The Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II, known by his pen name of Zafar, liked to spend his mornings mulling over the elaborate rhyme scheme of the poems which that evening would be composed and recited, by himself and other poets of the day, in his exquisite courtyards.
In this capacious, vivid and highly readable study of the last days of Mughal rule, William Dalrymple makes much of the culture of Zafar's court. He sees the time as a model of intellectual sophistication and religious tolerance, a "pluralistic and philosophically composite civilisation" that was torn apart as a result of the "Mutiny" in 1857 and the increasing racial and religious chauvinism of the British. Not long afterwards, "it would be almost impossible to imagine that Hindu sepoys could ever have rallied to the Red Fort and the standard of a Muslim emperor, joining with their Muslim brothers in an attempt to revive the Mughal empire".
Yet that is what happened when the first mutinous soldiers of the East India Company's army rebelled against their officers in Meerut and marched to Delhi, to be joined over the months by many thousands of others from around Hindustan. There they slaughtered any European they found, regardless of age or gender.
This magnificently detailed account of the uprising and its aftermath draws on documents translated from the Persian and Urdu, including first-hand Indian reports. Dalrymple's dramatis personae include courtiers, a leading Urdu poet, rebel commanders and assorted Delhi wallahs, whose voices are set against those of British figures such as the brutal Sir Theophilus Metcalfe, the gentler Sir Edward Campbell or the judicious Harriet Tytler to build up a pungent picture of the city's annus horribilis.
He shows how the storm clouds gathered. Changing British attitudes - especially growing religious evangelism - brought a sharp decline in the consideration of local sensibilities. The Mughal court, with the octogenarian Zafar idling mildly at its centre, was a puppet: its powers, its income and much of its ceremonial relentlessly stripped away, its peripheral figures living in poverty. The book is framed as an account of Zafar, and begins and ends with his pathetic death in Rangoon, a "state prisoner" living miserably in guarded exile. But Zafar is a sort of ghost in this story, glimmering intermittently in the background of the violent events that erupted around him. As the mutineers arrived in Delhi, demanded money that he did not have, tethered their horses in his beloved gardens and failed even to remove their shoes in his presence, it was clear that the last Mughal was a puppet not only of the British, but of his own subjects.
Some of Dalrymple's best descriptions are devoted to the desperate state of Delhi that summer, staggering under the impact of thousands of incoming sepoys: with no organisation of supplies, the starving soldiers' recourse was to grab what they needed; civilians died of hunger. From their camp on the ridge above the city, the British forces finally managed to prevail over the vastly greater rebel numbers - despite the immense bravery and sometimes skill of the latter - partly because of the lack of supplies.
The battle for Delhi takes up a sizeable chunk of this very sizeable book. Like much of the rest, it could have been edited down with no loss, but it is exciting and terrifying and heart-rending. The letters home from the battlefield have extraordinary poignancy, whether the writer survived or not, and Dalrymple uses these especially well.
Once the terrible battle was over, the blood-letting was not. Even more lavish description is devoted to the lethal British reprisals against not only the rebels, who were sometimes tortured before being shot or hanged, but virtually any male found alive in the devastated city. Some of the British whose families had been slaughtered by rebels only weeks earlier indulged in an orgy of revenge; mass rapes were tolerated; the official "prize-taking" could involve horrible coercions. Only when moderating orders arrived from Calcutta and then London, as much as a year later, did the worst reprisals end.
Dalrymple claims that after the uprising the British conceived a special hatred for Indian Muslims (wrongly, because most of the rebellious sepoys were high-caste Hindus), and his theory about the religious split that began in 1857 leads him to trace a line all the way to the rise of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Certainly 1857 was a pivotal year. It tipped India into modernity: the growth of Indian nationalism might have been fuelled by memories of British cruelties, but it had little to do with the jihadis. It was led by "the new Anglicised and educated Colonial Service class who . . . used modern western democratic structures and methods - political parties, strikes and protest marches - to gain their freedom". Zafar, whose sorry end had come not many decades earlier, would hardly have understood a single word of that sentence.
Jan Dalley's "The Black Hole: money, myth and empire" is published by Fig Tree