“As we enter the 150th anniversary of 1857, William Dalrymple casts a new look at one of Indian history’s most enigmatic episodes, and its aftermath.”
William Dalrymple in Outlook India:
In June 1858, the Times correspondent William Howard Russell—a man now famous as the father of war journalism—arrived in the ruins of Delhi, recently recaptured by the British from the rebels after one of the bloodiest sieges in Indian history. Skeletons still littered the streets, and the domes and minars of the city were riddled with shell holes; but the walls of the Red Fort, the great palace of the Mughals, still looked magnificent: “I have seldom seen a nobler mural aspect,” wrote Russell in his diary, “and the great space of bright red walls put me in mind of (the) finest part of Windsor Castle.” Russell’s ultimate destination was, however, rather less imposing. Along a dark, dingy back passage of the fort, Russell was led to the cell of a frail 83-year-old man who was accused by the British of being one of the masterminds of the Great Rising, or Mutiny, of 1857, the most serious armed act of resistance to Western imperialism ever to be mounted anywhere in the world. “He was a dim, wandering-eyed, dreamy old man with a feeble hanging nether lip and toothless gums,” wrote a surprised Russell. “Not a word came from his lips; in silence he sat day and night with his eyes cast on the ground, and as though utterly oblivious of the conditions in which he was placed…. His eyes had the dull, filmy look of very old age…. Some heard him quoting verses of his own composition, writing poetry on a wall with a burned stick.”
The prisoner was Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, direct descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamburlane, of Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan.