Anarkali, Legend or Reality?

One of the most famous love stories in Indian history is the romance between Salim and Anarkali. Salim, the son of Akbar who later became Emperor Jahangir, fell in love with Anarkali. Their tragic love story has inspired numerous novels, plays, and movies. However, what is the truth behind this legendary tale?

Legends about Anarkali:

According to legend, Anarkali, which means Pomegranate Blossom, was the name given to Nadira Begum or Sharif-un-nissa, who was believed to be either the wife or concubine of Akbar. The story goes that one day, while Akbar was sitting and adjusting his turban in front of a hand mirror, Anarkali was standing beside him. When Prince Salim entered the room and smiled at Anarkali, she returned the greeting. Akbar, who saw their interaction in the mirror (or through the mirrors on the walls of the Shish Mahal, or Hall of Mirrors) rose in anger and ordered that Anarkali be buried alive. After Akbar's death, when Prince Salim became king, he built a tomb over her remains in Lahore.

Another version of the tale suggests that Anarkali was a maid servant of Akbar's chief wife. Salim desired to marry her, but Akbar opposed the union. Since Anarkali rejected Akbar's order to forsake her love for Salim, Akbar entombed her alive in Lahore.


In a third version, Nadira's father fled to Persia with her for safety, but tragically, he was assassinated by a gang of robbers during their journey. Nadira, now known as Anarkali, was presented to Akbar at Lahore by the governor of Kabul in 1589. She spent ten years in the imperial harem, captivating royal guests with her exceptional music and dancing skills. Among the royal guests, it was Prince Salim who fell deeply in love with Anarkali, causing her to endure great suffering. Abul Fazl discovered their secret romance, leading to a trap being set in the royal palace. Anarkali and Salim were invited to a concert, where Anarkali was then taken captive. Salim managed to escape with her, but Akbar's spies soon located them. Akbar then ordered that Anarkali be buried alive.

In Edward Thornton's 'A Gazetteer of the Countries Adjacent to India on the North-West: Including Sinde, Afghanistan, Beloochistan, the Punjab, and the Neighbouring States', Anarkali was depicted as a young man! "Another of these huge ornamental tombs is styled that of Anarkali, a youth, according to tradition, a favourite of one of the emperors, who, instigated by jealousy, having seen him smile at a lady of the imperial zenana, caused him to be put to death, by being built up in a brick cell, and this splendid mausoleum to be raised over him."

Charles Masson, in his 'Narrative of Various Journeys in Balochistan, Afghanistan, and the Punjab,' also recounts a similar story about Anarkali being a youth. "Anarkali (anargul, probably, or the pomegranate blossom) was a very handsome youth, and the favourite attendant of an emperor of Hindustan. When the prince would be in company with the ladies of his harem, the favourite page was not excluded. It happened, that one day the emperor, seated with his females in an apartment lined with looking-glasses, beheld, from the reflected appearance of Anarkali, who stood behind him, that he smiled. The monarch's construction of the intent of the smile proved melancholy to the smiler, who was ordered to be buried alive. Anarkali was, accordingly, placed, in an upright position, at the appointed spot, and was built around with bricks, while an immense superstructure was raised over the sepulcher, the expense of which was defrayed, as tradition relates, by the sale of one of his bangles."

History of Anarkali, the mysterious woman of the Mughal era:

Unfortunately, there is a lack of solid evidence to support the existence of Anarkali, aside from the controversial tomb in Lahore. Neither Akbar's chroniclers nor Jahangir himself provided any information about Anarkali.

If Anarkali was not Akbar's wife or concubine, then why would Akbar oppose Salim from marrying her?An example from Akbarnama illustrates this point, as Abul Fazl mentions Salim's strong attraction to Khas Mahal, the daughter of Zain Khan Koka. Initially, Akbar objected to the marriage as Salim was already married to Sahibi Jamal, Zain Khan's niece. Abul Fazl documented, "The Prince Royal became violently enamoured of the daughter of Zain Khan Koka, and meditated marrying her. His Majesty was displeased at the impropriety, but when he saw that his heart was immoderately affected, he, of necessity, gave his consent."

'Glimpses of Glorious Bharatpur' mention that Akbar and Jahangir used the Rup Bas palaces in Bharatpur as a shooting lodge. Legend has it that Jahangir first laid eyes on Anarkali in the forests at Rup Bas as she passed through with her parents to Agra. However, this story may just be another legend.

The Tomb of Anarkali:

In Lahore, there stands a beautiful tomb believed to be the final resting place of Anarkali, although her name is not mentioned in any of the inscriptions. On the north side of the white marble sarcophagus, beneath the 99 names of Allah, there is an inscription that reads "Majnun Salim Akbar", meaning the enraptured Salim, son of Akbar. Following this inscription is a couplet written by the renowned Persian poet, Saadi Shirazi.

Tā qiyāmat shukr gōyam kardgār-i khwēsh rā
Āh gar man bāz bīnam rōy-i yār-i khwēsh rā

"Could I behold the face of my beloved once again,
I would thank God until the day of resurrection

"I shall thank the Creator Himself till the Day of Judgement
If I may see the countenance of my beloved once again"

The date inscribed on the tombstone, AD 1599, likely refers to the death of Anarkali or the year the tomb was constructed. However, Akbar and Salim were not in Lahore in that year. On the west side, there is another date, 1615, above the words, "In Lahore."

This tomb was first mentioned by William Finch, a European traveler who visited Lahore during the reign of Jahangir in 1611. He records an interesting story claiming the tomb belongs to Anarkali, the mother of Prince Daniel, Akbar's third son, who was buried alive at Akbar's command. However, Abul Fazl states that Daniel's mother died in 1596, which contradicts the date on the sarcophagus. In that case, the lady could not be Daniel's mother.

If William Finch had seen the tomb in 1611, then what was the purpose of inscribing the year 1615 on the tombstone? 

William Finch:

"A fair monument for Daniel Shah his mother, one of the Akbar his wives, with whom it is said Shah Salim had to do (her name was Immaeque Kelle or Pomegranate kernel); upon notice of which the King Akbar caused her to be enclosed quick within a wall in his mahal, where she died, and the king Jahangir, in token of his love, commands a sumptuous tomb to be built of stone in the midst of a foursquare garden richly walled, with a gate and divers rooms over it."

Edward Terry:

"Akbar Shah, the father of the reigning Mughal, had threatened to disinherit him, for some abuse to Anarkali, his most beloved wife, whose name signifies pomegranate kernel; but on his death-bed he restored him to the succession."

"Yet, notwithstanding that long continued custom there, for the eldest son to succeed the father in that great Mughal empire, Akbar Shah, father of the late king, upon high and just displeasure taken against his son, for climbing up unto the bed of Anarkali, his father's most beloved wife, and for other base actions of his, which stirred up his father's high displeasure against him, resolved to break that ancient custom; and therefore often in his lifetime protested, that not he, but his grand-child Sultan Khusrau, whom he always kept in his court, should succeed him in that empire."

Sir Thomas Herbert:

"His ungracious son Salim, holding fast his former impiety, and being at the head of an army of seventy thousand men, upon whom he had conferred many commands, refused to do it, unless he would give a general amnesty to all the conspirators, whose lives and well-beings were as dear to him as his own. This answer incensed his father to a denial, whereupon he dislodges his army, and marched to Allahabad, where he commanded all sorts of coin, of gold, silver, and brass to be stamped with his own name and motto; which, to vex his father, he sent to him, and besides courted his father's wife Anarkali."

R. R. W. Ellis:

"Anarkali, meaning the pomegranate bud, is supposed to have been the pet name given by Akbar to his favourite wife Donna Juliana, of Portuguese extraction, with reference to Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, which has a split pomegranate, its armorial bearing, carved or painted on its public buildings, from the introduction of which fruit into Europe the name is said to be derived.

Jahangir's tomb at Shahdara Bagh erected by his wife Nur Jahan, is situated four miles from Anarkali on the opposite side of the river Ravi; and the fact of the same locality for the interment of both having been selected, tends very much to strengthen the grounds upon which Donna Juliana or Anarkali, the favourite wife of Akbar, is supposed to have been the mother of Jahangir: the scandalous stories about her mentioned by Roe and Herbert, together with the fable by which, after changing her sex, she is said to have been buried alive by the humane and tender-hearted Akbar, having apparently been invented by parties opposed to her son's succession."


The Unknown Lover of Jahangir:

The inscription on the tomb, "Majnun Salim Akbar" indicates that it was commissioned by Jahangir when he was a prince. It is likely that the lady resting inside was his beloved.