Mughal Empire

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India in the 16th century presented a fragmented picture of rulers, both Muslim and Hindu, who lacked concern for their subjects and who failed to create a common body of laws or institutions. Outside developments also played a role in shaping events. The circumnavigation of Africa by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498 allowed Europeans to challenge Arab control of the trading routes between Europe and Asia. In Central Asia and Afghanistan, shifts in power pushed Babur of Ferghana (in present-day Uzbekistan) southward, first to Kabul and then to India. The dynasty he founded endured for more than three centuries.


Babur of Ferghana

Claiming descent from both Genghis Khan and Timur, Babur combined strength and courage with a love of beauty, and military ability with cultivation. Babur concentrated on gaining control of northwestern India. He did so in 1526 by defeating the last Lodhi sultan at the First battle of Panipat, a town north of Delhi. Babur then turned to the tasks of persuading his Central Asian followers to stay on in India and of overcoming other contenders for power, mainly the Rajputs and the Afghans. He succeeded in both tasks but died shortly thereafter in 1530. The Mughal Empire was one of the largest centralized states in premodern history and was the precursor to the British Indian Empire.

The perennial question of who was the greatest of the six "Great Mughals" receives varying answers in present-day Pakistan and India. Some favour Babur the pioneer and others his great-grandson, Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58), builder of the Taj Mahal and other magnificent buildings. The other two towering figures of the era by general consensus were Akbar (r. 1556-1605) and Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707). Both rulers expanded the empire greatly and were able administrators. However, Akbar was known for his religious tolerance and administrative genius, whereas Aurangzeb was a zealous ruler and fierce proselytizer of orthodox Islam across the heterodox Indian landscape.

The Fugitive King: Humayun

(1508-1556) Babur’s favorite son Humayun took the reins of the empire after his father succumbed to disease at the young age of forty-seven. However, he lacked his father’s craftiness and athleticism. Though he could be a formidable warrior when he chose to be, he was more laid back and indolent. He also was addicted to opium and depended on it for solace much more than a king with insecure borders should indulge in. He also made the mistake of trusting his three brothers, which served as a lesson to future Mughal rulers, who would not repeat this folly. Humayun made his brother Prince Kamran the regent in Kabul, who quickly added Panjab under his control. Humayun, appearing to be weak, did not object and this emboldened his two other brothers, Askari and Hindal to seek more independence.

Humayun’s first campaign was to confront a Sher Khan Sur, an Afghan, who was quietly expanding his territory in the east. Half way through the counter offensive Humayun had to abandon it and concentrate on Gujarat, where a threat from Ahmed Shah had to be squelched. In this he succeeded and annexed Gujarat and Malwa. Champaner and the great fort of Mandu followed next. Following this great triumph, Humayun made another tactical error in installing his brother Prince Askari in Ahmadabad instead of the defeated Ahmed Shah as a feudatory. To savor his victory, Humayun celebrated in Mandu fort for many months, binging on opium and spending too much time in the company of his favourites. When he finally headed home to Agra, he found his brother Askari at his doorstep making a serious bid for the throne. Though his older brother thwarted this effort, Askari was pardoned, which only exhibited royal weakness to his loyal subjects.

Humayun again fell into one of his many periods of laziness and lassitude and resorted to his pipe and playmates. All this time he also neglected to confront Sher Khan Sur, who was gathering land and feudatories in the east. As an administrator Sher Khan was far superior to Humayun. In 1539, Humayun and Sher Khan met in battle in Chausa, between Varanasi and Patna. Humayun barely escaped with his own life and in the next year, in 1540, his army of 40,000 lost to the Afghan army of 15,000 of Sher Khan. Humayun’s brothers refused to help him and he found himself a fugitive in Rajastan and Sindh.

Finally, the Shah of Iran, Shah Tamasp, gave him refuge in Persia. Of course, Humayun put his famous diamond to full diplomatic use because Shah Tamasp was a lover of diamonds. Koh-I-Noor, would serve as the bribe that the Shah Tamasp needed to support Humayun with a large Persian military offensive on Sher Khan Sur in 1544. Humayun found fraternal opposition again in Kandahar, where he was stalled for eight years but eventually won back Afghanistan.

Sher Khan had now become the monarch in Delhi under the name Sher Shah Sur and ruled from 1540 to 1545. He consolidated his kingdom form Panjab to Bengal (first one to enter Bengal after Ala-ud-din Khilji did more than two centuries earlier). But Sher Shah died in an accidental explosion of gunpowder during an offensive in Kalinjar. A superb administrator, he was credited to have organized the government and military in such a way that future Mughal kings used it as their own models. He also added to the fort in Delhi (supposed site of Indraprastha), first started by Humayun, and now called the Purana Qila or the old fort. He built the mosque Qila-I-Kuhna there that was a masterpiece of the period, though only parts of it have survived.

The charred remains of Sher Shah were taken to a tomb in Sahasaram, midway between Varanasi and Gaya. Although rarely visited, it is another glorious triumph in architecture that the future great Mughal builders like Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan tried to emulate. Massive in scale, three stories and fifty meters high, it appears as much a palace as a mausoleum. Sher Shah’s son Islam Shah held on to power until 1553 and following his death the Sur dynasty lost most of its clout due factious strife and severe famine.

In 1554, Humayun attacked the confused and divided state of Sur rulers and in 1555 claimed Delhi again. But in 1556 tragedy struck the Mughals when Humayun tripped and fell to his death while descending the steps after gazing at the stars (he was a keen astronomer) from the rooftop of Sher Shah’s Delhi palace. Thus Humayun ruled in India barley for ten years and died at the age of forty-eight, leaving behind a thirteen-year-old boy, Akbar as his heir. As a tribute to his father, Akbar later built the Humayun’s tomb in Delhi (completed in 1571), from red sandstone, of majestic outline that would become the precursor of future Mughal architecture. Akbar’s mother and Humayun’s wife Hamida Begum personally supervised the building of the tomb.

A True Monarch: Akbar The Great

(1543-1605) Akbar succeeded his father, Humayun (r. 1530-40 and 1555-56), whose rule was interrupted by the Afghan Sur Dynasty, which rebelled against him. It was only just before his death that Humayun was able to regain the empire and leave it to his son. In restoring and expanding Mughal rule, Akbar based his authority on the ability and loyalty of his followers, irrespective of their religion. In 1564 the jizya on non-Muslims was abolished, and bans on temple building and Hindu pilgrimages were lifted.

Akbar's methods of administration reinforced his power against two possible sources of challenge--the Afghan-Turkish aristocracy and the traditional interpreters of Islamic law, the ulama. He created a ranked imperial service based on ability rather than birth, whose members were obliged to serve wherever required. They were remunerated with cash rather than land and were kept away from their inherited estates, thus centralizing the imperial power base and assuring its supremacy. The military and political functions of the imperial service were separate from those of revenue collection, which was supervised by the imperial treasury. This system of administration, known as the mansabdari, was based on loyal service and cash payments and was the backbone of the Mughal Empire; its effectiveness depended on personal loyalty to the emperor and his ability and willingness to choose, remunerate, and supervise.

Akbar declared himself the final arbiter in all disputes of law derived from the Qur'an and the sharia. He backed his religious authority primarily with his authority in the state. In 1580 he also initiated a syncretic court religion called the Din-i-Ilahi (Divine Faith). In theory, the new faith was compatible with any other, provided that the devotee was loyal to the emperor. In practice, however, its ritual and content profoundly offended orthodox Muslims. The ulama found their influence undermined. The concept of Islam as a superior religion with a historic mission in the world appeared to be compromised. The syncretism of the court and its tolerance of both Hindus and unorthodox Shia sects among Muslims triggered a reaction among Sunni Muslims. In the fratricidal war of succession that closed the reign of Akbar's grandson Shah Jahan in 1658.

The World Conqueror: Jahangir

(1569-1627) Prince Salim (b. 1569 of Hindu Rajput princess from Amber), who would later be known as Emperor Jahangir showed signs of restlessness at the end of a long reign by his father Akbar. During the absence of his father from Agra he pronounced himself as the king and turned rebellious. Akbar was able to wrestle the throne back but the prince was showing no signs of remorse. There was also an unconfirmed story of strained relationship between father and son due to Salim’s amorous advances to an ordinary dancing girl. Deeply in love and enchanted by the dancing girl, Anarkali, who was of common birth, Salim was ready to make her his queen. This union, surprisingly, was said to have been unacceptable to Akbar and the girl was abducted and executed. Though the historians do not mention the existence of such a girl called Anarkali, the folklore certainly has survived. This also might have exacerbated the strain between the monarch and the prince.

Salim did not have to worry about his sibling’s aspirations to the throne. His two brothers, Murad and Daniyal, had both died early from alcoholism. Ironically a similar fate would await Salim at the end of his reign when he also succumbed to the ill effects of excessive drinking. But his challenge came from a surprising member of his family. His son Khusrau was favoured by the nobles and made an attempt to unseat Salim, who by 1602 had proclaimed himself as the emperor and renamed himself Jahangir (World Conqueror). Khusrau laid siege to Lahore but was captured by Jahangir and blinded. The cruelty of the previous Sultans of Delhi had now pervaded into the Mughal emperors. Hitherto unknown fraternal and filial murder and torture at the time of succession was to become the norm and almost expected in the kingdom. Jahangir explained that a king should consider no man his relation and sovereignty did not regard the relation between father and son. Treacherous perfidy during succession would not shock any future Mughal heirs.

Jahangir began his era as a Mughal emperor after the death of Akbar in the year 1605. He considered his third son Prince Khurram (future Shah Jahan-born 1592 of Hindu Rajput princess Manmati), his favourite. Rana of Mewar and Prince Khurram had a standoff that resulted in a treaty acceptable to both parties. Khurram was kept busy with several campaigns in Bengal and Kashmir. Jahangir claimed the victories of Khurram – Shah Jahan as his own. However, Kandahar, which had been won by Akbar, was lost to Persia’s Shah Abbas. Further defeats were handed in Northern Afghanistan. Some success was at hand in the Deccan when an African slave, Malik Ambar, brought from Baghdad, serving under the sultante of Ahmadnagar, helped Khurram-Shah Jahan.

The monarch meanwhile was basking in the glory of his son’s victories. He also had unlimited sources of revenue largely due to a systematic organization of the administration by his father, Akbar. The opulence of the Mughals had reached its pinnacle during Jahangir and Shah Jahan’s rule, thanks to Akbar’s foresight. Jahangir built his famous gardens in Kashmir and spent much time relaxing and delegating his work to others. One such person was Jahangir’s wife, Nur Jahan, whom he married in 1611. She was the thirty-year-old widow of one of his Afghan nobles. Her father, Persian born Itimad-ud-Daula became a minister and closest advisor to the emperor. Very able Nur Jahan along with her father and brother Asaf Khan, who was a successful general, ran the kingdom. Jahangir was the monarch in absentia. Addicted to alcohol, he was content to let his wife govern.

After the fiasco in Kandahar, the relationship between Khurram and Jahangir soured. Khurram suspected that Nur Jahan favoured her son-in-law Prince Shariyar (son of Jahangir from a slave), who was married to her daughter Ladli Begum, from her first marriage. Khurram was in rebellion with his father and in this the African slave Malik Ambar and Nur Jahan’s brother Asaf Khan aided him. Khurram- Shah Jahan was married to Asaf Khan’s daughter Mumtaz Mahal. Prince Shariyar was murdered and Nur Jahan spent her last years building a tomb for her father Itimad-ud-Daula in Agra. She could have little influence over the willful Shah Jahan or her niece Mumtaz Mahal.

Jahangir had kept a diary that can pass marginally as memoirs. He describes inane and insignificant details of his garden and daily happenings around the palace. It only serves to give a glimpse of the emperor’s life in a superficial way. Though not a soldier, Jahangir was an ardent patron of Mughal art and an avid builder. He built Akbar’s five-tiered tomb in Sikandra. The emperor kept busy building in Lahore, Allahabad and Agra. While the de facto emperor, Nur Jahan was attending to administrative details, Jahangir found solace in loitering in his gardens and appreciating art and nature.

The darkest incident of his rule perhaps was the disposition of a peaceful leader of newly formed religion called Sikhism. Akbar had watched the blossoming of the new religion founded by Guru Nanak, with fascination. Jahangir, in a controversy with its leader, was responsible for the death of Sikh Guru Arjan Singh (who was placed on a hot iron until he died, unwilling to convert to Islam) and this would have lasting consequences for future Mughal emperors. The peaceful religion of Sikhism would turn militant later when Jahangir’s grandson Aurangzeb murdered the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur. Jahangir, the laid back emperor died in 1627 from alcohol abuse and Prince Khurram–Shah Jahan’s reign as the emperor began.

King of the World: Shah Jahan

Prince Khurram, who would later be known as Emperor Shah Jahan, ascended to the throne after a tumultuous succession battle worthy of a Mughal Prince. His own father, Jahangir, had already handicapped Khusrau, when the son aspired to unseat the father. Younger brother Prince Khurram promptly had him killed, as fraternal ambitions were not to be encouraged, even though the wretched Prince Khusrau was blind. Prince Shariyar, Nur Jahan’s son-in-law had lost his bid to the throne and murdered by Khurram’s father-in-law, Asaf Khan (also Nur Jahan’s brother). Another brother Parwiz was of no consequence.

With the wealth created by Akbar, the Mughal kingdom was probably the richest in the world. Prince Khurram gave himself the title of Shah Jahan, the ‘King of the World’ and this was the name that was immortalized by history. With his imagination and aspiration, Shah Jahan gained a reputation as an aesthete par excellence. He built the black marble pavilion at the Shalimar Gardens in Srinagar and a white marble palace in Ajmer. He also built a tomb for his father, Jahangir in Lahore and built a massive city Shahajanabad in Delhi but his imagination surpassed all Mughal glory in his most famous building Taj Mahal. It was in Shahajanabad that his daughter Roshanara built the marketplace called Chandni Chowk. His beloved wife Arjuman Banu (daughter of Asaf Khan and niece of Nur Jahan) died while delivering their fourteenth child in the year 1631. The distraught emperor started building a memorial for her the following year. The Taj Mahal, named for Arjuman Banu, who was called Mumtaz Mahal, became one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The beauty of the white marble structure is unsurpassed. Almost four hundred years later it still is the awe inspiring place where lovers hold hands and swoon over each other. The thrill one feels at the first sight of Taj Mahal through its main archway is beyond description.

The great Juma Masjid built by him was the largest in India at the time. Shah Jahan also built or renovated forts in Delhi and in Agra. White marble chambers that served as living quarters and other halls for public audiences are examples of classic Mughal architecture. Here in Agra fort, Shah Jahan would spend eight of his last years as a prisoner of his son, Aurangzeb shuffling between the hallways of the palace, squinting at the distant silhouette of his famous Taj Mahal on the banks of River Jamuna.

Shah Jahan’s earlier years were spent in doing his father’s bidding in various campaigns and territorial expansion. However, the territories gained were significant only in a symbolic way. In fact, land and prestige was lost in Kandahar and Northern Afghanistan. The dream of Babur to extend the empire into and beyond Afghanistan into the homeland of the Timurs in Samarkhand was permanently shelved by his progeny, after the humiliating defeats in Kandahar at the hands of a Persian king. Never again would a Mughal venture into the northwest. In Deccan, Shah Jahan at first had defeats at the hands of an African habshi (Negro) slave from Baghdad, named Malik Ambar, who served the Bijapur sultan. Later, however, he joined Shah Jahan and helped him quell the threat from his brothers who had aspirations to conquer the throne. Golconda (Hyderabad) and Bijapur (Karnataka), two powerful states of the south were forced to become vassal states but were left alone to govern as they pleased. At least on paper Shah Jahan’s empire had extended deep into the south in Deccan and beyond. The cover of Mughal suzerainty only helped the southern sultanates to extend their borders well into Chola heartland of Tamil Nadu and Mysore. Muslim rule, now effectively extended to the mouth of Kaveri River.

Though Khurram was the favoured son of Jahangir in his earlier days, the influence of Nur Jahan on the emperor had a deleterious effect on his relationship with his father. She was trying to prop up her own son-in-law, a brother of Shah Jahan as the legal heir. This alarmed Shah Jahan and with the help of his father-in-law and Malik Ambar he was able to muscle his way into Delhi and pronounce himself the emperor. In September of 1657, Shah Jahan, in his waning years, suffered from acute constipation and rumours of his imminent death spread rapidly through the land. The potential successors to the throne, four brothers, were alarmed and moved with haste to claim the throne. His third son Aurangzeb eventually claimed the empire, in the year 1658. Shah Jahan would recover from his illness only to spend his last days as an old and decrepit man, imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb, in the fort in Agra. There he was to remain in house arrest for eight years watching the magnificent monument he had built for his beloved wife Mumtaz. Shah Jahan died in the year 1666, at age seventy-four, eight years after losing his throne to his son. He was interned in the Taj Mahal, next to his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. The aristocracy supported the austere military commander Aurangzeb against his learned and eclectic brother Dara Shikoh, whom Aurangzeb defeated in battle and later had decapitated in 1662.


Aurangzeb's reign ushered in the decline of the Mughal Empire. Aurangzeb, who in the latter half of his long rule assumed the title "Alamgir" or "world-seizer," was known for aggressively expanding the empire's frontiers and for his militant enforcement of orthodox Sunni Islam. During his reign, the Mughal empire reached its greatest extent (the Bijapur and Golconda Sultanates which had been reduced to vassaldom by Shah Jahan were formally annexed), although it is likely that his policies also led to its dissolution. Still, there is some belief that his policies may have slowed the decline of the Empire rather than precipitated it. Although he was an outstanding general and a rigorous administrator, Mughal fiscal and military standards declined as security and luxury increased. Land rather than cash became the usual means of remunerating high-ranking officials, and divisive tendencies in his large empire further undermined central authority.

In 1679 Aurangzeb reimposed the hated jizyah on Hindus. Coming after a series of other taxes, and other discriminatory measures favouring Sunni Muslims, this action by the emperor, incited rebellion among Hindus and others in many parts of the empire--Jat, Sikh, and Rajput forces in the north and Maratha forces in the Deccan. The emperor managed to crush the rebellions in the north, but at a high cost to agricultural productivity and to the legitimacy of Mughal rule. Aurangzeb was compelled to move his headquarters to Daulatabad in the Deccan to mount a costly campaign against Maratha guerrilla fighters led by Shivaji, which lasted twenty-six-years until he died in 1707 at the age of ninety. Aurangzeb, oppressed by a sense of failure, isolation, and impending doom, lamented that in life he "came alone" and would "go as a stranger."

In the century- and one-half that followed, effective control by Aurangzeb's successors weakened. Succession to imperial and even provincial power, which had often become hereditary, was subject to intrigue and force. The mansabdari system gave way to the zamindari system, in which high-ranking officials took on the appearance of hereditary landed aristocracy with powers of collecting rents. As Delhi's control waned, other contenders for power emerged and clashed, thus preparing the way for the eventual British takeover.

Later Mughals

When Aurangzeb died close to the age of ninety, there were seventeen legitimate claimants to the throne that included not only his sons but also his grandsons and great grandsons. After the death of the emperor two brothers fought near Agra (in the same battle site that Aurangzeb had fought his brother Dara Shikoh. Prince Muazzam prevailed and killed his brother Prince Azam Shah and assumed the title Bahadur Shah I (or Shah Alam I). Another brother entered the fight a year later and was killed. Bahadur Shah was well in his sixties when he took control of the empire and soon died in 1712. During those five years he was busy fighting the insurgents in Rajastan and Panjab. Then in 1708 the last Sikh guru, Gobind Singh disappred by his spiritual power . Sikhs under Guru Gobind Singh had already transformed into a radical group after the execution of Guru Teg Bahadur by Aurangzeb. A year later a Banda Bahadur relentlessly stormed Muslim towns and became a thorn on the Mughal emperor’s side.

Bahadur Shah’s son Jahandar Shah succeeded after his death. However, during his tenure he gained a reputation as a womanizing drunk whose outrageous mistress Lal Kunwar took full advantage of the emperor’s condition and enriched herself as well as her brood. Jahandar Shah was killed in 1713 and then Bahadur’s grandson Farrukhsiyar acceded to the throne. With the help of two brothers called Saiyids, Farrukhsiyar restored some sanity to the Mughal rule. Later the Saiyids became intolerable to the emperor and one of them was sent away from Delhi to Deccan and the other was kept in constant watch in Delhi. In Deccan Saiyid Husain Ali Khan colluded with the Marathas and attacked Delhi and using trickery and intrigue seized Farrukhsiyar in the Red Fort. The emperor was blinded and caged and later poisoned as well as stabbed to death. However, prior to his death, Farrukhsiyar had the dubious distinction of aiding the British to have a firm foothold in India, by signing the much-coveted farman (an imperial directive) that would seal the future of British takeover of India.

A wretched youth, Shah Jahan II was made to occupy the throne after the murder of Farrukhsiyar but his rule lasted only three months. The Saiyids enthroned another pawn, Muhammad Shah as the Mughal emperor. He had an unexpected reign of close to thirty years. The Saiyids were disposed off but the emperor had little penchant for ruling. It was during his rule the notorious raids of Delhi by Nadir shah of Persia and the Afghan Ahmad Shah Abdali took place.

Marathas were now constantly attacking Delhi. Of more consequence and humiliation was the plunder of Delhi by Nadir Shah. A Timur descendent, Nadir Shah usurped the throne in Persia and seized Kandahar and Kabul. He marched through Panjab and was invited by Muhammad Shah as a guest to Delhi (only because he had neither the will nor the resources to fight him). Within forty-eight hours, using a lame excuse, Nadir Shah ordered a general massacre of Delhi citizens and looted every bit of wealth they could extort out of the royalty as well as Delhi’s citizenry. Nadir Shah remained in Delhi for forty eighty days and departed with millions worth of gold, jewelry and coins. Even the emperor’s throne, the bejeweled peacock throne of Shah Jahan was packed on elephants and carried away to Persia. Another prize, the Koh-I-nur diamond (Humayun’s diamond now passed back into Persian hands). To add insult to injury, the Shah humiliated the emperor by re-crowning him as the Mughal emperor in an ignoble celebration. Later an Afghani, Ahmad Shah Abdali started his incursions into Delhi just for the purpose of looting the capital. In a series of attacks starting in 1748 until 1761, Abdali would not only pillage and loot Delhi, he also cleaned out Mathura, Kashmir and cities in Panjab. From the east the British defeated the Nawab of Bengal and occupied the state of Bengal. The vast Mughal Empire was coming undone at its seams. The fortunes of the British in India were intertwined with the misfortunes of the Mughals.

The raids by Nadir Shah and repeated incursions of Abdali resulted in quick disposal of the next two emperors Ahmad Shah and Alamgir II until in 1759 Shah Alam II ascended the throne. His reign would last several decades. However, he would preside over more loss of territory to the British. When the Nawab of Bengal lost to Robert Clive, Shah Alam II was forced to recognize Clive as a diwan (chancellor) and Bengal slipped to the British hands permanently. Shah Alam II ruled well until his eighties and died as sightless wretch dressed in rags when an army from Bengal led by General Gerald Lake stormed Delhi and Agra. The Marathas like Scindias, Holkars and the Nagpur Bhonsles also had to relinquish power to the British and the British would now boast that they were complete masters of the whole of India.

In 1806 Shah Alam’s son Akbar Shah II acceded to the much diminished empire of the Mughals and ruled until 1837. His son Bahadur Shah Zafar II would be the last emperor of Mughals before the British deposed him in 1858 and the Mughal dynasty would officially come to a dishonourable end. During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Bahadur Shah II was forced to take the side of the mutineers though he had no power to affect the outcome of the events. The mutineers had outwitted his British sponsors and now the emperor neither had the troops nor the competence. He had no choice but to join the winning side. However, the success of the mutineers was soon reversed and the octogenarian (he was eighty-two years old) was relieved of his empire and deposed in 1858. The British also unleashed a flurry of revenge attacks on Delhi as well as luckless Bahadur Shah. Two of his sons and a grandson were shot while in custody. The emperor was then exiled to Rangoon in Burma where he died in obscurity in 1862.

The glory of the Mughal kingdom established in 1526 by the tiger from Kabul, Babur would end in 1858 and India’s fate was in the hands another expansionist foreign force, the imperial British.

Arrival of the Europeans

Vasco da Gama led the first documented European expedition to India, sailing into Calicut on the southwest coast in 1498. In 1510 the Portuguese captured Goa, which became the seat of their activity. Under Admiral Alfonso de Albuquerque, Portugal successfully challenged Arab power in the Indian Ocean and dominated the sea routes for a century. Jesuits came to convert, to converse, and to record observations of India. The Protestant countries of the Netherlands and England, upset by the Portuguese monopoly, formed private trading companies at the turn of the seventeenth century to challenge the Portuguese.

Mughal officials permitted the new carriers of India's considerable export trade to establish trading posts (factories) in India. The Dutch East India Company concentrated mainly on the spice trade from present-day Indonesia. Britain's East India Company carried on trade with India. The French East India Company also set up factories.

During the wars of the 18th century, the factories served not only as collection and transshipment points for trade but also increasingly as fortified centres of refuge for both foreigners and Indians. British factories gradually began to apply British law to disputes arising within their jurisdiction. The posts also began to grow in area and population. Armed company servants were effective protectors of trade. As rival contenders for power called for armed assistance and as individual European adventurers found permanent homes in India, British and French companies found themselves more and more involved in local politics in the south and in Bengal. Plots and counterplots climaxed when British East India Company forces, led by Robert Clive, decisively defeated the larger but divided forces of Nawab Siraj-ud-Dawlah at Plassey (Pilasi) in Bengal in 1757.

The Marathas

The tale of the Marathas' rise to power and their eventual fall contains all the elements of a thriller: adventure, intrigue, and romanticism. Maratha chieftains were originally in the service of Bijapur sultans in the western Deccan, which was under siege by the Mughals.

Shivaji Bhonsle (1627-80) a tenacious and fierce fighter recognized as the "father of the Maratha nation," took advantage of this conflict and carved out his own principality near Pune, which later became the Maratha capital. Adopting guerrilla tactics, he waylaid caravans in order to sustain and expand his army, which soon had money, arms, and horses. Shivaji led a series of successful assaults in the 1660s against Mughal strongholds, including the major port of Surat. In 1674 he assumed the title of "Lord of the Universe" at his elaborate coronation, which signaled his determination to challenge the Mughal forces as well as to reestablish a Hindu kingdom in Maharashtra, the land of his origin. Shivaji's battle cries were swaraj (translated variously as freedom, self-rule, independence), swadharma (religious freedom), and goraksha (cow protection). Aurangzeb relentlessly pursued Shivaji's successors between 1681 and 1705 but eventually retreated to the north as his treasury became depleted and as thousands of lives had been lost either on the battlefield or to natural calamities. In 1717 a Mughal emissary signed a treaty with the Marathas confirming their claims to rule in the Deccan in return for acknowledging the fictional Mughal suzerainty and remission of annual taxes. Yet the Marathas soon captured Malwa from Mughal control and later moved east into Orissa and Bengal; southern India also came under their domain. Recognition of their political power finally came when the Mughal emperor invited them to act as auxiliaries in the internal affairs of the empire and still later to help the emperor in driving the Afghans out of Punjab.

The Marathas, despite their military prowess and leadership, were not equipped to administer the state or to undertake socioeconomic reform. Pursuing a policy characterized by plunder and indiscriminate raids, they antagonized the peasants. They were primarily suited for stirring the Maharashtrian regional pride rather than for attracting loyalty to an all-India confederacy. They were left virtually alone and without supplies before the invading Afghan forces, headed by Ahmad Shah Abdali (later called Ahmad Shah Durrani), who routed them on the blood-drenched battlefield at Third Battle of Panipat|Panipat in 1761. The shock of defeat hastened the break-up of their loosely knit confederacy into five independent states and extinguished the hope of Maratha dominance in India.

The Nizams of Hyderabad

Maratha raids into Berar, Kandesh, Gujarat and Malwa resumed after the death of Aurangzeb, and loosened Mughal control in the Deccan. In 1724 Asaf Jah, the Mughal Nizam ul Mulk, or viceroy, of the Deccan, defeated several contenders for control of the Mughal southern provinces, and established himself of ruler of an independent state with its capital at Hyderabad. He and his successors ruled as hereditary Nizams, and their state, known as Hyderabad after the capital, outlasted the Mughal empire, persisting until it was incorporated into newly-independent India in 1948. Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jahi was a strong ruler and established an orderly system of administration. He also attempted to reform the revenue system. The dynasty founded by him came to be known as the Asaf Jahi dynasty.

The Sikhs

The Afghan defeat of the Maratha armies accelerated the breakaway of Punjab from Delhi and helped the founding of Sikh overlordship in the northwest. Rooted in the bhakti movements that developed in the second century B.C. but swept across North India during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the teachings of the Sikh gurus appealed to the hard-working peasants. Facing extended persecution from the Mughals, the Sikhs, under Guru Gobind Singh formed the Khalsa (Army of Pure). The khalsa rose up against the economic and political repressions in Punjab toward the end of Aurangzeb's rule. Guerrilla fighters took advantage of the political instability created by the Persian and Afghan onslaught against Delhi, enriching themselves and expanding territorial control. By the 1770s, Sikh hegemony extended from the Indus in the west to the Yamuna in the east, from Multan in the south to Jammu in the north. But the Sikhs, like the Marathas, were a loose, disunited, and quarrelsome conglomerate of twelve kin-groups. It took Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), an individual with modernizing vision and leadership, to achieve supremacy over the other kin-groups and establish his kingdom in which Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims lived together in comparative equality and increasing prosperity. Ranjit Singh employed European officers and introduced strict military discipline into his army before expanding into Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Ladakh.

Establishment of the Europeans

The quest for wealth and power brought Europeans to Indian shores in 1498 when Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese voyager, arrived in Calicut (modern Kozhikode, Kerala) on the west coast. In their search for spices and Christian converts, the Portuguese challenged Arab supremacy in the Indian Ocean, and, with their galleons fitted with powerful cannons, set up a network of strategic trading posts along the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. In 1510 the Portuguese took over the enclave of Goa, which became the center of their commercial and political power in India and which they controlled for nearly four and a half centuries.

Economic competition

Economic competition among the European nations led to the founding of commercial companies in England (the East India Company, founded in 1600) and in the Netherlands (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie-- the United East India Company, founded in 1602), whose primary aim was to capture the spice trade by breaking the Portuguese monopoly in Asia. Although the Dutch, with a large supply of capital and support from their government, preempted and ultimately excluded the British from the heartland of spices in the East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), both companies managed to establish trading "factories" (actually warehouses) along the Indian coast. The Dutch, for example, used various ports on the Coromandel Coast in South India, especially Pulicat (about twenty kilometers north of Madras), as major sources for slaves for their plantations in the East Indies and for cotton cloth as early as 1609. (The English, however, established their first factory at what today is known as Madras only in 1639.) Indian rulers enthusiastically accommodated the newcomers in hopes of pitting them against the Portuguese. In 1619 Jahangir granted them permission to trade in his territories at Surat (in Gujarat) on the west coast and Hughli (in West Bengal) in the east. These and other locations on the peninsula became centers of international trade in spices, cotton, sugar, raw silk, saltpeter, calico, and indigo.

British influence

English company agents became familiar with Indian customs and languages, including Persian, the unifying official language under the Mughals. In many ways, the English agents of that period lived like Indians, intermarried willingly, and a large number of them never returned to their home country. The knowledge of India thus acquired and the mutual ties forged with Indian trading groups gave the English a competitive edge over other Europeans. The French commercial interest--Compagnie des Indes Orientales (East India Company, founded in 1664)--came late, but the French also established themselves in India, emulating the precedents set by their competitors as they founded their enclave at Pondicherry (Puduchcheri) on the Coromandel Coast.

In 1717 the Mughal emperor, Farrukhsiyar (r. 1713-19), gave the British--who by then had already established themselves in the south and the west--a grant of thirty-eight villages near Calcutta, acknowledging their importance to the continuity of international trade in the Bengal economy. As did the Dutch and the French, the British brought silver bullion and copper to pay for transactions, helping the smooth functioning of the Mughal revenue system and increasing the benefits to local artisans and traders.

The fortified warehouses of the British brought extraterritorial status, which enabled them to administer their own civil and criminal laws and offered numerous employment opportunities as well as asylum to foreigners and Indians. The British factories successfully competed with their rivals as their size and population grew. The original clusters of fishing villages (Madras and Calcutta) or series of islands (Bombay) became headquarters of the British administrative zones, or presidencies as they generally came to be known. The factories and their immediate environs, known as the White-town, represented the actual and symbolic preeminence of the British--in terms of their political power--as well as their cultural values and social practices; meanwhile, their Indian collaborators lived in the Black-town, separated from the factories by several kilometres.

The British company employed sepoys--European-trained and European-led Indian soldiers--to protect its trade, but local rulers sought their services to settle scores in regional power struggles. South India witnessed the first open confrontation between the British and the French, whose forces were led by Robert Clive and François Dupleix, respectively. Both companies desired to place their own candidate as the nawab, or ruler, of Arcot, the area around Madras. At the end of a protracted struggle between 1744 and 1763, when the Peace of Paris was signed, the British gained an upper hand over the French and installed their man in power, supporting him further with arms and lending large sums as well. The French and the British also backed different factions in the succession struggle for Mughal viceroyalty in Bengal, but Clive intervened successfully and defeated Nawab Siraj-ud-daula in the Battle of Plassey (Palashi, about 150 kilometres north of Calcutta) in 1757. Clive found help from a combination of vested interests that opposed the existing nawab: disgruntled soldiers, landholders, and influential merchants whose commercial profits were closely linked to British fortunes.

Later, Clive defeated the Mughal forces at Buxar (Baksar, west of Patna in Bihar) in 1765, and the Mughal emperor (Shah Alam, r. 1759-1806) conferred on the company administrative rights over Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa, a region of roughly 25 million people with an annual revenue of 40 million rupees (for current value of the rupee). The imperial grant virtually established the company as a sovereign power, and Clive became the first British governor of Bengal.

Besides the presence of the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French, there were two lesser but noteworthy colonial groups. Danish entrepreneurs established themselves at several ports on the Malabar coast and the Coromandel coast notably Tranquebar, in the vicinity of Calcutta, and inland at Patna between 1695 and 1740. Austrian enterprises were set up in the 1720s on the vicinity of Surat in modern-day southeastern Gujarat. As with the other non-British enterprises, the Danish and Austrian enclaves were taken over by the British between 1765 and 1815.

Mughal Society

The Indian economy boomed under the Mughals, because of the creation of a road system and a uniform currency, together with the unification of the country. Manufactured goods and peasant-grown cash crops were sold throughout the world. Key industries included shipbuilding (the Indian shipbuilding industry was as advanced as the European, and Indians sold ships to European firms), textiles, and steel. The Mughals maintained a small fleet, which merely carried pilgrims to Mecca, imported a few Arab horses, transported soldiers over rivers, and fought pirates; however, the Muslim Siddis of Janjira, and the Marathas sent ships to China, and the eastern limits of Africa, together with some Mughal subjects carrying out private-sector trade.

Cities and towns boomed under the Mughals; however, for the most part, they were military and political centres, not manufacturing or commerce centres. Only those guilds which produced goods for the bureaucracy made goods in the towns; most industry was based in rural areas.

The nobility was a heterogeneous body; while it primarily consisted of Rajput aristocrats and foreigners from Muslim countries, people of all castes and nationalities could gain a title from the emperor. The middle class of openly affluent traders consisted of a few wealthy merchants living in the coastal towns; the bulk of the merchants pretended to be poor to avoid taxation. The bulk of the people were poor. The standard of living of the poor was as low as, or somewhat higher than, the standard of living of the Indian poor under the British Raj; whatever benefits the British brought with canals and modern industry were neutralized by rising population growth, high taxes, and the collapse of traditional industry in the nineteenth century.