Dalrymple on 1857: the Religious Component

William Dalrymple, a British travel writer and scholar of Indian history, sometimes gets himself into hot water with Indian critics. He was attacked by Farrukh Dhondy a couple of years ago for criticizing V.S. Naipaul’s pro-communalist comments, and then more recently by Pankaj Mishra for lamenting the state of non-fiction writing in and about India. But whatever you think of his role in these arguments, Dalrymple as a historian is the real deal: his book Delhi: City of Djinns is an amazing historical travel narrative, which blends Dalrymple’s experiences in modern Delhi with a great deal of careful research into Delhi’s formidable past.

kashmiri_gate_1857_20060703.jpg The current issue of Outlook India has a nice essay by Dalrymple on the Indian Mutiny/Rebellion of 1857 (thanks, Indianoguy!). The essay is really in three parts: one is a fresh look at the fall of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the “last Mughal” — whose sons were all executed (murdered) by the British after the Rebellion. The second part is a discussion of “Mutiny papers” in the National Archives of India that Mahmoud Farooqi has been translating from Urdu. These documents show the Indian perspective on the events of 1857, where one finds, among other things, that the rebels were motivated by religious rage to a very great extent. Finally, there is a discussion of contemporary Delhi — in which preserving the emblems of this past is of very little interest to most people. Though I remember reading somewhere that one of the main causes of the failure of the Rebellion was Zafar’s age and his failure to act decisively (see details at Wikipedia), Dalrymple has a slightly different take. There’s no doubt that Zafar was old at the time the Mutiny occurred (he was about 80), but his weakness was not his fault. He only ascended the throne at age 60, by which time it was too late to do anything to revive his family’s dead empire. Moreover, he contributed a great deal to literature:

Zafar came late to the throne, succeeding his father only in his mid-60s, when it was already impossible to reverse the political decline of the Mughals. But despite this he succeeded in creating around him in Delhi a court of great brilliance. Personally, he was one of the most talented, tolerant and likeable of his dynasty: a skilled calligrapher, a profound writer on Sufism, a discriminating patron of miniature painters and an inspired creator of gardens. Most importantly, he was a very serious mystical poet, who wrote not only in Urdu and Persian but Braj Bhasha and Punjabi, and partly through his patronage there took place arguably the greatest literary renaissance in modern Indian history.Himself a ghazal writer of great charm and accomplishment, Zafar’s court provided a showcase for the talents of India’s greatest love poet, Ghalib, and his rival Zauq—the Mughal poet laureate, and the Salieri to Ghalib’s Mozart. (link)

One could of course argue, echoing Tagore, that mystical poetry is the consolation of a defeated people, but this is definitely better than the standard image of Zafar as an indecisive invalid. (Some of Zafar’s Urdu ghazals are here)

mutiny_1857_hanging_20060703.jpg Dalrymple also strongly condemns the violence involved in the suppression of the Rebellion, including the (ghastly) British decision to summarily kill all of Zafar’s sons and the wanton destruction of priceless monuments (including the palace inside the Red Fort) in Delhi and other Indian cities. This wasn’t enlightened Liberalism or Imperial benevolence, but a dirty war in which indiscriminate killing and humiliation were used to ensure victory.

From my perspective, the most interesting parts of Dalrymple’s piece detail the 20,000 Urdu documents in the National Archives that are now being translated by Mahmoud Farooqi. Partly they are interesting because they add to our image of everyday life in India at that time:

What was even more exciting was the street-level nature of much of the material. Although the documents were collected by the victorious British from the palace and the army camp, they contained huge quantities of petitions, complaints and requests from the ordinary citizens of Delhi—potters and courtesans, sweetmeat-makers and over-worked water carriers—exactly the sort of people who usually escape the historian’s net. The Mutiny Papers overflow with glimpses of real life: the bird-catchers and lime-makers who have had their charpoys stolen by sepoys; the gamblers playing cards in a recently ruined house and ogling the women next door, to the great alarm of the family living there; the sweetmeat-makers who refuse to take their sweets up to the trenches in Qudsia Bagh until they are paid for the last load. (link)

But it’s more than that. What the papers underline is the extent to which religious feelings drove the rebels. It goes well beyond the question of “greased cartridges”:

As the sepoys told Zafar on May 11, 1857, “we have joined hands to protect our religion and our faith”. Later they stood in Chandni Chowk, the main street of Old Delhi, and asked people: “Brothers: are you with those of the faith?” British men who had converted to Islam—and there were a surprising number of those in Delhi—were not hurt; but Indians who had converted to Christianity were cut down immediately. It is highly significant that the Urdu sources usually refer to the British not as angrez (the English) or as goras (Whites) or even firangis but instead almost always as kafirs (infidels) and nasrani (Christians).

Although the great majority of the sepoys were Hindus, in Delhi a flag of jihad was raised in the principal mosque, and many of the insurgents described themselves as mujahideen, ghazis and jihadis. Indeed, by the end of the siege, after a significant proportion of the sepoys had melted away, unpaid, hungry and dispirited, the proportion of jihadis in Delhi grew to be about a quarter of the total fighting force, and included a regiment of “suicide ghazis” from Gwalior who had vowed never to eat again and to fight until they met death—”for those who have come to die have no need for food”. One of the causes of unrest, according to one Delhi source, was that “the British had closed the madrasas”. These were words which had no resonance to the historians of the 1960s. Now, sadly, in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7 they are words we understand all too well, and words like jihad scream out of the dusty pages of the source manuscripts, demanding attention. (link)

I don’t think Dalrymple is saying that everyone involved in the Rebellion of 1857 was motivated by this kind of religious feeling (indeed, as I understand it there were as many or more Hindu sepoy rebels). But it is worth considering whether people might feel differently about the concept of “jihad” when one shares a political and military goal with a Jihadi.

Finally, Dalrymple talks about the total indifference to the past that many contemporary Indians feel. As Dalrymple puts it:

I find it heartbreaking: often when I revisit one of my favourite monuments it has either been overrun by some slum, unsympathetically restored by the asi or, more usually, simply demolished. Ninety-nine per cent of the delicate havelis or Mughal courtyard houses of Old Delhi have been destroyed, and like the city walls, disappeared into memory. According to historian Pavan Verma, the majority of the buildings he recorded in his book Mansions at Dusk only 10 years ago no longer exist. Perhaps there is also a cultural factor here in the neglect of the past: as one conservationist told me recently: “You must understand,” he said, “that we Hindus burn our dead.” Either way, the loss of Delhi’s past is irreplaceable; and future generations will inevitably look back at the conservation failures of the early 21st century with a deep sadness. (link)

Cremating the dead is one thing — but forgetting them entirely is quite another.

84 thoughts on “Dalrymple on 1857: the Religious Component

  1. Shri Yechuri

    Be careful of irked ‘progressives’ attempting to write satirical swipes depicting pinko commie pseudo secular scum as the opponents of Hindu pride and mocking the after effects of millions of years of oppression and ass raping. They shall do so in a very sly style using your name, without any wit, joie de vivre, humor, insight or originality, writing turgid constipated labored quips in an imitative manner and then claim it is all a double bluff.

    Be careful! Don’t let them use your name in that way! To depict you so! We are already being persecuted enough!

    Don’t let them tweak your nipples! And remember, your saffron balls have a fantastic growth rate and if they try to brainwash the saffron out of them, squeeze them and let them know we have saffron udders too.

    Don’t be deluded – SpoorLam is serious in everything he says no matter what slanders they say or call me jokester!

    Death to Dalrymple!

    Hail Mogambo!

  2. Thank goodness we have SpoorLam to protect us from these hindoo nuts. Let us not forget that these people have an enormous history of violence and aggression. From the creation of the slave trade, to its implementation in the new world, to the destruction of the minority cultures like european jews and turkish armenians, in every one of these cunning hindoo is implicated.

    This is why india is a aggressive mono-cultural state, where no other religion is permitted other than brahminical hinduism. And no surprise – all around india, one finds cultural and religous freedom. In the streets of Riyadh and Islamabad, Moscow and Beijing, the call to azaan mingles with sounds of aarti. Fervent christians throng the streets on festival days, mingling with buddhist monks in their tradition saffron.

    Fortunately, with the great heroes of heroes like Stalin and Mao, all progressive people can now relax. Following their great examples, we will cleanse our great nation of these parasitical life-forms.

  3. Comrade Spoorlam,

    Fear not the communal forces and doubt not my revolutionary credentials.

    No idol worshipping, mantra chanting, brahminical, bourgeois, upper class hindu can shake my resolve to purge the world of the scourge of Hinduism.

    Do not forget that Hinduism and Hinduism along is responsible for the infinite burden on the shoulders of the common man.

    It is high time we replace saffron with RED!!

    Inquilab Zindabad!!

  4. It is true! The progressive pseudo Sick-ularists are the equivalent of Mao and Stalin and they seek the eradication of the Hindu race from the face of the Earth! In league with William Dal-Pimple and other persecutionalists who deride Hindu pride and the energy giving properties of saffron milk. Because criticism of one is equivalent to GENOCIDE of Hindu pride.

    Twenty million years of rape and still they make fun of us. Is there no depths to which these Nazis will not fall?

    This conspiracy is everywhere, they even compose witless and unfunny satire in hysterical response to their mockery.

    Stop persecuting us! Stop scratching our balls!

    Hail Mogambo!

  5. Amrita said:

    oh yes, and soldiers were living in Saddam’s “palaces” and swimming in the pools last I heard, so those haven’t been destroyed…about strafing mosques, remember Fuhl-loozhah?

    Would you rather we level the palaces? Eventually they can be used as government ministry buildings. Also, when there are insurgents firing from inside Mosques strafing does take place.

    indianoguy said:

    Abhi Follow this and this, You will find some startling info about American Miltary’s involvement in the looting of Baghdad’s Museam.

    Please guys, don’t lecture me on how evil the American military is. That isn’t the point here is what I am trying to clarify. To compare the U.S. occupation of Iraq to the past examples discussed in this post is disinegnuous.

    Following the Iraq war, billions of dollars of Iraq’s money was directed to American companies to rebuild the country. But much of it remains unaccounted for. Sometime back BBC Newsnight aired a story titled “The 50 Billion Dollar Robbery”. Newsnight is known for unbiased reporting and that report is pretty convincing.

    This is due to piss poor oversight and a failed policy/vision and not an active campaign to rob a country of all its resources as was pursued during colonization in the 20th century. You can argue that the end results are converging but the point here is intention. I don’t agree with vilifying America in this post which has nothing to do with America.

  6. “But whatever you think of his role in these arguments, Dalrymple as a historian is the real deal: his book Delhi: City of Djinns is an amazing historical travel narrative, which blends DalrympleÂ’s experiences in modern Delhi with a great deal of careful research into DelhiÂ’s formidable past.” Amardeep, Is Dalrymple a historian? Or is he one because he writes travel narrative like his dost Sir Vidiya?

  7. Nice post Amardeep. I find all this talk boring and will hail a cab home; would you have the number for International Backside Taxis?:)

  8. DarkKnight wrote

    Perhaps one reason we don’t preserve Mughal buildings is that the majority of Indians are Hindus, and the buildings are a reminder of a different colonial empire. Why do African-Americans oppose the confederate flag? Shouldn’t they be trying to “preserve” that part of their history?

    Any thoughts on how common this point of view is among Hindu Indians? Is it really the reason Mughal monuments are not as well maintained as they could be?

  9. Abhi

    Earlier you said

    “Really? Care for a little context here? The Americans went around destroying mouments to Saddam Hussain and the Baath party, not Mosques. More Mosques have been destroyed by sectarian violence and by foreign fighters. Why lump them in to this debate?”

    later on you said

    “This is due to piss poor oversight and a failed policy/vision and not an active campaign to rob a country of all its resources as was pursued during colonization in the 20th century. You can argue that the end results are converging but the point here is intention. I don’t agree with vilifying America in this post which has nothing to do with America.”

    Does this show your lack of knowledge(of Iraq War/War on Terror) or us(Amrita and me) being disingenuous.

    British/Muslim rulers of India certainly did not occupy the country to rob it, their primary objective is to rule the country. In the case of American Government its to spread freedom and democracy (pun intended). Robing and looting of Iraq is just a byproduct of the noble cause to help Iraqi people.

  10. Any thoughts on how common this point of view is among Hindu Indians? Is it really the reason Mughal monuments are not as well maintained as they could be?

    they are very common among hindu’s, specially after “arti” on Thursday evenings it is Hindu practice to seize crowbars and dynamite and proceed to domlish the nearest offending “Moghul” structure. A few decades of doing this has left few such structures remaining in populated areas so nowadays day trips need to be organized on weekends to find new places in the countryside. This entails substantial planning as the ingredients for chutney sandwiches and chole-bread have to be prepared the night before.

    You should try it sometimes, its fun for the whole family.

  11. Secondly, I think though that the state of monuments in Delhi is really sad, and Dalrymple may be writing from that context. Mughal India has left a rich intellectual, literary and architectural heritage which is sadly ignored in Delhi and the North generally.


    If people actually visited these sites instead of wringing their hands in desperation, they’d note that recent renovations and upkeep of major Mughal monuments in and around the city (from Humayun’s tomb to Safdarjung’s tomb to Purana Qila to Lodi Gardens) is pretty incredible. In fact, the government is SO serious about their upkeep that it’s swung the other way, often destroying slums and bastis in and around most major monuments. If anything, it can be said that the Delhi government cares more for Humayun’s tomb than the living persons evicted from its premises when it was renovated a few years ago.

    And it’s simply NOT true that North India ignores its Mughal architectural or historical heritage – tourism in Northern India is driven almost entirely by religious pilgrimages, Rajasthan and Mughal monuments. I mean, this is just so obvious I’m not even sure I know how to “prove” it.

    The sadder state of less famous or less significant Mughal monuments owes much to Delhi’s bloodstained history (forgetting for a minute that India isn’t the richest country in the world). In addition to scars from repeated invasions, Delhi also bears less visible scars from partition — the ensuing misplacement of populations meant that Delhi’s newer inhabitants were expected to care about its history long before their arrival. Though even despite this, Delhi’s awareness of and pride for its Mughal history is really quite impressive…

  12. Also, in response to some of the satire, I’d like to point out that not only am I not an upper caste Hindu, I am considered casteless. Believe it or not, it’s not that big an issue in urban places like Madras. Nor would I consider myself a Hindu nationalist; I hate the Shiv Sena. But someone has to speak up and point out Hinduism is mostly a tolerant and open philosophy. Why is it that it is taboo on here to critique Muslims or Christians (despite often having cause) but any show of support for Hinduism is automatically “Hindu nationalism”? I’d like a clever response from Spoorlam if possible as well.

  13. Yeah, we all know about those famous monuments on Delhi’s tourism literature. Mirza Ghalib’s haveli is a lavatory/spitoon. Old Delhi is a mess.

  14. Dark Knight, I am going to sign off after this comment, but I find your concepts, categories, perceptions truly baffling. Clearly we live in different worlds if not planets. What you are saying about art, literature, and culture is like saying that if I rigged up an experiment in my backyard to demonstrate a principle in physics, I am as good as the next physics professor at an American or Indian university. It just doesn’t make sense. We aren’t talking about cultivating oneself through reading, and certainly there are independent scholars who are self taught. We are talking about the academy. What makes you so disrespectful of generations of scholars who have done tremendous work on India, some of them American, others British, and others Indian? The fact that Romila Thapar is great doesn’t take away from the writing/scholarship of people who live elsewhere. And your saying that you go for brief visits to India, but somehow don’t consider yourself as diasporic as the next diasporic also doesn’t make sense. I am sure we will disagree, but I don’t believe that the only true knowledge is essential knowledge, felt on the pulses and in one’s brown skin. I was talking about studying in a discipline, learning its conventions, generating academic and popular knowledge within that discipline, having your work reviewed and judged by peers. I don’t know that Dalrymple is the greatest exemplar of this, and his arrogance certainly doesn’t make one want to support him. But it would not cross my mind to dismiss him on racial grounds or because he is an outsider. You don’t get a knowledge of history just by living somewhere. I thought I should point out that we are talking about apples and oranges.

  15. I dont where or why people are coming up with the nonsensical idea that only mughal (aka muslim) sites are being allowed to decay in india. This is quite far from the truth. Active mosques maintained by one of several islamic organizations. ASI maintains the rest without regard to the period from which the structure dates.

    Overall, the state of preservation of all historical artifacts is not that great. I have visited the hindu temples in Orissa and they were quite poorly maintained. The Konark site lacked even the most elementary information/signage and basically had 100s people picnicking, playing ball etc.

  16. chandi: yes Mirza Ghalib’s house is a lavatory/spittoon, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the others as simply major monuments in Delhi’s tourism brochure. Many of the so-called major monuments, were in great disrepair until recently (compare pics of Humayun’s tomb 10-15 years ago, and today); and work has already begun on major sites of historical interest like Firozabad — even though tourists hardly go there today, and most have never heard of pre-Mughal rulers like Firoz Shah Tughlaq; other relatively “minor” masterpieces that were being restored when I visited Delhi in February of this year included the Moth Mosque, a masterpiece of Lodi architecture. Is this “enough”? of course not: but I don’t see the problem as India-specific, rather than as one common to developing societies facing the enormous problems of overpopulation, economic growth, and environmental pressures. Delhi or Cairo, the sad story is often the same.

    Re: “Old Delhi is a mess.” Right you are: although I must say that one must place the sad state of Old City in historical context. The city was pulverized by Nadir Shah’s invasion of 1739, and over the next several decades was sacked and looted repeatedly by various sides in various Mughal civil wars, by Maratthas, Jats, Rohilas et al. But the most destructive in the 18th C was Ahmed Shah Abdali’s Afgan invasion (though the temple town of Mathura got it far worse than Delhi). In the 19th C, the British capture of the city meant epic destruction for it, as large parts of Shah Jahan’s city were simply pulled down and dismantled, and then suffered about nine decades of utter and ruinous neglect. Independence meant the massacres of partition and — crucially for the historical continuity of the city — a massive exodus of a very large segment of the old city’s population. Given all these factors, it isn’t surprising that it is what it is today. I believe earlier in this thread someone had compared Lahore and Delhi, and SMR made the valuable point about the link between a massive influx of newcomers and indifference to a place’s history: following from that, let me suggest that if Delhi must be compared to a Pakistani city, the appropriate one is Karachi, which was also entirely remade in the image of millions of newcomers. And Old Karachi simply does not exist, except in scattered, crumbling buildings here and there. I don’t believe it is useful to speak of historical memory and indifference divorced from any consideration of socio-economic factors, and of political factors like Partition, the single worst calamity to befall Delhi since the British sack of 1857-58, and which within the space of a few years turned Delhi into the world’s foremost Punjabi city. And it’s no coincidence that in the midst of rising economic growth rates, while many of the city’s nouveau rich are blithely indifferent to the history around them, the city has begun to take steps to preserve its heritage to a greater degree than at any point over the preceding five decades. I won’t say the future of Delhi’s history is bright, but it is less sombre in many ways than it would have been had I been asked the question in 1990.

    And since “North India” has come up, let us consider Agra: here the whole town is a dump, except that Akbar’s mausoleum in Sikandra, obviously the Taj, and heck even the tomb of Nur Jahan’s father, are immacculately maintained (relatives and friends who visited Agra in years gone by say it wasn’t always so; heck recall Rushdie’s description in “Midnight’s Children”), while the rest of the town goes to hell. This is the flip side: Agra gives the impression of a town with respect to which the government only cares about the monuments, not the city (that the Dalit basti across the Yamuna and behind the Taj still exists — as it surely would not in Delhi — is testimony to the fact that in the land of the Bahujan Samaj Party, the poor may not be shunted aside with political impunity); ditto for Fatehpur Sikri. The debate over indifference is turned on its head when one considers these cities/towns.

    On the Hindu vs. Muslim monument issue: certain cities have definitely suffered from communalized neglect. I find it amusing that many seem to have picked the wrong ones. Lucknow and Hyderabad come to mind (to his everlasting credit the Chandrababu Naidu-led Telegu Desam government began to reverse this trend, though we’ll need to wait a while to see if Hyderabad’s recent prosperity has led to a permanent change), but to include Delhi on this list borders on the absurd. The destruction of many of Delhi’s heritage buildings is something to be mourned, an irreplaceable loss of our heritage; but the notion that Delhi’s havelis vanished because of communalized neglect borders on the ludicrous. In a nutshell, Delhi’s havelis vanished because the class that sustained them vanished, and because the city’s crazy growth over the last decades overwhelmed the capacity of the city to cope: havelis, roads, electricity, etc. And certainly the political will to preserve was lacking, because it would have meant legislating against much economic growth; that political choice might be troubling (or the ease with which it was made might be troubling), but that choice rears its head in multitudes of cities all over the world, and is hardly Delhi- (or India-) specific.

    I think if Delhi is compared with its economic and cultural peers (Lahore, Karachi, for instance), it will come out ahead, even in the preservation of Mughal heritage (the Nawaz Sharif government in Lahore, for instance, took the shocking step of destroying the water regulation system of the Mughal Shalimar Gardens — in order to widen a road! My sister, who has visited Nur Jahan’s tomb in Lahore, was shocked and surprized to see the contrast with the tomb of her father in Agra: the latter rises like a jewel amidst the squalor of Agra, the former suffers criminal neglect). The reason is that while there is plenty of indifference to pre-Mughal rulers (most are just names to people, if even that), the Mughals are enthusiastically celebrated and held up as the archetypal Indian monarchs by millions upon millions in India; in Pakistan it is the reverse: the textbooks routinely villify Akbar and Nur Jahan, and devote far more space to Aurangzeb than to Jahangir or Shah Jahan — it cannot be a coincidence that the different politics are reflected in the upkeep of Nur Jahan’s tomb (Jahangir fares better, but then he wasn’t a “scheming woman”).

  17. Says the Dark Knight: “But someone has to speak up and point out Hinduism is mostly a tolerant and open philosophy”

    So from where do you begin Mr Dark Knight? I really and truly wish to know where the philosophy in Hinduism is?

  18. the latter rises like a jewel amidst the squalor of Agra, the former suffers criminal neglect).

    Yes, this is a real problem.. People can live in slums, but we have to preserve the “Oh so great tombs / mosques / temples”.. nice logic.. I’m not saying that you purposely destroy the old buildings.. But I’d not sweat about it..

  19. I don’t understand the need for people to get so worked up about such trivial issues. If objectively studied, monuments are just enormous piles of rubble. Take for instance, the Taj Mahal, the mother of all monuments in India. Simplistically put, it is a fancy tomb built by a rich despot. In praising its beauty and assigning it unwarranted importance, we are actually trivializing the thousands of slaves and underpaid craftsmen who were exploited by a brutal, callous, and autocratic regime. Entire ecosystems would have been decimated as enormous quantities of marble were quarried. Thousands of animals would have been cruelly overworked to meet stringent logistical challenges. The Taj Mahal Project must have doomed entire communities and claimed many innocent lives. Yet, today we queue for hours to catch the beauty of, what is in reality, a beast. The injustice doesnÂ’t end there. The abundance of such monstrosities monuments in India has lead to the entire nation and its people being viewed by the white man as an essentially quaint and ancient entity with exotic connotations. Industriousness lies in identifying opportunity where there is none and India should do just that. India should start by classifying all monuments as disposable assets of the nation and start selling them to white conglomerates. A Desi equivalent of SothebyÂ’s should be formed with Laxmi Mittal in an advisory role. According to my conservative estimate, in todayÂ’s market, the Taj Mahal should easily fetch a cool One Thousand Billion Dollars (erm, there must be a name for that number; but I digress). The Qutab Minar, The Red Fort, Mysore Palace, The NizamÂ’s thing in Hydrebad; India is sitting on a gold mine and not realizing it. Once these sales have been made, Pepsi should be nationalised and its exhaustive network should be used for enabling the equal distribution of this wealth and ensuring that it reaches the remotest corners of the country. But, after becoming a rich nation, we shouldnÂ’t resign ourselves to resting on our laurels; on the vacant land where monuments once existed, we should build huge amusement parks that rival Disneyland in Florida and Global Village in Dubai. These attractions will bring more tourist dollars. In around two hundred years, these amusement parks will become true, guilt-free, monuments in their own right. Future generations will thank us while preserving these monuments! Peace P.S: I hereby pledge to refrain from entering into holy matrimony with any woman who posed in front of Taj Mahal like the late Princess Diana!

  20. In praising its beauty and assigning it unwarranted importance, we are actually trivializing the thousands of slaves and underpaid craftsmen who were exploited by a brutal, callous, and autocratic regime. Entire ecosystems would have been decimated as enormous quantities of marble were quarried. Thousands of animals would have been cruelly overworked to meet stringent logistical challenges. The Taj Mahal Project must have doomed entire communities and claimed many innocent lives.

    I see someone has been reading a lot of Ayan Rand.

  21. Thanks to Amardeep’s post, I picked up the scintillating “White Mughals” and have (so far) learned much new about 18th century India. Particularly fascinating is the large number of Englishmen who converted to Islam, especially in the days prior to the British control of India. Many did so for love (it was a precondition to marry a Muslim lady), or upward mobility in the Mughal or any of the Deccani courts. There are gruesome tales of man dying soon after the presumably painful adult circumcision. Some also converted to Hinduism (though this proved much more difficult, since there was no conversion ceremony in place at the time), became vegetarians, employed Brahmins, worshipped at Shiva icons, donated ornaments to temples in the Hindu manner, celebrated victories in battles with visits to Kali temples, placed their faith to Hindu medicine, and what have you. The Portuguese too adopted Indian ways – the Goa Inquistion targetted Portuguese men for wearing lungis, which apparently was a sign of Hinduising excessively. At one point, you could not become a Priest in Goa if you did not have some Hindu Brahmin lineage.

    The tenor of the British attitude to India, including is scholarly representation, changed when the government gained manifest control of the subcontinent, and with the arrival of Christian missionaries, who discovered with horror the sahibs who had gone native.

  22. Where do I get that Hinduism is a philosophy? I start with the Bhagavad Gita. Then I read the Vedanta, the Bhagvatam (sp?) and others. Also, in response to the comments about academy, that is mostly bunk. Most universities in America basically indoctrinate their scholars to the western-liberal majority form view of thinking. Conservatives, radicals and others are rarely welcome in Western academia, unless they respresent a more liberal/socialist/ivory tower view. My own professors at Cornell, who represented that very class, often remarked that no truly original or groundbreaking work in the Humanities was ever done in a university. They specialize in revisionist history, post-modernist deconstructionism and literary criticism, none of which I consider to be important or of any significant value. most of the great authors were not professors, or even recognized in their own times. I know this is a huge generalization, but I am just stating that yes, home grown and self-educated people who write are jsut as qualified, if not more so than professors. Professors have just chosen to become part of the system, while others choose to follow their own paths. Joyce, Darwin, Einstein etc. there are hundreds of examples I could cite of great thinkers that were rejected by their academic peers.

  23. Dear Dark Knight,

    My purpose in questioning you was not to goad you on to writing premature obituaries of postmodernism, post-structuralism or even a nearly dead literary criticism – you seem to have had a rather troubled sojourn at the university – but to engage you in an enlightening move whereby you could tell us with some exactitude as to how you would define the preachings of Srimadbhagwadgita as philosophy! How, for instance, would you like to play with the following paradoxes:

    dehanAshabhayAditi dvitIyapaxaM nirAha –

    That it (the fear) is on account of bodily destruction, thus a second objection is refuted thus:

    dehino.asmin.h yathA dehe kaumAraM yauvanaM jarA | tathA dehAntaraprAptirdhIrastatra na muhyati || 13 ||

    Just as the embodied experiences the infancy, the youth, and the old age of the body; so also the obtaining of another body, and in this matter the intelligent one is not deluded.

    Point no 1: Body or deha is transient nashwar and spirit or aatmAN is eternal. The idea of spiritual decay is negated in Srimadbhagwadgita. How one wishes Lord Krishna was around today to see in disbelief that spirit is the most easily corruptible commodity and is, as such, prone to decay much before the body. Point no 2: Which is the real Krishna? The one that existed in narcissistic euphoria before the Mahabharata? The one that craftily and amorally monitored the war during the Mahabharata? Or, the one who in utter despondence in the post war scenarion left to embrace his mortal destiny that hit him in the form of a stray arrow shot by a tribal after the Mahabharata? These three are different Krishnas and their worldviews (not philosophies) are invariably functioning at cross purposes.

  24. Al Mujahid is unnecessarily harsh in his comments. Questions about who created monuments like Khajuraho, Konark, Taj Mahal, Birla Mandirs, Akshardhams or even the Sikh Golden Temple or conversely who destroyed them – Babri Mosque, Bamiyan, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and a lot else in Vietnam and how and why and to what purpose are not unimportant to an understanding of how subjectivities are created, nurtured, kept alive and, if need be, dissolved. A dismissive reference linking such ideological inquisition to a reading of Ayan Rand isn’t exactly helpful.

    I do not have the heart to say this but I have to – it doesn’t seem as if Al Mujahid has been reading much lately.

  25. My thoughts on Dalrymple’s article as conveyed to Outlook:

    Tuesday, July 11, 2006

    The Editor Outlook By email: letters@outlookindia.com


    DalrympleÂ’s The Last Mughal will interest students of Mughal arrogance, complacency and decadence, but his research of the period may well force a drastic review of perceptions about 1857.

    Anyone who has done a wee bit more reading than others about the event knows that, apparently, conditional ban on cow-slaughter was the main sop in enlisting majority support for the uprising. Proclamations like ‘Fateh Allah’ had been drafted by mullahs. Leaders of the majority faction (notably Nanasaheb Peshwa, Tatya Tope, Laxmibai, Kunwar Singh and Beni Madhav) had never concealed their subordination to Mughal imperialism after the successful culmination of the event. In regions where the uprising succeeded, the rebels constituted governments which were mainly run by erstwhile Muslim royalty or nobility and participation of Hindus was minimal, if at all.

    As the author writes, “The Great Mutiny has usually been told by the Marxist historians of the 1960s and 1970s primarily as a rising against British economic policies”. That simplistic – if not motivated – picture will be considerably altered, especially since the author claims to have used hitherto untapped sources.

    One feels the book may well be an eye-opener.

    • Bhalchandrarao C. Patwardhan
  26.                      Tilangas In Delhi - review of The Last Mughal

    As a frequent visitor to the walled city I knew for long that ‘Tilanga’ has a pejorative connotation. Its connection with Tilangana is understandable too but how it got into the lingo of the city was always a mystery to me. Dalrymple’s Last Mughal not only helped me solved this riddle but its live and sensitive narrative without compromising the rigor of the discipline broke many stereotypes that have crept into the corpus of histories written for the period.

    John Company recruited its soldiers for the Carnatic wars from Tilangana and the native recruits were addressed as Tilangas. Later Avadh supplied majority of Company soldiers but the appellation continued in currency and it was interchangeably used with Purbias-the Easterners (read foreigners). The unbecoming behavior of sepoys, who came to Delhi in search of a leader to head the rebellion, got embedded in the memory of its inhabitants.

    Syncretism being the hallmark of Indian history and culture and White Mughals were the living testimony to this assertion. No one is as good as Dalrymple in recreating the life and times of these pliant whites who showed no qualms in mixing with the natives. Author should have explored the social background of these early company recruits to explain their friendly attitude towards natives. It is of interest to note that most of them were from Scotland –an underdeveloped part of then England. Life in the cantonment, Delhi’s bazaars and even the food habits of Indian and British find authentic mention in the book. The most amusing is the account of innumerable gastronomical gourmet laid on the dinner table of family of English Sahib and religiously sticking to the routine of consuming six meals a day.

    Life in the fort, daily routine of emperor and especially evening Mushairas were described to their last detail. The affairs of concubines with courtiers were very embarrassing for the aging and ailing emperor indicated that the sunset of Mughal royalty was just round the corner. The thefts committed by salatins highlighted their impecunious life and with their sizable number they were considered a kind of shame for the palace. . Money arranged from the money lenders of city by the chief Eunuch and the confidant of Zinat Mahal for the marriage of her only son Jawan Bakth gives us only the glimpse of the grandeur and scale of the weddings of Mughal Royalty and author has recaptured it with matching nuance and detail.

    One is charmed to read the graphic accounts of the life of Delhi’s leading family of white Mughals –the Skinners. The famous editor of pro British Delhi Gazette Mr.Wagentrieber was the son-in-law of James Skinner whose English according to Fanny Eden was stilted and ungrammatical. The interesting parallels in the lives of Zafar and Thomas Metcalf could convince you that their fate was under the spell of same celestial configuration. Death of his daughter-in-law, Theo’s wife under mysterious circumstances gives us the feel of Spooky stories of Raj by Ruskin Bond.

    The legendary rivalry of Zauq and Ghalib must have given an extra sting to MirzaÂ’s poetry who could not hide his jealousy and annoyance for Emperor being partisan in favour of less versatile Ustad-Zauq. MirzaÂ’s meager annual income of Rs750/- his share of the family pension- was insufficient to sustain and maintain even a semblance of the life style expected of Mughal nobility The death of Mirza Fakhru-the heir apparent who was GhalibÂ’s disciple and annexation of Avadh from where he was getting Rs 500/- annual stipend – augmented his financial difficulties. Life of Mirza was a reflection of the life of Mughal elite of the period. His sharp observations of his sojourn at Calcutta in AD1828, his pride preventing him to take up teaching job in Delhi College, his disgust with Tilangas and brutalities of British were weaved into the narrative to convey the first hand account by one of the most agile minds of the times marked by chaos and mayhem.

    It is understandable that ailing Zafar was disinterested in his trial but what is baffling that ZafarÂ’s ignorance to differentiate between Persians & Russians when asked about his intrigue with the former. Jawan Bakht the most adorable son of Zafar trading secrets about his motherÂ’s treasure and giving incriminating evidences against emperor for 100 cheroots. There is little doubt that the royal scion showed no ability and dignity to inherit the empire. The termite of decay had completely engulfed the mighty Mughal Empire once the envy of its contemporaries.

    After the capture of Zafar from Humayun Tomb by Col. Hudson, fond of Urdu poetry, shot a couplet- dam dame me dam nahi khair maango jahan ki / ab ho chuki talwar hindustan ki. Zafar retorted back with an immortal verse – jab talaq rahegi hindiyon mein boo imaan ki / tab talaq chalegi tage British pe talwar Hindustan ki.( As long as there is a drop of conscience left among Indians they continue to fight British). Except the chance omission of this small but important incident the book is the most authentic account of life and times of Zafar.

    Dalrymple has earned the birth in the exclusive club of historians who can write history with an absorbing narrative and spare the reader being subjected to dull and dry narrative. Going by authorÂ’s own admission that he could explore only 10 percent of the material at his disposal, including hither to little used mutiny papers, we can expect that the next edition will be more richer in terms of empirical data and analysis. Publisher should have considered realizing paper back edition for Indian readers too as they have done oversees.
    Vikram Kumar

  27. I like Dark Knights post no#27 Pannini Post #44 no way is Khmosh Pani a mediorche ( however you spell it) film..

    Doesn’t mean I agree or disagree with the rest of your postings