Juliana: The Mughal ‘Princess’ from Portugal

Juliana: The Mughal ‘Princess’ from Portugal

By PANKAJ VOHRA | | 13 January, 2018
The story of Dona Juliana Dias, a Portuguese woman who wielded an astounding influence at Shah Alam’s court, is a forgotten chapter of Mughal history, revisited in a wonderful new book, entitled Juliana Nama, which was some 36 years in the making, writes Pankaj Vohra.

Medieval Indian history has stories and anecdotes of illustrious women such as Razia Sultana, Noor Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal and Jahan Ara, some of whom have also been featured stunningly so on celluloid. However, very little is known about Juliana, a Portuguese lady who played a sensational stellar role in the Mughal Court and witnessed from close quarters the unfolding of history, as well as history being made on account of the mystifying sway she had over this era.

Juliana Nama is a book that narrates the fascinating story akin to a fairy-tale of the alluring and charismatic Dona Juliana Dias da Costa—the favoured and beloved companion of Shah Alam, also known as Bahadur Shah-I—who succeeded his father, the controversial Monarch,  Aurungzeb to the Peacock Throne.  She not only left an enduring and unfading stamp on that period but perhaps, emphatically so, refashioned and altered the course of events to an exceptional degree.

For readers, who have only encountered a faint brush with history, it is significant to bring to fore that the name of Bahadur Shah is commonly used in reference to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor, who was imprisoned by the British and languished in obscurity in Rangoon before passing away unsung during the second half of the 19th century. Zafar was a fervent poet who penned the profound lines capturing his anguish, “Kitna Hai badnaseeb Zaraf dafn ke liye, do gaz zamin bhi na mili ku-e- yaar mein’’ (How unfortunate is your fate Zafar that a final resting place was denied to you in your Beloved’s Land.)

However, returning to Juliana, she wielded an astounding influence in the Mughal Court and had a major hand in delicately and tactfully creating warm and diplomatic relations with European countries, particularly Portugal. It was due to her judicious intervention—with the fine balance of both decorum and protocol—that Surat was declared a duty-free port for the Portuguese by the Mughals as a result of which she was rewarded handsomely for her services by both sides. Her singular affinity with Delhi, bordering on kinship, is appreciably outstanding as Shah Alam gifted her, the palace built by Dara Shikoh, where she resided for many years. In addition, she was bestowed with a few villages in Delhi, Julena Sarai near the now New Friends Colony being one of them. She regularly attended the Church at Masihgarh to offer special prayers. The Church was built on the land donated by her to her Christian Co-Religionists so as to ensure exoneration and pardon for the guilt of some sin that persistently weighed her down.

Juliana Nama is a book that narrates the fascinating story akin to a fairy-tale of the alluring and charismatic Dona Juliana Dias da Costa—the favoured and beloved companion of Shah Alam, also known as Bahadur Shah-I—who succeeded his father, the controversial Monarch,  Aurungzeb to the Peacock Throne. 

Interestingly, the Church still exists at the spot, not too far away from her erstwhile estate in present day Okhla.  Juliana, in recognition of her phenomenal services was honoured by the Portuguese government with its highest award while simultaneously receiving laurels from the Mughals.

Commencing with Aurungzeb’s time, she witnessed multiple wars of succession featuring Shah Alam followed by his son Jahandar Shah, Farrukh Siyar—apart from the melodrama enacted on the centre stage of Hindustan by the Sayyid brothers—the King-Makers who planned the enthronement of Rafi-ud-Darajat, Rafi-ud-Daula, Neku Siyar, Ibrahim and then Mohammad Shah in quick succession.

A notable mention must be made of the two renowned authors, Raghuraj Singh Chauhan and Madhukar Tewari, who burnt the midnight oil for more than 36 years, at the cost of their personal life, to unearth and resurrect this stunning historic figure from twilight oblivion. Based on archival evidences brought out of the ground by the two authors, the two historians have both immaculately and captivatingly recreated the era when Juliana lived with Shah Alam for 45 years and much beyond.

As a tribute to her venerable benefactions, some of the epithets which have been conferred on her were: Dona, Fidwi Duago Bahadur Shah, Madame de Maintenon, Khanum, Amazon and Oracle of the Emperor. In the words of the authors, she was popularly known as, “Bibi Julena’’.

Among the Mughal Nobility, she was the Pedagogue of the Royal Highnesses, a Doctor for the Royal Ladies, Charge de Affaires of the Harem, the Royal Table and the Jewellery, besides being the Jagirdar, a Mansabdar, an Employer, a Diplomat and a Portuguese Ambassador. Astoundingly so, she was also Patron of Orphans, Mother of the Society of Jesus, Worthy Benefactress of the College and Mission of Agra and the Financier of Jesuit Mission to Tibet sent by the Pope. The Supreme Pontiff also applauded her for services to Christianity.

Her multifaceted iconic personality and refined multilingual attributes are well reflected while greeting the Dutch Envoy in strict royal etiquettes and conducts of niceties; followed by her organising a magical musical concert by Dutch musicians who mesmerised the Emperor and his Queens and the Princes with the heavenly sounds strung from the violin, harp and hautboy.

In other words, Juliana introduced the Mughals to the finer side of Western Culture. She reinforced their armies with the artillery power of heavy guns and cannons as was witnessed in the bloody battle of succession between Shah Alam and his brother, Azam Shah at Jajau near Agra. Shah Alam, who had carefully and cautiously planned to seize the Peacock Throne, had at one point experienced defeat but if it was not for Juliana by his side, atop an elephant, goading and coaxing him to fearlessly continue with the battle, the outcome would have been another story. They emerged victorious from the armed conflict and clash due to the superior artillery power furnished by the Europeans brought into the warfare by the Lady herself.

The authors, while covering a huge canvas, starting off with the Battle of Hugli where Shah Jahan vanquished the Portuguese from Bengal so as to depict Juliana’s origins—she was probably born in Bengal and brought to Agra as an infant after her mother was sent to the Royal Seraglio—have heavily relied on research material and documentation obtained from a number of archives, museums and history journals. They evidently have spoken to a multitudinous number of distinguished scholars and have pushed themselves to the limit to seamlessly connect the dots and thus unravel the story. In the process, what is also an exemplary part of the book is that the writers have given fresh insights into the manner in which the Mughals functioned. In addition, they have provided intricate and minute details regarding the succession battles which unfolded, awash with unheard of barbaric cruelty. There is a mention how Shah Jahan was infuriated by the Portuguese who are alleged to have abducted two slave girls serving in the support staff of Mumtaz Mahal, his treasured Queen. Interestingly so, this was the point of conflagration that led to his decision to go to war with the Portuguese. There are rare but definitive glimpses of Aurungzeb and his paranoid nature, which continued to dominate, his life far after he succeeded in forcibly inheriting the throne from his father by eliminating his brothers. His paranoia grew so neurotic that he deployed spies to collect a daily dossier on the most irrelevant activities of his own sons.

The book furnishes the reader with the diabolic and black-hearted brutality perpetrated by the Mughals at that time to eliminate rivals in the wars of succession. The mode of killing of Jahandar Shah and his Chief Lieutenant, on orders of Farrukh Siyar, as also Siyar’s own murder can be best described as hair-raising, spine-chilling and blood-curdling. 

Aurungzeb’s desire to set up a Mughal Navy also finds a place in the book which describes him as a small-built man, bearing a large nose, who at the age of 80 managed to write and sign his decrees with full control of his senses. The magnum opus further covers the intrigue in the Mughal household, and how Shah Alam used deception as a powerful weapon to hoodwink his brother by pledging that he would flee to Persia for all times, once their father was no more. However, in the meantime, he meticulously marshalled his resources with the active collusion of Juliana, who laid at his service trained Portuguese, French and Dutch soldiers.

There is a reference to the request made by Juliana in July, 1710 to the Portuguese King during the reign of Shah Alam seeking noble status for herself and members of her family. The letter sent to the King by the new Viceroy was untraceable, but the authors were able to locate documentation, wherein the Viceroy wrote to Father Joseph da Silva who is understood to be the person who was in constant communication with Juliana.

The book sparklingly brings out Juliana’s hold over the Mughals which continued even when Mohammad Shah, Shah Alam’s grandson was crowned the Emperor. She was one of the most trusted aides of Nawab Qudsia, the Monarch’s mother. While advising the Royals on key matters, she concurrently looked after the Portuguese interests well beyond her call of duty. She played the messenger of Christ and her contribution to the spread of Christianity in India was acknowledged by one and all. She passed away at an advanced age in July-August, 1734 and this event is recorded in the Tarikh-i-Muhammadi which states, “Julya (Juliana), a pirangi (firangi,a foreigner) woman, doctor and favourite of the deceased Shah Alam and the reigning Mohammad Shah died in August, 1734’’.    

The book furnishes the reader with the diabolic and black-hearted brutality perpetrated by the Mughals at that time to eliminate rivals in the wars of succession. The mode of killing of Jahandar Shah and his Chief Lieutenant, on orders of Farrukh Siyar, as also Siyar’s own murder can be best described as hair-raising, spine-chilling and blood-curdling. Blinding, as one of the chief instruments, was used undeterred, on even ten year old princes whose eyes were gouged out by needles. The authors have recorded the invasions of Ahmed Shah Abdali and Nadir Shah briefly, though they have alluded to the hedonistic lifestyle of Mohammad Shah as one of the principal reasons for the final disintegration of the Mughal Empire.

This coffee table book is a precious collector’s item and is a priceless resource tome. It, thus, should occupy a prime place on the desk of every student of medieval Indian history, and for the uninformed reader, there could be no better introduction to acquaint them to the way things were in this country less than three centuries ago. Juliana Nama could possibly provide inspiration to movie-makers from round the globe, who could perhaps be able do justice to this enigmatic Heroine in all her glory and splendour. Juliana is probably an ideal subject for someone like Shekhar Kapoor or Sanjay Leela Bhansali, or maybe some filmmaker from the West, familiar with the frame-by-frame genre of Cecil B. DeMille or Sir Richard Attenborough. The two authors need to be hailed for recording and putting to paper complex and sinuous details, which weave the fabric of the text into a fact-based and true-hearted historical treatise.

 

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