The Mughals of India

  By Copperknickers, June 2008; Revised


The Mughals (or Moguls) were a Muslim people hailing from Turkistan. Their official royal language was Persian, but this changed as the empire became more assimilated into Indian culture, as they began using more Indian languages such as Urdu. They were founded in 1526 by a Turkic tribesman named Babur, and were finally defeated in 1858, although the empire had effectively petered out by 1707 and the death of the last true emperor, Aurangzeb. 

The Founding of the EmpireThe Mughal Emblem

The Mughal empire was founded by Babur, a Turk who claimed ancestry from Timur (also known as Tamerlane) and Genghis Khan. Babur's first foothold was in Afghanistan, where he settled in Kabul after being driven from Samarkand, the capital of his Timurid forefathers, by Uzbek tribes. He had never been to India, and at first considered it a wasteland full of petty Sultans squabbling over little more than a barren desert. Legend says that while wandering Asia, Babur was taken in by an old man who told him of a paradise, a land of fertility and wondrous sights named 'Hindustan' (India). Whether or not this is true, we do know that in 1526 Babur took advantage of the weak state of the Lodhi Afghans in Delhi and dealt their Sultan, Ibrahim Lodhi, a crushing defeat in the first battle of Panipat. This was due not only to Babur's striking effectiveness as a military commander, but his combined tactics utilising an army equipped with matchlock muskets (a weapon very rare in India at the time) and the superior cavalry tactics he had inherited from his Mongol past. Two more major victories against the Bengali Sultanate and Hindu Rajputs in the following years cemented the Mughals' ambitions in the Subcontinent. 


Humayun was faced with a momentous task from the start of his reign in 1530, after the death of his father. He had inherited a small collection of cities in a foreign country, and he was surrounded by enemies who wanted revenge for the losses suffered at the hands of Babur. Humayun knew he had to be careful, as the slightest mistake could make all that his father had built come crashing down, as it very nearly did. A few years into Humayun's reign, an Afghan warrior by the name of Sher Shah Suri (or 'Sher Khan', the 'Lion King') attacked the Mughals, seizing their territiories from his own Kingdom in Bihar and forcing Humayun into exile in 1540. Humayun resided with the Safavid ruler, Shah Tahmasp, in 1542 while his own troops managed to hold out in a small number or fortresses still under Mughal control. Luckily for Humayun, Sher Shah died suddenly in 1555 and Humayun seized the opportunity to recapture Delhi. Although he died in an accident shortly afterwards, he had laid the foundation for the greatest of the Mughal emperors, his son, Jalaluddin Mohammed, better known as Akbar the Great.


Akbar the Great was raised by his uncle Askari in Sindh. There he became an excellent outdoorsman, horseman, and hunter, and learned the arts of war. He succeded to the throne at the death of his father in 1556 at the age of fourteen, and went on to become one of the most famous Indians of all time. He was a competant ruler, and set fair but heavy taxes to fuel his campaigns. He also set up an efficient economy and government and was tolerant of religious differences in conquered areas, which softened the resistance by the conquered peoples. During his reign, he eliminated the descendants of Sher Shah Suri, making sure to learn from the mistakes of his father. His most lasting contributions were to the arts. He compiled a large collection of literature, including the Akbar-nama and the Ain-i-Akbari, and incorporated art from around the world into the Mughal collections. He also commissioned the building of outstanding edifices. Akbar also began a series of religious debates where Muslim scholars would debate religious matters with Sikhs, Hindus, Cārvāka atheists and even Jesuits from Portugal.


Akbar also made alliances with the fearsome Rajputs, who's Kshatriya warriors took Opium before engaging enemies. They served the empire well as mercenaries until Aurangzeb and the fall of the empire. By the end of Akbar's reign in 1605, all of north India was in the control of the Mughals.

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was constructed c.1660 by the Emperor Shah Jahan the Magnificent, in memory of his dead wife, Mumtaz. It was the perfect symbol of the Empire under Shah Jahan, lavishly decorated and inlaid with fine carvings. It was just one of the ways in which Shah Jahan showcased the immense power and wealth of the Mughals at this time. He sent Mughal armies to conquer the Deccan and the lands to the Northwest of the empire, beyond the Khyber Pass. Although at first these campaigns drained the imperial treasury, they soon paid off as the state became a huge military machine, causing the nobles and their peasant subjects to multiply hugely, along with the income of their taxes. Political unification and maintenance of law and order over wide areas encouraged the emergence of large centers of commerce and crafts — such as Lahore, Delhi, Agra, and Ahmadabad — linked by roads and waterways trading with other powers such as Portugal, the Safavids and the Sultanates and even Arabia. When Shah Jahan died in 1658, he was buried in the the building alongside his wife. 


Aurangzeb and the Fall of the Empire

Aurangzeb was the last great Mughal emperor. Although he brought a larger area under Mughal rule than ever before, his constant wars left the empire dangerously overextended, isolated from its strong Rajput allies, and with a population that  was largely opposed to his reign. His last twenty five years were spent fighting in the Deccan in the south, and losing territory to rival states. At his death, the Mughal Empire was a shadow of its former self, having lost most of its northwest lands and being replaced by the Hindu Maratha Empire in large areas of India. His successors had to make do with clinging on to what territories they had left, until the empire finally slid off the map in 1858, a hundred and ninety years after Aurangzeb's death in 1707.