X. The Establishment of the Mughal Empire

        [[135]] WHILE there is continuity in the history of Indo-Islamic civilization, with the foundation of the Mughal empire in the second quarter of the sixteenth century a political and cultural watershed was reached. The era of the sultanate (from 1206 to 1526) is often referred to as the medieval period of Indian history, partly because of correspondence in time to the conventional classification of European history, and partly because of certain analogies in spirit of the two historical epochs. But it is also the Middle Ages of Indian history in that it divides ancient India and modern India. While it is true, as has been shown in the preceding chapters, that the seeds of the new life which bloomed so vigorously in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were planted during the seemingly barren years of the sultanate, nevertheless the Mughal empire has a different atmosphere from the preceding era. It can be argued that the beginning of modern Indian history is to be dated not from the establishment of British hegemony in the early nineteenth century, but from the coming of the Mughals in 1526.

        One obvious reason for the different tone and spirit of the Mughal empire is the greater continuity of administration. For three hundred years the same dynasty ruled from Delhi, and for half of this period, from 1556 to 1707, four rulers in direct succession maintained control. This is a remarkable achievement in the dynastic history of any great country, but it is particularly astonishing when measured against the rapid overthrow, not just of rulers, but of dynasties, in the sultanate period. Undoubtedly this dynastic stability contributed to the rich and varied cultural life of the period. The basic reason for the different tone of the two periods is, however, the success of Akbar, the third of the Mughal rulers, in creating an enduring system of administration. Whatever evaluation may be put on the role of individuals as creative forces in history, it is difficult to escape the conclusion [[136]] that to quite an extraordinary degree Akbar was responsible for many of the features that characterize the Mughal period.

        The beginnings of Mughal rule followed a familiar pattern: an adventurous chieftain in the mountainous areas to the northwest, attracted by possibilities of wealth and power during a period of internal weakness in India, gathered his forces for a sudden descent upon the Punjab./1/ Babur was ruler of a kingdom centered on Kabul when he invaded India in 1526, but his original territory was the little principality of Farghana in Turkistan. A Chaghatai Turk, he claimed descent from both of the great Central Asian conquerors, Timur and, more remotely, Chingiz Khan. It was this connection with the great Mongol invader that gave the dynasty the misleading appellation of "Mughal" or "Mongol." This is especially ironic, since Babur himself had an intense dislike for the Mongols. While it is too late to change the long-accepted nomenclature, it is worth remembering that the Mughal dynasty was Turkish in origin, and the cultural tradition which Babur imported into India was the one which had flourished on the banks of the Oxus. Timur attracted a large number of poets, musicians, and philosophers to his brilliant court, and built and embellished his capital, Samarqand, in a truly magnificent style. After Timur's death in 1405 these cultural traditions were more than maintained by his descendants, who made their capitals centers of art and learning that drew upon the whole Islamic world. This was the atmosphere in which Babur grew up, and which he and his successor were to transplant to Lahore, Delhi, and Agra. Babur himself was a writer of great distinction, and his autobiography is considered one of the great monuments of Turkish prose.

        Babur had established himself in Kabul in 1504, after he had been driven out of Farghana by the westward movement of the Uzbegs, and when he found that he was prevented from expansion towards Persia by the rise of a new dynasty there, he turned his attention to India. There the revival of Hindu power and the virtual independence of the Muslim governors provided him with an opportunity to attack the [[137]] sultanate with the assurance that he would not be met by any united resistance. In 1525 he captured Lahore, the capital of Punjab, whose ruler was in virtual rebellion against the sultan, and then made plans for an attack on Delhi. The decisive encounter with the sultan, Ibrahim Lodi, took place on the historic battlefield of Panipat on April 21, 1526. It is probable that Babur had fewer than 12,000 men, in contrast to at least 100,000 in the army of the sultan, but he had the decisive advantages of fine artillery and disciplined, well-led troops. The sultan had neither, and before evening he and 15,000 of his soldiers were dead, and the road was open to Delhi and Agra. After Babur had taken these, he swept on to capture the other great centers of North India—Gwalior, Kanauj, and Jaunpur. His strongest opposition came from the famous Rana Sanga, the Rajput ruler of Mewar, who had collected a great force of Hindu chieftains and a few Muslim nobles. The two armies met at Khanua, a village near Agra, on March 16, 1527, and although the rana was a far better leader than the sultan, his bravery was no match for Babur's superior tactics and modern weapons. Rana Sanga's defeat meant the end of Rajput hopes for a restoration of Hindu power; also it freed Babur's army for mopping-up operations against the Afghan supporters of the sultan in the outlying provinces. By 1529 he was master of the Gangetic plain as far as Patna in Bihar, but he died in the following year before he could complete the conquest of North India. Even so, the territory that he bequeathed to his son, Humayun, included Afghanistan, the Punjab, the fertile Ganges plain, and a rim of forts along central India.

        Humayun was twenty-three when he succeeded his father, and while he had experience as a military commander, he lacked his father's vigor and toughness. These qualities were needed, for he was faced with a hostile combination of his own jealous relatives, including his three younger brothers, and the Afghan nobles who were not reconciled to their loss of power. He soon found himself fighting his enemies on two widely separated fronts. In the west, Bahadur Shah, the ruler of Gujarat, which had been independent of Delhi for over a century, provided shelter for his enemies; in the east, his authority was challenged by the Afghan chieftains, under Sher Khan [[138]] Sur. He was able to carry out a successful attack on Bahadur Shah's territories, but he had to abandon his gains to move against the threat to his power from Sher Khan Sur in Bihar.

        Sher Khan Sur was one of the most colorful of the numerous Afghans who had created places for themselves in the outlying provinces. The son of a petty Afghan jagirdar in Bihar, he had gone at an early age to Jaunpur, where he acquired an excellent knowledge of the Arabic and Persian classics. He entered the service of the governor of Bihar, but apparently seeing the likelihood of a Mughal triumph in North India, he joined the army of Babur when he invaded India. After Babur's death he took advantage of the disturbed conditions to assert his own supremacy over Bihar. This, however, did not satisfy him, and at the end of February, 1536, he appeared at the gates of Gaur, the capital of Bengal, and retired only after receiving a large payment. Next year he marched eastward again and entered Gaur in triumph, but on the return of Humayun from Gujarat, he withdrew toward Bihar to fight the Mughals in the area he knew best. In 1539 Humayun, who had occupied Gaur, was caught in unfamiliar territory during the monsoon, and as he tried to withdraw his forces toward Agra, Sher Khan blocked his communications and defeated him at Chausa on the Ganges. The two armies met again at Kanauj, in 1540, but the Mughal army was so demoralized that on Sher Khan's advance they fled in panic. Humayun's last chance of making a stand against the Afghans was gone. He fled toward Rajputana and Sind, and at one time turned toward Qandahar where his brother Kamran was in power, but he received no help and had to seek refuge with the Shah of Persia. For the next fifteen years he wandered through the Indian borderlands, quarreling with his brother and seeking support for a return to India, but it was not until 1555, a year before his death, that he was able to enter Delhi again.

        Sher Khan Sur proclaimed himself ruler of North India in 1539, after the battle of Chausa, with the title of Sher Shah Adil, and he quickly conquered Malwa, Rajputana, and Sind. To guard against a Mughal invasion, he built a strong line of forts in the northwest Punjab.

        Although he reigned for only six years, and his successors lost control ten years after his death, Sher Shah's rule is one of the more [[139]] significant Islamic administrations in Indian history. His deep knowledge of earlier history and his practical experience with the working of the system evolved by the Delhi sultans enabled him to utilize what was good in the past and to improve and add to it. In this way he paved the way for the final phase of Muslim administration under Akbar and the later Mughals. For example, he undertook administrative reforms which had been introduced originally by Ala-ud-din Khalji, such as a powerful standing army officered by the nobles of the sultan's choice, and improved on them, leaving his successors with a more efficient state service.

        The principal reforms for which Sher Shah is remembered are those connected with land revenue administration. The agency which he built up, and which with further improvements under Akbar and the British continues to the present day, fulfilled many functions. It was entrusted with the recovery of government dues, collection of data regarding the villages and the holdings of the cultivators, and the general economic situation. In this reform Sher Shah was able to draw upon his experience of the detailed administration of a pargana of his father's jagir. The fundamental change made by Sher Khan was the use of actual measurement, rather than an estimation, of the cultivated land as the basis for revenue assessment. The land was to be measured every year, and then one fourth or one third of the average produce was to be taken as revenue. Allowance was to be made for soils of different degrees of productivity.

        The revenue system depended upon careful organization, and Sher Shah attempted to create an administrative structure that would be under continual supervision from the capital. Here again he was drawing upon the experience of the past, which had shown the dangers of too much power in the hands of governors. The smallest administrative unit was the pargana, or group of villages, and for each of these Sher Shah appointed a shiqqdar, who was responsible for the general administration, including the preservation of law and order, an amin, who supervised assessment and collection of revenue, a treasurer, and two clerks to keep accounts, one in Persian, and the other in Hindi. The next unit was a sarkar, or a revenue district, which had a chief shiqqdar and a chief munsif, "whose duty it was to see that the [[140]] revenue was collected in full, but that the cultivators were not oppressed."

        Sher Shah's desire for a centralized administration is also reflected in his attempt to link the various parts of his empire by an efficient system of roads. Of his four great roads, one connected Sonargaon (near modern Dacca) in Bengal, through Agra, Delhi, and Lahore, with the Indus; others connected Agra and Mandu; Agra, Jodhpur, and Chitor; and Lahore and Multan. Fruit trees were planted on both sides of the roads and at short intervals caravansaries were set up with separate lodgings for Muslims and Hindus, with servants to supply food to the travelers of each religion. Safety was ensured by making the officials of the adjacent villages responsible for incidents on the roads passing through their areas. Trade along the highroads was encouraged by the abolition of all tolls, with custom duties levied only on the frontiers. Although Sher Shah was rigidly orthodox, Hindus held high positions in his army, and Todar Mal, who later gained renown under Akbar, was originally in his service. One of his best-known generals was Brahmajit Gaur, whom he sent in pursuit of Humayun, and Raja Ram Singh of Gwalior is also said to have been in his service. His army included a contingent of Rajputs.

        Islam Shah, who succeeded Sher Shah in 1545, made an effort to preserve the institutions of his father. He kept the fortifications in good repair, increased the number of caravansaries, and ordered the compilation of a detailed statement of government regulations, extracts of which were read every Friday in meetings of government officials of each area. He was, however, unable to keep his rebellious nobles in check, and religious unrest among his subjects further undermined his power.

        The religious ferment of Islam Shah's reign was part of a widespread movement. At this time the millennium of the migration of the Prophet of Islam from Mecca was approaching, and many people believed in the imminent appearance of a Mahdi who would convert the whole world to Islam and fill the earth with equity and justice. Sayyid Muhammad, a leading scholar and saint of Jaunpur, encouraged this expectation and later claimed to be the Mahdi. Those who accepted his claims and followed his injunctions were known as [[141]] Mahadwis. The Mahadwi movement gradually lost its importance in northern India, but it flourished longer in the south, and Mahadwi doctrines have been held by some important persons in Hyderabad Deccan (including the late Nawab Bahadur Yar Jang). Even in northern India, the struggle which it generated and the conflict which ensued between the court jurists and the Mahadwi notables had their effect on the religious history of Akbar's day.

        Sayyid Muhammad Jaunpuri died in Farah, in modern Afghanistan, in 1504; but his doctrines were kept alive by his enthusiastic followers. In Sher Shah's reign, Shaikh Alai, son of a leading religious teacher of Bengal, established himself at Bayana near Agra, where he came under the influence of Shaikh Abdullah, an Afghan follower of Sayyid Muhammad. The two leaders confined their preaching, marked by rigid puritanism and asceticism, to the poor. They kept no property and encouraged others to do the same, and admonished anyone who committed irreligious acts. The group carried arms and permitted no interference with their actions by officials. This defiance brought them into conflict with the established government, in particular Makhdum-ul-Mulk, an important office-holder in the state, who strongly objected to the new cult and used his influence with Islam Shah to punish those who believed in its doctrines. Shaikh Alai and Shaikh Abdullah had many powerful friends, but their unwillingness to acknowledge any superior secular authority, including a refusal to salute even the emperor, gave Makhdum-ul-Mulk an opportunity to have them both flogged. The bitterness and animosity engendered by the strife between the sect's leaders and the government help to explain, in part at least, the growing confusion and disorder of Islam Shah's reign.

        Quarrels over the succession at the time of Islam Shah's death in 1554 provided the opportunity for which Humayun, now established as ruler of Kabul, had long been waiting. Just prior to this he had finally freed himself of his brother's opposition, and he was able to move against India without fear of an attack from the rear. He took the great key cities of the north, Lahore and Delhi, in a series of campaigns in 1555, but bad luck pursued him before he had a chance to consolidate his gains. In January, 1556, he was killed in a fall on [[142]] the stairs of his library in Delhi. To his young son Akbar he left the royal title and a foothold in Hindustan, but little security against the members of the Sur family and their supporters. To make good the claims of Babur's descendants to the throne of Delhi was to be the work of Akbar, not of the unfortunate Humayun.

        While Humayun's career as an Indian ruler was brief and insecure, his contribution to the cultural synthesis of the Mughal period was of very considerable importance, for from his reign dates the increasing Persian influence on Islamic civilization in India. During years of exile at the court of Shah Tahmasp of Persia, he had come in contact with the artists who were making Tabriz a great cultural center. Two of them, Mir Sayyid Ali and Khwajah Abdus Samad, apparently were given offers of employment by Humayun, and in 1550 both of them joined him at Kabul, which he had occupied prior to his reconquest of India. Humayun entrusted the two artists with various commissions including the preparation and illustration of the famous Persian classic, Dastan-i-Amir Hamzah, portions of which have survived. They accompanied Humayun to Agra, and were retained later by Akbar as his court painters. By training local talent and attracting other artists from abroad, a school of painting was established which was to be one of the glories of the Mughal empire.

        To the Perso-Turkish culture Akbar added other elements such as Indo-Muslim music, Hindu philosophy, and Hindi literature, which had received little official support at Delhi during the sultanate, although they had flourished in the regional kingdoms. With this broadened basis, Mughal culture assumed a pattern which has left a permanent mark on the cultural life of the subcontinent.


/1/  Memoirs of Zehir-ed-Din Muhammed Babur, trans. by J. Leyden and W. Erskine, rev. by Sir Lucas King (2 vols.; London, 1921), provides a firsthand account of Babur's reign.

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