The Legend of Pomegranate Blossom: Anarkali

The story of Anarkali has been popular in Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi culture and has been featured in and inspired many films, plays and stories throughout the years. I remember mummaji telling me this story when I was young and soon after we watched Mughal-e-Azam – the 1960 Bollywood blockbuster – which left quite an impression on me.

This famous legend of forbidden love has been passed down through many generations, everyone adding to and editing their rendition of the story to how they believe the tragic tale occurred. The story takes place during the Mughal Empire, under the reign of the emperor Akbar. Today we know the empire as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. The first account of the story of Anarkali and Salim was reported by William Finch – a British traveller – in 1611, which is supposedly eleven years after the alleged death of Anarkali.

It’s disputed that Anarkali and Salim’s love story is completely fabricated due to there being no mention of such an incident in the Akbarnama (the official chronicle of the third Mughal Emperor’s reign) or the Tuzk-e-Jahangiri (the memoirs of Mughal Emperor Jahangir or as we’ll know him in this story – Prince Salim). However, it’s important to remember that that the Akbarnama was commissioned by Akbar himself so he would have been able to have control of what was written and the Tuzk-e-Jahangiri was written by Jahangir himself and he could have also left it out. The main reasons for the omission could boil down to the fact they may not have wanted to bring attention to the love affair.

We could go back and forth all day on the authenticity of the story as scholars have but that’s just the start. There’s debate about the name Anarkali was born with and how she was given the name Anarkali. There is also a lot of conflict about the fate of our two lovers too however I won’t go into this for fear of ruining the end of this tale for those who have never heard it.

Personally, I believe that the story is real and that before Romeo and Juliet there was Anarkali and Salim but maybe that’s simply because I love a tragic love story. And I’d like to think Shakespeare was inspired by a bunch of pakis. Heh.

This will be a part of my series of blog posts of re-written stories. I was greatly inspired by the music from the film Mughal-e-Azam and some of the lyrics are featured in the story but for the most part my story is true to what I believe or would like to believe is what happened.

So to add to the debate, I would like to present to you my version of Anarkali.

*

The air felt still and a sweet warmth surrounded the qila that fateful day. Akbar was standing in the courtyard, soaking in the sun, silently praying he would be blessed with a son. He walked barefoot along the marble path that ran in the middle of the two extravagant fountains, allowing his senses to take in the sounds of the water trickling into the blue pool. He closed his eyes and felt the tingling sensation running through his feet from the cool surface of the decorated marble. Standing still for a moment he imagined himself as a tiny human being trapped inside the marble; unable to move, to speak, to feel physically frozen in the cold and to feel the weight of the marble upon him. Opening his eyes he looked upon his empire but his thoughts were disturbed by a commotion and he turned to find a maid rushing towards him with a smile that in that moment seemed to outshine the sun. He knew the reason for the smile and he felt elated before the words even left the plump maid’s pink lips.

“Mubarak ho, Mubarak ho! Congratulations Shahanshah. The Maharani has given birth to a son and you have an heir.” She was expecting the ecstatic response she received and laughed at the way he was expressing his joy. He jumped up in surprise and clapped his hands a couple times, stomped his feet on the ground and praised Allah endlessly. His dua had been heard by the almighty and he had a son who would grow to take his position and assume the responsibilities that he had for so long. The weight of the marble had been lifted and he felt the sweet warmth surround him once again.

“For delivering this joyous news I would like to give you my ring as a token of my appreciation. And with that ring is also a vow; during my life you may ask of me one thing which you desire and I will personally ensure that your want is fulfilled.” Akbar dismissed her and she left to join the other maids in celebration.

They had named him Salim. Prince Salim, the son of Akbar and the heir to the Mughal Empire was a very rebellious prince indeed. He often went against his father’s wishes and did as he pleased causing mayhem wherever he went. His wealth allowed him to live an indulgent lifestyle and his arrogance was simply unrivalled.

Then came the day when Akbar caught his son in the courtesan’s quarters drunk beyond belief, stumbling around asking the women to dance for him. Even they were sick of his reckless ways and refused to do anything for the young prince. Just as he was about to lose his temper and strike the woman that refused to do his bidding, Akbar entered. He had heard the commotion when he had been walking past on his daily rounds of the qila with his advisor and he was displeased to say the least.

In a fit of blind rage he struck his son over and over again until he composed himself. He could feel the cold marble was engulfing him once more and he had to do something about it before it was too late and he was stuck… and there was no legacy of his left behind just a chaotic son and an empire in ruins.

“Take my son and enlist him in the army. Raise him there and discipline him so that when he returns – if he returns, he will be worthy and able of filling my position when such a time should arrive. Take him away.” Salim was now lying on the floor unconscious due to the liquor and his father’s beatings so the advisor carried him out of the quarters. By daybreak a carriage was packed full of all the supplies needed for the long journey ahead and the sleeping prince was once again carried into the carriage. Everyone agreed that it was best it was done whilst the Prince was still asleep to avoid the tantrum that would ensue. Akbar did not come outside to bid his son farewell but watched as the carriage left. The air was no longer sweet but it felt bitter and the cold wind which numbed his hands and feet and the tips of his ears felt as though it was also numbing any emotion he had felt towards his son.

At this moment, many miles away a girl by the name of Nadira Begum was making her way from Iran to Lahore – the city in which Akbar resided. She was an orphan who had been taken in by a group of local courtesans who had noticed her beauty and seeked to gain from it. They took care of her, fed her, clothed her and taught her their trade. She learnt how to dance in a way that would entice the men that would eventually throw their wealth at her feet in appreciation for the sensuality she exuded. She also learnt how to use her voice to sing sweet poetic lyrics to further add to the experience. They went from city to city collecting pearls, gems, gold and silver and now they were headed to Lahore.

Nadira was literally a jewel herself. It wasn’t her perfectly curvy figure or her big eyes that made even the wealthiest and most noble men fall at her feet. The pink glow of her cheeks and the exquisite expressions she made with those sublime features of hers was what made Nadira Begum irresistible to the bourgeoisie. But it was much to everyone’s dismay when a nobleman decided to ask for Nadira to be his personal courtesan and for her to live in his abode in exchange for a lifestyle that even the most respected women would be envious of. Nadira refused for she could not leave the women who raised her and taught her all she knew. The courtesans also refused to let her go. The nobleman threatened the courtesans and kept them all captive until they were eventually able to flee during the middle of the night with the aid of a few disloyal servants.

And that is why they were now in Lahore. The sun was fiery on the day they arrived in the city and the ground was hot. Nadira touched her long, dark hair only to feel like it was burning her palms. She could feel the beads of sweat on her forehead slowly rolling their way down her face but she didn’t wipe them away because they were cooling. In Lahore she was going to be known as Sharf-un-Nissa to protect her identity and start fresh. This was decided for her.

The women spent a few months working in the city but when word got to Akbar that the world’s most beautiful courtesan was in their midst, he immediately requested for her and anyone who was with her to be brought to the qila. Summoned by the Emperor himself the women obliged and became a part of his harem. They were showered with riches and never felt a want for anything. Except to be able to give and receive love from another who would take them away from all of this and devote his life to their happiness. Each courtesan silently hoped this day would come for them and only them but the days went by with no such luck. Women like them were destined to be everyone’s woman and not just one man’s treasure.

Years passed, Salim had grown into a man and his experience fighting wars for the empire and living without the many luxuries he enjoyed meant he had become a disciplined, knowledgeable and responsible man. Although there was still a glimmer of his past ways just fighting to shine through he had kept them concealed and suppressed. The Prince’s progress was relayed to the Emperor who then decided it might be wise for Salim to come back to Lahore and begin learning how such a powerful empire must be run. So he was ordered to come back and the preparations for his arrival began.

There was a buzz of excitement in the qila for the next few days as everyone made their own preparations; the cooks were busy chopping, frying and tasting all the while talking about how Salim’s  taste in food must have changed. The maids were cleaning, decorating and rearranging furniture all the while talking about how Salim’s quarters would have to be bigger because he is now a man. And the courtesan’s? Well they had been ordered to prepare a special performance for the Prince whom they had not even laid eyes on before. They sat around talking about how he may act and what he must look like each with a little gleam in their eyes, imagining that the Prince would fall in love with them and they would elope in the middle of the night and spend the night under the stars. Sharf-un-Nissa didn’t think any different but she felt too shy to say a word and just gave a coy smile every now and then.

The very maid that announced Salim’s birth to Akbar was also the very maid who became a mother figure to Sharf-un-Nissa during her time at the qila. She saw in her a different kind of generosity, kindness and love. The unconditional kind and this drew her towards protecting Sharf-un-Nissa. Seeing her removed from the conversation and her coy demeanour, she came and sat with Sharf-un-Nissa and whispered, “You don’t have to pretend you aren’t seeing the same dream the women before you are seeing. There’s no shame in admitting that the fantasy of being loved by just one is desirable.”

Love was the word that kept on making her take on this demure persona. She smiled and without a word walked away, her ghungroo chimed and jingled in the rhythm of her movements.

*

Hundreds of men, women and children lined the path leading to the grand qila that day and threw thousands upon thousands of the finest flowers and petals as the procession was making its way to safely deliver Prince Salim. The qila was lit with thousands of candles and the grand feast could be smelt from a mile away at least. The reunion of father and son was not emotional but rather polite and sincere. Akbar was glad to see his son had turned into a mature man who was ready to take on responsibilities within his grand empire. The evening consisted of the grand feast being consumed and the reunion of some of the old advisors and servants of the Prince and the Emperor and then the hour arrived for Salim to be enthralled by the courtesans.

The maid led them into the room of mirrors and saw to it that Akbar, Salim and their many acquaintances were comfortable before going to tell the courtesans that they were ready to be entertained.

The courtesans walked in all wearing green and gold embroidered suits, forming a circle around Sharf-un-Nissa, their ghungroos chiming in sync with one another. The circle parted and the women sat on the marble floor just behind the now revealed courtesan. The only thing still concealed was her face which was covered by the elegantly draped dupatta. Salim was intrigued as to who the hidden beauty was and his anticipation was short-lived. The music began and the veil was carefully lifted by her delicate hands as she sang the following verse with the accompaniment of the other courtesans:

In your company, we want to see what fate has in store for us

We shall see what happens when we supplicate before you

Today, Spring has brought the message of love

The buds of hope have blossomed after a long duration

We shall see what happens by evading the pain of love

We shall see

Sharf-un-Nissa took one glance at the Prince and her stance on love had suddenly changed. His grey eyes were telling of the spell she had cast on him and the smile on his lips made her wonder how they would feel on hers.

But how can one relish life without pain?

Without vitality, how can one relish the taste of tears?

We shall see, by shedding tears for love of someone

In your company, we want to see what fate has in store for us

We shall see

We agree that love devastates life

Yet is it not fulfilling that after death the world remembers you?

We shall see, by staking our world for someone’s love

We shall see what happens when we supplicate before you

In your company, we want to see what fate has in store for us

We shall see

She finished her song and Prince Salim looked over at his father and gave him a nod of approval for the choice of entertainment for the evening. Akbar praised her and Salim enraptured by her sweet voice and delicate features asked her name.

“My name is Sharf-un-Nissa, great Prince.” She didn’t dare look him in the eyes for fear of feeling the same lust she felt mere moments ago. Salim just stared at her, amused that her gaze had been lowered for so long but mostly captivated by the red hue of her cheeks.

“The redness of your cheeks makes me think of the pomegranate blossom at this time of year. It’s as charming as Anarkali. I wish to call you Anarkali from now on and that shall be your new name and do not answer to anybody who does not adhere to this request as they would be denying your exquisiteness.” Akbar laughed and agreed that from this day forth she should only be called Anarkali – only the best for his favourite court dancer. Both father and son praised the girls and went on their way to discuss matters regarding the Empire.

Anarkali’s heart was beating fast and the henna on her hands was releasing its scent due to the sweat on her palms. This wasn’t love because a woman couldn’t possibly fall in love with another so simply. It was something else. But how could she be sure, if she had never experienced love before? The others who were so intensely talking about Salim and being in love with a prince were now glaring at her. She knew not because she was meeting anyone’s gaze but because of the prickle up her spine and neck. She returned to her quarters in a daze.

That night, Salim was restless. He had to see her again. He couldn’t believe that a courtesan, a mere slave was having such an effect on him. But she wasn’t just a courtesan. He knew that she was so much more and he had to see her again. Lost in her thoughts he drifted away into sleep, unknowing that on the other side of the qila, Anarkali was doing the same.

*

In the weeks following their first encounter, Anarkali and Salim would look for any opportunity to catch another glimpse of the other. A passing smile in the garden, a coy glance during a dance was enough for a time but Salim and Anarkali both desired more. They started sending messages to each other – little pieces of parchment rolled up and placed within flowers in the garden. Often it was poetry, a sweet little couplet to express their desire to be with one another. To touch one another, to feel close… be intimate.

Through all of this Anarkali was warned by the maid over and over again.

“He’s the heir to the throne, a Prince. Just because he refuses to the see the truth of the situation, it shouldn’t stop you from doing so. You will never be together. This love will turn bitter quickly.” And as usual Anarkali just listened, smiled and told her not to fret.

Then that day of the month came where Akbar would lock himself and his most trusted advisors in a room to discuss the continuing expansion of the Mughal Empire and predicted the rebel attacks and how to prevent them. Prince Salim was intended to be a part of this for the first time since his return but asked to be pardoned. When his father questioned him, he replied that all of this new responsibility was so sudden and that they should ease him into it. Akbar didn’t care much for his son’s excuse so dismissed him and off he went to walk in the garden.

She was leaving a note for him in the rose bush in the garden just as he arrived. Anarkali looked up and blushed; she had never been this close to him. “Anarkali, my love – you blush as though we were meeting for the first time.” Salim took her hand in his and walked around the heavenly grounds.

They sat under the blossom tree in the garden – the dying evening sun creating orange patterns against the pink blossom which fell gracefully after the breeze gently passed through its branches. The moment was so delicious. She loved the way he laughed when he spoke of his childhood –his face lit up as he spoke of his naughty ways as a young boy. She looked into his beautiful, big eyes, studied his face – the little wrinkles around his eyes, the half-dimple that was right next to his beauty spot. The sound of the water fountains was soothing as day turned to night. He invited her to lie down beside him. She moved elegantly as she took her place beside him… and her dupatta slipped from her head. He prevented her from putting it back on by stroking Anarkali’s hair and telling her how beautiful he found it. He kissed her forehead and they both lay there together looking up at the moon shining through the blossom covered branches.

The way he spoke about life made her want to listen to him all day. He asked her what she wanted from the future. She would have said real love a few weeks ago but now all she wanted was for this moment to become eternal. He leaned over so he could see her face, the face of his queen. Her lips pink, plump and made to seem other worldly due to the moonlight. Anarkali could feel Salim’s breath against her mouth and all she wanted was for him to kiss her. He traced her nose and lips with his fingers before finally placing his lips on hers.

It was divine.

Salim covered them both with Anarkali’s dupatta and they spent the night under the blossom tree wrapped in the comfort of one another’s arms. If one were to look at them from up above, they would have witnessed the most captivating sight. The lovers were so close you couldn’t tell one from another both protected by the dupatta, covered in a thick layer of blossom.

It was dawn when silence broke.

“SALIM! SALIM HELP ME!” Anarkali cried as she was dragged away, her whole world falling apart around her. For a brief moment she saw a blurry vision of Salim rushing towards her before being captured by guards himself.

Salim shouted out so he could hear her and reassured his love that he would help her. That he would save her. But it was no use and he felt powerless as seven guards dragged him all the way to his father Akbar.

Akbar was as furious as he was the day he sent the prince away to join the army. How dare his son fall in love with a servant, a courtesan – a wretched, impure little girl. Salim stood before him and begged for her to come to no harm. He expressed to his father how he loved Anarkali and how he wanted her as a wife – for her to be his queen. Upon hearing these words, Akbar could not take it any longer. The fiery anger that was building up inside him was ready to explode. He called for Anarkali to be put to death. There were gasps from all those watching the spectacle and Salim cried for his love that was so short-lived. He petitioned his father not to do this to her that in exchange for her life he would offer his. But this just made the emperor more furious.

“How can you, the heir to the Mughal throne offer yourself up to be killed in place of a servant girl knowing you have to someday become the emperor? Have you no respect for your royal duties and responsibilities? ARE YOU NOT ASHAMED TO BE INSULTING THE MUGHALS BY ASSOCIATING SUCH FILTH WITH THE THRONE?!”

“Speak to me as a father and not an emper-“

“That compassionate father is no longer here and in his place you will find only I. For disrespecting the throne I shall punish you too.” Then Akbar ordered for Anarkali to be buried alive in the very walls of the qila.

Salim wept at his father’s feet but to no avail. The emperor stormed off. The people who witnessed the unjust behaviour of the king were left perplexed. The whispers and shadows found it hard to believe that Akbar the Great, the emperor who believed so much in justice would behave in such a cruel manner and that too with his son. The other courtesans, the very ones who were jealous wept at the thought of the crime against love that was about to be committed by an emperor they had always been so thankful for. And Anarkali?

Anarkali was left in the cells of the dungeon cold and broken but unapologetic. She had felt something she had never felt before and even the pain she was feeling now was new. This was heartbreak. A few short weeks led her to feel so many wonderful emotions that even death did not scare her. Tears only streamed down her cheeks because she knew she wouldn’t be granted one last glimpse of Salim. The maid came to visit Anarkali in her cell. The same maid whom the emperor promised that one request, one desire would be fulfilled she only had to ask. Anarkali poured her heart out to her all the while weeping over her lost live, over her Salim.

Evening came and an advisor came to Anarkali to deliver a message from the emperor. It read that he had made a vow long ago which he now had to stand by if he is to properly fulfil his duties as a ruler. For her this meant that she was granted one last dance in the room of mirrors with Salim present.

*

Silk curtains revealed her for the final time. This time standing tall and proud in defiance. She was dressed head to toe in red, henna staining her hands and feet and jewels decorating her wrists, neck and feet. And she was looking only at Akbar.  The emperor smirked – a smirk that was to provoke the song that would be known as her last. The music started playing and she danced away until she was ready to sing about her rebellion:

One loves but once in this world

One lives and dies with that anguish

When one has loved, why should one be afraid?

I was only in love, I was not a thief.

Why should I stealthily sigh?

When one has loved, why should one be afraid?

She danced and moved towards Salim singing of their love. Her glances full of passion towards the prince were matched with equally stern ones towards Akbar indicating her defiance. His temper was rising and Anarkali didn’t care. Her ghungroo chimed on:

I shall tell the story of my love even if it costs me my life

Death is real when witnessed by the world

Why die of suppressed desire?

When one has loved, why should one be afraid?

His longing dwells in my heart, the flame of love lives there

As I live in love, so I shall die in love

There is nothing else left to do

When one has loved, why should one be afraid?

 

Our love cannot be concealed, it is there for all to see

When nothing is veiled from God, why wear a veil before his servants?

When one has loved, why should one be afraid?

I was only in love, I was not a thief

Why should I stealthily sigh?

When one has loved, why should one be afraid?

He couldn’t put up with her audacity any longer.

“Take her away! Bury her immediately!” Salim was dragged back to his quarters and locked there and Anarkali, dressed as a bride was taken to her fate. She was pushed into the cavity of the wall and the brick layers began their work. Anarkali soaked in the last of the daylight her eyes would ever be able to witness. She looked down at her feet when she noticed the pink blossom strewn on the floor. The last insult by Akbar. She cried silent tears for her beloved and prayed for his wellbeing. Anarkali took off all her jewels and threw them out of the diminishing gap in the wall. One by one they fell to the marble floor outside the wall. All that remained was her bridal attire and the ghungroo on her ankles. And as the last brick was laid, she closed her eyes and thought of her lying in his arms in the moonlight and the pain in her heart eased knowing that one day, if not in this world, they would be together again.

Anarkali passed away precisely 2 days later. The lack of air, food, water and her beloved all led to her quick death within the walls of the qila. The wall was never approached by anybody who knew she was there. Most didn’t so many hours were spent speculating as to where her dead body was decaying.

As for Salim, he was so heartbroken at the loss of his queen; he began seeking pleasure through other means, opium and alcohol to be precise. He became addicted to the substances but nothing would be able to erase his memory of his true love. He built a beautiful tomb for Anarkali in a pomegranate garden inscribed with his last couplet for her; “Ah! Could I behold the face of my beloved once more, I would give thanks unto my God until the day of resurrection”.

He could still hear her ghungroo chiming within the walls, her calling out for him to come and help her. When he walked through the hallways he would see her shadow following her, calling to him, promising him one more night under the blossom tree. No one danced in the room of mirrors again. It was Anarkali’s even in death.

As was Salim’s heart.

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