Mughal Empire


Detail from the first Battle of Panipat, 1526, fought between Babur and Ibrahim Lodi. AKG Images/National Museum of India, New Delhi.

During its peak the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) flourished as a result of a strong centralized government, an increase in trade, and the rise of new markets in urban centers such as Delhi, Agra, Lahore, Dhaka, Surat, and Masulipatnam. Indo-Islamic architecture reached its apogee under the empire, with opulent palaces, tombs, forts, mosques, and gardens.

The Mughal Empire ruled the area of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and much of northern India from 1526 until the official defeat of its last ruler, Bahadur Shah II (1775-1862), by the British in 1857, though its true decline dated from the death in 1707 of Aurangzeb (1618-1707), the last of the great Mughal emperors. The years of Mughal preeminence saw extraordinary developments in art, architecture, civil administration, and efforts at religious tolerance.

Establishment and Golden Era

Babur (1483-1530), the ruler of Fergana in present-day Uzbekistan, founded the Mughal Empire when he defeated Ibrahim Lodi, the ruler of the Delhi sultanate (1192-1526), in the first battle of Panipat in 1526. With Delhi under his control, Babur proceeded to vanquish the Rajputs of central and northern India, and the Afghans. Babur’s successor Humayun (1508- 1556) was not able to check Sher Shah (1486-1545), the powerful Afghan ruler of Bengal (present-day Bangladesh and northeastern India), and after defeat in the battle of Chausa in 1539, Humayun took asylum at the court of Persia. Humayun eventually returned to power but ruled for just a year before dying. He was succeeded by his son Akbar (1542-1605), one of the greatest kings of India, who ascended the throne in 1556. Akbar cemented relations with the Rajputs through matrimonial alliances while defeating recalcitrant rulers, and he overhauled the administration of the empire. His major contribution was his policy of religious eclecticism-an enlightened vision of religious tolerance.

Akbar bequeathed his son Jahangir (1569-1627) an empire stretching from Kabul in the northwest, Kashmir in the north, Bengal in the east, and beyond the Narmada River in the south. Jahangir’s reign was marked by political conspiracies; his queen, Nur Jahan (d. 1645), was the true power behind the throne from 1620, acting through her clique of male supporters. The Mughal Empire’s golden age was the reign of Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan (1592-1666), under whom such monuments of world architecture as the Taj Mahal and the Great Mosque at Delhi were constructed.


Shah Jahan’s successor, his son Aurangzeb (1618- 1707), was an Islamic puritan and orthodox by temperament; his reign marked the beginning of the end of the Mughal Empire. His relentless campaign in the Deccan (in central India) and wars against Rajputs, Sikhs, Marathas, and Jats drained the royal treasury. Crises in the bureaucracy, weak successors, provincial governors’ assertion of independence, and the invasion of the Persian king Nader Shah (1688-1747) in 1739 all contributed to the erosion of the empire. The absence of central authority resulted in the rise of provincial kingdoms, in whose political affairs European traders began to take an active interest. The British East India Company began to strengthen its military position, and ultimately the whole of India came under the British rule.


A centralized administration beneath an all-powerful emperor provided stability to the Mughal Empire. Land revenue was the main source of income, and elaborate arrangements were made for collection and assessment. Many of the administrative features of Akbar’s administration, such as division of the empire into provinces, districts, and villages, were retained by the British when they took power.

Urban centers such as Delhi, Agra, Lahore, Dhaka, Surat, and Masulipatnam flourished under the Mughals as a result of trade and the rise of new markets. The Mughal aristocracy took active part in trade and shipbuilding activities, and the mercantile community accumulated wealth and prospered. India’s trade relationships with the outside world expanded; Indian textiles, indigo, and saltpeter were in great demand, while for its part the empire imported bullion and spices. Indian Muslims settled in Southeast Asia, which helped encourage trade with that region. Although Asian merchants initially controlled a major share of oceanic trade, gradually from the eighteenth century onwards European shipping dominated the scene.

Indo-Islamic architecture reached its apogee under the Mughals. The palaces, tombs, forts, mosques and gardens reflected the aesthetic sense, opulence, and settled condition of the great Mughals. The monuments constructed by Akbar were magnificent structures of red sandstone, with pillars along many sides and both carved and painted designs. Under Shah Jahan Mughal architecture made use of marble inlay, foliated arches, mosaic work of precious stones, and copious ornamentation. The Taj Mahal stands apart in architectural splendor and is one of the most beautiful tombs in the world. Landscape architecture, especially gardens, also flourished under the Mughals. Keeping in tune with the liberal religious outlook of Akbar, manuscripts of Hindu classical texts such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana were illustrated. Portrait paintings and scenes of hunting, battle, and court life reached their pinnacle under Jahangir. In the arena of music, the musician Tansen (1520-1589) is remembered; his ragas are still popular.

Although Persian was the court language, regional languages developed. Urdu was very popular. The lyrical stanzas of the famous Hindi poets Tulsidas (1543-1623) and Surdas (1483-1563) are recited in northern India even today. The historian Abul Fazal (1551-1602) created the magnum opus Akbarnama, an important source material for the reign of Akbar. The vibrant intellectual life of the great Mughals was reflected in the huge imperial library, where records of religious debates that took place at the time of Akbar were preserved. Conflict between liberalism and orthodoxy permeated the Sufi movements also. The concept of the unity of beings, as advocated by Akbar and some Sufi saints, was challenged by strict adherents to traditional Muslim law. Sufi saints such as Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624) and Abdul Kadir (1459-1533) endeavored to purge Sufism of liberal practices.

The Mughals had left an indelible mark on the history of the Indian subcontinent. The composite culture that had started under the Delhi sultanate took a firm shape, and a national culture for the whole of India continued with the Mughal fusion of old with new.

Further Reading Basham, A. L. (1992). The wonder that was India (Reprint ed.). Kolkata (Calcutta): Rupa. Chandra, S. (1998). Medieval India: From sultanate to the Mughals. part 11. Delhi: Har Anand. Islam, R. (1999). Sufi sm and its impact on Muslim society in South Asia. Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press. Kulke, H., & Rothermund, D. (1994). History of India. Kolkata (Calcutta): Rupa. Majumdar, R. C. (Ed.). (1984). The history and culture of the Indian people: Vol. 8. The Mughal Empire, 1526-1707 (2nd ed.). Mumbai (Bombay): Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Mishra, P. P. (2002). India-medieval period. In D. Levinson & K. Christensen (Eds.). Encyclopedia of modern Asia (Vol. 3, pp. 22-25). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Mujeeb, M. (1967). The Indian Muslims. London: George Allen & Unwin. Nehru, J. (1991). The discovery of India (3rd ed.). New Delhi, India: ICCR. Sarkar, J. (1972-1974). History of Aurangzib: Mainly based on Persian sources (Vols. 1-5). Bombay (Mumbai), India: Orient Longman. Spear, P. (1977), A History of India: Vol. 2 (Reprint ed.). Aylesbury, U. K.: Penguin.



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