Saturday, September 22, 2012

Why I love writing about the Moghuls - A Guest Post by Alex Rutherford

What attracted me to the Moghul rulers of India is that they were once of the most powerful, opulent and glamorous dynasties in history. Today when we hear the word ‘Moghul’ we think of business tycoons or film studio bosses but the word originated in sixteenth century India with this series of extraordinary emperors. Even as early as Shakespeare’s time the Moghuls were spoken of in Europe with wonder and awe, their very name a synonym for power and wealth beyond imagining.

My decision to write about the Moghuls wasn’t sudden. I’d travelled in India for many years. From the first time I saw them the spectacular Moghul monuments of northern India – Humayun’s tomb and the Red Fort in Delhi, Akbar’s tomb and the Taj Mahal - overwhelmed me. I became increasingly curious about their creators and started to read about the lives of the early emperors. They all employed court chroniclers to document their reigns but some kept their own diaries, writing with surprising candour about their aspirations and the lengths to which they were prepared to go to achieve them. In so doing they reveal a compelling dynastic saga combining the high emotions and rich cadences of grand opera with enough edge-of-the-seat historical drama to fill a dozen big-screen epics.

For me as a writers, one of the most human and compelling parts of the story is that for all its outward brilliance the Moghul dynasty carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. Their inheritance from their ancestor the great Timur was the warrior code that the strongest takes all. Their mantra - handed down through the centuries - was ‘Throne or Coffin!’ With no law of primogeniture, Moghul princes fought each other and even their fathers for the crown. The succession was never secure and jealousy seeped like a poison down through the generations. The story of the Moghuls is a vicious circle of sons plotting against fathers, brothers murdering brothers and half-brothers and of empresses and would-be empresses plotting, scheming and seducing. Re-creating this in a series of novels seemed pretty irresistible and I embarked on a quintet covering the lives of the first five Moghul emperors.

At first I wasn’t sure what I’d let myself in for. After all, I’d committed to immersing myself completely in the Moghuls for five or six years. Yet as I began to write the first book ‘Raiders from the North’ about the nomadic warrior Babur – the descendant of both Genghis Khan and Timur - who founded the Moghul Empire, I realised how fortunate I’d been to come across them. The Moghuls led such dramatic lives that I didn’t have to invent very much. Take Babur himself - daring and utterly confident of his destiny, sweeping from Central Asia down into India to found an empire. In his Baburnama, the first biography in Islamic literature, he described everything from how he felt to smoke cannabis before a battle, to ordering flayings and beheadings to feeling moved to tears over the beauty of a tulip.

My fascination with my subject continued. In the second novel, ‘Brothers at War’ I moved on to Babur’s son Humayun, a completely different personality. Through the treachery of his own brothers, this warrior, dreamer and stargazer lost the empire his father had created but ultimately redeemed himself. In the third book, ‘Ruler of the World’, my central character was the charismatic and liberal Akbar, perhaps the greatest of his dynasty, who won the love of his subjects but not of those closest to him.

In the latest book, ‘The Tainted Throne’ about Akbar’s son Jahangir the cycle of distrust and rivalry that will ultimately doom the Moghuls is in full motion. I’ve particularly enjoyed writing about the Empress Mehrunissa who after undermining her emperor husband with opium and wine ruled India from within the haram. There aren’t many strong women in Indian history during this period and I loved bringing her alive.

I’m currently working on the fifth novel – about the emperor Shah Jahan who was deposed by his own son and died gazing from his prison at the Taj Mahal, his great monument to lost love. The Moghuls have taken me on an extraordinary journey – mentally and physically – and taught me so much about human nature, its strengths and its frailties. I’ll miss them when they finally ride out of my life.


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