In the age of Game of Thrones, House of Cards and The Crown, our society’s obsession with the politics of royalty and high level officials is apparent. However there are some true stories of culturally rich and drama-filled dynasties which have been forgotten over time. In this article we will be exploring one such dynasty that existed from the year 1453 to less than 200 years ago. After reading this, you may even be convinced that this empire is interesting enough to have its own show! I know I was.
1) its Crazy Ruthless leaders
The existance of a 500 year old empire that began by an invading a country is not without its drama. However, it is still surprising how many of its rulers were ruthless in pursuit of securing their thrones and have even resorted to murdering their own family members to do so. For instance, one of the most prolific emperors, Akbar the Great was poisoned by his son Jahanghir. for reasons still debated by historians today. It is speculated that Jahanghir was troubled by his brother Daniyal receiving more attention and privilege from Akbar and so he killed his father out of jealousy. Another theory is that when Akbar was suffering from a stomach illness, his second in command, Abdul Fazl suggested that Jahanghir may have poisoned him to gain access to the throne. Akbar then publically accused Jahanghir of doing so even though he was innocent and it was later determined that Akbar fell ill after consuming stale meat. However, the humiliation and pain stayed with Jahanghir and it is hypothesized that he had Akbar killed as revenge.
While it may seem that Akbar is the innocent one here, it is important to note that Akbar fought his own son for the throne despite Akbar’s will citing Jahanghir as the rightful heir to the throne. The family drama continues with Jahanghir eventually inheriting the throne and going on to blind his son Khusrau Mirza for retaliating against him.
2) War Elephants
The mughal empire was built on the successive victories of its military which was composed of five units: Infantry, Cavalry, Firearms, Elephants and Navy. Obviously one intriquing unit sets this dynasty apart from every other military, which is its use of elephants in battle. It is said that the Elephants were the chief component in the Mughal military’s success since they were the only army to use the animal to strengthen their cavalry. Elephants were more than a show of force and transportation for their soldiers; they were fully armored and sometimes swords were attached to their trunks in order to weaponize them. While the elephants had a whole unit of their own, the Mughal military also employed camels and horses in their cavalry. Like the soldiers, the animals were armored and some would have weaponry mounted directly on their bodies. For instance, “the zamburak” refers to mounting a swivel gun on a camel’s back.
3) Mughal Cuisine Still Thrives in South Asia
Although the mughal dynasty began almost 500 years ago and has since dissolved into history, its delectable persian inspired cuisine lives on as an integral part of the modern indian, pakistani and bangladeshi cuisines today. Almost all of South Asia’s most famous food comes from this era. As an Indian I can attest to the fact that Mughali dishes such as Biryani, Kababs and Paneer are still very popular (and delicious!) menu items all over India. Near the end of Mughal rule, nations like Punjab, Portugal and Great Britain were starting to occupy Mughal cities leading to a fusion of cuisines in certain areas of India. For instance, the city of Goa still has a Portugese presence as many of its people are ethnically part portugese. Goan cuisine still incorporates coconut, seafood, rice and chili pepper which are all essential to Portugese cuisine as well. In fact the chili pepper was introduced to India through Portugese colonization and is obviously very prominent in all Indian, Pakistani and Bengali cuisines!
4) Unclear Origins
Although most historians agree that the Mughal people were invaders, no one is certain where they originated from. The confusion stems from the fact that although the people were of Turkish and Mongol ethnicities, their culture (cuisine, language) was actually Persian. It is known that Babur founded the Mughal empire after being exiled from Uzbekistan and so his native tongue was Turkish. He was from the empire of Timur; a turkish-mongol regime. Other historians argue that the Mughals have Mongol heritage, specifically that they are descendants of the Chagatai Mongols. In fact the word “Mughal” is Farsi for “Mongol”. This is supported by the fact that Babur was a descendant of Genghis Khan’s second son on his mother’s side. There is even indication that many of the Mughal people were descendants of Genghis Khan; a Chatagai Mongol himself who was the most prolific ruler in history. It would make sense if much of the Mughal population was ethnically Mongol, because even today, thousands of years later, it is a fact that 1 in 200 men are direct descendants of Genghis Khan.
5) Art and Architecture
The Mughal empire is remembered for its development of South Asian culture, but perhaps its most tangible legacy is its architecture and artwork. Present day Delhi is known for its ornate mosques that were built during the Mughal regime. But the dynasty has left its architectural mark in the form of palaces, tombs and mosques across not only India, but Pakistan, Afganistan and Bangladesh. Of course the most recognizable remnant of the empire is none other than the Taj Mahal, an Indian icon and tomb for a Mughal emperor’s beloved.
Although Mughal architechture is associated with Islam, it has left such a lasting legacy that it has even found its way into the architechture of palaces ruled by largely Hindu emperors, most notably Rajputs and Sikhs. As mentioned before, the Mughal cuisine influenced and united the state of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cuisines today despite other marked differences in all of those cultures. Moreover, the dynasty’s culture was steeped in rich poetry, literature and fine art that decorates museums across the South Asian subcontinent today. In fact, Mughals are credited with a specific and unique form of artwork that is immediately recognizable. It involves paintings with pastel colors made from plant based dyes and the subjects vary from portraits of royalty to common folk doing everyday chores like farmwork. Most of this artwork was commissioned by Akbar who was the first great patron of the arts, despite being illiterate.
6) Contributions to Science and Technology
The Mughals were a highly educated and curious people since they were a part of the elite of India. Although they were not as well-versed in the mathematical theory and physics of the subject, their scientists were particularly interested in observational astronomy(Link 15)They studied astronomy by building telescopes and globes to observe the night skies. The instruments and observational techniques used in Mughal observatories, were derived from Islamic tradition and combined with Hindu compuational methods to build such precise technology. In fact, the Mughals are credited with inventing the first seamless celestial globe. Humayun, a ruler in the 1550s even had a personal observatory built in Delhi that stands today on the banks of Yamuna river in Agra.
Another major Mughal scientific endeavor was their development of alchemy. This involved the study and application of medicinal plants some of which are still used in traditional medicine. Two commanding officers in the Barkazai period of the Mughal empire have even written an intensive list of medicinal herbs, flowers and potions that was highly regarded in pharmacological circles during that time.
7) Formation of Bengali Culture and Society
The Bengal Subah was a subdivision of the Mughal empire that was responsible for developing much of modern day Bengali society and culture. It was also the economic powerhouse of the empire and produced 50% of its GDP. The dynasty introduced the Bengali calendar which streamlined agrarian reform in the Bengal Subah by oganizing harvest times, tax collection and even Bengali holidays and festivals. The prominence of Islam in Bangladesh today can also be traced back to the Mughal empire. The Bengal Subah was, for a period of time under the leadership of Sufis which are a sect of Sunni Islam, and thus Bengali muslims became the norm in this part of the empire. Today, we can see the remnants of this Mughal subsection in Bangladesh’s culture and majority muslim population.
8) Akbar’s Rule and Impact on Modern Indian Society
Akbar, the third emperor and son of Humayun, is regarded as one of the most distinguished rulers of the Mughal empire. He was responsible for the expansion of Mughal rule into almost all of the Indian subcontinent whereas up until his father’s rule, the state had only acquired Delhi and some of North India. Since the majority of the Mughal population was Turkish and therefore Muslim, the inclusion of parts of India which were mainly Hindu had the potential to create religious conflict. He maintained peace in this newly religiously diverse society by adopting a sort of all-inclusive creed derived from Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism called “Din-i-Illahi” and succeeded in being inclusive and respectful of people from all religions. In fact as a result of this religion, Akbar created a legacy known for unifying his people. He has a prominent popular culture presence today, with the Indian film industry portraying him in movies and television over twenty times.
9) Foundation of the Islamic Law of Fatawa
Perhaps the longest standing impact of the Mughal society on modern government is the concept of the Fatawa. In the 1650s, the emperor Aurangzeb instituted a new sect of Islamic Law called the Fatawa-e-Alamgiri. In essence, it is a set of rules that dictates criminal and personal law including punishments that differ based on gender, religion, socio-economic class and occupation. The Fatawa-e-Alamgiri spans over thirty volumes of legal code and became the principle legal system of the empire throughout Aurangzeb’s rule. In order to compile such a substantial code of law for all of the land under Mughal rule (modern-day India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Bangladesh), Aurangzeb recruited 500 experts in Islamic Jurisprudence; 300 from south asia, 100 from Iraq and 100 from Saudi Arabia. This doctrine has since been absorbed into the general Islamic tradition of Sharia Law and is still enforced today wherever Sharia Law is the law of the land, such as Saudi Arabia.
10) Decline of the Dynasty
After Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the empire fell into decline. Beginning with Bahadur Shah I, the Mughal Emperors progressively declined in power and became nominal rulers, initially being controlled by various courtiers and later by rising military leaders. In the 18th century, the Empire suffered loss after loss in battle with invaders like Nadir Shah of Persia and Ahmed Shah Abdali of Afghanistan, who repeatedly defeated Delhi, the Mughal capital. Eventually after countless losses in war and invaders steadily colonizing their land, the once supreme rule of the Mughal Empire was reduced to one city, Delhi before succumbing to the British. (Interestingly, modern day Delhi still retains the most remnants of Mughal architechture and cuisine out of anywhere else in South Asia). Other culprits of the empire’s decline include the Sikh Empire and Hyderabad Nizams.
In 1804, the last Mughal emperor Shah Alam II who was blind and unable to properly lead, formally accepted the protection of the British East India Company. The British had already begun to refer to the weakened Emperor as “King of Delhi,” rather than “Emperor of India”.