After the Persian invasion there came others. It was the same story of anarchy, bloodshed, loot and ravage repeated over and over again. There came the Afghans, Marathas, Jats and Rohillas, each of them ransacking the Seventh City of Delhi, grabbing whatever remained.
“The scene of desolation filled my eyes with tears…. I could not recognize the houses and often lost my bearings. Of the former inhabitants there was no trace and no matter whom I enquired about, I was told that he was not there and nobody knew where he might be found.
As one of the historians puts it, “Plundering hordes swooped down like swarms of locusts until the once-joyous, once-glorious city of Shahjahanabad wore howling wilderness, the look of a no-man’s land.”
Mir Taqi Mir, the famous poet, had once said, “The seven climes are in its every lane. Does Delhi have its equal anywhere?” The same poet describes Delhi after the Afghans, led by Ahmed Shah Abdali, had plundered the place:
The houses were in ruin. Walls had collapsed. Cloisters and wine shops alike were deserted…. The whole bazaar had vanished. The children playing in the streets, the comely young men, the austere elders – all had gone. Everywhere was a terrible emptiness! …. Then all at once I found myself in the quarter where I had once lived. I recalled the life I used to live, forgathering with my friends in the evenings, reciting poetry and living the life of a lover, writing verses to beautiful women! I came away from the lane and stood on the deserted road, gazing in stunned silence at the scene of desolation and was filled with abhorrence at what I saw. And then and there I made a vow that as long as I lived, I would never come this way again!”
The agony and despair of the poet find expression in the following lines:
“Once through a ruined city did I pass.
I espied a lonely bird on a bough and asked –
“What knowest thou of this wilderness?”
It replied in just two words, “alas, alas!”
The people of Delhi suffered as never before, especially the poor and the middle class. The Emperor suffered too. There were huge debts everywhere which he could not pay because the royal treasury was empty. The officials and menials of the palace went unpaid for more than two years. The soldiers – numbering well over 82,000 – starved and grew desperate. There was total anarchy everywhere. And the Delhi government went bankrupt.
Even the royal family was on the brink of starvation. The king had no conveyance for his state processions and had to walk up to the Jama Masjid from the palace. “Where there had once been the Peacock Throne, there remained a wooden platform painted over with garish flowers” wrote poet Mir Taqi Mir, “Princes whose ancestors filled the poets’ aprons with
pearls have to stuff their ears against the wailing of their hungry kinsmen now. What was once a garden, lush and green, is wilderness now ….. not even a withered flower is seen.
The hands that held the scepter, ruled a vast domain, are now stretched for alms …. But are stretched in vain!”
Time moved on. The struggle for power continued with vigour between the Marathas, the Rohillas and the Abdalis. The Abdalis dug out and carried away crores of rupees and other valuable objects which had been carefully buried and preserved and thus had escaped the notice of the previous invaders and also the royal family. They also carried away the Mughal princess Zohra who was married to Timur Shah, the invader’s son.
Now it was the turn of the Marathas to ravage the Red Fort. Before long their canon balls reached the Hayat Baksh garden, the Diwan-e-Am, the Diwan-e-Khas and the imperial property within the palace. Two bastions of the Delhi Gate were demolished. On September 3, 1757, the Marathas occupied the Red Fort. It had already been squeezed dry by the previous invading tribes. It was now damaged by the Marathas. During the next two months a severe fever raged within the city which affected the eyes, followed by an epidemic of
brain fever. As if it were not enough, Delhi was rocked by a violent earthquake on November 21, 1757. The Marathas pulled down what remained of the ceiling of the Diwan-e-Khas and minted coins worth nine lakhs of rupees.
Kings came and went in quick succession but the Mughal Empire was now confined to the four walls of the Red Fort. One day two washermen, fighting with each other on the bank of the Yamuna, came to the fort to demand justice from the Emperor. But the emperor was compelled to tell them that his empire did not extend to the bank of Yamunaq! Here is what a historian records:
“The Rohillas seized Delhi in July, 1788. Ghulam Qadir blinded Emperor Shah Alam because he could not satisfy the Rohills’ insatiable demand for treasure. ‘If’ said the helpless old emperor, ‘you think I have any concealed treasures, they must be within me. Rip open my bowels and satisfy yourself.’‘Then’, said Ghulam Qadir, ‘You are of no further use to the
world and must be blinded.’‘Alas!’ cried the emperor, ‘Do not do it! You may spare these old eyes thaqt for sixty years have grown dim with the daily study of God’s word.’
The Rohilla then ordered his men to torture Shah Alam’s sons and grandsons before his eyes. It broke down the old king’s patience. ‘Take my eyes’ he cried, ‘Rather than force upon them scenes like these!’ At his words Ghulam Qadir leaped from the throne, felled the old man to the ground and struck out his eyes with his own dagger.”
During the two and a half months of Afghan occupation the royal family had to undergo intense suffering as a result of which 21 prices and princesses died within the brief span of two weeks. The queens were compelled to go about without their veils because the old ones were in shreds and there was no money to buy new ones.
Finally, the frightened old emperor sent a message to Lord Lake, the British General, begging him to come to his rescue. General Lake marched to Delhi on September 11, 1803. He was conducted to the emperor by Prince Akbar Shah II, the heir-apparent. In the words of General Lake, “Thousands of citizens of Delhi gathered to witness the revival of the house of Timur which had so long been under a cloud.”
General Lake set up a Residency at Delhi with Sir David Ochterlony as First Resident and Chief Commissioner. The British granted a pension to Shah Alam for the maintenance of the royal family. But the Mughal Emperor was now just a shadow ruler with no power to speak of.
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