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William Dalrymple The Affair of the Last Mughal

The Affair of the Last Mughal:Mukund Padmanabhan reviews and interviews William Dalrymple on his ambitious new book on the last days of Mughal Delhi.

Unique perspective: Dalrymple attempts to make history interesting to the layman.

The last of the Great Mughals, Bahadur Shah Zafar, found himself thrust — reluctantly and with some misgivings — into the position of the leader of the 1857 Uprising against the British. William Dalrymple’s book deals with the tragic end of the dynasty against the catastrophic backdrop of the fall of Mughal Delhi, brutalised by revengeful British troops that seemed bent not merely on recapturing a city but also apparently on destroying a civilisation.

IN a sense, William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal picks up where his White Mughals leaves off. The Englishmen of the late 1700s and the early 1800s, who had affairs Indian bibis, adopted Indian customs and were sympathetic to Indian interests have vanished. By the 1850s, the dynamics of the colonial encounter — marked by assimilation and cultural exchange over several decades — have drastically changed. A new breed of Englishmen has arrived, fired by evangelical enthusiasm, convinced about its moral superiority and eager to shape the social and religious destiny of a heathen India.

It is in this climate that Padre Jennings, Delhi’s Chaplain, arrives in India and plans to rip up the false faiths of the country, “by force if necessary.” It is here that a weak and vulnerable Bahadur Shah Zafar presides over a Delhi court that is steeped in literary pursuits to sublimate its lack of political power. And it is here again, that the people of Delhi exist in an inherently unstable equilibrium with their British masters, living not only “in different mental worlds, but also in different time zones.”

It is a setting ripe for revolt and Dalrymple narrates the story of Delhi’s capture and fall with a rare humanity, a zest that is infectious, and in a prose that is handsome, sure-footed and flowing with breezy purpose. Few writers understand as well as Dalrymple that the function of history is not merely to inform but also to engage and entertain. Fewer still recognise that the illumination of historical truth often lies in seemingly unacademic pursuits such as breathing life into the central characters or examining how ordinary people related to the social and political events of their day.

It is for the professional historians to assess or react to his broad theories — for instance, that Delhi was central to the events of 1857, that the uprising in the city and the attempts to quell it had the character of a religious war, that the sepoys failed not so much because they lacked a military strategy but because their supply lines were cut off by the operation of tribal gangs in Delhi’s outskirts. For the rest of us, the book provides a fascinating account of the last days of Mughal Delhi, narrated from a perspective that is far from nationalist but in a way oddly and endearingly Indian.

New sources

It is a wonderfully told story that relies heavily on new and hitherto untranslated sources (a cache that includes the virtually unused Mutiny Papers that he located in Delhi’s National Archives), one that allows us to witness 1857 as it was experienced by a host of common people — kebabsellers, dancers, traders, sepoys and spies. At one level, the quirky little yarns that Dalyrmple spins about the fears, prejudices, troubles, desires and ambitions of these and others are interesting digressions. At another, these personal stories add up in some incalculable way to provide a picture of Mughal Delhi that is intimate and meaningful.

The bulk of the book deals with the uprising in Delhi and Bahadur Shah Zafar — after whom the book is named — appears more as a symbol rather than the central subject. For all his weaknesses, Zafar represents the tolerant and liberal face of Islam, a King who understood the importance of keeping Hindus and Muslims together, a poet whose court was populated with “some of the most talented artistic and literary figures in modern South Asian history.” When the British defeat him and strip him of his kingship, they do more than just end the Mughal dynasty; they destroy a form of Indo-Islamic civilisation. In many ways, this splendid book is a stirring lament for this loss.

The Last Mughaleasily Dalrymple’s most ambitious work until now, uses a wealth of news material to provide a unique perspective on the events of 1857. Zafar was emperor at a time when the Mughal dynasty was in decline, an emperor only in name. But in Dalrymple’s account, he was “a symbol of Islamic civilisation at its most tolerant and pluralistic”, a poet and ghazal writer who patronised the arts and helped in the flowering of a great cultural renaissance. In crushing the Uprising in the manner they did, Dalrymple argues that the British did more than end a dynasty and destroy a city — they also swept away a “pluralistic and philosophically composite civilisation.” Dalrymple spoke from England where his book was launched recently. Extracts from a telephonic inteview:

How do you see The Last Mughal principally? As a history, biography, a lament for a lost civilisation, a rattling good yarn — or a bit of all of these?

A history. It’s certainly not a biography. Because I haven’t really dealt with the first 70 years of his (Bahadur Shah Zafar’s) life. What it is, I suppose, is a portrait of Delhi, the last days of Mughal Delhi… and its apocalyptic destruction by the British.

In your view the [1857] Uprising was a little bit of everything — a mutiny, a war of Independence, a peasant revolt, all of that. But what is the single most important point of departure from the other histories of this period? Is it the fact that the Uprising was, in some way, a war of religion?

It was expressed unequivocally as a war of religion. But this is not to say there was no deeply held set of grievances. One could draw a parallel with contemporary Islamic insurgencies against the West. The things that give [Osama] Bin Laden support are concrete political grievances against American foreign policy in the Middle East. The support of Israel, the bases all over the region, interference in countries, propping up of puppet regimes and so forth. And this [protest] is also expressed in the same language [as a religious war]. The same was true of 1857. So to say that the Uprising was expressed in religious language is not to deny that there were secular, economic, political grievances.

Also, I am talking specifically about Delhi, which, in some ways, was a special case. It was different, for example, from Lucknow in important ways.

But if there is a new historical perspective in this book, wouldn’t this be it?

If you are asking me what is unique, I would say there are two things, which hopefully provide interesting new perspectives to 1857. The first is emphasising the centrality of Delhi. This has been an uncomfortable thing for many Indian nationalist historians of 1857. Because you have the spectacle of sepoys, 85 per cent of which were upper caste Hindus, going to ask a Muslim emperor to rule them again. This is not something that [V.D.] Savarkar, who coined the phrase First Indian War of Independence, would have taken much pleasure in, for example. He emphasises Mangal Pandey and raises him on a pedestal. Obviously, Pandey was a hero in many ways but he was fairly marginal.

The fact of the matter is at least 1,00,000 of the 1,67,000 sepoys who rose up went straight to Delhi and asked Zafar to lead them. This is worth pondering about. As I said, these people were 85 per cent upper caste Hindus. What does this say about India — the allegiances, the loyalties and so on? It paints the nature of Mughal rule in a very different light. There is a very real ambivalence in India about the idea of Mughal rule… The contradiction between what happened in 1992, a Hindu rising against a Mughal symbol [the Babri Masjid], and what happened in 1857, when upper caste Hindus went to put a Mughal back on the throne, is certainly worth exploring.

And the second thing?

It’s simply that in Delhi there are 20,000 primary sources of Urdu and Persian [material], which allows us to see the Uprising in quite incredible detail. I no more than skimmed the surface of that archive…


This is what you call the Mutiny papers?

It’s what the catalogue calls it. And these papers are of the chancery of the Red Fort, the records of the sepoy regiments, records of the Delhi courts of justice, the Delhi kotwal, the individual thanas… and they represent an unbelievably rich street-level archive, which has been almost unused.

It’s clear from the book that the Mutiny papers acquaint us with certain people through their petitions, tell you stories about their lives, provide material to spin some interesting yarns. How much do they contain that actually demand a fresh look at the events of 1857?

Well, if you look at the time when things are beginning to fall apart in Delhi, they provide one with very detailed evidence of why the Uprising failed. And the answer was they [the sepoys in Delhi] were all starving. It was a major logistical failure. It wasn’t because of the British siege of the city. It was because of the Gujar and the Mewati tribes on the outskirts who were lynching everyone coming into the city. So no food was coming in, there was no liberated area as such. The city was under siege only partially by the British, but largely by the people on the outskirts, who had their own agenda. In late July, there were about 1,00,000 sepoys in the city. By the time the city fell in September, there were probably fewer than 30,000 or 35,000 left. The rest had gone off because they were not being paid or fed.

At every stage, the papers provide enormous detail. All the petitions from the military regiments, the squabbles, details about British collaborators, agent provocateurs, the excellence of the British intelligence system, the failure of the Indian side to do anything [about this] — all of this.

A question about the portions on British barbarity. It’s not just the facts, but the tone of these bits that leads me to wonder — are you going to be accused of Britain-bashing?

I have already! Today’s Observer accuses me of that. It says that my tendency to bash the West mars an otherwise impeccable biography.(Laughs). We have evidence from both sides that almost every male in the city, armed or unarmed, sepoy or civilian, was regarded as a target. It is important at a time when people like Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts are trying to revive Empire as a respectable idea — particularly to hold up British Empire as a model of globalisation, as an engine of progress — to recognise our own faults and the dark side of Empire.

What happened in Delhi is shocking, a massacre. Far, far greater…

Than Amritsar?

Yes. I think again there has been a tendency both on the part of the British historians and the nationalist historians not to emphasise the centrality of Delhi. Delhi was the principal theatre of action. Followed by Lucknow and Kanpur.

What about Zafar himself? You adopt an extremely sympathetic view. He has been conventionally portrayed as someone who couldn’t make up his mind, attempted to play both sides, was trapped…

I don’t think that’s fair. I think he is an under-rated character. But I don’t want to obscure his failings. He was a catalyst for a major cultural renaissance. But it’s hard to imagine anyone less well suited to lead the Uprising. I make no bones of the fact that his leadership was one of the principal failures. Had there been a younger leader, history might have been very different.

What could an 82-year old man do? He could hardly have led a cavalry charge at that age… I reject charges that I whitewash or glorify him.

At one level, your book is aimed at the general reader — it’s full of anecdotes, a great read and doesn’t presuppose any special knowledge of this period of history. But at another level, you are also addressing the historians. You draw attention to a wealth of new material, to the importance of looking at 1857 in a new light.

I believe they should not be seen as a contradiction. It says a great deal about writing of history in India today that that this is seen as a contradiction. I was trained as a historian in Cambridge. I don’t feel in any way that I am unqualified as a historian.

I wasn’t suggesting that at all…

No, no. But it is unusual for people in India to write history if they don’t have an academic job.

Certainly, the historians I grew up admiring and enjoying… my hero is the great medievalist Steven Runciman, who taught at Cambridge but left academia to write. He wrote this fabulous book called The Fall of Constantinople 1453, about the last days of Byzantium, which is the closest thing I have to a model for the way I constructed The Last Mughal. He is an example of what I would regard as a model for history writing. As one who writes beautiful prose, who pulls you into a story, but whose books are unimpeachably scholarly and break new ground at every level.

There are many ways of writing history. I don’t wish to denigrate the achievements of the many great Indian historians.

But I think it is true to say that they have ceased to write for the general public. They only write for each other. There are very few exceptions. There is a tendency to use scholarly jargon, which in my view obscures rather than illuminates. One result of this is the terrible situation of the wide prevalence of historical myth.

Over the last year, I must have received 20 or 30 e-mails saying that the Taj Mahal is a Shiva temple dating from 400 BC. There should not be a situation where the intelligent middle class believes this rubbish. And it seems to me that historians are failing in their duty if, alongside with their detailed specialist work, they do not provide accounts which engage, interest and teach people their own history.


Geoffrey Moorhouse’s Guardian review of the Last Mughal:


The Last Mughal on Amazon.co.uk:




William Dalrymple and Vidya Shah perform the Last Mughal:



William Dalrymple lectures on the affair of 1857:



The Last Mughal Amazon site:


The Last Mughal at Berkeley:



The Last Mughal in Googlebooks:



The Last Mughal- Wikipedia site:



William Dalrymple on the affair of Zafar Delhi:



William Dalrymple’s new account of the affair of 1857:



Ethan Casey reviews William Dalrymple’s Last Mughal:




William Dalrymple Love Affair with Mughal art: Princes and Painter in Mughal India an exhibition by in New York

At the peak of their power in the mid-seventeenth century, the Great Mughals were the richest and most powerful Islamic dynasty of their day. They ruled over some 100 million subjects—five times the number commanded by their only rivals, the Ottomans. From the ramparts of the Delhi Red Fort, the seat of power, Shah Jahan—the Emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal— controlled almost all of India, the whole of what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as much of Afghanistan. The latter, then known as Khorassan, the Mughals held more successfully than any other invader, before or since.

For their impoverished contemporaries in the distant west, floundering in their codpieces and doublets, the Mughals became symbols of power, sophistication, luxury and might–  in Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, the cities of Mughal India are revealed to Adam after the Fall as future wonders of God’s creation. These are attributes with which the word ‘mogul’ is still loaded four hundred years later: when someone writes today of a Hollywood or Real Estate mogul, they are unwittingly recalling the impression the Mughals made on our befuddled Elizabethan ancestors.

Sooner or later, all Empires fall, and by the beginning of the eighteenth century, just as the British were beginning to make their presence felt on the coasts and seaports of India, the political power of the Mughals had begun to fall apart in the most spectacular fashion. As the provinces broke off one by one, the imperial capital of Delhi descended into violent chaos. Three Emperors were murdered, while one of them, Farrukhsiyyar, was imprisoned and starved, then later blinded with a hot needle and strangled; the mother of another ruler was also throttled while the father of a third was forced off a precipice on his elephant.

It has long been believed that the art and architecture of the Mughals followed a similar trajectory to their political fortunes: that from the triumphs of the period of Shah Jahan, notably the great Padshahnama, subject of a spectacular exhibition at the Queen’s Galleries in 1997, Mughal art rapidly declined. Shah Jahan’s puritical son, the Emperor Aurangzeb, is often said to have disbanded the Imperial painting atelier, and later Emperors were assumed to have failed to muster either the resources, or the energy, to restore it. Successive sackings of Delhi by Persian and Afghan invaders, the coming of the colonial British, followed finally by the arrival of photography, have traditionally been seen to have dealt the final death blows that killed the Mughal miniature tradition.

Today few specialists would hold with such a bald version of events, but it certainly remains true that the art of the later Mughals remains under-studied and much under-appreciated. This is one reason why, over the last five years, the art historian Yuthika Sharma and I have been sourcing and putting together the first ever exhibition of late Mughal art, aiming to showcase the neglected masterpieces of this fascinating transitional period and to provide a taste of the extraordinary strength, colour, and vivacity of the work produced in the Mughal capital at this time. Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857 opened recently at the Asia Society in New York. The whole project has taken far longer and was much more of a struggle than I could possibly envisaged at the start; but I am ecstatic about the results. The Asia Society has done a fabulous job of designing the show and pulling it all together, and to its happy co-curator at least, it looks just beautiful.

The show is part of a much wider reassessment of the later Mughal period that has been going on for some time.  It is now recognised that despite its political decline, Delhi remained a major artistic and cultural centre for 150 years after its military and economic power had ebbed, and despite much diminished resources, the later Emperors continued to patronize remarkable artists and poets with Medici-like discrimination. Art historians are only now coming to recognize that the work of this period is every bit as interesting and innovative, and arguably more diverse and surprising, than the art produced under their better-known predecessors.

One of the first exhibits shows the longest surviving sovereign of the age, the Emperor Muhammad Shah II, 1719-48, (called Rangila,  the Merrymaker), playing Holi, the Bacchanalian Hindu spring festival  of colours. The painting, by Bhupali Singh, dates from about 1737, less than three decades after the death of Aurangzeb, yet already we have moved as far as can be imagined from the joyless world of the puritan Mughal. Now a Muslim Emperor joins in a Hindu festival, throwing colour bombs at his favourite courtesan, Gulab Bai, as female musicians play tablas and sarangis and the court dissolves into a riot of bright yellows, purples, oranges and inferno reds.

Muhammad Shah, depicted by Bhupali Singh as an eye-shadow-wearing dandy, was the longest surviving sovereign of the age. He seems to have survived by the simple ruse of giving up any pretence of ruling: in the morning he watched partridge and elephant fights; in the evenings he was entertained by jugglers, ventriloquists, and mime artists, while the Emperor watched on, often dressed in a lady’s peshwaz and pearl-embroidered shoes. But while presiding over the decline of Mughal political power, Muhammad Shah also proved to be a discerning patron, employing such master artists as Nidha Mal (active 1735–75) and Chitarman (active 1715-1760), whose great masterworks show bucolic scenes of court life, Diwali firework parties alive with sprinklers and rockets,  hunting and hawking, and even the Emperor making love.

Again and again the artists of the period return to the idyll of the Mughal pleasure garden, a hint of escapism, perhaps in reaction to the frequently violent reality.  There is a direct parallel to the spirit of Restoration London: after the grim chill of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, with the theatres closed and festivities banned, society reacted to the enforced Puritanism by heading wildly in the opposite direction. In Delhi this was, for example, the age of the great poet-courtesans: Ad Begum would turn up stark naked at parties, but so cleverly painted that no one would notice: “she decorates her legs with beautiful drawings in the style of pyjamas instead of actually wearing them.”

In addition to re-establishing the imperial painting atelier, Muhammad Shah presided over a cultural and intellectual renaissance, as Delhi’s scholars, mystics, musicians, poets and painters increased in fame as fast as her military fortunes diminished, and the city was enlivened by a culture of coffee houses and literary salons.

Rich and cultured as it was, shorn of its provinces and most of its army, Delhi remained unprotected, a valuable jewel ready to be seized by the first adventurer bold enough to take it. That man proved to be Nadir Shah, the ruler of Persia. In 1739, Nadir Shah defeated the Mughal army and advanced on Delhi. After several of his soldiers were killed in a bazaar brawl, Nadir Shah ordered a massacre. At the end of a single day’s slaughter, 150,000 of the city’s citizens lay dead and the accumulated wealth gathered by the Mughal Emperors was taken away to Teheran in a caravan of several thousand carts and camels. Among the treasures looted were the Peacock Throne of Shah Jahan and the Koh-i-Noor diamond.  Two further sackings of the city followed, this time by Afghans, until in 1803 the British arrived to fill the power vacuum.

During the eighteenth century, the East India Company had transformed itself from a coastal trading organization into an aggressive proto-colonial government. Yet in Delhi, initial contact between these two powers was surprisingly positive. The first Company ‘Residents,’ or ambassadors to the Mughal court, immersed themselves in its culture, wore Mughal dress, took Mughal wives, and became important patrons of Mughal painting, reviving and transforming the art of the capital in the process.

The first British Resident, the Boston-born Sir David Ochterlony (1758–1825) set the tone. A miniature in the exhibition shows Ochterlony wearing turban and kurta pyjamas and smoking a huqqa while watching a troupe of Delhi dancers perform. From the picture rail above, Ochterlony’s outraged Scottish ancestors peer down disapprovingly. When in the Indian capital, Ochterlony liked to be addressed  by his full Moghul title, Nasir-ud-Daula (Defender of the State) and he had a jade Persian seal made to commemorate its conferral, which sits gleaming brightly in the exhibition beside the miniature of its owner.

Though Ochterlony is reputed to have had thirteen wives,  each of whom had her own elephant, one of these,  Mubarak Begum, took precedence over the others. She offended the British by calling herself ‘Lady Ochterlony’- in one letter it is recorded that ‘Lady Ochterlony has applied for leave to make the Hadge to Mecca’- and also offended the  Mughals by awarding herself the title Qudsia Begum, previously the title of the Emperor’s mother.  It was for her that Ochterlony built the last of the great Mughal garden tombs whose design, seen in another miniature, pleasingly mixes a domed church tower topped with a cross, hedged around with a forest  of minarets and very Islamic-looking Timurid semi-domes and cupulas.

Ochterlony was however by no means alone in his Indianized tastes. When the wife of the British commander in chief in India visited Delhi in 1810, she was horrified by what she saw. It was not just Ochterlony, who had “gone native,” she reported; his two assistants “both wear immense whiskers, and neither will eat beef or pork, being as much Hindoos as Christians.” One of these men, William Fraser (1784–1835) a Persian scholar from Inverness, lived in Delhi for three decades, making perhaps the most interesting journey of any British figure of the period, transforming himself into a White Mughal with an Indian family and close relationships with the most interesting artistic, theological, and political figures of the day, notably the greatest of the city’s poets, Ghalib (1797–1869) of whom he became a prominent patron.


Fraser became a crucial figure in Delhi’s artistic development and the Fraser Album, which he commissioned was the supreme masterpiece of the period.  Indeed the best works produced in Delhi under Company patronage show a sympathy with the Mughal world quite at odds with the usual post-colonial stereotypes of colonial philistinism and insensitivity. The Fraser Album with its detailed portraits of Delhi’s soldiers, noblemen, holy men, dancing girls, and villagers, as well as Fraser’s staff and his bodyguards, are unparalleled in Indian art, and in the New York show we have managed to gather the largest collection of Fraser pages assembled since the album was split and sold off at auction some thirty years ago.


Particularly remarkable are the images of the village of Rania which was home to Fraser’s mistress, Amiban, and his two Anglo-Indian sons, and daughter. Fraser’s connection to the village means that there is an intimacy here quite unlike the usual Mughal or colonial commissions of generic ‘rustics’. The wild-looking and handsome villagers are living breathing individuals and are superbly painted with a realist flourish. These men were intimately known by Fraser, and formed part of his circle of acquaintances—as he wrote himself, the images recorded “recollections that never can leave my heart.”


The name of the master artist of the Fraser Album has not survived, but he was part of the circle of the last great family of artists to work for the Mughal court. The head of that family described himself in an inscription on his most celebrated pictures, the Corination Portrait of Bahadur Shah Zafar II—a fabulous icon of the Emperor looking as as ethereal and other-wordly as a desert father from the apse of some Coptic monastery, subject to the laws of gravity thanks only to the weight of the crown anchoring him to the terrestrial world– as “the hereditary slave of the dynasty, Ghulam Ali Khan the portraitist, resident at ShahJahanabad.” Elsewhere he signs himself simply “His Majesty’s Painter.”  Although Ghulam Ali Khan’s family were very proud of their status as hereditary painters to the Mughal throne, the truth was slightly more complex. The court no longer had sufficient funds to employ Ghulam Ali Khan’s family exclusively, and to survive the painter had to moonlight as painter to other members of Delhi society. These included the Nawab of Jhajjar, who Ghulam Ali Khan memorably painted taking exercise astride his pet tiger, the Rajput-Scottish mercenary James ‘Sikander Sahib’ Skinner and several British diplomats, as well as Fraser himself.

Traditionally, art historians have conceived of early Colonial commissions of Indian artists as ‘Company School Painting,’ which they see as something quite separate from the art of the Late Mughal court. It is argued in this exhibition that such distinctions are actually meaningless, for in Delhi at this period the same artists were working in similar styles for very different patrons. Just as Delhi at this period saw a remarkable intellectual renaissance as new scientific and theological ideas from the west impacted on the Mughal scholars of the town, so the Delhi court artists were experminting at will with western styles and western materials, taking what they liked from both worlds, exerting their own agency to define character and style and experimenting with the different traditions with both confidence and grace.

As British arrogance increased towards the mid-nineteenth century, this brief dialogue of civilizations drew to a close; mutual interest was replaced by mutual suspicion. On a May morning in 1857, three hundred of the Company’s Indian troops mutinied, rode to Delhi, massacred the British, and declared the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar to be their leader.  During the four hottest months of the Indian summer, the capital was besieged and bombarded.  Finally, on September 14, 1857, the British assaulted the city, massacring and looting as they went. Anyone who survived was driven into the countryside. Delhi was left an empty ruin and the last Mughal exiled to Burma where he died. But as this show demonstrates, this is a period both of huge historical interest and great artistic value. The late Mughals left much that was astonishingly beautiful; and there is far more to admire and love about their art than has ever been previously understood.

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Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857 is on at the Asia Society Museum in Park  Avenue, New York until May 6th 2012. The catalogue of the show is published by Yale University Press.