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The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857

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The fast-paced new novel from the internationally bestselling author of The Best Laid Plans, Morning, Noon & Night and Bloodline. Someone was following her. She had read about stalkers, but they belonged in a different, faraway world. She had no idea who it could be, who would want to harm her. She was trying desperately hard not to panic, but lately her sleep had been filled with nightmares, and she had awakened each morning with a feeling of impending doom. Thus begins Sidney Sheldon s chilling novel, Tell Me Your Dreams. Three beautiful young women are suspected of committing a series of brutal murders. The police make an arrest that leads to one of the most bizarre murder trials of the century. Based on actual events, Sheldon s novel races from London to Rome to Quebec City to San Francisco, with a climax that will leave the reader stunned.

578 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2006

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About the author

William Dalrymple

84 books2,649 followers
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. The book won the 1990 Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award and a Scottish Arts Council Spring Book Award; it was also shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize.

In 1989 Dalrymple moved to Delhi where he lived for six years researching his second book, City of Djinns, which won the 1994 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award. From the Holy Mountain, his acclaimed study of the demise of Christianity in its Middle Eastern homeland, was awarded the Scottish Arts Council Autumn Book Award for 1997; it was also shortlisted for the 1998 Thomas Cook Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize. A collection of his writings about India, The Age of Kali, won the French Prix D’Astrolabe in 2005.

White Mughals was published in 2003, the book won the Wolfson Prize for History 2003, the Scottish Book of the Year Prize, and was shortlisted for the PEN History Award, the Kiryama Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

William Dalrymple is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Royal Asiatic Society, and is the founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival.

In 2002 he was awarded the Mungo Park Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society for his ‘outstanding contribution to travel literature’. He wrote and presented the television series Stones of the Raj and Indian Journeys, which won the Grierson Award for Best Documentary Series at BAFTA in 2002. His Radio 4 series on the history of British spirituality and mysticism, The Long Search, won the 2002 Sandford St Martin Prize for Religious Broadcasting and was described by the judges as ‘thrilling in its brilliance... near perfect radio’. In December 2005 his article on the madrasas of Pakistan was awarded the prize for Best Print Article of the Year at the 2005 FPA Media Awards. In June 2006 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa by the University of St Andrews “for his services to literature and international relations, to broadcasting and understanding”. In 2007, The Last Moghal won the prestigous Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography. In November 2007, William received an Honourary Doctorate of Letters, honoris causa, from the University of Lucknow University “for his outstanding contribution in literature and history”, and in March 2008 won the James Todd Memorial Prize from the Maharana of Udaipur.

William is married to the artist Olivia Fraser, and they have three children. They now live on a farm outside Delhi.

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Profile Image for Matt.
917 reviews28.2k followers
February 25, 2023
“[A]t the moment of the most crucial decision [King Bahadur Shah] Zafar would ever take, with most of the Delhi elite already instinctively lined up against the looting, mutinous sepoys, Zafar made an uncharacteristically decisive choice: he gave them his blessing. The reason is not hard to guess. With the armed, threatening and excitable sepoys surrounding him on all sides, he had little choice. Moreover, thanks to Simon Fraser and Lord Canning, he had even less to lose. For all his undoubted fear, anger and irritation with the sepoys, Zafar made the critical choice that would change both the fate of his dynasty and that of the city of Delhi, linking them both with the Uprising…It was at this crucial moment, when the King had just publicly – if hesitantly and reluctantly – given his blessing to the mutineers, and they were settling down into quarters inside the Palace, that the entire city was shaken by a colossal explosion, a report that could be heard 20 miles away. Buildings shook; in the Palace several plaster ceilings collapsed. Half a mile to the north of the Red Fort…Lieutenant Willoughby, besieged by sepoys, had just blown up the magazine, the largest arsenal of guns and ammunition in northern India; and with it the large mob of jihadis, insurgents and sepoys who were attacking it, as well as almost all of its British defenders…”
- William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857

The titular figure at the center of William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal is King Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the final ruler of the Timurid Dynasty. Zafar’s story is a tragic one, featuring an aged, ill-equipped man being thrust into a situation nearly impossible to handle, even for a young, well-equipped man.

By way of backstory, the Mughal Empire had ruled over great swaths of Northern and Central India for two centuries. Indeed, their rule began even before the British East India Company had transformed a handful of trading posts into a toxic – and lethal – form of corporate governance. The Mughals – under Babur – had first descended into India from Central Asia, crossing the Hindu Kush and establishing their dynasty in Delhi, in 1526. Despite being Muslim rulers in a mostly Hindu land, the Timurid Dynasty maintained a rather effective administration, especially under their finest leader, Akbar the Great.

By the time The Last Mughal opens, however, the Mughal Empire was waning. The East India Company, despite professing loyalty to their “sovereign,” was the real driving force in India. They had, over time, turned the role of Mughal king into an empty figurehead. Yet, even that symbolic job was shrinking. In particular, following King Zafar’s spat with the East India Company over his ability to choose his own heir – rather than the kingship going automatically to the eldest son – Zafar was informed that come what may, he would be the last man to sit upon the throne.

The phasing-out of the Mughal Empire occurred – not coincidentally – at a time of growing tension between Indians and Europeans. This tension eventually exploded into a bloody rebellion that is known in the West as “the Indian Mutiny,” and by many in India as “the First War of Independence.” To Dalrymple, it is simply “the Uprising,” and he tells the story of this tumultuous, complicated clash of arms, cultures, and religions by focusing on the personage of King Zafar.

According to Dalrymple, Great Britain’s colonization of India was not one discrete thing, but occurred in distinct phases. An earlier phase – the time of the so-called “White Mughals” – displayed some of the same integrationist tendencies of the Timurid Dynasty. That is, British officials worked within the existing culture, rather than attempting to change it wholesale. They married Indian wives, had children, and created a kind of hybrid society. That changed in the 1850s with the arrival of evangelizers who sought to impose Christianity on countless unwilling Hindus and Muslims. At the same time, British officials planned to dissolve the Mughal Empire upon the death of King Zafar.

The resulting Uprising of 1857 had many causes, including the aforementioned unwanted missionary zeal, but the spark that finally lit the gunpowder was the issuance of pre-greased paper cartridges to be used in the Enfield rifles given to Indian troops. (The Indian troops were referred to as sepoys, from the Persian word for soldier). The grease coating these cartridges – which had to be bitten by the soldier to load the rifle – was thought to be derived from beef tallow and pork lard. In other words, it was greased using byproducts of animals that were, respectively, sacred to Hindus and offensive to Muslims. A mutiny in Meerut over these cartridges (barely mentioned by Dalrymple) spread rapidly, eventually engulfing Delhi, where this tale entirely takes place.

In Dalrymple’s telling, the Delhi insurgency – as opposed to the Uprising as a whole – was religiously motivated and propelled by Muslims. The Muslim fighters, joined by the sepoys formerly employed by the East India Company, went to King Zafar to seek his approval for their actions. Caught between the possibility of instant death at the hands of his own people, or the future wrath of Great Britain should the Uprising fail, Zafar chose to back the Uprising.

The rest is all rather disheartening. The Uprising in Delhi began with the massacre of British men, women, and children by insurgent forces. It ended with a siege by the British, capped by the massacre of men, women, and children by East India Company forces.

Dalrymple, who has lived much of his life in India, has a strong reputation as a historian of this period, and has written a number of well-received books. His style – as he specifically explains – is to avoid jargon-laden interpretative schools, and to attempt to present the perspectives of all the various factions. Unlike earlier books on the Uprising, which used mainly British-generated documents and accounts (of which there are many), Dalrymple makes a concerted effort to utilize non-Western and Indian sources. He quotes extensively from Urdu and Persian manuscripts; follows non-British participants, such as the famed poet Asadullah Khan, known as Ghalib (an excellent observer); and uses the voluminous Delhi court records (containing the requests, grievances, and commentary of ordinary Delhi citizens) to wonderful effect (demonstrating that, as in most wars, the ones who suffered the most were the civilians crushed between warring armies).

Beyond the rigor and breadth of the scholarship, Dalrymple is a fine writer. He can construct marvelously detailed set-pieces, such as his early narration of the wedding procession of Zafar’s son, Prince Jawan Bakht (which reminded me of Barbara Tuchman’s famed funeral opening to The Guns of August). Dalrymple also provides nuanced and sympathetic portraits of the people involved, especially Zafar. Occasionally, he will even sharpen his pen a bit, as when he describes British hero/war criminal John Nicholson as “this great imperial psychopath.” More than anything else, there is Dalrymple’s love of Delhi, and some of the best sections of the book are devoted to evoking the sunset days of the Timurid Dynasty in that great city.

The Last Mughal tries to be user-friendly. The maps are cartoonishly insufficient, but there is a dramatis-personae, which is helpful.

Nonetheless, on the whole, this book requires a bit of foreknowledge. Dalrymple has set out to narrate the siege of Delhi as seen through King Zafar’s eyes, and he does not stray from that intent. To that end, there is very little by way of overall context of the Uprising. Events happening elsewhere are barely mentioned, much less described. The opening mutiny in Meerut, for instance, is presented in a frustratingly elliptical manner. Characters such as William Hodson, of Hodson’s Horse, just disappear from the story. You will have to go elsewhere to discover that Hodson died in the Uprising. Since this happened at Lucknow, and not Delhi, Dalrymple doesn’t bother addressing it. In short, unlike Dalrymple’s superior Return of a King, about the First Anglo-Afghan War, The Last Mughal is not self-contained. It is a view of an epic and sweeping historical moment taken through a peephole. What you see is very good. Unfortunately, you don’t see nearly enough.

The Last Mughal was published in 2006, at a time when terrorism and the East-West clash was at the forefront of the world’s mind. That locus of attention has obviously changed dramatically, at least for the time being. Still, it is hard to argue with Dalrymple’s ultimate conclusion about the much-maligned King Zafar II. Despite his inability to exert strong leadership during the Uprising, Zafar had a “peaceful and tolerant attitude to life,” and placed an emphasis on pluralistic coexistence, rather than dominance. These are traits that are admirable – even vital – still today.
Profile Image for William2.
745 reviews2,959 followers
December 23, 2021
A too brief summary. The book is an overview of the 1857 Mutiny in Delhi. Striking in the early going is the mutual tolerance Muslims and Hindus had for each other. King Zafar was king to all his heterogeneous peoples, or he sought to be. The two faiths were interlarded. Astonishing.

“It is clear that [King] Zafar consciously saw his role as a protector of his Hindu subjects, and a moderator of extreme Muslim demands and the chilling Puritanism of many of the 'ulama. One of Zafar’s verses says explicitly that Hinduism and Islam “share the same essence,” and his court lived out this syncretic philosophy, and both celebrated and embodied this composite Hindu–Muslim Indo-Islamic civilization, at every level. The Hindu elite of Delhi went to the Sufi shrine Nizamuddin, could quote Hafiz and we’re fond of Persian poetry. Their children . . . studied under maulvis and attended the more liberal madrasas, bringing offerings of food for their teachers on Hindu festivals. For their part, Muslims followed the emperor in showing honor to Hindu holy men, while many in the court, including Zafar himself, followed the old Mughal custom, borrowed from upper cast Hindus, of drinking only Ganges water. Zafar’s extensive team of Hindu astrologers rarely left his side.

“Given the somewhat dubious and sectarian reputation of madrasas today, it is worth remembering that many of the most brilliant Hindu thinkers, including, for example, the great reformer Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833), were the products of madrasa educations.” (p. 77)

The book is masterful, what we’ve come to expect from Dalrymple. By the time the slaughter of the Mutiny occurs, the reader knows the players and their temperaments on both sides. The fighting is harrowing. British evil received it due—though one wishes the women and children could have been spared. But apparently that’s not how religious terror works. These native soldiers were convinced that they were being defiled by various means—that their religions were being assaulted—so the British could convert them to Christianity. And here in Delhi, too, of all places, where freedom of worship was once so revered under the Mughals. The mutineers were both Hindu and Muslim working if haphazardly toward a common goal: the genocide of all Christians.

The mutineers had almost no leadership. One of King Zafar’s sons—Mirza Mughal—finagled a commander in chief position but he was almost entirely ineffective. The mutineers acted on whim and anger and showed no cohesion beyond the regimental level. Their greed overcame them. They looted the city incessantly. They never had the sympathy of the general population for it, too, was looted indiscriminately. There was no command and control which the British, after the initial onslaught, were able to restore.

“The Gujar and Mewati tribesmen around the city . . . effectively controlled most of Delhi’s hinterland. Robbing anyone who attempted to move along roads in and out of the capital, they kept the city in a far more effective state of blockade than anything achieved by the British to the north.” (p. 242)

One of the reasons the Union won the U.S. Civil War was because it had quartermasters who dealt with procurement. Not that it was the most efficient operation by any means. The Confederacy tended to live off the land, as the mutineers did the city, which was unsustainable. Moreover, we are told, the mutineers felt invulnerable because they believed God was working through the King, “...God‘s shadow on earth.” V.S. Naipaul has written about the gift of religious people being their confidence, which is often enviable. (See Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey.) The Hindus, too, who comprised the lion’s share of the mutineers, had their own rebellion boosters. Here we had over-confidence and no strategic plan, much less access to a telegraph. But. . .

“In the two weeks after the British returned to the Ridge [an artillery perch northwest of Delhi] the rebel forces received several thousand reinforcements—from Ambala and Jalandhar, in the north, and Haryana and Nasirabad, in the west. Larger than any of these was the enormous rebel army heading slowly toward Delhi from Bareilly, 200 miles to the east. Across Hindustan, of the 139,000 sepoys in the Bengal army, all but 7,796 had now risen against the Company, and over half were now either in Delhi or on their way to it.” (p. 244)

One knows how it will turn out, but even so one keeps hoping what cannot happen: that the mutineers will somehow prevail. The book invests us in the underdog for he holds the moral right. The British shouldn’t have been there; that’s irrefutable. No argument about the upside of British Colonialism can ever convince us otherwise. (See Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World.) So when Bakht Khan—���a much-garlanded and battle-hardened veteran of the Afghan wars” (p. 263) and the sepoys’s first true strategic thinker—arrives on the scene one is filled with futile hope. But Khan’s reign is brief; lack of discipline soon undermines him.

The story of King Zahar, the last Mughal of the title, is the clever biographical thread stitching together the entire narrative. Poor man. It was the British’s own “blunders and insensitivities that had precipitated the outbreak, and the slow hesitant . . . bungling response that had allowed it to spread with such speed.” (p. 283) The king was caught in the middle between the British, who treated him as a vassal, and the mutineers, who believed he was the source of inexhaustible treasure that could fund their poorly conceived and ineptly led revolution.

The mutineers’ slaughter of innocents and the British exponentially larger counter-slaughter makes us shudder with revulsion. This is a story that needed to be told. But with so much vivid new archival material compressed into a single volume the book is at times almost more than one can bear. Page after page of hideous massacres, bloated corpses, men shot down in their prime etc. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Let’s close with excepts from William Howard Russell, the Times’s correspondent, who wrote after visiting King Zafar before his show trial in 1858.

“To my mind, the position of the King was one of the most intolerable misery long ere the revolt broke out. His palace was in reality a house of bondage; he knew that the few wretched prerogatives which were left to him, as if in mockery of the departed power they represented, would be taken away from his successors; that they would be deprived even of the right to live in their own palace, and would be exiled to some place outside the walls. We denied permission for his royal relatives to enter our service; we condemned them to a degrading existence, in poverty and debt, inside the purlieus of the palace, and then we reproached them with their laziness, meanness and sensuality. We shut the gates of military preferment upon them — we took from them every object of honorable ambition — and then our papers and our mess rooms teemed with invective against the lazy, slothful and sensuous princes.” (p. 402)
Profile Image for Hana.
522 reviews293 followers
November 6, 2015
I have lived with this book for months. Even now I hesitate to write this review because it feels too much like saying goodbye. I don’t want to leave this world and these people—I don’t want to remember that they are all dead and that a once glorious civilization is gone forever.

I had ordered a whole bunch of books on Near East and Islamic history and this one arrived at the library first. My intention was to work forward from ancient times to the present day. But then I saw from the cover that most of the action in this happens in the fateful year of 1857--exactly the time setting of novel I was reading Shadow of the Moon. The coincidence was clearly the Working of Fate, so I surrendered to the tides of time and plunged into the waters of the River Jumna to relive the last days of Zafar: mystic, poet, calligrapher--and doomed heir to the Mughal throne.

Dalrymple and his research team spent over four years in India uncovering and often translating for the first time vast treasure troves of documentary material, much of which had not been touched since it was gathered in 1857: The Mutiny Papers (100,000 Persian and Urdu documents from the National Archives of India filled with detail about court and ordinary life in Dehli); Urdu newspaper archives; the Dehli Commissioner’s Office Archive; previously untranslated first person Mughal accounts (including a moving memoire from a court poet); the rarely accessed Punjab and Rangoon Archives; pre-Mutiny records of the British Residency in Delhi (including spies reports and correspondence between the British Resident and his superiors).

Yet nothing about this book is dry. This is history at its very best--vivid, immersive and compulsively readable. Dalrymple makes Delhi so real that I, too, heard “in the silence that followed the end of the call to prayer, the songs of the first Delhi birds...the argumentative chuckle of the babblers, the sharp chatter of the mynahs, the alternating clucking and squealing of the rosy parakeets, the angry exclamation of the brain fever bird, and from deep inside the canopy of the fruit trees in Zafar's gardens...the woody hot-weather echo of the koel.”

Dalrymple's gift is both erudition--the deep knowledge of a scholar who immerses himself in every possible resource--and empathy. Perhaps above all--empathy. I defy anyone who reads this with an open mind and heart to leave the story of this world-changing moment in history without thinking-- if only ....
Profile Image for W.
1,185 reviews4 followers
December 6, 2020
The glory days of the Mughal empire were long gone. The dynasty had long been embroiled in a series of wars of succession,as various pretenders to the throne killed each other,and occupied the throne for short periods of time.

Meanwhile,the frontiers of the empire kept shrinking,and the British East India Company,kept making steady inroads,to the extent that it actually ruled India.

Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal, a king in name only,one left with just a title and confined to Delhi by the British. He was fond of poetry,and could write pretty well. His pen name,ironiclly was Zafar (victory),while there was nothing victorious about his era.

William Dalrymple's book is an in-depth look at a turbulent era of Indian history,which included the unsuccessful War of Independence of 1857 (known to the British as the Indian Mutiny).

Bahadur Shah sided with the rebels,and as a consequence,was severely punished. He lost family members,his nominal title,and whatever comforts he had.He was exiled.

It makes for poignant reading,Bahadur Shah,in exile in Burma. Accompanied by a few servants,and with few possessions,he spent his last days in obscurity.

In Burma,the last Mughal breathed his last and penned some immortal verse about the pain of exile.He was buried anonymously and his grave was discovered decades later.

He lamented that he was so unfortunate that he could not find a few yards of space for his grave,in his homeland.

Dalrymple has done his research,no doubt. But the book is rather heavy going,and not as engaging as Abraham Eraly's books,on the Mughals. Could have done with a fair bit of editing,the detail is overdone.
Profile Image for Mike.
1,115 reviews153 followers
March 5, 2014
Why study history, especially the 1857 Indian Mutiny (aka, Sepoy Rebellion or 1st War of Indian Independence)? Because sometimes the threads are just so damn interesting…and even pertinent! Here’s one:

The Mughal Empire was known for its tolerance and usually treated Muslims and Hindus equally. At the end of the Delhi battle, the Muslims get the lion's share of the blame while mainly high-caste Hindu sepoys comprised the majority of the rebel forces and were the primary instigators. The Hindus regain access to Delhi, to housing and positions while the Muslims are shut out. This breaks the long standing era of tolerance and common cause between Hindus and Muslims. One branch of the Muslim community breaks off to study the west and become more modern. Another branches off to establish a madrasa devoted to an orthodox Islam, stripped of any Western or Indian influences. One hundred and forty years later that madrasa gives us the Taliban of our age in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Made me think.

The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 gets 5 Stars to bring it alongside Our Bones Are Scattered: The Cawnpore Massacres and The Indian Mutiny Of 1857, the history of the same mutiny but in a different location. The Last Mughal brings us the story of the Emperor, the royal family and what happened in Delhi, the epicenter of the entire rebellion. The book gives a short background of what life was like for the royals and the native inhabitants of Delhi. We also see the evolution of the British moving from coexisting and blending into the Indian culture to aggressively imposing British law, rule, Western education and, most alarming, evangelical Christianity.

Yet even Indians who were educated in the new English colleges found it did little to improve their treatment at British hands. According to Mohan Lal Kashmiri, who was a pupil in the first batch of students taught in the Delhi English College, “the distant and contemptible manner with which we are treated by the generality of English gentlemen, wounds our hearts and compels us to forget the blessings of the British rule.” He added a word of warning: “You may crush down the populace and keep them in awe with your arms, but until you conquer and win the hearts of the people, the peace and affection will be more an outward word of talk than reality.”

There were many factors that led to the rebellion but religious conflict was often at the heart of it. Some British officers preached to their soldiers, missionaries became more numerous, shrines and mosques were destroyed or converted to churches (after being confiscated though the “justice” system), etc. Many little inroads over many years built tensions. The introduction of greased cartridges for the new Lee Enfield rifle was only the final straw. Coated with either grease from beef or pork, the end had to be bitten off and the contents poured into the rifle…doing this would make an outcast of either the Hindu or Muslim soldier.

Another cause of the revolt was the plan to end the Mughal royal line with the death of the current Emperor, Zafar. I was dumbfounded to read the reasoning for this coming from British subjects of their own monarchy. If anyone should have understood the important symbols of a monarchy, the Brits should have. Instead they decided to demote the royal family en toto, “for their own good”! Un-effing-believable! The royal princes had nothing to lose by supporting, encouraging and leading the revolt, when it came. When the heir apparent dies of cholera (or maybe poisoning?):

The rebellion begins and thousands of mutineers head to Delhi, expecting to receive the Emperor’s blessings and, hopefully, pay and leadership. Many terrible things happen to the British and natives who converted to Christianity. If I have one complaint, this book under-emphasized the atrocities committed by the Indians against the British and overemphasized the terrible retribution atrocities by the forces that came to take back the country. ("Our Bones are Scattered" was just the opposite, overmuch on Indian atrocities and underplaying British revenge). Eventually the British led forces (many Afghans, Sikhs and other natives make up a large part) assault Delhi and take it. One young officer wrote to his mother about the assault on Delhi:

“You know what that will be—rush up a ladder, with men trying to push you down, bayonet and shoot you from above. But you must wave your sword and think it capital fun, bring your men up as fast as you can and jump down on top of men ready with fixed bayonets to receive you. All this is not very pleasant to think coolly of, but when the moment comes excitement makes you feel as happy as possible. . . I hope it won’t make me swear, though that is almost allowable for you are mad with excitement, and know not what you are saying. But I will strive against it with all my might.”

The revenge taken by the British against the mutineers is terrible indeed. Everywhere men and boys are killed, guilty or not. It goes on for a very long time, not just in the excitement of the aftermath of battle. Many cruel punishments were meted out:

Delhi was the center of learning and excellence for a great civilization. After it was captured, not so much. Here is a verse from a famous Muslim poet:

Every armed British soldier
Can do whatever he wants.
Just going from home to market
Makes one’s heart turn to water.
The Chowk is a slaughter ground
And homes are prisons.
Every grain of dust in Delhi
Thirsts for Muslims’ blood.
Even if we were together
We could only weep over our lives

After Delhi is recaptured, the Emperor is placed under arrest, imprisoned and will be tried for “treason.” Except the legal argument for treason is absolute BS:

What was never discussed was whether the Company was legally empowered to try Zafar at all. For though the government took the position that Zafar received a pension from the Company, and was therefore the Company’s pensioner and thus subject, the actual legal position was considerably more ambiguous. While the Company’s 1599 charter to trade in the East derived from Parliament and the Crown, its authority to govern in India actually legally flowed from the person of the Mughal Emperor, who had officially taken on the Company as his tax collector in Bengal in the years following the battle of Plassey, on 2 August 1765.

As recently as 1832, when Zafar was fully fifty-eight years old, the Company had acknowledged itself to be the Mughal Emperor’s vassal on its coins and even on its great seal, which was covered with the inscription “Fidvi Shah Alam” (Shah Alam’s devoted dependant); this was removed only under the influence of Sir Charles Metcalfe in 1833. Since then, nothing had happened to change the legal relationship of the two parties, for although the Company had unilaterally ceased to offer nazrs and no longer proclaimed its vassalage on its coins or seal, neither Shah Alam, nor Akbar Shah, nor Zafar himself had ever renounced their sovereignty over the Company. From this point of view, Zafar could certainly be tried as a defeated enemy king; but he had never been a subject, and so could not possibly be called a rebel guilty of treason. Instead, from a legal point of view, a good case could be made that it was the East India Company which was the real rebel, guilty of revolt against a feudal superior to whom it had sworn allegiance for nearly a century…

I mentioned in the beginning that the great Muslim-Hindu era of tolerance and common understanding came to an end after the Mutiny, primarily driven by how each was treated by the victors:

Much of the book covers the role played by the Emperor. He was not particularly good or bad. I don’t have any sympathy for the demise of a monarch or monarchy, wherever or whenever it falls. But it is clear this Emperor did not cause the uprising. If only he could have been strong enough to prevent the terrible excesses and atrocities, maybe history would have treated him better. And maybe some of the worst parts of the partition of India would not have happened.

I thought this was a perceptive observation:

The histories of Islamic fundamentalism and European imperialism have very often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. In a curious but very concrete way, the 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.

Profile Image for Dmitri.
191 reviews136 followers
April 25, 2021
Neither William Dalrymple nor 'The Last Mughal' need another positive review after all the prior accolades they have received. This 2006 work continues the amazing metamorphosis of a travel writer into a historian. The writing seems effortless, although a tremendous amount of research has been done. Perhaps this is due to the author's passion for the world of which he writes, but it must be more than that. Greatness is easy to recognize and difficult to describe.

The book tells of the last emperor at the time of the Indian rebellion of 1857. In the final days of the dynasty real power had been ceded to the British, but the emperor was allowed to remain as a figurehead. In past centuries descendants of Islamic conquerors ruled partly by consensus, and a degree of religious freedom existed between Muslims and Hindus. The empire and its court were responsible for a great body of architecture and literature that flourished up to the time of its demise.

Many earlier British settlers had adapted to local customs and culture, intermarrying and in some cases converting to Islam. In the mid 19th century a wave of Christian evangelism became prevalent, and efforts were made to promote the conversion of native religions. This culminated in a military rebellion when indigenous troops under British command were ordered to trespass religious taboos, such as traveling overseas, mixing castes and breaking dietary restrictions.

The religious underpinnings of the rebellion were exacerbated by an untimely British decision to end the Mughal line of succession. The ensuing war was the greatest challenge to colonial power since the American Revolution and resulted in the transfer of East India Company rule to the British crown. After Bahadur Shah II was captured he was tried for aiding the rebellion and exiled to live his remaining years under house arrest in Rangoon, British Burma.

This pivotal period of history is delivered in a scholarly but not an overly academic manner. It only covers Delhi, the epicenter of the rebellion. Events in Lucknow and Kanpur must be read about elsewhere. The story is told through eyewitness accounts by British and Indian participants. Many of the sources are new, culled from rediscovered archives written in Farsi and Urdu. The research is greatly complemented by the superb storytelling abilities of the author.
Profile Image for Shivam Chaturvedi.
42 reviews97 followers
August 16, 2018
I believe that one of the first things that need to be done after reading a book such as this to literally take a bow to the author for his efforts. You could be an expert in your field, having worked your way through every bit of ponderous tome you could ever read, but when it comes to creating a story out of it, a clear thread that runs through every bit of knowledge that you have - and to be able to share it with a reader, who comes with a background of having been told fuck-all in his school's history books - as if it had only happened yesterday, is no small feat.

Lets face it - even for those of us who love history (*raises hand excitedly - like Hermione used to all the time*), it can sometimes get a little boring. Maybe more than a little. You could be reading an e-folio of Abul Fazl's Ain-i-Akbari, hoping to get a sense of what the Mughal-Rajputana relations were actually like. Mr Fazl though, wouldn't haul ass beyond heaping glory on the emperor, with a million titles and one. And so the amateur history enthusiast ends up closing that link - and opens up Netflix yet again.

Now that is not a problem with The Last Mughal. Just a month and a half ago, I had heaped similar praises on Manu Pillai's The Rebel Sultans . And at the risk of sounding like a broken record - This is how History should be written. Fluid, Concise and Real. And empathetic to the story and people it covers - not written from a distance (which I believe how almost all accounts of the events of 1857 previously have been). Mr Dalrymple is a guy who is fond of Delhi, and that just shows through on each and every page. Writing this book meant something to him, and that honesty and genuineness shows throughout. There are flaws for sure, and in my humble capacity, I would duly point them out. But just for that genuineness, hats off.

To the book itself then. As mentioned in the introduction itself, its not merely a biographical account of The last mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, but its more a biography of Delhi, in and around the times of 1857 - with our emperor being the central focus, but clearly one among many in an ensemble cast. Wouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure that the book is prima-facie divided into three parts

- first focuses on the event leading up to the mutiny, i.e. religious, political, social, cultural and economic causes

- part two focuses on the period that Delhi was under the control of Sepoys, with Zafar as the nominal emperor and leader, and until when the British recapture the city

-part three focuses on British retribution in the aftermath, and the horrendous treatment meted out to the people, and the city of Delhi itself

The third part I believe is the most inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, but the most heart-breaking one too. The atrocities committed by the British (and we find at-length descriptions of these), and the sufferings of the people highlight one thing above everything else. That the moral leadership that West has claimed for decades, rests on grounds shakier than shifting sands of Timbuktu. And this does not include the physical, cultural damage that they did to the city in robbing people like me of our architectural heritage. Officers of the company, members of the British community in Delhi gleefully recorded how monument after monument was robber, looted or plainly pulled down to destroy what was once a beautiful city. Over the years the West has found time, in its collective conscience, to rue the fate of cities like Dresden, Caen and others that were destroyed during the second world war - and remnants of a medieval past that were lost because of it. No such tears were ever shed for Delhi. But we are not here for British-bashing, that can happen maybe someday later.

The first part is fairly interesting. I personally always thought that religion was as much a driving force as the economic hardships were. But as this, and another book that I read earlier this year point out, that perhaps religious motivations were the biggest drivers behind the great uprising. It also charts out how Mughal power declined in the first half of 19th century, which eventually led to the decisions that Zafar made, sealing the fate of Delhi in 1857. This part in general is an interesting insight into a world that was lost and forgotten after 1857 - when a fair amount of Brits intermingled and lived with Delhi-ites, primarily the elite of the Mughal court (again, a nominal authority by that time), when mushairas and ghazals and Ghalib were all real, and not stuff of urban legend that we sometimes intriguingly look back to.

But it is the second part of this book, which occupies most of the story, and is the most startling in its revelations. Personally speaking, and I believe it goes for most people - none of us believe history to be as black and white as it was taught in the school books. But if we were told that the 1857 uprising was a war for independence, then we tend to believe that yes, it was. To what extent, we might question it - but we would not question the veracity of the fact itself. What this book on the other hand tells us is, and quite unequivocally, that it wasn't a war for independence . Ypu'd really have to use your imagination if you have to call it one - definitely in the context of things that happened in India's current capital.

The reasons why men picked up arms could not possible have been more varied - a game of thrones
for a throne that did not matter anymore, Jihad elsewhere against Christian Kafirs, and then the Sepoys - fighting as much against economic exploitation as much against religious persecution that Muslims too were fighting against. And there were also those (Indians, not British) whose sole intention was to profit from the ensuing anarchy. They sat on the fence as long as they could, while others went a step ahead and actively helped the british. That, in essence, is the story of our first war of independence. And amidst all this was Bahadur Shah II, pen-name Zafar - the eighty year old monarch of a once great dynasty that had lost everything. For an old man, you feel bad for him - but you can see that the world had already moved far ahead, and that no matter which side he backed, he and his family were bound to lose.

I suppose giving linear narratives to history is almost comforting to some people, for whom its not easy to digest that motives could have been complex, and ulterior in a lot of cases - self serving, and not for the benefit of the country. But such is our history, and I personally find it liberating to know how things really were, instead of living in a bubble.

PS - This is kind of a first draft of the review. It's a bit too extensive right now, and does not give voice to all my thoughts - will take a second pass and making this a little more coherent soon.
Profile Image for Sandhya.
130 reviews366 followers
July 30, 2007
Author: William Dalrymple
Publishers: Penguin Viking
Published In: 2006
Price: Rs 695
Pages: 586
Genre: Historical
BY Sandhya Iyer

Last glow of light

Being fairly intrigued by Mughal history, Dalrymple has always been one author whose books I’ve wanted to read. I missed out on his White Mughals but got an opportunity to read The Last Mughal and must say, it turned out to be every bit the rich, luxuriant and fascinating experience I imagined it to be.

I must confess here that I have no problems with a Westerner writing about Indian history --- I say it because this seems to be everyone's pet peeve against Dalrymple-Now, as long as the author approaches his subject with honesty and doesn't adopt a patronizing tone, as the likes of V. S Naipaul, E M Forster so often do, it's really fine by me. And as I see it, this author is not really guilty of any of the above charges.

Having read the book, I will say that this is undoubtedly one of the most interesting, informative and entertaining works on Mughal history. No other book probably has approached the 1857 revolt and the disastrous impact it had on a culturally thriving Delhi, the way Dalrymple has in The Last Mughal.

Besides the fact that it extensively covers and nostalgically looks back on the wonderful city that Delhi was in the 1850s and 60s under the rule of its benign, tolerant and pluralistic Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, it gives in-depth sketches of the prevailing British officers of the time. Importantly, it directs our attention to several of our presend-day issues and attitudes, a direct result of our legacy.

That there's a wealth of historical information to be derived out of this book is a given, but truly astonishing is also Dalrymple's ability to weave in so many cobwebs of events and characters with such clarity.
Not to add, his meticulous, hypnotic attention to detail, with some of the passages sparkling like pure gems -----much like the Mughal arts he describes in his book.

The story begins in the early 1850s, a time when Delhi's political fortunes had started to plummet. The Britishers were fast spreading their tentacles and tightening their hold over the Mughals. The bonhomie that existed between the Bitishers and Muslims in the city was starting to wane and Victoria's men were under no obligation to please the Emperor any more. In fact, the king, Zafar Bahadur was rendered powerless now.
Yet, for all its political decline, "the city's reputation as a centre of learning, culture and spirituality had rarely been higher".

The peace gets disrupted when rebel sepoys from Meerut (mainly) and some other regiments request Zafar to support them in their fight against the Britishers. As history tells us and the recent Bollywood film, Mangal Pandey showed, there was discontent brewing among sepoys of North-west provinces. Dalrymple records this in detail and abundantly agrees that Victorian Evangelicals had indeed been speeding up their plans to convert Hindus and Muslims.

While the sepoys were disgruntled about their low salaries among many other things, it was the issue of religion that really sparked off the revolt.
Now, coming to a point I've always reiterated ---- Mangal Pandey was no icon of the 1857 revolt and the book not only succinctly states that, it adequately proves it.

Zafar, already in his 80s, clearly had no real say in whether to support the sepoys against the Britishers or not. But in the end, he lend his tacit support to the rebels and what followed was one of the bloodiest massacres witnessed in Delhi, with Englishmen being pulled out of their homes and killed mercilessly by the sepoys and jehadis.

Retribution follows and the Britishers swear to take revenge and destroy everything the city stands for.

Can't put the whole review here for lack of space but if you're still keen, you could read my long ass review on sandyi.blogspot.com

Profile Image for Asha Seth.
653 reviews309 followers
January 31, 2019
“Against this bleak dualism, there is much to value in Zafar’s peaceful and tolerant attitude to life; and there is also much to regret in the way that the British swept away and rooted out the late Mughals’ pluralistic and philosophically composite civilisation.”
It'll be a while before I get over the emotional trauma bore by my conscience to be able to write a befitting review.
Profile Image for Neil.
175 reviews19 followers
February 14, 2013
I do find Dalrymple a bit like hard work. This is well-written and instructive, but could have been half the length. One admires the author's in-depth research, but I can't help feeling that a good, hard edit would have been a help.
Profile Image for David.
652 reviews237 followers
September 2, 2019
Wow! A great book! The sort of book that makes you want to read another three or four other books on the same topic, except you know that there are probably not another three or four books that are equal in both scholarship and entertainment value.

As the author himself says, it is astonishing that there was an avalanche of fascinating primary source materials (petitions, letters of complaint, official reports, etc.) about the 1857 uprising of the people of India against their colonial masters, all sitting unexamined in official Indian archives until the author came upon them in the early 2000s. Apparently a lot of it was on little slips of paper in difficult-to-decipher handwritten Urdu and Hindi, which proved sufficiently off-putting to the weak of heart and eyesight, especially when you could just as easily attain publication and/or maintain tenure by foregoing original research and simply peppering your work with words like “deconstructing”, “othering”, “gendering”, and similar gerunds.

In any case, the author mined these and other documents for thousands of fascinating details. Animated with these glimpses of real life, the narrative gallops along nicely throughout. Those of tender sensibility may be put off by the seemingly endless episodes of slaughter, first by the enraged colonized and by the vengeful colonizers. But…. that is what happened.

I scored an old-school hardcover version of this book from my library. I strongly recommend consuming The Last Mughal in hardcover form if you can possibly help it. It’s one of those books you flip back and forth through, with frequent visits to the glossary and endnotes, but also sometimes taking a break from the main narrative to look at the fascinating photos and reproductions of paintings, and did I mention the maps?

Sometimes trips to the glossary are less than 100% rewarding. For example, you may run across a sentence like “He stabbed him with his [unknown Anglo-Indian word]”. Reach for your bookmark. Mark your place. Flip to the glossary. Find word. Definition: “A kind of Indian ceremonial knife.” Since you can guess from context that he did not stab his opponent with, say, a piece of statuary, you may end up asking yourself “Was this trip necessary?”

In our current environment, this book is also interesting because it shows what happens when a society moves from more tolerant to less tolerant. Apparently, the previous generation of British colonials (so the author maintains) were comparatively enthusiastic about learning and even adopting local habits and customs, sometimes to the point of inter-marriage. The generation that ended up being slaughtered and subsequently slaughtering in this book possessed a sense of cultural superiority and drive to religious conversion that led them both to astonishing examples of cultural insensitivity and to an inability to read the warning signs of trouble when they saw it.

From the last paragraph of this book: “... nothing threatens the liberal and moderate aspects of Islam so much as aggressive Western intrusion and interference in the East, just as nothing so dramatically radicalises the ordinary Muslim and feeds the power of extremists….”

This is a book which is at the same time a fat dense read but also a fast and entertaining one, so it gets very highly recommended especially for those of us who never really got the chance to study this fascinating historical episode during our inadequate schooling.
12 reviews3 followers
February 26, 2009
The further backward you look....the further forward you can see." This is what Sir Winston Churchill said when talking about the relevance of history to one's current circumstance.

I cannot help but recall these words, after reading William Dalrymple's brilliant
"The Last Mughal".

William Dalrymple's latest book uses Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of the Mughal dynasty, to recreate the vibrant city of Delhi, in the 1850's. A culturally diverse, almost cosmopolitan city, of which Bahadur Shah Zafar, was the mere figurehead. A city which epitomized,the India of the Mughals, where the Hindus and Muslims co-existed peacefully. In fact a rich culture and social fabric existed due to this pluralistic co-existence.

The mutiny of 1857 proved to be the fall of the Mughal Dynasty, and the end of this vibrant way of life.

Dalrymple, researched this book for over 4 years and accessed sources, which were until now, never used to narrate the history of those seminal times. "The Mutiny Papers", which were found on the shelves of National Archives of India, detailed through "great unwieldy mountains of chits, pleas, orders, petitions, complaints, receipts, rolls of attendance and lists of casualties...notes from spies of dubious reliability and letters from eloping lovers...", a very uniquely Indian point of view and perspective. An important voice, which until now has been missing in the retelling of the "Sepoys Mutiny".

For me as an Indian, it is very important to understand this point of view. To know about my true cultural heritage, about strands of my identity which were sundered by the British, along their (in)famous "Divide and Rule" policy.
Consider this, most of the history books, have been written by the British in some form...so the opinions I have formed, and the perspectives I have, have been developed by the "British" outlook and essentially the Victorian take on history.
I think, India as a society is richer due to the Mughals and despite the popular opinion and recorded history (who wrote it, you guessed it right...the British !!), they went out of their way to ensure a secular society and a safe environment, for Hindu religion, culture and arts to flourish. In fact as mentioned in the book, the only thing Zafar was decisive about in those trying times was his "refusal to alienate his Hindu subjects by subscribing to the demands of the jihadis."

Did you know for instance that most of the Indian intellectuals of the late 19th century and the early 20th century, were schooled in madrassas, including people like Raja Rammohan Roy...The madrassas, were considered to provide well rounded education, not just math and science, but also the humanities, eastern philosophy and the arts...it was only due to the rising influence of Christianity in India, in the late 19th century and the drive for conversions, which lead the madrassas to reinforce the study of Islam in their curriculum, and for them to increasingly move along the path of fundamentalism.

It is due to all this and also because of an extremely evocative account of 1857 skirmishes, that this book is a must read.

You owe it yourself, as a citizen of the world, living in a these troubled times terrorized by religious fundamentalism.

As Sir Churchill, prophesied, it will only help us look "further forward."
Profile Image for Saif Hasan.
Author 1 book4 followers
October 20, 2009
Was sorely disappointed. The book offered no new insights. I found it clumsy
Profile Image for Meema.
117 reviews8 followers
March 5, 2020
I just couldn't like this book. A book that promised to be about the last Mughal Bahadur Shah Zafar and the end of the monarchy became a chronological description of the failed 1857 mutiny that saw the end of the East India Company's (mis)adventures in Indian subcontinent and the beginning of the official British monarchy.

It is abundantly detailed in its investigation of the events of those few months in Delhi and adequately meandering for the same reason. History needs to be studied through a prism that demonstrates the captive power of the oppressed or the defeated that traditional history will have you neglect. That is history 101.

This book does nothing for me. It spends an exorbitant amount of pages on the familial situations of East India Company officers, perhaps in the hope of giving the reader a feeling for the humans that would eventually be responsible for plenty of inhuman acts. I don't want to know any of that. What I know of Bahadur Shah Zafar by page10 remains unchanged by page 560. It has little to offer in terms of insight into palace politics, The Mughal dynasty or, and perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this mutiny, the terrible way Indians were used to fight and kill Indians by the Company.

I have to say since Zia Haider Rahman's award winning In the light of what we know I have not felt my time more wasted than now. I finish with Howard Zinn because I kept remembering him while I read this
I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements. But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion"

And finally if noone else says it, I will. I am quite frankly outraged, offended, annoyed by the author's use of the terminology -White Mughal. There is no such thing. Ugh.
Profile Image for Shahine Ardeshir.
171 reviews
February 1, 2014
Simply put: This is how history should be written.

William Dalrymple, in my opinion, took on a lot when he chose to write a book about the Revolution of 1857. It's a subject visited in Indian history books many, many times, and most people (myself included) think they already know everything there is to be said about that event.

The beautiful thing, though, is that he proved me completely wrong, by retelling the tale in a whole new way. Fundamentally, he did two things. First, he used multiple sources (many of which were previously unexplored) that allowed his story to be wonderfully unbiased in either direction. The material and facts appeared honest, balanced and most importantly, without any underlying "agenda" to drive. Secondly, he used his flair for writing (something that few authors in fiction or nonfiction possess, but that he clearly possesses in sackfuls) to make every page interesting, every story relevant, every character personal. And in this way, he drew me, as a reader, into his story, and I couldn't put the book down.

This is, at its essence, a wonderful, twisted and tragic story, full of characters who are human, whose motivations, fears and even ineptitude you grow to understand through the chapters. It was a sad but wonderful and enlightening look at 1857 once more, one that I have never glimpsed in all the years I studied Indian history in school and college.

Like I started by saying, this is how history should be: Alive, relevant, and fair. If Dalrymple wrote more of our textbooks, I've sure young people would stop seeing history as a staid and boring subject, and be able to relate, engage and learn from it. Bravo, William Dalrymple. Bravo!
2 reviews2 followers
November 5, 2007
At times, this seems like a cut and paste from archival materials, where excerpts from letters are offered up as evidence for the commentary that precedes them.

The book's fundamental premise, though, is intriguing: that Zafar's court represented the last vestige of a tolerant, Indo-Islamic culture; that British imperialism and religious evangelicals replaced a mixed Anglo-Society that was itself part of this pluralistic culture. And that the seeds of the Partition of India at independence, and even today's antipathy between the West and Islamic fundamentalists can be found in the demise of that culture, following the Uprising of 1857.

The books comes to that poweful conclusion. But for me, it wasn't the rich and readable prose of other histories I've read.
Profile Image for Sorabh Sharma.
8 reviews
March 3, 2014
Very detailed to the point of exhaustion! - Great if you are a researcher , bad if you wanted an exhilarating read on the demise of the Mughal empire.
Profile Image for Anirudh .
750 reviews
May 17, 2021
Did not particularly enjoy it. This definitely is not a bad book. However, I couldn't care less about the last Mughal Emperor or the transition of power between two tyrannical forces.
Profile Image for Manu.
358 reviews49 followers
March 18, 2012
Once, during a trip to Delhi, seeing the way history seemed to come 'alive' in the old city at various corners, I asked my friend whether anyone had tracked what had happened to the descendants of the Mughals, and how they saw their legacy . In this book, William Dalrymple does shed some light on it, though a sad one. More than the last Mughal emperor, the book belongs to the First War of Indian Independence to which he was unwittingly bound. Bahadur Shah 2 or Bahadur Shah Zafar as we were taught in history classes, born in 1775, whose pen name meant 'Victory', and was depicted as the face of the revolution that almost threw out the British. A hapless man who was pulled by a desire to ensure that he did justice to his legacy, when all he wanted to do was write his poetry and live in the company of like-minded souls. A spiritual man who was even considered a sufi saint, and still is, at his grave in Rangoon.
It is now history, but at some point it was the life lived by people like us. 1857 seems like tangible history, an era that can still be felt by its influence, even if minimal. Using records from all kinds of people - common men and chroniclers across Indian and British nationalities, the author creates a vivid portrait of Delhi, before, during, and after the uprising. Characters such as Ghalib sometimes add philosophical layers to this narration, and help us understand the cultural high point that was regained in Zafar's court. It also shows Zafar as a normal human being of his era - with his own superstitions and insecurities, a subject of court intrigue courtesy his wife Zinat Mahal, his son Mirza Mughaal, Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, General Bakht Khan and others, despite being hailed as Padshah, the Lord of the World.
The book also makes a point to showcase the relationship between religious communities before the event, and as the author reinforces many a time, Zafar deserves quite some credit in understanding the fabric that held his city together and maintaining the harmony there. He also points out that the real reason for the uprising was not political, but religious. What started as a fight between Hindu sepoys and the British ended as a fight between a rebel force that was made mostly of Muslim jehadis and British mercenaries made of Sikh, Muslim Punjabi, and Pathans. And it was a war that could have gone wither way.
Late in the book, there is also a mention of a royal survivor - Zafar Sultan, Zafar's brother's son, who refused government pension, and made his living with a brick cart. Once, many years later, in his old age, he was abused and beaten up by a businessman. After quietly taking the first few blows, he hit the businessman hard enough to break his nose. He told the court that sixty years earlier, the man's forefathers would have been his slaves and that he had not forgotten his lineage. Dressed in dirty suits, made to get up and salaam the British (when he used to consider it an insult for anyone to sit in his presence), and verbally abused regularly, Zafar himself was the recipient of several injustices at the hands of the British, who did not even give any consideration for his old age after they 'captured' him.
What remains with me, and this is something I went back to, almost every time I picked up the book to continue, is the photo of Zafar, lying with his face to the camera - the face of a broken old man who through his life saw the dominion of his ancestors taken away from him until all he had was his city and an empty title, who had just been made to undergo a trial and many humiliations before it, eyes expressing melancholy, and resigned to his destiny.
Profile Image for Raghu.
385 reviews77 followers
June 27, 2007
This book is a timely one on this 150th anniversary of the Great Indian mutiny of 1857. This is also the first ever book that looks at the mutiny from the Indian point of view, though it is written by an Englishman. William Dalrymple has spent much of the past twenty years in India and so is eminently qualified to write this book. Using the extensive and valuable material in the National Archives in Delhi, he pieces together the kind of life that ordinary people lived in Delhi in 1857 and how they viewed the uprising of 1857. The picture that emerges is quite different to what one has read in the high school curriculums in India or in the 'accounts' of many Britishers or even that written by Karl Marx right then in 1857, calling it the first Indian war of independence.
Some of the salient points from the research are:
The uprising was triggered off by the insensitivity of the British rulers towards the religious sentiments of both Hindus and Muslims. Initially, it was a composite assault by both Hindus and muslims on the British rule but gradually, the jihadi elements among the muslims took control and when they entered Delhi, they totally massacred the Christians(read British) there brutally, regardless of women and children. When the British eventually gained ascendency, they retaliated with equal and even more brutality with no regard to any of the human rights they professed. They developed most distrust and hatred for the Indian muslim and slaughtered them with no mercy and sowed the seeds of the eventual 'divide and rule' policy in India. The Sikhs and Gurkhas and later the Marwaris aided the British in defeating the mutiny. This is something not highlighted in our history books for obvious reasons.
Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was 82 years old when the mutiny started. He was a product of the composite syncretic culture of India and believed strongly in protecting the Hindus against extremist elements among the jihadis. He did not want the mutiny but was too weak and 'poor' to resist it. He was caught in the storm in his final years and sadly he had to preside over the demise of the great Mughal dynasty.
His treason trial by the British was totally illegal because the East India company was at the the emperor's behest and not the other way around. There are so many parallels to what is happening today in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.
The story Bahadur Shah Zafar is so sad to red. It is also sad that in Indian history books today, the composite heritage of the Indo-islamic culture is not emphasised. Instead, we repeat the oft-repeated British negative view of the Indian muslim.
The book is brilliant and scholarly. All Indians are indebted to Dalrymple for his seminal work.
A must read for all Indians.
Profile Image for Nathan.
523 reviews4 followers
August 19, 2010
The raw material here is grand: the epically momentous dissolution of a glorious dynasty under massive and sometimes odious forces. It is a classic story, tailor-made for the popular historian. The problem is, Dalrymple is not the right sort of historian; he is too calculated, too bloodless, too starchy to imbue his narrative with the life it deserves. He leans heavily on contemporary accounts, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage: it saves us from completely losing the story to his coldly utilitarian style, but it also gives the book an unfocused and disjointed style that often obscures the flow of events.

Still, in the end, "The Last Mughal" contains one of the clearest critiques of British imperialism that I've ever read. Dalrymple's sympathies lean distinctly (and rightly, I think) Indian-ward. He provides a corrective to the usual 'glorious empire' myth, giving voice to the indigenous population as real people who suffered greatly under an empire that too often is painted benignly. It's an effective touch, even though it follows a more neutral narrative, making this a worthwhile, if sedate, read.
Profile Image for D..
61 reviews14 followers
August 9, 2007
I'm giving this book four stars because although it's very interesting material, I didn't get "hooked" very easily and it took me longer to read than a book this size usually takes me.

The book is about Delhi during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and about the fall of the Mughals. I came out of reading this book disgusted and angry with both sides, and very sad for all the horrible things that happened in Delhi at that time. To think that Chandni Chowk, my favorite spot in Delhi, was the place of such terrible events...it's very sad. But I'm also very glad to have read the book and expanded my knowledge of my husband's home city/country even more. I've always been a history buff, especially British history, and this is one chapter in history that I had no clue about before. I'll definitely read more by this author.
Profile Image for Ankur Chawla.
130 reviews2 followers
July 9, 2013
its was ok nothing as city of djnn's... probably this does not have some much information and is limited to the 1857 incident.. although people who lived that must have had a different view but from a point of scale where time is vast incident living and reading are different aspects of the same coin .. anyways may this is limited to an incident and city of djnn's had a long list of characters distributed over a length of time thus the loss of interested while reading. or may be by this time the quality of society had degraded and the leaders were not strong to lead and british oppressors were in a different mood altogether which did not line up with general populations point of view and there daily problems.

good book for history seekers...
Profile Image for Willie Kirschner.
453 reviews1 follower
July 28, 2020
I did not finish this book as I found it relatively uninteresting. This is a very comprehensive look at the Uprising and the conditions that led to the end of the Mughal rule. However, I am more interested in learning about the beginning of that Empire, so I decided to stop this about a third of the way through.
May 16, 2021
It must take a special talent in perversion to write a fat tome dedicated to projecting this weakling and traitor as a “tragic figure of the eponymous monarch… and abidingly fond of the arts of peace,” as William Dalrymple has done...
Profile Image for Monica.
767 reviews
December 15, 2009
Fast paced, flashing like an epic movie, round about page 100 I was convinced of Dalrymple's brilliant talent, incorporating Urdu texts and British writings from the era to show how a tolerant creative, if excessive Mughal court was torn asunder by violence and racism; how something so small and inconsiderate as to how bullets were manufactured could erupt into such violence, followed by even greater revenge. I wanted insight into complicated Muslim, Sufi, Hindu, Christian relations and got exactly what I was looking for.


From the Guardian


One of Benazir Bhutto's more dubious legacies to Pakistan is the Prime Minister's house in the middle of Islamabad. The building is a giddy, pseudo-Mexican ranch house with white walls and a red tile roof. There is nothing remotely Islamic about the building which, as my minder said when I went there to interview the then Prime Minister Bhutto, was 'PM's own design'. Inside, it was the same story. Crystal chandeliers dangled sometimes two or three to a room; oils of sunflowers and tumbling kittens that would have looked at home on the Hyde Park railings hung below garishly gilt cornices.

The place felt as though it might be the weekend retreat of a particularly flamboyant Latin-American industrialist, but, in fact, it could have been anywhere. Had you been shown pictures of the place on one of those TV game-shows where you are taken around a house and then have to guess who lives there, you may have awarded this hacienda to virtually anyone except, perhaps, to the Prime Minister of an impoverished Islamic republic situated next door to Iran.

Which is, of course, exactly why the West always had a soft spot for Benazir Bhutto. Her neighbouring heads of state may have been figures as unpredictable and potentially alarming as President Ahmadinejad of Iran and a clutch of opium-trading Afghan warlords, but Bhutto has always seemed reassuringly familiar to Western governments - one of us. She spoke English
fluently because it was her first language. She had an English governess, went to a convent run by Irish nuns and rounded off her education with degrees from Harvard and Oxford.

'London is like a second home for me,' she once told me. 'I know London well. I know where the theatres are, I know where the shops are, I know where the hairdressers are. I love to browse through Harrods and WH Smith in Sloane Square. I know all my favourite ice cream parlours. I used to particularly love going to the one at Marble Arch: Baskin Robbins.
Sometimes, I used to drive all the way up from Oxford just for an ice cream and then drive back again. That was my idea of sin.'

It was difficult to imagine any of her neighbouring heads of state, evenIndia's earnest Sikh economist, Manmohan Singh, talking like this.

For the Americans, what Benazir Bhutto wasn't was possibly more attractive even than what she was. She wasn't a religious fundamentalist, she didn'thave a beard, she didn't organise rallies where everyone shouts: 'Death to America' and she didn't issue fatwas against Booker-winning authors, even though Salman Rushdie ridiculed her as the Virgin Ironpants in his novel Shame.

However, the very reasons that made the West love Benazir Bhutto are the same that gave many Pakistanis second thoughts. Her English might have been fluent, but you couldn't say the same about her Urdu which she spoke like a well-groomed foreigner: fluently, but ungrammatically. Her Sindhi was even worse; apart from a few imperatives, she was completely at sea.

Profile Image for Sravya.
27 reviews2 followers
November 18, 2020
In an excellent blend of narration and 1st hand anecdotal records, the author presents a complete view of the 1857 battle. The logic and consequence of each tactical decision is explained along with the irony if any. We witness the significance of Delhi and Mughals, the extent of horrors in the war, with well rounded characters and knowledge of their motivations.
Profile Image for Manvendra Shekhawat.
84 reviews17 followers
April 14, 2021
A city where I would have been residing if not for this pandemic.
Completely ignorant of the importance it held in the past, I would severely curse the city. Everything about the city frustrated me in the short while that I stayed there.
Nonetheless I would always refer to Delhi as Ghalib ki Dilli. Never able to ascertain why. But after reading The Last Mughal I've come to realize that it would be an insult to refer to the city as an individual's property/city.
I would be doing great injustice to Dilli if I ventured out to describe what it stood for. For that simple reason Dilli chose Dalrymple as its voice to the outside world.
Oh! And what a voice it has been.

It would come as a shock to many that such a magnificent city ever existed in India. A temple of learning and culture razed to the ground by multiple actions of so many savages.

I would have preferred the title Anarchy for this book. The sheer scale of violence and destruction would make this the most suitable title.

You feel nothing but pity for the king or as he has been referred to ”the last Mughal”. A frail old sufi living amidst absolute chaos.

Ghalib ki Dilli is no longer the norm however, as a credit to the author for introducing this city in a completely new light, Dalrymple ki Dilli will only make sense.
Profile Image for Sam.
224 reviews29 followers
December 27, 2018
I was putting off reading this book for a long time because I thought it would be very hard and heavy and I am not a big fan of non-fiction as it is, but boy, was I super, super wrong! It was a surprisingly easy, fast-paced read and the writing was flawless, combining letters, newspapers and diary entries to compile a comprehensive (and extremely interesting) account of the famous 1857 sepoy mutiny. As a bonus, it also helped get rid of my fear of non-fiction!

It also made me see the monuments like Red Fort and Jama Masjid in a whole new light, after learning that the British were almost about to demolish these architectural wonders and level Delhi completely, if not for the interference of another British officer, John Lawrence, who had fallen in love with Delhi’s rich architecture and culture.

Red Fort: the home of the Mughal Emperors-

Jama Masjid
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