William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal – Delhi in the 1850s


William Dalrymple wrote the City of Djinns and The White Moghuls but I have skipped straight to The Last Moghul – my favorite period in Indian history. Call it the Great Indian Mutiny or the first War of Indian Independence, the sequence of events at that time has fired countless imaginations and led to many a great story set in the times. The times of Bahadur Shah Zafar are exquisitely researched by Dalrymple and just 90 pages into the book I want to store so many factoids, so many facets, in my brain that I thought I would do a series of pieces – mostly to keep the book fresh in my own head.

For any lover of poetry, and more specifically the ghazal for of poetry, it should be well known that Zafar himself was an accomplished poet. But what I was unaware of was the burning rivalry between Zauq and Ghalib at the time. It was clear that the raffish rake Ghalib was superceded by Zauq in the emperor’s estimation when Zauq was made the Poet Laureate and the tutor to the royal princes while Ghalib often landed up in jail for owing money! History suggests the emperor was a bit clueless, and not just in judging poetry. A lot of this material is painstakingly collected by Dalrymple and his colleagues from the many documents preserved from the time of the “Jang-E-Azadi” and the two dailies that came out of Delhi regularly at the time – the English language Delhi Gazette and the Urdu language Dihli Urdu Akhbar. Back issues of both are preserved in the Indian National Archives. Delhi’s insular nature seems to have been preserved since the time, as Delhi residents called the Mutiny a Danga or Fasad and the mutineering sepoys who landed up in Delhi to declare Zafar their commander, as Tilangas even though the company had long given up the practice of recruiting sepoys from Telangana and the army was now filed with recruits from Avadh (Oudh), a region bordering Delhi.

The Lingua franca of this Delhi was Urdu and the Delhiite spoke it with pride no matter what his faith. It was the language of poetry, and collections of poetry from the time contained compositions not just from the emperor but also a water seller from Chandni Chowk, a courtesan and a barber! One the eve of the marraige of a favorite prince, the most talked about event was the poetry “competition” between Zauq and Ghalib! But while the marriage was performed with great pomp and show the power of the grand Moghul was on the wane – so much so that he could not een make a simple gift to friend or family without the approval of the Governor General! And the White Moghuls – those who had embraced the culture of the Moghul court, following it in all manner of ways including dress and the practice of having multiple wives – were being slowly replaced by the proper Englishmen who looked down on those that had gone native – like Colonel Skinner of the Skinner’s Horse regiment.

(Aside – the motto of this regiment is Himmate Mardaan, Madade Khuda – how cool is that?)
These White Moghuls included Britishers who had over a couple of generations intermarried into Hindu or Muslim families (like Skinner) or those that had turned native after a prolonged stay in India. This intermingling of bloodlines was also apparent in the Moghul royal family itself and Zafar was born of a Rajput mother (like many of his ancestors!). The merging of religions and cultures all the way from Christianity through Islam to Hinduism made Delhi a truly secular state and this allowed for a somewhat peaceful co-existence. But change was in the air as the newly arriving Britishers were more rigid and fundamental in their following of the faith, and certain Muslims returning from Mecca saw a dilution of the rigid Islamic laws in the way the faith was practiced in the court and in Delhi.

(next – the fundamentalists strike!)

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