SHAHI Khan aka Sultan Zainul A’bideen was the eighth king of Kashmir from the Shahmiri Dynasty whose rule is reckoned as the golden period of medieval Kashmir. The dynasty, founded by Shah Mir, ruled Kashmir for 222 years beginning AD 1339.
Zainul Abideen ascended the throne in AD 1420 and his rule lasted for 52 years. His image has travelled down to us as that of a just ruler who patronized art and crafts, built cities and bridges, developed irrigation system, promoted education, dispensed justice and was a benevolent ruler under whose shadow religious minorities flourished. Though not a great soldier like his great-grandfather, Shahabuddin, he sent some successful military expeditions to Ladakh and Baltistan. His official Hindu chroniclers, Jonaraja and Srivara, were the main architects of his immortalization as Budshah or the Great King, a popular title he was and is known by even today, 552 years after his demise. Historians characterize his rule by great literary and artistic activity. Whatever arts one sees in Kashmir today owe their existence to him. Mirza Haidar Dughlat (1499–1551) writes:
“In Kashmir one meets with all those arts and crafts which are in most cities uncommon, such as stone polishing, stone-cutting, bottle making, window-cutting (tabdan turash), gold beating etc. In the whole Maver-ul-Nahr [Transoxiana located in lower Central Asia roughly corresponding to modern-day eastern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kazakhstan and southern Kyrgyzstan], except in Samarkand and Bokhara, these are nowhere to be met with, while in Kashmir they are even abundant. That is all due to Zain-ul-Abidin.”
During Zainul A’bideen’s rule, unlike the reign of earlier Shahmiri kings, chronicles in Sanskrit and Persian were composed. He was smitten by Kalhana’s Rajatarangini and had it translated into Persian, thus literally pulling the tome out of the debris of time two centuries after it was composed and forgotten. Jonaraja took the thread of recording Kashmir history from where Kalhana had left it in the 12th century. He was followed by his disciple, Srivara. Other high points of Zainul A’bideen’s rule include construction of several irrigation canals, inscription of his code of laws on copper plates in towns and villages — ala Ashoka, building of new towns, construction of the Mar Canal crisscrossing the Srinagar city and bestowing it a unique character like Venice, construction of the Budshuhun Dumath (Budshah’s Dome), an architectural marvel in the form of the mausoleum of his mother, building of a four-storied palace called Zaina Dab, a mosque and a garden on the Wular lake. The ground floor of the palace was made of stones, the first floor of bricks and the second and third floors of wood. Dughlat writes about another palace known as Rajdan that the King built for himself in the town. The palace, wholly made of wood, had “twelve stories some of which contain fifty rooms, halls and corridors.” The construction of the Jama Masjid, started by Sultan Sikandar, was completed during Zainul A’bideen’s reign.
The King, described by Srivara as ‘handsome with flowing black beard’, is known to have been a man of mild temper, affectionate and rarely provoked by anger. We are also informed that he was a deeply religious man, led a moral life, prayed five times a day and observed Ramdan fasts during which, strangely, he did not take meat. At the time of death, records Srivara, his lips quivered and it appeared that he was praying. Was he reciting the kalima shahdah, the Islamic oath affirming that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad (peace be upon him) is His Messenger?
The King is believed to have enjoyed the blessings of one of the great spiritual giants of his time, Hadrat Sheikh Bahauddin Ganj Baksh of the Kubravi order. An information panel displayed at the mausoleum of the saint recalls that one day Zainul A’bideen visited Ganj Baksh when the latter was in a happy mood. “During the conversation, the Qutubul Aqtaab (Lord of Lords among the Friends of Allah) was pleased with Zainul A’bideen and gave him the tiding of kingship and treasure. Soon thereafter, he became the ruler of Kashmir and Hadrat Sheikh Bahauddin became popular as Ganj Bakhsh, the Giver of Treasure”, reads the panel.
That he was a popular king revered by his subjects is a fact of history but the people’s veneration for Zainul A’bideen seems to have touched the level of fantasy. The popular account presented him as a person with supernatural qualities like being present at two different places at the same time and voluntarily withdrawing his soul from his body. We have an interesting story, based on the local people’s account, narrated by Mughal ruler, Jahangir, about the spiritual prowess of Zainul A’bideen. The account appears to be more based in people’s adoration for the King rather than in reality. Jahangir writes:
“He [Zainul A’bideen] often came to the spot [Zaina Laank] by boat and engaged in worship of the King of Wisdom. They say he spent many “forty days “ in that place. One day a wicked son of his came to that place to kill him, and finding him alone, drew a sword and went in. When his eye fell on the Sultan, however, on account of his venerable dignity and the might of his virtues, he became confused and bewildered and turned away. The Sultan shortly after came out and seated himself in the boat with this same son, and started for the city. On the way he said to his son, “I have forgotten my rosary; get into a canoe and fetch it for me.” The son having gone into the temple sees his father in the same place, and the graceless man with complete shame of face falls at his father’s feet and asks pardon for his fault. They have told many tales of such miracles as this of him, and they say also that he had well practiced the science of khala [withdrawal of the soul from the body]”
Irrespective of whether or not he possessed spiritual powers, Zainul A’bideen is known to have been a man of wisdom who delivered justice using his intellect. Historian Hassan Khuihami quotes an incident where a jealous woman killed her own son, accused her co-wife of the murder and petitioned the King. After his courtiers failed to solve the case, Zainul A’bideen called the accused and told her in private that if she had murdered the child and spoke the truth then he would forgive her otherwise she would be punished. The lady denied having committed the crime and told the King to proceed as he deemed right. Upon this, the King asked her if she was not guilty, she must go home walking naked in front of the people. The lady replied that she would prefer death a hundred times than do such an act. The King then called the petitioner and repeated the same sequence with her. She told the King that if it was proved that her co-wife was not the murderer of her child then she was ready to die. When the King told her that if she was telling the truth she must walk naked in front of the people she readily agreed and began to undress. The King admonished her, stopped her from putting off her clothes and declared that the petitioner herself was the murderer of her child. The woman was thrashed following which she admitted to the crime.
For his ‘liberal religious policy and winning over minorities’, Zainul A’bideen is likened to Mughal ruler, Akbar. Apart from the rule of both lasting for half a century each, Akbar seems to have followed Zainul A’bideen in so far as his disposition towards his Hindu subjects was concerned. About 150 years before Akbar followed suit, Zainul A’bideen had appointed Hindus on high administrative positions and married Hindu women. Two of his queens were daughters of a Hindu ruler of Jammu. He also married daughter of Sunder Sena, the ruler of Rajouri. He abolished jazia and banned cow slaughter and reversed his father, Sikandar’s alleged oppressive policies towards the Hindus. In winning the hearts of his Hindu subjects he even crossed the redlines of his faith and actively participated in their religious ceremonies and visited temples. “[W]hen the monks of Sri Jain monastery celebrated the worship of vessels, he took part in it, and fed the monks.” He made Vythtruvah (birthday of River Jhelum) an officially celebrated annual festival whose roots lay in the local Hindu belief that the river was the incarnation of Patvati, consort of Hindu god, Shiva. The King would personally take part in the celebrations. On one such occasion, he embarked on a boat and went to see the capital. Women made offerings to the Jhelum and the King spent with pleasure the whole night listening to music and witnessing the worship performed by the citizens. He “forbade the killing of fish in certain tanks and meat eating on some days.” He also participated in Hindu pilgrimages. During one such pilgrimage to the famous Vijeshwara Temple in Bijbehara, he was accompanied by Srivara who also writes that during a pilgrimage to Harmukta, the King sighted the Foot of Vishnu. He lifted the ban imposed by his father on suttee, Hindu ritual of burning alive of a widow on the pyre of her dead husband. He is believed to have issued an order allowing those who had allegedly embraced Islam under pressure to return to their faith if they so wished.
In deference to his benevolent disposition towards his Hindu subjects, Jonaraja deifies him and calls him Narayana incarnate, like other Sanskrit writers of the time who raised him to the status of God. Muhibul Hassan, whose Kashmir Under the Sultans is a scholarly commentary on the Shahmiri rule, however, holds the view that Jonaraja had exaggerated the virtues of his master (Zainul A’bideen) and glossed over his failings.” He also accuses Srivara of exalting his virtues and minimizing his failings “to free myself from my endless obligations to him.” The anonymous author of Baharistan-i-Shahi, however, is unforgiving for the King for “reviving idolatry and heresy” which, he recalls, had been stamped out during his father, Sikandar’s reign. “The customs and practices of the polytheists and the heretics received fresh impetus and were given renewed currency,” he laments.
An incident of Zainul A’bideen’s participation in merry-making event, is recorded in history according to which his foster son and a great spiritual person, Muhammad Amin Awaisi popularly known as Woosi Sahib, was so much annoyed on this ‘un-Islamic’ event that he jumped into the Wular Lake and was gone. The story has it that on the completion of Zaina Laank, an island built by him on the lake, the King organised a show of dance and music there which angered Woosi Sahib so much that he jumped into the Wular and disappeared. A frantic rescue operation was conducted and professional divers were pressed into service for the whole night and the following day to bring out the ascetic but without any success. The merry-making function turned into an occasion of grief and despair. Dejected and heart-broken, the King decided to return to Srinagar and, along with his companions, embarked on a boat in a state of bereavement. During his upstream journey, to his utter disbelief, he spotted Woosi Sahab at Asham, a village upstream of Wular, washing his khirqah (dress of a religious mendicant) on the banks of the Jhelum. After much persuasion and having expressed regret, the King made him to embark on the boat.
An information panel at the shrine of Sheikh Bahauddin Ganj Baksh narrating, among other things, how Zainul A’bideen got kingship of Kashmir
As can be obtained from historical accounts, Zainul A’bideen’s person appears to be a combination of contradictions. He was a strict observant of fundamentals of Islam yet indulged in rituals forbidden by his religion; offered five times namaz and drank wine also; was God-fearing and compassionate and yet refused to return the throne to his brother, Ali Shah, who bestowed upon him the title of Zaiul A’bideed or the Adornment of the Devout, entrusted the kingdom to him and himself proceeded on a pilgrimage to Makkah but returned midway.
Although his admirers call his rule as the Golden Period of Kashmir, Zainul A’bideen had his share of troubles and sorrows. The last 25 years of his rule were disturbed by his rebellious sons, Adam, Haji and Bahram. Dissentions among them and their disloyalty towards him and death, one after another, of his wife and loyal advisors who were replaced by opportunists and unprincipled men, added to his sorrows and anxiety. He was taken over by frustration and became weak, both physically and mentally. He suffered from loss of memory, became indifferent towards everything and developed persecution mania. Given his behaviour, he seemed to have been inflicted by schizophrenia as he refused to touch his food suspecting it to be poisoned and imagining that his ministers were out to overthrow him. He even stopped signing official papers and did not respond to queries on public affairs and, when he did, spoke words without meaning. He died in AD 1470 at the age of 69 and was buried beside his father, Sultan Sikandar, within the premises of the mausoleum of his mother. His demise saw the downfall of the Shahmiri rule. A few of his weak successors held power only in name as the real power was usurped by the nobles. Ultimately, the Chaks overthrew the Shahmirs and assumed power.
 Hassan, Muhibul, Kashmir Under the Sultans, p 92.
 Dughlat, Mirza Haidar, Tarikh-i-Rashidi, (Trns. Trns. Elias & Ross Trns. Elias & Ross), p 434.
 Ibid., p 429.
 Jahangir, Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, (Trns. Rogers) vol I, p 90–91.
 Khuihami, Hassan, Tarikh, Vol. II, p 190–91.
 Srivara quoted by Muhibul Hassan, p 87.
 Rajatarangini of Jonaraja, (Dutt), p. 124–125.
 Kilam, A History of Kashmiri Pandits, p 58.
 Jainatarangini, verses 95–106, Dutt, p 146–48.
 Koul, Jonaraja’s Rajatarangini, p 42 and 112.
 Hassan, Muhibul, Kashmir Under the Sultans, p 2
 Ibid., p 3.
 Baharistan-i-Shahi, Trans. Kashi Nath Pandita, ikashmir.net/baharistan/
 Shamas-ud-Din Ahmad, Shah-e-Hamdan — Hayat aur Karnamay, p. 816.
 Hassan, Muhibul, Kashmir Under the Sultans, p 81.
 Ibid., p 79.
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