September 07, 2014

THE GREAT MUGHALS

A HISTORY OF THE EARLY MUGHALS ON FILM


Channel 4 documentary series - the Great Mughals traces the lives of the first six rulers of the most flamboyant and powerful of all Muslim dynasties that ruled the Sub-continent in the second millennium after the birth of Christ. Presented by the British author Bamber Gascoigne and based on his book of the same name, the two and half hour long series is written and directed by Douglas Rae. Primarily catering to British audiences, it makes a good viewing even for Indians interested in the Mughal dynasty since it also brings up certain interesting aspects that our history textbooks miss out. Released in 1990, it is further divide into six segments, each highlighting one period in the nearly two centuries when the six great Mughal Emperors ruled the contemporary world's most prosperous country - India.

1. Babur: Having been driven out of his native kingdom by an imperialistic neighbor, he would take Kabul and then capture the rich and fertile Gangetic plain, thereby laying the foundation of the Mughal Empire. This part of the series wonderfully traces the transformation of the first emperor from a nomad roaming the hills of Afghanistan into the undisputed ruler of Northern India. A quick reference is also made to second Emperor Humayun, his defeat at the hands of the Afghans and the birth of Akbar.

2. The Young Akbar: Few months after he recaptures his kingdom, Emperor Humayun is dead and his young teenage son Akbar is crowned hastily. In the next few years, the young emperor matures into the 'greatest' of the great Mughals, strengthening the foundations of his shaky empire by forging matrimonial alliances with the powerful Rajputs and appeasing the native Hindus through his secular policies.

3. Akbar: Though the author skips much of Akbar's conquests which results in doubling the size of the empire he inherited from his father, the series emphasizes on what makes him one of the greatest Kings in Indian history - his policy of religious tolerance. Travelling through the various monuments inside Akbar's short-live capital in Fatehpur Sikri, Gascoigne focuses more on the emperor's secular outlook, his extravagant lifestyle and the stunning architecture of his former capital.

4. Jehangir: Jehangir is an eccentric and pleasure-loving emperor who would patronize arts and paintings throughout his two decade long reign though the real power center in the court is his wife - Nur Jahan. Besides throwing some light on the power struggles between Nur and her brother in the later part of Jehangir's reign, this segments also talks about the numerous attempts made by British ambassador Sir Thomas Roe in securing trading rights for the East India Company.

5. Shah Jahan: This part of the documentary traces the tragic life of the fifth Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. After eliminating all rival claimants to the throne, he goes on to build some of the most magnificent building of the Mughal era including the famous Taj Mahal which was built in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz. Sadly, his plans for succession are jeopardized as his sons fought amongst themselves in a bloody war that ends when Aurangzeb is crowned the emperor.

6. Aurangzeb: The last segment is a biopic on the last of the great Mughals - Aurangzeb. After finishing his brothers, his communal policies increasingly alienates the Hindus. Though he manages to overcome the revolt by his elder son Prince Akbar, he spends the later half of his reign in the Deccan fighting the guerrilla warfare launched by Hindu warriors like Shivaji. As the last of the great Mughals dies at the age of 89, his dynasty is losing its grip on India.

A good reason to watch this series is the fact that it borrows heavily from Mughal sources including the Baburnama, the writings of Akbar's close aide Abul Fazal as well as the memoirs of Sir Thomas Roe. It is largely due to these sources that Bamber is able to giving details regarding several aspects in the lives of the great Mughals including Babur's impressions of India made during a trip to Gwalior, recreating the scene of the death of Humayun, the hunting expeditions of Akbar, Jahangir's visit to the holy lake in Pushkar and the details regarding the power struggle between Dara Shikoh, Murad Baksh and Auranzeb; the latter being the best in spite of the fact that Gascoigne misses the fourth brother and another claimant to the throne Shah Shuja. However, the biggest positive is the fact that apart from visiting the usual places associated with the Mughals like the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and the forts of Delhi and Agra, the film goes to the relatively lesser known places linked to the dynasty. These are the Ram Bagh laid by Babur in Agra, Kalanaur in Punjab where Akbar was crowned and his final resting place in Sikandara, the dungeons in the Gwalior fort where influential prisoners were held, the tombs of Nur Jahan, her brother and their father, Shah Jahan's private mosque in the Agra fort, the palaces of Golconda and the final resting place of Aurangzeb in Kuldabad. All in all, one thing that I can guarantee you is that at the end of the 140 odd minutes spent watching this series, your knowledge of the Mughal dynasty will certainly be enhanced.