Revisiting the Mughal Empire



May 3, 2023

Revisiting The Mughal Empire

Zoya Ansari takes a stock of a historical period

Revisiting The Mughal Empire – The Mughal Empire was never a monolith and was a very attractive combination of socio-political and economic matrix of the subcontinent. In its essential nature the Mughal Empire consisted of the contested, cooperative and creative interactions between the imperial dynasty and people with a vast array of cultures in the vast parameters of the subcontinent. The agreeable content of the Empire helped it to continue its dominance for more than three centuries and became part of the popular lore of the subcontinent. In its heyday, the Mughal rule was spread over 3.2 million square kilometers extending across most of the subcontinent and was inhabited by150 million people of diverse characteristics professing various faiths and speaking many languages. The Mughal Empire rose at its peak to be one of the most powerful and richest states and its military prowess was widely recognised along with its almost modern administrative machinery. It was observed that the Mughal Empire produced nearly a quarter of the global GDP and was rated as an ideal entity.

Though the Mughal Empire had improbable origins as a family of Muslim Central Asian warriors led two separate invasions in 1526 and 1555 but then the dynasty succeeded in conquering and then settling in north India. After doing that they extensively engaged in complex ways with Hindus, Muslims and other Indians and their efforts gave birth to the legendary Mughal Empire. This dynasty’s male founders claimed imperial sovereignty, even when not ruling any territory. They invaded and ruled not their long-remembered Central Asian homeland but rather initially alien lands and people. Revealing their self-identify as leading figures in the larger world of Islam, they continued throughout their reign to highlight, in varying degrees and ways, their Muslim identity and to honour new Muslim immigrants from Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, Ottoman Turkey and Arabia.

While the dynasty featured its Sunni male Central Asian patrilineage, it also included, by marriage, many women with Shi‘ite and Hindu ancestries. Further, the imperial clan remained only a tiny proportion even of the imperial elite as the vast bulk of the Empire consisted of many other people and cultures. Over nearly two centuries, this dynasty, and other immigrants and Indians who formed the imperial elite, created a highly sophisticated court culture and a vast military and civil establishment. Both these attracted and employed many South Asians directly or indirectly and also drew acceptance and revenues from most of the rest. This fact brings to fore the fact that the Mughal Empire was never an indigenous national empire with a uniform elite and a predominantly mono-ethnic army. Rather, the dynasty drew eclectically from a range of cultures and people though the underlying tension always remained palpable particularly in the matters of sovereignty. For most of the Empire, all males who were closely related to the current emperor shared his sovereignty and could potentially themselves emerge as emperor. This explicitly invoked the Mongol and Turkish models of their Central Asian world-conquering ancestors.

Most Mughal emperors parceled out some of their authority to sons or brothers, and willed that their surviving sons should divide the Empire after their deaths. But in tension with these Central Asian imperial traditions were the Islamic and Indic concepts that, once enthroned, the incumbent emperor alone held semi-divine or divine sovereignty. Each of the first five emperors asserted, in one form or another, that he was the Islamic millennial sovereign. Even thereafter, emperors claimed that they alone were destined by God to rule the entire world, or at least the Muslim or South Asian parts of it. Further, various emperors projected themselves as objects of worship, in the mode of Sufi saints and Hindu deities.

The Mughal Empire also remained contingent on forces and events beyond its control. Most printed maps give the impression of the Empire as a two-dimensional static entity, with a uniform internal system of laws and with fixed and policed borders but essentially the Empire as a dynamic process, with administrative, military and cultural layers, that over time varied in depth and extended and contracted in extent. The imperial administration extended deeply into local society down to the level of individual fields, the military had an effective coercive dominance, and the emperor’s authority prevailed with relatively few serious challenges. Such conditions largely existed in most of the territories within the Mughal core provinces from the mid-sixteenth through the late seventeenth centuries. But these imperial processes were always uneven. The Empire constantly faced resistance and repeated rebellions, among its core elite and also on its internal and external frontiers. There were occasional and persistent thin spots where imperial armies might overcome local opposition, but imperial administration had little control and Mughal culture had little appeal.

The Empire repeatedly faced fragmentation. Each emperor tried to keep the Empire intact and also protect his sons from each other by proposing ways to divide it internally. At virtually every imperial succession, some claimants sought to split the Empire apart, before the one triumphant successor pulled it together. Over the dynasty’s final century, the imperial process was still widespread but very thin, extending over territories where Mughal sovereignty was recognised only nominally since the imperial center could assert no substantial administrative or military control. Thus, the Mughal Empire was more of a composite and dynamic process than a stable and static system.

In terms of South Asian history, the Mughal Empire was also distinctive, coming at a transitional time and including a complex combination of external and indigenous personnel as well as cultures. Throughout its history, South Asia has usually remained divided among regionally based states. The Mughal Empire made itself the largest and most powerful state that South Asia had yet seen. But the majority of the Empire’s core officials were always either ethnically diverse immigrants, or descendants of recent immigrants, especially from Central Asia, Iran, or Afghanistan, who valued that external origin as a vital part of their identity.

Nonetheless, the Empire also incorporated many local rulers into its military-administrative order. Thus, a minority of the Empire’s high officials was identified, and identified themselves, as Hindus or long-settled Muslims from a particular region within South Asia. For example, for about a century, Hindu royal clans based in north India joined the core imperial cadre, supplying wives and service to successive emperors, yet always held a distinct identity and role there. But before and after that, these clans stood largely apart from the Empire. Especially over the seventeenth century, substantial numbers of men from central India entered imperial service, although most felt alienated there. Thus, the limits of the imperial domain constantly fluctuated.

While the Empire remained land-based, it became ever more integrated with the burgeoning European-based world system of trade and colonialism, with profound positive and negative consequences. European imports of bullion, military technology and new crops affected the imperial economy. Mughal emperors sought European protection on the seas and, during the dynasty’s last century, as regents. The British Empire in India in many ways modeled itself on, as well as contrasted itself with, the Mughal Empire. The independent states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have all selected national symbols from the Empire. The Mughal Empire decisively impacted the geopolitical makeup of the modern-day South Asia. The Weekender


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