The Last Mughal

The Last Mughal

‘The Last Mughal’ by William Dalrymple has to be one of the most engaging and engrossing historical account of the great Indian mutiny of 1857. The book sensitively handles the issue with a balanced approach in terms of the references.

Keeping in mind the local sensibilities Dalrymple relied on an impressive list of sources, including people from Zafar’s court and other royals. So you have manuscript sources in European languages, unpublished manuscripts and dissertations, Persian and Urdu sources, contemporary works and articles in European languages, and secondary works and periodical articles being referred to every now and then by the author.

To make life easy for a history student, throughout the book Dalrymple gives the source name and the page number to authenticate his claim.

There are several things that saddens one after reading the book. The one that glares out from the rest is the way the great Mughal capital was treated. Delhi once a city of art, beauty, culture, and a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity was robbed of everything it stood for. The Indian rebels were as much to blame for the city’s loss as were the British.

You could share the grief of Bahadur Shah Zafar as the helpless soul who saw his sons and empire going down in front of his eyes. The once peaceful and poetic city was turned into a mass graveyard with bodies rotting in the open, and destruction all around. The last nail in the coffin was the mindless violence that followed in the aftermath. Many great poets of the era lost their lives and rare poetic work was lost. Worse was the treatment of the emperor Zafar. He was exiled to Rangoon, confined to a small house with a handful of loyal followers, his death a hush-hush affair, and his place of burial kept a secret for 129 years till it was accidentally discovered.

And you won’t miss the fact that we lost a great cause and the war due to a complete lack of discipline and unity.

Dalrymple’s work gives you a beautiful glimpse into the life and times of the great Mughal during his last few years. The fight for succession, influence of a eunuch, poet as court members, celebration of Hindu festivals with equal fervour, a royal wedding of monumental scale, old world charm of a flourishing city, Dalrymple has woven it all seamlessly. History has rarely been this fascinating!

Dalrymple introduces the main characters in a separate section before the actual book, and that makes his narrative easy to follow. When it comes to Bahadur Shah Zafar, Dalrymple gives a very poignant account bordering on pity at times. But it is his love for the city of Delhi that you won’t miss throught the novel. Maybe that’s why his family divide their time between Delhi, London, and Scotland.

This one para more or less summarises the whole book-

“He (Zafar) is blamed by some nationalist historians for corresponding with the British during the fighting, and by others for failing to lead the rebels to victory. Yet it is difficult to see what more Zafar could have done, at least at the age of eighty-two. He was physically infirm, partially senile and had no money to pay the troops who flocked to his standard. Octogenerians can hardly lead a cavalry charge. Try as he might, he was powerless even to stop the looting of Delhi by an insurgent army that proved almost as much a threat to Zafar’s subjects as it did to his enemies. Yet the Mutiny Papers bear eloquent witness to the energy he expended trying to protect his people and his city.”

The reality will bite you at times but didn’t they say, “everything is fair in war.” A must read book for all the history lovers.

Published by

Inam Abidi Amrohvi

Inam is an independent writer based in Dubai who also edits He comes from Lucknow. Inam blogs at The World As I See It.

18 thoughts on “The Last Mughal”

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  2. I just completed reading the book. A very well written account of the historical events. However I will rate far superior the book written by Surrendra Nath Sen, a reputed historian, who was commissioned by the Government of India. His book entitled “Eighteen Fifty Seven” was released in 1957 to mark the centenary celebrations of the revolt. The foreward was written by Maulana Azad. For the serious reader, it has a very good account of events, military strategies without the story telling flavor of William Dalrymple. I’m also watching the story of the American Revolution on the History channel now days. One is amazed by the difference one notices in the character of leadership, the ideology and the passion in the main players. Perhaps the biggest lesson we will learn from the ill fated year of 1857 is that fighting without a strong ideology, clear objective and most importantly a visionary leadership is recipe for failure even when the enemy is outnumbered 10 to 1. In 1857 India did not possess the maturity of a nation or nationhood. We had the same set of Hindu religionists outraged at the British missionary, the Muslim Jihadist feeling the need to cleanse India and the individual feudal lords who were quick to change sides at the earliest convenience (not much different from India of today).We lost because we could not rise above petty differences and did not realize that directionless agression, inept leadership and poor planning can defeat the most noble cause.

  3. I read this book some time back and loved it.

    Medieval Indian History, unfortunately, has become a battleground of ideologies. One camp of historians portrays it as everything hunky dory in ‘nizam-e-mustafa’ and the other as unmitigated disaster for Hindus. Instead of finding the truth, both sides want to prove their ideological viewpoint.

    “The last Mughal” is a refreshing change coming from an outsider who does not have an axe to grind in Indian politics. Some commentators on this blog have claimed that Hindus supported Zafar in 1857 because they did not have any choice! They are well advised to read this book. It clearly explains why Mughal mystique worked for Indians — Hindus and Muslims alike — in 1857 even after Mughals being out of power for about 100 years.

    Whatever else may be his faults, no one can accuse Zafar of religious bigotry. For the 3-4 months when he held any real power, he comes out to be a sensitive person extremely respectful of the religious sensibilities of his Hindu subjects. When radical Wahabis tried to convert it into a war between “believers” and “non-believers”, he does not hesitate to prescribe death penalty to them.

  4. Dalrymple’s book is a good comentary on the state of the society in Delhi under the rule of Bahadur Shah Zafar. In most parts of the book it gives many examples of how decadent, fun-loving, luxury oriented, trivial, non-serious that society had become.

    1. In several chapters it describes the decadent lifestyles and pursuits of the royal Mughal family, the nobles of the court and other elite. It describes that most of these people did hardly any productive work all day other than indulge in kite flying, pigeon flying, drinking liquor, consorting with women, indulging in empty gossip, planning idiotic conspiracies against erach other, reciting poetry, loafing around in the bazaars, on the banks of river Jamuna etc. Most royal princes and the king himself were under the heavy debt of money lenders and were the sycophants of the British. Zafar’s own queen and his sons were the spies of the British who were constantly giving confidential information to the British in order to curry favour with them. Zafar’s chief queen (his youngest wife) in order to get her son appointed as the successor to Zafar, constantly supplied confidential information to the British, even during the siege of Delhi. Zafar’s prime minister was the chief spy for the British who passed on all details to them during the siege of Delhi. Disloysalty to their own people and their own government to the extent of sabotaging their own armies and giving secret information to the British was rampant in the royal family and among the courtiers.

    2. Two instances exemplify the utter decadence of the then Delhi elite.
    a. The book describes the typical scene in Delhi at about 4 AM, an hour or two before sunrise. In the areas where the British lived, the British men were waking up at that hour, getting ready and going for a jog or horse ride in the parade grounds before starting their day. At the same hour Delhi’s Indian (and Muslim) elite were nearing the end of their long night sojourns at the parlors of tawaifs (dancing girls), where all night singing, mujra dancing, recital of poetry accompanied by drinking liquor was nearing the end, and these aristocrats were going home to begin their sleeping hours which will stretch until about mid day.
    b. After the failure of the revolution as Zafar and his family were being exiled to Rangoon and were travelling by a large boat in the river, Zafar’s youngest son (Prince Jawan Bakht) was constantly beseeching the British soldiers in-charge of the boat for British liquor and Chiroot cigarettes. To get those favours he constantly gave out more secret details about his family and its holdings. Also during the long voyage this prince was flirting with other young women on board.

    3. Zafar’s era was a time of great contradiction. While Urdu poetry and communal harmony flourished, decadence, immorality and disloyalty were common characterestics of the elite of Delhi. Most of the elite had little hesitation in spying for the British.

    4. The common Indian sepoys and soldiers who bore the burnt of the revolution on the other hand, and who suffered horribly in the aftermath of Ghadar in huge numbers, detested the British occupiers and had very noble, pure and strong sentiments to throw out the British. Without any education or organizational experience or good arms, the sepoys fought valiantly. Unfortunately they were stabbed in the back by the elite of Delhi and the elite from several Indian princely states. These foot soldiers displayed absolutely admirable Hindu-Muslim unity and national pride. Even though the Hindu sepoys knew that Zafar’s family was powerless, incompetent, decadent and unreliable, yet disregarding any anti-Muslim bias they proclaimed him as their king and fought to defend Zafar’s already crumbled Mughal dynasty. Hindu soldiers (called Tilangas) came from as far away as Andhra Pradesh to join the rebel force. Yet the elite of Delhi intoxicated in their high brow lifestyle put down these patriotic soldiers as “low class, uncultured, unwashed who did not know how to talk”. What arrogance, what decadence??

    5. Several rajahs and nawabs of north Indian princely states gave material and manpower help in big numbers to the British army that was clearly on the run in the first month. They competed with each other to demonstrate who can be a more loyal poodle of the British against their own Indian army.

    6. One major mistake the Indian army made was to give responsible leadership positions to Zafar’s royal princes in the defence of Delhi. These folks had NEVER done any army service and had not the foggiest idea how an army fights. The result was that they ran away from the battlefield which caused major problems and defeat.

    7. Those people who blame the Indians’ defeat in the siege of Delhi mostly on the lack of organization and good strategy of the then Indian sepoy army, and ignore the backstabbing, sabotaging and spying (mikhbari) that the elite of Delhi and India’s princely states indulged in, do great injustice to the people of India and thousands of sepoys from among the Indian masses who fought so valiantly under such difficult circumstances for such a noble cause – to liberate the nation from the yoke of the firangi. Today I appeal to all to bow our collective heads in reverence and respect to the memory of those “shahids”. Indeed they were the true martyrs of the Indian nation. May their souls rest in peace.

  5. Very well mannered and true analysis of the facts by Mr Kwaja. I thank him for this piece. I disagree with William a lot of times in his book and protest calling Hindus a ‘nationalist’ and Muslims ‘Wahhabis’. Should I constue this book as another chapter in the Raj which the British unfortunately have not condemned. These now ‘civilised’ should condemn the acts which in one form or the other continue till this day. The only difference this time is that their opponents have used the ‘civlised’ system to take the attack to them. Aren’t the Iraqs, Palestines and Afghanistan or Iran current examples. Unfortunately the system of ‘democracy’ has been heavy misused and thats the reason most of the people do not care for it. We need to read history for our collective future!

  6. I love William Dalrymple’s writing style, and read a few books written by him including ‘The City of Djinns’ which is an account of the history of Delhi throgh the ages (excellent book). I started reading ‘The Last Mughal’ once but found it a little dry initially and so didn’t quite finish it.

    Kaleem K. has made some excellent points. The decadence of the royals and other people of power in Delhi and across the rest of India was one of the main reasons why the British were able to take India. It always makes me extremely sad when I read books about 19th century India and how lazy and decayed the society (elites) had become.

  7. British brutality:
    Dalrymple’s book provides graphic details of the extreme British brutality after the fall of Delhi’s Indian army in October 1857 towards not only those Indians who fought the British but also the general Indian masses in north India. They used a scorched- earth policy on a whole string of hundreds of villages over many miles stretching upto 200 miles from Delhi; hundreds of villages and small towns were burnt to ground and their male inhabitants (who had not participated in the rebellion) were put to gallows with their dead bodies hanging from the tree, as a warning to others. It was a ghoulish and most inhuman scene. In cities too the same brutality was visited on innocent inhabitants. Many old men and women who could not even travel ran helter scelter to the countryside where the British army subjected them to cannon fire and other brutalities. Reading Dalrymple’s book it reminds of how in the Bosnia war the Serbs had subjected thousands of Muslims to brutal annihilation, or how a thousand years earlier Changhez Khan massacred the people of Bahgdad and burnt down the city.

    The remarks of several British army top commanders show extreme racial hatred of the Indian people in general, the masses and the elite. They used the elite by promising them mercy but actually treated them like helpless animals. And ofcourse they treated the people from the less affluent segments of society like slaves.

    In the book there are excerpts from several American and British writers outside India who criticise the extreme brutality and oppression of the British army in the aftermath of the Ghadar in late 1857 and 1858.

    The British simply could not have won without the immense help of manpower and supplies from the north Indian princely states. Before the Ghadar they had already divided those states against each other and made them beholden to them. And they exploited them with false promises that they never kept. They made Indians go at each others’ throats; the same way it is being done witrh Sunnis and Shias in Iraq today by the occupiers.

    I have also noticed that though Dalrymple has stated many factual accounts of the Ghadar and armies, in general he has treated the British with respect treating them as superior and maintaining moral standards in many ways; while the Indians including the elite are shown in very poor light. Especially he has almost no words of respect for the Indian sepoys who came from the masses and who took over the city of Delhi and freed it of the British. In fact often he has described them as savage-like, but he has used such expressions sparingly against the British.

    Also in the aftermath of Ghadar the British destroyed tons of written records and documentation of the then happenings written by Indian writers of that time. And they had their writers write it the way they wanted the world to remember the Ghadar which truly was the First War of India’s Independence.

  8. Kaleem,

    before just condemning the British for their tactics, remember that they were putting down a rebellion. Muslim empires used similar tactics as well, in places like ancient Persia, where nearly the entire Zoroastrian nobility and upper class was massacred or forced to flee; or in ancient Byzantium, for that matter, and in parts of ancient India, as well (read:Afghanistan, and what is now Pakistan). Those were tremendous civilizations, with tremendous cities and cultural treasures, much of them lost due to brutal military tactics.

    In more modern times, China has used very oppressive tactics in Tibet; India has been slightly less heavy-handed, but still oppressive, in Kashmir.

    The British tactics were age-old, perhaps belying their idea of themselves as “better” or more civilized than all other peoples, but it’s not as though their approach is unique or particularly European in nature. Scorched-earth policies: far too common, in too many places, too many times.

    I only make this point because there is a tendancy amongst Muslims on the subcontinent to demonize British or European colonization of India. If you don’t want the Mughals demonized, you can’t demonize the Brits, either. Yes, the Mughals nativized themselves, but so did a large number of Brits – and for evidence of that all you have to do is go to London today. Yes, they still thought of themselves as better than everyone else, but the Mughals did, too; as in fact have all of India’s rulers for basically eternity.

    And as far as making Shia-Sunni go at each other’s throats in Iraq – is that really what you believe? Is that really your take on shia-sunni violence in that part of the world – it is an American plot to divide and conquer? For starters, surely you know that Bush isn’t that smart; and secondly, if that was the aim, wouldn’t they have just broken it and then just left for a while, let everyone kill each other, then come back? For what you’re suggesting, that would have been more effective?

  9. Mahesh T…

    Does your using the word “unbiased” for Kaleem’s review imply that he is normally biased?

    Kaleem Sa’ab…

    I have to agree with Chirag. Shia-Sunni violence isn’t instigated from the outside. It has it’s roots in the Karbala carnage. I’ve heard reports of clashes in Lucknow, which is pretty far from Iraq.
    Unless you have a different point of view, that we’re missing.

  10. Iconoclast, Next you will come and say if I ever agree with you that I have always disagreed with you. Have I ever ? 🙂

    And why can’t you , me or Kaleem be biased or unbiased?

  11. >>He was physically infirm, partially senile and had no money to pay the troops who flocked to his standard.

    The matter of money comes later, the war was loosed because he refused to provide food to kafir troops, fighting for him….

  12. Angry Hindu…

    Whatever has been taught to you is lies. Whoever has taught it to you is a liar.

    Your empty claim is not backed up by any historian. Please refrain from spreading lies in this forum & in the world. Please seek out the truth & learn the value of speaking the truth. Learn from the Father of the Nation.

  13. I fully agree with Mr. Khawaja. The only reason, the mughal emperor fell that they’re away from their religion and waisted most of their precious times in those unnecessary things that Mr. Khawaja referred. No wonder, Allah didn’t help them….and why’d he, as God helps those who help themselves. So their, kingdom had to fall.




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