Empires - Mughal Empire

The glorious phase of the Mughal period is generally dated from 1526 to 1707, covering a period of just six Emperors (Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan, Aurangzeb). The Empire however lingered on for a further 150 years till the final exile, by the British, of the last Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, after the Indian Mutiny in 1857.

Painting of two rajas smoking hookas on a yellow carpet with their attendants.
A Mughal miniature of courtly life, c.1770.

During this short period, the Mughals took control of the entire subcontinent (except for some regions in the south) - the first time in recorded history that any single dynasty succeeded in doing so. At the same time their Persian-influenced Islamic culture blended with Indian traditions, This brought about a culture and lifestyle that is typically associated with India in the popular imagination.

Islam conquests before the Mughals

The Mughals were not the first Muslim rulers of India. Islam came to India from the 10th century. Invasions continued intermittently till 1328, when virtually the whole of India came under one Islamic dynasty or another. Interestingly, the routes of conquest did not follow the routes of trade. The south of India, which had the greatest concentration of Arab settlers, was one of the last regions to fall under Muslim rule.

Mughal courts

The Mughals were essentially from Central Asia, and brought many Persian traditions with them - indeed the court language was Persian right up until the end. At the same time they recognised that India could not be controlled solely through military means, and strove to establish their political legitimacy through extensive intermarriage with Indian royal houses. In doing so they established a uniquely secular tradition, as this entailed marrying Hindu princesses for the most part.

Visitors to the Mughal court tended to come either as traders, missionaries or on diplomatic assignments. Records suggest that the Mughals were deeply curious about Europeans, their habits, their gadgets and their beliefs.

Trading concessions, initially to the Portuguese, and subsequently to the Dutch, French and British, were however given only selectively, and largely well away from any of the more lucrative trade concessions controlled by the Arabs. The East India Company's first 'factory' was established at Surat in Gujarat, one of the most nondescript places in India.

War and decline

Colourful painting of a battle between British and Indians troops.
Possibly a battle scene related to the India Mutiny 1857-1858.

Mughal rule was never unchallenged, and through the 17th century large parts of central and western India (part of the so-called Maratha confederacy) were at war with the Mughals, depleting their resources and weakening their authority. Aurangzeb, who was to inherit the throne in 1658, remained on campaign with up to 500,000 troops for 26 years, and even when he became emperor, was confronted with rebellion in the Rajput kingdoms (in the west) and of the Sikhs (to the north of Delhi).

On Aurangzeb's death in 1707, the Empire began a slow and steady decline and broke up into smaller kingdoms owing only nominal loyalty to their Mughal overlords. By the 1850s the Mughal emperor's power was largely confined to Delhi and its environs.

The Mughal Empire was formally abolished by the British only in 1857 with the exile of the last emperor, and the execution of his heirs.


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