Type of Government
The Mughal Empire was run by an emperor who had absolute authority. The third emperor, Akbar (1542–1605), instituted the mansabdari system, a type of military administration that ensured order in the huge and diverse empire.
The Mughal Empire was founded in 1526 by Ẓahīr-ud-Dīn Muḥammad (also known as Babur; 1483–1530), a descendant of Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227) and Timor (1336–1504). From a base in Kabul (in modern-day Afghanistan), Babur gained control of northern India through a victory at Panipat and the capture of Delhi.
Babur died after a four-year reign, leaving the empire to his son Humāyūn (1508–1556), who proved to be a weak ruler. Less than ten years into his rule, he was defeated by the Afghan emperor Shēr Shāh (1486?–1545) at the battles of Chausa (1539) and Kanauj (1540). Forced out of his empire, Humāyūn found shelter in Persia. In 1555, fifteen years into his exile, he regained control of the empire by seizing Delhi, only to die six months later.
The thirteen-year-old Akbar took control of the empire in 1556, following his father’s death. The empire flourished under his reign, spreading through central, western, and northern India and to the west into present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan. Known for his religious tolerance, Akbar abolished the jaziyya (a tax on non-Muslims) and welcomed the building of Hindu temples; he also married a succession of Hindu princesses and provided Hindus with positions in government, allowing them to oversee their former territories and follow their own laws. Akbar was responsible for instituting the mansabdari system, which ensured that the people were taxed fairly and the thriving economy was properly administered. He established himself as a deity in a new state religion called the Dīn-i-ilāhī (Divine Faith), which incorporated elements of Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian religious traditions.
Rising to power after his father’s death in 1605, Jahāngīr (1569–1627) continued Akbar’s policies and system of governance. He introduced a new openness to the rest of the world by allowing Catholic Jesuit missionaries to visit and proselytize and by welcoming European traders. Feeling threatened by the rise of the Sikh religion and its leader, Arjun (1563–1606), Jahāngīr ordered that Arjun be tortured and put to death. He encouraged Persian architects to build magnificent palaces and gardens and welcomed the development of the official language, Urdu, which is related to Hindi and influenced by Persian and Arabic.
Shāh Jahān (1592–1666), Jahāngīr’s son and successor, was a patron of the arts. After the death of his favorite queen, Mumtāz Maḥal (1592–1631), he began building the Taj Mahal masoleum complex in Agra, which was completed seventeen years later, in 1649. Constructed entirely from white marble and striking in its beauty, the Taj Mahal is a masterpiece of Mughal architecture and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shāh Jahān was responsible for the creation of the famed Peacock Throne, which was studded with pearls, diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, and he moved the capital to Delhi, where he built a majestic mosque and palace known as the Red Fort. Expenditures for these and similar projects, along with various military expeditions, brought the empire near bankruptcy. In addition, Shāh Jahān was plagued by threats to the throne. The Sikhs were again gaining power. After becoming emperor, he had his brother killed to forestall one potential source of danger. His four sons also vied for the throne, and, when Shāh Jahān fell ill in 1658, a civil war among them ensued. ʿĀlamgīr (1618–1707) was the victor and declared himself emperor. Even though Shāh Jahān recovered, he was placed under house arrest and died eight years later.
ʿĀlamgīr was a strict Muslim who instituted Sharia law (Islamic law based on the Koran). The Mughal Empire became a Muslim state, and other religions were not tolerated. He destroyed Hindu temples and built mosques on top of the ruins, and he brought back the jaziyya, which Akbar had eliminated. Furthermore, Hindus were no longer allowed to hold office. Beginning in 1680 ʿĀlamgīr invaded Hindu territories in central and southern India and enslaved their populations. In return, the Sikhs, Rajputs, and inhabitants of the Deccan revolted. In 1668 the Jats, from the region of Agra, joined the rebellion by conducting suicide maneuvers and looting Akbar’s grave and burning his bones. The rebellion of the peoples of the Deccan, the Marāthās, effectively cut off the Mughal Empire in southern India. The British East India Company took over control of Calcutta in 1696, and the British and French came to the aid of Hindus and other groups in the area. Heavy taxes, government corruption, and a weakening military led to the eventual decline of the empire.
Mansabdari, the administration system established by Akbar, was a unique structure that collected revenue for the empire while taxing the people fairly and maintaining a system of control by the mansabdars (military officers). In this type of feudal system, the mansabdars were given tracts of land to manage. They could neither keep any assets nor pass them on to their heirs; instead, these assets were returned to the emperor after three or four years, ensuring that the nobles’ influence and power were effectively constrained.
The mansabdars collected revenues in return for pay and had to supply the empire with soldiers and horses. Their positions were conferred by the emperor solely based on merit, and as they advanced, they were allowed to hold more and better mansabs (ranks). The peasants were taxed equally, with the state collecting one-third to one-half of their profits. The people paid fewer taxes in the event of crop failure and were allowed to keep the excess in particularly productive years.
The highest officer in the Mughal Empire was the wazir (prime minister). Under him were the diwan (chief revenue officer), the bakshi, who handled the revenue system and recruited officers for the army and the administration, and various other ministers involved in, for instance, the administration of forests, news delivery, and auditing. Another important official under the wazir was the sadr, who appointed judges and awarded grants.
The empire was sectioned into subas (provinces), which were led by governors appointed by the emperor. In turn, the subas were divided into parganas (unions of several villages). Each pargana had a shiqdar (magistrate) and two officials, generally descendants of previous officials, who were in charge of collecting taxes.
Political Parties and Factions
Even though the Mughal Empire flourished during ʿĀlamgīr’s reign, his insistence on imposing Muslim orthodoxy alienated several groups within the empire. Among them were the inhabitants of the Deccan in south-central India. A fiercely independent people, their history spanned five successive sultanate kingdoms that controlled the region between the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Akbar succeeded in occupying parts of the Deccan, but its inhabitants proved to be difficult to conquer.
Other alienated groups were the Rajputs (a sect of Hindu warriors), the Jats (a distant branch of the Rajputs), and the Marāthās (a sect of Hindus from Maharashtra, a region in west-central India). The Marāthās, in particular, became so enraged that they eventually gained their independence from the Mughals and established their own empire.
Another prominent group that was threatened by ʿĀlamgīr’s policies were the Sikhs, who practiced a monotheistic religion that rejected idol worship and castes. Founded in Punjab in the fifteenth century, the Sikhs rebelled against ʿĀlamgīr. In the early 1700s they began a second rebellion against the emperor Bahādur Shāh I (1643–1712). That rebellion, and the military threat the Sikhs posed, was abruptly ended when its leader and several hundreds of his followers were captured and executed in 1716.
Between 1681 and 1707 the Mughals suffered several defeats by the Marāthās in the south. In the early 1700s the militant Sikhs made further inroads in the north. In 1739 Nāder Shāh (1688–1747), the king of Persia, looted Delhi and made off with many of the empire’s opulent treasures, including the Peacock Throne. By the 1750s the Marāthās had taken control of much of northern India, thereby confining the Mughals to a small area surrounding Delhi.
The British established control of the Mughal Empire in the late 1700s, putting in power a series of puppet emperors. The Mughal territory around Delhi was controlled first by the Marāthās in 1785 and then by the British in 1803. The last so-called emperor, Bahādur Shāh II (1775–1862), participated in an uprising against the British in 1857 and was exiled to Rangoon.
Eraly, Abraham. The Last Spring: The Lives and Times of the Great Mughals. New Delhi, India: Viking, 1997.