Outlook India, July 3, 2006
As we enter the 150th anniversary of 1857, William Dalrymple casts a new look at one of Indian history's most enigmatic episodes, and its aftermath
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 (the) 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-year-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 be 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 him quoting verses of his own composition, writing poetry on a wall with a burned stick."
The prisoner was Bahadur Shah Zafar, 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 weak 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 a relatively insignificant coastal power clinging to three enclaves on the Indian shore. In his lifetime he saw his own dynasty reduced to humiliating insignificance, while the British transformed themselves from servile traders into an aggressively expansionist military force.
Zafar came late to the throne, succeeding his father only in his mid-60s, when it was already impossible to reverse the political decline of the Mughals. But despite this he succeeded in creating around him in Delhi a court of great brilliance. Personally, he was one of the most talented, tolerant and likeable of his dynasty: a skilled calligrapher, a profound writer on Sufism, a discriminating patron of miniature painters and an inspired creator of gardens. Most importantly, he was a very serious mystical poet, who wrote not only in Urdu and Persian but Braj Bhasha and Punjabi, and partly through his patronage there took place arguably the greatest literary renaissance in modern Indian history.Himself a ghazal writer of great charm and accomplishment, Zafar's court provided a showcase for 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 name from the coins, seizing 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 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.
Then on a May morning in 1857, three hundred mutinous sepoys from Meerut rode into Delhi, massacred every Christian 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 modern India'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 were driven to the limits of physical and mental endurance. Finally, on September 14, 1857, the British and their hastily assembled army of Sikh and Pathan levees assaulted and took the city, sacking and looting the Mughal capital, and massacring in cold blood great swathes of the population. In one mohalla alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1,400 Delhiwallahs were cut down. "The orders went out to shoot every soul," recorded Edward Vibart, a newly-orphaned 19-year-old subaltern.
"It was literally murder.... I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such a one as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. 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 grey 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...."
Those city dwellers who survived the killing were driven out 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 sixteen 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 principal members of the house of Timur the Tartar," Captain William Hodson wrote to his sister the following day. "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 peasant's bullock cart. Separated from everything he loved, broken-hearted, the last of the Great Mughals died in exile in Rangoon on Friday, November 7, 1862, aged 87.
It is an extraordinary and tragic story, and one I have dedicated the last three years to researching. Archives containing Zafar's letters and his court records can be found in London, Lahore and even Rangoon. Most of the material, however, still lies in Delhi, the former Mughal capital that Zafar lived in and loved.The writing of the book therefore gave me and my family a welcome excuse to flee the grey skies of Chiswick and move back to this, my favourite of cities, and one that has haunted and obsessed me now for over 20 years.
I first fell in love with Delhi when I arrived, aged 18, on the foggy winter's night of January 16, 1984. The airport was surrounded by shrouded men huddled under shawls, and it was surprisingly cold. I knew nothing at all about India. My childhood had been spent in rural Scotland, on the shores of the Firth of Forth, southeast of Edinburgh, and of my contemporaries at school I was probably the least well-travelled. Perhaps for this reason Delhi—and India in general—had a greater and more overwhelming effect on me than it would have had on other more cosmopolitan teenagers; the city hooked me from the start. I backpacked around for a few months, and hung out in Goa; but I soon found my way back to Delhi.
Above all it was the ruins that fascinated me. However hard the planners tried to create new colonies of gleaming concrete, crumbling tomb towers, old mosques or ancient Islamic colleges would intrude, appearing suddenly on roundabouts or in municipal gardens, curving the road network and obscuring the fairways of the golf course. New Delhi was not new at all. Its broad avenues encompassed a groaning necropolis, a graveyard of dynasties.
In particular Zafar's palace, the Red Fort of the Great Mughals, kept drawing me back. It was here that I first thought of writing a history of the Mughals, an idea that has now expanded into a Quartet, a four-volume history of the Mughals which I expect may take me another two decades to complete.
Yet however often I visited it—and I often used to slip in with a book and spend whole afternoons there, in the shade of some cool pavilion—the Red Fort always made me sad. When the British captured it after 1857, they pulled down the gorgeous harem apartments, and in their place erected a line of the some of the most ugly buildings ever thrown up by the British Empire—a set of barracks that look as if they have been modelled on Wormwood Scrubs.
Even at the time, the destruction was regarded as an act of wanton philistinism. The great Victorian architectural historian James Fergusson was certainly no whining liberal, but recorded his horror at what had happened in his History of Indian Architecture: "Those who carried out this fearful piece of vandalism," he wrote, did not even think "to make a plan of preserving any record of the most splendid palace in the world.... The engineers perceived that by gutting the palace they could provide at no expense a wall round their barrack yard, and one that no drunken soldier could scale without detection, and for this or some other wretched motive of economy the palace was sacrificed". He added: "The only modern act to be compared with this is the destruction of the summer palace in Pekin.That however was an act of red-handed war. This was a deliberate act of unnecessary Vandalism."
Since 1984 I have lived between London and Delhi for over 20 years, and the Indian capital remains then as now my favourite city: above all it is the city's relationship with its past that continues to fascinate me: of the great cities of the world, only Rome and Cairo can even begin to rival Delhi for the sheer volume and density of historic remains.
I am hardly alone in being struck by this: the ruins of Delhi are something visitors have always been amazed by, perhaps especially in the 18th century when the city was at the height of its decay and its mood most melancholic. For miles in every direction, half collapsed and overgrown, robbed and reoccupied, neglected by all, lay the remains of six hundred years of trans-Indian Imperium—the wrecked vestiges of a period when Delhi had been the greatest city between Constantinople and Canton. Hammams and garden palaces, thousand-pillared halls and mighty tomb towers, empty mosques and semi-deserted Sufi shrines—there seemed to be no end to the litter of ages: "It has a feeling about it of 'Is this not the great Babylon?' all ruins and desolation," wrote Emily Eden in her diary. "How can I describe the desolation of Delhi," agreed the poet Sauda. "There is no house from which the jackals' cry cannot be heard. In the once beautiful gardens, the grass grows waist-high around fallen pillars and ruined arches. Not even a lamp of clay now burns where once the chandeliers blazed."
The first East India Company officials who settled in these melancholy ruins at the end of the 18th century were a series of sympathetic and notably eccentric figures who were deeply attracted to the high courtly culture which Delhi still represented. Sir David Ochterlony set the tone. A miniature survives depicting an evening's entertainment at the Delhi Residency of this period. Ochterlony is dressed in full Indian costume and reclines on a carpet, leaning back against a spread of pillows and bolsters. To one side stands a servant with a flywhisk; on the other stands Ochterlony's elaborate hubble-bubble. Above, from the picture rail, portraits of the Resident's ancestors—kilted and plumed colonels from highland regiments, grimacing ladies in stiff white taffeta dresses—peer down disapprovingly at the group of dancing girls swirling below them. Ochterlony, however, looks delighted.
Ochterlony was not, however, alone—either in his Indianised tastes, or the dilemmas this precipitated in his relations with his more orthodox compatriots. When the formidable Lady Maria Nugent, wife of the new British commander-in-chief in India, visited Delhi, she was horrified by what she saw there. It was not just Ochterlony that had 'gone native', she reported, his assistants William Fraser and Edward Gardner were even worse: "I shall now say a few words of Messrs. Gardner and Fraser who are still of our party," she wrote in her journal. "They both wear immense whiskers, and neither will eat beef or pork, being as much Hindoos as Christians, if not more; they are both of them clever and intelligent, but eccentric; and, having come to this country early, they have formed opinions and prejudices, that make them almost natives." Fraser, it turned out, was a distant cousin of my wife, Olivia.
It was this intriguing and wholly unexpected period which dominated the book I wrote about Delhi, City of Djinns, and which later ignited the tinder that led to my last book, White Mughals, about the many British who embraced Indian culture at the end of the 18th century.Now I am at work on what will be my third book inspired by the capital, The Last Mughal, all about the end of Zafar's Delhi, and how the easy relationship of Indian and Briton, so evident during the time of Ochterlony and Fraser, gave way to the hatreds and racism of the high nineteenth century Raj.
Two things in particular seem to have put paid to this formerly easy coexistence: one was the rise of British power, and the other was the rise of Evangelical Christianity. In a few years the British defeated all their Indian rivals and, not unlike the Americans after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the changed balance of power quickly led to an attitude of undisguised imperial arrogance.
The change in the religious tenor of the period also profoundly changed attitudes. The wills written by dying Company servants show that the practice of marrying or cohabiting with Indian wives or bibis all but disappeared. Biographies and memoirs of prominent 18th-century British Indian worthies which mentioned their Indian wives or Anglo-Indian children were re-edited so that the consorts were removed from later editions. No longer were Indians seen as inheritors of a body of sublime and ancient wisdom as 18th century luminaries such as Sir William Jones and Warren Hastings had once believed; but instead merely 'poor benighted heathen', or even 'licentious pagans', who, it was hoped, were eagerly awaiting conversion.
As military and economic realities of British power and territorial ambition closed in, among Zafar and his circle, literary ambition replaced the political variety, and this taste for poetry soon filtered down to the Delhi streets: a compilation of Urdu poets published in 1855, The Garden of Poetry, contains no less than 540 poets who range from the emperor and members of his family to a poor water-seller in Chandni Chowk, a young wrestler, a courtesan and a barber.
The closest focused record of the Red Fort at this period is the court diary which contains a fabulously detailed day-by-day picture of Zafar's life. The Last Emperor appears as a benign old man, daily having olive oil rubbed in his feet to soothe his aches, occasionally rousing himself to visit a garden, go on a hunting expedition or host a mushaira. Afternoons were spent watching his elephants being bathed in the Jumna and evenings "enjoying the moonlight", listening to ghazal singers, or eating fresh mangoes. All the while the aged emperor tries to contain the infidelities of his young concubines, one of whom becomes pregnant by the court musician.
By the early 1850s, however, many British officials were nursing plans to abolish the Mughal court and impose not just British laws and technology on India, but also Christianity. The reaction to this steady crescendo of insensitivity came in 1857 with the Great Mutiny. Of the 1,39,000 sepoys of the Bengal Army—the largest modern army in Asia—all but 7,796 turned against their British masters. In some parts of India, the sepoys were joined by the entire population, as the uprising touched a major popular chord. Atrocities abounded on both sides.
Delhi was the principal centre of the uprising.As mutinous troops poured into the city from all around northern India, it was clear from the outset that the British had to recapture Delhi or lose their Indian empire forever.Equally, the rebels realised that if they lost Delhi they lost everything. Every available British soldier was therefore sent to the Delhi Ridge, and for the four hottest months of the Indian summer, the Mughal capital was bombarded by British artillery with thousands of helpless civilians caught up in the horrors.
The Great Mutiny has usually been told by the Marxist historians of the 1960s and 1970s primarily as a rising against British economic policies. Over the last three years, however, my colleague Mahmoud Farooqi has been translating some of the 20,000 Urdu and Persian documents, many previously unaccessed, that we have found in the Mutiny Papers section of the National Archives of India. This has allowed the Rising in Delhi to be seen from a properly Indian perspective, and not just from the British sources which to date it has usually been viewed.
What was even more exciting was the street-level nature of much of the material. Although the documents were collected by the victorious British from the palace and the army camp, they contained huge quantities of petitions, complaints and requests from the ordinary citizens of Delhi—potters and courtesans, sweetmeat-makers and over-worked water carriers—exactly the sort of people who usually escape the historian's net. The Mutiny Papers overflow with glimpses of real life: the bird-catchers and lime-makers who have had their charpoys stolen by sepoys; the gamblers playing cards in a recently ruined house and ogling the women next door, to the great alarm of the family living there; the sweetmeat-makers who refuse to take their sweets up to the trenches in Qudsia Bagh until they are paid for the last load.
We meet people like Hasni the dancer who uses a British attack on the Idgah to escape from the serai where she is staying with her husband, and run off with her lover. Or Pandit Harichandra who tried to exhort the Hindus of Delhi to leave their shops and join the fight, citing examples from the Mahabharat. Or Hafiz Abdurrahman, caught grilling beef kebabs during a ban on cow slaughter and who comes to beg the mercy of Zafar. Or Chandan, the sister of the courtesan Manglu, who rushed before the emperor as her beautiful sister has been seized and raped by the cavalryman, Rustam Khan: "He has imprisoned her and beats her up and even though she shouts and screams nobody helps her.... Should this state of anarchy and injustice continue, the subjects of the Exalted One will all be destroyed".
Cumulatively, the stories that the collection contains allows the Rising to be seen not in terms of nationalism, imperialism, orientalism or other such abstractions, but instead as a human event of dramatic, tragic and often arbitrary outcomes, and to resurrect the ordinary individuals whose fate it was to be accidentally caught up in one of the great upheavals of history.Public, political and national tragedies, after all, consist of a multitude of private, domestic and individual tragedies.It is through the human stories of the successes, struggles, grief, anguish and despair of these individuals that we can best bridge the great chasm of time and understanding separating us from the remarkably different world of mid-19th century India.
Moreover, what we have found in the Mutiny Papers has remarkable resonance with the political situation today: for as far as the Indian participants were concerned, the Rising was overwhelmingly a war of religion, looked upon as a defensive action against the rapid inroads missionaries and Christianity were making in India, as well as a more generalised fight for freedom from foreign domination. As far as the Indian participants of the Rising articulated their motives, they were above all resisting a move by the Company to impose Christianity and Christian laws on India—something many Evangelical Englishmen were indeed contemplating. As the sepoys told Zafar on May 11, 1857, "we have joined hands to protect our religion and our faith". Later they stood in Chandni Chowk, the main street of Old Delhi, and asked people: "Brothers: are you with those of the faith?" British men who had converted to Islam—and there were a surprising number of those in Delhi—were not hurt; but Indians who had converted to Christianity were cut down immediately. It is highly significant that the Urdu sources usually refer to the British not as angrez (the English) or as goras (Whites) or even firangis but instead almost always as kafirs (infidels) and nasrani (Christians).
Although the great majority of the sepoys were Hindus, in Delhi a flag of jihad was raised in the principal mosque, and many of the insurgents described themselves as mujahideen, ghazis and jihadis. Indeed, by the end of the siege, after a significant proportion of the sepoys had melted away, unpaid, hungry and dispirited, the proportion of jihadis in Delhi grew to be about a quarter of the total fighting force, and included a regiment of "suicide ghazis" from Gwalior who had vowed never to eat again and to fight until they met death—"for those who have come to die have no need for food". One of the causes of unrest, according to one Delhi source, was that "the British had closed the madrasas". These were words which had no resonance to the historians of the 1960s. Now, sadly, in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7 they are words we understand all too well, and words like jihad scream out of the dusty pages of the source manuscripts, demanding attention.
If all this has strong contemporary echoes, in other ways, however, Delhi feels as if it is fast moving away from its Mughal past. In modern Delhi an increasingly wealthy Punjabi middle class now live in an aspirational bubble of fast-rising shopping malls, espresso bars and multiplexes. On every side, rings of new suburbs are springing up, full of call centres, software companies and fancy apartment blocks, all rapidly rising on land that only two years ago was billowing winter wheat.These new neighbourhoods, most of them still half-built and ringed with scaffolding, are invariably given unrealistically enticing names—Beverly Hills, Windsor Court, West End Heights—an indication, perhaps, of where their owners would prefer to be, and where, in time, they may eventually migrate.
This fast emerging middle-class India is a country with its eyes firmly fixed on the coming century. Everywhere there is a profound hope that the country's rapidly rising international status will somehow compensate for a past often perceived as a long succession of invasions and defeats at the hands of foreign powers.Whatever the reason, the result is a tragic neglect of Delhi's magnificent past. Sometimes it seems as if no other great city of the world is less loved, or less cared for—as the tone of the recent Outlook cover story highlighted. Occasionally there is an outcry as the tomb of the poet Zauq is discovered to have disappeared under a municipal urinal or the haveli courtyard house of his rival Ghalib is revealed to have been turned into a coal store; but by and large the losses go unrecorded.
I find it heartbreaking: often when I revisit one of my favourite monuments it has either been overrun by some slum, unsympathetically restored by the asi or, more usually, simply demolished. Ninety-nine per cent of the delicate havelis or Mughal courtyard houses of Old Delhi have been destroyed, and like the city walls, disappeared into memory. According to historian Pavan Verma, the majority of the buildings he recorded in his book Mansions at Dusk only 10 years ago no longer exist. Perhaps there is also a cultural factor here in the neglect of the past: as one conservationist told me recently: "You must understand," he said, "that we Hindus burn our dead." Either way, the loss of Delhi's past is irreplaceable; and future generations will inevitably look back at the conservation failures of the early 21st century with a deep sadness.
Sometimes, on winter afternoon walks, I wander to the lovely, deeply atmospheric ruins of Zafar's fabulous summer palace in Mehrauli, a short distance from my Delhi house, and as I look out from its great gateway, I wonder what Zafar would have made of all this. Looking down over the Sufi shrine that abuts his palace, I suspect he would somehow have managed to make his peace with the fast changing cyber-India of call centres, software parks and back office processing units that are now slowly overpowering the last remnants of his world. After all, realism and acceptance were always qualities Zafar excelled in. For all the tragedy of his life, he was able to see that the world continued to turn, and that however much the dogs might bark, the great caravan of life continues to move on. As he reportedly wrote in a poem (given here in Ahmed Ali's beautiful translation) shortly after his imprisonment, and as Mughal Delhi lay in ruins around him:
Delhi was once a paradise,
Where Love held sway and reigned;
But its charm lies ravished now
And only ruins remain.
No tears were shed when shroudless they
Were laid in common graves;
No prayers were read for the noble dead,
Unmarked remain their graves
But things cannot remain, O Zafar,
Thus, for who can tell?
Through God's great mercy and the Prophet
All may yet be well.