The Mughals (also called the Moguls, Mugals or Moghuls) were a Muslim people that originated from Central Asia. They are related to the Mongols, Turks and other horse people who came from the Central Asian steppe, like their ancestors Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane). The word Mughal comes from the Persian word for Mongol. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, April 1985]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Mughals established an empire that at its peak extended across most of northern India. The Mughal military conquest was directed against both Hindu (Rajput) and Muslim kingdoms and continued through the seventeenth century. However, the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) realized that a policy of tolerance and inclusion would better serve Mughal interests, allowing them to consolidate their conquests and create an effective political system.As a way of securing loyalties, members of the Mughal royal family married Rajput royalty, and Rajput maharajas served as Mughal generals and statesmen. Many Indians converted to Islam in order to advance in the powerful Mughal bureaucracy and to participate in their networks of trade to the east and west. Although the Mughal dynasty continued until 1857, it gradually lost power and by the second half of the eighteenth century, its function was largely ceremonial.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The Mughal empire was founded in 1526 by Zahir-ud-Din Babur, a Muslim chieftain from Central Asia with Persian, Mongolian and Turkish blood, when he defeated the last Delhi sultan. In the early 16th century, descendants of the Mongol, Turkish, Iranian, and Afghan invaders of South Asia--the Mughals--invaded India under the leadership of Babur. Babur was the great-grandson of Timur Lenk (Timur the Lame, from which the Western name Tamerlane is derived), who had invaded India and plundered Delhi in 1398 and then led a short-lived empire based in Samarkand (in modern-day Uzbekistan) that united Persian-based Mongols (Babur's maternal ancestors) and other West Asian peoples. Babur was driven from Samarkand and initially established his rule in Kabul in 1504; he later became the first Mughal ruler (1526-30).

The Mughals ruled northern India in various degrees from 1526 to 1858 and were the unchallenged rulers of India from mid 16th century to the end of the 17th century. At the height of their empire in the early 1700s, the Mughals ruled 150 million people in an area that covered nearly all of modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. They presided over a long period of stability and continual rule of the like that India had never really enjoyed before. They also ushered in a period of rich cultural life and encouraged painting and music and built great architectural monuments.

Book: Last Spring: The Lives and Times of the Great Mughals by Abraham Eraly (1997)

Mughal Shahs

The rulers of the Mughal empire were called shahs and they were perhaps the richest men of all time. Their kingdom yielded more gemstones, pearls and other treasures than all the kingdoms of Europe combined. Even though they could be ruthless and cruel, and were very fond of hunting, the Mughal shahs were great patrons of the arts. They loved poetry, Persian-style gardens, beautiful women, and miniature painting.

The Mughal shahs saw themselves as Kings of the World and gods. The luxury they surrounded themselves with is almost beyond comprehension. They received ambassadors and welcomed audiences while seated on the gold and bejeweled Peacock Throne. They celebrated two birthdays—one on the solar calendar and other on the lunar year—with lavish parties. Their most capricious demands became laws that thousands of courtiers scrambled around and tried to fulfill them.

The Great Mughals is that name given to six emperors who ruled the Mughal empire during its golden age. They ruled for a total of 181 years and included: 1) Babur (1483-1530, ruled 1526-1530); 2) Humayun (1508-1556, ruled 1530-1556); 3) Akbar (1542-1605, ruled 1556-1605); 4) Jahangir (1569-1627, ruled 1605-1629); 5) Shah Jahan (1592-1666, ruled 1629-1658); and 6) Aurangzeb (1618-1707, ruled 1658-1707)

Succession for the Mughals was not a peaceful process of passing on the throne from one generation to the next. It involved the ruthless seizure of power. Court life was full of plots and intrigues and it was not uncommon for the shahs to kill their sons, brothers and other relatives to keep them from usurping the throne.

Success of the Mughals as Rulers

The Mughal’s success and ability to hold such a large empire together for such a long time has been attributed to the capability of the rulers and the efficiency of the administrative system. Officers and administrators were chosen with care and based on merit. The ran their state like the Mongols did: as an army under the direct command of the emperor.

Like their rivals, the Ottomans of Turkey and the Safavids of Iran, the Mughals established an absolute monarchy that maintained power with a sophisticated bureaucracy influenced by the Mongol military state and a legal system based on Muslim law. One of their great challenges was to reconcile Islamic egalitarianism with the autocratic rule.

Although they could be quite cruel, the Mughal shahs as a rule "gave generous terms to enemy chieftains and on the whole they were intelligent, urban overlords." Mughal law and administration based on established schools of Muslim law served as the basis of British law and administration in India. Persian was the language of the law courts and the civil service early in the British period.

Although they were Muslims from Central Asia, the Mughals ruled a largely Hindu empire in India. The Mughals ruled through a lose federation of states. They synthesized Muslim and Indian culture, creating a new age of cultural achievement, and introduced Muslim administration. Hindus were included in society, the arts and the government. They served in the military and the courts and contributed to literature, art and cultural life. Society as a whole was multi-religious.

Shiite Muslims like the Mughals were a small minority. Hindus were the majority. Other religions found in the Mughal Empire included Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Jacobites, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sunni Muslims, and Ismaelis. The Mughals allowed all these groups to worship as they pleased. Hindus and Islam merged and bonded in unique ways. In this atmosphere Sikhism developed.

Mughal Armies and Cruelty

India’s first large standing armies were introduced by the Mughals. Many of the warriors in the Mughal armies were Turks. One historian wrote the Mughals were "ever intent on conquest." The Mughals had large but undisciplined armies described by one Englishman as "effeminate" and "fitter to be a soil than a terror to enemies." The Mughals also fed opium to their war elephants to calm them before battles.

Edward Terry wrote in 1618 during the reign of Jahangir: "For his cruelties, he put one of his women to a miserable death; one of his women he had formerly touched, and kept company with, but now she was superannuated: for neither himself nor his nobles (ast they say) come near their wives or women after they exceed the age of thirty years. The failure of that woman was this, the Mughal came upon her and one of her eunuchs kissing one another." [Source: Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, 1987, Avon Books]

"And for this very thing the King presently gave a command that a round hole should be made in the earth, and that her body should be put in that hole, where she would stand with her head only above ground, and the earth to be put in against unto her close around about her, and so she might stand in the parching sun until the extreme hot beams therefore did kill her; in which torment she lived one whole day, and the night following, and almost until the next noon, crying out the most lamentably....The eunuch by the command of the said King, was brought out near the palace where this poor creature was thus buried alive, and there in his sight cut all to pieces."

Mughal Court Life

During a visit to Jahangir's court in 1617, the English ambassador Sir Thomas Roe wrote: "The King removed to his Tents with his women...On two Tressels stood two Eunuchs with long Poles headed with Feathers, fanning him, he gave many favours and received many. Presented, what he bestowed he let down by a venerable fatte deformed olde Matrone... At one side in a window were his principal Wives, whose curiosities made them break little holes in a gate of Reed that hung before it. I saw first their fingers, and after laying their faces close, now one eye, now another...if I had no light their diamond and pearls had sufficed to show them." [Source: Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, 1987, Avon Books]

The Mughals kept large harems that included wives, aunts, nieces, courtesans, concubines and slave girls. Little is known about them. Only family member and trusted courtesans and nobles saw them unveiled. When guests arrived they often observed the goings-ons behind special screens.

In Travel in the Mughal Empire, 1656-1668, Françious Bernier wrote, "There are fakirs of a comely appearance whose presence in a house esteemed a blessing to the family. Heaven defend him, who accused them of any offence, although everybody knows what takes place between the sanctified visitors and the women in the house."

All but one of the Great Mughals enjoyed drinking. During festive occasions Mughal ladies waved lighted sparklers. Describing a feast in 1528, Babur wrote, "Fierce camels and fierce elephants were set to fight...thereafter wrestlers grappled."

The Mughal emperors were often on the move: hunting with cheetahs, attacking forts, checking out new places. While traveling, the emperor slept in an elaborate tent constructed with panels filled with embroidery animals and abstract patterns. The emperors travels were also believed to be tied in with the nomadic heritage of his Central Asian ancestors.

Mughal Wealth

The Mughals lived in luxury rivaled only the Bourbons of France, the Hapsburg of Austria, the Romonavs of Russia and the emperors of China. So impressed were the British by the wealth of the Mughals, the word "Mughal" entered the English language as a term to describe an all-powerful ruler of industry, films or other endeavor.

The seat of power of the Mughal empire was the "Peacock Throne." It had in it background an image of a peacock with an expanded tail wrought in gold and precious stones. A gold divan surmounted by bejeweled peacocks was the symbol of Mughal power and wealth. Requiring seven years to build, the throne embraced golden legs, an enameled canopy supported by twelve emerald pillars which bore two peacocks encrusted with gems. Between the birds on each pillar was a tree covered with diamonds, pearls, rubies and emeralds. Chiseled above the audience hall in the Red Fort, where the Peacock Throne stood, were the words, "If there is paradise on earth, it is this, it is this!"

On Jahangir, English ambassador Roe wrote. "The king at noone sat out at the Durbar, where the Prince brought his Elephants about six hundred richly traped and furnished, and his fellows by estimation ten thousand Horses, many in cloth with heron-top feathers in their Turbans, all in gallantry." [Source: Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, 1987, Avon Books]

"Himself in cloth of Silver embroidered with great Pearle and shining in Diamond like a Firmament. The King embraced him and kissed him, and hewed much affection: at his departure he gave him a sword, the Scabbard all Gold set with stones, valued at a hundred thousand Rupiahs; a Dagger at forty thousand, an Elephant and two Horses with all the Furniture of Gold set with stones. Suddenly the King rose, retreated to the Durbar, and servants that sat n the carpets attending his coming out: not long after he came and sat half an hour, until his Ladies at their doore were ascended to their Elephants, which were about fifty, all most richly furnished, principally three with Turrets of Gold...and Canopies over the cloth of Silver."

Weighing of the Great Mughal on His Birthday

"The first of September was the Kings birthday," Roe wrote, “and the solemnitie of his weigh, to which I went, and was carried into a very large and beautiful Garden, the square within all water, on the sides flowers and trees, in the midst of a panicle, where was prepared the scales...of massive gold, the borders set with small stones, Rubies and urkey, the canines of gold large and massive, but strengthened with silke Cords. Here attended the Nobilities all sitting about it on Carpets."

The King "at last appeared clothed, or rather laden with Diamonds, Rubies, Pearles, and other precious vanities, so great, so glorious! his Sword, Target, Throne to rest on correspondent; his head, necke, breast, arms, above the elbows at the wrists, his fingers every one, with at least two or three rings; fettered with chaines, or dialed Diamonds; Rubies as great as walnuts, some greater; and Pearles, such as mine eyes were amazed at."

"Suddenly he entered into the scales, sat like a woman on her legs, and there was put in against him, many bags to fit his weight which were changed six times, and they say was silver, and that I understood his weight to be nine thousand rupiahs...after with gold and jewels, and precious stones, but I saw none, it being in bags, might be pebbles."

"Then against cloth of Golde, Silke, Stuffes, Linnen, Spices, and all sorts of goods, but I must believe for they were in fardles. Lastly, against Meale, Butter, Corne...and all the rest of the Stuffe: but I saw it carefully carried in, and none distributed. Only the silver is reserved for the poore, and serves the ensuing year, the King using in the night to call for some before him, and with his own hands in great familiarities and humility to distribute the money."

"After he was weighed, he ascended his Throne and had Basins of Nuts, Almonds, Fruits, Spices, of all sort made in thin silver, which he cast about, and his great men scrambles prostrate on theire bellies...At night he drinketh with all his Nobilities in rich plate. I was invited to that, but told, I must not refuse to drinke, and theire waters are fire. I was sicke and in a little flex of blood, and durst not stay to venture my health."

Mughal Gems and Hunts

The Koh-i-noor diamond, now part of the English Crown jewels, was originally part of bracelet that belonged to Shah Jahan. He also owned the 141-carat Taj Mahal emerald, a gem large enough to cover a matchbox. Every morning at sunrise Shah Jahan used to appear in public wearing his gems and then go back to sleep. The British got a hold of the diamond somehow in 1809 after the monarch received an English envoy. Both India and Pakistan have said they want the jewel back. A typical Mughal necklace contained nine large emeralds and two marble-size rubies. The gems tended to be smoothed by tumbling rather cut with facets.

The Koh-i-noor, a 106-carat diamond cut from a 186-carat diamond from the Kollur mine in southern India, is one of the world's most famous gem stones and arguably the one with the most colorful stories surrounding it. According to legend whoever possessed it would rule the world. “It is so precious,” one writer wrote, “that a judge of diamonds valued it at half the daily expense of the whole world.” See Koh-i-Noor Under diamonds

The Mughals liked to hunt tigers from the backs of elephants, a practice that continued by British hunters. They also hunted elephants from the back of elephants, a sport reserved for royalty. When the Mughals prepared themselves for a hunt, they used a stuffed tiger pulled down a hill for target practice, and then had stuffed tiger patched up and repeated the process.

Mughal emperors in the 16th and 17th century used to sponsor month-long hunts with 50,000 beaters. Despite this some were devoted conservationists. Mughal emperors used to have stables with hundreds of hooded hunting cheetahs. The last Indian cheetah was shot in 1948.

Mughal Culture

"The Mughals rulers were," Holland Carter wrote in the New York Times, "by all accounts, awful and admirable in about equal measure. Austere political spinmeisters, they were quick to realize the propaganda potential of art."

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Many Indians were attracted to Sufism, an Islamic sect that preached a direct approach to God through love and devotion. Such an approach was remarkably similar to the Hindu belief in bhakti, the personal devotion to God. Mughal painting and architecture influenced the indigenous Rajput styles and, by the late seventeenth century, constituted the dominant court style. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Mughal gardens featured fountains and water "tumbling from terrace to terrace into pools arranged geometrically among flowers and fruit trees," shade pavilions, reflection pools and fountains. The Moonlight Garden outside the Taj Mahal featured jujube trees, chamoc and cockscomb flowers, mango palms, fig trees, and red cedar. A 100-foot-wide reflecting pool contains 25 fountains an elaborate water works that included wells, cisterns, pipes, channels, cascaded and pools.

Persia had a great deal of influence on Mughal art. Persian artists were brought in and Persian became the language of the court, and poetry and literature was written in Persian. Urdu, a blend of Hindi and Persian, grew out of the language of the Mughal court.

Mughal Art

"The Mughals rulers were," Holland Carter wrote in the New York Times, "by all accounts, awful and admirable in about equal measure. Austere political spinmeisters, they were quick to realize the propaganda potential of art." Persia had a great deal of influence on Mughal art. Persian artists were brought in and Persian became the language of the court.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Many Indians were attracted to Sufism, an Islamic sect that preached a direct approach to God through love and devotion. Such an approach was remarkably similar to the Hindu belief in bhakti, the personal devotion to God. Mughal painting and architecture influenced the indigenous Rajput styles and, by the late seventeenth century, constituted the dominant court style. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Akbar (1542-1605, ruled 1556-1605) is regarded as the greatest of all the Mughal emperors ("Akbar" in fact means "Great"). He employed a large number of artists to create illustrations about things other men read about. Much of the Mughal art hanging in museums is illustrations from manuscripts in Akbar's library. Akbar was infatuated with Persia culture. He made Persian the official language of the court. Great art was produced in Akbar rules.

Mughal painting reached it greatest heights under Emperor Jahangir (1569-1627, ruled 1605-1629), Akbar's son. Artists arrived from Persia at a rapid clip. The works included pages from the Koran illuminated and decorated with tiny flowers and geometric designs, miniature battle scenes from manuscripts and "paintings by rare artists" from Jahangir's place. Under Jahangir, Lahore attracted craftsmen from all over Asia: tilemakers weavers, carvers and miniaturists.

Shah Jahan (1592-1666, ruled 1629-1658) is known mostly as the Mughal ruler who built the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan ruled India during the golden age of Mughal art an architecture. He oversaw the merging of Hindu and Muslim art to produce spectacular miniature paintings.


One the greatest work of miniature painting is the “Padshahnama,” a 10-inch-wide book with 478 pages of text handwritten on gold flecked paper. Commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, Padshahnama literally means "Chronicle of the King of the World." It is a handwritten history of the first 10 years of Shah-Jahan's reign, containing 44 paintings and two illuminations of major events such as battles. court scenes, executions and hunts. Most paintings measure 9 by 13 inches. Some are so detailed they must have taken years to paint. [Source: Paul Richards, the Washington Post, May 18, 1997]

Washington Post art critic Paul Richard wrote: "The pictures on its pages—which show elephants, walled kingdoms, dancing girls and diamonds—aren't like any pictures you've every seen. They're clearer and deeper. The little puff of dust in the upper corner of 'The capture of Orcha by imperial forces' becomes, if you peer into it, an army on the march, with cavalry and infantry and colored banners flying.If you look more closely you can see the saddle blanket on the elephant. If you peer close you can see the fringes on the saddle blanket."

Among the painting in the Padshahnama are "Prince Awrangzeb facing a maddened elephant named Sudhakar," "The delivery of presents for Prince Dara Shiko's wedding," and "Shah-Jahan honoring Prince Awrangzeb at Agra before his wedding." The "The death of Khan Jahan Lodi" shows severed heads with little specks that on close examination are flies with abdomen's full of blood. "The wedding procession of Prince Dara Shiko," is only 10-x-5 inches but contain 18 elephants, 31 horses and 282 different people."


The Hamzanama, an illustrated manuscript executed in the 16th century for the great Mughal emperor Akbar, is regarded as one the greatest masterpieces of Islamic art. Some scholars rank it with the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa. The Hamzanama is a series of stories about Mohammed’s uncle, Hamza, illustrated with exquisite miniature paintings. Produced and made over a 14 year period starting in 1557 by a “factory” of 50 artists under the direction of the Persia-born artist Mir Sayyid Ali, it is a fine example of both Persian and Mughal art. It originally contained 1,400 paintings, of which 200 survive. [Source: Blake Gopnik, Washington Post, July 21, 2002]

The Hamzanama contains scenes of the exploits of Hamza, a legendary Muslim hero. It is not a collection of miniature paintings intended for private reflection. The pages are huge—over two feet high—and were kept in boxes for public storytelling sessions in which a story teller read the text from the back of the pages for the illiterate emperor and his court.

The Hamzanama paintings features bold colors and are filled with figures, details and psychedelic designs that seems inspired by opium dreams. The paintings were large executed by Hindu artists overseen by Persian masters who tried to incorporate some Western ides of perspective. Different artists worked on different pages. On its pages are graphic images of beheadings and blood-drenched battlefields, leopard-spotted and elephant-tusked demons, and depictions of Hamza as he travels around the world.

Nilgai (Blue Bull)

Describing a 18.2-x -24.2-centimeter opaque watercolor and gold leaf from an album made for Shah Jahan during the reign of Jahangir by Mansur in 1620, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Emperor Jahangir combined a fascination with the animals, birds, and flow- ers of India with an interest in naturalistic painting. One of his favorite artists, Mansur, accompanied the emperor on travels through his empire and on hunting trips, making sketches of the local flora and fauna. The nilgai, a wild bull with a blue-gray hide, is a dangerous and wily animal to hunt. Mansur probably studied and sketched this nilgai from life in Jahangir’s game park. Later, in his studio, he added the fine brushstrokes suggesting volume and texture. After another artist created the floral border, the picture was ready to be bound in an album for Jahangir to study and admire at his leisure.[Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“A few faintly sketched plants suggest the field where the nilgai is grazing. All other background details are eliminated to focus on the bull. Mansur’s ability to depict precise natural details of the animal is remarkable. Notice the sense of the bone structure and muscle beneath the short hair on the nilgai’s head. In contrast, the muzzle seems soft and velvety, the hair of the mane bristly, and the tufts beneath the chin and at the tail’s end soft and long. <*>

“Mansur was an admired member of Jahangir’s imperial workshop. His signa- ture in a small curving script immediately to the left of the nilgai’s front legs says, “the work of the servant of the court, Mansur, the Wonder of the Age.” This impressive title was bestowed upon Mansur by the emperor and was his official name at court. <*>

“In contrast to this noble and formal portrait of the nilgai, the borders are filled with elegant, colorful floral scrolls created by another artist whose specialty was painting borders for album leaves. Vines circle about each other, producing flowers such as lilies, narcissus, and morning glories. The borders combine Islamic floral and vine patterns with classical floral motifs recently reinterpreted by Renaissance artists whose works were brought to the Mughal court in the form of prints. <*>

Mughal Carpet with Pictorial Designs

Describing a 833.1-x-289.5- centimeter, late-16th-or-early-17th-century. Mughal period cotton and wool carpet, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Across the imperial red field of this carpet, wild animals move freely about among decorative trees and plants. One lion is attacking an ibex, a type of wild mountain goat. Small birds are perched on the branches of the blossoming trees. Beneath them, large cranes stand about. It is as if one were looking into a royal Mughal hunting park filled with lions, tigers, ibexes, and palm trees, all native to South Asia. Closer examination reveals, however, that not all the beasts are real. Some lions and ibexes have flamelike attachments on their bodies, resembling those that appear on the qilin, a mythical Chinese beast. Since the thirteenth-century Mongolian invasions in Iran, Chinese motifs such as the dragon, phoenix, and decoratively curled clouds often appeared in Persian art. The Mughals, who greatly admired Persian art, brought to India this taste for Chinese motifs. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

Iranian court weavers imported by the early Mughals introduced the Persian style of carpets in which a symmetrical field of stylized flowers, birds, and sometimes animals in combat were arranged in dense arabesque patterns based upon geometric order. The challenge faced by later Mughal weavers was how to adapt this traditional ornamental style to the growing imperial interest in pictorialism. Here the animals, birds, flowers, and trees are placed in a design that repeats three and a half times, each revers- ing the direction of the last. Although a sense of decoration and repetition still prevails, the area in which the birds, animals, trees, and flowers exist is more like a landscape. The field has opened up, the patterns are less insistent and symmetrical, and the animals charge about with natural energy.

Mughal Personal Art Objects

The Mughals produced outstanding jeweled objects d' at. One of the most outstanding pieces, owned today by Sheik Nasser al-Sabah of Kuwait, is a dagger with 1,685 rubies, 271 diamonds, 62 emeralds and many pieces of emerald green and deep blue glass. It features an Italian Renaissance grip, a blade inscribed with English words, Iran-style gold overlay and a scabbard with Central Asian silk designs.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “It was a tradition in the Mughal and Rajput courts to give elaborate gifts to impress and gain favor at court. Giving beautiful, skillfully made objects that could be held or worn advertised the refined taste of the donor, another way to advance one’s position at court. The most treasured possessions, and therefore the most prized gifts, were jewels, bejeweled daggers and turban ornaments, fancifully designed containers made of precious materials for food and drink, incense, jewelry, perfume and water for bathing, writing implements, and hunting equipment. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“At the biannual weighing ceremony of the Mughal emperor, his weight in gold and silver, made from gifts by his courtiers and subjects, would be distributed to holy men and the poor. The emperor, in exchange, bestowed costly personal objects on his favored princes, ambassadors, and officials.” <*>

Mughal Music

As Indian music developed over time, it absorbed musical style forms around south and central Asia, particularly from various locations around India, Persia, and the Mughal homeland in present-day Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The Hindustani music of northen India is the result the fusion of the Hindu music of the Veda and Muslim influences from the west. Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) is regarded the father of Hindustani music. He melded Persian, Hindu, Sanskrit and Islamic influences and is regarded as the founder of qawwalki and khayal and the inventor of the sitar.

During the Mughal era and the feudal era, Indian classical music thrived in the courts of kings, maharajahs, princes and wealthy noblemen, who often tried to outdo each other in the patronage of the arts. Many people regarded music as an entertainment form reserved for the wealthy. In Mughal times a performances sometime lasted all day and all night. It was designed to be performed for a relatively small group of people in a relatively small luxurious chamber room not among a large audience in a concert hall. [Source: Rough Guide of World Music]

The most famous singer was Tansen, a Rajput princess married to the Mughal Emperor Akbar. It was said that her voice was so beautiful and powerful it could ignite oil lamps. The Mughals never conquered the south and Hindu Veda music remained alive there in temples and villages and has endured as Karnatak music. While Hindustani music was a court music for elites, Karnatak flourished as a music close to the people. Much of it was never written down until recently. Instead it was passed on using a system the defined rhythmic units using mathematics.


A ghazal is a light style of classical Persian love music adored by the Mughals. Originally more of a poetic than musical form, the name is derived from an Arabic word meaning "to talk amorously to women." Although sometimes referred to as the Urdu equivalent of khayal, it is based as often on folk melodies as on ragas. The lyrics are often taken from famous Urdu poems. Famous ghazal singers are mostly women. They include Shabha Urtu, Najma Akhtar and Begum Akhtra (1914-1974). [Source: Rough Guide of World Music]

Ghazals are also performed in Central Asia, Iran and Turkey. In India they often heard on the radios or in films popular in northern India. But they are most often associated with court music from the Mughal Golden Age. These songs were often linked with stories of maharajahs who seduced deadly snakes into performing dances, Mughal shahs who transformed day into night with their songs and musicians who calmed rampaging elephants.

Some ghazal stick close to the raga format. Others bring folk rhythms to the forefront and verge on being pop songs. Essential elements found in Ghazal are shayari (“eloquent poetry”), mausiqui (“gentle music”) and jazbat (“fragile emotions”). The music is very slow paced and the lyrics are repeated two ro three times. The first couplet is a matla. The second couplet is the makta. The remaining couplets are misra and antara.

Decline of Mughal Empire

Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal emperor , was involved in a series of protracted wars--against the Pathans in Afghanistan, the sultans of Bijapur and Golkonda in the Deccan, and the Marathas in Maharashtra. Peasant uprisings and revolts by local leaders became all too common, as did the conniving of the nobles to preserve their own status at the expense of a steadily weakening empire. The increasing association of his government with Islam further drove a wedge between the ruler and his Hindu subjects. [Source: Library of Congress *]

A few years after Aurangzeb's death in 1707, the Mughal empire fractured into a number of independent and semi-independent states. Persians, Afghans, Sikhs and Hindu rebels (Rajputs and horse-mounted Marathas) destroyed the power of the Mughal during the 18th century. The complete collapse has been attributed the inability of the Mughals to keep pace with intellectual, societal, and military changes that made the vulnerable to incursions from Europe.

Contenders for the Mughal throne fought each other, and the short-lived reigns of Aurangzeb's successors were strife-filled. The Mughal Empire experienced dramatic reverses as regional governors broke away and founded independent kingdoms. The Mughals had to make peace with Maratha rebels, and Persian and Afghan armies invaded Delhi. *

During the 1700s and 1800s the power of the Mughals was eclipsed by the British. What remained of the Mughal empire was manipulated by the British. The last Mughal emperors were little more than British puppets.

Last Mughal Ruler and Descendants of the Mughals

The Mughals survived until 1857. The 17th and last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah II, survived in a small enclave until then. He was gentle man who liked calligraphy and poetry. In May 1857, troops who mutinied during the Sepoy Rebellion showed up at the Red Fort in Delhi, where Bahadur Shah II lived, and called out, "Help us, oh King!" Although Bahadur Shah II didn't do much, when the mutiny was over he was arrested and accused of abetting the mutiny and was charged as an accessary in the massacre of 49 Europeans. Bahadur Shah II was exiled to Burma. He died in 1862. One of his 16 sons, the heir apparent, died after being poisoned.

In 1911, there were some 60,000 Mughals in India and Pakistan, mostly in the Punjab. They were variously described as a tribe, a Muslim caste and “descent group.” They enjoyed high status. Their women practiced the purdah.

In the mid-1980s, Princess Qamar Sultan, the great-granddaughter of Bhadu Shah lived in a crowded neighborhood in Delhi and survived on the salary of her daughter, who worked as a librarian. Descendants of the Mughals who still hold land have the title of "Mir." The 70-year-old Mir of Hyderabad told National Geographic is the 1980s, his family's jagir contained 700 to 800 villages. He maintained a some troops to guard his kingdom's railroad and remembers his preparing for a tiger shoot by taking practice shots at a stuffed tiger that was dragged up and own a hill. The family palace was sold to the government and turned into offices.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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