In the southern part of Lahore's old city there is a beautiful little mausoleum. It is a white stone building with eight corner turrets. Inside is a pure marble sarcophagus with one of the finest and elegant carvings anywhere in the world. The legend is that this is the final resting place of Anarkali, the tragic heroin of perhaps the most spectacular romance in history. Yet, was Aanarkali a real person or is she just a fragment of imagination? I am afraid this question is not easy to answer.
If we start our search for Anarkali from her tomb we will see that along with the 99 names of Allah and two dates corresponding to 1599 and 1615 AD there is carved in the inscription:
Ta qayamat shukr goyam kard gar khwish ra
Ah! gar man baz beenam rui yar khwish ra
“Ah ! If could I behold the face of my beloved once more;
I would give thanks unto my God
Unto the day of resurrection”
Majnun Salim Akbar (Totally Smitten Salim Akbar)
It is possible to conclude that here lies Salim Akbar's beloved and who is Salim Akbar? None other than the Mogul Prince Salim son of Emperor Akbar and later the Emperor Jahangir. Case solved and Anarkali proven to be a fact. However, it is not as simple as that. Before we start looking at the historical evidence for the existence of Anarkali let us remind ourselves of the story.
Well actually there are several rather different versions of the story. The most popular is the one used in the most spectacular of the several Anarkali films made over the years, Mughal-e-Azam (1960) staring Dilip Kumar and Madhubala. Emperor Akbar (Prithviraj Kapoor) and his Rajput wife, Jodha Bai (Durga Khote) pray for a son. The news of their prayer being answered is brought to the emperor by a maid. The overjoyed Emperor gifts his ring to the maid and promises to grant her any one wish she asks. The son, Prince Salim, grows to be a weak and pleasure-loving boy. His father sends him off to war in order to teach him courage and discipline. After 14 years, Salim returns as a distinguished soldier (Dilip Kumar). Salim falls in love with Anarkali (Madhubala), a court-dancer. Salim wants to marry Anarkali and arranges for secret meetings. However, the jealous Bahaar (Nigar Sultana), a dancer of a higher rank, wants the crown of India and she attempts to make the prince love her so that she may ascend to queen-ship. Being unsuccessful in her venture, she vents her disappointment by exposing the love between him and Anarkali. Salim pleads for Anarkali's hand, but his father objects and throws Anarkali into prison. Despite imprisonment, Anarkali refuses to reject Salim. Salim rebels and amasses his own army to confront Akbar. Salim is defeated in battle and is sentenced to death by his own father, but is told that the sentence will be revoked if Anarkali, now in hiding, is handed over to face death in his place. Akbar's subjects plead for the Emperor to spare his son, and Anarkali comes out of hiding to save the prince's life. She is condemned to death by entombment alive. Before her sentence is carried out, she pleads to have a few hours with Salim as his make-believe wife. She is granted the wish, as she agrees to drug him afterwards so that he cannot interfere with her entombment. As she is being walled up, Akbar is reminded that he still owes a favor to Anarkali's mother, since she was the one to whom Akbar gave his ring after she informed him of the birth of his son (how convenient). Anarkali's mother takes advantage of this, and begs for her daughter's life. The emperor relents, and arranges for Anarkali's secret escape with her mother into exile. He stipulates, though, that they are to live in total obscurity, and that Salim is never to know that Anarkali still lives.
So if the above is true then who built the tomb? Possibly when Salim became the emperor he resumed his affair with Anarkali and built the tomb when she died. As emperor Jehangir, Salim wrote a chronicle called Tuzaq-a-Jehangeri that covers the period from the time he acceded to the thorn in 1605 to 1622, but there is no mention of Anarkali in this at all! So if the emperor had married her or even had her as his consort why did he not write about it in his memoires? Similarly in his memoires Akbar does not mention Anarkali nor does she appear in the writings of any historian of that time. From the dates on the sarcophagus it is assumed that 1599 is the date of death for whoever is buried there and 1615 is when the tomb was built, which indeed was during Jehangire's reign. So once again if he had built such an exquisite structure why not record it in his diary?
In another version of the story Anarkali was a bandi (slave girl) of Akbar and his favorite concubine. One day while sitting in the house of mirrors Akbar notices Anarkali and Salim exchanging smiles, deducing that they are having an affair he orders Anarkali to be built into a wall.
The first historical mention of Anarkali is found in the travelogue of a British tourist and trader, William Finch. So is it possible that this is another conspiracy of the farangis to scandalize Indian and Muslim royals? We don't know. What we know is that writing around 1612 Finch narrates that Anarkali was one of the wives of Emperor Akbar and the mother of his son Danial Shah. Akbar developed suspicions that Anarkali had relations with Prince Saleem (Jahangir) – the great emperor cuckolded by his own son? He would be the laughing stock of the empire if anyone found out and thus he ordered the girl to be buried alive in the wall of Lahore Fort. Jahangir, after ascending the throne, had a splendid tomb constructed, at the present site, in memory of his beloved.
Basing his analysis on the above two Britishers’ accounts, Abraham Eraly, the author of The Last Spring: The Lives and Times of the Great Mughals, suspects that there "seems to have been an oedipal conflict between Akbar and Salim." He also considers it is probable that the legendary Anarkali was nobody other than the mother of Prince Daniyal. Eraly supports his hypothesis by quoting an incident recorded by Abul Fazl, the court-historian of Akbar. According to the historian, Salim was beaten up one evening by guards of the royal harem of Akbar. The story is that a madman had wandered into Akbar’s harem because of the carelessness of the guards. Abul Fazl writes that Salim caught the man but was himself mistaken to be the intruder. The emperor arrived upon the scene and was about to strike with his sword. Most probably, the intruder was no one other than Prince Salim and the story of the madman was concocted to put a veil on the indecency of the prince. And the prince was caught trying to and to meet his lover, one of the wives of his father.
But the accounts of the British travelers and consequently the presumption of Eraly is falsified when one comes to know that the mother of prince Daniyal had died in 1596 which does not match the dates inscribed on the sarcophagus.
As regards native Indian writers, Anarkali first makes an appearance in Noor Ahmed Chishti's book Tehqiqaat-i-Chishtia (1860). He writes:
“Anarkali was beautiful and the favorite concubine of Akbar the Great and her real name was Nadira Begum or Sharf-un-Nissa. And when she died of natural causes or being poisoned by other jealous harem ladies Akbar ordered to create this grand tomb.”
Syed Abdul Lateef, in his book Tareekh-i-Lahore (1892), agrees that Anarkali’s actual name was Nadira Begum or Sharf-un-Nisa and she was one of Akbar’s concubines. He suspected illegitimate relations between Prince Saleem and Anarkali and, therefore, it was ordered that Anarkali be buried alive in a wall, and the tomb was later built there by Jahangir (Saleem) when he succeeded to the throne.
In his compilation, titled Tareekh-i-Lahore (1897), Kanhaya Laal writes that Nadira was a beautiful concubine in the court of Akbar and was endowed with the name Anarkali on the basis of her pink complexion and ravishing beauty. He also opines that she died a natural death when Akbar was on a tour of Deccan. Later on, Akbar got this graceful tomb built.
Abdullah Chagatai, a 18th century historian and architect, has given a very different version. He opines that the tomb, basically built in the center of a pomegranate garden, contains the grave of Jahangir’s wife Saheb Jamal who was very dear to him. With the passage of time the lady’s name disappeared into oblivion and the tomb was christened by the people as the tomb of Anarkali on the basis of the surrounding pomegranate gardens.
Another scholar, Muhammad Baqir, the author of Lahore Past and Present is of the opinion that Anarkali was originally the name of the garden in which the tomb was situated, but with the passage of time, the tomb itself came to be named as that of Anarkali’s. This garden is mentioned by Dara Shikoh, the grandson of Jahangir, in his work Sakinat-al-Auliya, as one of the places where the Saint Hazrat Mian Mir used to sit. Dara also mentions the existence of a tomb in the garden but he does not give it any name. Muhammad Baqir believes that the so-called tomb of Anarkali actually belongs to the lady named or entitled Sahib-i-Jamal, another wife of Salim.
However historians find it unlikely that the Great Mughal who was paramount among them for womanizing (over 800 wives and concubines in his collection) would call one of them yar and himself majnun for her.
In another version Salim actually managed to get Anarkali away from the clutches of Akbar and kept her hidden in Kasur near Lahore. And when he became emperor he married her and gave her the title of Noor Jehan, his favourite wife. This is highly unlikely since Noor Jehan has some history before she married Jehangir and the marriage did not happen till 1611, while Salim had been the head honcho since 1605.
The learned Lahore scholar Anna Suvorova thinks that the legend of Anarkali is part of the legends of immured brides and girls that are associated with many cities and buildings of the world. She details more than 20 examples from Scotland to Azerbaijan of a young woman or a female child who was sacrificed by being immured alive in the foundation or structure of a castle, temple, tower or even a bridge to make it strong and everlasting. Why a female? Well because the human sacrifice has to be pure and a virgin female can be verified as pure while there is no such chance of confirming the virginity and purity of a male. Therefore Suvorova suggests that the legend of Anarkali developed around the tomb of some unknown person (who may be a man) to satisfy the need of an immured female for the Mughal fort in Lahore.
Anarkali's story has certainly fired the imagination of drama writers. The trend started when Syed Imtiaz Taj wrote and organized a stage drama of this story in 1922. Taj said that he had taken inspiration of the story from folk songs and it is a work of fiction. The first film based on the story was a silent movie by Prafulla Roy released in 1928 called Loves of a Mughal Princes and stared Sulchona, a stunning Anglo-Indian Christian girl as Anarkali. It was followed by RS Chaudari’s talkie in 1935 making Sulchona the only Anarkali in two different movies. Then post-Partition we have Nandalal Jawantlal’s Indian film Anarkali from 1953 staring Pardip Kumar and Bina Rai that it contains some of the most beautiful songs by Lata including 'Yeh zindagi ussi key hai' and ‘Aaja abb tu aaja'. Interestingly Pakistani Diva Noor Jehan had a role in this movie as Noor Jehan! I am not sure in what context Jehangir's future wife appears in Anarkali's love story; however Noor Jehan certainly had a major role in the 1958 Pakistani production of Anarkali where she played the role of Anarkali and also sang some of the most beautiful songs like 'Sada hoon apnay pyar key' and ‘Jaltay hain arman, mera dil rota hai'. I have already mentioned Mughal-e-Azam which was the most expensive and commercially the most successful of the Anarkali films. It also had the most acclaimed sound track with the song 'Jub pyar kya tu derna kya' becoming a cliché for all times.
So is Anarkali just a myth? It’s possible but there is documented history that around 1599 Akbar and his favourite son Salim did develop some serious issues. Salim did raise the banner of rebellion against his father but most historians think that the reason was him getting frustrated of waiting, that reminds me of our poor prince Charles!
Anyway, unfortunately, the mystery of Anarkali may never be solved. As for my favorite song from Anarkali films it is Noore Jehan's 'Sada hoon apnay pyar key' which beats Lata's 'Yeh zindagi ussi key hai' by a narrow margin just because it is so poignant and haunting. And curiously Noor Jehan was born in Kasur where according to one of the legends Antalkali spent her life in hiding. Is it possible that a part of her spirit influenced Noor Jehan when she sang this song? Is it possible this is the reason why she prophesies when she tells us: 'Kissi say jo na khul sakay woh zindigi ka raaz hoon' (I am a mystery of life that no one can solve)!
I leave it for you to decide.