William Dalrymple’s ‘Last Mughal’
By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Thursday, November 1, 2008
On Oct. 7, 1858, more than three centuries after Babur rode into Delhi and established the Mughal Empire, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, left Delhi on a bullock cart bound for exile in Rangoon. Delhi’s inhabitants had been slaughtered and raped and the city was in ruins.
That dark day in Indian and British colonial history and the events leading up to it are the subject of William Dalrymple’s award-winning book, “The Last Mughal” (Penguin Viking; 580 pp; $20, 695 Indian rupees). The author has done an excellent job of crafting a spellbinding, well-annotated narrative that captures the charm of old Delhi and tells the story from a neutral perspective.
Called the Mutiny by the British and the First War for Independence by Indians and Pakistanis, Dalrymple provides a context for modern audiences so that they can understand what actually happened and why the consequences were so disastrous for old India. At the book’s heart are stories of the forgotten individuals tragically caught up in one of the bloodiest upheavals in history; the author likens it in both importance and savagery to the siege of Stalingrad during World War II — a fight to the death between two powers, neither of which could retreat.
Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal emperor, and a direct descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur, of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. He was born in 1775, when the British were still a relatively modest and mainly coastal power in India. Dalrymple writes that he was a mystic, a talented poet, and a skilled calligrapher. Although Zafar’s Mughal ancestors had controlled most of India, the aged Zafar was king in name only. Deprived of real political power by the British East India Company, Zafar nevertheless succeeded in creating a court of great brilliance, and he presided over one of the great cultural renaissances of Indian history. Then, in 1857, Zafar’s flourishing capital became the center of an uprising that reduced his beloved Delhi to a battered, empty ruin. When Zafar gave his blessing to a rebellion among East India Company’s Indian troops, it transformed an army mutiny into the largest uprising ever faced by the British Empire.
One May morning in 1857, 300 mutinous sepoys from Meerut rode into Delhi, declaring Zafar their emperor, and “slaughtered every Christian man, woman and child they could find.” Zafar, writes Dalrymple, was no friend of the British, yet he was not a natural insurgent, either. It was with grave misgivings that he found himself the nominal leader of an uprising that he suspected from the start was doomed — a chaotic and leaderless army of unpaid peasant soldiers set against the forces of the world’s greatest military power.
The great Mughal capital, caught in the middle of a remarkable cultural flowering, was turned overnight into a battleground. There were unimaginable casualties, and on both sides the combatants were driven to the limits of physical and mental endurance. Finally, on Sept. 14, 1857, the British assaulted and took the city, sacking the Mughal capital and massacring great swathes of the population. In one muhalla (neighborhood) alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1,400 citizens were cut down. “It was literally murder... The women were all spared, but their screams, on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful... Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old gray-bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that man’s heart I think who can look on with indifference...,” wrote one British officer whom Dalrymple quotes.
Those city dwellers who survived the killing were driven into the countryside to fend for themselves. Delhi was left an empty ruin. Though the royal family had surrendered peacefully, most of the emperor’s 16 sons were tried and hanged in public, while three were gunned down after laying down their arms and ordered to strip naked.
Dalrymple says there were two prominent dailies recording the events. One was the pro-Mughal “Dihli Urdu Akhbar” and the other pro-British “Delhi Gazette”: “Reading the newspapers’ coverage of the events of 1857, there are times when it would be possible to believe that they were recording the news of two completely different cities,” he writes.
According to the book, in the 1850s, not only did the Mughals and the British live in different mental worlds, but almost in different time zones. “The British were the first up. In the cantonments to the north of the Delhi Civil Lines, the bugle sounded at 3.30 a.m., a time when the poetic mushairas of the Mughals were still in full flow in the Red Fort... By the time the sun was beginning to rise over the Yamuna, and the poets, the courtesans and their patrons were all heading back to bed to sleep off their long nights, not only the soldiers but also the British civilians would be up and about and taking their exercise.”
Dalrymple gives the reader a complete and wondrous picture of Delhi: “Among the people of Delhi, the poor woke long before the rich. As the sun rose, and as the British were returning from their morning rides and preparing for breakfast, up near the shrine of Qadam Sharif the first bird catchers were laying their nets and baiting them with millet, to catch the early birds out for their morning feed.”
With the felicity of his language, Dalrymple transports the reader to that bygone era. “From deep inside the city — from the Masjid Kashmiri Katra in the south to Fatehpuri Masjid in the west, to the great Jama Masjid itself and on through to the elegant riverside minarets of the Zinat-ul-Masajid — the last cries of the dawn azaan could now be heard, each call slightly out of time with the one before it, so that the successive cries of spiritual longing and assertion came to the listener on the riverbank in a series of rolling waves.”
Dalrymple also elaborates on the quality, classical education offered by Delhi’s madrasas at that time. “Before long, the older boys would be heading off down the lanes to arrive at the madrasas in time for the beginning of the day’s study: To work on memorizing the Qur’an, or to hear an explication of its mysteries by the maulvi (Arabic teacher), or maybe it would be a day for studying the arts of philosophy, theology and rhetoric.”
Col. William Sleeman, a leading critic of the administration of the Indian courts, had to admit that the madrasa education given in Delhi was something quite remarkable: “Perhaps there are few communities in the world among whom education is more generally diffused than among Muhammadans in India,” he wrote on a visit to the Mughal capital. “He who holds an office worth 20 rupees a month commonly gives his sons an education equal to that of a prime minister. They learn, through the medium of Arabic and Persian languages, what young men in British colleges learn through those of Greek and Latin — that is grammar, rhetoric and logic. After his seven years of study, the young Muhammadan binds his turban upon a head almost as well filled with the things which appertain to these branches of knowledge as the young man raw from Oxford — he will talk as fluently about Socrates and Aristotle, Plato and Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna (aka Sokrat, Aristotalis, Aflatun, Bokrat, Jalinus and Bu Ali Sina), and what is much to his advantage in India, the languages in which he has learnt what he knows are those which he most requires through life.”
Dalrymple describes the savagery of John Nicholson, the general who survived the 1852 Afghan War. He abandoned the practice of blowing Indians from the mouths of cannon in the time-honored Mughal fashion, not out of compassion, but because he believed that the powder so expended might be more usefully employed. His actions quickly became the source of Victorian legend.
Nicholson took no prisoners, loathed India with a passion and regarded only the Afghans as worse (“the most vicious and bloodthirsty race in existence”). These views he had already formed before he was captured and imprisoned in 1842 by the unbeatable Afghans. By the time he was released, only to discover his younger brother’s dead body, with the genitalia cut off and stuffed into his mouth, his feelings about Afghans — and indeed Indians and Muslims of any nationality — were confirmed: He experienced, he said, merely an intense feeling of hatred toward them.
After 1857, Indian Muslims became an almost “subhuman creature” for the British. According to Dalrymple, the depth to which Indian Muslims had sunk in British eyes was visible in an 1868 production called, “The People of India,” which contained photographs of the different castes and tribes of South Asia ranging from Tibetans and Aboriginals to the Doms of Bihar. “The image of ‘the Muhammadan’ is illustrated by a picture of an Aligarh laborer who is given the following caption: ‘His features are peculiarly Muhammadan and exemplify in a strong manner the obstinacy, ignorance and bigotry of his class. It is hardly possible to conceive features more essentially repulsive.’”
Muslims suddenly went out of favor. Power shifted from the Mughal elite, who had dominated the city before the uprising, to the Hindu bankers, who were its most wealthy citizens afterward. “The capital is in the hands of one or two men like Chhunna Mal and Mahesh Das,” wrote Edward Campbell in 1858. “What remained of the court circle and Mughal aristocracy were by and large left penniless.”
In a letter to his friend in January 1862, Ghalib, the famous Urdu poet, wrote: “This is not the Delhi in which you were born... It is a camp. The only Muslims here are artisans or servants of the British authorities. All the rest are Hindus. The surviving male descendants of the deposed king draw allowances of five rupees a month. The female descendants, if old, are bawds; if young, are prostitutes.” What Ghalib did not mention, writes Dalrymple, was that “many of the Delhi begums were set on the path to prostitution by the mass rapes that followed the fall of the city.” It was indeed a very tragic end to a great empire.
Dalrymple concludes the epic book with this masterpiece: “As we have seen in our own time, nothing so easily radicalizes a people against us, or undermines the moderate aspect of Islam as aggressive Western intrusion in the East: The histories of Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. In a curious but very concrete way, the extremists and fundamentalists of both faiths have needed each other to reinforce each other’s prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the lifeblood of the other.”
Earlier this year, the book won the prestigious Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. “The Last Mughal” is one of those books that everybody will be excited to pick up and will wish there was more when they come to the end — not because the tale is incomplete but because it is such a good read.