Incredible India Part 11 | The Mughal Empire from 16 to 18 century

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Mughal dynasty, also spelled Mogul, (Mongol), Muslim dynasty of Turkic-Mongol origin that ruled most of northern India from the early 16th to the mid-18th century. After that time it continued to exist as a considerably reduced and increasingly powerless entity until the mid-19th century.

The dynasty was founded by a Chagatai Turkic prince named Bābur (reigned 1526–30), who was descended from the Turkic conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) on his father’s side and Chagatai, second son of the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan, on his mother’s side. Ousted from his ancestral domain in Central Asia, Bābur turned to India to satisfy his appetite for conquest. From his base in Kabul (Afghanistan) he was able to secure control of the Punjab region, and in 1526 he routed the forces of the Delhi sultan Ibrāhīm Lodī at the First Battle of Panipat. The following year he overwhelmed the Rajput confederacy under Rana Sanga of Mewar, and in 1529 he defeated the Afghans of what are now eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states. At his death in 1530, he controlled all of northern India from the Indus River on the west to Bihar on the east and from the Himalayas south to Gwalior.

Bābur’s son Humāyūn (reigned 1530–40 and 1555–56) lost control of the empire to Afghan rebels, but Humāyūn’s son Akbar (reigned 1556–1605) defeated the Hindu usurper Hemu at the Second Battle of Panipat (1556) and thereby reestablished his dynasty in Hindustan. The greatest of the Mughal emperors and an extremely capable ruler, Akbar reestablished and consolidated the Mughal Empire. Through incessant warfare, he was able to annex all of northern and part of central India, but he adopted conciliatory policies toward his Hindu subjects and sought to enlist them in his armies and government service. The political, administrative, and military structures that he created to govern the empire were the chief factor behind its continued survival for another century and a half. At Akbar’s death in 1605 the empire extended from Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal and southward to what is now Gujarat state and the northern Deccan region (peninsular India).


Akbar’s son Jahāngīr (reigned 1605–27) continued both his father’s administrative system and his tolerant policy toward Hinduism and thus proved to be a fairly successful ruler. His son, Shah Jahān (reigned 1628–58), had an insatiable passion for building, and under his rule, the Taj Mahal of Agra and the Jāmiʿ Masjid (Great Mosque) of Delhi, among other monuments, were erected. His reign marked the cultural zenith of Mughal rule, but his military expeditions brought the empire to the brink of bankruptcy. Jahāngīr’s tolerant and enlightened rule stood in marked contrast to the Muslim religious bigotry displayed by his more orthodox successor, Aurangzeb (reigned 1658–1707). Aurangzeb annexed the Muslim Deccan kingdoms of Vijayapura (Bijapur) and Golconda and thereby brought the empire to its greatest extent, but his political and religious intolerance laid the seeds of its decline. He excluded Hindus from public office and destroyed their schools and temples, while his persecution of the Sikhs of the Punjab turned that sect against Muslim rule and roused rebellions among the Rajputs, Sikhs, and Marathas. The heavy taxes he levied steadily impoverished the farming population, and a steady decay in the quality of the Mughal government was thus matched by a corresponding economic decline. When Aurangzeb died in 1707, he had failed to crush the Marathas of the Deccan, and his authority was disputed throughout his dominions.

During the reign of Muḥammad Shah (1719–48), the empire began to break up, a process hastened by dynastic warfare, factional rivalries, and the Iranian conqueror Nādir Shah’s brief but disruptive invasion of northern India in 1739. After the death of Muḥammad Shah in 1748, the Marathas overran almost all of northern India. Mughal rule was reduced to only a small area around Delhi, which passed under Maratha (1785) and then British (1803) control. The last Mughal, Bahādur Shah II (reigned 1837–57), was exiled to Yangon, Myanmar (Rangoon, Burma) by the British after his involvement with the Indian Mutiny of 1857–58.

The Mughal ruling class was Muslim, although many of the subjects of the empire were Hindu and also Sikh. When Babur first founded the empire, he did not emphasize his religion, but rather his Mongol heritage. Under Akbar, the court abolished the jizya, the tax on non-Muslims, and abandoned the use of the lunar Muslim calendar in favor of a solar calendar more useful for agriculture. One of Akbar's most unusual ideas regarding religion was Din-i-Ilahi (“Godism” in English), which was an eclectic mix of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. He enjoyed good relations with the emerging Sikh community, and it was proclaimed the state religion until his death. These actions were later retracted by Aurangzeb, known for his zealotry. Aurangzeb imposed Sharia law, which he codified, re-imposed the jizya, and as had Babur, destroyed temples to build mosques. He is known to have treated non-Muslims harshly.

When Shah Jahān fell seriously ill in 1657, the tension between the Aurangzeb and the brilliant and volatile Dārā Shikōh made a war of succession seem inevitable. By the time of Shah Jahān’s unexpected recovery, matters had gone too far for either son to retreat. In the struggle for power (1657–59), Aurangzeb showed tactical and strategic military skills, great powers of dissimulation, and ruthless determination. Decisively defeating Dārā at Samugarh in May 1658, he confined his father in his palace at Agra. In consolidating his power, Aurangzeb caused one brother’s death and had two other brothers, a son, and a nephew executed.

Under Aurangzeb, Mughal court life changed dramatically. According to his interpretation, Islam did not allow music, so he banished court musicians, dancers, and singers. Further, based on Muslim precepts forbidding images, he stopped the production of representational artwork, including the miniature paintings for which the Mughals are renowned.

The Mughal Emperors persecuted several of the Sikh Gurus, and Jehangir executed the fifth Guru. Even the Taj Mahal is reputedly built on a sacred Hindu site, although this is disputed. At times, popular Sufi teachers such as attracted Hindu and Muslim disciples while some Hindu gurus were also popular among Muslims. Many Sufi shrines are still visited by Hindus as well as Muslims.

The Mughals tended to regard themselves as rulers by divine right, rather than as subject to Islamic law. Thus, they did not afford religious scholars much authority. Although they recognized the Ottoman claim to the title of caliph, they saw the Ottomans as just another Muslim empire like themselves, especially as they shared a similar pedigree. Whether the earlier policies of harmonizing religions were merely pragmatic or stemmed from a more inclusive understanding of Islam is debatable. Certainly, such Sufi teachers as Kabir (1414-1518) who flourished at an earlier period had represented a 'peace to all' type of Islam that was attractive to many people in the subcontinent. He taught that all people are members of one family and he drew equally on Muslim and Hindu devotional traditions. The reversal of the early policy would eventually result in the partition of India based on the “two-nation theory,” which believed that Muslims and Hindus were two nations and could not peacefully co-exist. 

In general, Aurangzeb ruled as a militant orthodox Sunni Muslim; he put through increasingly puritanical ordinances that were vigorously enforced by muḥtasibs, or censors of morals. The Muslim confession of faith, for instance, was removed from all coins lest it be defiled by unbelievers, and courtiers were forbidden to salute in the Hindu fashion. Besides, Hindu idols, temples, and shrines were often destroyed.


Part 12 - The British East India Company

Part 10 - Babur – The start of Mughal Empire


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