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.

BABUR (1483-1530, ruled 1526-1530)

The Mughal empire was founded in 1526 by Zahir-ud-Din Babur (1483-1530, ruled 1526-1530), a Muslim chieftain from Central Asia who defeated the last Delhi sultan and established the Mughal Empire. Babur was described by one writer as a "marvelous writer, brilliant statesman and ruthless general." His name means Tiger. Babur was born in 1483 in Andijan in the Fergana Valley of present-day Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to the Fergana ruler Umar Sheikh Mirzo. He was descendant of Tamerlane on his father’s side and Genghis Khan on his mother’s side. Babur became a chief at the age of 11 after his father died when his pigeon house toppled over the edge of a cliff with him in it. Babur later wrote his father "flew, with his pigeons, and their house, and became a falcon."

Babur ruled over the Fergana Valley, which was sought after by his tribal rival. Wise noblemen helped Babur govern the territory until he was able to rule for himself. When that happened, Babur soon set his sight on acquiring more territory for himself. Babur conquered Samarkand at age 14 but was driven the great Silk Road city soon after that. He initially established his rule in Kabul in 1504 and later became the first Mughal ruler (1526-30).

Babur’s determination was to expand eastward into Punjab, where he had made a number of forays. Then an invitation from an opportunistic Afghan chief in Punjab brought him to the very heart of the Delhi Sultanate, ruled by Ibrahim Lodi (1517-26). Babur, a seasoned military commander, entered India in 1526 with his well-trained veteran army of 12,000 to meet the sultan's huge but unwieldy and disunited force of more than 100,000 men. Babur defeated the Lodi sultan decisively at Panipat (in modern-day Haryana, about ninety kilometers north of Delhi). Employing gun carts, moveable artillery, and superior cavalry tactics, Babur achieved a resounding victory. A year later, he decisively defeated a Rajput confederacy led by Rana Sangha. In 1529 Babur routed the joint forces of Afghans and the sultan of Bengal but died in 1530 before he could consolidate his military gains. He left behind as legacies his memoirs (Babur Namah), several beautiful gardens in Kabul, Lahore, and Agra, and descendants who would fulfill his dream of establishing an empire in Hindustan. [Source: Library of Congress]

At its height, Babur's empire occupied what is now eastern Afghanistan, part of northern Pakistan, the Punjab and part of northern India south of the Himalayas and around the Ganges. Babur had at least seven wives and fathered at least 19 children, most of them daughters. In his memoir, the “ Babur-Nama”, he confessed one of his strongest desire was for a boy.

Babur's Early Conquests

Babur was fascinated withe “modern” weapons such as crude matchlocks and mortars. He set his sights on conquering Samarkand, the famously wealthy Silk Road city a few hundred miles to the southwest of his base in the Fergana Valley, when he was in his early teens. At the age of 14, his forces conquered Samarkand but lost it the next year and then won it again. While engaged in these campaigns, Babur lost the Fergana Valley, at age 17, to the Uzbek Shaybanids.

Unable to keep Samarkand, Babur shifted his attention southward towards Afghanistan and India. In 1504, he laid siege to lightly guarded Kabul and easily captured the city. This time he was able to keep the city and he used it as a base of operation for other conquests. He also began calling himself “ padshah” ("supreme lord") rather than the lower level title “mirza.” Shah is a shortened version of "padshah."

Babur lived in Kabul from 1504 to 1526, before he conquered northern India. He loved the city. He liked to get drunk in the terraced gardens he built. Seventeen of his children were born in Kabul. After he died in Agra in 1530 his remains were brought to Kabul and buried there.

Babur's Early Attacks on India

In “ Babur-Nama”, Babur wrote, "It was always in my heart of possess Hindustan." From Afghanistan, Babur invaded the Punjab and other parts of India four times, each time returning home with large amounts of booty. On his move into India, Babur said his objective was to recover lost possessions of his family. His main obstacle was Ibrahim Lodi, the Sultan of Delhi.

Babur seized Kandahar (Qandahr) in 1524 and Lahore in 1524. In 1526, Babur faced off against Ibrahim and his force of 100,000 men and 1,000 war elephants at the Battle of Panipat. Panipat is about 50 miles north of Delhi. Even though they were outnumbered four to one, Babur's army defeated the army of the Delhi sultan by using rudimentary artillery (matchlocks and mortar probably obtained the Turks). It was the first time such weapons were seen in northern India. Babur also utilized an ingenious barricade consisting of ditch behind farm carts latched together, and surrounded his enemy using Mongols-style flanking tactics.

Ibrahim’s primary mistake was responding to small raids by Babur's raiding units with all out attacks. As the sultan’s forces advanced they were hit by arrows from crossbows and gunpowder-propelled balls from the matchlocks. As that was happening, the Mughal cavalry attacked the flanks and rear. Ibrahim "fell back on his own center." Within a few hours Ibrahim and 20,000 or more of his men were dead and his army routed.

Babur in India

Babur took over Delhi and Agra, two cities used as capitals by the Sultan of Delhi. Babur took so much booty that his troops were able to bring home piles of coins, every citizen of Kabul received a coin and grand gifts were sent to holymen in Samarkand.

Babur was a writer and a poet. In his notebooks, he described the wonders he encountered in India for the first time: monkeys, peacocks and parrots that people "make speak words." Overall though he was less than impressed. In his memoirs, “ Baburnama”, he wrote: “Hindustan is a country of few charms. Its people have no good looks; of social intercourse, paying and receiving visits there is none; of genius and capacity none; of manners none. In handcraft and work there is no form or symmetry, method or quality; there are no good horses, no good dogs, no grapes, musk melons or first rate fruits, no ice or cold water, no good bread or cooked food in the bazaars, no hot baths, no colleges, no candles, torches or candlesticks.” One of his tasks was to establish beautiful garden in India. On the gardens already there, he wrote, "We traversed them with a hundred disgusts and repulsions.’

On India as a whole, Babur wrote: “Pleasant things of Hindustan are it is a large country and has masses of gold and silver...Another good thing is that it has are unnumbered and needless workmen for every king. There is a fixed caste for every sort of work and for every thing, which has done that work or from father to son until now.”

Babur didn't live long after he conquered India. He spent much of his time fighting other monarchs. In 1530 Babur and his son Humayun fell ill. Babur’s daughter Begum Gulbadan (Princess Rose Body) wrote that Babur expressed his willingness to sacrifice his own life for that of his son. Babur died. Humayun recovered and succeeded his father.

HUMAYUN (ruled 1530-1556)

Humayun (1508-1556, ruled 1530-1556), the son of Babur, lacked the skill and strength of his father. He spent much of his life on the run and appeared to have a deeper love for books than conquest (when he was on the move he took his library with him). He lost much of what his father achieved but held on to enough of it to allow his son Akbar to reclaim it and more. Humayun means Fortunate. When Babur died, Humayun, also a soldier, inherited a difficult task. He was pressed from all sides by a reassertion of Afghan claims to the Delhi throne, by disputes over his own succession, and by the Afghan-Rajput march into Delhi in 1540. He fled to Persia, where he spent nearly ten years as an embarrassed guest at the Safavid court. In 1545 he gained a foothold in Kabul, reasserted his Indian claim, defeated Sher Khan Sur, the most powerful Afghan ruler, and took control of Delhi in 1555. [Source: Library of Congress]

Humayun was an opium addict who spent little time with his wives or members of his harem. He died after falling down a flight of stairs.

Humayun is Forced from India

In 1539, Humayun was surprised by an enemy at Chausa near Varanasi and his army was fragmented and driven into the Ganges. Many soldiers drowned. Humayun himself would probably have drowned were it not for a young water carrier who threw an inflated water bag to the king and helped him to shore. The move was a lucky stroke for the water carrier. He had no idea he was helping a king. Humayun was very grateful and even let the water carrier preside over his court, sit on his throne and give orders for a short time

In 1540, Humayun was driven out of India by the Pathan chieftain Sher Shah Suri. Instead of seeking refuge in Kabul, which was controlled by Kamran, his brother and rival, Humayan was forced to cross the unforgiving Indian desert into Persia. On the way he angered local Hindu Rajputs by slaughtering sacred cows for food. The Rajputs got even be filling wells with sand. Many of Humayan’s people and animals died of thirst. Humayun was forced to give up his horse to his wife and ride unceremoniously on a camel.

Humayun was greatly impressed by Persian love of the arts, particularly miniature painting and poetry. When he left Persia he brought along two Persian miniaturists, who helped found the Mughal school of painting. While he was out of India, Sher Shah Suri achieved great things in India. He built a number strategic forts and constructed a large section of the Grand Truk Road.

Sher Shah Suri ruled the Delhi empire until his death in 1545. After that his empire crumbled. Humayun marched from Kabul and regained his throne in Delhi in 1555. He held it for six months. After consulted with some astrologers on the roof of his palace Delhi in 1556, he fell down descending some stairs at his library in Delhi and died from a head injury. It is said he had consumed large amounts of opium.

Humayun’s Clashes with His Brothers

While Humayun was in Persia, Kamaran made no effort to help Humayun at Chausa and instead acted as if the throne was his. This was not the only time that Humayun's three brothers would betray him in their own attempt to claim the throne. Each time Humayun forgave them.

Backed by an army provided by the Persian shah, Humayun captured Kandahar, which was half contolled by his brother Askari. Then he ousted Kamran from Kabul. For eight years the brothers fought each other in Afghanistan, made up and fought again.

Finally the nobles who supported Humayun had enough. They demanded that he do something about Kamran after he was recaptured. Humayun gave into their demands. Begum Gulbadan wrote in “ Humayun-Nama”, "The Emperor gave an order...'Blind Mirza Kamran in both eyes.'" According to one report this was done with repeated stabbings with a knife followed by a rinse of salt and lemon juice.

AKBAR (ruled 1556-1605)

Jalal-ud-Din Akbar (1542-1605, ruled 1556-1605) is regarded as the greatest of all the Mughal emperors ("Akbar" in fact means "Great"). He succeeded Humayun and was an able administrator and leader and is credited with making the Mughal Empire the great empire its was. Akbar patronized art and literature and was open-minded enough to marry a Hindu.

At its height, Akbar's empire occupied what is now most of Pakistan, most of northern India, a small part of Afghanistan. Kashmir , Bengal and central India as far south as the Deccan Plateau. Akbar's empire far exceeded the empire of his contemporary Queen Elizabeth of England in terms of territory, wealth, subjects and size of the military force.

Akbar was born to Humayan's teenage wife in represent-day Umarkot, Pakistan during Humayun’s flight from India to Persia. As a young man he showed more of an interest in fighting and riding war elephants than studying. He never learned to read.

Akbar was just 13 years old when his father Humayun died. For several years he was watched over by the harem while his wet nurse tried to maneuver her natural son Adham Khan to the throne. The rivalry ended when Akbar was caught Adham Khan murdering Akbar's chief minister. Akbar punched his rival and knocked him out. He then ordered him thrown off the ramparts. When the fall didn't kill him. He was thrown off again.

Humayun's untimely death in 1556 left the task of further imperial conquest and consolidation to 13-year-old son Akbar. Following a decisive military victory at the Second Battle of Panipat in 1556, the regent Bayram Khan pursued a vigorous policy of expansion on Akbar's behalf. As soon as Akbar came of age, he began to free himself from the influences of overbearing ministers, court factions, and harem intrigues, and demonstrated his own capacity for judgment and leadership.A "workaholic" who seldom slept more than three hours a night, he personally oversaw the implementation of his administrative policies, which were to form the backbone of the Mughal Empire for more than 200 years. He continued to conquer, annex, and consolidate a far-flung territory bounded by Kabul in the northwest, Kashmir in the north, Bengal in the east, and beyond the Narmada River in the south — an area comparable in size to the Mauryan territory some 1,800 years earlier. [Source: Library of Congress]

Akbar had seven wives and a number of concubines. After having trouble siring a son he sought the blessing of a famous holyman named Shaik Sali. After the meeting he had three sons. The first son was the future emperor Jahangir.

Akbar's Rule

Akbar ruled for 49 years. A "workaholic" who seldom slept more than three hours a night, he personally oversaw the implementation of his administrative policies, which were to form the backbone of the Mughal Empire for more than 200 years. Abdul Fazl wrote in the “ Akbar-Nama”, "He busied himself in the administration of justice, and made fitting regulations for the founding of empire and the cherishing of subjects.” He continued to conquer, annex, and consolidate a far-flung territory bounded by Kabul in the northwest, Kashmir in the north, Bengal in the east, and beyond the Narmada River in the south — an area comparable in size to the Mauryan territory some 1,800 years earlier.

Akbar realized that ruling India was important to remain on the alert. winning battles. “A monarch should never be intent on conquest otherwise neighbors raise their armies against him,” he wrote. “The army she should be exercised in warfare, lest from want of training they become self-indulgent.” Akbar built a walled capital called Fatehpur Sikri (Fatehpur means Fortress of Victory) near Agra, starting in 1571. Palaces for each of Akbar's senior queens, a huge artificial lake, and sumptuous water-filled courtyards were built there. The city, however, proved short-lived, perhaps because the water supply was insufficient or of poor quality, or, as some historians believe, Akbar had to attend to the northwest areas of his empire and simply moved his capital for political reasons. Whatever the reason, in 1585 the capital was relocated to Lahore and in 1599 to Agra. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Akbar adopted two distinct but effective approaches in administering a large territory and incorporating various ethnic groups into the service of his realm. In 1580 he obtained local revenue statistics for the previous decade in order to understand details of productivity and price fluctuation of different crops. Aided by Todar Mal, a Rajput king, Akbar issued a revenue schedule that the peasantry could tolerate while providing maximum profit for the state. Revenue demands, fixed according to local conventions of cultivation and quality of soil, ranged from one-third to one-half of the crop and were paid in cash. Akbar relied heavily on land-holding zamindars. They used their considerable local knowledge and influence to collect revenue and to transfer it to the treasury, keeping a portion in return for services rendered.Within his administrative system, the warrior aristocracy (mansabdars) held ranks (mansabs) expressed in numbers of troops, and indicating pay, armed contingents, and obligations. The warrior aristocracy was generally paid from revenues of nonhereditary and transferrable jagirs (revenue villages) . *

Akbar and Religion

Akbar consolidated his empire by marrying a Hindu princesses from Rajputana and other powerful Hindu provinces. He also founded his own Sufi order dedicated to “divine monotheism” and wanted to found society based on “universal peace.” Akbar invited representatives from every known religion, including Jesuits, Parsis and Hindus, for debates in his court and presided over a period of religious freedom. He surrounded himself with scholars and holy men and worked on creating his own religion, which elevated himself to divine status. Some scholars believe that Akbar was so swayed by conversations with a Portuguese Jesuit priest he abandoned Islam and converted to Christianity.

Akbar was tolerate of other religions. He did not persecute not-Muslim -s nor attempt to convert them to Islam. He observed Hindu festivals, sponsored and placed Hindus in positions in his court and army, and abolished “ jizya” (the tax on non-Muslims) and became a vegetarian and quit hunting (a sport he greatly enjoyed) so as not to offend Hindus. Akbar financed Hindu temples and established a “house of worship,” where representatives from all religions could meet. Some fo Akbar’s greatest critic were conservative Muslims who didn’t like his ideas about universalism. Akbar was thus viewed as a Muslim leader in nonpartisan Indian rather than a Muslim despot who forcibly tried to conform a Hindu population into a Muslim state. If he had tried to crack down on Hindus it is doubtful the Mughal Empire would have survived for very long.

An astute ruler who genuinely appreciated the challenges of administering so vast an empire, Akbar introduced a policy of reconciliation and assimilation of Hindus (including Maryam al-Zamani, the Hindu Rajput mother of his son and heir, Jahangir), who represented the majority of the population. He recruited and rewarded Hindu chiefs with the highest ranks in government; encouraged intermarriages between Mughal and Rajput aristocracy; allowed new temples to be built; personally participated in celebrating Hindu festivals such as Dipavali, or Diwali, the festival of lights; and abolished the jizya (poll tax) imposed on non-Muslims. Akbar came up with his own theory of "rulership as a divine illumination," enshrined in his new religion Din-i-Ilahi (Divine Faith), incorporating the principle of acceptance of all religions and sects. He encouraged widow marriage, discouraged child marriage, outlawed the practice of sati, and persuaded Delhi merchants to set up special market days for women, who otherwise were secluded at home. [Source: Library of Congress]

Akbar's Conquests

Akbar defeated Afghan challenger Hemu at Panipet in 1556. Hemu was an ugly little man who led his men into battle on the back of an elephant and had a long string of victories until he faced Akbar and was shot in the eye with an arrow and captured after his elephant bolted and his men retreated. By some accounts Akbar personally chopped off Hemu’s head himself.

Akbar extended the Mughal empire into central India, Kashmir, Sindh and Rajasthan. His armies took Gwalior in central India, Jaunpur in Rajasthan and Gondwana, bringing back large caches of gold and precious stones. By the end of Akbar's reign, the Mughal Empire extended throughout most of India north of the Godavari River. The exceptions were Gondwana in central India, which paid tribute to the Mughals, and Assam, in the northeast.

Akbar’s armies effectively used firearms. Describing his victory at the hilltop fortress of Chitor in Rajasthan, Akbar's biographer Abul Faz wrote "the world-conquering mind" deplored his "sublime army” beneath the "sky-based fortress." After the "tiger of the mighty forest" failed to breach the walls with charges of gunpowder he built a “ sabat”, aboveground tunnels shielded from enemy arrows and gunfire from rocks and stretched hides.

Ultimately the Mughals were able to make a hole in the wall. Abul Faz credits Akbar with killing Rajputs with muskets and firing the decisive shot that felled the Rajput leader. At this point, sensing the worst, the Rajputs lit fires and had 300 of their women burned alive so they wouldn't fall into the hands of the Mughals. Displeased by a lack of compassion Akbar ordered the death of nearly 30,000 Rajputs.

Although he resorted force during the early years of his reign, but after his reputation as a "great warrior" was established, he expanded his empire through marriages and alliances, and deceit. He pursed a policy of reconciliation with the Rajput states.

Organization of Akbar's Empire

Akbar inherited the well-oiled bureaucracy of the Delhi sultanate and put it god use building roads and improving communications to link the various parts of his empire together. He organized his noblemen by giving them ranks called “ mansabs”, with an authority quantified with a number that corresponded to the number of troops the nobleman was supposed to support for the Mughal empire' use.

In return for providing troops, the nobles were granted an area of land called “ jagir” and given titles and honors. Ownership of the land remained in the hands of local people but nobles were allowed to tax to the population of gain revenue to support themselves and their troops.

A nobleman with a “ masnsbdar” of 1,000 was supposed to keep 1,000 troops. One with a “ masnsbdar” of 5,000 was supposed to keep 5,000 troops. Akbar rotated the masnsbdar” so the no noblemen or group of noblemen became powerful enough to threaten the emperor.

Akbar, Culture and Art

Akbar was illiterate but he loved a good discussion. It is ironic that a man who was well cultured and seemed well read was illiterate. 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 and government and had the Hindu classic Mahabharatat and Ramayana translated into Persian. Great art was produced in Akbar rules. Among the great architectural monuments produced in his reign were the Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, and Lahore Fort.

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.

Akbar's Court and Life

Akbar ruled over a glorious court, where Urdu language (Persian influenced Hindi) culture and language developed. Trade with Europe increased and a fair degree of religious freedom was tolerated. Akbar entertained his subjects with, among other things, night time games of polo with burning balls. According to Abul Fazi, Akbar ate one meal a day, of 40 dishes, and enjoyed ice brought from the mountains.

Akbar reportedly liked to don disguises and visit poor neighborhoods to gage the mood of his subjects. According to one story, Akbar snuck into Ranthambhor, a Rajput stronghold, disguised as a mace-bearer. After making his way into the Ranthambhor court, he asked his rival "what is to de done?" His enemy became his ally and through that effort Akbar gained control of the Sind.

Akbar reportedly once became so entranced by a beautiful song from a women who was a member of a rival’s harem he sent an army to defeat the rival. Akbar won but the ruler who lost gave orders that all the women in his harem be sent to heaven. The woman reportedly survived only to kill herself by swallowing a vial of poison. Akbar was overcome with grief. The rival, Baz Bahadar, his faithful harem girl Rumpmai, and Akbar are the subject of many celebrated songs in South Asia.

Akbar moved the Mughal capital from Delhi and Agra to Fatehpur Sikri, where the son-generating holyman lived. After 14 years. he move the capital to Lahore in present-day Pakistan. He died in 1695 and was buried in Sikandra near a life-size statue of his favorite horse. "When Akbar died in 1605," wrote Pico Iyer in Smithsonian magazine, "the court degenerated into a series of vicious successional struggles animated by an operating principal known as “ takht ya takla” (throne of coffin)."

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.

Last updated June 2015

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