Despite the presence of historical figures like the Mughal Emperor Akbar and his son, the tragic love story of Salim and Anarkali is equally popular in India as the other legendary folklores like Soni-Mahiwal, Heer-Ranjha or Laila-Majnun. However, there is no documentary evidence to find the fact and truth behind the story and although history has documented the life and rule of Salim, who later came to be known as Emperor Jahangir, there is not much about Anarkali and her historical antecedents are difficult to establish with any certainty.
The first mention of Anarkali was found in the travelogue of William Finch, a British tourist and indigo trader, who visited Lahore between 1608 and 1611. According to his accounts, Anarkali was one of the concubines of Emperor Akbar and the mother of one of his sons. But Prince Salim fell for her beauty and they became engaged in a secretive sexual relationship. However, as all great love stories are associated with a tragic ending, the love affair of Salim and Anarkali did blossom, only to be ended tragically. When Akbar suspected the illicit liaison, he ordered her to be enclosed within a wall of his palace, where she died.
Popular lore says that Emperor Akbar sent his son Salim, the crown prince of the Mughal Empire, to the army for 14 years to teach him some discipline and to prepare him for his future reign, as he grew up surrounded by eccentric people and was not interested about the affairs of the empire and in the administration activity. When Salim returned to the palace in Lahore after the end of the training period of 14 years, Akbar arranged a grand celebration called Mujra in honour of the crown prince of the Mughal Empire.
During the celebration, the juvenile prince met the charming dancer Nadira Begum or Sharif-Un-Nissa, a beautiful courtesan at the royal court, famed for her dancing skills and nicknamed Anarkali or pomegranate blossom, for her mesmerizing beauty. Salim could never resist the temptation of being with a woman and as soon as his eyes met the eyes of the charming Anarkali for the first time, he desperately fell in love with her. He was smitten by the seducing charms of Anarkali, a courtesan in his father’s harem and wanted to have her, despite their social status.
However, Anarkali tried her best to stop his advancement and stay away from him, as she knew that romancing with a dancing girl, not of noble birth, would be judged by the royal court as below the dignity of a prince and it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the prince to convince his family to accept a courtesan, considered to be low born, as his wife. Above all, the prince's father, Mughal Emperor Akbar, will never accept her as a member of the royal family.
But as love knows no rule, Anarkali soon failed to restrict her emotions any longer, fell deeply in love with Salim and started to reciprocate his love, following which they become engaged in a forbidden affair, disregarding the red eyes of the Emperor.
As an intense love cannot be hidden for a long time, Akbar soon came to know about the romantic affair of his son with Anarkali, one of the courtesans of his harem and became furious with both of them. Possible relationship with a commoner, that too with a courtesan, was beyond his wildest nightmare. At first, he instructed Salim to stay away from the dancing girl and also tried to pressurise Anarkali and devised all sorts of tactics to make her fall in the eyes of his son. But as Salim stubbornly decided to maintain his stand and continue his relationship with his lady love, Akbar arranged to send her away from Salim and kept her in a secret place. Infuriated by the action of his father, Salim declared war against him, the Mughal Emperor Akbar, only to be defeated by the mighty Mughal army and was sentenced to death for violating the royal order and the audacity to declare war against him.
When Anarkali came to know that Salim was going to lose his life, only due to his love for her, she could not restrain herself anymore and leaving the safe custody of her secret room, she ran madly to the royal court to pray to the Emperor for the life of her lover at any cost. There, before the full court, she implored the emperor to take back his word and allow the prince to live longer and in return, she renounced her love for him forever, to save her beloved from his imminent death. Akbar forgave his son, but to keep him away from the dancing girl forever, ordered to entomb Anarkali alive in a brick wall right in front of her lover's eyes. However, it was maintained by many that Anarkali did not die. As instructed by Akbar, the tomb was constructed on the opening of a secret tunnel and she escaped through that tunnel, never to return again, to keep her promise.
Thus ended the tragic love story of Salim and Anarkali, but Salim lived on even after the end of the story to become Emperor Jahangir. Although historical antecedents about Anarkali are difficult to establish with any certainty, there is a tomb in Lahore, known as Anarkali’s Tomb, supposedly built by Jahangir for his lost love.