The Mughals | Empire-builders of medieval India

At the peak of their power, Babur’s descendants, most of them born and buried in undivided India, controlled the entire subcontinent, comprising parts of modern Afghanistan, the whole of Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Myanmar

April 09, 2023 01:40 am | Updated April 24, 2023 11:52 am IST

Within hours of the National Council of Educational Research and Training’s (NCERT) decision to remove a chapter on the Mughals from the history textbooks for Class XII students, noted historians of the country issued a statement, denouncing the deletions. “The selective dropping of chapters which do not fit into the ideological orientation of the present dispensation exposes the partisan agenda of the regime,” a statement signed by Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Aditya Mukherjee, Barbara Metcalf, Dilip Simeon and Mridula Mukherjee, among others, read. “Driven by such an agenda, the chapter titled ‘Kings and Chronicles: The Mughal Courts’ has been deleted... In medieval times, the Mughal empire and the Vijayanagara Empire were two of the most important empires... In the revised version, while the chapter on the Mughals has been deleted, the chapter on the Vijayanagara Empire has been retained.”

It’s hard to understand the history of modern India without the contribution of the Mughals, who, including Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, were all born in undivided India; and were buried here. None of them ever left the country, not even to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca.“Is there anything in India today which does not owe to the Mughals?” asks Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, secretary, Indian History Congress. “From legal system to legal jargon, we owe to the Mughal and Turkish Sultanate before them. Words like vakalatnama, kacheri, durbar, we owe them all to the Mughals. Today, when a large number of Indians consider Lord Ram as a major deity, we have to thank Tulsidas who wrote his version of Ramayana during the Mughal period. Also, Vrindavan, associated with Lord Krishna, developed thanks to Chaitanya saints who were given grants by Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan, and helped Vrindavan and Mathura emerge as a key centre of Krishna Bhakti.”

It all started with Babur when he defeated Ibrahim Lodi in the First Battle of Panipat in 1526, and went on to capture all of North India in his brief reign of four years. Babur’s victory was to usher in a prolonged period of political stability for the next nearly 200 years. His grandson Akbar ruled for almost 50 years, as did Akbar’s great grandson Aurangzeb while his son Jahangir and Shah Jahan ruled for over 20 years each, making sure there was consistency in state policy and the development of the empire was unimpeded. Their influence gradually reduced from 1707 onwards, and the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was only a symbolic leader of the Revolt of 1857. However, in this symbolism lay a message; common Indians, as evidenced by the sipahis’ uprising, considered Mughals to be their kings; hence the leadership role to Zafar.

This was a throwback to the golden era of the Great Mughals; the latter Mughals, post-1707, had done nothing to earn that kind of trust. Aurangzeb’s prolonged battles in the Deccan had enfeebled the state’s finances, and his successors were unable to replenish the treasury. To augment resources, Aurangzeb had imposed jizyah, a tax solely on non-Muslims, which proved detrimental in the long run. Once Aurangzeb passed away in 1707, his successors proved incapable of ruling over a huge, unwieldy empire. Their internecine battles didn’t help. Many like Mohammed Shah Rangeela were given to a life of debauchery. Add to that the gradual advance of East India Company in India and the latter Mughals proved unequal to the task of defending their empire. It all came to a sad end with the banishment of Zafar to Rangoon after the 1857 revolt.

The beginning

It started more promisingly. A descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan, Babur, who knew Turkish and Persian, started the practice of chronicling the events and noting down his impressions of the landscape and the artists he met. He thus authored a unique document Baburnama, originally in Turkish which was later translated into Persian. Not just Baburnama, the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Upanishads were also translated during the Mughal era. “The first translations of texts like the Ramayana and Mahabharata in any language from Sanskrit was done under the Mughals. Dara Shukoh translated 25 Upanishads into Persian. He also translated Yogavashishta,” says Mr. Rezavi.

Incidentally, Shukoh, the man who never became the king, was way ahead of the times. Eldest son of Shah Jahan, he was a Sunni Muslim who associated closely with Hindu philosophers and Christian priests. He was, as Vincent Smith wrote in the Oxford History of India, “deeply imbued with the pantheistic mysticism of the Sufis”.

Shukoh clearly inherited all this from Jalaluddin Akbar, the Emperor who built Ibadat Khana where scholarly debates were held between Brahmins, Christians, Jain, Buddhist and Islamic scholars. It was a move way ahead of the time when one thinks until then the religion of the Emperor was supposed to be religion of the kingdom. The modern Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb stems from that shared feeling, a synthesis of different cultures. The philosophical discussions during the time of Akbar and his son Jahangir led to intermingling among commoners. In Mughal India, Hindus and Muslims lived cheek by jowl in the same locality. The respect extended to places of worship. Often land grants for temples were made by the Mughal emperors; even the much maligned Aurangzeb, who demolished temples, issued grants.

Vast empire

By the end of the reign of Akbar, the population of the Mughal kingdom exceeded that of entire Europe, and the Mughal wealth was unmatched. As Mr. Rezavi put it, “Today, there is talk of Akhand Bharat. This was a reality under the Mughals who controlled the entire subcontinent comprising parts of modern Afghanistan, the entire Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Myanmar, the land mass from Sindh to knocking distance of Kanyakumari and even parts of Assam under Aurangzeb for a few years. Shah Jahan was the first Indian ruler after Ashoka to reach Balkh and Badakshan. There was no mightier empire in the world.”

The richness was owed substantially to the Rajputs, who were sharers of power from the time of Akbar, who defeated Rana Pratap in the Battle of Haldighati, and co-opted them in his empire through matrimonial alliances. Most Mughal rulers after Jahangir were born to Rajput women. As a result, within the family, Hindavi was often the language of communication. Aurangzeb, incidentally, conversed in Hindi and composed in Braj bhasha.

Today, when hue and cry is raised if a Muslim enacts a Hindu hero in cinema, it’s important to remember that during the time of the Mughals, Raskhan wrote of Krishna in Hindi and Balkrishan Brahman in Persian. It was a time of synthesis: Hindu practices were adopted to commemorate Imam Hussain and the concept of triple dome mosque architecture, popularised by the Mughals, is uniquely Indian. Just like the Mughals.

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