The Mughal Period

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 Empire.

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. 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 sects among Muslims triggered a reaction among Sunni 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.

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