In 1658, the magnificent Mughal Empire was on the brink of a precipice. Though it was at the peak of its opulence, the escalating rivalry between Shah Jahan’s eldest son Dara Shikoh and his third son Aurangzeb over the past two decades had split the family. Dara, the pampered prince was a poet and philosopher who had to turn a soldier, to combat his bitter but battle hardened brother. He was an eclectic who respected all religions and also a Sanskrit scholar who did the first translations of 59 Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita while Aurangzeb was a puritan Sunni Muslim. The conflict between Dara’s love of all religions and Aurangzeb’s narrow Islamic beliefs was to make the battle much more than simply one for the throne. It became a series of battles for the very soul of India.

Dara was born near the Sagartal lake close to Ajmer on 20 March 1614. As the day marked Nauroz or the spring equinox, the court astrologers predicted a brilliant future for the little boy. With Taurus ascending in the east and with Jupiter in his ninth house, they predicted that he would have strong religious inclinations and was destined to become a great religious luminary. There was a note of caution however. Saturn, the powerful star of losses, commanded his tenth house and could lead to confusion and lack of authority. His birth was also on the cusp between Zodiacal signs of Aries and Taurus and this could lead to indecisiveness. As his birth date added up to the number two, he was destined to always see two sides of every issue. This could make him very just – or very indecisive.

When Aurangzeb was born on 3 November 1618 at Dohad in Gujarat, the court astrologers were perturbed by the portents. A new star, shaped like a porcupine, had appeared in the skies followed by a comet with a long tail. What this meant they could not foretell, but they did say that the young prince would be ruled by Saturn and the moon and that these would make him austere, cold blooded and cruel. The influence of Saturn would strongly support him while the influence of Mars, the god of war, would make him a leader with great determination and ruthless authority.

The struggle between the two brothers is vividly recounted by Murad Ali Baig in this book through the eyes of a eunuch intimate with all the princes, princesses and personages of the court. He takes the reader from the magnificent royal palace into the harem, to royal hunts and to the kingdoms of rival and vassal rulers. Mubarak Ali, the narrator, fights in the armies of the rival princes and describes six exciting battles. His adventures take the reader from the limpid lakes of Kashmir to the deserts of Sind and the lush forests of every part of India. He tells a tale of high adventure, reckless courage, ruthless cunning, tender romance, treacherous betrayal and heart wrenching tragedy in a world of incredible luxury and decadence in what was once the richest empire of the world.

Murad Ali Baig provides a fascinating account of the conflict between Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb. Scholars can now but speculate what would have been the shape of Indian History, had the outcome been different. A compelling read for young and old alike.

Ms Aanchal Malhotra is an agent at Red Ink Literary Agency, New Delhi.

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