Nehru remarked that Akbar's empire spread far in north and South and his grand rule continued to evoke admiration all over Asia and Europe.
The scene opens in 1656 with prince Aurangzeb, as shah Jahan's governor in Mughal Deccan, driving a hard bargain with Golconda's queen. He demands a hefty indemnity, against acceptance of Mughal over-lordship by Golconda, which had put up a hard-fought resistance and colluded with Bijapur earlier. Their wealth had always been a preoccupation of the redoubtable Aurangzeb. But soon the interests of the empire and Deccan police are subordinated to consideration of the sucession. This happened under orders of Shah Jahan, at the behest of Dara Shikoh, Auragzeb's elder brother. The next year, exactly the same situation recurs when Aurangzab invades Bijapur upon the death of Muhammad Adil Shah and Dara Shikoh intervenes anxious to thwart his brother's change of succeeding, Twice disappointed, Aurangzeb has to be content again with an indemnity plus territory.
While Dara Shikoh is Shah Jahan's favourite, his designated mouthpiece and heir, and the only Delhi-based contender with the reigns of imperial patronage in his hands, his one failt is that he is not an orthodox Muslim, as a scholar of some repute, he loves to consort with Sufis, Hindus and Christians. Shah Jahan is taken gravely ill in 1657. This information is willfully suppressed and Aurangzab, already deeply frustrated, gets this news from his faithful sister Roshan-Ara. The suspicious Aurangzeb now fears the worst and writes to Dara, alleging suppression of the news of father's death. The latter, preoccupied with a kathak dance, is taken aback but being more interested in Peers and Fakirs, shows no inclination to take up the cudgels of the empire.
Meanwhile, the rumour of the emperor's death, or incapacity, spreads and the scare is enough to send the potential successors to arms. While the shrewd Aurangzeb bides his time, Prince Shuja, another brother and governor of Bengal, is quickly in the fields after a hasty coronation. The youngest brother, Nurad, follows suit in Gujarat anointed by Gujarati priests. However, on getting a conciliatory letter from Aurangzeb in which a division of the empire is offered, Murad commiserates and joins forces with him. Dara's desperate attempts to save the situation with the Emperor's knowledge and sympathy from the other sister Jahan-Ara is of no avail, as Aurangzeb is still distrustful of his placatory missives.
While Aurangzeb and Murad are spoiling for fight, Dara is unwilling to battle. He is still keen to abdicate in favour of Aurangzeb and join the ranks of Fakirs. Aurangzeb's presents that he and Murad are coming to see an ailing father wears too thin. With great reluctance. Dara prepares for war, initially protesting his relative inexperience and with eventual courage born out of his desperation.