Documentary film review on “The Great Mughals” by Bamber Gascoigne



The title of the documentary film is ‘The Great Moghuls’. It is a six episode documentary film that throws light on six great Mughal emperors. The six-part series was written and presented by Bamber Gascoigne, based upon his 1971 book of the same name. It was produced and directed by Douglas Rae and filmed in India. The country of origin of the documentary film is England. The documentary was released in 1990.

The intended audience is the academic class of those students who are interested in South Asian History particularly the Moghuls. The three century kingship in India of Moghuls has remarkable trademarks that are showed in the documentary.

The purpose of the documentary film is to give an insight about the history of great Moghuls. It illustrates how Babur laid the foundation of the great Moghul Empire, the personal character of six emperors and their approaches towards different policies. It also throws light on what were the odds that different emperors had to deal with and what were the causes that lead towards the decline of the empire?


History of Moghuls in light of the Documentary:-

Babur was the first Mughal emperor. He was a descendent of Changez Khan and Taimur land. He came to India in the 16th century. He started from a small land of Farghana in Afghansitan and had his own following when he was 11. At the age of 21, he captured the rich city of Kabul. He came to India through Northern route i.e. Khyber Pass. He found Northern India fascinating because of the internally fragile situation of India and there was enough space left for someone brave and smart like Babur to invade. He defeated the local Sultanates even though on paper he was not strong enough to defeat them. He used muskets (from Persia), artilleries, Turkish guns, cavalries and wagons (carts) to have a historical win that laid the foundation of a historical empire. It was his military strategy that always turned the game for him.

Babur was a naturalist who missed mountains of his homeland during hot summer in India. He always felt that there was a lack of cool streams in India. He was astonished by the number of craftsmen in India. He abolished naked architecture of India. He constructed Ram Bagh in Agra. He invited people to celebrate his victory and have a feast. He died after the two years of feast. Some similarities of that time can be seen in Indian culture even today: dancing girls and eating on the floor or grass.

Humayun succeeded Babur and became the second Emperor of the great Mughal Empire. He was superstitious and believed immensely in astrology. All civil services under Humayun was relied on astrology. He was a lover of poetry and literature. He had to deal with many battles that he was unable to, and ran towards North. He eventually lost everything. Then he ran to Rajhistan and had to live under the supreme hot environment there. His young wife got pregnant during wandering and she was required pomegranates which she found. After having treatment, the great Akbar was born. Humayun recovered everything what he lost but after six months, he fall from stairs, when he was in library, and eventually died.

Akbar succeeded Humayun and he’s known as the greatest of Moghuls. Enemies of the Moghuls were happy to see a 13 year old boy as a ruler in 1556. He battled against Hindus and defeated them. After the victory, he followed the custom of building a tower with the head of the enemies. Akbar never learned how to read but he loved physical danger and hunting. He was a free thinker considering religion. He introduced his own religion and refused the monopoly of truth of Islam. Akbar also organized debates among different religious groups which ended in no result.

Chitor and Amber (Jaipur) were quite important for Akbar. Rajputs (greatest warriors) in Jaipur came in to terms with Moghuls. Akbar married a Hindu girl from Jaipur in 1562 that further improved the ties. Akbar sieged Chitor in 1567 and eventually won. He used two methods in this campaign: mining in walls and fortified corridors. He supervised sniping but mining caused the death of few of his officers. Rajputs wives were burnt and 40000 masons were massacred. Fatehpur Sikri also became important for Akbar as a Sufi told him beforehand that he would have three sons which in fact happened. After that, Akbar built a fort and a mosque there. Fateh Pur Sikri became the bustling commercial hub. Akbar chose Hindu style of architecture and laborers were usually Hindu women.

Paintings were also given particular importance by Akbar. Some remarkable paintings include paintings of costumes, flowers, animals, recognizable faces, landscapes and architectures.

Abul Fazal was quite close to Akbar. He was his autobiographer who later got an important role in military. In those days, you couldn’t be too efficient if not better at battles. Abul Fazal noted down everything that Akbar possessed, achieved and what did he do every day. There were two scribers two who noted everything going on in the palace. Statistics, ranks, camels, oils in camels nostrils- everything was described by Abul Fazal. Akbar also organized debates among different religious groups which ended in no result. Abul Fazal had a violent death before three years of the Akbar’s departure. Abul Fazal had low opinion of Jahangir (Akbar’s son). Jahangir with Rajas killed Abul Fazal and lost his father’s trust for being an Emperor. It was left on the battle of elephants that who would be the next Emperor after Akbar: Jahangir or his son? Jahangir won the battle and became the next emperor. Akbar died in 1605 and he was buried in Agra. Even the building of his monument depicted his religious harmony since the Arts and carvings of the building was an amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim culture.

Jahangir succeeded Akbar and became the 4th emperor on 1605. He was the first Mughal emperor to inherit a well establish empire from his predecessor. He had enquiring and a skeptical mind, loved to observe everything: every ritual. He smashed idol and threw it in the lake of Pushka (the pilgrimage of Hindus) since he was told that the lake was bottomless. He checked for it and called for a plumb line. The lake was not bottomless and he was offended by this.

Jahangir loved animals and birds as well as painting. He drank alcohol almost 20 cups a day and was also addictive of opium. Jahangir killed his eldest son, who raised a rebellion against him, and blinded his other son who also raised a rebellion.

During Jahangir’s era, there was much foreign attention towards India: ships from Portugal, Holland and Britain to visit the glorious land are perfect examples of this in 1615. Sir Thomas Roe, a famous British ambassador in India, came to Jahangir for trade with East India Company. He found that presents and gifts had great importance in the Mughal courts. He gave the picture of Jahangir as his turban filled with rubies and diamonds, rings on every finger, and having diamond bracelet in hands. Roe finally realized that originally, power was in the hands of Noor Jahan (Jahangir’s wife). Exquisite building and garden alongside Agra was the evidence of Noor’s power, built for her father. There was an inlay of multi-color stones in the building.

Jahangir spent his last days of life in Kashmir, died in 1627 and was buried in Lahore. His death unleashed the violence.

All masons of the India under Moghuls were quite happy since Moghuls used to construct many buildings. Peasants though had to bear huge taxes on lands, with the exception of the era of the great Akbar, they were dissatisfied. Akbar also abolished Jizya on non-Muslims (Islamic taxes).

Shah Jahan got the splendor of being the fifth Mughal ruler. He rebelled against his father and was supported by Asaf Khan (Shah jahan was his son in law). And Noor Jahan’s all desires went wandering. Shah Jahan killed son in law of Noor Jahan, his two nephews, and two cousins. Bloodshed of the close relatives for the lust of power was never done before the era of Shah Jahan.

Shah Jahan focused primarily on architecture. Taj Mahal Agra was a great example of this. He built this Mahal in love for his beloved Mumtaz Mahal. He also constructed the greatest of Mughal gardens, Shalimar garden in Lahore, famous for its soothing delights of water. Red Fort, Agra and Jamia Masjid, Agra were also built under Shah Jahan.

Shah Jahan had two remarkable sons: Dara Shukoh and Aurengzeb. Dara Shukoh was the favorite of his father. He experienced pompous and civilized life at court as well as he loved art and literature. Aurengzeb had to deal with many battles and remained always busy during his youth. Shah Jahan never really appreciated Aurengzeb the applause he deserved. Therefore, later he rebelled against them.

At the age of 16, Aurengzeb defeated Rajas and demolished Hindu temples. He also became the Governor of Hyderabad (city of jewels). Shah Jahan fall ill in 1657 and gave governance to Dara Sukoh (in Delhi) which made the situation worst for Dara since Aurengzeb and Murad (in South West as Emperor) joined hands to defeat him. Aurengzeb captured the Agra Fort after the victory.

Aurengzeb succeeded Shah Jahan. He was the last of the great Moghuls. His father surrendered against him and lived in prison for about 8 years till his death and was burried with his wife at Taj Mahal. He was deeply religious and always submitted in front of the will of God. Hindus turned against him because of his extreme policies; he tried to implement Sunni Orthodoxy in the entire region. He humiliated Dara in Delhi. Dara was famous among people because of his father but was called the ‘chief of Atheists’ by Aurengzeb. He also killed the son of Murad (his brother), the elder son of Murad refused to take action against him and was rewarded.

Akbar was the son of Aurengzeb and sent to Jodhpur to subdue rebellion. He was tempted by the Rajputs but Aurengzeb was smart enough to deal with the situation. Eventually, Rajput army vanished and Akbar had to flee. In Deccan, guerilla wars were taking place and Shivaja was their leader (Hindu). Shivaji died before the rebellion of second Akbar.

British ambassadors arrived for trade in India and observed large amount of chaos. Aurangabad became the new capital. Aurengzeb wanted to conquer the citied of Hyderabad and Bijapur but the control over there kept changing.

Aurenzeb died on Friday, 1707. He was buried in quite an Isalmic way and no monument or tomb was constructed for him. Empire of Moghuls also died after the death of Aurengzeb.

British stepped in India just like Moghuls did three centuries ago and the imperial power was transferred to Queen Victoria. Before or after them, there was no one like Moghuls.

The purpose of illustrating about everything in the documentary in the summary part is to give the reader a holistic view of what is shown and what is missed.


Watching a film instead of reading a text gives us a broader picture of the subject matter. The former not only relies on the world of imagination but it also gives proper respect to the sense of observation. When we observe something, it evaluates what we already have imagined. In a nutshell, ‘History of Moghuls’ in the documentary form gives us a broader perspective than mere the imaginative (may be deceptive) world of studying and analyzing texts.

The good thing about the documentary is the direct visits of the producer to the places that had significant importance for Moghuls. The interviews of Raja of Mewar and others also help us understand what locals of today have to say about their ancestors.

Depiction of the great Moghul Art in the film is remarkable. We appreciate Mughal Arts and architecture more when we look at it as compared to when we hear about it or study it; it’s in our nature to act so.

Another admirable thing is the explanation of the director about certain important strategical plans by Moghuls as the top of the buildings built by them to have an eye on army and the internal part of the palace that how and where all the officials were seated and how the emperor had an eye on everyone. This is where ‘text’ struggles to give a clearer picture of.

The documentary goes wonderfully well in a sequence. It has a chronological order that smoothens the picture of Moghuls history in our minds.

Now moving towards the critical analysis of the documentary, the documentary lacks a holistic approach. As the title is ‘The Great Moghuls’, we can say that the producer missed some important trademarks of the Great Moghuls. He just started chronologically and described some events which according to him had significance. He never showed any economic influence of the Moghul Empire. Economy, that was the big temptation for the foreigners, was not discussed in detail. If it’s ignored, we can say the producer missed a big legacy of the Moghul Empire. The producer also didn’t showed anything about trade and industries under Mughal rule. His main focus was architecture.

The producer also didn’t give a specific importance that the foreign policy of Moghuls deserved. He never showed anything about Safavids or Uzbeks or Turks-all these had significant importance for Moghuls.

I also found less focus on dates. History is all about dates and order. If dates are not given proper significance, one can say this a chaos of order in history and as a result, all events can be jumbled up. Mainly, the events are told in as 2 years before his death, three years after his birth or Babur laid the foundation in 16th Century which seems a little vague.

At the end, the compilation of the important historical events under Moghuls in a 146 minute documentary is an achievement worthy of applause as well as the least focus on economy, industry and foreign policy is a flaw in the documentary. The least focus on dates might be because the producers want watchers to learn more and with ease instead of being confused with dates. We can’t really criticize the producer because he produced and directed what was given to him. So, the criticism can be done on the writer of the documentary Bamber Gascoigne. Also, the new version of the documentary can be viewed by improving the quality of the video and by bringing in important factors like economy, industry and foreign policy.




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