The Mughal Empire in India

Central Asian Rulers of India Who Built the Taj Mahal

MughalHumayansTombAndersBlomqvistLonelyPlanetImagesGetty.jpg
Second Mughal emperor Humayan's tomb. Anders Blomqvist / Lonely Planet Images

The Mughal Empire (also known as Mogul, Timurid, or Hindustan empire) is considered one of the classic periods of India's long and amazing history. In 1526, Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, a man with Mongol heritage from central Asia, established a foothold in the Indian sub-continent which was to last for more than three centuries.

By 1650, the Mughal empire was one of three leading powers of the Islamic world, the so-called Gunpowder Empires including the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Persia. At its height about 1690, the Mughal empire ruled almost the entire subcontinent of India, controlling 4 million square kilometers and a population estimated at 160 million.

Economics and Organization

The Mughal emperors (or Great Mughals) were despotic rulers who relied upon and held sway over a large number of ruling elite. The imperial court included officers, bureaucrats, secretaries, court historians, and accountants, leading to an astounding documentation of the day-to-day operations. They were organized on the basis of the mansabdari system, a military and administrative system developed by Genghis Khan and applied by the Mughal leaders to classify the nobility. The emperor controlled the nobles' lives, from who they married to their education in arithmetic, agriculture, medicine, household management, and rules of government.

The economic life of the empire was buoyed by a strong international market trade, including goods produced by farmers and artisans. The emperor and his court were supported by taxation and the ownership of a region known as the Khalisa Sharifa, which varied in size with the emperor. The rulers also established Jagirs, feudal land grants which were commonly administered by local leaders.

Rules of Succession

Although each classic period Mughal ruler was the son of his predecessor, the succession was by no means one of primogeniture—the eldest did not necessarily gain his father's throne. In the Mughal world, every son had an equal share in his father's patrimony, and all males within a ruling group had a right to succeed to the throne, creating an open-ended, if contentious, system. Each son was semi-independent of his father and received semipermanent territorial holdings when he was deemed old enough. There were often fierce battles among the princes when the ruler died: The rule of succession could be summed up by the Persian phrase takht, ya takhta (either throne or funeral bier).

Dynastic Leadership of Mughal

From his exile in Burma in 1857, the last Mughal Emperor penned these famous words of defiance: As long as there remains the least trace of love of faith in the heart of our heroes, so long, the sword of Hindustan shall flash even at the throne of London.

The last emperor of India, Bahadur Shah, was forced into exile in Burma by Britain during the so-called "Sepoy Rebellion," or First Indian War of Independence. He was deposed to make space for the official imposition of the British Raj in India.

It was an ignominious end to what was once a glorious dynasty, which ruled the Indian subcontinent for more than 300 years.

Founding of the Mughal Empire

The young prince Babur, descended from Timur on his father's side and Genghis Khan on his mother's, finished his conquest of northern India in 1526, defeating the Delhi Sultan Ibrahim Shah Lodi at the First Battle of Panipat.

Babur was a refugee from the fierce dynastic struggles in Central Asia; his uncles and other warlords had repeatedly denied him rule over the Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Fergana, his birth-right. Babur was able to establish a base in Kabul, though, from which he turned south and conquered much of the Indian subcontinent. Babur called his dynasty "Timurid," but it is better known as the Mughal Dynasty—a Persian rendering of the word "Mongol."

Babur's Reign

Babur was never able to conquer Rajputana, home of the warlike Rajputs. He ruled over the rest of northern India and the plain of the Ganges River, though.

Although he was a Muslim, Babur followed a rather loose interpretation of the Quran in some ways. He drank heavily at his famously lavish feasts, and also enjoyed smoking hashish. Babur's flexible and tolerant religious views would be all the more evident in his grandson, Akbar the Great.

In 1530, Babur died at the age of just 47. His eldest son Humayan fought off an attempt to seat his aunt's husband as emperor and assumed the throne. Babur's body was returned to Kabul, Afghanistan, nine years after his death, and buried in the Bagh-e Babur.

Height of the Mughals

Humayan was not a very strong leader. In 1540, the Pashtun ruler Sher Shah Suri defeated the Timurids, deposing Humayan. The second Timurid emperor only regained his throne with aid from Persia in 1555, a year before his death, but at that time he managed even to expand on Babur's empire.

When Humayan died after a fall down the stairs, his 13-year-old son Akbar was crowned. Akbar defeated the remnants of the Pashtuns and brought some previously unquelled Hindu regions under Timurid control. He also gained control over Rajput through diplomacy and marriage alliances.

Akbar was an enthusiastic patron of literature, poetry, architecture, science, and painting. Although he was a committed Muslim, Akbar encouraged religious tolerance and sought wisdom from holy men of all faiths. He became known as "Akbar the Great."

Shah Jahan and the Taj Mahal

Akbar's son, Jahangir, ruled the Mughal Empire in peace and prosperity from 1605 until 1627. He was succeeded by his own son, Shah Jahan.

The 36-year-old Shah Jahan inherited an incredible empire in 1627, but any joy he felt would be short-lived. Just four years later, his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their fourteenth child. The emperor went into deep mourning and was not seen in public for a year.

As an expression of his love, Shah Jahan commissioned the building of a magnificent tomb for his dear wife. Designed by the Persian architect Ustad Ahmad Lahauri, and constructed of white marble, the Taj Mahal is considered the crowning achievement of Mughal architecture.

The Mughal Empire Weakens

Shah Jahan's third son, Aurangzeb, seized the throne and had all of his brothers executed after a protracted succession struggle in 1658. At the time, Shah Jahan was still alive, but Aurangzeb had his sickly father confined to the Fort at Agra. Shah Jahan spent his declining years gazing out at the Taj, and died in 1666.

The ruthless Aurangzeb proved to be the last of the "Great Mughals." Throughout his reign, he expanded the empire in all directions. He also enforced a much more orthodox brand of Islam, even banning music in the empire (which made many Hindu rites impossible to perform).

A three-year-long revolt by the Mughals' long-time ally, the Pashtun, began in 1672. In the aftermath, the Mughals lost much of their authority in what is now Afghanistan, seriously weakening the empire.

The British East India Company

Aurangzeb died in 1707, and the Mughal state began a long, slow process of crumbling from within and without. Increasing peasant revolts and sectarian violence threatened the stability of the throne, and various nobles and warlords sought to control the line of weak emperors. All around the borders, powerful new kingdoms sprang up and began to chip away at Mughal land holdings.

The British East India Company (BEI) was founded in 1600, while Akbar was still on the throne. Initially, it was only interested in trade and had to content itself with working around the fringes of the Mughal Empire. As the Mughals weakened, however, the BEI grew increasingly powerful.

The Last Days of the Mughal Empire:

In 1757, the BEI defeated the Nawab of Bengal and French company interests at the Battle of Palashi (Plassey). After this victory, the BEI took political control of much of the subcontinent, marking the start of the British Raj in India. The later Mughal rulers held on to their throne, but they were simply puppets of the British.

In 1857, half of the Indian Army rose up against the BEI in what is known as the Sepoy Rebellion or the Indian Mutiny. The British home government intervened to protect its own financial stake in the company and put down the so-called rebellion.

Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was arrested, tried for treason, and exiled to Burma. It was the end of the Mughal Dynasty.

The Mughal Legacy in India

The Mughal Dynasty left a large and visible mark on India. Among the most striking examples of Mughal heritage are the many beautiful buildings that were constructed in the Mughal style—not just the Taj Mahal, but also the Red Fort in Delhi, the Fort of Agra, Humayan's Tomb and a number of other lovely works. The melding of Persian and Indian styles created some of the world's best-known monuments.

This combination of influences can also be seen in the arts, cuisine, gardens and even in the Urdu language. Through the Mughals, Indo-Persian culture reached an apogee of refinement and beauty.

List of Mughal Emperors

  • Babur (1526–1530)
  • Humayun (1530–1540, 1555–1556)
  • Akbar (1556–1605)
  • Jahangir (1605–1627)
  • Shah Jahan (1627–1658)
  • Aurangzeb (1658–1707)
  • Bahadur Shah (1707–1712)
  • Jahandar Shah (1712–1713)
  • Furrukhsiyar (1713–1719)
  • Rafi ul–Darjat (1719–1719)
  • Rafi ud–Daulat (1719–1719)
  • Nikusiyar (1719–1743)
  • Mohammed Ibrahim (1720–1744)
  • Mohammed Shah (1719–1720, 1720–1748)
  • Ahmad Shah Bahadur (1748–1754)
  • Alamgir II (1754–1759)
  • Shah Jahan III (1759–1759)
  • Shah Alam II (1759–1806)
  • Akbar Shah II (1806–1837)
  • Bahadur Shah II (1837–1857)

Sources

  • Schimmel, Annemarie & Burzine K. Waghmar. The Great Empire of the Mughals: History, Art and Culture, London: Reaktion Books (2004).