Empires: Mogul

views updated


The Mogul empire of India was established by Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur (d.1530), a descendant of Emir Timur (d.1405). On his mother's side, Babur was related to the Chaghtai khans of Kashghar. Expelled from his ancestral principality of Farghana (modern Kokand) because of internecine feuds of the Timurid princes and the rise of Uzbek power under Shaibani Khan, Babur eventually established himself at Kabul in 1505, and in 1526, defeating Sultan Ibrahim Lodi in the Battle of Panipat, founded the Mogul dynasty in India. The name "Mogul" was given to it by popular usage in India; the later Central Asian designation for it, equally loose, was Chaghatai. The family continued (with the exception of the Sur interlude, 1540–1555) to exercise imperial hegemony over much of the Indian subcontinent until 1739 when defeat at the hands of Nadir Shah of Iran signaled the empire's rapid disintegration.

Babur brought with him a tradition in which respect for Mongol customs was quite strong, though modified by the conventional attachment to Sunni orthodoxy. The further fact that the Timurids were highly urbanized and cultured drew them irresistibly to Iranian culture, despite the fact that in the sixteenth century it assumed a radical Shi˓ite color. All these factors demonstrated an eclectic attitude that made the Moguls particularly suited to govern a country of varied cultural traditions like India.

Babur is credited with recruiting a large number of Afghans and Indian Muslims into his nobility. The recruitment of many Persians by Humayun (1540–1556) was a further important development. But the decisive transformation in this respect came under Humayun's son Akbar (1556–1605). Having recruited a large number of Rajput chiefs, Akbar rendered the Mogul nobility a truly composite group, a characteristic that persisted until 1739.

Akbar, however, was not simply motivated by eclecticism. He came to have strong views on reason and religion. He evoked Ibn al-˓Arabi's philosophy to justify a policy of universal tolerance under the principle of Sulh-e Kul (Absolute Peace) and became a sturdy defender of reason and critic of old social customs. He, and his major spokesman, Abu˒l Fazl, sought to give to sovereignty a nonsectarian character; the sovereign was held to be a direct representative of God and claimed almost limitless authority, as necessary for carrying out the sovereign's abundant responsibilities.

It is arguable that Akbar's claims to absolute sovereign powers derived from his own practical success in achieving not only a series of conquests that brought most of India under his control but also from achieving an immense degree of administrative systematization and centralization. The latter was reflected in the introduction of mansab or number-rank (1574) for rigorously setting the pay and size of military contingents of the nobles, and the division of the empire into provinces (subas) (1580) where the administration of one province was like that of any other. The practice of linking mansab obligation to expected income (jama˓) from revenue assignment (jagir) gave new impetus to financial unification.

The political authority and control on resources in the Mogul empire tended to be concentrated in the hands of high nobles. They, along with hereditary chiefs allied closely with the empire, formed the ruling class, whose unity and cohesion, according to Irfan Habib in The Agrarian System of Mughal India, "found its practical expression in the absolute powers of the emperor" (p. 366). Detailed regulations governed the extraction of agrarian surplus by the revenue collection machine of the empire, which tended to the method of assessment by measurement and collection of revenue in money rather than in kind.

The urban-based educated Muslims (ashraf ) claiming noble descents along with favored non-Muslim scholar priests were marked out for state patronage. Some of the ashraf manned the offices in the Department of Ecclesiastical Affairs (Sadarat) including those of judges (qazis) who enforced Muslim as well as customary law and even imperial regulations. The criminal (faujdari) cases were generally decided by local military commanders (shiqdars, faujdars, and the like) in accordance with regulations (zawabit) laid down from time to time by the emperor.

The bulk of the Mogul army was represented by mounted archers and spearmen employed by the mansabdars out of the income of their revenue assignments. An imperial functionary (bakhshi) maintained a descriptive roll of these troopers who were brought to muster. To check fraud, branding (dagh) of horses was practiced. A special corps of cavalry (ahadis), a park of artillery (top-khana), and a large number of musketeers employed by the emperor supplemented the armed might of the empire significantly. The matchlock muskets introduced in India by Babur seem to have contributed significantly to the centralizing process in the Mogul empire.

Under Akbar's successors Jahangir (1605–1627), Shahjahan (1628–1658), and Aurangzeb (1659–1707), the empire continued to expand, though Kandahar was finally lost to Iran (1648). Practically the entire peninsula (excluding Kerala) came under Mogul control, especially with the annexations of the kingdoms of Bijapur (1686) and Golkunda (1687).

Broadly, the administrative institutions of the empire as established by Akbar were maintained by his three successors, with certain changes of a relatively minor character. The religious policy of Jahangir followed mainly that of Akbar, while under Shahjahan and Aurangzeb, it tended to incline toward Muslim orthodoxy. In 1679 Aurangzeb imposed the jizya or poll-tax on non-Muslims, which Akbar had abolished in 1564.

The Mogul emperors were great patrons of art and architecture. In both it was Akbar again under whom the great achievements began. He gave to Mogul painting its particular humanistic touch and realism; and immense innovativeness to architecture as in Fatehpur Sikri and Sikandra. Under Jahangir, painting reached its highest technical perfection, and under Shahjahan, the Taj Mahal stands as testimony to the greatness reached by Mogul architecture.

Under the Mogul emperors several Sanskrit works were translated into Persian. Akbar had had the Mahabharata translated; and Dara Shukoh (d.1659), the Mogul prince, translated the Upanisads. There was also the growth of a lively literature in Persian, leading in the eighteenth century to the development of the literary Urdu language, a real legacy of Indo-Mogul culture.

The Maratha uprising under Shivaji (d.1680) greatly weakened the Mogul empire, and the decline of the empire began with the repeated struggles for succession during 1707–1719. After a little recovery of stability in the early years of Muhammad Shah (1719–1748), the Mogul empire began to cede territory after territory to the Marathas. The coup de grace was delivered by Nadir Shah in 1739–1740, with the Persian conqueror's great victory at the Battle of Karnal, near Delhi. The Mogul empire rapidly lost control over provinces. Delhi itself passed under the control of Marathas (1772–1803) and finally the English in 1803. Henceforth, the emperor's writ was confined to the Red Fort in Delhi. The Rebels in 1857 attempted to restore the last emperor, Bahadur Shah II Zafar (1775–1862), to power, but the English deposed him on recapturing Delhi and so terminated the dynasty.

See alsoPolitical Organization .


Habib, Irfan. The Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1556–1707. Rev. ed. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Khan, Iqtidar Alam. "State in Mughal India: Re-examining the Myths of a Counter-vision." Social Scientist 29, Nos.1–2 (January–February 2001): 16–45.

Richards, John F. "The Mughal Empire." In Vol. 1.5, The New Cambridge History of India (1922). Reprint. Edited by Gordon Jonson. New Delhi: Foundation Books, 1993.

Iqtidar Alam Khan