THE LAST MUGHAL
At 4 P.M. on a hazy, humid winter’s afternoon in Rangoon in November 1862, soon after the end of the monsoon, a shrouded corpse was escorted by a small group of British soldiers to an anonymous grave at the back of a walled prison enclosure. This enclosure lay overlooking the muddy brown waters of the Rangoon River, a little downhill from the great gilt spire of the Shwe Dagon pagoda. Around the enclosure lay the newly constructed cantonment area of the port–an anchorage and pilgrimage town that had been seized, burned and occupied by the British only ten years earlier.
The bier of the State Prisoner–as the deceased was referred to–was accompanied by two of his sons and an elderly, bearded mullah. No women were allowed to attend, and a small crowd from the bazaar who had somehow heard about the prisoner’s death were kept away by armed guards. Nevertheless, one or two managed to break through the cordon to touch the shroud before it was lowered into the grave.
The ceremony was brief. The British authorities had made sure not that only the grave was already dug, but that quantities of lime were on hand to guarantee the rapid decay of both bier and body. When the shortened funeral prayers had been recited– no lamentations or panegyrics were allowed–the earth was thrown in over the lime, and the turf carefully replaced so that within a month or so no mark would remain to indicate the place of burial. A week later the British Commissioner, Captain H.N. Davies, wrote to London to report what had passed, adding:
In captivity clockwise: Former Empress Zinat Mahal; Jawan Bakht (son of Zinat Mahal) and son, Mirza Shah Abbas. Zinat Mahal in 1872 in captivity in Rangoon.
Have since visited the remaining State Prisoners–the very scum of the reduced Asiatic harem; found all correct. None of the family appear much affected by the death of the bed-ridden old man. His death was evidently due to pure decrepitude and paralysis in the region of the throat. He expired at 5 o’ clock on the morning of the funeral. The death of the ex-King may be said to have had no effect on the Mahomedan part of the population of Rangoon, except perhaps for a few fanatics who watch and pray for the final triumph of Islam. A bamboo fence surrounds the grave for some considerable distance, and by the time the fence is worn out, the grass will again have properly covered the spot, and no vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Mughals rests.
The State Prisoner Davies referred to was more properly known as Bahadur Shah II, known from his pen-name as Zafar, meaning “Victory”. Zafar was the last Mughal Emperor, and the descendant of the great world-conquerors Genghis Khan and Timur. His more immediate ancestor Zahir-ud-Din Babur (1483-1530), a young Turkish poet-prince from Ferghana in Central Asia had first descended the Khyber Pass into India in 1526 with only a small army of hand-picked followers. But with him he brought some of the first cannon seen in Hindustan*, and he used them to carve out a principality that his grandson Akbar (1542-1605) expanded to include most of northern India.
- Hindustan refers to the region of northern India encompassing the modern Indian states of Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, where Hindustani is spoken. While the term “India” is relatively rarely used in nineteenth-century Urdu sources, thee is a strong consciousness of the existence of Hindustan as a unit, with Delhi as its political centre. This was the area that was most seriously convulsed in 1857.
The Mughal House of Timur ruled most of South Asia for more than two hundred years and became arguably the greatest dynasty in Indian history. For many, the Mughals symbolise Islamic civilization at its most refined and aesthetically pleasing—think of the great white dome of the Taj Mahal that Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jehan, raised in Agra in memory of his favourite Queen, or the fabulously intricate miniatures of the Padshahnama and the other great Mughal manuscripts.
The Mughals also define Islam at its most tolerant and pluralistic. Their Empire was built in coalition with India’s Hindu majority, particularly the Rajput clans of Rajasthan, who formed a large part of their army. Indeed, the Mughals succeeded almost as much through tact and conciliation as realpolitik was to make Mughal rule acceptable to the Empire’s overwhelmingly non-Muslim population.
This was particularly so of the Emperor Akbar. He issued an edict of sulh-i-kul, or universal toleration, forbade the forcible conversion of prisoners to Islam and married a succession of Hindu wives. He also ended the jizya tax levied only on non-Muslims, and ordered the translation of the Sanskrit classics into Persian.
At the same time that most of Catholic Europe was given over to the Inquisition, and in Rome, Giordano Bruno was being burnt for heresy at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori, in India the Mughal Emperor Akbar was holding multi-faith symposia in his palace and declaring that “no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.” He promoted Hindus at all levels of the administration, entrusted his army to his former enemy, Raja Man Singh of Jaipur, and filled his court with artists and intellectuals, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
By the mid-seventeenth century, from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, Akbar’s grandson Shah Jehan (1592-1666) ruled an empire that covered most of India, all of Pakistan and great chunks of Afghanistan. Its army appeared near-invincible; its palaces unparalleled; the domes of its many shrines quite literally glittered with gold.
But what was built by the tact and conciliation of the first five of the Great Mughals was destroyed by the harsh and repressive rule of the sixth. Shah Jehan’s son Aurangzeb was a ruler as bigoted as the best of his predecessors had been tolerant. The Islamic ‘ulama’ were given a free hand to impose the harshest strictures of sharia law. The playing of music was banned, as was wine-drinking, hashish smoking and prostitution. Hindu temples across the country were destroyed. Aurangzeb re-imposed the jizya tax on Hindus, and executed Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth of the great teachers of the Sikhs. The religious wounds Aurangzeb opened, literally tore the country in two. On his death in 1707, the Empire fragmented.
By the time Zafar was born in 1775, sixty-eight years after the burial of Aurangzeb, the days of the Mughal Imperium were long gone; but the British were still a relatively modest and mainly coastal power in India, looking inwards from three enclaves on the Indian shore. In his lifetime, however, Zafar lived to see his own dynasty finally reduced to humiliating insignificance, while the British transformed themselves from relatively vulnerable traders into an aggressively expansionist military force.
Zafar came late to the throne, succeeding his father only in his mid-sixties, when it was already impossible to reverse the political decline of the Mughals. But despite this, he succeeded in creating around him in Delhi, a court of great brilliance. Personally, he was one of the most talented, tolerant and likable of his dynasty: a skilled calligrapher, a profound writer on Sufism, a discriminating patron of painters of miniatures, an inspired creator of gardens and an amateur architect. Most importantly he was a very serious mystical poet, who wrote not only in Urdu and Persian but Braj Bhasha and Punjabi, and partly through his patronage, there took place arguably the greatest literary renaissance in modern Indian history. Himself a ghazal writer of great charm and accomplishment, Zafar provided a showcase for the talents of India’s greatest lyric poet, Ghalib, and his rival Zauq–the Mughal Poet Laureate, and the Salieri to Ghalib’s Mozart.
While the British progressively took over more and more of the Mughal Emperor’s power, removing his name from the coins, seizing complete control even of the city of Delhi itself, and finally laying plans to remove the Mughals altogether from the Red Fort, the court busied itself in the obsessive pursuit of the most cleverly turned ghazal, the most perfect Urdu couplet. As the political sky darkened, the court was lost in a last idyll of pleasure gardens, courtesans and mushairas, or poetic symposia, Sufi devotions and visits to pirs, as literary and religious ambition replaced the political variety.
The most closely focused record of the Red Fort at this period is the court diary kept by a news writer for the British Resident, now in the National Archives of India, which contains a detailed day-by-day picture of Zafar’s life. The Last Emperor appears as a benign old man with impeccable manners–even when treated with extreme rudeness by the British. Daily he has olive oil rubbed into his feet to soothe his aches; occasionally he rouses himself to visit a garden, go on a hunting expedition or host a mushaira. Evenings were spent “enjoying the moonlight,” listening to singers or eating fresh mangoes. All the while the aged Emperor tries to contain the infidelities of his young concubines, one of whom becomes pregnant by the most distinguished of the court musicians.
Then, on a May morning in 1857, three hundred mutinous sepoys* and cavalry men from Meerut rode into Delhi, massacred every Christian man, woman and child they could find in the city, and declared Zafar to be their leader and emperor. Zafar was no friend of the British, who had shorn him of his patrimony an subjected him to almost daily humiliation. Yet Zafar was not a natural insurgent either.
*A sepoy is an Indian infantry private, in this case in the employ o he British East India Company. The word derives from sipahi, the Persian for soldier.
It was with severe misgivings and little choice that he found himself made the nominal leader of an Uprising that he strongly suspected from the start was doomed: a chaotic and officer less army of unpaid peasant soldiers set against the forces of the world’s greatest military power, albeit one that had just lost the great majority of the Indian recruits to its Bengal army.
The great Mughal capital, caught in the middle of a remarkable cultural flowering, was turned overnight into a battleground. No foreign army was in a position to intervene to support the rebels, and they had limited ammunition, no money and few supplies. The chaos and anarchy that erupted in the countryside proved far more effective at blockading Delhi than the efforts at besieging the city attempted by the British from their perch on the Ridge. The price of food escalated and supplies rapidly dwindled. Soon both the people of Delhi and the sepoys were on the edge of starvation.
The siege of Delhi was the Raj’s Stalingrad: a fight to the death between two powers, neither of whom would retreat. There were unimaginable casualties, and on both sides th combatants were driven to the limits of physical and mental endurance. Finally, on 14 September 1857, the British and their hastily assembled army of Sikh and Pathan levees assaulted and took the city, sacking and looting the Mughal capital and massacring great swathes of the population. In one muhalla* alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1400 citizens of Delhi were cut down. “The orders went out to shoot every soul,” recorded Edward Vibart, a nineteen-year old British officer.
It was literally murder . . . I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such a one as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, we’re most painful . . .Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that man’s heart I think who can look on with indifference . . .
A *muhalla is a distinct quarter or neighborhood of a Mughal city–i.e., a group of residential lanes usually entered through a single gate which would be locked at night.
Those city dwellers who survived the killing were driven out into the countryside to fend for themselves. Delhi was left an empty ruin.
Though the royal family had surrendered peacefully, most of the Emperor’s sixteen sons were captured, tried and hung, while three were shot in cold blood, having first freely given up their arms, then told to strip naked:
“In 24 hours I disposed of the principal members of the house of Timur the Tartar,”
Captain William Hodson wrote to his sister the following day.
“I am not cruel, but I confess I did enjoy the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches.”
Zafar himself was put on show to visitors. Displayed “like beast in a cage,” according to one British officer. Among his visitors was the Times correspondent, William Howard Russell, who was told that the prisoner was the mastermind of the most serious armed act of resistance to Western colonialism. He was a “dim, wandering eyed, dreamy old man with a feeble hanging nether lip and toothless gums,” wrote Russell.
Was he, indeed, one who had conceived that vast plan of restoring a great empire, who had fomented the most gigantic mutiny in the history of the world? Not a word came from his lips; in silence he sat day and night with his eyes cast on the ground, and as though utterly oblivious of the conditions in which he was placed . . .his eyes had the dull, filmy look of very old age . . .Some heard him quoting verses of his own companions, writing poetry on a wall with a burned stick.
Russell was suitably sceptical of the charges being levelled against Zafar: “He was called ungrateful for rising against his benefactors,” he wrote.
He was no doubt a weak and cruel old man; but to talk of ingratitude on the part of one who saw that all the dominions of his ancestors had been gradually taken from him until he was left with an empty title, and more empty exchequer, and a palace full of penniless princesses, is perfectly preposterous . . .
Nevertheless, the following month Zafar was put on trial in the ruins of his old palace, and sentenced to transportation. He left his beloved Delhi on a bullock cart. Separated from everything he loved, broken-hearted, the last of the Great Mughals died in exile in Rangoon on Friday, 7 November 1862, aged eighty-seven.
With Zafar’s departure, there was complete collapse of the fragile court culture he had faithfully nourished and exemplified. As Ghalib noted: “All things lasted only so long as the king reigned.” By the time of Zafar’s death, much of his palace, the Red Fort, had already been torn down along with great areas of the Mughal Delhi he loved and beautified. Meanwhile the great majority of its leading inhabitants and courtiers–poets and princes, mullahs and merchants, Sufis and scholars– had been hunted down and hanged, or else dispersed and exiled, many to the Raj’s new, specially constructed gulag in the Andaman Islands. Those who were spared were left in humiliating and conspicuous poverty. As Ghalib, one of the few survivors from the old court, lamented,
“The male descendants of the deposed King–such as survived the sword–draw allowances of five rupees a month. Th female descendants if old are bawds, and if young, are prostitutes.”
The city has become a desert . . . By God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonment. No Fort, no city, no bazaars, no watercourses . . . Four things kept Delhi alive– the Fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower- men. None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive? Yes, there was once a city of that name in the realm of India. . .
We smashed the wine cup and the flask;
What is it now to us
If all the rain that falls from heaven
Should turn to rose- red wine?