Zoya Ansari recapitulates the historical trajectory of Mughal Empire
Ups And Downs Of Mughal Rule – The Mughal Empire was a unique phenomenon that emerged at the cusp of the modern age and many historians have no qualms to consider it to have been instrumental in ushering in the modern era as most of its governance aspects were co-opted by the successive governance structures. The Mughal rule was quite unusual in content and style and was its ultimate fusion has attracted a bevy of historians who have never ceased to keep on looking at it from different angles. The fact was that 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 various Indian lands under its rule. The Empire endured for three centuries and at its peak, comprised 3.2 million square kilometers, extending across most of the subcontinent and 150 million diverse people that was roughly a third the size of Europe and double its total population. The Empire rose at its peak to be counted as rated as one of the most powerful and richest states with a vast military force and nearly a quarter of the global GDP.
Interestingly, the Mughal Empire had improbable origins: a family of Muslim Central Asian warriors led two separate invasions (1526, 1555) and then conquered and settled in north India, extensively engaging in complex ways with Hindus, Muslims and other Indians, thus producing the Mughal Rule. More interestingly, 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 Sunni and Shiite 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. Gradually 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.
The Mughal Empire was thus 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. Hence, a continued tension remained almost throughout the dynasty’s history about where sovereignty lay. 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 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.
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 centre 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 such as, 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 making the limits of the imperial domain to constantly fluctuate.
While the Empire remained land-based, it became ever more integrated with the burgeoning European-based world system of trade and colonialism and this interaction resulted in causing 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. It is however appropriate to deduct that the Mughal Empire’s origins down to the current times, South Asians, Europeans and others have represented it in shifting ways. The Weekender
Zoya Ansari has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense