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Shahjahanabad, Shahr Ashob Poetry and the Revolt of 1857

 

Dilli saat baar ujadi aur basi.

 

(There’s a popular saying that Delhi was destroyed and rebuilt seven times)

 

Yet, Delhi remained unbowed, intact in its unique culture, leading a life of its own. As Hazrat Amir Khusrau wrote:

 

Hazrat e Dehli kanf e deen o daad

Jannat e adan ast ke abaad baad

 

(Hazrat e Dehli is an emblem of justice and charity

A garden of heaven flourishes and will remain forever)

 

This culture reached its zenith under the reign of the later Mughals. It is fair to say that the cultural ethos of Delhi under Bahadur Shah Zafar was unparalleled in Indian history. His court was home to some of the most famous names in Urdu poetry. A typical mushaira (evening gathering) in that era would have boasted of poets such as Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq, Momin Khan Momin, Imam Baksh Sehbai, Mufti Sadruddin Azurda, the young Dagh Dehlvi, Mustafa Khan Sheftah and last but not the least Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. Poets such as Mir Taqi Mir, Mir Dard and Mirza Rafi Sauda had ruled in the previous age in Delhi.

 

These poets were the kings of the poetic form of ghazals. However, there was another form that was forged and finally took shape in Delhi—the Shahr Ashob. These poets didn’t live in oblivion of their surroundings and the suffering around them. In fact, Urdu poetry had a genre for almost every circumstance and for every aspect of the human condition.

 

The shahr ashob or ‘city disturber’ is a less-examined genre in Urdu poetry. In Turkish and Persian poetry, the ‘city disturber’ was usually a young boy engaged in a trade or craft who 'coquettishly offers his wares to the lovestruck poet' says the Persianate and Comparative Literature historian Sunil Sharma[i]. It was a valuable chronicle of the crafts in the time the verse was composed. The shahr ashob had begun, according to Sharma, with Masud Sa'd Salman (1121 AD), the first to write shahr ashob.

 

However, in 18th century India, there was a socio-political shift and the shahr ashob changed form, evolving into a lament for the city. Dr Naim Ahmad says[ii],

 

Urdu shahr ashob began at the start of the eighteenth century. After the death of Aurangzeb (1707), frightful shadows of decadence [zaval] and adversity began to loom in every direction. Thus the genre of poetry which in Persian and Turkish was especially used for intellectual enjoyment, became in Urdu a vehicle for the description of political, economic, and social disturbances.

 

This genre was used as a historical record of its times and reflected changes in society. While royal scribes documenting 'history' were measured in their response, poets were not. For example, this verse form was also used to document the economic crisis of the prosperous Mughal Empire and post-1857, the change in the status of Indian royalty and nobility.

 

During the 18th century, many poets wrote shahr ashob, including Shakir Naji, who served in the army of the Mughal Emperor Mohammad Shah, when it was defeated in Karnal. He wrote a long shahr ashob on the impact of the military defeat on the empire, nobility and society.

 

The year 1739 saw the sack of Delhi by the Persian invader Nadir Shah. It is said that Nadir Shah watched the massacre from Sonehri Masjid in Chandni Chowk, leading to a gate nearby (now no longer extant), being named Khooni Darwaza. Mohammad Rafi Sauda wrote after Nadir Shah's invasion[iii]:

 

Jahanabad tu kab iss sitam ke qabil tha

Magar kabho kisi aashiq ka yeh nagar dil tha

Ke yun mita diya goya ke naqsh-e-batil tha

Ajab tarah se yeh bahr-e-jahan mein sahil tha

Ke jis ki khaak se leti thi khalq moti roll

 

(Jahanabad you were never deserving of such tyranny

You were once the heart of lovers, many

It was erased like a wrong letter by destiny?

T'was a one such shore in the ocean of the world

From whose dust people used to pick pearls)[iv]

 

Shahr ashob was a genre in which Mir Taqi Mir and Mohd Rafi Sauda also excelled. In 1782, Mir Taqi Mir left Delhi for Lucknow in search of employment and his shahr ashob from that period reflects the economic devastation of Delhi:

 

Marne ke martabe mein hain ahbaab

Jo shanasa mila so be asbaab

Tangdasti se sab bahaal kharab

Jis ke hai baal, tau nahin hai tanaab

Jiske hain farash, tau nahin hain faraash

 

(My friends all seemed to death, near                          

Whoever I met had lost all possessions, once so dear

Poverty seems to be a cross all have to bear

If one had a thread, no rope was in sight here

If one had a carpet, there were none to roll it out)

 

Another famous shahr ashob by Qaim Chandpuri chastises the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II, who asked the Marathas to help him defeat the Rohilla Pathan chieftain Zabita Khan, in the battle of Sarkartal in 1772:

 

Kaisa yeh Shah ke zulm pe uski nigah hai

Haathon se uske ek jahan dhadkah hai

Luchha ek aap saath looter sipah hai

Namus e khalq sa'e mein uske talab hai

Shaitan ka yeh zil hai naa Zill-e-Ilahi

 

(What kind of King is he who is intent on injustice?

An entire world is protesting against him

A lout himself, he has a brigand army

The honour of the people is defiled by his rule

He is the shadow of Satan, not the shadow of God)[v]

 

The aftermath of Ahmed Shah Abdali's sack of Delhi and the fall of Delhi into British hands in 1857 were events that produced some gems of Urdu poetry. By the mid-19th century, discontent was spreading across India due to the British policy of ‘doctrine of lapse’, the use of lard-greased cartridges in the new Enfield rifles introduced by the British army and the possibility of caste pollution through the recruitment practices of the Bengal Army. There was also resentment and unrest building up in Delhi because of the British treatment of the Mughal Emperor.

 

In 1856, Lord Canning wrote to the British resident of Delhi:[vi]

 

A lot of the elements of the glory of the Badshahi have finished . . . It is, therefore, not difficult to think that on the death of the Badshah by just a few lines on paper the title could be abolished.

 

With the death of Emperor Bahadur Shah II, the royal family would have to vacate the Qila-i-Mubarak (Red Fort).

 

Delhi slept peacefully the night of May 10, 1857, unaware of the momentous events unfolding nearby in the city of Meerut.

 

That evening in Meerut, a chain of events that were to have disastrous and far-reaching results for India, had started. They were set in motion on the evening of May 10 at the parade ground in the Meerut cantonment when a group of Indian sepoys rebelled against the authority of the East India Company and decided to march to Delhi to fight for their freedom against colonial rule.

 

On the morning of May 11, 1857, 30-40 sepoys from Meerut, who had been involved in the rebellion and the killing of European officers, crossed the Jamuna (Yamuna) on the bridge of boats and tried to enter Delhi through the Calcutta Gate (demolished after 1857). Since this gate was closed, they eventually entered through the Rajghat Gate and after setting the tollhouse on fire, marched towards the Red Fort.

 

Bahadur Shah II, the Mughal Emperor, was by now a pensioner of the British East India Company, and was emperor only in name. The sepoys from the Meerut cantonment of East India Army came to the Red Fort—demanding the restoration of Bahadur Shah II as the Emperor of Hindustan. He was most reluctant to join the rebels as he was unsure of both his role as well as that of the rebels. He was ultimately persuaded (or coerced) into lending the legitimacy of his name to the rebels who then fought under his banner. The following day, an unused silver throne stored in one of the rooms of the Red Fort was dusted and brought out, and Bahadur Shah II was crowned Shahenshah-e-Hind.

 

Bahadur Shah II, though initially hesitant to join the rebel sepoys, soon joined in whole-heartedly and issued a royal farman declaring it was the imperative duty of all citizens, Hindu or Mussalman, to join in the uprising. From May 11 to September 14, 1857, Delhi was once again under Mughal rule. These were, as the saying goes, ‘char din ki chandni, phir andheri raat’ (four days of moonlight and then darkness).

 

The British were caught off-guard by the rebellion in Delhi and there were no British or ‘European’ units of the East India Company forces stationed at Delhi. Colonel Ripley, the Commanding Officer of the 54th Bengal Native Infantry, was the first to march towards the Kashmiri Gate. But the rebels were already well ensconced here—and they opened fire, killing the four leading British officers. When the remaining British officers ordered the Indian troops to open fire at the rebels, they refused, fired in the air and joined the Meerut sepoys. At this point, many Indian soldiers joined them and a massacre of British officers followed. By afternoon of May 11, Delhi had fallen and was no longer in British control.

 

The sepoys first took control of the city (Shahjahanabad) and then of the Ridge. Civilians, aristocracy and Indian rulers joined them. It was no longer a simple mutiny or revolt but the First War of Indian Independence. These four months saw murder and mayhem, first of the British and Europeans by the rebellious sepoys and then by the British.

 

However, many factors such as lack of leadership, coordination, proper financial management, and an inability to control the rebellious troops soon turned this initial victory into defeat. By September 1857, the British army had been reinforced and regrouped. The tactical superiority of the British army also played a part, and by September 14, the tide had firmly turned against the Indian sepoys.

 

The final act of 1857 was played out on September 14 at Kashmiri Gate or Cashmere Gate, which had been built by a British military engineer, Robert Smith, in 1835. There was fierce fighting here as Brigadier General John Nicholson led the counter charge against the Indian soldiers. The Kashmiri gate still bears the scars of the cannonballs and fire. There is a stone tablet which records the names of the British officers who took part in the battle inside this gate. By mid-September, Delhi was back under British control. The Mutiny Memorial located on the Ridge in New Delhi provides a timeline of the ‘Revolt of 1857’. The last two lines read:

 

‘Capture of the Palace – Sept 19th
City finally evacuated by the Enemy – Sept 20th.’

 

Ai vaaye inqilaab zamaane ke jaur se
Dilli Zafar ke haath se pal mein nikal gayi

 

(Alas! What a revolution, due to cruelty of the age
Delhi slipped out of Zafar’s hands in a moment)[vii]

 

On September 20, 1857, the British forces consolidated their hold over Delhi. The Indian soldiers faced complete defeat and many of them fled the city. It was then that the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar too decided to leave the Red Fort for the safety of Humayun’s tomb. He didn’t know it at the time, that he would surrender within the next few days, marking the end of the Mughal empire.

 

When Bahadur Shah left the Qila-e-Moalla (the name by which the Red Fort was then known), he went straight to the dargah (tomb) of Mehboob e Ilahi Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. It is said that the Emperor was in a state of despair and hopelessness.[viii]

 

He was all alone except for the porters carrying his sedan chair and a couple of khwajasara (court eunuchs) with him. He had already sent his family ahead to Humayun’s tomb, where he would join them later.

 

When Khwaja Shah Ghulam Hasan heard that the Emperor had come to the dargah, he hurried there to find the tired, dusty monarch sitting against the shrine. Bahadur Shah Zafar addressed the Khwaja and said that he had been reconciled to his fate for a long time—he was a Sufi himself with great faith in mendicants. A famous Sufi mendicant had already told him, even before the rebel soldiers had come to the Qila, that the fate of the Mughal Empire was already sealed. Bahadur Shah and his predecessors were paying for the sins of their ancestors. The Emperor said he wanted no more bloodshed, and so he had left the Qila, giving the British a free hand once they entered it: 'I have known for some time that I am the last of the glorious Timurid line. Now someone else will be the ruler. Their law will prevail. I don’t have any regrets; after all, we too had usurped the throne from someone else.'[ix]

 

He went on to say that when Amir Timur invaded Constantinople, he had acquired some holy relics of Prophet Muhammad from Sultan Yildaram Beyazid. These were hairs from the holy beard and had been in the custody of the Mughal rulers till now:

 

‘There is no place for me under this sky or on this earth, I am handing it over to you for safe custody.’

 

Khwaja Shah Ghulam Hasan took the relics away and locked them in the dargah’s treasury. The Emperor asked for some food as he had missed the three previous meals. However, he refused to accompany the Khwaja to his house as he didn’t want to jeapordise the Khwaja’s family. He knew the British would come down heavily on anyone who sheltered him. He had just wanted to hand over the relics and perhaps get a bite to eat after which he would leave. After having eaten simple besan (gram flour) roti with some chutney, he made his way to Humayun’s tomb.

 

On September 21, 1857, the British were ensconced in the Red Fort, and the Emperor and his sons fled, seeking refuge in Humayun’s Tomb.

 

The following day, the Emperor’s close confidant and British spy Mirza Ilahi Bux disclosed his whereabouts to the British. Major Hodson negotiated the surrender of the royal family and took his captives, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sons Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizr Khan, and his grandson Mirza Abu Bakr, back to the Red Fort. On the way, the major ordered them to descend from the carriage and disrobe themselves. He then shot them dead at Khooni Darwaza near Firoz Shah Kotla.

 

The wrath of the victorious British fell on the citizens of Shahjahanabad, or Old Delhi, with those who weren't killed needing to flee the city. The Timurid family who lived inside the Qila-e-Mualla also fled for their lives—many were captured and killed, and many were turned into menial servants by the British.

 

Mufti Sadruddin Azurda, who held the post of Sadr-e-Delhi, wrote[x] in shocked disbelief:

 

Zewar almas ka tha jin se na pahna jata

Bhaari jhumar bhi kabhi sir pe na rakhha jaata

Sar pe bojh liye chaar taraf phirte hain

Do qadam chalte hain mushkil se tau phir girte hain

 

(The delicate ones who couldn't carry the weight of precious gems

For whom heavy jewellery was a burden too heavy

Those frail ladies are made to carry heavy loads, alas

They can barely walk a few steps before they fall down)

 

There were hungry children, weeping women and anguished men who had to leave everything behind and flee for their lives.

 

On January 27, 1858, the Emperor of Hindustan was tried for ‘rebellion, treason and murder’ by a Military Commission in the same Diwan-e-Khaas where he used to recite his poems to great applause and appreciation.

On March 9, 1858, it was decided that Bahadur Shah Zafar would be exiled. Seven months later, he was exiled to Rangoon in Burma with two of his wives, two remaining sons and a few servants. In his final days, Zafar, an accomplished poet himself, wrote:

 

Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar dafn ke liye

Do gaz zameen bhi na mili ku e yaar mein

 

(How unfortunate is Zafar, that even for his burial

He couldn’t get two yards of land in the beloved’s lane)

 

Notes

 


[i] Sharma, ‘The City of Beauties’.

[ii] Ahmad, ‘Shahr Ashob’.

[iv] Safvi, City of My Heart.

[v]Sharma, ‘The City of Beauties’.

[vi] Nizami, The Agony of Delhi.

[vii] Bahadur Shah Zafar

[viii] Nizami, Begamat ke Aansu

[ix] Ibid

[x] Kanda, Masterpieces of Patriotic Urdu Poetry.

 

Bibliography

 

Ahmad, Na’im, ed. Shahr-Ashob. Translated by Frances W. Pritchett. Delhi: Maktabah Jami’ah Ltd. 1968. Online at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00urduhindilinks/workshop2009/txt_naim_ahmad_1968.html

 

Dehlvi, Zahir. Dastan-e-Ghadar: Tale of a Revolution. Translated by Rana Safvi. New Delhi: Penguin Random House, 2017.

 

Farooqui, Amar. Zafar and the Raj Anglo-Mughal Delhi c. 1800-1850. New Delhi: Primus Books, 2013.

 

Hasan Mahdi, S. ‘Bahadur Shah Zafar and the War of 1857 in Delhi’. In 1857 Studies, Images and Documents – Indian History Congress Seventieth Session. New Delhi: Department of History, University of Delhi, 2010.

 

Kanda, K.C. Masterpieces of Patriotic Urdu Poetry: Text, Translation, and Transliteration. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2005.

 

Nayar, Pramod K. The Trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Hyderabad: Orient Black Swan, 2007.

 

Nizami, Khwaja Hasan. Begamat ke Aansu. New Delhi: Nizami Basti Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya, 2007.

 

Nizami, Khwaja Hasan. The Agony of Delhi. (From personal collection)

 

Safvi, Rana. City of My Heart. Translated by Ajmal Siddiqui. New Delhi: Hachette India.

 

Sharma, Sunil. ‘The City of Beauties in Indo-Persian Poetic Landscape’, 2004. Online at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00urduhindilinks/txt_sharma_shahrashob_2004.pdf

 

References 

 

Ahmad, Na’im, ed. Shahr-Ashob. Translated by Frances W. Pritchett. Delhi: Maktabah Jami’ah Ltd. 1968. Online at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00urduhindilinks/workshop2009/txt_naim_ahmad_1968.html

 

Dehlvi, Zahir. Dastan-e-Ghadar: Tale of a Revolution. Translated by Rana Safvi. New Delhi: Penguin Random House, 2017.

 

Farooqui, Amar. Zafar and the Raj Anglo-Mughal Delhi c. 1800-1850. New Delhi: Primus Books, 2013.

 

Hasan Mahdi, S. ‘Bahadur Shah Zafar and the War of 1857 in Delhi’. In 1857 Studies, Images and Documents – Indian History Congress Seventieth Session. New Delhi: Department of History, University of Delhi, 2010.

 

Kanda, K.C. Masterpieces of Patriotic Urdu Poetry: Text, Translation, and Transliteration. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 2005.

 

Nayar, Pramod K. The Trial of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Hyderabad: Orient Black Swan, 2007.

 

Nizami, Khwaja Hasan. Begamat ke Aansu. New Delhi: Nizami Basti Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya, 2007.

 

Nizami, Khwaja Hasan. The Agony of Delhi. (From personal collection)

 

Safvi, Rana. City of My Heart. Translated by Ajmal Siddiqui. New Delhi: Hachette India.

 

Sharma, Sunil. ‘The City of Beauties in Indo-Persian Poetic Landscape’, 2004. Online at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00urduhindilinks/txt_sharma_shahrashob_2004.pdf