For God and Empire

4 minute read
Aravind Adiga

At the age of 81, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the Mughal Emperor of India, led an enviable existence. He no longer hunted, as he once loved to do, but he still read and wrote poetry, flew his kites, talked to his numerous sons and grandsons, and, from his residence in the Red Fort, enjoyed the views of his beloved city, Delhi. The city was all that was left of Zafar’s dominion, but even there he wasn’t really in charge; the year was 1857, and the British East India Company ruled Delhi and most of the rest of India. Then, in the course of a single day, Zafar was torn from his poetry and kites, and found himself leading the biggest mutiny ever undertaken against the British Empire.

The story of Zafar’s extraordinary final days is the subject of William Dalrymple’s new book, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857. Fans of Dalrymple know him as an author of crisply written works of non-fiction drawn from his travels and historical research, books so full of drama and memorable characters they read like novels. His latest work won’t disappoint them.

The Last Mughal may be set a century and a half ago, but it revolves around a contemporary theme: the clash of civilizations. The spirit of evangelical Christianity had begun to infect the Englishmen in India in the 1850s. Many believed that they had been granted the Empire in order to convert Hindus and Muslims to the “true faith.” On the other side, a growing number of India’s Muslims were turning to a more orthodox form of Islam and dreaming of declaring jihad against the British. In May 1857, thousands of sepoys (Indian soldiers) serving in the British army mutinied, mainly due to fears that the British were out to corrupt Islam and Hinduism. The revolt may have been inevitable, but what was wholly unexpected was that the mutineers, in their search for a leader, would turn to an institution that had been all but defunct for over a century: the Mughal Empire. As one contemporary report put it, the soldiers “announced that they had released themselves from the service of the East India Company, and were about to become enrolled as subjects of the King of Delhi.” They poured into the capital, drove the British out, and bullied the reluctant Zafar into becoming their leader.

Although Zafar’s life binds the narrative together, the real subject of The Last Mughal is Delhi itself. Dalrymple wants to prove that, far from being decadent and in terminal decline as is often thought, late Mughal Delhi was a thriving city, full of poets, artists and traders. Religiously eclectic, Delhi culture freely blended Hindu and Muslim influences. Although Indian nationalist memory glorifies cities along the Ganges like Kanpur as the centers of the revolt, Dalrymple suggests that Delhi was the true locus of the 1857 uprising. Drawing on contemporary accounts from the Indian and British sides, he paints a vivid portrait of a city under siege, giddy with the thrill of being independent, but faced with food shortages, anarchy, and the imminent likelihood of a British counterattack.

The story ends badly for Zafar and Delhi. After a bitter siege, the British retake the capital, the citizens are massacred, and the old Emperor is exiled to Burma, where he dies, neglected and forgotten. Yet despite his flaws—Zafar was indecisive and easily manipulated by bad advisers—he still emerges as something of a hero in Dalrymple’s narrative. Throughout the British siege, he obstinately refuses to alienate the Hindus by giving in to demands of Muslim fanatics among the rebels.

The Last Mughal argues that the destruction of Zafar’s court and the religiously tolerant culture of Mughal Delhi exacerbated divisions between Hindus and Muslims and fueled the rise of Islamic fundamentalism on the subcontinent. Without Zafar, Dalrymple writes, “it would be almost impossible to imagine that Hindu sepoys could ever have rallied to the Red Fort and the standard of a Muslim leader, joining with their Muslim brothers in an attempt to revive the Mughal Empire.” By invoking the memory of the last Emperor, Dalrymple reminds Indians of a time when such religious harmony was easy to come by.

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