I have just flown in from Delhi, which today is a city of about 15 million people, if you count the various suburbs on the edge that have sprung up over the last few years. In contrast, if had you visited Delhi 150 years ago this month, in July 1858, you would have found that this city, which was the cultural capital of North India for so many centuries, had been left completely deserted and empty. Not a single soul lived in the walled city of Delhi in July 1858.
The reason for this was that in the previous year, 1857, Delhi became the centre of the largest anti-colonial revolt to take place anywhere in the world, against any European power, at any point in the 19th Century. That uprising is known in this country as 'the Indian Mutiny', is known in India as 'the First War of Independence'.
Neither the Indian Mutiny nor the First War of Independence are particularly useful titles. What happened in Delhi was much more than a mutiny of soldiers, because it encompassed almost all the discontented classes of the Gangetic Plains, but was not quite a national war of independence either, as it had rather particular aims of restoring the Mughal Dynasty back to power.
Whether we call it an 'uprising' or 'rising', by it the two institutions which had formed North Indian history for the previous 300 years came to an abrupt and complete halt. In human affairs, dates rarely regulate the ebb and flow or real lives. Historians impose them on history, but in most occasions, life continues despite the events that historians like to demarcate as boundaries. But 1857-8 is one of those rare moments that acts like a complete guillotine. Everything in North India that happened before then comes to an abrupt halt and everything changes direction.
The first of those institutions which came to a close in 1857 was the East India Company. People talk about the British conquering India, but, far more sinisterly, it was not the British or British Government per se, but a multinational trading corporation based in Leadenhall Street, here in the City of London. The East India Company was a company: it existed to create profit for its shareholders. A helpful image might be to think Microsoft with armies, or McDonalds with territorial ambitions. It is the ultimate example of continent-scale corporate irresponsibility. The company, which was founded in 1599, the same year that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, had existed in India for 250 years before the uprising, and a very different set of relations had governed the interface between the merchants from London and the Indians it traded with than was to be the case for the subsequent ninety years of the Raj. When the British think of themselves in India, they think of people waving Union Jacks, or possibly gunning down people in Jalianwalabag, but the Raj is, oddly enough, the kind of the bit of the iceberg above the water. It is only ninety years. The period of the East India Company, which lasted 250 years, is a far more ambiguous, interesting and uncharted bit of history.
The other institution which came to a dead halt in 1857 was the Mughals. The Mughals are one of the few dynasties in the world to have become an adjective. You do not talk about a Hollywood Tudor, or a business Plantagenet, but you do talk about a Hollywood Mughal. The word has become synonymous in the English language with power, might and prestige. The Mughals arrived in India in 1560, only a short period before the British arrived with the Company. Babur came from what is now Uzbekistan, Fergana. By clever use of artillery, he defeated the Lodhi Dynasty, which was the last of a succession of Muslim dynasties that had been in North India since the 12th Century, and over a period of generations, they conquered almost all of Northern India, all of modern Pakistan, all of modern Bangladesh, most of modern Afghanistan, and a slither of Persia. For the British or the English of the time, what was remarkable about the Mughals, as the adjective implies, was their power and their might.
The English arrived in India not as part of some sort of Elizabethan NGO bringing clean water, good wells or children's aid to India; they arrived as ragged Tudor outsiders and were regarded as barbarians by the Mughals, who were the rich, sophisticated magnates of the time. India was the richest country in the world. Today, we are beginning again, sixty years after the end of colonialism, to associate India with wealth, entrepreneurship and go-ahead policies, but this was very much the reason for the Elizabethan interest in India. It was the silks and textiles of Bengal, the spices of Kerala, and the unlimited quantities of gold which India had. It also had the only sources of diamonds in the world before the discovery of the New World mines.
The Mughals brought all this to fruition, seen most significantly in buildings like the Taj Mahal or the Indian military tradition, but what, in a sense, to us today is most remarkable about the Mughals is the way that they defy almost all the media stereotypes of Islamic fanaticism and the association of Islam with words like 'terrorism' and so on. The Mughals, at a time when, here in the City of London, Jesuits were being hung, drawn and quartered for their faith; at a time when, in Spain and Portugal, the Inquisition was doing a version of water-boarding to anyone who did not subscribe to the doctrines of the Catholic Church; at a time when, in Rome, Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Campo de'Fiori; in Fatehpur Sikri, the Emperor Akbar, by far the most interesting and remarkable of the Mughals, was summoning to Fatehpur Sikri, Sunni, Shia, and Sufi Muslims, Hindus of Saivite and Vaishnavite persuasion, as well as Hindu atheists, Buddhists from the Himalayas, Zoroastrians and Jains from Gujarat, Jews from Cochin, Jesuits from Goa. All were called to the court so that they might sit together and form what is really the world's first multi-religious discussion group to discover where the different religions of the world could agree, where they differed, and what they might learn from each other. At the end of it, Akbar declared that, 'No man may be compelled in matters of religion,' there can be no compulsion in matters of religion, which is a quote from the Koran. He said that these matters of faith must be decided by reason. At the time, this was a revolutionary concept. There was no similar declaration in Europe for another 250 years, until the time of the Enlightenment. So before one believes the huge and ignorant generalisations of certain American scholars, or take in the kind of rubbish that one reads the right-wing press, and even the quality press, where you will often read people sounding off about Islam, fanaticism and clashes of civilisation, there is much from this period that defies all stereotypes.
By the time that the man I am going to speak about tonight, Bahadur Shah Zafar, 'The last Mughal' as the title of my book points out, comes to the throne in 1832, 200 years have passed since the time of Akbar, and the Mughal dominions have contracted dramatically from the wide empires of Akbar to only the walls of Delhi. But the same Mughal traditions of tolerance, religious pluralism, and multi-ethnic and multi-religious court life continues. Ascending the Mughal throne in his mid-sixties, in the 1830s, when the treasury was empty, the Mughal Army had long vanished, the riches and piles of diamonds which attracted the merchants to the court of Akbar had long been dispersed and robbed, Zafar's extraordinary achievement is that, almost uniquely in history, he acted as catalyst for one of the great renaissances of Indian history in a time of extreme economic decline. In almost all places in the world where you have exciting moments when the whole pace and pulse of artistic life transforms itself into some form of renaissance, it almost always take place during times of economic growth, for very simple reasons: that you need to have money to patronise great buildings and most artistic renaissance. What is unique about Zafar, who was a mystic poet, a calligrapher, a poet and an amazing writer on philosophy and higher Sufi mysticism, is that rather than by power of patronage, he leads by example and produces one of the great moments of Indian literature, in Delhi.
Zafar's court is the court of the poets Ghalib or Zauq, which is to Urdu poetry and to modern Indian poetry what names like Marlow and Shakespeare is to Elizabethan drama. It is the highest of names - Ghalib, in particular, is a world class genius. His poetry is dense and difficult, but to give you a picture both of Ghalib's own writing and the kind of mores of the court at the time, I would just read you one of his letters. This is very typical of Ghalib's prose. He is writing to a friend of his whose mistress has just died, and the man is in mourning for this woman, and Ghalib says: 'Cut it out! I don't like the way you are going on. In the days of my lusty youth, a man of perfect wisdom counselled me: Abstinence, I do not approve of; dissoluteness, I do not forbid. Eat, drink and be merry, but remember that the wise fly settles on sugar and never on honey. Well, I have always acted by this counsel. Give thanks to God for your freedom and do not grieve. When I think of paradise and consider how, if my sins are forgiven me, and I am installed in a palace with a orri, to live forever in that worthy woman's company, I am filled with fear and dismay. How wearisome to always find her there, a greater burden than a man could bear. The same old palace, all of emerald made, the same old fruit tree to cast its shades, and God forbid her from all harm, the same old orri on my arm. Come to your senses, brother, and take another, take a new woman with each returning spring, for last year's almanac's a useless thing.' So you get a picture of the court of the time. This is no dull, puritanical, wahabi sort of centre of hypocrisy. This is a lively court life.
A painting by the last of the great Mughal painters, Ghulam Ali Khan, shows Zafar writing his poetry. This was done in his notebooks, which are now in the British Library. Even if you cannot read the Urdu, you get the impression from them of the man's restless imagination, filling the gutters and the margins of his notebooks.
While all this is going on, Delhi is a major centre of learning, of art, of literature, and of knowledge. Today, the Madrasah are in the popular and perhaps not perfectly informed press for being associated exclusively with terrorism and so on, indeed, The Daily Mail calls them 'terror colleges'. At the time of Zafar, the Delhi Madrasah are buzzing with the same sort of excitement and contradictions which were to grip Oxford a generation later when Darwin's ideas were unleashed in them. Here, for the first time, the new ideas of the West were coming into contact with the old Hindu and Islamic cosmologies. People are trying to reconcile the learnings of the different worlds.
One of the nicest letters to give a feeling of the period is the biography of the poet Altaf Hussain Hali, who is another of the great Urdu poets of the period. At this time, Hali is a newly married young man in a provincial town of Panipat, about 100 miles north of Delhi. One night, he creeps out of his home and tiptoes away, sleeping rough, and heads off to Delhi. Unlike Dick Whittington's travelling to London, Hali was not out to make his fortune, but to come into contact with this exciting renaissance which was going on in the city. 'Everyone wanted me to look for a job,' he wrote later, 'but my passion for learning prevailed.' Delhi, he says, was the centre of huge intellectual excitement. There were six famous Madrasah and four smaller ones, nine newspapers in Urdu and in Persian, five intellectual journals published out of Delhi College alone and more booksellers than the rest of India put together. But the biggest draw of all, he writes, were the poets and the intellectuals - men such as Ghalib, Zauq, Sahbai and Azurda. 'By some good fortune,' he writes, 'there gathered at this time in the capital, Delhi, a band of men so talented that their meetings and assemblies recalled the great days of Akbar and Shah Jahan.'
Hali's family eventually dragged him back, but before they did so, he gained admittance to the very spacious and beautiful Madrasah of Husain Bakhsh, there to begin his studies. 'I saw with my own eyes this last brilliant glow of learning in Delhi,' he wrote, with regret, at the end of his life, 'the thought of which now makes my heart crack with regret.'
In contrast to this, we have the writings of William Sleeman, who was one of the British residents and governors of the period. He was no friend of the Mughals, indeed, he was almost personally responsible for the annexation of the kingdom of Oudh. But here is what he writes, when he came across the quality of learning in Delhi at this period, in the Madrasah system:
'Perhaps there are few communities in the world among whom education is more generally diffused than among the Muhammadans of India. He who holds an office worth only twenty rupees a month commonly gives his sons an education equal to one of our Prime Ministers. They learn through the medium of Arabic and Persian what young men in our colleges learn through Greek and Latin, that is grammar, rhetoric and logic. After seven years of study, the young Muhammadan binds his turban upon a head almost as well filled with things appertaining to those branches of knowledge as a young man raw from Oxford, and he will talk as fluently about Socrates and Aristotle, Plato and Hypocrites, Galen and Avicenna (alias Sokrat, Aristotalis, Aflatun, Bokrat, Jalinus and Bu Ali Sina), and what is much to his advantage in India, the languages in which he has learn these things are those which he requires throughout his working life.'
So this is not a world grinding down to extinction and degeneracy. This is a world which, despite its poverty and despite its loss of empire, has found itself in the middle of an extraordinary renaissance. Everything is buzzing, particularly, above all things, the world of literature. This is the great moment of Urdu poetry, equivalent, as I say, to the reign of Elizabeth I for English drama or the English sonnet.
The big surprise of the early part of this period is the degree to which the British join in with the renaissance. I think that the tone of the period is indicated best of all by one of my great heroes, Sir David Ochterloney, the British ambassador or resident. As you can see from the pictures of see of him at the time, Ochterloney did not dress in the kind of tri-corner hat and breeches that you might expect a company servant to be dressed in during this period. Instead, he dressed in white pyjamas, smoked a hooker, and he enjoyed his dancing girls. The last of these elements was a very suitable way of depicting a man who famously had no less than 13 Indian wives, each of whom had her own elephant. Indeed, every evening a wonderful procession would leave the British residency, with Ochterloney in the lead and with 13 wives following, each in succession, and they would do a loop around the Red Fort, before returning, one presumes, to an evening's entertainment of very un-English music and dancing.
There is also a part of Ochterloney's life which is very well worth recalling today. The tomb he built for his chief wife, Mubarak Begum, in a Mughal garden that he named after her, was the last of the great Mughal tombs. It was destroyed in 1857, so few people know about it, but it was the last of the great garden tombs of the Mughals in Delhi. It had two octagonal side wings with ribbed domes, a great forest of minarets springing up all round, and right in the middle, you have, not a Mughal dome like the Taj, but an octagonal dome which was based on Brunelleschi's dome in Florence, which rises up to a cross at the very tip. So here, in 1825, when this was built, no one in Delhi seems to have thought it at all odd that there would be any contradiction between a building with forty minarets and a cross on top.
There are many other periods of history when this is true. For instance, there is the reign of the Umayyad Caliphs in Cordoba, when Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars worked together translating the classics. Or there are the baptised Sultans of Norman Sicily, Roger II with his Cappella Palatina, which is a Western basilica with Byzantine mosaics and Islamic stalactite ceilings. 18th Century Delhi, Lucknow, and Hyderabad is another of these periods when Islam and Christianity is not just not clashing, it is actually fusing and inspiring each other; they are cross-fertilising each other.
Ochterloney was by no means alone in his adoption of Delhi culture at this time. My wife's ancestor, William Fraser, was a young Scottish aristocrat who was sent out to be Ochterloney's assistant. Very quickly he had adopted the culture as much as Ochterloney had. But Fraser was not just dressing up for pleasure. He was engaged in a theological discussion with Shah Abdul Azeez, who is one of the grandsons of Shah Waliullah, who is one of the senior ulama of the period. He is a patron of Ghalib. When he is killed, Ghalib writes, 'I lost again a second father. - He is an extremely discerning patron of Indian miniature painting. His own commissions, the Fraser Album, is regarded as the last great monument of Mughal painting or company school painting, however you classify it, while his collection of older Mughal painting is the core of the Kevorkian album, which now forms the core of the Metropolitan Museum in New York collection, and is regarded as one of the highest moments of Indian painting. So this is not some guy who swaggers in to impregnate the women of North India. This is a scholar with a deep understanding of the culture, the languages and the theologies. Shah Abdul Azeez said he had never met any other non-Muslim who understood so well the subtleties of Islamic thought as William Fraser.
So these are interesting things going on, and again, it is the sort of thing which breaks every stereotype that one reads in the ignorant media today about Islam and Christianity. But what, in a sense, lies at the heart of this book I have written on this period, is the question of why we move from this world, where it was considered fine to build buildings with both minarets and crosses in immediate proximity to each other in as late as the 1820s, to the hatreds and violence and intense and bloody uprising and bloodshed that you get only thirty years later, in the late 1850s. Why do you move from one world, where apparently you have a fascinating cohabitation and cross-fertilisation to the bloodshed of the uprising only a little later?
I think there are two very simple reasons for that. One is the simple fact of the rise of British power, and the very speed of the rise of British power. Again, Victorian history books talk about the British slowly rolling out over India, over a period of 300 years, and defeating everybody. The reality is very different. The British were precarious perchers on the shore of India as late as the 1790s. In the 1760s, Tipu Sultan's troops were better armed, with more modern weaponry than the sepoys of the Company. In 1764, at the Battle of Pollilur, Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan defeat the Company so catastrophically that the outskirts of Madras are burnt and a quarter of the British troops in India are captured and led off in captivity.
But this changes, particularly with the arrival of one man and a new policy. A new Conservative Government draws up in the 1790s what is, in a sense, a project for a new British century, and the man who is sent out to implicate it is Lord Wellesley, the elder brother of the Duke of Wellington.
Wellesley is sent out with a very specific agenda to answer not to the Directors of the Company in London but to the foreign policy of Downing Street. He is their appointment. Wellesley disdains these 'commercial interests' as he calls them and wants instead to raise British power to a new peak of prestige. Therefore he goes out with a very deliberate plan. He is going to take out, first of all, the French, and then he is going to go against any Islamic power that dares to take on the hyper-power. Which perhaps might sound rather familiar.
So in 1798 the last French troops in India, are disarmed in Hyderabad. 1803, only five years after Wellesley's arrived, there is the big campaign. The Marathas, who are this confederacy of horse-borne warriors who have swarmed out from the area above Bombay all over central and northern India, are defeated by the British in five brilliant victories by the young Duke of Wellington, at his first command. This brings the Battle of Assay, and finally, in 1803, the Battle of Delhi, leaving the British suddenly transformed from being a coastal power, quaking within the walls of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, to being the sole hyper-power, with unlimited power throughout the entire peninsula of India. The only army that can take them on in any form after this is the Sikhs and they are taken out in the 1840s. In a matter of only five years, the British have made a dramatic transformation, and this changes their attitude. Up to this point, the British, particularly from about the 1780s, have been inter-marrying, and have been studying the culture of India.
In the 1780s, you get people like Sir William Jones founding the Royal Asiatic Society. They discover Sanskrit. The first Sanskrit texts, like the Gita, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are all translated. The discovery of the Buddha as an Indian figure takes place shortly after that. The discovery of the Murian empire, the Buddha and a lot of the ancient Indian history is explored in the 1780s. This is transmitted back to Europe where there is terrific excitement, rather more excitement in France and Germany initially than in Britain, where people like Rousseau and Voltaire are terrifically excited by the discovery of what they see as a living classical culture. This generation were brought up by the Greek and Latin classics, as so many were before them in Europe. In Hindu India, with the Gita and so on, they find living classical culture. This is the Iliad and the Odyssey, but it is not dead, the bards are still alive, the language is still there, the culture is still going, and this causes terrific excitement across Europe in the 1780s, but it all begins to transform and to change as the 19th Century progresses. As British power increases, so does British arrogance, and so does British sense of self and, in a very old and very traditional sense, British racism.
If you look at the wills in the East India Company library, which are now in the British Library, you find for the 1780s that one in three British men are leaving all their goods to an Indian woman. In 1780, it is one in three. In other words, one in three British households in India is multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, with children of mixed race and probably mixed religion, but by 1800, it is down to one in four. By 1810, it is one in five. By 1820, it is one in seven. By 1830, it is almost completely over. By 1840, there are no Indian women mentioned in any official wills of the Company. So in sixty years you move from a world where there is one in three households religiously and ethnically mixed, to almost complete apartheid. Today, we effectively believe that the more different races live together, the more they inter-marry, the more they understand each other, the more understanding there will be. However, as this period shows, multiculturalism has got a reverse gear as well as a variety of forward gears, and this period would form a very worrying precedent for what could happen today, if the ignorant and right wing press spreads poison about race, religion and ethnicity.
The reversal in the multiculturalism, in the interest in India, is powered not just by British power, but a second factor, and this is the change in religious attitudes. In the 18th Century, there is a very sort of generous Deism in British Christianity, but by the early 19th Century, a far more intolerant form of evangelical Christianity is spreading in London, starting in Clapham. In Britain we see a shift from the world of Johnston and Boswell, with Boswell whoring his way through the brothels of Pall Mall and what have you, to, by the 1830s, the world of the mid-Victorian chapel, where everyone's idea of a good time was to go and listen to a five hour long Evangelical sermon in a chapel in Clapham.
This is exported to India, but with the additional factor of the evangelicals seeing the conquest of India by the British as part of God's plan for the conversion of India. Charles Grant is the first evangelical to reach the position of Director of the Company, and he writes, 'Could it be that we were given our empire in India only that we might draw an annual profit from it? No. We were given it so that we might bring the light of truth to the poor, benighted heathen.' Therefore there is suddenly a change in attitude. The empire is not there because of the Industrial Revolution and because of better trading practices and better artillery; it is there because God gave it to the British so that they might convert Indians to the Church of England.
You find the British in India in the 1820s and 1830s erecting Hindustani, Urdi and Persian ten commandments outside their residences. You find colonels lecturing their Brahman sepoys on the New Testament at parade grounds. All this creates a feeling of huge anxiety among the Indians, particularly when it becomes more and more virulent. This is heightened by a change in the language in the 1830s and the 1840s. The Reverend Midgley Jennings moves into the Lahore gate of the Red Fort and he begins to publish these incredibly virulent anti-Hindu and anti-Muslim pamphlets, which he helpfully translates into Urdu and Persian and distributes through the bazaars of Delhi. In them he claims that Hinduism is a 'backward, vile and primitive, and lascivious religion' and that Islam is 'the religion of the devil,' that the Mughals' palace is 'the last bastion of the Prince of Darkness,' and so on. All of which is, of course, deeply offensive stuff. What is more, a change in the Company's charter, brought about by Wilberforce, changes the charter of the Company to allow the missionaries not only to exist on British soil in India but to flourish, linking, empowering, and compelling the Company to support the missionaries.
So for 250 years, you have a situation where the Company keeps a very clear distinction between itself and the missionaries, but by the 1830s, that is changing. The Company starts building churches in every cantonment and every civil lines in India. Today, when you go round those cantonments and civil lines, all those little white churches are still there from between about 1830 and 1850.
In this period, you find that the Governor of the North West Provinces is made the Chairman of the Delhi Mission. So this distinction, which has been carefully maintained between church and state, between church and company at least, breaks down. There are enough vocal evangelicals are there in Company employment, talking about the conversion of India, and the forcible conversion of India, to alarm Hindus and Muslims to believe that the Company is out to convert them, and some indeed were - it was not a misplaced anxiety. They are always a small minority, but they are extremely vocal, and this creates shockwaves throughout. There are a number of things which add to this. For example, in Agra, a mosque is given to the missionaries and it is turned into a church. Throughout much of North India, the land that is used for building these new churches is taken from temples, Sufi shrines and mosques, the old endowments are cancelled and they are given to the missionaries, all of which creates a great climate of anxiety, which reaches its peak in 1856 with the introduction of a new rifle.
The Company had used, for 100 years, the old musket, the Brown Bess, which had been in use since the time of Culloden. It is smooth-barrelled and wildly inaccurate. The Company, following the example of Tipu, introduces a rifle in 1856. The barrel is rifled with curved striations, making the ball turn in the barrel, which makes it far more accurate and have a far longer range. However, because this is the age of muzzle loaders, it is far more of a struggle to get a ball down a rifle barrel than a smooth barrel. So the balls then began to come in a cartridge, pre-lubricated, in a clog of lubricant. The Company could have chosen some delicious unguent like linseed oil, beeswax, or olive oil, but instead, with the kind of insensitivity which had come to mark the Company at this period, they chose a mixture of pig fat and cow fat. Naturally this was richly offensive to every single Indian sepoy they controlled and had trained, and it also tasted disgusting to their British sepoys, who also hated this rifle.
This move was considered to be so fantastically offensive and cack-handed that, again, many of the troops assumed that it could not be an accident but must be part of a wider conspiracy to take their caste, to richly pollute them and insult them, prior to converting them by force to Christianity. This is in fact was completely a myth. It was simply a cock-up rather than a deliberate policy, but it comes along with enough other stuff that this myth is widely believed.
Meanwhile, while all this is going on, the Delhi court is still going strong with its learning and artistic entertainments. As a part of this comes the last great commission that Mazhar Ali Khan goes about, which is the panorama of Delhi, showing the city in all its Mughal glory. This is now in the India Office Library. What is so tragic about this painting it is painted in 1852, and only five years after this, all of what it portrayed was blown-up and destroyed as retribution. Every single building within the Red Fort was blown up and levelled. So this is a painting in 1852 of a world on the verge of complete destruction, and the whole thing, as I say, comes to a head with these blessed cartridges.
On 10th May 1857, they are issued to the sepoys in Meerut. Half the troops refuse to bite the bullet, which they have to do in order to shove it down the barrels. Those troops are sentenced to thirty years hard labour for their refusal. So obviously unjust is this sentence for these men who fought bravely in Afghanistan, Burma, Assam and other places, their fellows rise up and liberate them from the jails that evening, then turn on their officers and shoot them dead. Then they ride, through the night, to Delhi.
Zafar is looking out on the morning May 11th 1857 and he see, over the Bridge of Boats, a cloud of dust rising on the far shore. This is the first of the Mughal cavalry charging into Delhi from Meerut, having ridden through the night. They ride into Delhi and they begin their massacre. They begin to slaughter not only every British civilian - man, woman or child - they can find, they also attack any local Indian Christian, and so this immediately assumes the character of a war of religion, at least in its rhetoric. Although many of the grievances are thoroughly secular - British imports of textiles, British interference with various kingdoms in North India, changing the patterns of land holding and so on and so forth - the rhetoric of the revolution takes place immediately in the religious sphere. The first proclamations the rebels talk about Nazrani, the Christians - not the ferungis, not the foreigners; not the English or the British, but instead the Nazrani. The Hindus and Muslims joined together in the proclamations to try and raise the Mughal Emperor back onto the throne.
However, Zafar was the mystic poet who was perfect to lead the literary renaissance in Delhi, but he could not have been less well suited to leading an anti-colonial uprising. He is a 82 years old and a nice old man, but he is certainly no insurgent ready to mount the barricades. This is immediately a problem. So he accepts the mantle of rebellion only grudgingly.
This does not, however, stop the rebellion spreading with incredible speed, which indicates something of the scale of the discontent. Within six weeks of 11th May, of the 164,000 sepoys in the Bengal Army, 139,000 have risen up in rebellion against the Company. In other words, it was only about 30,000 that remained loyal. These are troops that have fought without question all over India for the last 200 years. Within six weeks, the whole lot of them, bar 30,000, have gone over to the rebels, and these troops march, almost unswervingly, to Delhi. For those that learnt their 1857 history in Indian schools, you will have heard a great deal about Mangal Pandey in Barrackpur and you will have heard a great deal about Rani of Jhansi in Jhansi. These figures almost do not appear in the voluminous Mutiny papers in Delhi. Of the 139,000 troops who rebelled against the British in 1857, 100,000 went straight to Delhi and tried to put the Mughal Emperor back on the throne. This is the untold story on the Indian side. Those who learnt their 1857 history in British schools will have been told this was exclusively a mutiny of ungrateful sepoys, which is, again, complete rubbish. Almost the entire North Indian Gangetic Plain rose up as one against the British, with the exception of a few of the elite in Delhi.
So this is an uprising which does not spread across the whole of India, but it spreads across the entire Gangetic Plain. It is supported by almost all the British trained soldiery, many of the landowners in North India and many of the textile workers. An urban revolution occurs in town after town, and this thing spreads with incredible speed, centred on Delhi. What is amazing, again, considering the history of conflict between Hindu and Muslim, which develops in the late 19th Century and reaches its peak, I suppose at partition in 1947, is that the mutineers who come to Delhi are there to put the Muslim Mughal Emperor back on the throne. Those troops are 85% upper caste Hindus - Brahmans and Rajputs. So any notion like there was in 1992 when the mosque in Ayodhya was destroyed that the Mughal Emperors were always perceived as oppressors is immediately disproved by the reality of the take-up of this rebellion and the fact that 100,000 largely Hindu sepoys converge on Delhi, under the standard of Zafar. This occurs because Zafar is seen as the legitimate ruler of North India, and therefore is the natural rallying point against the colonial forces.
But it is in the very success of the uprising and the universality of the collecting point at Delhi, as the destination of the rebel troops, that things begin to go wrong, because Zafar is very good at organising poetry evenings, but he hasn't got any of the machinery for feeding 100,000 troops that turned up, less still arming them and organising them. So the different rebel regiments that rebel come under their own leaders, who refuse to obey any other leader, so it is like a whole series of warlords arriving in Delhi, each with their own independent army, none of whom will accept any authority, and even Zafar's control of the military is always pretty tenuous. Occasionally, he threatens to resign and retire to Mecca, and this momentarily produces unity among the troops and the rebels, but it is too disordered in the long run. The violence which has started never ceases. The soldiers prey on the people of Delhi. When they are not being fed, they go and break into the money lenders' houses, they go and raid the bazaars, and the whole thing breaks down pretty quickly into chaos.
With the chaos, there comes a rural brigandage and dacoit on the roads, which means that the farmers cannot bring the food into Delhi as the roads are too dangerous. Armed men can travel down the roads and so you have sepoys still turning up as late as August from distant stations in places such as Rajasthan but you cannot have farmers just bringing in food. So if you look in the Mutiny papers in the National Archives, you find these petitions from ordinary farmers.
A particular horse seller on in Haryana, sets off in June 1857 to sell three mares in Delhi, hoping that he will get a huge premium on his sale, knowing that the cavalry will want more horses. He arrives in Delhi, he sells two of his horses at a huge profit and is thoroughly pleased with himself. But it is when he is heading back home, near Chhatarpur, when a bunch of men jump out of a hedge, take his remaining horse, take his money and take his clothes. So the following day, he has to present himself before Zafar asking for food and money. There are millions of petitions like this, so it is far from being an isolated incident.
So what you get, over a period of two months, is a hugely increased demand in Delhi and dramatically reduced supplies. The farmers are not coming in because they cannot, so what you get, of course, is hyper-inflation. The price of basic foodstuffs such as dahl, rice and chickpeas all go shooting through the roof. First, it is the poor who starve, then the middle class, and finally, it is the troops themselves. Many of them have brought supplies that keep them going during June and even a bit of July, but by July, the 100,000 sepoys who have gathered in this rebellion in the city, and who have yet to have a crack at the English, are starving.
'My lord, this is the submission of the Nimatch force. We arrived in the capital after traversing a great distance and overcoming many obstacles, with the expectation of serving your imperial majesty. Until now, your obedient servants have themselves been paying our expenses, but now, for four or five days, the entire force, including the soldiers and animals, have all been starving, and there is no money left to pay even their basic expenses. All the soldiers are determined to fight, but they ask us, 'How can a man who's been fasting for two or three days do battle?' Therefore we hope, out of your largess and largeness of heart, can you please provide for the expenses incurred by your royal force and honour us humble ones with the reply? Otherwise, if you cannot inform us for until arrangements are made for payment, no soldier can do battle. Please do not construe this as disobedience, but should you not wish this force to remain, then kindly give us a clear answer. Whatever is ordained will happen. Innumeral petitions have been sent earlier but we have not yet received any response. With the greatest respect and devotedly, General Sudari Singh.'
So as August develops, this army which has collected so dramatically in Delhi begins to disperse, not so much out of disillusion, though there is a measure of that, but because they are starving. There is no money, there are no arms, there is no artillery, and the whole thing is a mess.
Meanwhile, the British have got their act together. There are very few British white troops in India - there is only about 10,000. As this is May, these troops are up in the hill stations like Shimla, and up in the Punjab. They march down the grand trunk road to the ridge in Delhi, ready to attack the city. While the illustrated London News presents a picture of plucky white troops heading off to do their bit, what they do not show is the reality that the British manage to hire, by bribes and by promises of regular payment, and particularly by the promise of looting Delhi, 100,000 mercenaries, most of whom are from what is now Pakistan. They hire the Punjabi Muslims of Multan, who today are forming most of the Jihadi fighting forces in Kashmir. They recruit the Sikhs from around Lahore, and particularly, they recruit exactly the same Wasiri tribesmen from what is now Fata, the tribal areas on the edge of Pakistan, who are attacking the British troops in Helmand. So exactly the same guys who are giving us the headache today are enlisted en masse and they swagger with these huge turbans down the grand trunk roads with the hope of looting. The British, who have lost an entire army in six weeks, manage to bribe and pay and gather this enormous mercenary army of 100,000 irregulars in an incredibly short period of time.
They also manage to bring, down the grand trunk road, the super-gun of the period, these enormous guns, which are pulled by twelve elephants each. In early September, these are lined up outside the Kashmiri gate. An incredible bombardment of the walls of Delhi then proceeds. Every day, they move the guns a bit closer, and on the 12th September 1857, the troops go in.
Now, the British expect this to be, as George Tenet famously said of Iraq, 'a slam-dunk', but it is no such thing. Although the troops are starving and although many of them have dispersed to their villages, those that remain are the hardcore, and they have had three months to put grapeshot in every loophole, to have sniper posts in every trapdoor, and every booby trap has been primed. Whole mud forts have been built in various areas, in gardens of the north of the city. The British go in, 100,000 troops, led by the lancers and by these Wasiris, and of those, one third of those are dead or wounded by the first evening. There is an incredible, Somme-like, catastrophic casualty rate.
On top of that, some clever strategist has placed all the confiscated alcohol from British houses just within the Kashmiri gate, so as soon as the troops establish their foothold there, all the remaining two-thirds of British troops who are not dead or wounded, are completely legless by the evening of the first day, leading to an incredible stalemate. The British have got within the walls, but only just. They have failed in their objective to take any of the western walls of the city, so the British commander, General Wilson, is worried that the crack Barelli troops, who control the Ajmeri gate, could do a sideways swing and cut off the British troops from their supplies. So, for 48 hours, both armies are hovering on the edge of retreat and flight. Neither of them know who is going to give first.
It happens by accident, three days later, that there is an eclipse of the Sun at noon on 17th September. For the British, this is a big shock because no one has been looking at their calendars or almanacs. The whole city goes black at noon. But for Hindu troops, this is a far more significant thing. Even today, if you go to Rajasthan during an eclipse, all the temples are closed. No upper caste Hindu will go out during an eclipse. During the far more superstitious 19th Century, this was considered the ultimate ill omen, the end of a dynasty. That night, there is a noise like the buzzing of a thousand beehives and it is the sound of the sepoys fleeing by night across the Bridge of Boats.
At midnight, Zafar is woken by his guard and told that all the sepoys have fled the Red Fort - there is no one guarding his palace anymore. So he gathers his ancestral relics, he distributes some to his family, and he then takes a small body of supporters, his wife and his youngest son, and goes into a boat, and by night glides down the river to hand over his most precious relics to the Sufi shrine, saying, 'Now there is not a shadow of doubt left that of the great house of Timor, I am the last to be seated on the throne of India. The lamp of Mughal dominion is fast extinguishing. It will remain but a few hours more. The country belongs to God. He may give it to whosoever he likes.' He then goes and waits to surrender himself in his ancestral mausoleum, Humayun's Tomb. His wife has been in correspondence with William Hodson, the British intelligence chief, and the following day he turns up with a palanquin and accepts the surrender of Zafar, his wife and his youngest son, in return for their lives. They get into the palanquin and they head back to Delhi, but they are not given their old apartments, in the caste, which has now become a British Officers' mess, with kind of planters' chairs and camp beds and whatever put up in it. Instead, he is thrown into the stables, in the hay, where he is put on display like a bear in the cage in a zoo.
The following day, Hodson goes back and he takes the surrender of the three leading rebel princes - Miza Khizr Sultan, Mizra Abu Bakr, and Mizra Moghul. They get into the same palanquin, they head back towards Delhi on the same route, but just short of the walls of the city, the three boys are ordered out of the palanquin. Hodson gets out his colt revolver and he orders them to strip naked and to hand over their bazubans and armlets and anklets and jewels. He then shoots them dead, one after another, at point blank range, having taken their surrender, and throws the naked bodies at the Kotwali.
This is the signal for the beginning of what is probably the largest and most terrible massacre to take place at any point during British rule in India. Today, people know about Jalianwalabag and what happened in the Punjab in the 1920s, but very few people remember the far greater slaughter in Delhi in 1857.
By this period, many people of the city have fled, but still more are hiding in cellars and basements and barricading their doors and hoping for the best. Many played no part in the rebellion whatsoever and are just the ordinary citizens of Delhi - some are poets, some are calligraphers, some are tradesmen, some are wood sellers, some are potters, some are sweet sellers, and so on. But that day, in the words of Edward Vibart, a 19 year old officer, 'The British closed each of the gates of Delhi and the orders went out to shoot every soul. It was literally murder,' writes Vibart. 'I've seen many bloody and awful sights lately, but one such 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 were most painful. Heaven knows, I feel no pity, but when some old grey-bearded man is brought out and shot before your very eyes, hard must that man's heart be I think who can look on with indifference.'
The British do not seem to realise the scale of the massacre they have effected until on the 21st of September, when they march out of the Red Fort to follow the rebel army as they travel south to Lucknow. What they say is described by the British officer, Richard Barter:
'The march was simply awful. Our advanced guard, consisting of the cavalry and artillery had burst and squashed the dead bodies, which lay swelled to an enormous size, and the stench was fearful. Men and officers were sick all round, and I thought we'd never get through the city. It was a ride I don't care ever to take again, and the horse felt it as much as I did, for he snorted and shook as he slid, rather than walked, over the abominations with which the streets were filled. In many instances, the positions of the bodies were appalling life-like. Some lay with their arms uplifted as if beckoning, and indeed, the whole scene was weird and terrible beyond description.'
The entire area between the Fort and the Jama Masjid is dynamited and destroyed. The order goes down to level the entire city, and only the arrival of John Lawrence, after three months, stops this. The Jama Masjid was going to be destroyed, levelled, and replaced with a gothic cathedral; the Red Fort was going to be entirely smashed down. Luckily, Lawrence cancels this order, but still about a third of the city is completely levelled by the time the orders are reversed.
Zafar is put on trial. He has lost his mind by this stage, having seen all his children slaughtered in front of him. Legally, Zafar is the overlord of the East India Company. The British have the right to trade in India through the charter of Queen Elizabeth I. They have the right to rule in India only as the representative and the tax collectors of the Mughals. This may not be the reality of their power but it is the legal basis of it. So the idea of putting Zafar on trial as a rebel is a direct inversion of the reality. In the same way, the accusation made against him that he is leading an international Muslim conspiracy which stretches to Mecca and Tehran - these again are things which echo down the centuries today - is a complete inversion of the reality. The reality is that this was led initially by largely Hindu sepoys, who rose up initially against largely military grievances in the army. So this is not the finest hour for British justice. The five military judges anyway do not speak Hindustani, which is the language of the defence, and Zafar and his wife, Zeenat Mahal, are sentenced to exile and transportation to Burma. They cannot be hung because Hodson has promised them their life, but they are given the highest penalty that the court is capable of, which is transportation.
The night before Zafar is expelled from the city and the palace of his forebears, after 332 years, the Times War Correspondent, William Howard Russell, the veteran of the Crimean Wars and one of the few British writers to give anything like an honest description, who was effectively the only non-embedded journalist in the 1857 uprising, goes to visit Zafar. He has been told that this man is the evil genius, the Bin Laden of his day, pulling a million spider webs towards conspirators in all directions, and with links to Tehran and so on. What he finds, instead, is this: 'A dim, wandering-eyed, dreamy, old man with a feeble, hanging leather lip and toothless gums. Not a word came from his lips. In silence, he sat, day and night, with his eyes cast on the ground, as thought utterly oblivious of the conditions in which he was placed. His eyes had the dull, filmy look of very old age. Some heard him rambling about his dreams and quoting verses of his own composition, writing poetry on a wall with a burnt stick.'
This is the last image that we have of the Mughals in Delhi, the same dynasty which, from its very beginning, had been so obsessed with the aesthetic - with gardens, with architecture, with fine miniature painting. In that last night, Zafar, who is deprived of pen and paper, is still writing poetry, but with a burnt stick from the fire, on the wall. No one knows whether those lost verses on the wall are the same as the verses that he is alleged to have written in exile in Rangoon, about no yards of Indian soil being given for his graves.
But I will end the evening with a reading of those last couplets of Zafar, in the version of Ahmed Ali, who translated them, in exile himself in Karachi. He has converted a series of disparate couplets into a single English poem. So these are the last verses of Zafar, in exile in Rangoon, and the poem is dedicated to his wife, Zeenat Mahal.
'When in silks you came and dazzled Me with the beauty of your spring, You brought a flower to bloom - Love within my being.
You lived with me, breath of my breath, Being in my being, nor left my side; But now the wheel of time has turned And you are gone - no joys abide.
You pressed your lips upon my lips, Your heart upon my beating heart, And I have no wish to fall in love again, For they who sold love's remedy Have shut shop, and I seek in vain.
My life now gives no ray of light, I bring no solace to heart or eye; Out of dust to dust again, Of no use to anyone am I.
Delhi was once a paradise, Where love held sway and reigned; But its charms lie ravished now And only ruins remain.
No tears were shed when shroudless they Were laid in common grave; No prayers were read for the noble dead, Unmarked remain their graves.
The heart distressed, the wounded flesh, The mind ablaze, the right sigh; The drop of blood, the broken heart, Tears on the lashes of the eye.
But things cannot remain, O Zafar, Thus for who can tell? Through God's great mercy and the Prophet All may yet be well.
©William Dalrymple, Gresham College, 7 July 2008