Girish Karnad was all of 26 when he wrote Tughlaq. Karnad’s second Kannada-language play after Yayati was published in 1964, although Karnad had been working on it for the past few years while studying for a Masters of Arts degree at the University of Oxford. The landmark play, comprising 13 scenes, is based on the reign of folly of the Delhi Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq. It was first staged in Kannada in 1965. In 1975, Oxford University Press published Karnad’s English translation of Tughlaq.

Karnad cited an essay by the Kannada critic and writer Kirtinath Kurtakoti, who was also a close friend, as one of his inspirations. In This Life at Play: Memoirs, translated by Karnad and Srinath Perur from the Kannada, the playwright, actor and filmmaker writes: “Kirtinath Kurtakoti’s introductions to the works in Nadedu Banda Daari opened the door to a world I didn’t even know existed. They offered new perspectives and inspiration. I found my attention drawn to a comment about Kannada plays: ‘But no one has attempted to use historical material to try and reveal new layers of the truth. Along with resurrecting the past, we need to develop a vision that looks at the past in a new light. We need new works that use the raw material of history. Shaw and Ibsen must be emulated in this respect too, as they have been in other ways. It is a matter of regret that we don’t have a single work like Caesar and Cleopatra or Saint Joan.’”

Perhaps no other play reflects “the political mood of disillusionment which followed the Nehru era of idealism” in India in the 1960s, novelist UR Ananthamurthy wrote in the preface to the OUP publication. “But the play is more than a political allegory,” Ananthamurthy pointed out. “It has an irreducible, puzzling quality which comes from the ambiguities of Tughlaq’s character… no critical examination of the play can easily exhaust its total meaning to the reader, because the play has, finally, an elusive and haunting quality which it gets from the character of Tughlaq who has been realized in great psychological depth.”

The play includes Tughlaq’s attempts to checkmate his rivals, squash dissent, replace silver currency with copper coins and move his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad. The ruler represents both the “mad kings” of yore as well as of modern leaders of any era who seek power and validation without regard for their subjects. Here is an edited excerpt from scene eight, which is set in AD 1332, five years after the move to Daulatabad. The characters are two guards, Tughlaq, and the court historian Barani.

‘A snake that bit a whole city to death’

The fort at Daulatabad. Two watchmen – one young, the other past his middle age. Night.

Young man: What time do you think it is, grandfather?

Old man: Must be just past midnight.

Young man: Only that? Good god! When I was in the army, less than two seconds seemed to divide the lamp-lighting hour from the daybreak. Now the night scarcely moves.

Old man: It’s only when you wait for the morning that the night stands still. A good sentry forgets that morning even exists.

Young man (looking down the side of the fort): What a fantastic fort! I have a good head but even my head goes round when I look down. And isn’t that long white thing the road from Daulatabad to Delhi?

Old man: Yes.

Young man: They say it’s the widest road in the world. But it looks no bigger than a thin snake from here.

Old man: And four years ago that snake bit a whole city to death.


Young man: What a fort! What a magnificent thing!

I met a foreign visitor the other day and he said he has been round the world and not seen any fort as strong as this anywhere. No army could take this.

Old man: No, if this fort ever falls, it will crumble from the inside.

Young man: You don’t love this fort very much, do you, grandfather?

Old man: I am a man of the plains. I find it hard to breathe in this eagle nest.

Young man: You are from Delhi?

Old man: Yes.

Young man: Was it hard, coming to Delhi from here?

Old man: I survived. But my family was more fortunate. They all died on the way,

Young man (sympathetically): I am sorry. The arrangements must have been very bad.

Old man: Oh no. The merciful Sultan had made perfect arrangements. But do you know. You can love a city like a woman? My old father had lived in Delhi all his life. He died of a broken heart. Then my son Ismail. He was six years old – would have been ten now. the fine dust that hung in the air, fine as silk, it covered him like a silken shroud. After that, his mother.

Silence. The young man is embarrassed.

Young man: Tell me more about this fort, grandfather. Is it true there is a strange and frightening passage within this fort? Dark, they say, like the new moon night.

Old man: Yes, it’s a long passage, a big passage, coiled like an enormous, hollow python inside the belly of the fort. And we shall be far, far happier when that python breaks out and swallows everything in sight – every man, woman, child and beast.

Footsteps off-stage.

Young man (raising his spear): Who is that ?

Muhammad: Muhammad.

Young man: Muhammad? What Muhammad?

Old man: Shut up, fool, it’s the Sultan,

Muhammad walks in, almost in a trance.

Both: In the name of Allah!

Muhammad (to the old man): Go and tell Barani I want to see him.

The old man bows and retires.

Young man: I beg Your Majesty’s pardon for my impertinence. I didn’t realise…

Muhammad: Don’t worry. You were doing your duty.

Goes to the edge of the wall and looks down.

Young man: Your Majesty must forgive my impudence, but I beg Your Majesty not to go too near the edge of the fort. It’s a very steep fall.

Muhammad (smiles): You are new here, aren’t you?

Young man: Yes I am, Your Majesty. I was in the army all these years. They sent me here yesterday. I am very sorry if I’ve said anything wrong, Your Majesty.

Muhammad: Don’t apologise at every word. If you stay here long enough you’ll anyway learn to ooze spittle before everyone. Be yourself at least until then. How old are you?

Young man: Nineteen, Your Majesty.

Muhammad: Nineteen. Nice age! An age when you think you can clasp the whole world in your palm like a rare diamond. I was twenty-one when I came to Daulatabad first and built this fort. I supervised the placing of every brick in it and I said to myself, one day I shall build my own history like this, brick by brick.

One night I was standing on the ramparts of the old fort here. there was a torch near me flapping its wild wings and scattering golden feathers on everything in sight. There was a half-built gate nearby trying to contain the sky within its cleft. Suddenly something happened – as though one had cast a spell. The torch, the gate, the fort and the sky – all melted and merged and flowed in my blood-stream with the darkness of the night. The moment shed its symbols, its questions and answers and stood naked and clam, where the stars throbbed in my veins. I was the earth, was the grass , was the smoke, was the sky. Suddenly, a sentry called from far: ‘Attention! Attention!’

And to that challenge the half-burnt torch and the half-built gate fell apart.

No, young man, I don’t envy you your youth. All that you have to face and suffer is still ahead of you. look at me. I have searched for that moment since then and here I am still searching for it. But in the last four years, I have seen only the wood clinging to the earth, heard only the howl of wild wolves and the answering bay of street dogs. Another twenty years and you’ll be as old as me. I might by lying under those woods there. Do you think you’ll remember me then?

No answer.

Come, why are you silent?

Young man (scared): Your Majesty must forgive me, Your Majesty. But I don’t understand what Your Majesty is saying,

Muhammad (incensed): You don’t understand! You don’t understand! Why do you live? Why do you corrupt the air with your breath? (Suddenly calm.) I’m sorry. It’s my turn to apologise. It isn’t your fault. You are also one of them.

Uncomfortable silence. Barani enters.

What cures one disease just worsens another’

Barani: In the name of Allah. Your Majesty sent for me?

Muhammad: I couldn’t bear the walls any more. When I came here I felt I need an audience – someone to confess my self-pity to. You were asleep?

Barani: No Your Majesty. I was reading a book by Imam Abu Hanifa.

Muhammad: Fortunate! You can read when you don’t feel sleepy. I can’t sleep. I can’t read. Even Rumi, who once used to transport me, has become simply a web of words. Do you know, five years ago I actually used to pray to god not to send me any sleep? I can’t believe it now.

Barani; Why don’t you see a hakim, Your Majesty?

Muhammad: What can a hakim do? You are a historian, Barani, you are the man to prescribe remedies for this. Have you read the latest news? Fakr-ud-din has risen against me in Bengal.

Barani: Oh I’m…

Muhammad: Yes. And there’s been another uprising in the Deccan. In Ma’bar Ehanshah has declared himself. Bahal-ud-din Gashtasp is collecting an army against me. The drought in Doab is spreading from town to town – burning up the country. Only one industry flourishes in my kingdom, only one – and that’s of making counterfeit copper coins. Every Hindu home has become a domestic mint; and in my whole kingdom there are only two people I can trust – Ain-ul-Malik and Shihab-ud-din’s father. What should I do, Barani? What would you prescribe for this honeycomb of diseases? I have tried everything. But what cures one disease just worsens another.

Barani: I am a humble historian, Your Majesty; it’s not for me to prescribe. But since Your Majesty has done me the honour of confiding in me, may I make a suggestion? It is a difficult thing to suggest to a king and I beg you to forgive me if it hurts. But you are a learned man, Your Majesty, you are known the world over for your knowledge of philosophy and poetry. History is not made only in statecraft; its lasting results are produced in the ranks of learned men. That’s where you belong, Your Majesty, in the company of learned men. Not in the market of corpses.

Muhammad: You want me to retire from my throne? (Laughs.) Barani, if you were capable of irony, I would have thought you were laughing at me. But as usual, you mean it, which makes it harder.

I wish it was as easy as that. I have often thought of that myself – to give up this futile see-saw struggle and go to Mecca. Sit there by the Kaaba and search for the peace which Daulatabad hasn’t given me. What bliss! it isn’t as easy leaving the patient in the wilderness because there’s no cure for his disease. Don’t you see – this patient, racked by fever and crazed by the fear of the enveloping vultures, can’t be separated from me? Don’t you see that the only way I could abdicate is my killing myself? I could have done something if the vultures weren’t so close. I could have crawled forward on my knees and elbows. But what can you do when every moment you expect a beak to dig into you and tear a muscle out? What can you do? Barani, what vengeance is driving these shapes after me?

Barani: Your Majesty…

Muhammad: You know what my beloved subjects call me? Mad Muhammad! Mad Muhammad! (Suddenly pleading.) How can I become wise again, Barani?

Barani: Your Majesty, there was a time when you believed in love, in peace, in god. What has happened to those ideals? You won’t let your subjects pray. You torture them for the smallest offence. Hang them on suspicion. Why this bloodshed? Please stop it, and I promise Your Majesty something better will emerge out of it.

Muhammad: But for that I’ll have to admit that I was wrong all these years. And I know I haven’t.

I have something to give, something to teach, which may open the eyes of history, but I have to do it within this life. I’ve got to make them listen to me before I lose even that!

Excerpted with permission from Tughlaq, Girish Karnad, Oxford University Press.