“This whole city has become a desert.” Ghalib 1861

William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 is a great tragedy, and its fallen hero is the culture of the Mughal court.

Under Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1775-1862), the Mughal court and Delhi society experienced a cultural renaissance of sorts. Zafar, the last Mughal, presided over a liberal regime that practised toleration between Hindu and Muslim, the equal parts of Delhi society, and Zafar himself regularly visited Sufi shrines, and was even known as a Sufi pir. He practised  forms of Sufi mysticism and eschewed a growing Wahhabi fundamentalism that began to spread from Medina to Delhi through the nineteenth century. He also himself wrote poetry, and sponsored mushairas (poetic symposiums) as among the most important and celebrated cultural events of Delhi.

Dalrymple quotes from a fictionalised account of one of the mushairas,- Delhi ki akhri shama, The Last Musha’irah of Delhi by Farhattullah Baig – at which the poets of Delhi would seek to outdo each other with the wit, cleverness and beauty of their ghazals and other forms. On a brightly lit room the poets and audience sat, ate sweets and smoked from their huqqas, until the Shah’s herald entered the room to read the ghazal on which they would invent their variations.

At Zafar’s court there were two great poets who competed for renown and the favour of the Shah: Ghalib (Mirza Asadullah Khan), and Zauq (Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq). The two poets were a contrast in lives and style. Ghalib was more formalistic, and more prone to drink, gambling and love affairs. Zauq used simpler diction and forms, and perhaps for this reason appealed more to his Sufi master, Zafar. Zauq was appointed the chief poet of the Mughal court at a young age, and was the poetry master to the Last Mughal. But Ghalib was loved as a poet of less austere lives. It was, however, only at Zauq’s death in 1854 that Ghalib achieved the prime position as the poet of the Mughal court.

However, by that time rising Muslim fundamentalism and Christian evangelism threatened the mushairas of the Mughal court. By 1857, the cataclysm of the Mutiny and the Siege of Delhi would destroy this cultural heritage. The British, pursuing divine vengeance for their humiliation, pursued a policy of cultural extermination: mass murder, rape, destruction of buildings and shrines, looting. They sought to raze Delhi to the ground, perhaps in some reliving of Carthage from their schoolboy history lessons.

Amidst the victims of the looting were Zauq and Ghalib’s poetry. Much of their poetry was lost or destroyed by the British. But one poet and critic, Muhammad Husain Azad, survived, fled the troops, and managed to rescue some of Zauq’s ghazals. In the evening of 17 September, while sheltering in his house with his whole extended family,

The soldiers of the victorious army suddenly entered the house. They flourished their rifles and shouted: Leave here at once!' The world turned black before my eyes. A whole houseful of goods was before me and I stood petrified: What shall I take with me?’ All the jewels and jewellery were locked in a box and were thrown into a well. But my eye fell on the packet of [Zauq’s] Ghazals [which were being prepared for a critical edition for publication after Zauq’s death in 1854]. I thought, ‘Muhammad Husain, if God is gracious, and you live, then all these material goods can be restored. But where will another usad [master] come from, who can compose these ghazals again? While these exist Zauq lives even after his death; if these are lost his name cannot survive either..’

So I picked up the packet [of Zauq’s verse] and tucked it under my arm. Abandoning a well-furnished home, with twenty-two half dead souls I left the house – or rather the city. And the words fell from my lips, ‘Hazrat Adam left paradise; and Delhi is paradise too. But if I am Adam’s descendant – why shouldn’t I leave paradise just as he did.”

(quoted Dalrymple, Last Mughal pp 374-5)

Much of Ghalib’s poetry was lost and destroyed by the British in their looting of Delhi in 1857. He has kept no copies of his verse, and two private libraries where his friends stored his poems were ransacked.  But unlike Zauq, Ghalib lived through the Siege of Delhi and witnessed the collapse of the culture he loved so dearly. In a letter to a friend he described how:

“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. When he showed it to me, I tell you truly, tears came to my eyes.” quoted Dalyrmple, The Last Mughal, p. 463

Ghalib would survive another 12 years in the ruined city, in this destroyed cultural paradise.  He was one of an estimated one thousand only surviving Muslims. He saw the princes reduced to begging, and the women of the court, after mass rapes by the British, forced into prostitution. He could find no booksellers, no binders, no calligraphers and no poets in the this once vibrant city of learning and culture. His city had become a desert , stripped of its living heritage of language, the Fort, the bazaars and the watercourses.

Ghalib’s sadness was deep and memorably expressed (all quotes from Dalrymple, p 464). He wrote, “A man cannot quench his thirst with tears.” And again:

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?”

And finally: “My soul dwells in my body these days as restless as a bird in cage.”

I am yet to read much of Zauq and Ghalib’s poetry, and there is a great gulf between Urdu and English in poetic translation. Yet Ghalib’s sadness at his devastated culture and Zauq’s miraculous survival from the looters of the British Raj, make them part of the heritage of the Burning Archive.

Image source: Time


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