The ascent and decline of the Mughal Empire

It’s 1526 in what is now Northern India, and Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi is about to face off against a prince from Central Asia, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur. To quash the threat, the Sultan brings his war elephants to battle. But it’s said that the explosions of Babur’s cannons and muskets startled the elephants and they trampled the Sultan’s own army.

Babur had long harbored ambitions of building his own empire. Though he was descended from some of the world’s most successful conquerors, he struggled to gain a foothold among the many ambitious princes in Central Asia. So he turned his attention to India, where his descendants stayed and built the Mughal Empire, one of the wealthiest and most powerful states in the early modern world and home to nearly a quarter of the global population.

Babur died just four years after that fateful battle, but his own memoirs and the work of his descendants immortalized him in colorful fashion. His daughter, Gulbadan, recalled in her own memoir how Babur— having recently given up drinking— filled a newly-constructed pool with lemonade rather than wine. His grandson, Akbar, commissioned exquisite miniature paintings of Babur’s stories— one depicted the empire’s founder riding through his camp, drunkenly slumped over his horse.

It was Akbar who consolidated Mughal power. He established protections for peasants— which in turn increased their productivity and generated more tax revenue— and embarked on military campaigns to expand Mughal territory. Princes who swore allegiance to him were rewarded, while he made brutal examples of those who resisted, killing them and many of their subjects. His conquests opened access to port cities on the Indian Ocean, which connected the Mughals to Arab, Chinese, Ottoman, and European traders, bringing in incalculable wealth, including silver and new crops from the Americas.

As the Muslim ruler of a diverse, multiethnic empire, Akbar worked to create internal cohesion by appointing members of the Hindu majority to high positions in his government, marrying a Hindu bride, and distributing translated copies of the “Mahabharata,” an ancient Indian epic poem, to his Muslim nobles. Akbar also hosted lively religious debates where Sunni and Shia Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians, and the newly arrived Portuguese Jesuit missionaries defended the merits of their respective faiths. While most participants viewed this as an intellectual exercise, Portuguese missionaries were disappointed by their failure to convert Akbar.

The Mughals built architectural masterpieces such as the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, a palace three kilometers around, that housed 50,000 people and contained the magnificent gold and jewel-encrusted Peacock Throne. Just the throne took seven years to construct. During its first 180 years, the Mughals had only six rulers, which contributed to the empire’s stability. When the fourth emperor, Jahangir, struggled with alcohol and opioid addiction, his wife, Nur Jahan, took the reins as co-ruler. When a traitorous general captured her husband in an attempted coup, she negotiated his release and rallied the army to stop the rebellion. She once led a hunting party to track down a tiger that was terrorizing a village, leading one poet to write: “Though Nur Jahan be in form of a woman/ In the ranks of men she’s a tiger-slayer.”

Following the death of the sixth emperor, Aurangzeb, in 1707, seven emperors took the throne over the next 21 years. These frequent transitions of power reflected the larger political, economic, social, and environmental crises that plagued the empire throughout the 18th century. In response to this turmoil, regional leaders started refusing to pay taxes and broke away from Mughal control. The British East India Company offered military support to these regional rulers, which in turn increased the company’s political influence, enabling it to eventually take direct control of Bengal, one of the wealthiest regions in India. By the 19th century, the East India Company had massive political influence and a large standing army, which included Indian troops. When these troops revolted in 1857, aiming to force out the British and restore Mughal influence, the British government intervened, replacing company rule with direct colonial rule, deposing the last Mughal emperor and sending him into exile. And so, over three centuries after its founding, the Mughal Empire came to an end.

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