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The Mughals – 200 Years of Indian History

The Mughal Empire
John F. Richards
Cambridge University Press, 1993.

The Great Moghuls
Bamber Gascoigne
Jonathan Cape, 1971; 1976.

The New Cambridge History of India is a massive project still in progress, stretching from Mughal times to the present – 30 volumes in all. From the General Editor’s Preface it is not at all clear what is to be done with pre-Mughal India. The Mughals and their Contemporaries is Division I of Four similar Divisions and The Mughal Empire is just one volume (here in pb), of the 9 of which Division I consists.

The Mughal line (is “Mughal” the form which is now currently correct, rather than “Moghul”?) – Babur (1526-1530), Humayun (1530-1556), Akbar (1556-1606), Jahangir (1606-1627), Shah Jahan (1627-1658), Aurungzeb (1658-1707) – was from first to last aggressively expansionist, with large numbers of men permanently under arms, on which most of its income was spent. The conquered lands were fertile and well-populated and their exploitation well organized to be profitable. The economy was a monetary one, taxes paid in coin stimulating an agricultural surplus to pay them with, with a net flow of gold and silver from trade with the north and increasingly by sea with the west. Although paper as a essential bureaucratic adjunct had been in use as far back as the 11th century, printing seems to have made no appeal to the Mughals, except possibly to Akbar who, unfortunately, was illiterate, the only Emperor who was.

The foundation of this centralised economy, which Richards analyses in considerable depth, was undoubtedly laid by Akbar, the most interesting of the Mughals and the one most open to innovations and ideas. To a large extent, almost all of India had already been penetrated by Muslims; in the previous century the Sultanate of Delhi had, for a few decades, ruled almost the whole subcontinent before it disintegrated, in the manner Indian empires always seemed to do. Thus when the Mughals arrived, most of Northern India was still ruled by Muslims, everywhere in a minority and increasingly so further and further south. Babur, in fact, established himself in northern India, by defeating the Sultan of Delhi at Panipat. While never openly abandoning Islam, Akbar seems to have become less and less attached to it, and more and more interested in Hinduism and also in Christianity, keeping several Jesuits in attendance at court. He was obviously aware that to ensure a harmonious state, the Hindus must be conciliated and integrated as far as possible into the ruling class. He removed their discriminatory taxes and gave high army commands to their aristocracy. With the later Mughals this policy steadily lapsed, until with the last effective emperor, Aurungzeb, it was explicitly abandoned. Not only were the Hindus thoroughly alienated but Sikhism, which had arisen as a sort of simplified Hinduism influenced by monotheistic Islam, became more militant in response to the new Islamic intolerance. The result, as far as the Hindus were concerned, was their revolt as bandit-like warriors, the Marathas, under Shivaji and his descendants. For much of the period raiding and plundering were the only tactics they could employ, but these contributed to the difficulties of revenue collection that the state depended on. They have also contributed considerably to Hindu political mythology at the present time. The Sikhs, though often defeated and their leaders killed, were never suppressed.

The Mughal state required a strong autocrat at its head, however important its servants might be. Though Humayun and Akbar seem to have succeeded to their thrones with little conflict, after them the process was always disputed; Jahangir was a troublesome and impatient heir; his eldest son, after two rebellious attempts, was blinded, while Shah Jahan emerged successful after a series of sanguinary battles and assassinations of his brothers. A similar state of affairs arose before his death, when Aurungzeb not only defeated his competitors, but displaced his father, whom he kept in a comfortable palace prison for the last eight years of his life. While previous emperors had been weakened by their addiction to wine – often with added opium – and many of their sons had died from its effects, Aurungzeb’s Islamic austerity ensured he survived to an active 90 years of age. At the same time his religious rigidity, coupled with a long life, ensured rebellions amongst his subjects (as recounted) and difficulty in making further conquests in the peninsula’s deep south, where he was militarily bogged down for the last 20 years of his reign, allowing the consolidation of European footholds, notably the British possessions of Bombay and Madras. On his death the now-normal succession battles took place but the cohesion of the empire was now insufficient, parts of it were becoming independant, and the “winner”, Mohammed Shah, exercised little power and even the dates of his reign (1719-1748) are not given by Richards. “After 1720 the formerly centralised empire continued as a loosely knit collection of regional kingdoms, whose rulers, while styling themselves imperial governors, offered only token tribute and service to the Mughal emperor at Delhi (p. 297).” Delhi itself suffered a devastating sack and massacre by the Persian monarch Nadir Shah in 1738.

I would have expected a Mughal Family Tree, particularly to keep track of all the claimants at each succession-crisis, but for some reason Richards, unlike Gascoigne (or Keay in his A History of India) does not supply one. There are 5 pages of glossary to help with the multitude of military and administrative terms guaranteed to bemuse the ordinary reader.

It has to be said that for this “ordinary reader” at least, Gascoigne’s book is superior to Richards’. This is not merely because it is magnificently illustrated – many of the photographs were taken by his wife Christina – which might make anyone mistake it for a mere coffee table book. Nor can it be entirely due to the resources of Granada Television, which gave them the opportunity to travel around the subcontinent for six months. The numerous establishments and people thanked for their cooperation merely emphasises the enormous work the author must have done to assemble what are, in effect, the six biographies of the “Great Moghuls”, each page having at least half a dozen references to the bibliography listed at the end. This book, first published in 1971, and also issued in paperback, now seems to be out of print, but is probably obtainable, as was my own copy, second-hand.

Inevitably it tells the same story that Richards does, but noticeably with added detail that brings the subject that much closer. Thus, for example, Richards notes that Humayun “met a fatal accident on the steps of his library in the fortress at Delhi.” Gascoigne not only takes twelve lines to recount this unlucky episode that ended a blatantly unlucky life, but supplies a photograph of the hazardous stairwell down which the unfortunate emperor tumbled when he turned at the muezzin’s call to prayer, tripping on his robe, falling headlong down the stone steps and striking his right temple on a sharp edge.

Similarly Gascoigne gives more details about the Moghul proneness to alcoholism, generation after generation from Babur on, though if there is any genetic Mongolid tendency it must have been completely diluted by outbreeding. All of Akbar’s sons were alcoholics, including the heir, Jahangir, who made no bones about it, but rather unfairly penalised courtiers with hangovers after his parties. Several princes of later emperors died of drink, to some extent mitigating the competition for the succession. It would be interesting to know to what extent alcoholism was a problem over India generally and to what extent Islamic prohibition had any effect on lower class Muslims. As noted above, the last “great” Moghul, Aurungreb, took the prohibition seriously, unfortunately along with other more bigoted and fanatical injunctions and beliefs. The Islamic basis of Mughal rule may have promoted equality of opportunity amonst believers, but ultimately was unable to develop politically into a social system capable of confronting the rivals from the west.

The biographical basis of Gascoigne’s history brings out the military nature of the regime, in which the higher up a courtier managed to rise, the more likely he was to see active service. Even Abul Fazl, Akbar’s biographer, yearned for and attained it, becoming so proficient that Jahangir, as yet only the heir, thought it best to have him ambushed and murdered, “as he cooly admits as much in his own autobiography.” For all the Moghuls left personal memoirs or diaries, with the exception of the illiterate Akbar, who today would probably be diagnosed and excused as dyslexic, but who certainly saw to it that his life was chronicled, and illustrated, in the Akbar-nama. He was, in fact, very much the patron of writers, though one can ascribe to a sense of humour the task he set one severely orthodox scholar of translating the extremely lengthy Sanskrit epic Mahabharata into Persian. The beauty of Moghul manuscripts and of their illustrations by the court artists is truly astounding – but it should be remembered that these were single copies and for privileged eyes only. Printing never came to this Moghul world.

Perhaps inevitably violence pervades this history, to a much greater degree than in the subsequent two hundred years of British dominance, which pacified the whole subcontinent with far less loss of life, to say nothing of the lack of succession disputes. While in some ways the Moghuls penetrated more deeply into Indian life than did the British – they certainly left more of their genes there – the British legacy has been the more radical, perhaps largely due to the fact it took place during the Industrial Age, when technology, typified by railway-building, could make for more efficient rule, much of which was concerned with the benefiting of the population rather than its repression or exploitation. Even the anti-imperialist George Orwell (died 1950) had to concede (I don’t know where) that, for its native peoples, India would be a better place to live in than China during the last hundred years or so. Nor would the conditions in the subsequent fifty years after his death, could he have foreseen them, have changed his mind.

As so often nowadays, in both books the maps are inadequate. One would think that, with their magnificent colour photographs, the Gascoignes might produce some correspondingly fine coloured maps – but no. A large outline, with hatchings indicating Moghul conquest, some mountain shading, with an inadequate number of place names in very small type, is all that is given – in black and white. The territorial boundaries of vassal or independent states are not indicated. The maps of the New Cambridge are better, all being taken from An Atlas of the Mughal Empire (Habib, 1982), but the major map of the Mughal Empire, tucked away on an early page, is cramped because of its scale and difficult to refer to because of its position. The day of fine fold out maps, placed within and at the end of a book, characteristic of The Cambridge Ancient History, appears to be over.

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8 comments to The Mughals – 200 Years of Indian History

  • Stephanie Corbett

    Dear Sir,

    Please could you tell me where I can obtain a video cassette of The Great Moguls (Bamber Gascoigne). I have been searching for this video for several years and cannot otain a copy. It was a wonderful documentary.

    Yours faithfully,

    S. A. Corbett

  • Ahmad nadeem

    Hello Sir how r u i m fine i like ur website very much ok so please make a web again

  • Owais

    dear sir
    can u plz tell me the names of the 2 brotherz of jehangir as soon as possible?

  • Sara Hussian

    Were can i find the Mughal Family Tree

  • solomon

    please mail me ..who are the next generation of shah jahan … till bahadur shah

  • Faisal Abdullah

    I am the great grand so of Monu Gaji Moghul, who has the direct blood relation with Babur (great great great grand son i think). In our home there is a gate which contains the name of Monu Gaji Moghul. Thus I need the family tree chart seriously. Sir, can u help me?

    Faisal Abdullah from Bangladesh
    Dept. Editor
    Daily Amader Shomoy

  • Asif

    If anyone can let me know about a state “goal kanda”. goal means round like circle.

    where can i find bit more about it. please email me.

  • Muzaffar Mirza

    This is really good but I need some information about Dawer Bukhsh who rulled before Shahjhan after the death of Jhangir for nearly one year in 1927. Any person who have any information about this king please write me (muzaffar.m3@gmail.com).