We all grew up on Mughal history. Babar, Ibrahim Lodi and Panipat; Akbar and Fatehpur Sikri; Shahjahan and the Taj; and, of course, the austere, pious but narrow-visioned Aurangzeb. This great drama was played out from 1526 to 1707. In the March of that year, as the last great Mughal lay dying in the Deccan, the scene began to shift. The British came centrestage. For the next hundred years, as they acted out their historic acquisitive role, the Dilli padshahs became the backdrop. From 1804, when Lord Lake demolished the last Scindia army at the Noida golf course and became the protector of the "refuge of the world" and the maalik of the Qila-e-Mualla to the mutiny, we see for 50 years the Frasers and the Octerlonys with their bibis, elephants and nautch girls swanning it around in Chandni Chowk. Only on the morning of May 11, as the 3rd Cavalry sawars came clattering in over the boat bridge from Meerut and aroused the old poet king from his opiate slumbers do we again hear of the great Mughals.
These 150 years are little written about and less read. Yet their study is essential to understand the future shape of events. In the south, the Peshwas and their generals tried during the whole of the 18th century to replace the Mughals on the Dilli gaddi; in the north, the Sikhs rode furiously around in a confused frenzy to carve a kingdom. Both failed; the Marathas slaughtered at Panipat by Ahmed Shah Abdali, and the Sikhs pushed back to the Sutlej by the British. In a well-researched book, Cheema resurrects the six major padshahs of the period and the khichri of unprincipled ambition of the court’s Turani and Irani umra; the Rajputs, the Bharatpur Jaats, the faction-ridden Marathas and the Sikhs, that swamped these unfortunate children of Babar.