The obedient and submissive posture adopted by the Oudh kings proved insufficient in the eyes of the English. After dethroning the last of them, Wajid Ali Shah, they annexed his kingdom, and unwittingly set off a chain reaction of events.
It all began with a rumor that spread amongst the Indian soldiers, the Sepoys, who formed the majority of the English troops in India. It was said that they were being forced to eat pork fat, which was forbidden to them according to their religion, these soldiers felt they had been defiled. In reality, their rifle cartridges were covered in pork grease and had to be bitten before being loaded into the weapon. It was true that their lips touched this forbidden substance. Who told them? We don’t know, but the troops were grumbling.
Then, a curious phenomenon occurred. A messenger arrived in a village carrying chapatti, traditional Indian bread. He cut the bread into four pieces and gave each piece to a different villager and tasked them each with traveling in a different cardinal direction to the neighboring villages. The villagers left with their bread and a laconic message: The wind blows from north to south, from east to west.
No one ever knew who started this movement, or the significance of the strange message. The fact is that mutiny and revolt broke out in many English garrisons, and spread rapidly. Delhi, Lucknow and other cities fell to the rebels, who massacred all the English they could get their hands on. The rebels of Delhi pulled the last Great Mogul, Shah Bahadur II, from his dusty, web-covered palace. He was an old man, a poet of great importance, kept on a leash by the English, who looked after his dynasty and culture. When he learned of the grumblings over the pork laced cartridges, he wrote a short poem indicative of his talent and clarity:
The strong and powerful English,
Who boast and brag
For having defeated Russia and Persia,
Are chased from India by a lowly cartridge.
Poetry and music were unrivaled at his unfortunate Court before the final tragic act. The mutineers, wanting to reestablish the Great Mogul Empire in all of its splendor, made the old man their king, their flag, their totem.
In Lucknow, the Begum Hazrat Mahal, the wife of the dethroned King Wajid Ali Shah, led the revolt. She had been enraged ever since her husband accepted his diminished status, and saw in the rebellion a means to regain the power she once wielded.
However, the declared leader of the rebellion was to be found in Cawpore. Nana Sahib was a former ruler, similarly dethroned by the English. Cawpore was the site of a horrible massacre, ordered, it is said, by Bibi Hanum, the mistress of Nana Sahib.
The rebels had a most capable general, Tantia Top, who covered the north of the country in fire and blood. The English were on the run, pitifully outnumbered. In a country of 240 million Indians, the English numbered only forty thousand.
Yet the English were tenacious and courageous, highly disciplined and had the latest in modern weaponry at their disposal. They were organized and trained in proven tactics. One by one they regained the villages held by the rebels. One by one they eliminated the rebel armies and reestablished control, imposing severe and strict order. For the 300 English killed in Cawpore, they executed 10,000 Indians. Such was the scale of their suppression and revenge.
A vengeance was unleashed against the innocent and cultivated Grand Mogul Shah Bahadur II. The English executed 19 of his sons, and presented him with their decapitated heads. He was then placed in a cage and photographed before being sent to exile in Rangoon where he died alone and abandoned. But perhaps the finest display of cruelty was confiscation of the poet’s pen and paper by the English prison guards.
And so it was with he staff that he composed his epitaph, in shaky writing, upon the walls of his cell:
My heart has no repose in this despoiled land
Who has ever felt fulfilled in this futile world?
The nightingale complains about neither the sentinel nor the hunter
Fate had decreed imprisonment during the harvest of spring
Tell these longings to go dwell elsewhere
What space is there for them in this besmirched heart?
Sitting on a branch of flowers, the nightingale rejoices
It has strewn thorns in the garden of my heart
I asked for a long life, I received four days
Two passed in desire, two in waiting.
The days of life are over, evening has fallen
I shall sleep, legs outstretched, in my tomb
How unfortunate is Zafar! For his burial
Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved.