"He was a dim, wandering-eyed, dreamy old man with a feeble hanging nether lip and toothless gums," the Times correspondent William Russell wrote of Bahadur Shah Zafar in 1858. The last emperor of the Mughals, a direct but all-too-remote descendant of Genghis Khan.
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.
British residents ride behind emperor Akbar II and his sons in 1815
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...."
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. "I confess I did enjoy the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches," wrote Captain William Hodson.
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.
The tide turned in favour of the British forces after they stormed Kashmiri Gate, seen here after peace returned
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.
This Samuel Bourne picture shows a ravaged Lucknow Residency banquet hall after 1857
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.
British troops sinking a shaft, and lying in wait for the rebels mining their way into the Residency
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.
Rearview of the Lucknow Residency—shots fired by the rebels from this side killed and wounded many British troops sheltering inside
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.
Lucknow Residency where the British troops were holed up
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.