William Dalrymple’s books include The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 and Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839–42. He is codirector of the Jaipur Literature Festival. (June 2015)

The Renaissance of the Sultans

Sultan Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah II in Procession; painting by the school of ‘Ali Riza, Bijapur, early seventeenth century

The Mughal invasion of India took place in the mid-sixteenth century. The Mughals soon dominated early modern India, controlling all the rich lands from Kandahar down through Hindustan to the Vindhaya range in central India. Until recently they have also dominated the work of modern scholars: for every book on the Deccan sultanates, there are one hundred on the Mughals; for every book on Bijapur or Hyderabad there is a shelf on Delhi and Agra.

The Great & Beautiful Lost Kingdoms

A tower at the Bayon temple, founded by the Khmer king Jayavarman VII, Angkor, Cambodia, late twelfth–early thirteenth centuries
From about 400 AD to 1200 AD, India was a large-scale and confident exporter of its own diverse civilization in all its forms, and the rest of Asia was the willing and eager recipient of a startlingly comprehensive mass transfer of Indian culture, religion, art, music, technology, astronomy, mythology, language, and literature.

The Greatest Ancient Picture Gallery

A statue of the Buddha in one of the Ajanta caves, India
In 1819, a British hunting party in the jungles of the Western Ghats had followed a tiger into a remote river valley and stumbled onto what was soon recognized as one of the great wonders of India: the painted caves of Ajanta. In time it became clear that Ajanta contained probably the greatest picture gallery to survive from the ancient world.

Under the Spell of Yoga

Detail of ‘The Feast of the Yogis,’ from the Hindi Sufi romance Mrigavati, Allahabad, 1603–1604
By the sixteenth century, yoga and the secret bodies of knowledge that were associated with it had become part of the science of government in Indo-Islamic courts. The interest was as much practical as mystical: many sultans were convinced that extraordinary powers could be accessed through the practices of yogis.

Visions of Indian Art

Nainsukh of Guler: Balwant Singh’s Elephant Clawed by a Lion, 1752
One morning in 1740, a thin young man could be seen heading down the steep cobbled road leading from the Kashmir Gate of the Punjabi hilltown of Guler, and making for the banks of the fast-running river Ravi far below. Nainsukh was just short of thirty, with a slightly hesitant …

Pakistan in Peril

Lahore, Pakistan The relative calm in Iraq in recent months, combined with the drama of the US elections, has managed to distract attention from the catastrophe that is rapidly overwhelming Western interests in the part of the world that always should have been the focus of America’s response to September …

The Egyptian Connection

Sometime in the winter of 1540, Henry VIII’s commissioners for the dissolution of the monasteries seized from Durham Cathedral library a large gospel book that they seem to have valued principally for its magnificent jeweled binding. The binding was stripped off, and the carcass of the book found its way …

India: The Place of Sex

There is nothing new about India being perceived as a place of great and growing wealth: for much of the pre-colonial period, the West was the eager consumer of the spices, silks, and luxuries of the subcontinent, while India was the prosperous supplier. As early as the reign of Nero, …

Kashmir: The Scarred and the Beautiful

In November 1989, as a young journalist newly arrived in India, I was sent to Kashmir to cover a series of violent incidents in the state capital of Srinagar. Those protests turned out to be the beginning of the disastrous uprising against Indian rule that continues to smolder to this …

A New Deal in Pakistan

The province of Sindh in southern Pakistan is a rural region of dusty mudbrick villages, of white-domed blue-tiled Sufi shrines, and of salty desert scrublands broken, quite suddenly, by floodplains of wonderful fecundity. These thin, fertile belts of green—cotton fields, rice paddies, cane breaks, and miles of checkerboard mango orchards—snake …

The Most Magnificent Muslims

On October 15, 1542, a baby was born to a fugitive prince and his fifteen-year-old wife in the Sindhi desert town of Umarkot. The prince had been driven from his throne in Delhi, and fleeing westward through the wastes of Rajasthan toward Persia, he survived by eating horsemeat boiled in …

The Venetian Treasure Hunt

In the autumn of 1271, Marco Polo set off from Venice on the long journey east to Kublai Khan’s summer palace at Xanadu on the Mongolian steppe. Polo’s expedition had two aims. The first was to convert the Mongol Emperor to Christianity. This was not as unlikely a proposition as …

Plain Tales from British India

Exactly 150 years ago, on September 14, 1857, at the height of the Great Uprising against the British in India, British forces attacked Delhi. They entered the besieged city through a breach in the walls near the Kashmiri Gate. Then they proceeded to massacre not just the combatants that were …

The Case for India

Muslim rulers are not usually thought of in the West as standard-bearers of freedom of thought; but Akbar for one was obsessed with exploring the central issues of spiritual truth, and doing so with as open and inquiring a mind as possible. To accomplish this ambition, he turned his new city of Fatehpur Sikri into a philosophical laboratory for his spiritual inquiries.

Inside the Madrasas

Shortly before four British Muslims, three of them of Pakistani origin, blew themselves up in the London Underground on July 7, I traveled along the Indus River to Akora Khattack in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Here, straddling the noisy, truck-thundering Islamabad highway, stands the Haqqania, one of the …

India: The War Over History

In India, and among the Indian diaspora, a passionately contested battle is taking place over the interpretation of Indian history. Debates about rival versions of Indian prehistory or the struggles among the religions of medieval South Asia—the sort of arguments that anywhere else would be heard at scholarly conferences—have in India become the subject of political rallies and mob riots. Parallel with this there has been a concerted attempt by politicians of the Hindu far right to rewrite the history textbooks used in Indian schools and to bring historians and the writing of history under their direct control.

The Truth About Muslims

Sometime in the early 1140s a scholar from northern Italy made an arduous crossing of the Alps and the Pyrenees and eventually arrived in the newly reconquered Spanish town of Toledo. There Gerard of Cremona was given the position of canon at the cathedral, formerly the Friday Mosque, which had …

Murder in Karachi

Karachi is the saddest of cities. It is a South Asian Beirut: a city on the sea, rich and almost glamorous in parts; but also a monument to hatred among different sectarian and ethnic groups, and to the failure of a civic society. It is a city at war as …

Disappearing Christians

Taybeh is a small Palestinian village in the West Bank, ten miles northwest of Jerusalem. The farmhouses that you pass on the road there, the domes of the abandoned caravanserai, the minarets of Ottoman mosques—all are built of honey-colored limestone which changes tone according to the color of the sky.