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The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 Paperback – 2 Apr 2007

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Product details

  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; New edition edition (2 April 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0747587264
  • ISBN-13: 978-0747587262
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 3.8 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (101 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 570,180 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He wrote the highly acclaimed bestseller In Xanadu when he was twenty-two. City of Djinns won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award. The Age of Kali won the French Prix D'Astrolabe and White Mughals won the Wolfson Prize for History 2003 and the Scottish Book of the Year Prize. The Last Mughal was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. His most recent book, Nine Lives, was published in 2009 to huge acclaim. He lives with his wife and three children on a farm outside Dehli.

(Photo credit: Karoki Lewis)

Product Description


'Dalrymple is an outstandingly gifted travel writer and historian who excels himself in his latest work' Max Hastings, Sunday Times 'Vivid ... unmatched ... revolutionary ... humane ... No previous book has delved so deeply into the history of Delhi in those days, nor painted such a vivid portrait of the late Mughal court' Sunday Telegraph 'Brims with life, colour and complexity ... outstanding ... one of the best history books of the year' Evening Standard 'Magnificent ... shames the simplistic efforts of previous writers' Spectator

From the Author

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
military power.

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.

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

97 of 101 people found the following review helpful By Liz L on 12 Nov. 2006
Format: Hardcover
This is an astounding read; William Dalrymple at his finest and strongest. Drawing upon a wealth of previously unpublished material from the Indian National Archive, Dalrymple presents the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath with unprecedented breadth. The subject has been deeply researched and there are extensive, informative, footnotes throughout. For students of the period this book should be mandatory reading. But part of its brilliance is that this book is, for the general reader, a highly accessible read - the narrative flows and moves at a gripping pace. The story is a tribute to the civilians of Delhi, caught like proverbial grains of wheat between the giant millstones of the opposing factions. Whilst it relates to events of 150 years ago powerful contemporary messages are reinforced. That racial and religious intolerance and bigotry serve to spawn extremism and "self righteous hysteria".
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46 of 48 people found the following review helpful By S. Chudha on 27 Oct. 2006
Format: Hardcover
Written with erudition and a flowing style, William Dalrymple conjures up the spectacle of Mughal Delhi in its twilight superbly.

William Dalrymple's painstaking research brings to a wider view, documents and first-hand accounts from Indian and Pakistani sources (including the last Emperor's) which have not been acknowledged by Western historians before. The resulting story captures the grand sweep of events spiced with vignettes about each of the key personalities and testaments to their characters - quite apart from being an enthralling read it could convert into a great film.

The Last Mughal cannot be recommended too highly - it's a superb piece of a scholarship from a writer who has a strong feeling for for India's past and present. It tells of the events which created modern India and neatly dovetails these with the pressures it faces today.

A superb book from a superb writer.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Neil Kernohan on 25 Feb. 2011
Format: Paperback
This is a wonderfully researched and elegantly written history of the 1857 Indian mutiny using many historical Indian sources not previously analysed before, at least outside India. What emerges is a very graphic account of the dilemmas facing the last Mughal, Bahadur Zafar Shah II; whether or not to support the Seepoy rebellion and the ill informed decisions he made. Basically, he was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Also, the Byzantine intrigues inside the Mughal's court and the demise of a once rich and vibrant civilisation, where Muslim and Hindu co-existed in relative harmony, are vividly brought to life by the author. However, the theme of the book that stands out most is the unbridled cruelty of the British Army in the way they put down the rebellion and practically wrecked Delhi's old city. It's a sobering examination of what human beings can sink to when they believe moral right is on their side. This gives the book some contemporary relevance.
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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Prabal Ray on 16 Oct. 2012
Format: Paperback
Dalrymple has written an excellent account of the last days of the Moghul dynasty and the failed Indian Revolutionary War of 1857. The once great Moghul Empire of India had been slowly dying over a period of 150 years or so, plagued first of all by rebellious subjects such as the Marathas in the west and the Sikhs in the North who had never truly accepted the rule of the Moghuls from Delhi, and then in later years by the colonial trading empires of the French and British. By the mid-nineteenth century, almost the whole of India was either ruled directly by the British East India company or by local rulers who were subject to British authority. The last Moghul Emperor, Bahadur Shah (referred to as "Zafar" by Dalrymple) was no more than a ceremonial ruler whose remit barely extended beyond the immediate neighbourhood of his magnificent palace, the Red Fort in Delhi. Dalrymple gives a wonderful description of this dying, exotic society - full of artists, poets (Zafar himself was an accomplished Urdu poet and teacher), a society which had bewitched the first generations of British settlers, many of whom had "gone native" in a spectacular fashion - adopting Moghul dress and customs, taking multiple Indian women as wives, and fathering numerous Anglo-Indian children. Suddenly into this exotic idyll was tossed the rebellion of 1857. The author describes in vivid detail the sudden arrival in Delhi of thousands of mutinous Indian soldiers or sepoys, their brutal massacre of of any Europeans in the city (including men, women and children) and their proclamation of the restoration of the old Moghul Empire.Read more ›
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By D. Thomas on 13 May 2007
Format: Paperback
Dealing with the final destruction of the Mughal dynasty, William Dalrymple's second work to focus on the Mughals continues the themes of the first through a history of the Indian Uprising in Delhi.

In 'White Mughals', we saw the hardening attitude of the British towards Indian and Mughal culture at the turn of the C18th. Fifty years later, again using much by way of new material, we witness wholesale violence and massacre. Delhi is all but destroyed by a British retribution unleashed as part of the response to the Indian Uprising.

The narrative of the Uprising focuses on the fates of the British characters populating the Delhi cantonments and Civil Lines; the hesitant response of Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal Emperor; the protracted fighting that prefigured the final fall of Delhi to the British; the different groups within the Mughal camp, including the Jihadis; and the settling of scores between the victors and the vanquished, both in blood and in the trial and final banishment of Zafar.

Thrust centre stage by those leading the Uprising, the weakness of Zafar's position was revealed by ensuing events and ended in the final demise of his dynsasty.

As before, Dalrymple's strong narrative style allows space for a wealth of digression into the cultural life of the time, focussing on both the life of the late Mughal court and the deeply unsettling religious justifications of the christian soldiers who led the British response to the Uprising.

Overall, a strong, balanced and original book - perhaps sparser in tone than White Mughals, in keeping with the harder world with which it deals -of great interest in itself, and very relevant today.
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