The Destruction of Delhi — Dalrymple (ctd.)

2 Jul

Another selection from Walter Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857, this one dealing more specifically with the Uprising’s effect on Delhi’s Muslims and Urdu-language culture, told mostly through the accounts of the Urdu poet Ghalib who, though born in Agra, was a consummate Delhiwallah and lived through all the events of the Uprising and its aftermath in the city itself.  Ghalib or Mirza Ghalib or Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan (Ghalib was his pen name), is, I think it’s safe to say and by common consensus, the greatest classical poet of Urdu literature, the Dante or Pushkin of Muslim India, the poet every literate Indian or Pakistani can quote, the way Iranians do Hafez or Russians Pushkin.  If it’s odd that such a crucial figure in Urdu culture came so late in the history of Indian Islam, we need to remember that India was later to throw off the weight of Persian as a literary language than the Ottomans were (Ghalib and even the much later Iqbal still wrote in Persian as well), through a continued influx of Iranian literati until very late, attracted to the still healthy patronage possibilities available in the various Muslim courts of India, not just Delhi. 

Begum is a lady of the court, the female form of “beg,” or “bey;” like “hanim” in Turkish, or “khanum” in Farsi, or “hatun” in several languages, is the female form of “khan;” all (along with “aga”) of Turkic origin, which gives you a really good idea of the division of labor in the Turko-Iranian world.  (Only “mirza” is a contraction of the Arabic “‘amr,” commander, and the Farsi lineage-son-of suffix “-zade.”)  It was impossible to be part of the north Indian Muslim aristocracy without a claim to some Turkic or Mongol lineage, (and I guess in Iran too, from the Seljuks on?) however bogus I imagine some of those might have been.

A late photo of Mirza Ghalib



While all this was going on, throughout 1858, Hindus were slowly being readmitted to the city, but Muslims remained almost entirely banned from within the walls.  As Ghalib wrote in Dastanbuy [his journal of the events, though I don’t know if the word itself means “journal.”]

“In the entire city of Delhi it is impossible to find one thousand Muslims; and I am one of these.  Some have gone so far from the city it seems as if they were never residents of Delhi.  Many very important men are living outside the city, on ridges and under thatched roofs, in ditches and mud huts.  Among those people living in the wilderness are many who are anxious to return to Delhi, relatives of the imprisoned, and those living on alms.”

A passing traveller in 1860 was horrified by “the old withered Musulmanis and gypsy-like Mughals [still] camping out at the qutb.”  Even the imperious Matilda Saunders was aware that “numbers of people are daily dying of starvation and want of shelter.”

In December of 1859 the Muslims of Delhi petitioned the government to be allowed to return to their houses.  They wrote to Queen Victoria praying (according to the translation commissioned by Charles Saunders)

“that they may be permitted to return to their houses in the city of Delhi.  They are in the greatest distress, excluded rigorously from the town, they can obtain neither shelter nor means of subsistence.  The cold weather is now at hand and they beg that they may not be exposed to its severity in their present state of destitution and misery.  They trust that Her Majesty following the example of other magnanimous sovereigns, would pardon their misdeeds and permit them to reinhabit their old houses – otherwise they see nothing but beggary before them.”

Even when their plea was granted and they began to be given permission to return in 1860, many Muslims who could not prove their loyalty found that their houses had been confiscated.  Things got so bad that even some of the British papers in India began to feel sympathy with the Delhi Muslims: “When will agitation of European nerves subside?” asked the Mofussilite in June 1860.  “There is no reason for it…”

“The people are abject because they are starved out, banished and plundered.  Thousands of Muslims are wandering houseless and homeless; the Hindus, pluming themselves on their loyalty, strut about the streets giving themselves airs.  Let not the public think that Delhi has not been punished.  Wend through the empty grass-grown streets, mark the uprooted houses, and shot-riddled palaces.”

Most of the confiscated Muslim properties put up for auction by the British were bought en masse by the Hindu khatri (clerical castes) and Jain bankers of the city, such as Chhunna Mal and Ramji Das.  They were the only Delhiwallahs who still had access to liquid cash, their man centre of Nil ka Katra having bought immunity from the depredations of the Prize Agents on the payment of a large sum soon after the fall of the city.  Hindu traders and bankers even bought up two of the city’s most famous mosques: Chhunna Mal bought up the Fatehpuri Masjid, while a Hindu baker bought the Zinat ul-Masjid, one of the main jihadi centers throughout the Uprising.*

All this exacerbated the sudden shift of power from the Muslim elite, who had dominated the city before the Uprising, to the Hindu bankers, who were its most wealthy citizens afterwards.  “The capital is in the hands of one or two men like Chhunna Mal and Mahesh Das,” wrote Edward Campbell in 1858.  What remained of the court circle and the Mughal aristocracy were by and large left penniless.  A few survived on a pittance as schoolteachers and tutors.  For many, such as Maulvi Zaka’ullah, the shock of the utter devastation of their world was “beyond all bearing,” and Zaka’ullah later admitted that for a time he had succumbed to “a melancholy that bordered on blank despair.”

“Alas my dear boy,” wrote Ghalib to a friend in January 1862.  “This is not the Delhi in which you were born, not the Delhi in which you got your schooling, not the Delhi in which you used to come to your lessons with me, not the Delhi in which I have passed fifty-one years of my life.”

“It is a camp.  The only Muslims here are artisans and servants of the British authorities.  All the rest are Hindus.  The male descendants of the deposed King – such as survived the sword – draw allowances of five rupees a month.  The female descendants, if old, are bawds; if young, are prostitutes…”

What Ghalib did not say was that many of the Delhi begums were set on the path to prostitution by the mass rapes that followed the fall of the city.  Believing that the British women in Delhi had been sexually assaulted at the outbreak – a rumour that subsequently proved quite false, as a full inquiry by Saunders later proved – British officers did little to stop their men from raping the women of Delhi.  At the same time as Saunders’ inquiry completely exonerated the rebels of any single instance of rape, another inquiry found that perhaps as many as three hundred begums of the royal house – not including former concubines in the Palace – had been “taken away by our troops after the fall of Delhi,” and that many of those who had not been abducted were now making their living as courtesans.  The fate of the women of the royal family was clearly something that deeply shocked Ghalib, and he returns to it again and again in his letters.  “Had you been here,” he told his friend Mirza Tafta, “you would have seen the ladies of the Fort moving about the city, their faces as fair as the moon and their clothes dirty, their paijama legs torn, and their slippers falling to pieces.  This is no exaggeration…”

With the loss of the Mughal court went much of the city’s reputation as a centre of culture and learning.  Its libraries had been looted, its precious manuscripts lost.  The madrasas were almost all closed, and their buildings were again mostly bought up – and in time demolished – by Hindu moneylenders.  The most prestigious of all, the Madrasa i-Rahimiyya, was auctioned off to one of the leading baniyas, Ramji Das, who used it as a store.

By 1859 Ghalib was complaining that he could not even find a single bookseller, binder, or calligrapher in this once most bookish of cities.  Still less were there any poets: “Where is Mamnun?  Where is Zauq?  And where is Momin Khan?  Two poets survive.  One, Azurda – and he is silent: the other Ghalib, and he is lost in himself, in a stupor.  None to write poetry, and none to judge its worth.”  To make matters worse for Ghalib, much of his own verse – his life’s great achievement – had been lost: he had never kept copies of his ghazals and the two private libraries in which his friends had stored his poetry had both been sacked and destroyed by the British.  “A few days ago a faqir who has a good voice and sings well discovered a ghazal of mine somewhere and got it written down,” he wrote in one letter.  “When he showed it to me, I tell you truly, tears came to my eyes.”

“This whole city has become a desert,” wrote a melancholy Ghalib to a friend in 1861.  “Delhi people still pride themselves on Delhi language!  What pathetic faith!  My dear man, when the Urdu Bazaar is no more, where is Urdu?  By God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonment.  No Fort, no bazaars, no watercourses…”  “Four things kept Delhi alive,” he wrote to another friend who enquired what Delhi was like these days.  “The Fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower-men.  None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive?  Yes, there once was a city of that name in the realm of India.”

In such a situation Ghalib often wondered what the point of carrying on was when everything he had lived for was finished.  “A man cannot quench his thirst with tears,” he wrote.  “You know that when despair reaches its lowest depths, there is nothing left but to resign oneself to God’s will.  What lower depths can there be than this: that it is the hope of death that keeps me alive.”  “My soul,” he wrote in June 1862, “dwells in my body these days as restless as a bird in a cage.”

Without the Delhi College and the great madrasas, without the printing presses and the Urdu newspapers, and without the Mughal court – whose immense cultural prestige always compensated for the monetary constrictions on its actual power of patronage – and most of all without the Emperor there to act as a focus and, to some extent, catalyst, the driving force behind Delhi’s renaissance and artistic flourishing was gone.  The beating heat of Indo-Islamic civilization had been ripped out and could not be replaced.  As Ghalib wrote as he neared death: “All these things lasted only so long as the King reigned.”

*Neither was returned to the Delhi Muslims until many years later — the Fatehpuri Masjid in 1875 and the Zinat ul-Masajid by Lord Curzon in the early years of the twentieth century.  Sikh troops remained occupying the Jama Masjid until it was returned in 1862.  See S. M. Ikram, Muslim Rule in India and Pakistan, Lahore, 1966, p. 462

Below: “Oval Portraits of Mughal Ladies,” 1860-1870 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London


2 Responses to “The Destruction of Delhi — Dalrymple (ctd.)”


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