Deepa Gahlot: Game of Thrones

The play, Eight Kings, shines a light on the violence, sex and dangerous liaisons that Delhi’s history was built upon

Textbook history is quite different from what really transpired during the journey of a country. Eight Kings, the story of the men who ruled Delhi during the time of the sufi saint Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya, is full of violence, sex and dangerous liaisons.

The Mughal period from the rule of Babur to Bahadur Shah Zafar is abundantly documented; the play, written and directed by Vikramjeet Sinha, is about Delhi rulers who are not as well known. In a one-man show, Farhad Colabavala plays all the kings, as well the great Moroccan traveller and chronicler Ibn Battuta, and a fakir who narrates the story.

In a one-man show, Farhad Colabavala plays all the kings, on an almost bare stage with minimal props — mainly elaborate head gear of the various rulersIn a one-man show, Farhad Colabavala plays all the kings, on an almost bare stage with minimal props — mainly elaborate head gear of the various rulers

Ghyasuddin Balban was a slave of Razia Sultan’s father, Iltutmush. He climbed the hierarchy and became one of the Chalgan (forty nobles of the court). He gradually grabbed power and ascended the throne of Delhi by killing anyone who came in his way. His rule was marked by unprecedented bloodshed and the kind of severity that forbade laughing or even smiling in court. His son favourite son Bugra Khan was killed in battle and his grandson Muiz ud din Qaiqobad took over as the Sultan of the Mamluk (Slave) Dynasty at only 17 years of age.

Unfit to rule and immersed in a life of drinking and womansing, Qaiqobad appointed Jalaluddin Khilji as the commander of his army, but after the Sultan suffered a paralytic stroke, there was much palace plotting and intrigue. Qaiqobad was murdered and his corpse thrown into the Yamuna, and Khilji took over as the king. He in turn was killed by his nephew (and son-in-law) Alauddin Khilji, who went on to become the most famous ruler of the Khilji Dynasty.

He expanded the kingdom right up to Southern India. The legend he is associated with is that of Rani Padmini of Chittor — Khilji heard of her great beauty and attacked the kingdom of her husband Rana Ratan Singh, which ended in her and the other ladies of the court committing mass jauhar (immolation). The story of the legendary queen was immortalised in the epic poem Padmavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. Delhi landmarks Hauz Khas and Siri Fort were originally built by Khilji.

But Khilji had a slave-lover, Malik Kafur, who rose to prominence during his rule, was made the chief of his army, and helped win the king’s major campaigns. His influence over Alauddin Khilji was such that he could get the Sultan’s wife and sons imprisoned on charges of conspiracy. On Khilji’s death, he murdered all claimants to the throne — just one, Mubarak Shah, escaped. Unfortunately for the overambitious Kafur, his reign lasted for 36 days. He was killed too, and Mubarak Shah snatched the throne after another carnage.

Mubarak Shah relaxed the stringent regulations of his predecessors and spent time drinking and carousing — he like to dress like a courtesan and dance. He took a fancy to a shepherd called Hassan, made him prime minister and renamed him Khusro. This man soon filled the palace with his own relatives and supporters. As planned, they massacred the royal guards, Khusro grabbed Mubarak Shah’s long hair, had his head chopped off, and ended the Khilji dynasty.

In 1320, Khusro Khan seized the throne, took the title of Nasir-ud-din Khusro Shah. His rule lasted barely a few months, after which he was beheaded himself and power passed into the hands of Ghazi Malik, who named himself Ghyasuddin Tughlaq and founded a new dynasty. The interesting story about him is that he invited a curse from Nizamuddin Auliya when he forced all men to work on his fort, thus stopping the construction of the saint’s well. Auliya said, “Ya rahey hissar, ya basey gujjar (it will remain unoccupied, or herdsmen will live here)”. When the Sultan was on his way back from a campaign in Bengal to punish Nizamuddin Auliya, he uttered the even more quoted line, “Hunuz Dilli dur ast” (Delhi is still far away).

It is said, his son Ulugh Khan plotted to have him crushed by elephants during a ceremonial parade. He named himself Muhammad bin Tughlaq, and ruled for 26 years. He was a philosopher, scholar and linguist, and caused his own downfall by his ‘crazy’ scheme of shifting his capital to Daulatabad (in Central India), forcing everyone out of the city, and then moving it back to Delhi after a while, during which time scores of people died. He is the one on whom Girish Karnad wrote one of his finest plays — Tughlaq.

Soon after he became king, Nizamuddin Auliya passed away and his tomb that still exists in Delhi was built by Muhammad bin Tughlaq. The scope of the play took place in only this period, and it was performed on an almost bare stage with minimal props — mainly elaborate head gear of the various kings. Farhad Colabavala is a competent actor, but his Urdu accent needs working — one could imagine Naseeruddin Shah or Tom Alter performing this play and taking it to another level.

It is a fascinating account of the lust for power, many romances are also woven into it; the women —loved, wooed, bartered, betrayed — somehow left out when history is written. These stories deserve a grand production. And today’s audiences need to be reminded that the foundation of their capital is laid over bones and blood.

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot

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