I am fascinated by the Mughal Empire. Simply Fascinated. It all started in 5th grade when I insisted to know more about my ancestors because being a fully Bangladeshi girl wasn’t interesting enough, right? I was elated when my mom informed me that we were related to the Mughals, specifically to the Wazir of the third emperor, Akbar the Great. I spent hours and hours on the Internet doing research on my exotic ancestors at the mere age of 11, and it’s still what I do now to be quite honest. That’s what initiated my passion for Mughal history.
I spent a lot of time learning about their ups and downs during their reign in India. However, one thing has always held on to me; they were very powerful. Whether I’m reading a book or watching documentaries, they are portrayed as powerful, barbaric, and imposing people dominating South Asia. Yet, their legacy isn’t as grand or extravagant as I would have thought. How did such a puissant dynasty come to an end in the first place? This, my friend, is a question I’ll try to answer throughout this report.
The following pages will give you a throughout abstract of the Mughal Empire and its gradual decline. Slowly but surely, you will notice that history repeats itself and that in this case, mistakes repeats themselves. Indeed, we are where we are because what happened before, thus the importance of history. The Indian society barely acknowledges the impacts of Mughal reign yet South Asia gets international recognition from their legacies. Read the whole report, I assure you it will get clearer.
INSERT Mughal Empire in 1601 Map
Use of the term ‘India’ refers to the Indian subcontinent and includes areas that we now know as Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The Rise and Historic Reputation
It all began with the first battle of Panipat in 1526 where the Lodi Sultanate had the misfortune of falling to the founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babur. Born in Ferghana (present-day Uzbekistan), the emperor was not native to India. Descendant of Tamerlane, one of the last great Turkic conqueror, and the famous Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire, Zahir-ud-Din Mohammed Babur was without a doubt a military adventurer and a soldier of distinction. Thus, when he made his raid to Panipat, with no more than 12 000 soldiers against Ibrahim Lodi’s 100 000 soldiers, he won the battle with his use of artillery, unique Central Asian tactics, and ruling experience. Indeed, Babur ruled in Samarkand (present-day Uzbekistan) and Kabul before successfully invading Hindustan and so beginning the period of Mughal rule over India.
‘The chief excellency of Hindustan is that it is a large country and has abundance of gold and silver. … as far indeed as the great ocean the peoples are without break.’
He describes with fascination and detail in his memoir the country he was beginning to conquer. In fact, one of the reasons behind the invasion of India was specifically to utilize the country’s wealth and prosperity, India being at that time one of the richest lands in the world. This greatly favors the newly founded empire’s financial status and lightens the burden of establishing an elaborate system for its functioning.
It is recognized that India is home to the largest population of people following the Hindu faith and it was no different during Mughal rule. Reaction from the Hindu majority of the population towards the Muslim Mughal Sultanate was conventional to any newly established monarchy. It is an expected attitude considering the fact that the Mughals were not the first Muslims to rule significant parts of India as that honor goes to the Delhi Sultanate which started in 1206. Thus, the religious changes and its impacts on the new policies were not a matter of concern for the subject. The actual problems lied within the empire’s proximity to the Hindu Rajput kingdoms occupying northern India. Not only did Babur’s empire make way for expansion, it also made new enemies, particularly the Rajputs. The war of conquest in northern India had just begun.
Babur became king at a young age and died aged only 47, before he had securely established his dynasty, leaving his son a difficult inheritance.
Due to instability within the empire, Nasir-ud-Din Muhammed Humayun had difficulties with his succession. Rivalry with his half-brother Mirza Kamran for the throne, improper administration, and lack of experience encircled his empire with enemies. One of them, Sher Shah Suri, is widely known for being the reason of Humayun’s short reign. An officer of the Lodi dynasty, Sher Shah challenged the Mughal throne, seizing the opportunity because of the apparently weak Mughal emperor.
A British representative at one of the last Mughal darbars, Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe described some of Humayun’s intellectual and physical failures while fighting against Sher Shah Suri in his accounts of Delhi. He stresses on the emperor’s good luck and considers it the reason for which stayed alive.
‘… Before he could reach the opposite bank, the horse was exhausted and sunk into the stream, and the Emperor must himself have met with the same fate if he had not been saved by a water carrier who was crossing the river with the aid of the skin used to hold water and which inflated as a bladder, supported the King’s weight as well as his own.’
‘… Hoomaioon must still have perished had not two soldiers who happened to have gained that part of the shore, tied their turbans together and by throwing one end to the Emperor, enabled him to make good his landing. Hoomaioon fled to Lahore and eventually to Persia.’
During his 15 years in Persia, the exiled emperor developed a friendly relation with the Safavid Shah Tahmasp, ruler of Persia. With his military aid, Humayun eventually recaptured Qandahar and Kabul, making way towards his goal. Taking opportunity of the running disputes between the Suri princes in Dehli, the Mughals were finally back in India.
After an unexpected and unfortunate death, Shah Humayun is succeeded by his 13-year-old son Jalal, later known as Akbar. Although the empire was ruled by his guardian, the Afghan general Bairam Khan, during the initial four years as regent, Jalal-ud-Din Muhammed took control quickly after. Akbar coming to power is one of the turning points of Mughal history. Indeed, Akbar’s reign is characterized by the organization of new conquests which lead to the beginning of the imperial expansion throughout India. There are particular issues which caused the consolidation of the Mughal empire under his reign. One of them would be the assumption of power by the Emperor. As Akbar took full control of the empire from Bairam Khan in 1560, he pursued conquests on the borders of his kingdom, which would include the region of Rajputana. By the end of his reign, he had expanded the Mughal Empire from Kabul (Afghanistan) to the West and Dacca (Bangladesh) to the east.
The consequences of imperial conquest are partially the cause of the Mughal’s negative image and reputation. For example, when Akbar laid siege to Chittor (Rajput province) in 1567, he had planned two methods of assault. The first one being the gradual destruction of the Chittor Fort before the beginning of the war by sending spies to install canons. The second one being the horrendous massacre of 30 000 captive unarmed Hindus with their heads displayed on a monument which left an indelible blot on his name. Even Abul Fazl, his own court minister, could not justify or defend the mass murder by the Emperor. The Jesuit Father Antonio Monserrate, who was invited to Akbar’s court in 1574, made some remarks on the Emperor’s austerity:
‘… all are afraid of his severity, and strive with all their might to do as he directs and desires. … Those who have committed a capital crime are either crushed by elephants, impaled, or hanged. Seducers and adulterers are either strangled or gibbeted.’
Thus, many conservative Hindu Rajputs conclude that Akbar, or even the Mughals in general, were tyrant rulers, cruel toward Hindus, and cowards.
This, however, won’t change the fact that Akbar’s rule is commemorated for his exceptional religious tolerance. His respect towards Hinduism and other faiths was demonstrated in different ways. Firstly, the Hindu queens he had married were not forced to convert to Islam, and Hindus were also prominent at court and occupying high ranking administrative positions. Furthermore, non-Muslims did not have to pay taxes that supported mosques and the Emperor also removed the jizya, a tax applied to Hindu pilgrims. Secondly, he held religious debates between Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians in order to carry out a dialogue about religion. Combining the similarities between the different religions, Akbar even created his own religion known as the Din-i-Ilahi (Faith of the Divine). These facts clearly highlight his aim of federating the different peoples constituting his Empire.
Patron of arts and architecture, Akbar made sure that his legacy shone throughout the remaining pages of history. He was the first great Mughal builder to showcase the essence of Indian culture in the Empire’s heritage. Indeed, his projects evolved a fusion of Hindu styles from Bengal and Gwalior with the traditions from central Asia. For example, his efforts to amalgamate the two styles are shown in the construction of the city of Fatehpur Sikri. The fort and the walls of this particular city include mythical Hindu paintings and motifs while mosques are decorated with Persian designs.
Whether it is his unexpected religious openness or the creation of the Hindustani style of art and architecture, Akbar’s aim of uniting the people of his Empire and of reconciling the differences that divided his subjects made him a remarkable historical figure. Moreover, the empire had a very large expansion under his reign and reached its highest point. He is not called Akbar the Great for nothing.
The challenge for the successors of the third Mughal emperor was certainly to maintain the Empire’s peak level. However, his son wanted the Mughal Sultanate to reach new heights. Indeed, the emperor Jahangir was fascinated by foreigners and initiated imperial alliances with the British royalty. The political reason being that the British represented superior economy and superior weapon technology. However, the consequences had showed its effects many years later.
Fun fact: Inspired by the word “Mughal”, the term “mogul” entered the English dictionary to describe a rich and powerful person. By the time Jahangir occupied the Mughal throne, the empire’s wealth knew no boundaries. In fact, the British ambassador Sir Thomas Roe defined the Emperor as ‘the treasury of the world’. Also, he describes the practice that clearly shows their abundance of riches.
‘… he was weighed against bags of silver, then gold, then jewels in the other scales of the balance, and an amount equal to his weight was then distributed to the poor.’
‘The king at noone sat out at the Durbar, where the Prince brought his Elephants about six hundred richly traped and furnished … ten thousand Horses, many in cloth with heron-top feathers in their Turbans, all in gallantry.’
Shah Jahan’s early ascension to the throne was, once again, rather expected due to his father’s short reign and because he had been a favorite of his grandfather Akbar the Great. He indeed possessed many of the quality of the later which helped him maintain the empire’s position, state, as well as reputation. Over and above all that, the legacy he left with the construction of the Taj Mahal is simply history.
‘This prince was very different from the others being in character very secretive and serious, carrying on his affairs in a hidden way, but most energetically. He was of a melancholy temperament … He was extremely anxious to be recognized by the world as a man of wisdom, clever and a lover of the truth…’
The Venetian traveler’s description is indeed representative of the sixth Mughal Emperor. Muhi-ud-Din Muhammed Aurangzeb had always been thirsty for power and left no stone unturned to get it. First of all, he had executed all his brothers in order to be the only heir to the Mughal throne.