Book Review: A Brief History of the Great Moghuls by Bamber Gasciogne

March 1, 2013

A Brief History of the Great Moghuls

Mention the words “history” and “Mughals” in the same sentence and  the image that springs to mind is that of “magisterial” tomes, contained detailed accounts of India’s former rulers – perfect for history lovers, just a bit forbidding for more mainstream readers who just want a flavour of the period and its personalities. Well, if you belong to the latter category then Bamber Gascoigne’s relatively slim volume should be just up your alley.

Gascoigne compresses most of the events of the rule of the Mughals who merited the term ‘great’ (Babur to Aurangzeb) in a well-written narrative that you can read through in a couple of days. And it does so without scrimping on major details. You have it all here – from Babur’s struggle to establish himself to Akbar’s attempts to start a new faith to Aurangzeb’s penchant for imprisoning all his relatives. The conspiracies, the battles, court intrigues – they are all there, as are just the right amount of policy and governance (subjects which other historians tend to heavily overdose readsers on).

As are delicious slices of trivia–Akbar slapping an errant Salim and locking him up with no access to opium or alcohol, Humayun’s placing a water carrier on the throne of Delhi even as his relatives grumbled, Aurangzeb getting Murad drunk and capturing him and a whole lot more. Gascoigne is not afraid of being opinionated (adjectives for emperors, courtiers and generals, flow freely) and also turns a few romantic notions on their heads–Jahangir was not the irresolute, drunken king that many have portrayed him to be, for instance.

Yes, the narrative is more succinct than stylish and conversations few and far between but if we had to recommend a single book on the great Moghuls to a mainstream reader, well, this would easily be it.


With his air of civilised lethargy, his excessive superstition, his sentimentality, his lack of self-confidence, Humayun gives the overall impression of a man childish but endearing – not perhaps the best qualifications for an emperor. But it is worth adding that his life, which looks like a failure, ran a course remarkably parallel to his father’s, which certainly looked a success. Each inherited a kingdom; each lost it…each in the very last years of his life conquered Hindustan.”

A Brief History of the Great Moghuls
Bamber Gasciogne
Rs 399
278 pages

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