Zoya Ansari describes the arrangements associated with the movement of Mughal emperors
It is widely acknowledged that from the mid-sixteenth through the early eighteenth centuries, the Mughal Empire was the predominant political power of South Asia, ruling over a maximal territory of 3.2 million kilometers and a population estimated at between 100 and150 million. In addition, the Traveling mode of Mughal rulers was the legatee of half-a half-millennium long tradition of central Asian conquest of the subcontinent and subsequent Muslim rule spread over most of it. Mughal was the first dynasty that could claim royal connections as it was known that Babar, the founder of Mughal Empire, was a descendent of both Amir Taimur and Chengiz Khan who were widely recognised figures in the medieval period and their rule was extensive. Prior to the Mughals, Muslim dynasties ruling the subcontinent mostly belonged to the nobility of the Muslim conquerors coming down from the Caucuses and assumed royal titles when their competitors were beaten in the contest for throne. It so happened that during three centuries of Muslim rule before the advent of Mughals, five dynasties came to the throne one after the other but the royal status of the Mughal dynasty assured that it continued to rule for more than two centuries till it was supplanted by the British rule.
The dynamism of Mughal rule required that the ruler and its ruling class pursued a policy of networking through moving in the length and breadth of the country. In the process, the Mughal court became a peripatetic entity and the emperor became an itinerant rule reaching the far flung corners of the Empire. Mughal military strategies, political structure and urban form owed much to central Asian traditions though under innovative leadership the Mughal period saw the development of new organisational forms that were the result of a creative manipulation of indigenous Muslim and local traditions. Mughal elite kept on looking for opportunities to visit the locally appointed rulers and kept in touch with local traditions.
This inherent policy implied that travel was an essential part of imperial governance dutifully pursued by the itinerant Emperor who always wanted to stay ahead of the rest of the governing class. He thought it to be physically present amongst his subjects and tried solving their problems on the spot. The most dramatic example of the Mughal mobile capital was the imperial camp. Originating in by Akbar in the late sixteenth century and was used by all subsequent Mughal rulers. Akbar moved incessantly during his half-a-century stay on the throne and made Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and Lahore as his capitals respectively finally coming back to Agra at the end of his tenure. It was therefore essential for him to devise a defined setup for the travel and it accordingly took shape with time.
Keeping in view the imperial dignity and convenience the imperial establishment undertook maximum measures to keep the visits worth their while. His travel train was highly decorous and full of luxuries suiting his station. Two main categories of camps existed consisting of small ones used on short journeys or for hunting parties and large camps constructed for royal tours and military expeditions. By the late seventeenth century, these large camps contained up to 300,000 individuals. From them, the emperor and his administrators carried out the main business of governing their vast empire. The imperial postal system was equipped with every facility just to keep the emperor informed of whatever was happening in the country. The imperial camps were neither short-lived nor occasional phenomena. It was calculated that from 1556 to 1739 Mughal emperors spent nearly 40 per cent of their time in camps on tours often lasting a year or longer.
The imperial camp, also known as the exalted or victorious camp, was constructed according to a formal plan, described as a mobile version of Akbar’s capital of Fatehpur Sikri. A large wall of cloth screens enclosed the royal camp, fanning an east-west oriented rectangle nearly 1,400 metres long. The emperor’s tent and royal reception in the small highly mobile military camps of Babur, the later elaborate imperial camp was established areas were consistently placed in the center of the eastern end of the royal enclosure. His was the only two-storied tent in the imperial camp, enclosed within walls of distinctive scarlet cloth. Next to the emperor was a screened area containing the tents of the royal harem; beyond this were enormous awnings for public and private royal audiences. Tents for nobles were aligned in carefully specified locations that spatially expressed their relations with the ruler. Beyond the royal enclosure were the tents of lesser nobles and the military, as well as administrative facilities, stables, arsenals, workshops of attached specialists and kitchens. Merchants and moneylenders fanned neat bazaar areas along the streets of the massive tent city.
Imperial coinage was issued from the camp mint. During Akbar’s reign, low-value copper coins recorded the name of the town nearest the imperial camp. Inscriptions on gold and silver coins were explicitly linked with the camp itself attesting to royal acknowledgment of the centrality of the imperial camp. This tradition was kept alive by most emperors and these commemorative coins became part of the imperial coinage. The logistical challenges of moving and provisioning hundreds of thousands of people and the 50,000 horses and oxen required to transport tents, baggage and equipment were considerable. Far from a rapid military strike force, the camp seldom traveled more than 6 km per day and was preceded by royal agents, scouts and labourers who prepared roads and bridges, selected campsites, arranged the purchase of foodstuffs and fuel and assured the cooperation of local rulers. The camps were constructed by more than 2,000 soldiers and labourers sent on ahead of the main imperial party; two complete sets of all tents and facilities were thus required.
Local merchants and farmers were encouraged to bring their produce to the markets at the camps and foodstuffs were also obtained from imperial or civic stores in towns near the camp sites. When the emperor was resident in his camp, it was there that the bulk of imperial administrative activities occurred and important decisions were made. The imperial camp was the de facto capital, and a significant portion of the resident population of the constructed capital cities appears to have accompanied the emperor in his travels. It made possible the movement of enormous military forces throughout the empire and to strategic areas where imperial control was weak or threatened, while simultaneously providing facilities and personnel for essential administrative activities.
The massive display of imperial grandeur of the encampments and of the formal marches must have had considerable impact on subject populations. Rather than a distant or seldom-seen figure ensconced in a protected capital, the Mughal emperor and his royal household could be seen and venerated by large segments of the population as his camp traveled through imperial territories. Although the pattern of movement appeared to have been largely determined by political and military concerns, a further consequence of the imperial camp was to bring large numbers of people and animals to available resources, thus decreasing the costs of transporting foodstuffs and fuel to the cities. TW