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Mughal Empire

The Mughal Empire (alternative spelling Mogul, which is the origin of the word Mogul) of India was founded by Babur in 1526, when he defeated Ibrahim Lodi, the last of the Delhi Sultans at the First Battle of Panipat. It was largely conquered by Sher Shah during the time of Humayun, but under Akbar, it grew considerably, and continued to grow until the end of Aurangzeb's rule. After Aurangzeb died in 1707, the empire started a slow and steady decline in actual power, although it maintained all the trappings of power in the Indian subcontinent for another 150 years. In 1739 it was defeated by an army from Persia led by Nadir Shah. In 1756 an army of Ahmad Shah looted Delhi again. The final defeat was by the British Empire in 1857, although it had become almost a ceremonial title by then, with no real control.

Religion

The Mughal Empire was Islamic, although many of the subjects of the Empire, up to and including very high-ranking members of the court, were Hindu. When Babur first founded the Empire, he did not emphasize his religion, but rather his Turkic heritage. (The name "Mughal" seems to have been attached somewhere in the 16th century. It is derived from Mongol, another piece of Babur's ancestry.) Under Akbar, the court abolished the jizya, the tax on non-Muslims, and abandoned use of the lunar Muslim calendar in favor of a solar calendar more useful for agriculture. These actions were later retracted by Aurangzeb, known for his religiosity, but even under Aurangzeb, one quarter of his court princes were Rajput Hindus.

Political Economy

The Mughals used the mansabdar system to generate land revenue. The emperor (whose title was Badshah or "vice-Shah," in relation to the Shah of Persia, the emperor of all emperors) would grant revenue rights to a mansabdar in exchange for promises of soldiers in war-time. The greater the size of the land the emperor granted, the greater the number of soldiers the mansabdar had to promise. The mansab was both revocable and non-hereditary; this gave the center a fairly large degree of control over the mansabdars.

Greater Mughal Emperors (Badshahs of Hindustan):

Establishment and reign of Babur

In the early 16th century, descendents of the Mongol, Turkic, Persian, and Afghan invaders of Southwest Asia – the Mughals – invaded India under the leadership of Zahir-ud-Din Babur. Babur was the great-grandson of Timur Lenk (Timur the Lame, from which the Western name Tamerlane is derived), who had invaded India and plundered Delhi in 1398 and then led a short-lived empire based in Samarkand (in modern-day Uzbekistan) that united Persian-based Mongols (Babur's maternal ancestors) and other West Asian peoples. Babur was driven from Samarkand and initially established his rule in Kabul in 1504; he later became the first Mughal ruler (1526-30). His determination was to expand eastward into Punjab, where he had made a number of forays. Then an invitation from an opportunistic Afghan chief in Punjab brought him to the very heart of the Delhi Sultanate, ruled by Ibrahim Lodi (1517-26).

Babur, a seasoned military commander, entered India in 1526 with his well-trained veteran army of 12,000 to meet the sultan's huge but unwieldy and disunited force of more than 100,000 men. Babur defeated the Lodi sultan decisively at Panipat (in modern-day Haryana, about ninety kilometers north of Delhi). Employing gun carts, moveable artillery, and superior cavalry tactics, Babur achieved a resounding victory. A year later, he decisively defeated a Rajput confederacy led by Rana Sangha. In 1529 Babur routed the joint forces of Afghans and the sultan of Bengal but died in 1530 before he could consolidate his military gains. He left behind as legacies his memoirs (Babur Namah), several beautiful gardens in Kabul, Lahore, and Agra, and descendents who would fulfill his dream of establishing an empire in Hindustan.

Reign of Humayun

When Babur died, his son Humayun (1530-56) inherited a difficult task. He was pressed from all sides by a reassertion of Afghan claims to the Delhi throne, by disputes over his own succession, and by the Afghan-Rajput march into Delhi in 1540. He fled to Persia, where he spent nearly ten years as an embarrassed guest at the Safavid court of Shah Tahmasp. In 1545 he gained a foothold in Kabul with Safavid assistance and reasserted his Indian claim, a task made easier by the weakening of Afghan power in the area after the death of Sher Shah in May 1545, and took control of Delhi in 1555.

Reign of Akbar

Humayun's untimely death in 1556 left the task of further imperial conquest and consolidation to his thirteen-year-old son, Jalal-ud-Din Akbar (r. 1556-1605). Following a decisive military victory at the Second Battle of Panipat in 1556, the regent Bayram Khan pursued a vigorous policy of expansion on Akbar's behalf. As soon as Akbar came of age, he began to free himself from the influences of overbearing ministers, court factions, and harem intrigues, and demonstrated his own capacity for judgment and leadership. A "workaholic" who seldom slept more than three hours a night, he personally oversaw the implementation of his administrative policies, which were to form the backbone of the Mughal Empire for more than 200 years. He continued to conquer, annex, and consolidate a far-flung territory bounded by Kabul in the northwest, Kashmir in the north, Bengal in the east, and beyond the Narmada River in central India--an area comparable in size to the Mauryan territory some 1,800 years earlier.

Akbar built a walled capital called Fatehpur Sikri (Fatehpur means Fortress of Victory) near Agra, starting in 1571. Palaces for each of Akbar's senior queens, a huge artificial lake, and sumptuous water-filled courtyards were built there. The city, however, proved short-lived, perhaps because the water supply was insufficient or of poor quality, or, as some historians believe, that Akbar had to attend to the northwest areas of his empire and simply moved his capital for political reasons. Whatever the reason, the capital was relocated in 1585 to Lahore and in 1599 to Agra.

Akbar adopted two distinct but effective approaches in administering a large territory and incorporating various ethnic groups into the service of his realm. In 1580 he obtained local revenue statistics for the previous decade in order to understand details of productivity and price fluctuation of different crops. Aided by Todar Mal, a Rajput king, Akbar issued a revenue schedule that the peasantry could tolerate while providing maximum profit for the state. Revenue demands, fixed according to local conventions of cultivation and quality of soil, ranged from one-third to one-half of the crop and were paid in cash. Akbar relied heavily on land-holding zamindars. They used their considerable local knowledge and influence to collect revenue and to transfer it to the treasury, keeping a portion in return for services rendered. Within his administrative system, the warrior aristocracy (mansabdars) held ranks (mansabs) expressed in numbers of troops, and indicating pay, armed contingents, and obligations. The warrior aristocracy was generally paid from revenues of nonhereditary and transferrable jagirs (revenue villages).

An astute ruler who genuinely appreciated the challenges of administering so vast an empire, Akbar introduced a policy of reconciliation and assimilation of Hindus (including Maryam al-Zamani, the Hindu Rajput mother of his son and heir, Jahangir), who represented the majority of the population. He recruited and rewarded Hindu chiefs with the highest ranks in government; encouraged intermarriages between Mughal and Rajput aristocracy; allowed new temples to be built; personally participated in celebrating Hindu festivals such as Deepavali, or Diwali, the festival of lights; and abolished the jizya (poll tax) imposed on non-Muslims. Akbar came up with his own theory of "rulership as a divine illumination," enshrined in his new religion Din-i-Ilahi (Divine Faith), incorporating the principle of acceptance of all religions and sects. He encouraged widow re-marriage, discouraged child marriage, outlawed the practice of sati, and persuaded Delhi merchants to set up special market days for women, who otherwise were secluded at home. By the end of Akbar's reign, the Mughal Empire extended throughout most of India north of the Godavari River. The exceptions were Gondwana in central India, which paid tribute to the Mughals, Assam in the northeast, and large parts of the Deccan.

In 1600, Akbar's Mughal empire had a revenue of 17.5 million. In 1800, the entire treasury of Great Britain totalled to 16 million.

Akbar's empire supported vibrant intellectual and cultural life. A large imperial library included books in Hindu, Persian, Greek, Kashmirian, English, and Arabic, such as the Shanameh, Bhagavata Purana and the Christian Bible. Akbar sought knowledge and truth wherever it could be found and through a wide range of activities. He regularly sponsored debates and dialogues among religious and intellectual figures with differing views, and he welcomed Jesuit missionaries from Goa to his court. Akbar directed the creation of the Hamzanama, an artistic masterpiece that included 1400 large paintings.

Reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan

Mughal rule under Jahangir (1605-27) and Shah Jahan (1628-58) was noted for political stability, brisk economic activity, beautiful paintings, and monumental buildings. Jahangir married a Persian princess whom he renamed Nur Jehan (Light of the World), who emerged as the most powerful individual in the court besides the emperor. As a result, Persian poets, artists, scholars, and officers--including her own family members--lured by the Mughal court's brilliance and luxury, found asylum in India. The number of unproductive, time-serving officers mushroomed, as did corruption, while the excessive Persian representation upset the delicate balance of impartiality at the court. Jahangir liked Hindu festivals but promoted mass conversion to Islam; he persecuted the followers of Jainism and even executed Guru Arjun Das, the fifth saint-teacher of the Sikhs. The release of 52 Hindu princes from captivity in 1620 is the basis for the significance of the time of Diwali to Sikhs. Nur Jehan's abortive efforts to secure the throne for the prince of her choice led Shah Jahan to rebel in 1622. In that same year, the Persians took over Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, an event that struck a serious blow to Mughal prestige.

Between 1636 and 1646, Shah Jahan sent Mughal armies to conquer the Deccan and the northwest beyond the Khyber Pass. Even though they aptly demonstrated Mughal military strength, these campaigns drained the imperial treasury. As the state became a huge military machine and the nobles and their contingents multiplied almost fourfold, so did the demands for more revenue from the peasantry. Political unification and maintenance of law and order over wide areas encouraged the emergence of large centers of commerce and crafts--such as Lahore, Delhi, Agra, and Ahmadabad--linked by roads and waterways to distant places and ports. The world-famous Taj Mahal was built in Agra during Shah Jahan's reign as a tomb for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It symbolizes both Mughal artistic achievement and excessive financial expenditures when resources were shrinking. The economic position of peasants and artisans did not improve because the administration failed to produce any lasting change in the existing social structure. There was no incentive for the revenue officials, whose concerns primarily were personal or familial gain, to generate resources independent of dominant Hindu zamindars and village leaders, whose self-interest and local dominance prevented them from handing over the full amount of revenue to the imperial treasury. In their ever-greater dependence on land revenue, the Mughals unwittingly nurtured forces that eventually led to the break-up of their empire.

Reign of Aurangzeb and decline of empire

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A full size image is available.


The last of the great Mughals was Aurangzeb (r. 16581707), who seized the throne by killing all of his brothers and imprisoning his own father. During his fifty-year reign, the empire reached its greatest physical size but also showed the unmistakable signs of decline. The bureaucracy had grown bloated and excessively corrupt, and the huge and unwieldy army demonstrated outdated weaponry and tactics. Aurangzeb was not the ruler to restore the dynasty's declining fortunes or glory. Awe-inspiring but lacking in the charisma needed to attract outstanding lieutenants, he was driven to extend Mughal rule over most of South Asia and to reestablish Islamic orthodoxy by adopting a reactionary attitude toward those Muslims whom he suspected of compromising their faith.

Aurangzeb was involved in a series of protracted wars: against the Pathans in Afghanistan, the sultans of Bijapur and Golkonda in the Deccan, the Marathas in Maharashtra and the Ahoms in Assam. Peasant uprisings and revolts by local leaders became all too common, as did the conniving of the nobles to preserve their own status at the expense of a steadily weakening empire. The increasing association of his government with Islam further drove a wedge between the ruler and his Hindu subjects. Aurangzeb forbade the building of new temples, destroyed a number of existing ones, and reimposed the jizya. A puritan and a censor of morals, he banned music at court, abolished ceremonies, and persecuted the Sikhs in Punjab. These measures alienated so many that even before he died, challenges for power had already begun to escalate. Contenders for the Mughal throne were many, and the reigns of Aurangzeb's successors were short-lived and filled with strife. The Mughal Empire experienced dramatic reverses as regional governors broke away and founded independent kingdoms. The Mughals had to make peace with Maratha rebels, and Persian and Afghan armies invaded Delhi, carrying away many treasures, including the Peacock Throne in 1739.

Mughals as Indian Muslims

The term Mughal is sometimes used to refer to Indian Muslims, by people from outside India. However, this usage is not popular in India itself.

Alternate meanings

  • In popular news jargon, Mughal or Mogul also denotes a successful business magnate who has built for himself a vast (and often monopolistic) empire in one or more specific industries. The usage seems to have an obvious reference to the expansive and wealthy empires built by the Mughal kings in India. Rupert Murdoch, for example, is a news mogul. See also Media mogul.

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