Tughlaq as a Historical Play

Girish Karnad's Tughlaq as a Historical Play

Tughlaq as a Historical Play


A historical play seems to be a contradiction in terms. History requires truth to the events of the past, but art requires imagination and concentration on needs of art. This means in other words that the writer of a historical play, must use the facts of history with discretion to suit the needs of his drama, while maintaining overall truth to history deviate from the facts of history, and even introduce new characters in the interest of dramatic effectiveness. This is what Karnad has also done in his play Tughlaq.

Tughlaq in History: Karnad’s Fascination

Tughlaq ruled India in the 14th century. Karnad first read of him in Ishwari Prasad and was fascinated by him. He himself tells us,

“And when I came to Tughlaq, I said Oh ! Marvellous ! That is what I wanted. In those days existentialism was very much in the air. To be considered mad was very much fashionable.”

Karnad again said

“Certainly Tughlaq was the most extraordinary character to come on the throne of Delhi. In religion, in philosophy, even in calligraphy, in battle, war field, anything we talk about, he seems to have outshone anyone who came before him or after him.”

Study of Medieval History

After Ishwari Prashad Karnad went to other historical authorities on medieval India. He read “Ziaud-Din Barani’s Tarkih-a-Firuz Shahi; Al Marshi’s the Mashik-al-Absar, Ibn Batuta’s Travels, and Badoni’s Tarikhi Mubarak Shahi. He follows the traditional sources which present prejudiced and biased view of the life and times of Tughlaq. But he does make some deviations from history, which he deemed necessary for artistic and technical purposes. Tughlaq deals with the last five years of the reign of Tughlaq. Karnad has done his best to create the atmosphere of mutual distrust, frustrated idealism, orthodox, and convention ridden faith, communal intolerance, religious bigotry, treachery and sedition, rampant corruption, soaring prices, natural calamities plague and famine, the Sultan’s unmitigated blood thirstiness and his final disillusionment.

Karnad’s Portrayal of Tughlaq

As regards Tughlaq’s idealism, scholarship, religious tolerance and his feelings of Hindu-Muslim unity, Karnad closely follows historical sources. Karnad portrays Tughlaq as generous and charitable in the first scene. He accepts the Kazi’s judgement graciously in which he himself is held guilty of misappropriating the land of Vishnu Prasad and he also sanctions him a grant of five hundred silver dinars and offers the said Vishnu Prasad a post in Civil Service to ensure him a regular and adequate income.

Tughlaq was a great scholar, idealist and visionary. Of all the Sultans who had hitherto occupied the throne of Delhi he was the most learned and accomplished. A man of versatile genius and achievements, in the words of Ishwari Prasad, “He was a lover of fine arts, a cultured scholar and an accomplished poet, he was equally at home in logic, astronomy, philosophy, mathematics and physical sciences…”

He also invited non-Muslim scholars for discussion. He used to have discussions with Muslims, Hindus, Jain scholars, Buddhist monk and Hindu thinkers. He was liberal in matters of religion. Due to his liberal and rational religious views the orthodox theologians like Zia-ud-din Barani thought him a non-believer in Islam.

Karnad’s Treatment of History

Girish Karnad closely follows historical sources in this respect. In the opening scene the old man represents the orthodox clerical class which vehemently opposed Tughlaq’s liberal and rational policies. He says “And get kicked by an infidel too. It’s an insult to Islam”. The young man who defends the liberal attitude of the Sultan appreciates his devotion to Islam as he urges people to pray the Almighty.

Tughlaq’s idealism and humanism are vividly presented in his speech which he utters in his mother’s presence in Scene Two:

“Let us launch and cry together and then, let’s pray. Let’s pray till our bodies melt and flow and our blood turns into air. History is ours to play with now? Let’s be the light and cover the earth with greenery. Let’s be darkness and cover up the boundaries of notions. Come I’m waiting to embrace you all. But then how can I spread my branches in the stars while the roots have yet to find their hold in the earth ? I wish I could believe in recurring births like the Hindus but I have only one life, on body and my hopes, my people, my God are all fighting for it.”

Karnad’s Tughlaq is a celebrated scholar, as historians describe him. He tells Imam-ud-din who condemns him for his liberal outlook, that it is difficult for him to give up Greek influence: “I still remember the days when I read the Greeks Sukrat who took poison so he could give the world the drink of gods.” He was also well versed with the poetry of Rumi. His rational philosophy was not liked by the orthodox.

Karnad follows history in making Tughlaq guilty of patricide and fratricide. The third man in the first scene has heard that the Sultan is guilty of killing his father and brother. His step-mother also believes that he killed his father and brother. Karnad does not present Tughlaq as repentant over their murder as he has to highlight his heartlessness and wanton acts of cruelty. Historical records prove that Tughlaq was stung with a deep feeling of remorse over his father’s murder. He atoned for the crime and immediately after his succession to the throne he caused his father’s name to be inscribed on the coins.

Shifting of the Capital

Girish Karnad adroitly employs historical evidence about Tughlaq’s rash decision to change the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad. It is a turning point in his carrier and it causes inexpressible suffering to the common people. In the opening scene he announces his decision to change the capital of his empire from Delhi to Daulatabad. Explaining the reasons for it he says:

“My empire is large now and embraces the South and I need a capital which is at its heart. Delhi is too near the border and as you well know its peace is never free from the fear of invaders. But for me the most important factor is that Daulatabad is a city of the Hindus and as the capital it will symbolize the bond between Muslims and Hindus which I wish to develop and strengthen in my kingdom.”

Secondly, the people of Delhi used to write derogatory and vituperative letters to him and they used to throw them into the council hall in the cover of darkness. So he made up his mind to lay Delhi waste. Historian Isami says that Sultan Tughlaq was suspicious of the people of Delhi and by driving them out to Daulatabad he wanted to curb their power. The Amirs and Sayyids of Delhi conspire to kill him at prayer time in Scene V of Tughlaq. By resolving to change his capital he wanted to weaken their power and to curb the rebellions in the south.

Deviation from History

The contemporary historians’ emphasis on mass exodus, which Girish Karnad also presents in Tughlaq is not correct. In fact the upper classes comprising nobles, courtiers, Sheikhs, Ulema and the elite were shifted to Daulatabad. The general Hindu public remained unaffected by this project. Karnad shows a Hindu man in dire suffering and penury. It is a magnified description of this limited exodus of the upper class of Delhi into a mass exodus.

However, the change of the capital strengthened the feeling of national integration about which Girish Karnad is quite silent.

Alteration of Historical Facts

In order to prove that Sultan Tughlaq was a devil Karnad greatly alters the historical facts of the rebellion of Ain-ul-Mulk. Karnad makes Tughlaq weak. He sends Sheikh Imam-ud-din as his official envoy with the message of peace to Ain-ul-Mulk. The Sheikh resembles the Sultan. Donning the royal robes of the envoy the Sheikh marched towards Ain-ulMulk’s army. The elephant on which the Sheikh was riding halted about a hundred yards away from the enemy and the Sheikh stood up on it to say something when a trumpeteer on the Sultan’s side sounded the charge. Sheikh was wounded and succumbed to his injuries’.

So Sheikh Imam-uddin who had led a rebellion against Tughlaq in Kanpur was murdered. Ain-ul-Mulk was pardoned and the governorship of Avadh was restored to him. So Karnad very much deviates from history in the depiction of the rebellion of Ain-ul-Mulk.

The numerous rebellions maddened Tughlaq. Karnad also refers to rebellion of Fakr-ud-din in Bengal. Tughlaq says to Barani in utter desperation:

“Yes. And there’s been another uprising in the Deccan. In Malabar, Ehasanshah has declared himself independent Bahad-udGashtasp in collecting an army against me.”

Disintegration of Sultan’s Personality

In such a climate of distrust and perpetual rebellions, Tughlaq became suspicious and vindictive. Historian Barani writes that the Sultan was a habitual player with men and he acted only to shed the blood of innocent Muslims. A man of imagination, Tughlaq asked his subjects to carry his fantastic schemes into effect and when they failed to do so, he punished them ruthlessly. Barani says to Tughlaq:

“You won’t let your subject pray. You torture them for the smallest offence. Hang them on suspicion. Why this bloodshed ?”

Introduction of Copper Currency

Another important administrative measure which Tughlaq implemented was the introduction of copper coins. Probably the silver coin, known as dinar, was in vogue in Tughlaq’s reign. Tughlaq issued the copper coin in place of silver coin. Barani thinks that the Sultan’s munificence had depleted the treasury and it was a device to face the crisis of bankruptcy. The Sultan’s experiment miserably failed as the minting of counterfeit coins became very common and consequently the national economy was shattered. Tughlaq’s plans were frustrated by the unimaginativeness and non-cooperation of his officers and subjects.

Also Read:

Girish Karnad uses the issuance of the token currency only to emphasize the Sultan’s failure and he made no comment on his farsightedness.

Policy of Taxation

Tughlaq’s policy of taxation deviated from the canon law which sanctioned only two taxes- Khiraj, Zakat. He did not levy jiziya. He rationalised the tax-structure and, thus, the orthodox Muslims felt offended. Girish Karnad does not appreciate his taxation policy. Amir II in Scene V scoffs at the Sultan’s taxation policy.

Natural Calamities

Karnad also refers to famine and plague which ravaged India during the Sultan’s reign but he does not sympathize with Tughlaq who had to face a number of calamities both natural and man-made. Karnad has portrayed Najib as an important character who exercises great influence on Tughlaq and is later on murdered by the machinations of his stepmother. The episode of Aziz and Aazam too has been included with the purpose of creating humour and to exhibit the failure of Tughlaq’s administration.


We can sum up in the voice of M.K. Naik

“Tughlaq is a historical play on the life of Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq of the fourteenth century India dictions in the complex personality of the Sultan, who was at once a dreamer and a man of action, benevolent and cruel, devout and godless.”

Leave a Comment