THE MUGHAL PERIOD
India in the sixteenth century presented a fragmented picture
of rulers, both Muslim and Hindu, who lacked concern for their
subjects and who failed to create a common body of laws or institutions.
Outside developments also played a role in shaping events. The
circumnavigation of Africa by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da
Gama in 1498 allowed Europeans to challenge Arab control of the
trading routes between Europe and Asia. In Central Asia and Afghanistan,
shifts in power pushed Babur of Ferghana (in present-day Uzbekistan)
southward, first to Kabul and then to India. The dynasty he founded
endured for more than three centuries.
Claiming descent from both Chinggis Khan (also seen as Genghis
Khan) and Timur, Babur combined strength and courage with a love
of beauty, and military ability with cultivation. Babur concentrated
on gaining control of northwestern India. He did so in 1526 by
defeating the last Lodhi sultan at the first Battle of Panipat,
a town north of Delhi. Babur then turned to the tasks of persuading
his Central Asian followers to stay on in India and of overcoming
other contenders for power, mainly the Rajputs and the Afghans.
He succeeded in both tasks but died shortly thereafter in 1530.
The Mughal Empire was one of the largest centralized states in
premodern history and was the precursor to the British Indian
The perennial question of who was the greatest of the six "Great
Mughals" receives varying answers in present-day Pakistan and
India. Some favor Babur the pioneer and others his great-grandson,
Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58), builder of the Taj Mahal and other magnificent
buildings. The other two towering figures of the era by general
consensus were Akbar (r. 1556-1605) and Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707).
Both rulers expanded the empire greatly and were able administrators.
However, Akbar was known for his religious tolerance and administrative
genius, while Aurangzeb was a pious Muslim and fierce protector
of orthodox Islam in an alien and heterodox environment.
Akbar succeeded his father, Humayun (r. 1530-40 and 1555-56),
whose rule was interrupted by the Afghan Sur Dynasty, which rebelled
against him. It was only just before his death that Humayun was
able to regain the empire and leave it to his son. In restoring
and expanding Mughal rule, Akbar based his authority on the ability
and loyalty of his followers, irrespective of their religion.
In 1564 the jizya on non-Muslims was abolished, and bans
on temple building and Hindu pilgrimages were lifted.
Akbar's methods of administration reinforced his power against
two possible sources of challenge--the Afghan-Turkish aristocracy
and the traditional interpreters of Islamic law, the ulama (see
Glossary). He created a ranked imperial service based on ability
rather than birth, whose members were obliged to serve wherever
required. They were remunerated with cash rather than land and
were kept away from their inherited estates, thus centralizing
the imperial power base and assuring its supremacy. The military
and political functions of the imperial service were separate
from those of revenue collection, which was supervised by the
imperial treasury. This system of administration, known as the
mansabdari, was based on loyal service and cash payments
and was the backbone of the Mughal Empire; its effectiveness depended
on personal loyalty to the emperor and his ability and willingness
to choose, remunerate, and supervise.
Akbar declared himself the final arbiter in all disputes of law
derived from the Quran and the sharia. He backed his religious
authority primarily with his authority in the state. In 1580 he
also initiated a syncretic court religion called the Din-i-Ilahi
(Divine Faith). In theory, the new faith was compatible with any
other, provided that the devotee was loyal to the emperor. In
practice, however, its ritual and content profoundly offended
orthodox Muslims. The ulama found their influence undermined.
The concept of Islam as a superior religion with a historic mission
in the world appeared to be compromised. The syncretism of the
court and its tolerance of both Hindus and unorthodox Shia (see
Glossary) sects among Muslims triggered a reaction among Sunni
(see Glossary) Muslims. In the fratricidal war of succession that
closed the reign of Akbar's grandson Shah Jahan in 1658, the aristocracy
supported the austere military commander Aurangzeb against his
learned and eclectic brother Dara Shikoh, whom Aurangzeb defeated
in battle and later had decapitated in 1662.
Aurangzeb's reign ushered in the decline of the Mughal Empire.
Aurangzeb, who in the latter half of his long rule assumed the
title "Alamgir" or "world-seizer," was known for aggressively
expanding the empire's frontiers and for his militant enforcement
of orthodox Sunni Islam. During his reign, the Mughal empire reached
its greatest extent, although his policies also led to its dissolution.
Although he was an outstanding general and a rigorous administrator,
Mughal fiscal and military standards declined as security and
luxury increased. Land rather than cash became the usual means
of remunerating high-ranking officials, and divisive tendencies
in his large empire further undermined central authority.
In 1679 Aurangzeb reimposed the hated jizya on Hindus.
Coming after a series of other taxes and also discriminatory measures
favoring Sunni Muslims this action by the "prayermonger " (emperor),
incited rebellion among Hindus and others in many parts of the
empire--Jat, Sikh, and Rajput forces in the north and Maratha
forces in the Deccan. The emperor managed to crush the rebellions
in the north, but at a high cost to agricultural productivity
and to the legitimacy of Mughal rule. Aurangzeb was compelled
to move his headquarters to Daulatabad in the Deccan to mount
a costly campaign against Maratha guerrilla fighters, which lasted
twenty-six-years until he died in 1707 at the age of ninety. Aurangzeb,
oppressed by a sense of failure, isolation, and impending doom,
lamented that in life he "came alone" and would "go as a stranger."
In the century- and one-half that followed, effective control
by Aurangzeb's successors weakened. Succession to imperial and
even provincial power, which had often become hereditary, was
subject to intrigue and force. The mansabdari system
gave way to the zamindari system, in which high-ranking
officials took on the appearance of hereditary landed aristocracy
with powers of collecting rents. As Delhi's control waned, other
contenders for power emerged and clashed, thus preparing the way
for the eventual British takeover.
Vasco da Gama led the first documented European expedition to
India, sailing into Calicut on the southwest coast in 1498. In
1510 the Portuguese captured Goa, which became the seat of their
activity. Under Admiral Alfonso de Albuquerque, Portugal successfully
challenged Arab power in the Indian Ocean and dominated the sea
routes for a century. Jesuits came to convert, to converse, and
to record observations of India. The Protestant countries of the
Netherlands and England, upset by the Portuguese monopoly, formed
private trading companies at the turn of the seventeenth century
to challenge the Portuguese.
Mughal officials permitted the new carriers of India's considerable
export trade to establish trading posts (factories) in India.
The Dutch East India Company concentrated mainly on the spice
trade from present-day Indonesia. Britain's East India Company
carried on trade with India. The French East India Company also
set up factories.
During the wars of the eighteenth century, the factories served
not only as collection and transshipment points for trade but
also increasingly as fortified centers of refuge for both foreigners
and Indians. British factories gradually began to apply British
law to disputes arising within their jurisdiction. The posts also
began to grow in area and population. Armed company servants were
effective protectors of trade. As rival contenders for power called
for armed assistance and as individual European adventurers found
permanent homes in India, British and French companies found themselves
more and more involved in local politics in the south and in Bengal.
Plots and counterplots climaxed when British East India Company
forces, led by Robert Clive, decisively defeated the larger but
divided forces of Nawab Siraj-ud-Dawlah at Plassey (Pilasi) in
Bengal in 1757.
Data as of April 1994