The Indian subcontinent has always been characterized by an immense diversity with respect to its population and cultures. Back during the Middle Ages, it was thus naturally a very difficult task for any ruler to annex the entire country. In fact, all notable empires in India before the Mughals were either restricted to the northern part of the country or to the southern part. However, quite in contrast to their predecessors, the Mughals built an empire spanning almost all of India, and thus created history. It was after the second half of the 16th century that they expanded their kingdom from Agra and Delhi. Till in the 17th century they had conquered nearly all of the subcontinent. The Mughals implemented such structures of administration and methods of governance that outlasted their rule, which are still relevant in contemporary times, thus leaving behind a legacy that the following rulers of the subcontinent could not disregard.
The lineage of the Mughals can be traced back to two great rulers. Records have proved that Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongolian Empire of China and Central Asia was their ancestor from the maternal side, whereas from their paternal side, they were the successors of Timur, none other than the erstwhile emperor of Iraq, Iran and what is known today as Turkey. This article aims at tracing the history of this noteworthy empire, highlighting the points where it reached the pinnacle of its glory, with special reference to six of its most important rulers.
Babur was the first Mughal emperor. He succeeded to the throne of Ferghana in 1494 at the tender age of 12. An invasion by another Mongol group, the Uzbeks, forced him to relinquish his ancestral throne and it was only after years of wandering, that he annexed Kabul in 1504. In 1526 he defeated the Sultan of Delhi, Ibrahim Lodi, in the historic Battle of Panipat and captured Delhi and Agra.
Babur was succeeded by Humayun in 1530. He lost to Sher Shah Suri in 1539 in Chausa and in 1540 in Kanauj, which forced him to flee to Iran. 15 years later however, with the help of Safavid Shah from Persia, Humayun regained his territories. His return from Persia was accompanied by a large entourage of Persian noblemen, which signalled an important change in Mughal court culture. In 1556, Humayun died due to an accident. His body was initially laid in the Purana Qila, but was subsequently transferred to Kalanaur in Punjab. He was finally laid to rest in a tomb which was commissioned by his wife, Baga Begum, and now stands in Delhi, a popular tourist attraction. Humayun thus expanded his Empire significantly, bequeathing a noteworthy legacy to his son, Akbar.
Akbar was only 13, when he became the emperor, and turned out to be one of the most famed kings in history. Initially, he was mentored by Bairam Khan, with whose aid and advice, he expanded and consolidated his empire. Gradually, his empire spanned almost the entire subcontinent, stretching up to the Godavari River. His prowess, valour and impact engulfed the entire country because of Mughal military, cultural, political, and economic supremacy and he undertook a strategy of pacifying conquered rulers through the tactics of marriage and diplomacy. He was a patron of art and culture and men of many faiths, poets, architects, and artisans adorned his court from all over the world for study and discussion. He founded the city of Fatehpur Sikri as the capital of his empire in 1571, and he also established the library of Fatehpur Sikri exclusively for women. It was during his reign that the Mughal Empire reached great heights, and he was the first Mughal ruler to win the trust and loyalty of the native subjects, thus laying the foundations for a multicultural empire.
Prince Salim, better known by his imperial name, Jahangir, which meant “conqueror of the world”, was the fourth Mughal Emperor, who ruled from 1605 to his death in 1627. During his reign, military campaigns started by Akbar continued. Jahangir was also a huge admirer of art and architecture, as he has himself stated in his autobiography named Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri. He married a number of women, the most famous being Mehr-un-Nisa, famously known as Nur Jahan, who was known for her beauty and intelligence. After his death in 1627, Jahangir was buried in Shahdara Bagh, now in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
After Jahangir’s death, in an ensuing war for succession, Prince Khurram, the most competent of his four sons, emerged victorious and crowned himself the king, under the title of Shah Jahan. Although an able military commander, he is perhaps best remembered for his architectural achievements. The period of his reign is widely considered as the golden age of Mughal architecture. Shah Jahan built many monuments, the most famous of which is indubitable the Taj Mahal in Agra, which entombs his wife Mumtaz Mahal, and is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Mughal Empire reached the peak of its fame during Shah Jahan’s reign and he is widely considered to be one of the greatest Mughal emperors.
The sixth Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb also known by his regnal name Alamgir, ruled over the Indian subcontinent for over 49 years. Described as a military paragon, Aurangzeb was a notable expansionist and was also noted for his extreme religious piety, stringent observation of the public rituals of Islam as well as memorising the Quran. Unlike his predecessors, he did not enjoy a luxurious life. He is criticised for his religious intolerance against Hindus, and his explicit enmity with the Maratha Kingdom. A few of the monuments commissioned by him include Bibi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad, Moti Masjid in Delhi and Zafar Mahal, also in Delhi. He passed away in 1707, and is considered to be the last significant Mughal emperor. Many historians consider his death to mark the transition from Medieval to Modern Indian History.
17th Century onwards
The managerial and military competence of the Mughal Empire led to great prosperity and welfare for the citizens. The empire has been described by International travellers as the legendary land of wealth. But this lavishness was also, on the contrary, coupled with extreme destitution and inequality. The Mughal emperors and their nobles spent extravagantly on salaries and goods, which in turn aided the artisans and the people who supplied them with goods. But the exorbitant amount of revenue and taxes collected left very little for the purpose of investment in the hands of these small-scale producers – the peasants and the artisans. The most marginalised sections of the population them lived lives of extreme poverty, where a basic need such as food was a luxury; investment in other resources was almost out of the question.
It was only the wealthier groups, who profited under these economic policies. There could be discerned a glaring chasm between the powerful Mughal elite and the weaker peasantry, the former gaining more control towards the late seventeenth century. After the death of Aurangzeb, there was a steady decline in the authority of the Mughal emperor, while the people who worked under him started gaining the reins of power. They formed new dynasties and held command of important provinces like Hyderabad and Awadh. Although they continued to recognise and respect the Mughal emperor in Delhi as their leader, gradually by the eighteenth century the Mughal empire witnessed fragmentation as the provinces started exercising their individual political identities. Finally, in 1858, the British Crown formally saw itself at the helm of power in India, beginning its approximately 200-year-long rule in our country.
The Mughal legacy
The Mughal Empire lasted from 1526 to 1858; for more than 200 years, till the British gained control over India. This empire bequeathed our country with a rich legacy, ranging from art and designs, architecture to cuisine, and a very distinctive artistic style that mixed European influences with those from Persia and India. Relics of this empire still remain, and India still looks back at its Mughal history and upholds its inheritance with pride.
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