Mughal India

To call India a subcontinent feels right not only because the South Asian peninsula forms a tectonic plate that was at one time separate from the greater Asian landmass, and still moves separately from it, pushing up the great Himalayas, but also because it encompasses a level of cultural diversity that justifies a supranational characterization. Perhaps more than other places, India has adopted a stream of outsiders, and outsiders who came to conquer the realm: the “Aryans” who are said to have subdued the existing dark-skinned Dravidians and established the Hindu religion, the Persians and Greeks who controlled the Kingdom of Ghandara in now Pakistan, the Persian-cultural Muslims who established the Sultanate of Delhi and Golconda/Hyderabad (see post of 2008.03.28), and most recently the British who through the East India Company made India part of its great nineteenth century empire. [This is not even including the numerous minority groups who have settled in India–see posts of 2008.03.02 and 2008.05.14 on the Jewish and Parsi communities of Cochin and Bombay.]

The legacies of each of these on what constitutes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh today are many. The “Aryans” (who may be only legendary, as an outside conquering force) provided many of the things that we consider most Indian, such as Hinduism, the caste system and the Sanskrit classics. The earlier Muslim Kingdoms introduced Islam to India and established such great cities as Delhi and Hyderabad. The British are responsible at the same time for Indian unity and the ultimate three-way division of the subcontinent, and arguably for the modern democratic Indian state, including the metropoli of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta.

But none of these matches, in the imagination of the tourist, the Mughals, who ruled much of India from 1526 to 1857 and left behind such great monuments of their rule, monuments which are now some of the greatest tourist attractions of India.

Friday Mosque, Delhi

The founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur, came down from Central Asia to India when he was defeated by Uzbek opponents in now Uzbekistan in the early 16th century. He was ethnically Turkic/Mongol–descended from Tamerlane and Genghis Khan (“Mughal” means “Mongol”)–but built up his forces and power through Central Asia and now Afghanistan before taking Delhi and the rest of northern India (not including now Rajasthan) from the Delhi Sultanate which was then dominant in the region.

Sadly, the most famous Babur-built edifice was destroyed in 1992 by a Hindu mob (post to come), because the Babri Mosque was believed by some to have been built on the site of an important Hindu temple that Babur had destroyed. (Babur was also known to demonstrate respect for his subjects, among other examples, telling his son Humayun that he should “refrain from the killing of cows, which will help obtain a hold on the hearts of the people of India.”)

Humayun briefly lost his empire to Muslim rivals and sought refuge in Safavid Iran (see post of 2008.5.19), but returned to India to successfully re-conquer and expand the Mughal Empire.

On right, a mural inside Esfahan’s Chehel Sotun Palace showing Humayun seeking the assistance of the Iranian Safavids, who had their capital at Esfahan

Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, which was built by his widow and is widely considered the model for the Taj Mahal

Humayun’s son Akbar, also (somewhat redundantly) known as Akbar the Great, is considered the greatest of the Mughal emperors. Akbar is famous not only because he was able to greatly expand his realm, in part by establishing suzerainty over the Rajputs in now Rajasthan (for a dramatization of this, see the 2008 film Jodhaa Akbar), but also because he was famous for his tolerance and pan-theism, eventually even trying to create a new religion (focused on himself) that would supplant the subcontinental rivalry between Hinduism and Islam. In keeping with his idealism, he built an entirely new capital for the Mughal Empire at a site just outside the city of Agra, called Fatehpur Sikri (post to come).

Akbar’s tomb at Sikander, near Agra

Akbar’s son, Jahangir, ruled the Mughal Empire from 1603 to 1627 and is most famous for his patronage of the arts and his wife Nur Jahan, or “light of the world,” who held great power in the court.

The Itimad-ud-daulah’s tomb was built for Nur Jahan’s father. Popularly known to Agra tourists as the “Baby Taj,” it is a gem of a building, with exquisite marble inlay.

Jahangir in many ways continued the brand of enlightened idealism fostered by Akbar. At the Red Fort of Agra, Jahangir is said to have installed a golden chain of justice, reaching from inside the court to outside the walls, which could be pulled by anyone in order to have an audience with the Emperor to address an injustice.

Shah Jahan’s rule (1628-58) is the architectural height of the Mughal Empire. He built the Red Fort and Friday Mosque in Delhi–indeed Old Delhi is also called Shahjahanabad–expanded Agra’s Red Fort and also built the most famous tomb in the world for his favorite wife. Shah Jahan is now also buried in the Taj Mahal.

The incomparable Taj Mahal, from the river side

Shah Jahan and Nur Jahan

Shah Jahan’s Red Fort at Delhi. What is now known as Old Delhi is Shah Jahan’s creation, including not only the Red Fort (first two pictures) and Friday Mosque (third picture), but also the city’s walls and gates and the great boulevard now known as the Chandi Chowk.


From Humayun on, Mughal culture was greatly influenced by Iran. Persian design is particularly evident in the Chini Ka Rauza, an Agra tomb for Shah Jahan’s prime minister, who was from Shiraz, Iran.

Ganj Ali Khan Mosque, Kerman, Iran

The last of the great Mughals is known for being the worst, in many senses. Although Aurangzeb, who ruled until 1707, much expanded Mughal control to include most of the Deccan in southern India, and even moved his court south to a new city called Aurangabad, his relatively harsh treatment of non-Muslims and puritanical orthodoxy mark him as a sort of villain (for example, he is said to have banned music in the empire). Perhaps because of the overextension caused by Aurangzeb’s conquests, or the failure of his successors, the Mughal Empire retracted considerably after his rule, dwindling to essentially only Delhi by the time the British rose to power in the subcontinent.

Aurangzeb’s tomb in Khuldabad, near Aurangabad. His piety dictated that his tomb be as modest as possible–the relatively simple marble enclosure is a modern addition.

The Bibi Ka Maqbara in Aurangabad, a poor imitation of the Taj Mahal, was built by Aurangzeb’s son as a tribute to his mother and shows the relative lack of attention to the arts during Aurangzeb’s reign compared to his predecessors.

One can detect a certain schizophrenia in the treatment of the Mughal Empire by modern India. To a certain extent, India was de-Muslimized by the Partition–although historical Muslim rule and the present Muslim population are very much core aspects of Indian history and identity, the existence of Pakistan (and to a lesser extent Bangladesh) as an heir to the Muslim tradition accentuates the “foreign” aspects of the Muslim rulers of India, including the Mughals. Indeed, the very name–Mongols–suggests that the Mughals were a foreign power, an alien race exercising dominion over the native (Hindu) Indians. But this is of course inaccurate. First, when the Mughals arrived there was already a substantial and long-established Muslim population in North India. Also, it is important to keep in mind how long the Mughals ruled India–almost three hundred years. Even if the Mughals first thought of themselves as ethnically Turkic or cultural Persian, the fact that they lived in India for hundreds of years, and mixed readily in marriage with local women, meant that they were in actuality as much Indian as not. At a genetic level, Mughal emperors and nobles a couple generations after Babur must have been largely Indian, and the eventual lingua franca of the Mughal Empire, Urdu, is closer to Hindi than it is to Persian or Turkish.

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