The Most Powerful - Cholas
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.
Chola's Contribution To South Indian History
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.
Cholas Came Into Power
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 Islands too.
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.
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
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.
Declining of The Great Dynasty
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
Islamic '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
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 valley.
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.
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).
Ascent of Rajput Power
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 unit. Delhi
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 century.
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) respectively.
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
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 Indian rulers.
The Afghans and Turks regarded war as a serious business, a matter of
life and death.
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'
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 uptill 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.
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. and even when the king was
weak the Turks saw it as their duty to maintain a strong face and keep
the show going.
The Islamic Rule Over The Region
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.
If Qutub-ud-din 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
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 Sultans
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
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
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 Tughlaq (1350-1388AD).
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.
The 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
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
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
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
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
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 the
greatest ruler 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
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
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."
However, Nur 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 success.
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
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
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 child birth.
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 (also see
History in Delhi) 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 openly.
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 Mughal history.
Aurangzeb's rise to the throne has been criticised as being ruthless.
However, he was no more cruel than others of his family. He succeeded
not because he was crueller 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 Muslim ruler.
Aurangzeb's 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
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 the second.
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 total fanatic.
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 no Deccan.
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 Mughal dynasty.
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, tranquillised the Rajputs, decisively defeated the Sikhs in
the Punjab, and took their last Guru into his services. He was
travelling throughout his reign and only came to rest in Lahore in the
last few months of his life.
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 mine.