The Mughals

The Three Great Emperors


   Akbar had put in place an efficient administration and a set of political relationships between the Mughal court and local Hindu kingdoms that ensured a peaceful empire for the remainder of his life. He was followed by three more great emperors, each with their own faults, who expanded Akbar's empire through conquest and built Mughal culture to its highest points. Strangely, the success of both of these projects—expansion of the empire and the development of more and more resplendent artifacts of Mughal culture—inevitably contributed to the later decline of the Empire. The expansion of the Empire, largely carried out by the last great Mughal conqueror, Aurangzeb, spread Mughal government and military administration too thin. The incredible expense of the Mughal court and building projects, particularly under Shah Jahan, impoverished the country and built up long-standing and volatile hostility towards the lavish emperors.

Jahangir

   Akbar was succeeded by his favorite son, Jahangir, who ruled the empire from 1605 to 1628. Jahangir did not pursue military conquest as forcefully as his father, but he did manage to assert Mughal rule over the Bengal in eastern India. Akbar had claimed that any kingdom that was not expanding was in decline, but the later decades of Akbar's rule were in general peaceful and uneventful. Akbar spent most of his time concerned with administration, culture, the arts, and his new religion, Din-i Ilahi , rather than pursuing wars of conquest. Jahangir seems to have inherited the attitude of the older Akbar, for he lavishly patronized the arts: painting, architecture, philosophy, and literature, while ignoring military conquest. The period of Jahangir's tenure as Emperor is considered the richest period of Mughal culture; Indian, Muslim, and Western scholars have named this period, the age of Mughal splendor.

Shah Jahan

   Jahangir's successor, Shah Jahan (ruled 1628-1658), inherited Akbar's obsession with the military and wars of conquest. Although Jahangir had ruled relatively peacefully, the Empire was starting to come apart at the accession of Shah Jahan. The new emperor threw himself into military pursuits: he put down a Muslim rebellion in Ahmadnagar, repulsed the Portugese in the Bengal, and conquered parts of the Deccan. By the end of his reign, the empire was again expanding and the Mughals seemed firmly in charge.

   One of Shah Jahan's major innovations was moving the capital from Agra to Dehli, the traditional seat of Muslim power. Dehli was one of the largest cities in India and its status as capital increased its wealth and power. Through much of modern Indian history, Dehli was the most economically and politically important cities in India.

   Shah Jahan began a series of incredible, resplendent, and monumental architectural projects in Dehli. The city itself was surrounded by sixty foot walls. In the middle of the city he built a magnificent palace for himself itself contained within the Red Fort (so called because it was made of red sandstone), which housed the palace as well as all the buildings associated with imperial administration. He built for himself an extravagant throne, the Peacock Throne, all in gold and covered in rare jewels. Western historians estimate that the throne was built at an expense of over five million dollars. In 1739, the Afghani conqueror of Persia, invaded Hindustan, burned down Shah Jahan's palace and seized the Peacock Throne for himself—it has remained in Iran ever since.

Taj Mahal
@1995, Kathleen Cohen
   Shah Jahan's most famous building project, however, was the Taj Mahal in Agra. When his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal ("Ornament of the Palace"), died at the age of 39 while giving birth to her fourteenth child in 1631, the grief-stricken emperor set about building for her the most lavish tomb he could manage. The Taj Mahal took over twenty years to build and demanded the labor of over twenty thousand men. Like all other Muslim tombs, the primary architectural design is based on building an equivalent of the Muslim paradise that the dead are certain to be in. Combining both Persian and Indian architectural styles, the tomb and the grounds are meant to bring into reality the Muslim idea of Paradise.

   All these lavish building projects, however, broke the bank. With the treasury depleted by his lavish expenses and by military expeditions against Persia and Central Asia, Shah Jahan was forced to raise the land tax from 30% to 50% of the value of the crops produced on the land. While this did not create famine, it did bring about hardship on the poorest members of Hindu society and raised hostility against the Mughals.

Aurangzeb

   Like the Ottomans, the Mughals had no clear set of rules regarded succession to the throne. They believed, as the Ottomans, that God would choose the most worthy successor. In reality, this produced serious conflicts as each emperor aged. The first real succession crisis occurred near the end of Shah Jahan's reign. The conflict between Shah Jahan's sons ended with the victory of Aurangzeb, who imprisoned his father in 1658 (he died in 1666) and executed his older brother.

   Aurangzeb would rule an incredibly long time, from 1658 to 1707. Under his tenure, the Mughal Empire expanded to its greatest limits, largely driven by wars of conquest under Aurangzeb's leadership. In particular, he led Mughal forces in the conquest of the Deccan, seizing first the Golkunda and Bijapur Sultanates, and then attacking the Maratha chieftains. He annexed all the Maratha territories, but he never managed to conquer the Marathas who continued to fight using guerilla tactics. While Aurangzeb is the last great conqueror of Mughal history, both Muslim and Western historians agree that the Empire had grown too large for Mughal administration.

   Aurangzeb was driven by an intense Muslim piety. He insisted that the Shari'a become the law of the land, and forbade all drinking and gambling. The Hindu majority, accustomed to living according to Hindu law, the Dharmashastra , now found themselves facing Islamic law courts. Aurangzeb outlawed the Hindu practice of suttee in which widows voluntarily killed themselves by throwing themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands. More seriously, however, was Aurangzeb's repeal of all taxes that were not specifically authorized in Islamic law or tradition. This move depleted the Empire of much-needed revenue, so Aurangzeb reinstituted the jizya , or tax on non-believers, that was customary in every other Islamic state. Since the majority of Mughal subjects were Hindu, the jizya created unrest throughout the Empire.

   The system began to fall apart throughout Aurangzeb's rule. Individual states rebelled against the new policies, but the most serious opposition came from two groups: the Marathas and the Sikhs. Together, these two, in their opposition to the Mughals and their establishment of independent kingdoms contained within the Empire, would form the basis of Mughal government in the eighteenth century and the nature of British colonialism.

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The Marathas


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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-1-97