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Dec 18, 2006, 03.54 PM IST
Mutiny, battle, decadence, royalty - these ingredients are bound to keep you hooked late into the night. If you want an appetiser, here's an excerpt from the book 'The Last Mughal'...
Author, The Last Mughal, William Dalrymple told CNBC-TV18. "By the time, Zafar came to the throne, he did not even have Palam. He had only the walls of the Red fort, an empty treasury and huge debts. He certainly was not a hero and yet by his own charisma, personality and talents, he turned his court into one of the most remarkable cultural powerhouses in India."
Mutiny, battle, decadence, royalty - these ingredients are bound to keep you hooked late into the night. If you want an appetiser, here's an excerpt from the book:
An excerpt from The Last Mughal
"In June 1858 the Times correspondent, William Howard Russell- a man now famous as the father of war journalism- arrived in the ruins of Delhi, recently recaptured by the British from the rebels after one of the bloodiest sieges in Indian history.
Skeletons still littered the streets, and the domes and minars of the city were riddled with shell holes; but the walls of the Red Fort, the great palace of the Mughals, still looked magnificent: “I have seldom seen a nobler mural aspect,” wrote Russell in his diary, “and the great space of bright red walls put me in mind of finest part of Windsor Castle.” Russell’s ultimate destination was, however, rather less imposing. Along a dark dingy back passage of the Fort, Russell was led to the cell of a frail 83 old man who was accused by the British of being one of the masterminds of the Great Rising, or Mutiny, of 1857, the most serious armed act of resistance to Western imperialism ever to mounted anywhere in the world:
“He was a dim, wandering eyed, dreamy old man with a feeble hanging nether lip and toothless gums,” wrote a surprised Russell. “Not a word came from his lips; in silence he sat day and night with his eyes cast on the ground, and as though utterly oblivious of the conditions in which he was placed… His eyes had the dull, filmy look of very old age… Some heard his quoting verses of his own composition, writing poetry on a wall with a burned stick.”
The prisoner was Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal Emperor, direct descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamburlane, of Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan. As Russell himself observed: “He was called ungrateful for rising against his benefactors. He was no doubt a week and cruel old man; but to talk of ingratitude on the part of one who saw that all the dominions of his ancestors had been gradually taken from him until he was left with an empty title, and more empty exchequer, and a palace full of penniless princesses, is perfectly preposterous.”
Zafar was born in 1775, when the British were still an insignificant coastal power clinging to three small enclaves on the Indian shore. In his lifetime he saw his own dynasty reduced to humiliating insignificance, while the British transformed themselves from humble traders into the most powerful military force India had ever seen. Zafar came late to the thone, succeeding his father only in his mid Sixties, when it was already impossible to reverse the political decline of the Mughals. But despite this he succeeded in creating around him a court of great brilliance. Personally, he was one of the most talented, tolerant and likeable of his dynasty, and through his patronage there took place the greatest literary renaissance in modern Indian history. Himself a mystic, poet and calligrapher of great charm and accomplishment, Zafar nourished the talents of India’s greatest love poet, Ghalib, and his rival Zauq- the Mughal poet laureate, and the Salieri to Ghalib’s Mozart.
While the British progressively took over more and more of the Emperor’s power, removing his head from the coins, seizing complete control even of the city of Delhi itself, and finally laying plans to remove the Mughals altogether from the Red Fort, the court busied itself in obsessive pursuit of the most moving love lyric, the most cleverly turned ghazal, the most perfect Urdu couplet. As the political sky darkened, the court was lost in a last idyll of pleasure gardens, courtesans and mushairas, or poetic symposia.
Then on a May morning in 1857, three hundred mutinous sepoys from Meerut rode into Delhi, massacred every British man, woman and child they could find in the city, and declared Zafar to be their leader and Emperor. No friend of the British, Zafar was powerless to resist being made the leader of an uprising he knew from the start was doomed: a chaotic and officerless army of unpaid peasant soldiers set against the forces of the world’s greatest contemporary military power. No foreign army was in a position to intervene to support the rebels, and they had little ammunition and few supplies.
The Siege of Delhi was the Raj’s Stalingrad: a fight to the death between two powers, neither of whom could retreat. There were unimaginable casualties, and on both sides the combatants driven to the limits of physical and mental endurance. Finally, on the 14th September 1857, the British attacked and took the city, sacking and looting the Mughal capital. The entire population who had survived the massacre which followed were driven out into the countryside to fend for themselves. Delhi was left an empty ruin.
Though the royal family had surrendered peacefully, many of the Emperor’s sons were tried and hung, while three were shot in cold blood, having first freely given up their arms, then been told to strip naked: “In 24 hours I disposed of the principle members of the house of Timur the Tartar,” Captain William Hodson wrote to his sister. “I am not cruel, but I confess I did enjoy the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches.” Zafar himself was put on trial in the ruins of his old palace, and sentenced to transportation. He left his beloved Delhi on a peasants’ bullock cart. Separated from everything he loved, broken hearted, the last of the Great Mughals died in exile in Rangoon on Friday 7th November 1862, aged 87."
William Dalrymple’s Delhi and his favourites
Favourite Delhi/Mughal films:
Excerpt and list of favourites sourced from www.williamdalrymple.com
Tags: Excerpt of The Last Mughal, book, write, written by William Dalrymple, William Dalrymple, author, Bahadur Shah Zafar, emperor, last Mughal emperor, Sepoy Mutiny 1857, The Uprising
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