Bahadur Shah Zafar: The Last Mughal

In The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857, the writer, historian William Dalrymple takes the reader, without delay, to November 7, 1862. It is evening, when a corpse distinctly enshrouded in white is buried in a grave, and after a hastened recitation of funeral prayers, mud thrown over, before laying down the turf. There was no tombstone, the grave left intentionally unmarked, to ensure the dead man remained unrecalled and lost. Had there been an engraved tombstone, it would have identified the buried and would have read: Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah Zafar, ex-King of Delhi, Died at Rangoon on 7 November 1862. Zafar, as Bahadur Shah Zafar II was popularly known, was The Last Mughal.

Image result for bahadur shah zafar
Bahadur Shah Zafar II

Dalrymple writes in the introduction about the book, “as a portrait of the Delhi [Zafar] personified, a narrative of the last days of the Mughal capital and its final destruction in the catastrophe of 1857.” More importantly, it documents the events as they happened before 1857, during the four months when Delhi was under siege, and in the months following the surrender of Zafar. Zafar and his beloved city, embroiled in what came to be known as The First War of Independence, bore the ambitions of those who surrounded him, Indian and British. When it became clear that Delhi would fall to the British, Zafar, a mystic by nature, crossed the Yamuna to reach the holy shrine of Nizamuddin, to deliver the most precious of Mughal relics for safekeeping to the pirzadas (officials at a Sufi shrine). He cried:

“My forefathers have had worse days than these and they never lost heart. But I have read the writing on the wall. I see with my own eyes the fast approaching tragedy which must end the glory of my dynasty. Now there is not a shadow of doubt left that of the great House of Timur I am the last to be seated on the throne of India. The lamp of Mughal dominion is fast burning out; it will remain but a few hours more. Since I know this, why should I cause more bloodshed? For this reason I left the Fort. The country belongs to God. He may give it to whomsoever he likes.”

Zafar is not as popular as some of his other ancestors, the reasons vary; but primarily point to his failure in leading the Rebels to victory against the British in 1857, and for allowing the fall of the Indo-Islamic civilization, which once reigned supreme. He was also blamed, at the time of the Revolt, for being indecisive, incapable and infirm. But we forget Zafar’s Delhi as the city of cultural renaissance – where poets, artists, architects, and writers thronged, presented, and were celebrated for their gifts and talents. Zafar, himself a poet, calligrapher, and a mystic promoted learning among other things in his court, and allowed for debates and mushairas (poetic symposiums).

More importantly, Zafar’s rule marked the epitome of religious tolerance, communal harmony, and prosperity, next only to Akbar’s. The court diaries from these years account for his genuine understanding and his willingness to uphold the fabric of his city – the co-existence of Hindus and Muslims. To this, he remained committed even during the revolt. In one well-documented incident, near Bakr `Id, when some Ghazis from Tonk, Rajasthan declared they would sacrifice a cow in front of Jama Masjid, tensions arose when five Muslims were murdered by Hindu sepoys, holding them accountable for cow killing. Zafar, born of a Hindu mother, understood well the necessity of Hindus and Muslims to live in harmony, as they had until the Rebels marched into Delhi. Following the murders, “Zafar banned the butchery of cows, forbade the eating of beef and authorized for anyone found killing a cow the terrible punishment of being blown from a cannon.”

He did not stop at this and “issued an order that all the town’s cows should be registered, with chaukidars and sweepers of the different muhallas instructed to report to the local police station all ‘cow-owning Muslim households’ and for each police thana then to make out a list ‘of all the cows being bred by the followers of Islam’ and send it to the Palace.” He also directed that the registered cows should be sheltered in the city’s central police station; but because of logistic-related issues, settled on signed bonds from the cow owners that they will not sacrifice their cattle. Bakr `Id in August 1857 passed peacefully. In the context of the modern day, where the cow has once again become a contentious issue, suspicion/reason enough to lynch and murder Muslims, Zafar’s actions may be seen as populist, appeasing, and undemocratic. However, the fact that a Muslim Emperor, even in his relative powerlessness, rose to protect the interests of one-half of his subjects [at the time] should not go unnoticed.

Dalrymple confirms what India has become today, “The profoundly sophisticated, liberal and plural civilization championed by Akbar, Dara Shukoh or the later Mughal emperors has only a limited resonance for the urban middle class in modern India.” Although there are countless, well-preserved documents, not just in India, but in Lahore and Yangon, where one can delve into the history of India under the last of the Mughals and after him, only the British propaganda has continued to exist as the official history, and in some cases, as the absolute truth. At an individual level, maybe Hindus and Muslims can still co-exist, as they always have, but at the level of the politics, the distance has only been furthered. The demolition of the Babri Masjid and the political climate in the recent years, infused with riots, disbelief, murders, and ill-will rise not only from history, but also from distortion of history and its false reinterpretation.

Zafar’s grave, lost in the annals of cruel history, was found in 1991 and placed inside a shrine. Today, visitors go to him, to seek this mystic pir’s (a Sufi saint) blessings and to remember him. Like Zafar, perhaps one day, the lost threads in the great fabric of the city and the country can be found and restored. As Zafar himself writes,

“The heart distressed, the wounded flesh,
The mind ablaze, the rising sigh;
The drop of blood, the broken heart,
Tears on the lashes of the eye.
But things cannot remain, O Zafar,
Thus for who can tell?
Through God’s great mercy and the Prophet
All may yet be well.”


5 thoughts on “Bahadur Shah Zafar: The Last Mughal

  1. I’m reading and really enjoying this book as we speak. What I find interesting are some of the parallels in today’s world. Many things have changed, but others stay very much the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, Todd. I found these quite interesting myself. It is as if there is a memorandum shared across generations, which they act out. To have history by our side, as in the case of this book, and the present context laid side by side, the future looks quite “certain”.

      Thanks for reading.


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