The Last Mughal


The Last Mughal is yet another laboriously researched and wonderfully written book by William Dalrymple. William is an Indophile, who previously authored two excellent books: The City of Djinns and White Mughals. He is fascinated by the old city Delhi and all his three books reveal quite intriguing, obscure and forgotten details about the city that served as the capital for two of the biggest empires that ruled India – the Mughals and the British. The city was also the primary center of the Great Mutiny of 1857.

What’s most interesting to me in this book is the first-person accounts of what happened on the streets of Delhi ere, during and after the Uprising. Utter chaos took over the city as the mutineers started looting around (the members of the wealthy class being their first target). As the situation grew worse after people realized Zafar’s inability to stop the havoc, many seized this opportunity to settle old scores and satiate their lust. After Delhi fell under British attack, hell broke loose when the revengeful army officers went on a killing rampage. “The punishment for mutiny is death.” was their motto, but they didn’t even spare the lives of innocent civilians who were mere observers (albeit most wished for british defeat). During the Uprising, the mutineers had violently massacred numerous British officials and civil servants not sparing the lives of their wives and children. This created a strong desire for vengeance among the victorious army officials. The army rummaged and plundered houses and havelis in search of any valuables they could find. The violence rumbled on for weeks and the city was deserted after many were killed and those who were alive fled the city. Delhi became a necropolis.

William Dalrymple intensively researched previously undiscovered sources like the Mutiny Papers, the National Archives of India, Delhi Commissioner’s Office Archives, Delhi’s principal newspapers of that time (Dilhi Urdu Akhbar, Siraj ul-Akhbar, Delhi Gazette &c), National Archives of Rangoon (where Zafar spent his final days as a British State Prisoner). We read letters written by British officials to their wives and siblings that often oscillate between emotional outbursts (on seeing poor civilians being killed inhumanly) and brave proclamations (for being able to take revenge for the innocent British families that were butchered by mutineers). There are excerpts from diaries written by Englishwomen, army officers as well as celebrated Delhi personalities like Ghalib (the famous poet who was a member of Zafar’s durbar). All together, this creates a throbbing picture of the indescribable cruelties that took place in Delhi. The letters, editorials from newspapers, government documents – all are very subjective accounts, but you have to appreciate William Dalrymple who tries to be as objective as possible and gives us information from both sides: British and Indian, both of which played the roles of ‘the cruel’ and ‘the victims’.

Bahadur Shah (II) Zafar’s precarious and helpless position at the dawn of the Mutiny and also after their defeat is explored in this book as never before. By 1857, the Mughal dynasty was on a steep decline and the British Company, of whom Zafar himself was a pensioner, was already on the rise. When the mutineer army from Meerut came to Zafar to get his blessing, the enfeebled 82 year old king had no other option but to give in to their rather forceful demands and hesitantly declare support for the Uprising. This finally led to his imprisonment after Delhi fell to British army, and the British court charged Zafar with “rebellion, treason and murder” in a trial that lasted more than 8 months. The primary contributor to the defeat of mutineers seem to be the lack of central authority, which Zafar was supposed to be providing. But the octogenarian, who was a sufi poet by heart, could do very little except expressing his dismay at the looting of the city residents by mutineers and their arrogant disrespectful behavior to the emperor himself. “The king was like the king on the chessboard after checkmate.” Above is a photograph (perhaps the only one) of the Last Mughal taken after the his trial in 1858.

Bahadur Shah II Zafar, the last Mughal King, the descendent of the great world-conquerers Chengiz Khan and Timur, died quietly without any fuss, as a British State Prisoner in Rangoon in 1862. A week after his death the British Commissioner Captain Davis wrote to London to report what has passed, adding:

The death of the ex-King may be said to have had no effect on the Mahomedan part of the populace of Rangoon, except perhaps for a few fanatics who watch and pray for the final triumph of Islam. A bamboo fence surrounds the grave for some considerable distance, and by the time the fence is worn out, the grass will again have properly covered the spot, and no vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Moghuls rests.

Few factoids from the book:

  • The mutineers were called “Pandees” in Colonial British slang. The name derived from, as you might have guessed, Mangal Pandey who was the first sepoy to rise against the Company. And “Tommies” was a generic slang for a british soldier at that time. 
  • Although they are commonly believed to be written by Zafar, it’s unclear if he really penned the fantastic and rather melancholic ghazals (1) “Na Kisi Ki Aankh Ka Noor Hoon” and (2) “Lagta Naheen Hai Dil Mera” (both wonderfully sung by Mohammed Rafi in movie Lal Qila). 
  • Zafar, the pen-name of Bahadur Shah II, means “Victory”, which is quite ironic since he is widely perceived as a “loser” and associated with one of the greatest defeats in Indian subcontinent.
  • Ghalib was among the few Muslim survivors left in the city. In his muhalla, Ballimaran, also lived some senior courtiers of the British loyalist Maharaja of Patiala, who sent troops and supplies to British army during the Siege. Because of this, the Britishers did not raid Ballimaran and Ghalib escaped the massacre.
  • The Sikhs were keen recruits in the British army. They fought two vicious wars with the British but this was probably outweighed by the hatred on the Mughals who martyred two of their greatest gurus – Guru Arjan Dev and Guru Tegh Bahadur.

3 responses to “The Last Mughal

  1. Pingback: I recommend « A Blank Slate

  2. Pingback: Musht-e-Gubaar « A Blank Slate

  3. Pingback: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India « A Blank Slate

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