The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple

I just finished reading The Last Mughal : the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 by William Dalrymple and here is my detailed review. You should follow me on Goodreads for more of these.

William Dalrymple tells a story of deep melancholy and despair. He portrays the bitter final days of the Mughal dynasty and the last of the house of Timur. The events that lead to the mutiny of 1857 and how that led to the end of one of the most celebrated dynasties of the world. Plenty of spoilers ahead.

The first of the aha moments happened when I got a better sense of the timeline. I had this impression that the Mughals did have some amount of power till recent history. Babur founded the dynasty in 1526. Persian invader Nadir Shah invaded Delhi in 1739 and extensively looted and rampaged the city. It was invaded once again half a century later and the emperor Shah Alam 2 was blinded. I would read that as the end of the golden age. One of the common doggerel goes like this - “The kingdom of Shah Alam; runs from Delhi to Palam” (a distance of less than 15km). The Maratha Empire had brought an end to the Mughal Empire in the Deccan in the 18th century. 332 years after Babur the last Mughal was sent to exile by the British in 1858.

The usual narrative of the Mughals is that of an invading alien Muslim empire that ruled with fear and tyranny. The tone set by the British after they left were bitter and we knowingly and unknowingly imprinted that image in us. The second take away was the fresh perspective. There are tales of Hindu Muslim unity and the efforts by the emperors from the days of Akbar all the way to Bahadur Shah Zafar to keep things in check. All the emperors were Muslim, but several of them had Hindu mothers. Arts and culture flourished. Architecture had its golden era.

Third, Dalrymple paints the mutiny as an event that is more religious in nature and an amateurish uprising by the masses. The group was often significantly larger than the British, but they failed to make a serious impact. Pork fat cartridges was a bigger deal than freedom for the country. Its is not the glorious first freedom struggle as the Indian history books picture it to be. The Gurkhas, Pathans and Sikhs fought by the British side and formed lion’s share of the army that eventually captured Delhi. The Jihadis and Hindus almost clashed with each other over the issue of beef slaughter during Id while the British was literally waiting outside to capture the city. Gujjars looted the refugees escaping the ruined city with the little resources they could carry. Several neighboring states supported the British by providing elephants and guns which was a decisive factor in the siege. History would have been clearly different if they stayed together against the common enemy rather than butcher each other; but then for the Jihadi the Christian and the Hindu were equally bad.

The book is graphical in nature and there are a lot of gory details. Dalrymple follows a few central characters closely and I wonder why some of them like Theo Metcalfe gets so much screen time. The brutality of the British and the heart breaking verses of the celebrated poet Ghalib makes this a hard read. Sometimes I felt that lines and references got repeated, but I’ll have to write some code to say precisely where. It drags sometimes and I skipped a few paragraphs. The misogyny of the era is disgusting - Zafar had 22 sons and at least 32 daughters from 4 wives and countless concubines. The causalities were way too many. Much of the city got badly destroyed. There is way too much agony in the 450+ pages.

The final pages offer some modern continuation. The divide between the communities last till date. The same incident led to both great modern educational institutions like the Aligarh Muslim University and the far right Deobandi madrassas which can be connected to several terrorist organizations like the Taliban. The tomb of the last Mughal is an unremarkable structure somewhere in Burma. The book concludes with a quote from Edmund Bruke, “those who fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it”.

I’ll give the book 4/5 ★.