enjoys the splendor of only rickety notice boards, peddlers and guides spouting suspiciously ornate trivia. Around Burhanpur, a small city in Madhya Pradesh, there are a hundred such ill-maintained but still impressive monuments. However, Burhanpur is not part of India’s well-known tourist trails. Few are aware that Burhanpur served as a frontier capital and briefly hosted the imperial court of the Mughal Empire. The short-lived imperial splendor also brought much riches, drama and tragedy to Burhanpur.

A sizeable settlement existed in this location since ancient times. There are local myths connected to Sage Bhrigu and Ashwatthama. Burhanpur city was founded as the capital of the Sultanate of Khandesh in 1399. Khandesh straddled the Tapti Valley and had the Satpura ranges to its north. Burhanpur was thus the “Gateway to the South”. Moreover, it was a nexus of India’s medieval trade-routes. This was also the best staging zone for any southern campaign; an invasion force would have to rely heavily on bountiful Khandesh and Burhanpur. This brought Burhanpur under the Mughal crosshairs. In 1601, Emperor Akbar conquered Khandesh. Soon, huge Mughal armies began pouring into the Deccan from this frontier capital.  As an oasis of security in war-torn Deccan, Burhanpur rose in prominence.

Burhanpur became the seat of Prince Daniyal, Akbar’s youngest son. When his elder brother Prince Salim rebelled, Daniyal rose in favor. However, Daniyal was an alcoholic. A hunting lodge named “Ahukhana” (Deer Park) was built just outside Burhanpur so that he could wantonly indulge in alcohol. In 1605 Daniyal drank himself to death. Soon, Akbar also died, and Salim was crowned Emperor Jehangir. Daniyal would not be the last prince to die in Burhanpur. Prince Khurram was the third son of Jehangir. In 1617 he was appointed Governor in Burhanpur, where he murdered his eldest brother, the fallen Crown Prince Khusrau. When Khurram himself rebelled, Burhanpur was given to his elder brother Prince Parvez, However, Parvez was an alcoholic and drank himself to an early grave. Thus, Khurram could ascend the throne as Shah Jahan in 1627 – after more kinslaying.

In 1630, a senior nobleman’s rebellion caused a ripple of instability and Shah Jahan moved the imperial court from Agra to Burhanpur. The Emperor himself was now a resident of Burhanpur. The Mughal court and forces, numbering lakhs, came with him. However, this could not have happened at a worse time – a great famine hit the Deccan. This famine, caused by successive crop failures in the region, lasted two years. Millions perished. Burhanpur being the de-facto imperial capital, and housing a huge host, made things worse as scarce food was hoarded and diverted to Burhanpur.

Shah Jahan tried to help, but the famine was too widespread and devastating. Regardless, Shah Jahan’s glittering court continued in splendor in the 7-storeyed Shahi Qila in Burhanpur. Mumtaz Mahal took over Daniyal’s Ahukhana and the Shahi Hammam, where she daily dipped in three perfumed ponds after bath. The Emperor constructed numerous imperial buildings in the city. The rebellion was also suppressed. Burhanpur saw even more Mughal drama when Shah Jahan apparently fell for a courtesan named Gulara Begum (Unsubstantiated accounts say that she was drowned by Shah Jahan’s father-in-law as she awaited her paramour in a river-boat). Mumtaz Mahal died during childbirth in Burhanpur in 1631, shattering Shah Jahan.

Shah Jahan would decamp in 1632, but the city retained its stature. More drama would unfold in 1636 when Shah Jahan’s dour young son Aurangzeb visited Burhanpur. There he apparently fell deeply in love with a courtesan named Hirabai. The prince wantonly indulged in music and frivolity with this courtesan. However, Hirabai died suddenly, and the grieving Aurangzeb relapsed to his former self.

Burhanpur’s importance dipped as the Mughal center of gravity in the Deccan progressed southwards. However, it was the Mughal collapse following Aurangzeb’s death that caused Burhanpur to fall. Between 1707 and 1818, Burhanpur was tossed between the Marathas, Mughals, Hyderabad, the British and local strongmen, and the great frontier capital was relegated to the sidelines.

Burhanpur is near-forgotten now, but things would have been very different if Shah Jahan’s original wish was executed. He wanted his beloved to be interned in Burhanpur in a marvelous tomb. However, investigations showed that the soil of the Tapti riverbank would not support the planned edifice’s weight. The narrow river would not capture the tomb’s full reflection. Moreover, it would be impossible to transport the marble from Rajasthan to Burhanpur. The emperor embalmed Mumtaz Mahal in the Ahukhana for six months. When initial preparations were done at a designated site in Agra, Mumtaz Mahal’s remains were transported there in a golden casket. The rest is history.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on July 21, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Nakano School and the I.N.A

Mohan Singh and Fujiwara

About a century ago, Captain T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, turned a middling revolt deep in the Arabian desert into a whirlwind that swept away Ottoman power in the First World War. Lawrence was a multi-talented junior military intelligence officer in the British Army. The British leadership was unsure of the Arab Revolt’s chances. However, Lawrence’s liaising skills, his acumen, his brilliant strategies, and his close relationship with the Arab leaders achieved astounding victories. Lawrence’s feat became a benchmark for all operations aimed at bringing down hostile regimes by aiding groups opposing these regimes. During World War II there were similar program in the Asia-Pacific Theatre – including India. Parallel to Britain actions in Arabia, Imperial Japan sent her brilliant officers to utilize Indian rebels and malcontents against their mutual British enemy. Neither power was guided by true concern for their rebel allies; British and Japanese aims were purely imperialistic. The saga of the Indian rebels, particularly that of the Indian National Army under Subhash Chandra Bose, is familiar to us. However, the Japanese angle and the story before Bose’s arrival is less well known.

Japan’s Military Intelligence academy, located in Nakano region of Tokyo, was unassumingly named Army School – Nakano. This school provided training in various disciplines of war and espionage. From 1938 to 1945, over 2,500 agents and operators were trained. This institute would provide the men who would spearhead Japan’s grand strategy for the domination of Asia. The Japanese understood that the native populations of Asian nations chafed under European colonialism. The restive millions could be swayed by promises of liberation. Their more militant rebels could be befriended, funded and trained to aid Japanese campaigns. The fact was that Japan was an ultranationalist and expansionist regime. “Asian liberation” was a mask to hide its imperialist aims. Nevertheless, even a small army of natives fighting alongside them would give Japan legitimacy. Moreover, leaders from such forces could form friendly governments. This strategy was executed by relatively junior products of the Nakano School.

A brilliant and young officer, Major Fujiwara Iwaichi, focused on British India. Unlike most Japanese officers, Major Iwaichi was a polyglot, a scholar and an empathetic person who understood Indian aspirations. With a small group of like-minded Nakano alumni, he established strong links with the Indian and Malay freedom fighters in East Asia. Fujiwara’s organization was christened Fujiwara Kikan (Fujiwara Agency), or F-Kikan. Consequently, when the Japanese invaded British-held Malay Peninsula and Singapore in December 1941, there were uprisings and desertions which collapsed British resistance. Many thousand Indians were taken Prisoners of War: Iwaichi successfully recruited some Indian officers. One of them, Captain Mohan Singh possessed excellent oratory and leadership skills. In a great assembly of Indian prisoners in Singapore, in February 1942, Mohan Singh made powerful pleas which convinced nearly 15,000 Indian soldiers to fight for India. Thus, the first Indian National Army was raised.

The shocked British retreated to India. To engineer more mischief, Iwaichi proposed expansion of operations. However, the Army leadership promoted and transferred Iwaichi in October 1942. Colonel Hideo Iwakuro, co-founder of the Nakano School, took charge. The unit was renamed Iwakuro Kikan or I-Kikan and operations were expanded. However, a weakness in the Japanese strategy became evident. Japanese strategy succeeded when their leading officer was capable and sincere. Iwakuro was a tough veteran, but he was an ultranationalist and openly contemptuous of Indians. Fujiwara’s hand-picked team was also replaced with Iwakuro’s men. Iwakuro regularly clashed with Indian leaders. Indian agents and troops were wasted on ill-considered missions and the momentum was lost. This resulted in plummeting morale and desertions. Factional conflicts among Indians also muddled the situation. In December 1942, the Japanese crushed the dissent by disarming the INA and imprisoning Mohan Singh.

The INA was revived and enlarged under Subhash Chandra Bose following his arrival in the region in May 1943. Iwakuro was replaced by another Nakano alumnus. The unit was renamed Hikari Kikan (Glory Agency). However, bowing to Bose’s vision for the INA as a frontline force, the Japanese unit was restructured.  Moreover, the influence of its Japanese commanding officer effectively decreased.  Nakano School graduates were still attached with INA units for propaganda and covert operations. However, by late 1944 such efforts were ineffective. Besides other stringent security measures, the British had created propaganda units called “Josh Groups” which strongly countered INA propaganda.

The story of Japanese military defeat, Bose’s death and the INA surrender is well known. After the war, most of the surviving Nakano School officers (including Fujiwara) transitioned into post-war Japanese military. Some held out deep in the Asian jungles as late as 1974, unaware of Japanese surrender! In the end the Indian project had failed, unlike their notable successes in Burma and Indonesia, but the men of Nakano School sure gave the British Raj the fright of their lives.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on July 7, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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