Empire building

19th May 2006 at 01:00
The Indian subcontinent was the domain of Mughal princes for 200 years.

David Self explores the rise of a mighty dynasty

he names are familiar enough: Tamburlaine, Genghis Khan, Akbar and even Aurangzeb. Even so, many westerners will be hard pressed to place them in context. The answer is that they are all part of the story of the same great empire, one of the largest states in pre-modern world history, comprising most of the Indian subcontinent. Its emperors had almost limitless power, ruling a population of between 100 and 150 million people.

They displayed immense wealth and lived with great ceremony in sumptuous palaces, surrounded by exotic gardens. They loved learning and science, supported the arts and (mostly) encouraged religious tolerance, despite some bitter family struggles.

It is a story that amply demonstrates that civilisation was not confined to Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries - and also one that explains some of the modern tensions in Central Asia and between India and Pakistan. But it is worth noting that there had been Muslims in India long before the arrival of the Mughals. The first Muslims had arrived in the 8th century, followed by subsequent invasions.

The Mughals (sometimes spelt Moghuls or Moguls) emerged from the Mongol race, a collective name for the peoples of northern Asia. By the 15th century they were living in what is now Turkestan, had become Muslims and had assimilated the culture of the Middle East. One such Mughal, Umar Shaikh, was ruler of Ferghana, a small but fertile province east of Samarkand. A portly man, he was also a pigeon-fancier. One day, while tending his pigeons on the parapet of his palace, the parapet crumbled. He was sent flying through the air with his pigeons and his 11-year-old son became ruler in his place.

That boy, Babur, was descended on his father's side from the ferocious Mongol leader Timur, known as Timur the Lame (or, in English, Tamburlaine) whose conquests stretched from Delhi to the Mediterranean and from the Persian Gulf north to the Volga. On his mother's side, Babur was descended from the tyrannical Genghis Khan. Now he found himself prince of one of a number of minor provinces ruled by assorted cousins and uncles, all claiming descent from Timur and all believing they had a right to at least several or even all of these provinces.

When two successive rulers of neighbouring Samarkand died within a space of six months and civil war broke out, Babur marshalled the forces at his disposal and attacked. After a seven-month siege, the 14-year-old Babur captured Samarkand, once Timur's capital. In his absence, a half-brother gained control of Ferghana. Babur returned to assert himself, but lost Samarkand.

Back in Ferghana he was introduced to his first wife who was, predictably, a cousin. The marriage had been arranged by his late father. From the confessional journal Babur kept throughout his life we know that his mother had to pester him to pay attention to his wife. Babur was far more interested in a boy in the local bazaar, but this passion went unconsummated.

Over the following years, Babur won and lost Samarkand again. Twice. His fortunes were at a low ebb until he realised that Kabul (today the capital of Afghanistan) was, so to speak, vacant. This city, 300 miles south of Ferghana, had earlier been governed by yet another uncle. Now its titular ruler was an infant, amazingly the son of a non-family member. Despite a trek through the difficult mountain passes of the Hindu Kush, Babur took the city after only minimal resistance. From that date on (1504), Kabul became his base. An important and international city, it was at a crossroads where trade routes from India, Iraq, Turkey and China met.

Twelve languages were spoken there, including Babur's own Turki. Here he established a cultured court life and provided for his followers by organising raids into the surrounding areas. He returned from one such foray with some 100,000 sheep.

Babur began to dream of India. After all, Timur had once ruled the Punjab and even Delhi: why shouldn't he? With staggering cheek, he sent the Sultan of Delhi a goshawk, proposing he receive in return the lands once ruled by Timur. As events turned out, it was not until October 1525 that Babur marched into the north Indian plain sometimes called Hindustan. In April of the following year, his force of 25,000 men came face to face with the army of Sultan Ibrahim of Delhi, an army said to be four times the size of Babur's. Even so, it was no match. Babur's cavalry and muskets overwhelmed the bows and arrows of the Indians. Babur celebrated his victory in what was to become typical fashion: he built a garden and forbade the killing of cows because that offended the local Hindu population.

It is from that year, 1526, that the Mughal empire can be said to date.

Babur went on to impose his rule on most of northern India. A tolerant Sunni Muslim, he traded with the rest of the Muslim world but encouraged the building of Hindu temples and made peace with the Hindu kingdoms of southern India. Although he came from what was ostensibly a nomadic tradition and a family of often brutish warriors, he was a cultured man. He created many more gardens, wrote his often poetic memoirs and studied the flora and fauna of his new lands. From precocious adventurer, he had evolved into the sensitive first emperor of the Mughals. He died in 1530.

Babur's son, Humayun, had three great loves: poetry, wine and opium. He reorganised the administration of his lands on astrological lines. Each day's activities were dictated by its ruling planet. On Sundays, he wore yellow and attended to state affairs. Mondays saw him dressed in green and devoted to merry-making. As Tuesday was the day of Mars, the god of war, he then wore red and administered justice. Civil servants were divided into four "ministries" according to the classical elements: Earth (agriculture), Water (canals and the wine cellar); Fire (military affairs) and Air which, bizarrely, looked after the Emperor's wardrobe, kitchens and animals. After a short reign, Humayun (like his grandfather) died from a broken neck after a fall, not from a pigeon loft but from the roof of his library.

His eldest son, Abu Akbar, became emperor. He was then just 13. His was not a peaceful reign. During his 50 years in power (coinciding remarkably closely with the reign of Elizabeth I in England), he was beset by various local jealousies and rivalries and also mounted a series of forays into surrounding territories, steadily extending his empire. Like other Mughal emperors, he rarely waited for a provocation for any such foray and never made excuses. One of his mottos was "A monarch should be ever intent on conquest, otherwise his neighbours will rise in arms against him". The result was that, by the time of his death, he ruled over most of northern, central and western India.

Strangely, considering he was born into such a cultured and even literary family, Abu Akbar was illiterate. Several tutors attempted to teach him without success. Modern research suggests he may have been dyslexic.

Whatever the cause, he developed a prodigious memory and visiting dignitaries never realised this deficiency.

During his campaigns, his treasury, stables and the huge, elaborate tents of the royal household moved from location to location. That is, until 1571. Then he moved what had become a semi-permanent base in Agra (south-east of Delhi) westwards to Fatehpur Sikri. This village became a courtly refuge, a version of an encampment built in stone. It was to serve as a capital for 10 years, becoming a centre where music, poetry, architecture and the study of comparative religion all flourished.

Here Akbar promoted his belief that all religions should be tolerated and that their adherents should be treated equally. He placed Hindus in positions of authority (zamindars), allowing them to maintain armies and to demand labour from lower castes. Akbar later built a large hall in which to hold debates on comparative religion. Those taking part included Hindus, Jains, Parsis and even Jesuit priests, as well as Muslims. Inevitably tensions developed between the emperor and what we would now label as fundamentalist Muslims. But by 1578, Akbar was sufficiently sure of himself to undertake a series of sweeping reforms. He abolished a hated property tax on non-Muslims and celebrated the Hindu festival of Diwali. Yet Fatehpur Sikri nevertheless demonstrated the empire's Muslim foundation. A great mosque soon dominated the skyline. Akbar showed a serious interest in its management. He acted as prayer leader and even swept its floor. From here he sponsored pilgrimages to the Muslim holy city of Makkah (Mecca). At the same time, he embarked on further territorial conquests, expanding the Mughal empire both eastwards and south-westwards.

Later, he proclaimed a new state religion: Din-i-ilahi, which can only be translated as "God-ism". A mixture of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian teachings, it died with Akbar.

If the Mughal empire was at its most glorious, most confident and most tolerant zenith under Akbar, it was under his great-grandson, Aurangzeb, that it reached its greatest extent. He was the third son of the Emperor Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, a white marble tribute to his deceased wife so consequently a symbol of devoted love but also an allegory in stone of Muslim beliefs. Later in his reign (1648), the Mughal capital moved to the famous Red Fort in Delhi, which became the centre of all Mughal power. But when Jahan fell seriously ill, conflict erupted between his sons.

Aurangzeb organised the imprisonment and later the beheading of his eldest brother, Dara. He justified himself on the grounds that, as a pious Muslim, it was his duty to depose someone as friendly to Hindus as Dara was, describing him as "chief of the atheists".

Aurangzeb's youngest brother, Murad, was the next threat. Since there was better pay to be had in Murad's army than in Aurangzeb's, it was growing more rapidly. Murad was lulled into accepting hospitality in Aurangzeb's tent. Aurangzeb predictably remained sober; Murad drank too much and became drowsy. A slave-girl gave him a "shampoo". (The word, derived from Hindi, originally meant massage. Its usage passed to England: there were "shampoo" parlours in Brighton in Regency times.) Murad fell asleep, waking up to find himself in prison. Aurangzeb proclaimed himself emperor.

A strong leader, he made further conquests, eventually invading the Hindu kingdoms in central and southern India. But, as the empire grew, it also became less stable. This was not simply because it was too large to control. Aurangzeb was an extremely pious Muslim and ended the era of toleration towards Hindus. He imposed strict (Islamic) Sharia over the entire empire, tore down probably thousands of Hindu temples and reintroduced severe taxation on Hindus. It was this extremism that led to the empire's decline.

Inevitably, the Hindu states fought back, enlisting the support of the expanding British East India Company. It took control of Calcutta as early as 1696. Aurangzeb's death in 1707 was followed by 13 years of bitter war as rival claimants fought for the throne. The administrative structure of the empire began to break down and many historians date the end of the Mughal empire as 1720. In the following years, the British and, to some extent, the French (with the help of the Hindu leaders) gradually gained control of all India. During this time, 11 subsequent Mughal emperors progressively became little more than titular rulers, the last emperor being deposed by the British in 1858.

Akbar and Aurangzeb, both mighty leaders of a mighty empire for almost 50 years, were opposites. To Hindus, Akbar remains one of the greatest Muslim rulers of India and Aurangzeb the worst. It is not difficult to find Muslims who believe exactly the opposite. In either case, they were both members of a remarkable family.


The Mughal dynasty covered the years 1526 to 1707.

The first six Great Mughals ruled India, father and son, for nearly 200 years.

* Babur, 1483-1530 soldier poet (ruled 1526-1530)

* Humayun 1508-1556 lover of opium and astrology (ruled 1530-1556)

* Akbar 1542-1605 great political leader (ruled 1556-1605)

* Jahangir 1559-1627 lover of alcohol and art (ruled 1605-1627)

* Shah Jahan 1592-1658 builder of the Taj Mahal (ruled 1627-1658)

* Aurangzeb 1618-1707 orthodox Muslim (ruled 1658-1707)



A New History of India (seventh edition) by Stanley Wolpert (Oxford Pounds 23.99) is a readable one-volume history of the country.

The Great Moghuls by Bamber Gascoigne (Constable pound;7.99) is well illustrated and became the basis of a major television series in 1990.

The Mughal Empire by John F Richards (The New Cambridge History of India Pounds 19.99) is a comprehensive and definitive work.


The BBC website includes a comprehensive feature on the empire: www.bbc.co.ukreligionreligionsislamhistorymughal A simpler introduction is at www.sscnet.ucla.edusouthasiaHistoryMughalsmughals.html More information about Mughal civilisation is in a series of pages that begin with www.wsu.edu:8080%7EdeeMUGHALORIGIN.HTM


In 1497, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed northwards, up the African coast then east to India, establishing a Portuguese presence on the subcontinent. These settlers often adopted Indian ways, rousing the ire of the Catholic Church, and the Inquisition stretched out to India to denounce as heretics those who "cooked rice without salt as Hindus do". Even more sinful was a refusal to eat pork.

North Europeans followed. By 1600, the Dutch and English East India companies were exploiting the trade route around the Cape. European demand for textiles stimulated production in India, while India happily accepted gold and silver as payment. The Europeans also brought various technologies, but the Mughals regarded many of these as curiosities, largely ignoring telescopes and mechanical clocks and watches, though adopting European weaponry, especially muskets.

Along with most of the Muslim world, the Mughals ignored the invention of printing, though the Portuguese established a printing press in Goa in the 1550s. Akbar accepted a number of printed books for his library and Jesuit priests showed Jahangir a copy of the Gospels printed in Arabic to prove that Arabic script could be printed.

The Mughal empire was attacked by Persia in 1739 and later the British gradually took control of the country, overcoming French rivalry on the way. During the transition, many upper-class Mughal families hoped to marry their daughters to a British "Resident" - one of the young men in the colonial service who acted as ambassadors to the Indian courts. Many of these men had been brought up in India, spoke local languages and made friends from better-off Muslim and Hindu families, becoming known as "white Mughals". James Kirkpatrick, who was posted to Hyderabad, wore Muslim dress in the evenings, smoked a hookah and "took to belching after meals". An evening's entertainment in Hyderabad at that time would embrace both Indian dancing girls and English poetry, with "the reading of Dryden out loud".

When Kirkpatrick married a Mughal princess, Khair un-Nissa, he converted to Islam.

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