After the dazzling period of the Gupta Empire and the reign of the Sultanate of Delhi, India saw the emergence of the largest ever empire with the rise of the Mughal rule in the country. The term 'Mughal' is the Persian equivalent of the term 'Mongol". The founder of this new state in India was Zahir-Ud-din Muhammad Babur, a descendant of Jenghis Khan and Timur the Lame. Babur had been thrown out of Central Asia earlier by the Uzbeks, but he managed to gain control of Afghan territories and then set his eyes on India by conquering which he could become more powerful and richer. In 1518 and 1524 he attacked India and in 1525 he led a well organized army to Delhi. In the battle of Panipat, in 1526, he defeated Ibrahim Lodi, the last of the Delhi Sultans. The next year he defeated the Rajputs and then he succeeded in capturing most of the Ganges Valley. In the Mughal dynasty he founded, six emperors were famous – Babur (1526 –1530), Humayun (1530 – 1556), Akbar (1556 – 1605), Jehangir (1605 – 1627), Shah Jehan (1627 –1658), and Aurangazeb (1658 –1707). Of these, Akbar and Shah Jehan were two of the most important emperors in the history of India.
Indologist Dr. Percival Spear, in his major work on the history of India (Penguin) begins his account of the emergence of the Mughals, giving a prelude to the momentous era, thus:
"The observer of the Indian scene in the early years of the sixteenth century might well have supposed that politically and socially the country was in decline. Conflict, confusion, uncertainty were to be found nearly everywhere except in the extreme south. But the country was controlled by members of an alien religion, yet these were hopelessly divided amongst themselves. The long reign of Hindu states had been broken at the end of the 12th century by the foreign rule of Muslim Turks. Though alien and at first ferocious, these people were at least united. For two centuries the Delhi Empire or the Sultanate controlled the north and at times the central provinces of the country. The rule was essentially military, and their regime something of an armed camp, but they were open to cultural influences, they employed Hindus largely in all the services and they built fine. They settled in the country, their capital city of Delhi in the mid-fourteenth century was, on the testimony of the much-traveled Ibnu Batuta, one of the leading cities of the contemporary world.
In 1938 the Turkish conqueror Timur or Tamerlane ended all this with his bloody raid on India and sack of Delhi. The monuments of the next ten years still testify to the desolation and despair he left behind. It took nearly fifty years for the Delhi kingdom to become more than a local chiefship…Even the revival was slow and fitful. In the Deccan, or center, the Delhi empire had broken up into the succession state of the Bahminis, a brilliant, brittle minority rule. But this state was itself shattered in the late fifteenth century. The Muslim forces were patently in disarray.
Nor were the Hindus a much better case. All over the north, they had lost sovereignty. Only in Rajasthan had they held out, but even here they were deeply divided by clan feeling and chiefs' rivalry, with new states flaking off from the old as the chisel of ambition worked on Rajput pride and obstinacy."
This summarizes the situation on the eve of Babur's invasion. Now on to Babur himself, again in the words of Dr. Percival Spear:
"Babur is one of the most attractive characters in Indian or any other history. He was not only a soldier-statesman of a familiar type, but a poet and man of letters, of sensibility and taste and humor as well. Wherever he went he laid out Persian gardens and his memoirs are dotted with references to natural beauties. It was the absence of the hills and streams of his homeland that he felt so keenly in India…"
Though he established the Mughal Empire in India, he himself took a poor view of the Delhi-Agra tract and its inhabitants. Here is an extract from Babur's own description of Hindustan, as quoted by Dr. Spear :
"Hindustan is a country that has few pleasures to recommend it. The people are not handsome. They have no idea of the charms of friendly society, of frankly mixing together, or of familiar intercourse. They have no genius, no comprehension of mind, no politeness of manner, no kindness of fellow-feeling, no ingenuity or mechanical invention in planning or executing their handicraft works, no skill or knowledge in design or architecture; they have no horses, no good flesh, no grapes or musk melons, no good fruits, no ice or cold water, no good food or bread in their bazaars, no baths or colleges, no candles no torches, not a candlestick."
That was about the founder. Now let us turn to the rest of it. During the reign of emperor Humayun, who succeeded Babur, Sher Shah Suri of the Pashtoon tribe from Afghanistan attacked the Mughal territory and captured a large chunk of it. But Akbar, the next emperor, recaptured it and enlarged the limits of his empire. Jehangir, who succeeded him was his son born to Mariam Ussamani, a Rajput princess. Jehangir's successor Shah Jehan was his son born to Manmati, a Rajput princess. It was Shah Jehan who constructed Taj Mahal, the world famous monument in marble to perpetuate the memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. During Aurangazeb's reign, the Mughal empire reached in zenith of its expansion. But corruption became rampant in the bureaucracy and continuous and internecine battles, when coupled with revolts from the farming community, the Mughal rule began to shake and shiver during the period of Aurangazeb. The dynasty was on the brink of a collapse, and it was accelerated by a 27-year long war with the Maratha rulers. And it fell. During the first struggle for India's independence (1857), the revolting soldiers of the British army declared the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Emperor of India. But the British arrested this 'Emperor of India' and deported him to Myanmar (the erstwhile Burma) where he died in prison in 1862.
Who was the best among the Mughal rulers? Opinions differ. Akbar was an extra-ordinary ruler of universal acceptance, and the one who quashed the sectarian, partisan and wrong policies of his Muslim forerunners. He removed the imposition of certain taxes like Jussiah on non-Muslims and canceled the prohibition on the Hindus to the construction of temples and pilgrimage to holy places. He kept the landlords of the Afghan-Turkish gang out of administration by canceling the extra powers being enjoyed by them so far and assumed all powers of running the empire. The establishment of the new religious order of Din Ilahi in 1580 was also aimed at keeping the Afghan-Turkish elements at their proper places. At the same time he gave due importance to Hinduism and the Shiites of Islam. During Akbar's reign, the Mughal Empire was one of the richest empires in the whole world. Prince Khurram, who succeeded Akbar's son Jehangir after a bloody succession war, assumed an honorific name, Shah Jehan (which meant the ruler of the whole world) and became the emperor. Shah Jehan, himself a connoisseur of arts, used the fabulous riches he inherited from his grandfather's empire, creatively too. The black marble pavilion in the Shalimar Gardens of Srinagar, the white marble palace of Ajmer, the memorial he constructed for his father in Lahore, and the Shah Jehanabad town in modern Delhi, and to crown all these the very Taj Mahal on the bank of the river Jumna, one of the wonders of the world – all are reflections of Shah Jehan's creative instinct. He constructed fortresses in Agra and Delhi. His son Aurangazeb imprisoned him in the Agra fort where he breathed his last, in 1666, trying to catch a glimpse of the far away Taj Mahal where his wife Mumtaz was buried. Shah Jehan too was buried by the side of his wife.