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The Mughal Empire, Rise of the Mughals

noor diamond, Golkonda, Godavari River, Ahmad Shah, Sher Shah

The Mughal Empire was founded in 1526 by Babur, a descendant of Tamerlane. It is famous for its extent (it covered most of the Indian subcontinent) and for the heights that music, literature, art, and especially architecture reached under its rulers. The Mughal Empire was born when Babur, with the use of superior artillery, defeated the far larger army of the Lodis at Panipat, near Delhi. Babur’s kingdom stretched from beyond Afghanistan to the Bengal region along the Gangetic Plain. His son Humayun, however, lost the kingdom to Bihar-based Sher Khan Sur (later Sher Shah) and fled to Persia (now Iran). Humayun recaptured Delhi in 1555, shortly before his death.

Humayun’s son Akbar, whose name (meaning “great”) reflected the ruler he became, extended the Mughal Empire until it covered the subcontinent from Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal and from the Himalayas to the Godavari River. The Mughals moved their capitals frequently: Wherever they made camp became the capital. The cities they built, and the citadels within those cities, were like army camps, with the nobles living in tents, rich carpets on the ground, and just the walls, audience halls, royal residences, and mosques built of stone. In the course of the dynasty those citadels were located in Lahore, in and around Agra, in the architecturally spectacular city of Fatehpur Sikri, and near the city of Shahjahanabad (“city of Shah Jahan”).

Although illiterate, Akbar matched the learning of his father and grandfather, both of whose courts were enriched by Persian arts and letters, and surpassed them in wisdom. He brought under his control the Hindu Rajput kings who ruled just south and west of Agra by defeating them in battle, extending religious tolerance, and offering them alliances cemented by marriage (Akbar married two Rajput princesses, including the mother of his son and successor, Jahangir) and positions of power in his army and administration. As an observant Muslim, Akbar brought to his court adherents to various sects of Islam, as well as priests of other faiths, including Christians, to hear them present their beliefs. European visitors to the Mughal court became even more frequent in the succeeding reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Europeans were allowed to establish trading posts at the periphery of the empire and beyond, but they never became influential at court.

Paying for the military campaigns and for the magnificent court required the transformation of traditional patterns of taxation and administration. Sher Shah initiated the necessary administrative system, and Akbar improved it. By accurately assessing average yearly harvests for land in different regions and then standardizing the percentage of the harvest due in taxes, Akbar secured a reliable source of income from land revenues. To make it easier to govern his empire, he divided it into provinces and subdivided it into districts. He established a bureaucracy of ranked officials to administer the functions of the empire and paid many of its members in cash rather than in the traditional form of grants of land, allowing for flexibility in the location and type of assignments the officials were given. This system was so successful that the British adopted it in large part.

The system came under strain with Shah Jahan’s costly and unsuccessful campaign to capture the Mughal’s ancestral homeland of Samarqand in 1646, and his son Aurangzeb’s equally costly efforts to extend the empire south. In 1686 and 1687 Aurangzeb conquered the Muslim kingdoms of Bijapur and Golkonda, which controlled the northern half of the Deccan Plateau. But his attempt to subdue the Hindu Maratha Confederacy (centered in what is now Maharastra state) was ultimately unsuccessful, and the Mughal armies suffered numerous defeats. Aurangzeb’s growing religious intolerance also undermined the stability of the empire. In 1697 he reimposed a poll tax on non-Muslims, abolished during Akbar’s rule. Disaffection over such discriminatory policies, along with the now-crushing tax burden, led to widespread rebellion at the end of Aurangzeb’s reign.

Although it did not formally end until 1858, the Mughal Empire ceased to exist as an effective state after Aurangzeb died in 1707. The political chaos of the period was marked by a rapid decline of centralized authority, by the creation of many small kingdoms and principalities by Muslim and Hindu adventurers, and by the formation of large independent states by the governors of the imperial provinces. Among the first of the large independent states to emerge was Hyderabad, established in 1712. The tottering Mughal regime suffered a disastrous blow in 1739 when the Persian king Nadir Shah led an army into India and plundered Delhi. Among the treasures stolen by invaders were the mammoth Koh-i-noor diamond and the magnificent Peacock Throne, made of solid gold inlaid with precious stones. Nadir Shah withdrew from Delhi, but in 1756 the city was again captured—this time by Ahmad Shah, emir of Afghanistan, who had previously seized Punjab.

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