World History 2 17 - 2.1.1 The Mughal Empire

Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur had always dreamed of founding a great empire. His father, the ruler of a small central Asian state named Fergana in what is now Uzbekistan, was a descendant of the famous conqueror Timur. His mother came from the family of the Mongol leader Chinggis Khan. In 1494, at the age of eleven, Babur became ruler of Fergana following his father’s unexpected death, and he set himself the task of gaining control of all the lands that had once fallen to his illustrious ancestor Timur. In 1504, he made a bold move. Striking out across the Hindu Kush mountains accompanied only by his family and two hundred fighting men, he conquered the city of Kabul in Afghanistan. In 1526, using tactics he had learned from the Persians, with whom he had allied in the past, including the use of artillery, Babur defeated the much larger army of the Delhi Sultanate, a Muslim state in northern India, and established the Mughal (the Persian pronunciation of Mongol) Empire.

Despite his desire to become ruler of India and his fascination with his new land, Babur did not adopt Indian culture. Although he was intrigued by the subcontinent’s animals, plants, and climate, he had little interest in its people or in the Hindu religion. He described the people of India as lacking both personal beauty and manners. He admired the land’s wealth but strove to re-create for himself and his family a taste of his homeland by designing gardens in the Persian style. He remained firmly oriented toward central Asia and maintained a post road and waystations connecting the Mughal capital of Agra to Kabul. When he died, he was interred at Agra, but to honor his wishes, his body was later taken home to Kabul for burial.

Link to Learning

The Baburnama (Book of Babur) is a sixteenth-century illustrated account of Emperor Babur’s exploits. Among the illustrations in the Baburnama are pictures of his battles, travels, and life at court.

When Babur died in 1530, his eldest son Humayun inherited Mughal India. Humayun’s reign was not a successful one. After only ten years, he was forced to flee after being defeated in battle by Sher Shah Suri, the ruler of the Indian state of Bihar. Humayun sought refuge at the court of the Safavid Shah Tahmasp in Persia, where he became deeply immersed in Persian culture. In 1555, he returned to India and won back his throne, but his victory was short-lived. Only a few months after retaking the Indian city of Delhi, Humayun died after tripping on a steep staircase.

Humayun’s fourteen-year-old son Akbar inherited the throne. Although he was illiterate, possibly because of severe dyslexia, Akbar became the greatest of the Mughal emperors. Unlike his father and grandfather, who had remained oriented toward central Asia, Akbar embraced India. He actively sought to incorporate Indians, both Muslim and Hindu, into his kingdom. Although he was aggressive militarily and expanded the bounds of the Mughal Empire across the northern part of the subcontinent and into the central plains to the south, he allowed local rulers to retain control of their lands so long as they submitted to him.

To consolidate his hold on India, Akbar married the sisters and daughters of local rulers, both Muslim and Hindu. He did not force his Hindu wives to convert to Islam, and their marriage ceremonies included both Hindu and Muslim elements. Akbar, did, however, introduce to India an institution found elsewhere in the Muslim world: The women of the royal family were physically secluded in a harem. Women’s separation from the men of the court did not mean they were not influential, and wives, mothers, and even nursemaids often played a role in important political decisions. Nevertheless, during Akbar’s reign, efforts to remove women from public life also led to the disappearance of their names from official records, and the practice of segregating them spread from Mughal households to those of the Hindu ruling classes, who adopted the custom.

Although Hindus were undoubtedly influenced by Mughal customs, Akbar made no effort to enforce conformity to Islamic customs or to impose the Muslim religion on his subjects. In 1568, he abolished the jizya, a tax imposed on non-Muslims. He allowed new Hindu temples to be built, which had previously been prohibited, and provided several of them with money to support their activities. Sharia, the legal code of Islam, was applied only to Muslims, and a Hindu law code governed Hindus. Both Hindus and Muslims were welcomed into the army and Akbar’s administration.

Akbar revolutionized his empire’s bureaucratic apparatus. The realm was divided into provinces, and each province was assigned a governor, a chief judge, a military commander, and a financial administrator. Akbar appointed civil servants known as mansabdars. Promotion was based on effort: Acting in ways that displeased Akbar could result in demotion or transfer to a less desirable location. Each mansabdar was also responsible for recruiting cavalry to serve in the Mughal army.

Akbar ordered his empire to be surveyed and fields assessed to determine how much revenue they would yield. The mansabdars were then compensated for their labor with taxes collected on specific units of farmland. As they rose higher in rank, more land was assigned to them. These lands were also periodically reassigned, however, and upon a mansabdar’s death, all his wealth reverted to Akbar. A mansabdar’s son might be allowed to inherit his father’s property, should the emperor choose. These policies ensured that those charged with administering the empire remained loyal to Akbar.

Not only did Akbar marry Hindu women and welcome Hindus into his administration, but he also proved tolerant of other religions and their adherents. He erected a hall to serve as a venue for religious debate (Figure 2.4). At first, only Muslim scholars took part, arguing matters of law and theology among themselves and answering questions Akbar posed. Soon, however, Akbar grew dissatisfied and came to regard some of their positions as too rigid. He then invited representatives of other religions to participate, including Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Akbar found Christianity interesting, but he rejected the Jesuits’ teachings regarding the divinity of Jesus and reportedly found their insistence on monogamous marriage amusing.

Painting (a) shows Emperor Akbar seated under a red canopy surrounded by religious officials. Painting (b) is a cropped version of image (a) which zooms in on Akbar and the religious officials sitting closest to him.
Figure 2.4 In this miniature painting from 1605 (a), Emperor Akbar, shown in detail seated beneath a red canopy (b), listens to religious debates among members of many different faiths. The men in black attire are Portuguese Jesuits. (credit a and b: modification of work “Jesuits at Akbar's court” by Chester Beatty/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Akbar eventually abandoned all recognized religions, however, and created his own personal cult called Din-i Ilahi (the Divine Faith). This religion combined elements of many different faiths, and Akbar assumed a prominent role at its center. In 1579, he issued a decree proclaiming that all religious questions were to be decided by him. He was regarded by adherents of his cult as the agent of God who, in his role as representative of the divine, was bound to tolerate all religions. Akbar ceased performing the obligatory five prayers that Muslims must intone every day and began to worship “divine light.” He also began the practice of appearing daily to his subjects on a balcony so they could view him, reminiscent of a Hindu practice in which worshippers receive blessings by viewing the image of a deity. All these changes greatly disturbed Muslims in Akbar’s court.

For the most part, however, India prospered under Akbar. His conquests left much of the subcontinent united and peaceful. Although illiterate himself, he amassed a large library of books in many languages, employed large numbers of translators and scholars, and established schools for both Muslims and Hindus. Domestic and international trade flourished. Gold and silver flowed into India in exchange for textiles, spices, and precious gems. Handicraft industries boomed, and merchants grew wealthy. The peasants were heavily taxed to pay for the empire’s bureaucracy, but they were excused from paying in full in times of drought or other natural disasters.

Among those who benefited from the prosperity of Akbar’s reign were wealthy Mughal women, who reinvested in commerce the revenues derived from landed estates, gifts of the emperor and his predecessors to female relatives. They used the profits they earned to endow mosques, build shelters for travelers, support artists and poets, and fund charitable endeavors. They also used their wealth to give gifts to the emperor and court officials, one of the ways in which they attempted to influence the workings of the Mughal government.

Akbar’s successors could not equal his achievements. When he died in 1605, his son Jahangir assumed the throne. Jahangir wanted to outshine his father and employed a large studio of artists who portrayed him in countless images as superior to other rulers. The paintings produced in Jahangir’s studio were influenced by European paintings, especially portraits, that were given to him by the English, with whom he had established a commercial relationship. Jahangir patronized Muslim scholars, who had been scandalized by Akbar’s religious policies. But like his father, he established an imperial cult, and devotees claimed Jahangir appeared to them in dreams and could heal them. Also like Akbar, he welcomed people of many religions at his court and married both Muslim and Hindu women. Like his grandfather Humayun, Jahangir often drank heavily, which took a toll on his health. As he weakened physically, he allowed his favorite wife Nur Jahan, a Persian Muslim, to assume significant power in his government. She took part in public rituals, engaged in diplomacy, and issued imperial edicts. She also helped Jahangir choose a son to succeed him and arranged a marriage between this son, Shah Jahan, and her niece (Figure 2.5).

Painting (a) shows Emperor Jahangir relaxing in a garden with several other people. Painting (b) is a closeup of Jahangir from painting (a) which more clearly shows Jahangir as well as his wife and son nearby.
Figure 2.5 In this painting from about 1640 to 1650 (a), Emperor Jahangir, shown in detail with his head framed by a golden disc (b), relaxes with his favorite wife Nur Jahan and his son Shah Jahan in a garden. Nur Jahan loved gardens and paid for many to be designed. (credit a and b: modification of work “Jahangir and Prince Khurram Entertained by Nur Jahan” by Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Following Jahangir’s death, Shah Jahan assumed the throne in 1628. To impress his subjects and other rulers with his importance, he commissioned the building of the Peacock Throne, an elevated platform covered by a vault ornamented with gold, semiprecious stones, and peacock sculptures, and he embarked upon numerous building projects. The most beautiful of these was the Taj Mahal, a tomb erected in 1631 for Shah Jahan’s favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal, who had died the previous year giving birth to their fourteenth child (Figure 2.6). The tomb, in the city of Agra, perfectly reflects the hybridized Indo-Islamic culture of the Mughal dynasty and is considered an exemplary work of Persianate architecture. It was built in a garden at one end of a reflecting pool and features a large dome surrounded by four free-standing minarets, towers from which the Muslim faithful are called to prayer. While tombs in that part of India were normally made of common materials such as sandstone, the Taj Mahal is covered in white marble in a style befitting the resting place of a Muslim holy man. It is embellished with semiprecious stones and bears verses in elegant calligraphy, chosen from the Quran by Shah Jahan himself.

The Taj Mahal is in the center of the photograph. A mosque sits on either side of the Taj Mahal. The Yamuna River is visible in the foreground.
Figure 2.6 The Taj Mahal, an opulent royal tomb built in 1631, sits on the banks of the Yamuna River in Agra. On either side of it are sandstone mosques. (credit: “Taj Mahal” by David Castor/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In 1648, Shah Jahan moved the capital of the Mughal Empire from Agra to Delhi, where he embarked on another massive building project, the Red Fort. Inside this red sandstone fortress, palaces and administrative buildings were constructed, many of white marble or stucco polished or adorned with glazed tiles to resemble marble. Canals and Persian water wheels supplied the city with water, and a sewage system carried it away. Perfumed water flowed in channels through the city. Within the city walls, officials erected grand houses of their own. Mosques and gardens were built, many paid for by wealthy Mughal women. These building projects, while they greatly enhanced the beauty of Agra and Delhi, drained the treasury and led to increases in the tax burden of India’s peasants.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax