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on 12 November 2006
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 Drawing upon a wealth of previously unpublished material from the Indian National Archive, Dalrymple presents the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath with unprecedented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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on 27 October 2006
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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on 16 October 2012
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. He then describes the inevitable British counterattack, the siege of Delhi and the terrible British vengeance - the virtual annihilation of the city, the destruction of much of its architecture, the almost complete elimination of that old courtly Moghul society. The author has done a great deal of research in the old Delhi archives, unearthing many first hand accounts , particularly of the British destruction of the city - possibly the darkest episode in the history of the British army. It certainly makes one appreciate such developments as the Geneva convention. I have one criticism and that is the author's determination to place the blame for what happened firmly on the shoulders of British evangelical Christianity. The revolt was unquestionably the result of the bullet issue and the subsequent heavy handed response to the initial complaints and unrest. The high-handed and arrogant attitudes of the British in gradually taking over the running of this great and proud nation through the cuckoos nest antics of the East India company would also have contributed. The lack of the virtues of forgiveness and compassion in many of the nominally Christian British military leaders is also startling. But to blame a few enthusiastic missionaries for the whole affair seems to smack more of Dalrymple's modern liberal prejudices than of what was most people's perception at the time. I think he has also over-played his nostalgia for the wonders of the Moghul court and society. There was toleration of different religions and customs, but this tolerance also extended to practices such as the suttee, and for the less well off, no doubt, as in most societies of the time, life was nasty, brutish and short.
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on 21 June 2007
I love India, and I love William Dalrymple. I have twice read 'City of Djinns' and 'The Age of Kali', and now have 'The Last Mughal' on my book shelf. I only wish that such gripping history books had been available when I was at school.

Seemingly without effort, Dalrymple brings to life a huge and colourful cast of real-life characters, both British and Indian. His research and his bibliography are breath-taking, and in quoting from an abundance of both private letters and official papers of the day, he conveys such a clear picture of the individuals concerned, and of their mind-set, their hopes, their aspirations, that one almost feels one has met many of them.

The author pulls no punches, and any open-minded Briton of Anglo or Celtic origin is more or less bound to squirm at many of the things he has to say about the events which culminated in the Indian Uprising, referred to in most of our history books as the Indian Mutiny. Many of us already knew about such episodes, of course, but to read them in such minute detail is quite painful. It's like African slavery and Irish dispossession and the Opium Wars - I was not there, I do not condone any of the errors made by successive British governments, and I personally have nothing to be ashamed of ; but the genetic conscience still twinges a bit.

Dalrymple is scrupulously even-handed, and while he takes a long, cool look at the British rôle in the lead-up to the Uprising, he makes no attempt at idealising or exculpating the Indians. The dubious political agendas of some of the Indian 'side' are honestly chronicled. So are the sickening atrocities - many of them involving the looting and rape and slaughter of their own people - committed by the sepoys and their ilk. This was war, these were soldiers, and this is what happens when men of any nationality run riot through the streets of a wealthy city ; but mindless butchery it was, and Dalrymple acknowledges it as such.

Numerous scenarios are knee-deep in gore, and this is my only criticism. After a while I began to find some of the descriptions a bit hard-going : many of them were essential to the development of the saga, but I did wonder how many of the others could have been omitted without detriment to the whole. Yet what made me cringe, far more than the harrowing descriptions of all that violence, was the sheer arrogance of the British, resounding as it does through the letters and dispatches reproduced on these pages.

Be that as it may, the step-by-step development of events is gripping, and for me it held some (somewhat confusing) surprises. For even though I disapprove of many of the actions of our long-dead compatriots, there are instances of mind-boggling personal courage on the part of some individuals, both men and women.

My post-war generation was brought up to believe that we were unquestionably the masters of this planet. The British were the benevolent rulers of the most widespread empire the world has ever seen. Vast tracts of the global map on my classroom wall were pink, signifying that they belonged to 'us'. 'We' could do no wrong - and the natives loved us. How many years has it taken us to face the fact that it ain't necessarily so? 'The Last Mughal' will certainly clarify matters for anyone who still clings to the old way of thinking.

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on 13 May 2007
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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on 22 March 2007
I have just finished this book, I enjoyed every page thoroughly. Do not be put off by the size of this book, I finished it too soon. William Dalrymple has a tremendous knowledge of his subject and a real sympathy for the people of Delhi. This history is highly scolarly yet a real page turner, there is humour as well as horror. If you liked this apart from Dalrymple's other books 'The Moghul Throne' by Abraham Eraly is a great book too (another reviewer has made this recommendation, I second it).
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on 8 February 2007
What a book! I couldn't put it down. An excellent story, true as well, about the time of the last emperor of one of the greatest empire in Indian history. It also exposes the injustice carried out by both the mutineers of Indian army at that time and the East India Company, or army of the British Empire at that time. The author even compares how unresolved feelings then lead to hatred and extremism against the occupiers which is now seen to have given birth to movements like the "Taliban". There are two completely different yet parallel running aspects of this book: One, an excellent true story of what was happening around the fall of the great empire in 1850s (which itself is very sad)and how it's long term repurcussions can be seen in the neighbouring countries these days. Wish such an excellent book could be translated in to a few of the common Indian/Pakistani languages for the locals to open their eyes to the fact how great and peaceloving their ancestors were and how comfortably Muslims and Hindus lived together not that long ago.
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on 15 April 2007
Meticulously researched, Dalrymple's 'Last Mughal' is spellbinding in its narration and detailing of the era that brought the great Mughal Empire in India to its tragic end. Not only that, perhaps for the first time have events and actions of the British rulers of India been brought to life in an entirely human setting; their brutal retaliation to the mutiny and the emotions and feelings governing their actions are vividly told. Many myths and falsehoods are shattered such as long-established accusations that British women were raped and murdered mercilessly by Indians, and that Bahadur Shah Zafar was complicit in the revolt.

Dalrymple's narrative makes you live through the day-to-day routine of both parties not as an outsider looking in but as an eyewitness on the inside. He exposes the weaknesses and habits of the characters with depth; readers are compelled

to know and feel that that they are familiar and known to them. Few historical accounts can boast of sketching the central character to be as fragile as Zafar, descendant of once politically and militarily powerful emperors, who presided over a court known only for its intellectual brilliance.

The book's ground-breaking research lies in its exposition of Muslim culture and beliefs reflected so well by Zafar's court. Ghalib, the great Urdu and Persian poet opens the window to amazing flights of poetry and prose that Muslim men of letters were steeped in during that period. Zafar's refusal to take the life of British men, women and children who were given sanctuary at his court under his Islamic beliefs that the taking of a human life in cold blood would be like the massacring all humanity, part of the Islamic creed that even in war-like conditions the life and property of ordinary people was sacrosanct - even crops and fields were not to be

touched as these were the lifeline of the people. Many Muslims gave shelter to British families during the 1857 revolt even as British Punjabi Muslim regiments fought against their Muslim brothers in the line of duty. Zafar might have drawn inspiration from Muslim history where Saladin re-taking Jerusalem from the Crusaders without the loss of an innocent life immediately granted amnesty to its

inhabitants unlike the Crusaders who took the city with streets awash in the blood of its populace put to the sword.

Dalryple's painstaking research also reflects on and is an exposition of Muslim reformers of the time. Progressive reformers such as Shah Waliullah deplored the degeneracy of the Mughal courtiers who had forgotten the lessons of Islam and were involved in intrigues, lies, backbiting and adultery. Shah Waliullah's translation of the Holy Koran into Persian so that people could understand and then practise its teachings upset the orthodoxy of the time. His son, Shah Abdul Aziz translated it into Urdu which would then be accessible to ordinary Muslims as well. Dalrymple's research concludes on his view of the much talked about 'clash of civilisations' between Christianity and Islam by highlighting the misguided zeal of the evangelical missionaries whose insensitivities were a major cause of the Mutiny. The reaction to their zeal, he asserts then as even now, is the mushrooming of the hardline Muslim factions who then use tactics that are against the teachings of Islam such as suicide bombings and terrorism.

Dalrymple's brilliance lies in his overt handling of raw human emotions and combining it with the destruction of a civilisation that had managed to synthesise two entirely different cultures and religions into a harmonious whole for nearly two and a half centuries - something that humanity at large must realise and learn from in the troubling times of the present century.
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on 12 May 2009
Excellent book, recounting the last years of the Last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah.
As the British were responsible for actually putting down the rebellion & sending this elderly emperor into exile; it is sad to be British & learn of the colonial practices.
However, the book is clear in outlining the clash of the two cultures: Colonial British & Indian Mughal/Hindu that led to the uprising & how the Mughal dynasty was sucked into supporting the rebels, as thier way of life was seen to be under threat.
A good read & I recommend it.
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on 22 October 2007
This is a very good book. If you're interested in Delhi, the Mughals, Britain's rule of India, the history of faith in India, or the first war of Indian Independence / Indian Mutiny this is a must read. A tour de force, it's a book of such breadth and learning, illuminating so many aspects of the period that it leaves you with a sense of the inadequacy of other `history' books you've read. A book of unimpeachable research, at the heart of which is the author's own imagination and his ability to inhabit the world he describes. Dalrymple doesn't hold back from describing the crimes of an Empire, in this case Britain's, but these are put in their social and historical context, so while not being excused they are explained. You think of the crimes still being committed wherever one group of people has power or control over another. I think William Dalrymple would like nothing more than to spend an afternoon with Zafar II, strolling through his mango trees, discussing faith and the beauty of verse. This book gives a sense of what that experience would be like and once you've read it, you'll understand why that stroll would be such a pleasure.
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