Medieval Indian History
The Most Powerful -
For the moment, most of action shifts to the southern peninsula.
The most important dynasty to
rise out of the southern India was that of the Cholas.
Unlike most of the other dynasties (the Chalukyas,
the Pallavas, the Pandyas
or the Rashtrakutas), their origins are not traced
from outside, but very much from the south itself.
The Deccan region was at this
time in much turmoil. To begin with, the Cholas had managed almost immediately
to reduce the Pallavas to the status of minor feudatories.
The Rashtrakutas were in decline now, but their place was taken by a resurgent
branch of the Chalukya family (imaginatively called the later Chalukyas by
historians) who were gaining strength in the region of western Deccan. The power
equation in the Deccan now involved the later Chalukyas, the Yadavas of Devagiri
(northern Deccan; region around Aurangabad), the Kakatiyas of Warangal (Andhra
Pradesh) and the Hoysalas of Dorasamudra (Mysore). Much sorting out had to be
done before the Cholas finally emerged as unchallenged authorities in the south.
This they managed with sheer tenacity over a period of 300 years from 900-1100
AD and even then for a short while only.
Contribution To South Indian History
Cholas Came Into Power
However, the Chola contribution to south Indian history is far more wide-ranging
than just political. This period saw the final settling down and consolidation
of Tamil culture. In whatever sphere whether of social institutions,
religion, fine arts, music, dance, jewellery the standards that were set
during this period came to be regarded as classical, and dominate, in a modified
form, much of the living patterns of south Indians even today. This period also
saw the spread of this culture overseas to Southeast Asia, regions with whom the
Cholas had strong political and economic relations.
The Cholas came to power rather suddenly when
one of family conquered Tanjore (in the middle of Tamil Nadu) and declared
himself a king in the middle of the 9th century AD.
The first important ruler to emerge from the dynasty was Rajaraja Chola I
(985-1014AD) and his son and successor Rajendra Chola (1014-1035AD). Both father
and son put their heads down and campaigned in almost every direction. Rajaraja
started with annexing large areas of the Deccan, defeating a powerful alliance
between the Cheras (of Kerala region), the Pandyas and the rulers of Ceylon (Sri
Lanka). This effectively broke the monopoly that these kingdoms had over the
trade routes to Southeast Asia.
The Cholas had an effective navy and Rajaraja,
with a view to control this trade route completely, led an attack to the Maldive
Rajendra I ruled together with
father for two years before going solo in 1014AD. He aggressively continued his
father's imperialist policies with the annexation of the region around modern
Hyderabad which was controlled by the Chalukyas at that time. He also turned his
attention northwards where he reached right upto the Ganges valley, Orissa and
west Bengal areas.
Declining of The Great Dynasty
However, these were not areas that Rajendra held, or even seriously expected to
hold, for long. What were really ambitious were Rajendra Chola's offshore
expeditions, involving both the army and the navy against andaman and Nicobar
Islands, the Malay Islands and Sumatra.
However, these were not colonizing forays, for he never tried to seriously
consolidate or move in on his gains in these regions; they were in main
campaigns to protect his trade routes with the Southeast Asian nations.
Rajendra Chola I was killed in 1052AD, in battle against his old foes the
Chalukyas. The successors of Rajendra I were far too occupied with their
problems within the peninsula to worry about overseas expansion. Almost
throughout they remained at loggerheads with the Chalukyas, with both carrying
attacks and revenge raids against each other.
However, by the middle of the 12th
century Chola power was already deep into decline. The south was simply far too
divided and no one kingdom stood out as a clear leader. The scene was again
rapidly shifting to the north where much liveliness had occurred by this time.
'hordes' Made Their First Appearance
This is the time which saw the
emergence of Delhi from the mists of obscurity that it had sunk into since it
was first inhabited as Indraprastha.
It was what the historians call the 'early medieval' period of India about
the 11-12th century AD when the much travelled Rajputs were
floating restlessly around looking for a home before finally finding shelter in
the Rajputana area.
Here the strategic location of Delhi came to play it was the doorway to both
the fertile Punjab, the fabled land of the fiver rivers, and the fertile Ganges
But first, just who were these
Rajputs? We come across the word 'Rajput' for the first time in the 7th century
AD. There is no previous record or reference of it and it is certainly not a
Sanskrit word. There are as many theories as there are historians about the
origin of the Rajputs, including an opinion that they were descended from
foreigners, from one of the Indo-Parthian, Indo-Bactrian, Indo-Scythian, Saka,
Kushana or Hun strains
that were already present in India for quite some centuries.
Ascent of Rajput Power
This might just be true, considering the elaborate genealogies that the Brahmans
(the priest of the Indian varna or caste system) created to accord them the
Kshatriya (warrior) caste. This was a status they always insisted upon, and
still do, with surprising and almost undue vehemence. The Rajputs traced their
lineage from a mythical fire atop Mount Abu, a mountain in Rajasthan, (Agni Kula
or the Fire Family), the sun (Suryavanshi or the Sun Family) and the moon (Chandravanshi
or the Moon Family).
The time between the fading away of Harsha
Vardhana (606-646AD) and with it the Vardhana might and the rise of Islamic
power in India was occupied with the ascent of Rajput power. This, however, was
a very short-lived period, mainly due to the in-fighting among the fiercely
As can be imagined, India under
the Rajputs was not exactly what one could call a single and completely unified
and Ajmer, under the Chauhans, were the most powerful states of this period.
However, the first Rajputs to hit Delhi were the Tomaras. In fact, the second
city of Delhi, Lal Kot (the Red Fortress) was built
in 1060A.D. by Raja Anang Pal, one of the earliest Tomara rulers to settle in
Delhi. Their rule was pretty short-lived, though, and soon the Chauhan Rajputs
under the generalship of Prithviraj Chauhan seized control of Lal Kot in the 12th
There were other states where Rajputs were gaining prominence. Like Kanauj (in
present Uttar Pradesh) where in this period ruled Jaichand, a Rathore (another
Rajput family) ruler, who was a bitter rival of Prithviraj Chauhan. In Bundelkhand
(in Madhya Pradesh), the chandravansi (of the moon family) Chandelas
were ruling. Malwa and Gujrat were were
under the Paramaras (the most important ruler was king Bhoj)
and Chaulukyas (who are supposed to descendants of the Chalukyas)
This was a very troubled time
in Indian history. There was no clear central authority in sight and each petty
ruler was daring to dream the mad dream of ruling all over the country which
at that point in time meant basically the Gangetic plains and the Deccan. This
is the main reason why no ruler was able to hold Delhi long enough to establish
a kingdom here, and also the principle reason why the Arabs and Turks didn't
exactly have to sweat to the bone to stamp their authority all over them.
The Advent of Mahmud Ghazni
And then it happened. In 1000BC, as if on cue,
the crescent appeared for the first time over the Indian horizons.
In 1000AD, Mahmud
of Ghazni (Afghanistan) encroached upon Indian territories for the first
time and then made these invasions almost an annual feature. What with no strong
central power, looting the wealth of India to replenish the coffers of Ghazni
must have been as easy as finding it.
In all, Mahmud invaded India
eleven times and the wealth he looted from here went into funding his campaigns
in central Asia and mosques, libraries and museums in Ghazni.
Strangely enough, no
confederacy appeared to ward off his invasions. After Mahmud's death in 1030AD,
any chances of such a mutual consensus being reached among the rulers fizzled
out since the significance of his raids as forerunners for others to follow was
never quite grasped.
Rajput Hero- Prithviraj
The Rajput clans remained almost constantly and thoroughly at war among
themselves in the 11th and 12th centuries. It had become a
matter of pride to use every supposed slight as an excuse for war, and the
prevailing chivalric code allowed no place for either long-sightedness, clear
thinking or strategy.
This was around the time that
Prithviraj had married the daughter of the king of Kanauj Jaichand in true
Lochinvar style, by carrying her away in the middle of her wedding. The pride of
the Kanauj had been stung and had to be avenged.
It so happened that an Afghan
ruler Shihab-ud-din Muhammad Ghuri or Mohammad of
Ghur (between Ghazni and Herat) was gathering his forces at the frontiers of
India, this time in preparation for forcing his way through to Delhi. Even
before his forces had rallied around him, the Afghan was surprised by an
invitation from Jaichand who offered his help in any way possible to rub out
Prithviraj Chauhan from the face of the earth.
However, the Rathore ruler had
made one of the grossest miscalculations of his life in supposing that Ghuri
was just another invader looking for dipping into India's bottomless pit of
wealth, he erred badly.
Ghuri wanted to establish a kingdom here, and in 1185AD he sent the Rajputs
abuzz by taking Lahore. The rulers of north India then half-heartedly threw in
their lot with the ruler of Delhi Prithviraj and were able to defeat Ghuri in
the Battle of Tarain in 1191AD.
Unfortunately, here is where the foolhardiness of the Rajput code of honour came
into play. Prithviraj had Ghuri captured and, when the latter appealed to his
better nature, made the grand gesture of actually setting him free. If he had
thought that Ghuri would go out and sin no more, he must have been much
disappointed for the Afghan simply sent for reinforcements and launched another
attack the very next year.
The battle of 1192 was fought at Tarain too; this time Ghuri crushed the Rajputs
with one of those clinical and sound defeats that only the Central Asians knew
best how to inflict. and when he had Prithviraj he didn't do any such fool thing
as letting him go.
This difference in the
psychological approach to war, more than anything else, was the undoing of the
The Afghans and Turks regarded war as a serious business, a matter of life and
But for the Indian princes war seemed to have been a form sport, with its own
rules of gallantry and chivalry, to show off their bravery and skill. Man to
man, no doubt, the Rajputs were better warriors than the Afghans but, when it
came to using their resources, the latter were superb at making each man count.
The Rajputs failed to understand the crucial distinction between a battle and a
war; strategic retreat, which was the strength of the Afghans and Turks, would
have been scorned by them. On the other hand the Afghans were a more patient
lot, and were willing to lose a battle to win the war.
The conquest of Delhi by Muhammad Ghuri would
change the future of Indian history radically. A word here about the
much-maligned 'Islamic hordes' who conquered India and 'stamped out' the
so-called 'Hindu' culture.
With the coming of Ghuri came
the long rule of Islamic rulers in the country, and for the first time India saw
a succession of proper dynastic rule which it had not really seen up till now.
There were no more gaps in rule
anymore. No more hundred years of no central authority, and certainly no chaos
like the one India had just witnessed before the Islamic conquest of India
until deep into the 18th century AD, for a very brief period before
the British took over.
The Islamic Rule Over The
Even at their weakest, the Islamic rulers were able to provide India with a
strongly centralized government. This was largely due to the fact that the Turks
stuck together, at first within themselves, and later reluctantly also with the
Afghans. Even when the king was weak the Turks saw it as their duty to maintain
a strong face and keep the show going.
Of course there were bad times,
especially when the ruler suddenly decided to go more Islamic than thou and
break temples (which were remodeled as mosques) built by the Hindus, a term
which started being used around this time. However, this needs to be put in
perspective. Muslims saw idol worship as a blasphemy against Allah and were
shocked that the Hindus would think differently. Religious tolerance, especially
under the Mughals, was practiced quite actively and
even under the infamous Aurangzeb
who had lots of political compulsions forcing him to act the way he did.
Also the 'long rule of
oppression' under the Muslims for the Hindus is largely a myth. First and
foremost the Turks and Afghans were shrewd rulers and even shrewder politicians;
they were not really much bothered with God and godliness when it came to
ruling. This is evinced by a proclamation from Ala-ud-din
Khalji, one of the most powerful rulers of the Delhi Sultanate. He had
decreed the state (i.e., himself) to be above the priesthood, and when the
latter claimed this as un-Islamic and against the Sharia laws, he said, "I
do not know whether this is lawful or unlawful; whatever I think to be for the
good of or suitable for the state, that I decree; and as for what may happen to
me on the Day of Judgement that I do not know." Clearly he was not losing
much sleep over displeasing Allah.
Aibak and Altamash broke
temples to use them in their own buildings, it was largely because they were
rather short of both time and building material. Also, these rulers urged their
troops on to fighting by raising the banner of jehad (Holy War); just like the
kings of the Middle Ages urged on their armies to loot the treasures of the
Byzantine empire under the cloak of the Crusades. So they had to give their
troops some evidence and justification for raising the cry of a Holy War.
At least no mass destruction of books, wisdom and ancient treasures (as occurred
in Constantinople, Egypt, the Americas and elsewhere) happened in India the
Arabs, Afghans and Turks, who were quite a scholarly and well-read lot
themselves, knew when to stop. The destruction of temples stopped as soon as the
Delhi Sultanate settled down and the sultans had
more time and money in their hands, which in turn let them free to follow styles
which suited their own tastes better.
Anyhow, Delhi and Ajmer passed
on to Muhammad of Ghur, who then returned to his own country after leaving
Qutubddin Aibak as his viceroy in Delhi. In 1206, when Muhammad was
assassinated, Aibak crowned himself Sultan of Delhi, thus laying the foundation
for the so-called Slave dynasty of Delhi (the founder having once been a slave),
or the Delhi Sultanate.
The Regime of Delhi
The Delhi Sultanate had a much longer reign in Delhi than any other dynasty that
had come before it. In fact, it remained in power throughout the period between
1190 and 1526. The state's boundaries kept shifting, and at different times
included Afghanistan and the Deccan, but the central dynasty did not budge till
the Mughals arrived.
For the first some years the
Sultanate was largely individual-driven, and given the rather communal tribal
nature of the Afghan-Turk polity dynastic rule took its time to take hold. The
first to begin the consolidation work the dynasty was Altamash
(1211-1236AD), who was the son-in-law and successor of Qutub-ud-din Aibak. The
Slave Dynasty is also famous for having given India its first woman king, Raziya
Sultan (1237-1240AD), the daughter and
successor of Altamash. She was followed by a very tough customer, Ghiyas-ud-din
Balban (1266-1286AD) who gave the Delhi Sultanate its character and
finished the consolidation work.
Balban left a strong base for
his successors to build upon, and thankfully, the times got the right rulers.
Now the Sultanate saw the rise of the Khaljis,
together with Jala-ud-din Khalji (1290-1296AD) and Ala-ud-din
Khalji (1296-1316AD), who were its first real dynasty. They were followed
by the Tughlaqs who produced three strong rulers
Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq (1320-1414AD), Muhammad-bin-Tughlaq
(1325-1351AD) and Feroze Shah
After Feroze Shahs death,
the luck of the Delhi Sultanate ran out and it was sacked thoroughly and
absolutely by Timur the Lame, the famous Persian
ruler. This was however not the first time that India had been invaded since the
Delhi Sultanate took charge. Almost throughout its history, the Sultanate was
troubled by repeated invasions from the persistent Mongols
(see History of Delhi for more on Mongol
invasions). Although the sultans were able to successfully repel all Mongol
advances, these invasions took their toll especially since entire armies had to
raised and defense budgets allocated for frontier security. To raise the money
to fund these, the sultans had to be almost continuously in battle with other
areas of India.
Last Dynasty of Delhi- Lodis
The ruler in Delhi was Ibrahim Lodi (1517-1526AD),
who was a very unpopular king. Not only was he not in with the people of Delhi,
who often had a mind of their own about who should rule them and did not shy
away from expressing it, he actually fell out very badly with the Maliks
Ibrahim believed in keeping his nobles firmly in their place which was,
according to him, much beneath the royal throne. In fact, so horrific were his
dealings with those that displeased him in any way, real or imagined, that in
the end his governor in Punjab, Dilawer Khan, appealed to the latest runaway
from Samarkand who was camping in Kabul at that time for help.
The latter heeded this SOS with
an alacrity that showed that such a campaign had been very much on his mind too.
The voice of Dilawar Khan was strengthened by those of the Rajputs, especially
Rana Sanga, the Rathore ruler of Mewar, who decided to use this new invader to
get rid of the autocratic Ibrahim Lodi.
Arrival of Mughals
Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur
Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur (1526-1530AD), who
had the blood of the great central Asian families of Chingez Khan from his
mother's side and that of Timur from his father's, had been hunting for a home
to call his own since he was a teenager. He had been driven out of Samarkand,
his home, and forced to set up a kingdom elsewhere by his cousins and uncles.
Babur looked at Kabul in Afghanistan to start afresh. It was while he was here,
building a kingdom for himself, that the Indian princes got in touch with him to
help him rid of Ibrahim Lodi.
Much to his delight of course, for the ink was, so to speak, still wet on the
pen with which he had written in his autobiography, Tuzuk-i-Baburi, "From
the time I conquered the land of Kabul till now, I had always been bent on
subduing Hindustan." That very year, in 1526, he crossed over the Indus to
reach Panipat, where he defeated Ibrahim Lodi in one of the most significant
battles of Indian history.
It was curtains now for the
Delhi Sultanate. The Mughals had arrived.
Babur was a military general of
formidable credentials and his troops would follow him everywhere, and indeed
did for thoroughly battle-scarred his tenure. The first person he defeated was
Rana Sanga who was perhaps appalled at Babur's obvious intentions of getting
comfortable and staying on in Delhi. After taking Mewar, Babur moved on other
battlefields, defeating many kingdoms with a speed which was astonishing.
By the end of it all, Babur had managed to firmly establish the Mughals as the
new order to salute in India. He died in controversial circumstances. Some say
he was poisoned. There is a more romantic version apparently, his son and
successor Humayun had taken ill, and Babur appealed to God that He should spare
the son and take his life instead.
His son Humayun succeeded him in 1530AD, and ruled
till 1556AD, in between which there was a break of 16 years when Sher
Shah Suri (1540-1556), an Afghan noble, overthrew him. However, after a
long struggle Humayun was able to take back his kingdom when Sher Shah Suri
died. Not for long though, for Humayun died the very same year by slipping from
the staircase of his library. Babur had been a great man, soldier, poet and
writer; his son was a poet and remained one till the very end, despite the
mantle of kingship being thrust upon him.
Humayun's troubled life, in
which he was constantly at pains to reconcile his erudite scholarly nature with
the demands of kingship (a struggle which in the end resulted in a severe opium
addiction), in the end seemed to justify a couplet which he liked quote:
"Oh Lord, of thine
infinite goodness make me a part;
Make me a partner of the knowledge of thy attributes;
I am broken-hearted from cares and sorrows of life;
O calls to thee thy poor madman and lover;
Grant me my release."
Akbar, The Great
With the passing away of Humayun, came to end the teething problems of the
imperial Mughal dynasty for his son was undoubtedly one of the greatest rulers
India ever produced. Soon after ascending the throne as a mere kid of 14,
Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar (1556-1605AD) started to prove why he earned the
epithet of Akbar, the Great. When Akbar came to
throne all his father had left behind were poor fragments of military conquests
for him to make sense out of. While Humayun would have given up, Akbar thrived;
challenge became him, whether physical or metaphysical.
Every ruler in India at that
time knew that Humayun had just barely managed to take his kingdom back and all
eyes were on young Akbar Sikander Sur, Sher Shah Suri's grandson was still
around trying to get the kingdom back; the powerful Rajputs from behind their
invincible fortresses, the states of Gujrat and Malwa; even the southern
kingdoms they were waiting for his next move.
The Famous Battle of
Panipat Took Place
In 1556AD 14-year-old Akbar led his first army to battle in the famous old
battlefield of Panipat which no doubt was a sentimental moment for him because,
like all Mughals, he was fiercely clannish. The Second battle of Panipat
was fought in between him and Hemu, the Prime
Minister of the Sultan of Bengal, who had set out against Akbar the moment he
heard the news about Humayun's death. This battle was to decide the future of
the young Mughal for Hemu was a formidable antagonist. The Sultan of Bengal, Muhammad
Shah Abdali, was but a cipher in the state of affairs in Bengal and Hemu
was the l'homme principle. On the way to Panipat he had scared away the Mughal
governor in Agra and occupied it. In the battle with so many odds stacked
against him, Akbar managed to decisively beat Hemu. What helped him was that
Hemu got a little carried away and arrived in battle on an elephant, which made
him a pretty much a sitting duck; Akbar shot him an arrow right into the eye. As
soon as this occurred Hemu's army panicked and ran away, and Hemu himself was
killed by Akbar.
If the first battle of Panipat
signalled the arrival of the Mughals, the second was of greater importance. All
the pretensions to sovereignty which the Afghans had clung on to since the days
of Sher Shah Suri were finally crushed under the advancing Mughal heels.
With this victory Akbar sent a
clear signal all over India he was undoubtedly the Mughal king and intended
to be, and was taken seriously. Akbar fought battles all over India, and at the
end of it all had an empire that stretched down to the present Karnataka in the
south, touching right upto the Hindukush range in the north, all of Rajasthan in
the west and after taking in Kashmir and Bihar going on to Bengal in the east.
Akbar ruled the greatest empire
that India saw before the British and ruled it with far more authority. One man
sitting in his Red Fort in Agra ruled this entire
empire with an iron hand.
Akbar - A Great Diplomat
Akbar was not only a good military man but he had a great head for diplomacy and
statesmanship as well. He is famous for his Rajput diplomacy, which included
some strategic matrimonial alliances (an idea he was the first to use), that
turned the fiercely independent Rajputs from his bitter enemies to staunch
allies who were ready to lay down their lives for him. He also made many reforms
in administration and army management, and started many innovations.
Diplomacy apart, Akbar was a
great visionary in many other fields like art (painters of his court studied
styles from far and wide), philosophy and religion (in 1581 he started a
national religion which was an amalgam of Hindu, Islamic and Zoroastrian tenets
called the Din-i-Illahi or the religion of God), music, literature and so on.
Akbar also held deliberations in religion and philosophy with Buddhists, Jains
and Christians, in particular the Jesuits. His court was famous for its nauratan
(nine gems) or nine experts chosen over the years from various artistic fields,
like Abul Fazl the historian, Raja Birbal the wit, Mia Tansen the legendary
singer and so on. There are many stories about Akbar and his nine gems; the ones
involving Raja Birbal and him are still popular all over India.
In 1600AD, his son and eventual successor, Jahangir rebelled against Akbar when
he away in the Deccan engaged in battle. In the confusion of events to follow,
Abul Fazl was killed, which made the great Mughal emperor livid with his son. In
fact, he started toying with the idea of making Prince
Khusro, his grandson, the heir apparent.
This Khusro was a big favorite with the army for his valor and also with the
people for his good looks. Realizing his folly Jahangir threw himself at his
father's mercy in Agra. The latter, being in no mood to forgive and forget, took
his time in coming around but eventually did.
In October 1605 Akbar fell ill
and in November that same year that small boy who had stared so many years ago
at the battlefield where his grandfather had won such a famous victory, died as
king-emperor, the greatest king to have ever ruled India.
Jahangir was crowned emperor by
his father when the latter had been on his deathbed in 1605. He had to face the
usual share of revolts and rebellions. The very first one being from prince
Khusro, in which he was in good company for Khusro revolted when Jahangir's
son, Shah Jahan, came to the throne as well. The
single most important person in Jahangir's life was his wife, the enigmatic Nur
Jahan, whom he married in 1611.
Nur Jahan - The Queen
With Marvelous Talents
Nur Jahan was the real power behind Jahangir. She
was a great queen, and a woman of amazing gifts. She was quite a beauty and set
many trends in designs of clothes, textiles and jewellery. The attar (perfume)
of roses was just one of this great lady's innovations. She was also a very
capable and shrewd administrator. No detail, however small, escaped the queen's
attention. Her ability to keep a cool head was almost legendary and she amazed
even battle-hardy generals with her calm and poise in the middle of crisis. She
has been accused of nepotism and of giving rise to a class of nobility which
composed entirely of her kith and kin, but that she was entirely in control is
clear from the fact that she rebuked even her brother when she thought so fit.
Jahangir often remarked: "I have sold my kingdom to my beloved queen for a
cup of wine and a bowl of soup."
Jahan was not without failings and her biggest was ambition, not only for
herself but for her child a daughter from earlier marriage. She tried her
best to keep the king and the rightful heir Shah Jahan
separated and to make her daughter's husband the king. However, this was one
project that Nur Jahan could not complete with
Jahangir was not a mere
figurehead in his kingdom. He led his armies into battle a number of times and
extended the frontiers of his empire further down in the Deccan,
although he lost Kandhar. This loss, however, was not his fault but that of the
bitter in-fighting between Shah Jahan and his
stepmother. Nur Jahan ordered Shah Jahan to move in
battle against a rebellion there, but the prince, suspicious of her motives,
refused and revolted against Jahangir instead. The emperor got so occupied with
his family affairs that he simply forgot about winning Kandhar
back, even though it would have been a matter of just a few days siege.
Things became so bad that
Jahangir had to resort to the extreme measure of kidnapping his own
grandchildren away to Kashmir with him to stop his son. Depsite all this,
however Shah Jahan, being a huge favorite with the nobility, safely ascended the
throne in 1627, when Jahangir died.
The reign of Shah Jahan has been widely
acclaimed as the golden period of the Mughal dynasty. There are many reasons for
this. Thanks to the firm base left by his grandfather and father, Shah Jahan's
reign was relatively peaceful and hence prosperous.
Except for one drought in 1630 in the areas of Deccan, Gujrat and Khandesh, the
kingdom was secure and free from poverty. The coffers of the state were brimming
with the right stuff. So it's no wonder that Shah Jahan was the greatest and
most assiduous builder of the Mughal dynasty.
In 1639, he decided to shift
his capital to Delhi and construct a new city there on the banks of the Yamuna,
near Ferozabad. It was to be called Shahjahanabad and the famously spectacular
peacock throne (the one that Nadir Shah took away) was transferred from Agra to
the Red Fort, the new seat of the Mughal rulers, on April 8, 1648.
Military and building genius
apart, Shah Jahan's capacity for hard work was legendary. Within a year of his
taking reins, the revenue of the state had went up in leaps and bounds.
However, his greatest and most
memorable of achievements of course was the breathtaking Taj
Mahal, which he built in the memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in
There were downsides too. He
was a bigoted Muslim and a confirmed nepotist. He provided for the imperial
princes before anyone else in the matter of administrative and judicial postings
regardless of age, capability and talent. He also started the practise of
conferring the cream of the offices on each prince; like Dara Shikoh was made
the governor of Punjab and Multan, Aurangzeb was appointed governor of all the
four provinces of the Deccan and so on. This might have been just a clever way
to keep them occupied, but that was not how the nobility viewed it. The nobles
saw this, and rightfully so, as an obstacle in the path of their promotions.
End of Shah Jahan
However, the end of Shah Jahan's reign did not
live up to the beginning; it saw one of the messiest battles of succession that
Indian history ever witnessed. In September 1657, Shah Jahan fell ill. The
prognosis was so unoptimistic that the rumors had it that the emperor was dead.
This was enough to spark off intense intrigue in the court. All the four
claimants to Shah Jahan's throne were the children of the same mother
although one would never have guessed that from their temperaments and their
determination to make it to the throne.
In 1657, Dara
Shikoh was 43, Shah Shuja 41, Aurangzeb
39 and Murad 33. All of them were governors of
various provinces: Dara was the governor of Punjab, Murad of Gujrat, Aurangzeb
of the Deccan and Shah Shuja of Bengal. Two of them emerged clear frontrunners
in the battle for the throne quite early: Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb.
Aurangzeb was with doubt the ablest of Shah
Jahan's sons and a clear favorite for the throne. His credentials both in battle
and administration were legendary. He was also an orthodox Muslim of the oldest
school possible, which made him a hot favorite with the clergy.
As stated earlier, the actual
events which unfolded around Shah Jahan's illness were confused. Aiding and
abetting the confusion with every word and gesture, for his own aims and
purposes, was the favorite son Dara Shikoh. Aurangzeb did not waste much time.
Acting on Dara Shikoh's behalf, Aurangzeb along with Murad met the Mughal armies
twice in battle, and beat them each time while moving on relentlessly towards
Agra, where Shah Jahan was convalescing.
When Shah Jahan heard of
Aurangzeb's advance, he expressed a wish to meet Aurangzeb and talk to him. It
was the emperor's belief that upon seeing him alive, his son would turn on his
heels and go back. Clearly the old king had been ailing only in body and not in
mind, for certainly the appearance of Shah Jahan himself would have laid to rest
the whole issue of succession. Even the most ardent of Aurangzeb's supporters
would have had second thoughts about defying the great Mughal's authority
However, Dara Shikoh lacked the
potentate's easy confidence in his son. He was not so convinced that Aurangzeb
would meekly go back to where he had come from once he had been reassured by the
king. In panic he also gave out that he was the heir-apparent.
So with suspicion and rumours
ruling the day and power having the last laugh, Aurangzeb was the most amused of
them all. Within a year he had all his brothers out of the way, father
permanently in custody in the Agra Fort (where he hung on for eight years before
dying in 1666) and was firmly entrenched on the Mughal throne.
If Shah Jahan has been over-romanticised
by scholars, his son and successor Aurangzeb has been unduly denigrated.
Aurangzeb, it seems, could do nothing right. Later writers were to contrast his
bigotry with Akbar's tolerance, his failure against the Marathas rebels with
Akbar's successes against the Rajputs; in fact he has been set up as the polar
opposite of everything that earned one the Akbarian medal of genius. One writer
has said about him, rather tongue-in-cheek, "His life would have been a
blameless one, if he had no father to depose, no brothers to murder and no Hindu
subjects to oppress."
Aurangzeb Ruled India As
A Single Largest State
This picture of him has left such an impact on popular imagination that even
today he is regarded as the bad guy of the Mughal regime, the evil king who
slayed all Hindus and Sikhs. Hardly anyone remembers that he governed India for
nearly as long as Akbar did (over 48 years) and that he left the empire larger
than he found it. In fact, Aurangzeb ruled the single largest state ever in
Aurangzeb's rise to the throne
has been criticized as being ruthless. However, he was no more cruel than others
of his family. He succeeded not because he was crueler but because he was more
efficient and more skilled in the game of statecraft with its background of
dissimulation; and if it's any consolation, he never shed unnecessary blood.
Once established he showed himself a firm and capable administrator who retained
his grip of power until his death at the age of 88. True, he lacked the
magnetism of his father and great-grandfather, but commanded an awe of his own.
In private life he was simple and even austere, in sharp contrast to the rest of
the great Mughals. He was an orthodox Sunni Muslim who thought himself a model
Reign Divides To Two Portions.
The first twenty-three years
were largely a continuation of Shah Jahan's administration with an added
footnote of austerity. The emperor sat in pomp in Delhi or progressed in state
to Kashmir for the summer.
From 1681 he virtually
transferred his capital to the Deccan where he spent the rest of his life in
camp, superintending the overthrow of the two remaining Deccan kingdoms in
1686-7 and trying fruitlessly to crush the Maratha rebellion. The assured
administrator of the first period became the embattled, embittered old man of
Along with the change of
occupation came a dramatic metamorphosis of character. The scheming and subtle
politician became an ascetic; spending long hours in prayer, fasting and copying
the Quran, and pouring out his soul in tortured letters. It was in the second or
the Deccan phase of his career that Aurangzeb began to drift towards complete
intolerance of Hindus.
Earlier his devotion towards Islam had very rarely taken the form of any
religious bigotry. Now all that changed the very king who had ordered in
February 1659 that "It has been decided according to our cannon law that
long standing temples should not be demolished
our Royal Command is that you
should direct that in future no person shall in unlawful ways interfere with or
disturb the Brahmins and other Hindu residents in those places" became a
In this zealousness to promote
the cause of Islam, Aurangzeb made many fatal blunders and needless enemies. He
alienated the Rajputs, whose valuable and trusted loyalty had been so hard won
by his predecessors, so totally that they revolted against him. Eventually he
managed to make peace with them, but he could never be easy in his mind about
Rajputana again, a fact that hampered his Deccan conquest severely.
Then, he made bitter enemies in
the Sikhs and the Marathas. Things came to such a head that Guru Teg Bahadur,
the 9th Guru of the Sikhs was at first tortured and then executed by
Aurangzeb for not accepting Islam; a martyrdom which is mourned to this day by
the Sikh community. The 10th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Govind Singh
then raised an open banner of revolt against Aurangzeb.
End of Aurangzeb's Regime
No, Great-grandfather Akbar would certainly not have approved or been amused. He
would have raised his imperial eyebrows at such a royal mess and sharply rebuked
Aurangzeb for squandering away what he had worked so hard to achieve. Deccan or
Aurangzeb ended his lonely
embittered life in Aurangabad in 1707. Perhaps with relief, but surely with much
grief too for surely he knew that with him set the glorious sun that was the
The gallery of the great
Mughals is completed by Aurangzeb's son Bahadur Shah, commonly neglected because
his reign lasted barely five years. He was an old man (by contemporary
standards) of sixty-three when he acceded, yet his achievements in time would
have done credit to most men in their prime. He made settlements with the
implacable Marathas, tranquillized the Rajputs, decisively defeated the Sikhs in
the Punjab, and took their last Guru into his services. He was traveling
throughout his reign and only came to rest in Lahore in the last few months of
From here on, the Mughal
dynasty begins to disintegrate, and with surprising speed. Many directly blame
Aurangzeb and his destructive policies which eroded the faith of the subjects in
the Mughals for this. However, this is by far an overstatement. Whatever might
have been Aurangzeb's policies, he remained very much the emperor till his dying
breath in 1707. True, his policies did lead to resentment; even at the end of
Shah Jahan's reign the rot had set in. Aurangzeb in fact tried to stop it and
did a good band-aid job for a little while, but then things just went haywire
with his persistent Deccan devil.
Deccan wrung Aurangzeb the man,
the king, the father and the believer out of all softer emotions and decorum. He
simply lost all sense of balance. He alienated a sizeable portion of his
subjects along with allies and employees and made completely unnecessary enemies
which cost his successors dearly. He tried during his lifetime to put down
rebellions all over his empire (the Marathas, the Sikhs, the Satnamis
and the Rajputs) by one hand while trying to take Deccan with the other.
However, it was like trying to put out a wild fire. Ultimately, it was these
alternative power blocs which were cropping up all over the country that sped up
the fall of the Mughals. Not to mention the foreign powers who were already
among those present: the British stretching their legs in Calcutta, the
Portuguese in Goa and the French testing waters in the South.
of course, it did not help
matters that the successors of the great Mughals were weak and unworthy of their
forefathers. But that was bound to happen some time or the other, wasn't it? So,
from the late-18th century the field was wide open for any new power
that wanted to try to set up shop in India.
This was the time when a
certain East India Company suddenly realized that they had stumbled upon a gold