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William Dalrymple on Bahadur Shah II of India: transcript of audio

This is a brief extract of a talk given by the historian and author William Dalrymple at the British Library in May 2007. It concerned the remarkable life and times of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last of the Mughal Emperors - the subject of Dalrymple's new biography The Last Mughal, published in May 2007. Zafar's marriage certificate is one of the British Library's most intriguing sacred texts.

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More about Zafar's marriage certificate

William Dalrymple with a detail from Zafar's marriage certificate

Roots of a rebellion

One hundred and fifty years ago, the sepoys [native Indian soldiers] of the East India Company turned their guns on their officers in Meerut, rode through the night to Delhi, where they asked the emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to lead them, and his blessing for the small uprising of 200 soldiers in a distant northern cantonment meant that this uprising spiralled into the most enormous anti-colonial revolt to take place anywhere in the world, at any point in the 19th century, against any European empire.

So, an event of huge significance. The anniversary is being marked as we speak [on 22 May 2007] in Delhi. And an event of really serious and central importance to south Asian history, as it sees the demise of the two institutions which have formed northern Indian history for the previous 300 years: the Mughal Empire and the East India Company both come to a dead halt in 1858. Soon after, Bahadur Shah Zafar dies. All this precedes the offering by Disraeli to Queen Victoria of the title Empress of India.

And what happens after that of course is the High Raj: the unembarrassed imposition of full British colonialism on India. But up to that point it's very important to remember that it had been the East India Company, a multinational company answerable not to a government but to shareholders in London, that had formed the destiny, guided the destiny of India.

Zafar: the last Mughal emperor

It was Zafar's fate to live to see the extraordinary reversal of fortunes between his dynasty and the East India Company. The Mughals, as I'm sure all of you know, at their peak ruled across almost all of India, all of what's now Pakistan, most of what's now Afghanistan, and even a few bits of what's now Iran.

But by the time that Zafar was born, and certainly by the time of 1832, that vast empire has shrunk down to the walls of the Red Fort. Zafar is born in 1775 when the East India Company was still really only a coastal power, with factories and forts in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, but within this one man's life he lives to see his own dynasty shrink down to the Red Fort, while the East India Company transforms itself from a trading organisation into an aggressively expansionist military force.

Possibly the only photograph of a Mughal emperor: Zafar, photographed in about 1858 aged 82, as he awaited trial by the British for his part in the Indian Mutiny. From the collection of Thomas George Glover (Bengal Engineers)

And poor old Zafar, by the time he comes to throne aged 63 already an old man, a grey-bearded man, who inherits virtually nothing, an empty treasury, no army, no empire, and only the prestige of the name of the Mughals to differentiate him in any way from a small prince in Rajasthan or something, Zafar none the less it is his huge achievement to provoke and act as a catalyst for a really remarkable last renaissance in Delhi: a last great flickering of the Mughal lamp before it's extinguished.

Mughal culture's final flickering

Because Zafar's court was the court of Zauq and Ghalib; Ghalib, I'm sure many of you know, was the greatest love poet in Urdu, and arguably the greatest modern Indian poet in any language. Along with Zauq, Zafar's court is responsible for some of the greatest poetry written in modern India.

It's also a period of great artistic excitement. Intellectually this is also a moment of huge excitement: Delhi is waking up to the new learning: the mathematics and the science of the west is being translated for the first time into Urdu and Persian. And in the madrassas and colleges of Delhi there's a huge fizz of intellectual excitement as all this material begins to be discussed. How does this new learning fit in with the old cosmologies of Hinduism and Islam?

So it's a huge mistake to think of the Mughals slowly declining down to a sort of degenerate and uninteresting end. This last moment of Mughal Delhi is one of the most culturally and intellectually exciting of any of the periods of Mughal rule. And Zafar is at the centre of this.

Zafar himself is a remarkable calligrapher; in Zafar's poetic notebooks, even if you can't read the Urdu, you can see the impression of inspiration pouring onto the page, of this man filling couplet after couplet, line after line, in every available corner of space.

Zafar's reputation and death

And I think if Zafar had died in 1856 he would be remembered as one of the most remarkable men of his great dynasty. It was his fate however to live to be on the throne during this great catastrophic uprising. And exactly the same qualities which made him such a remarkable ruler for the period before the uprising and such a cultural catalyst were the very qualities that made him a quite spectactularly unsuitable leader during a time of military revolt. Mystic poets rarely make great generals, particularly when they're 82 years old! And this was certainly the case with poor old Zafar.

Zafar's widow, Zinat Mahal Begum

And he had that terrible fate of living not only to see most his sons killed before he himself dies, but to see this entire city that he has nourished and beautified with gardens, the poetry and the culture which he has exemplified, completely destroyed.

Bahadur Shah Zafar dies in exile, banished to a prison in Rangoon, and his body is tipped into an anonymous grave, and the turf carefully replaced so that within a month or two no mark will remain to indicate the place of burial.