On a hazy November afternoon in Rangoon, 1862, a shrouded corpse was escorted by a small group of British soldiers to an anonymous grave in a prison enclosure. As the British Commissioner in charge insisted, "No vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Moghuls rests."
Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal Emperor, was a mystic, an accomplished poet and a skilled calligrapher. But while his Mughal ancestors had controlled most of India, the aged Zafar was king in name only. Deprived of real political power by the East India Company, he nevertheless succeeded in creating a court of great brilliance, and presided over one of the great cultural renaissances of Indian history.
Then, in 1857, Zafar gave his blessing to a rebellion among the Company's own Indian troops, thereby transforming an army mutiny into the largest uprising any empire had to face in the entire course of the nineteenth century. The Siege of Delhi was the Raj's Stalingrad: one of the most horrific events in the history of Empire, in which thousands on both sides died. And when the British took the city--securing their hold on the subcontinent for the next ninety years--tens of thousands more Indians were executed, including all but two of Zafar's sixteen sons. By the end of the four-month siege, Delhi was reduced to a battered, empty ruin, and Zafar was sentenced to exile in Burma. There he died, the last Mughal ruler in a line that stretched back to the sixteenth century.
Award-winning historian and travel writer William Dalrymple shapes his powerful retelling of this fateful course of events from groundbreaking material: previously unexamined Urdu and Persian manuscripts that include Indian eyewitness accounts and records of the Delhi courts, police and administration during the siege. The Last Mughal is a revelatory work--the first to present the Indian perspective on the fall of Delhi--and has as its heart both the dazzling capital personified by Zafar and the stories of the individuals tragically caught up in one of the bloodiest upheavals in history.
In time for the 150th anniversary of the Great Mutiny, the uprising that came close to toppling British rule in India, Dalrymple presents a brilliant, evocative exploration of a doomed world and its final emperor, Bahadur Shah II, descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Bahadur, more familiarly known as Zafar, was a reluctant revolutionary: the mutinous sepoys who had murdered every Christian in Delhi proclaimed him their commander, an honor he hadn't sought. British besiegers took the capital in September 1857, followed by massacre, purges and destruction. Zafar died five years later in penury and exile. Dalrymple (White Mughals), however, is primarily concerned with compiling "a portrait of the Delhi he [Zafar] personified, a narrative of the last days of the Mughal capital and its final destruction." In this task, he has been immeasurably aided by his discovery of a colossal trove of documents in Indian national archives in Delhi and elsewhere. Thanks to them Dalrymple can vividly recreate, virtually at street level, the life and death of one of the most glorious and progressive empires ever seen. That the rebels fatefully raised the flag of jihad and dubbed themselves "mujahedin" only adds to the mutiny's contemporary relevance. 24 pages of illus., 16 in color; 2 maps. History Book Club featured selection.(Apr. 1)
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March 26, 2007
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