Not far from my farm outside Delhi lies Zafar Mahal, the
wrecked and ruined summer palace of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah
Zafar. Situated next to the domes of one of the oldest Sufi shrines in
India, the palace is an atmospheric but melancholy place.
The cusped arches of the chambers where Zafar held his famous mushairas or
poetic symposia are slowly collapsing; only pigeons declaim here today. At
the edge of the compound, next to the shrine, lies the empty plot in which
Zafar wished to be buried; a wish that was never fulfilled. At 4 am on the
7th October, 332 years after the first Mughal Babur conquered Delhi, the
last Emperor left the imperial city on a bullock cart. His destination was
Rangoon to which the British banished the old man at the age of 83.
Zafar - the direct descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur, of Akbar and Shah
Jahan- came late to the throne, 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 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.
More remarkably he was a serious mystical poet, and through his patronage
there took place one of the greatest literary renaissances in Indian
history. Himself a ghazal writer of great accomplishment, Zafar court
provided a showcase for the talents of India's greatest lyric poet, Ghalib.
While the British progressively took over more and more of the Mughal
Emperor's power, the court busied itself in obsessive pursuit of the most
perfect Urdu couplet, as literary ambition replaced the political variety.
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, and declared Zafar to be their Emperor. Zafar was no friend of the
British; yet he was not a natural insurgent either. It was with severe
misgivings that he found himself made the nominal leader of an uprising
that he suspected from the start was doomed: a chaotic and officerless army
of unpaid peasant soldiers set against the forces of the world's greatest
The great Mughal capital, caught in the middle of a remarkable cultural
flowering, was turned overnight into a battleground.
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 were driven to the limits of
physical and mental endurance.
Finally, on the 14th September 1857, the British assaulted and took the
city, sacking the Mughal capital and massacring great swathes of the
population. In one muhalla alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1,400 citizens of
Delhi were cut down. "The orders went out to shoot every soul," recorded
Edward Vibart, a 19 year old British officer. "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 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 2002 I returned to Delhi, after nearly a decade in London, to write the
life of Zafar and the story of the last days of the Mughals. In the
National Archives I found a remarkable archive of some 20,000 previously
untranslated Urdu and Persian documents on which the book has been based,
and which have allowed the daily life of the city before and during the
siege to be resurrected in some detail. Cumulatively the stories these
Mutiny Papers contained allowed the Uprising to be seen not in terms of
nationalism, imperialism, orientalism or other such abstractions, but
instead as a tragic human event, 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 disasters, after all,
consist of a multitude of private, domestic and individual tragedies.
Today, West and East again face each other uneasily across a divide that
many see as religious war. Suicide jihadis fight what they see as a
defensive action against their Christian enemies, and again innocent
civilians are slaughtered. As before, Western Evangelical politicians are
apt to cast their opponents and enemies in the role of "incarnate fiends"
and simplistically conflate armed resistance to invasion and occupation
with "pure evil." Again Western countries, blind to the effect their
foreign policies have on the wider world, feel aggrieved and surprised to
be attacked- as they see it- by mindless fanatics.
Yet 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.
There are clear lessons here. For, in the celebrated words of Edmund Burke-
himself a fierce critic of British aggression in India- those who fail to
learn from history are always destined to repeat it.
* * *
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.