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Overview of the Mughal Empire (1524-1867)



Timeline of the Mughal Empire


1498-   The Portuguese first reached India.


1524-   Babur began his conquests in northern India.


1556-1605-  Reign of Akbar.


c. 1600- India had a population of about 100 million people.


1608-    First English factory built in India.


c. 1700-   The Mughal Emperors ruled almost the whole subcontinent by this point.


1739-    The Mughal capital at Delhi looted by Afghans.


1757-    The British defeated the ruler of Bengal.


1760-    Another Afghan invasion marked the end of any effective control by the Mughal emperors.


1761-    The British defeated the French in India.


1818-   The East India Company became the de facto police force for the continent.


1857-   Sepoy Mutiny.  The last Mughal emperor removed in the next year.



Basic Characteristics:



Turkish-Mongol dynasty (from Afghanistan)

Muslim, absolutist, military-based

Dynastic issues: incompetent rulers, fratricide, and civil war.

Attempted to create a bureaucracy to off-set feudal tendencies. Staffed largely with foreigners at first.

Tribute from conquest and a land tax were the basic sources of revenues.



India had a population of about 100 million by 1600.

Hindu society was very rigidly ordered with the religiously supported caste system.

Mughal India had a very diverse population: Muslim and Hindu Indians; numerous foreigners, especially Afghans and Persians, but also some Europeans. Hundreds of languages were spoken on the subcontinent.

The early Mughals fostered a very cosmopolitan culture into the seventeenth century.

Muslim ruling class; Hindu aristocrats; Hindu masses.

Small mercantile class.



A large military- part from local, feudal levies, part under direct imperial control.

Artillery used, but the Mughals were very slow to adapt gunpowder technology for infantry.



Traditional agrarian economy.

Commercial agriculture became increasingly important. Cotton, sugar, spices, indigo, mulberry trees.

India had a very prosperous textile industry through the eighteenth century.

Conquest and tribute contributed enormously to imperial revenues.




Mughal Empire (1524-1857)


A. Origins and History

1) The Mughals were an Islamic Turko-Mongol dynasty that moved into northern India from Central Asia via the Kabul area in the early 16th century.

2) The empire was founded by Babur in 1524. At that time northern India was in a state

of relative chaos with a myriad of small independent states of mixed Muslim and Hindu populations.

a. Babur’s armies brought with them cannons and guns obtained from the

 Ottomans. These were the first gunpowder weapons used on the subcontinent.

3) From Babur’s Empire in northern India, the Mughal Empire gradually spread south

 until all but the southern tip of India was under Mughal rule in 1690.

4) Though not in terms of territory, in many ways the peak of the Empire came under

Akbar, 1556-1605.

4) Almost as soon as Aurungzeb died in 1707, the empire began to crumble.

a. Subject areas fell away rapidly.

b. In 1739 Persians sacked Delhi. 

5) The rapidly receding power of the Mughals left many parts of India in a political

 vacuum. The British and French immediately began to expand their influence between

 1739 and 1757.

a. The year 1757 was decisive.

1. 1757, British defeat ruler of Bengal. 

2. Raiders from Afghanistan attacked Delhi in 1757.  After this Mughal

rulers were virtual figure heads.

6)  English influence grew rapidly after 1757.

a. The English defeated the French in India in 1760 (context- Seven Years war)

thereby effectively ending French influence in India.

b. The English East India Co. becomes de facto police force for continent in 1818. 

c. India was divided into British India (ruled directly from London) and Indian

 India (local dynasties under British supervision). Effective dual rule in place until



B. People

1)  Muslim elite ruled over Hindu majority in India. Seventy-five percent of the

 population was Hindu.

a. There was basic split between Muslims and Hindus. Little social fusion took


b. There was also a split between Indian Muslim and Hindus and the foreigners

 that flooded into northern India to serve the new dynasty.

c. Religious leaders remain very powerful and influential at the local level.

Religious law remained basically untouched for any given community.

d. The Muslim population grew significantly in this period through immigration

 and some conversion (particularly among the lower castes). Most were Sunnis.

 Muslim predominated in the northwest and in spots along the west coast.

2)  India had a population of about of 100 million people by 1600. Akbar’s capital at

Agra had a population. of 200,000 (2 times size of London).

3)  Members of the government and the Muslim elite enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. The

Mughal rulers were famous for their love of hunting, alcohol, opium, and sports.

4). Below this upper class was a small class of merchants, most of them Hindus. See

 Muslim aversion to mercantile professions.

5)  Most Indians lived in villages where tradition dominated- traditional agricultural

 practices, traditional craftsmanship. Agricultural patterns disrupted somewhat by

commercial agriculture. Specialized artisans did exist- serving rulers and aristocrats to

 provide goods for trade.

6) The economic conditions of most Indians deteriorated in the late Mughal period.  A

 crushing tax burden on the lower classes was a key problem. There was little government

 response or support.

7) Women’s status appears to have deteriorated in the 17th century.


C. Government

1. The Mughal ruler, often called “Shah,” was initially a tribal king. By the end of the

 16th century, though, the Mughals were the rulers of a multi-cultural, centralized state

with a highly bureaucratized government.

2. The Mughals were absolutist rulers, in theory.

3. The dynasty faced several issues.

            a. Incompetent rulers.

            b. Competition (even fratricide) within the dynasty that led to periodic civil war.

4. The Mughals tried to create a centralized bureaucracy as opposed to old feudal

 systems. The Mughal government came to be built on Persian administrative models and


a. Officials (Muslims) were organized in military ranks.  They were ranked and

paid according to the number of troops they commanded. Fewer officials now

were given lands, instead they were paid through non-heritable revenues thus

making this new warrior elite dependent on the Great Mughal.

b. Largely made up of foreigners at first, the extensive imperial bureaucracy came

 to include Afghans, Persians, Indian Muslims and Hindus. 

c. All members of the bureaucracy were also part of the military. In fact officials were paid and ranked according to the number of troops they commanded. Civil and military authorities were linked.

                        5. The Mughals rapidly accommodated themselves to India and India culture.

                                    a) They retained much of existing local administrative institutions.

                                    b) They adopted Indian dress and many customs.

                                    c) They made alliances with many local Hindu rulers (the rajputs).

6. The official language of government was Persian.

7. Land within the empire was of two types: that ruled directly by the Emperors and that

governed by subject rulers. Land under direct imperial control was divided in provinces,

 districts and sub-districts, all the way down to the village. All officials were members of

a graded imperial service accountable to the emperor. The other type of land was that of

territories ruled in a feudal style- that is either left to subject rulers, or given to

supporters. Here local rulers held day-to-day administrative responsibilities, but owed the

 emperors military and financial support.

8. The central government itself was mobile, it followed the Emperor. Ministers ran

 various secretariats, and oversaw the bureaucracy. 

9. In broadest terms the government was designed to collect taxes, maintain order,

 enforce law, build and maintain roads and bridges and encourage cultural life.

a. To maintain order the emperors needed to keep a large military. Part of it came

 under the emperors direct rule (from lands ruled directly by him), the rest came

 from levies off the lands of vassal rulers.

10. The government was financed through taxes- primarily a land tax which hit primarily

 peasant farmers. There were also custom duties, import and transit taxes. The Mughals

 also collected tribute from conquered territories and dependent states.

a. Most taxes went into the imperial treasury where they supplied the means to

 build public and government buildings, roads, and the military. Much also went

into the lavish lifestyles of the emperors, the bureaucracy and the aristocratic

elites.  Very little was put into public works, irrigation systems, or disaster relief.

b. With the end of conquests and the failure to innovate economically,

government revenues declined dramatically by the end of the 17th century.

11. The government was not actively involved in developing commerce, nor did it rely

heavily on commerce for revenue.


D. Military

1. The Mughals were able to field armies of thirty thousand men or more. .

2. Through the mid-seventeenth century, the Mughals maintained a primarily heavy

 cavalry army.

3. Artillery was used by Babur, the founder of the dynasty in the early 16th century, but a

 musket-carrying infantry was only developed much later.

4. Despite enormous wealth early in the dynasty, the Mogul failed to build a navy or

 improve the army. They depended heavily on foreign advisors and imported weapons.


E. Economy

1). By early 17th century, India was the wealthiest state in the world with revenues ten

times that of France.

a. However, the state’s great wealth was still primarily tied to the traditional

 method of generating great wealth; i.e. conquest and land taxes. As

 the pace of conquest slowed and finally stopped at the end of the 17th century, so

too did revenues.

2. India had a strong tradition of handicraft industries, especially the cloth industry.

3. Little interaction with Europeans prior to 1700.

            a. The Portuguese built a fort at Goa in ------.

                        1. By 1600 the Portuguese were being pushed out of the Indian Ocean by

                        the Dutch, English and French.

                                    a. Just after 1600 both the Dutch and English chartered companies

 to trade with India.

4. India traded textiles, and later commercial crops (cotton, mulberry trees for silkworms,

sugar cane, spices, and indigo. Later tea and opium under the British). Imported

horses, porcelain, bullion.

5.  As the seventeenth century went on, high taxes on peasants to support the government

 and the largely Muslim military elite.

a. Wasteful extravagance at the top and in the government. Taxes slowly crushed

 the lower classes.

b. Few resources put into public works or services.

                        6. Political unification promoted internal trade in the seventeenth century. New large

                        commercial and manufacturing centers arose linked by waterways and new roads.

F. Culture

1. Two great religions were practiced in India.

a. The great majority of Indians practiced Hinduism.

b. A sizeable minority, including the ruling Muslims from Central Asia, practiced


c. The Mughal ruler practiced religious toleration until the middle of the 17th

 century. At which time the Mughals began persecutions of the Hindus.

1. A major issue- Muslims: monotheistic, religiously inflexible, socially

 relatively flexible.

                                                2. Hindus: polytheistic, religiously very flexible, and socially very rigid.

2. India’s culture at that time reflected a considerable synthesis of Muslim, Persian, and

Hindu influences.

3. Massive imperial patronage of the arts beginning with Akbar.

4. Hindu high culture was severely damaged by the persecutions of the late 17th century.

a. Government controls were placed on many aspects of traditional Hindu culture

(including Sanskrit literature),

b. Many Hindu temples were destroyed,

c. The persecution of Hindu clergy led to the use of vernacular languages for

literary purposes.

1. The “new” Hinduism centered on vernacular literature, family

 ceremonies, public processions, and other more festive manifestations

                        of devotion.  Rise of popular piety, waning of priestly control. Secured

                        dedication to Hinduism in face of Islam.

5. By the end of the 18th century the British were beginning to outlaw certain Hindu

 practices, and to establish a comprehensive British educational system.



Traditional Indian Worldview (Concepts common to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism)


Problem: Desire. 


We take deliberate actions because of some form of desire. Because we desire, we act, and because we act we develop as sense of ourselves as independent beings. This attachment to “self” causes us to be trapped.


Cause: the Law of Action (Karma) 


This is a kind of moral cause and effect. You sow what you reap. However, karma is more than just a notion of moral accountability, it is the keystone of human nature.  One is determined by one’s karma, to some extent in this life, but especially in the journey of the soul towards liberation.




Time is not a linear process. Humans exist in a cycle of rebirth (samsara) that will last until the law of karma of finally broken. In fact, the whole universe goes through a similar process. Creation then recurs at the beginning of each cosmic cycle. There is no single beginning, nor a single end time.

The material world itself is not the ultimate reality. It is, in fact, illusion.


End: Liberation. 


All Indian religions seek liberation from this cycle of rebirth.


Means: The Fulfillment of Duty (Dharma). 


There is a universal human duty to seek liberation and to structure life along the same lines.  Dharma can have both individual and social manifestations. When dharma is not followed, chaos results. Definitions of dharma, and prescriptions for ways one should live according to dharma varied from religion to religion in India.


Sacred: Diversity.


Indian religions do not agree on the nature of the sacred. Views range from monotheism, to polytheism, to “spiritual atheism.”






Basic Problem:  Ignorance of who we are.


Our Eternal soul (atman) is trapped by  the law of  Karma.  If one were born a human his or her caste would depend on past karma.




Ignorance resulting from attachment to this world and to one’s “self.”  In this context ignorance means a kind of confusion about our true nature and that of reality. We are deluded by our belief that our individual selves and the material world around us are “real.” Thus we become attached to illusion (maya). We seek fulfillment in worldly pursuits which of course are simply illusions themselves.


Reality: Penetrating the veil of illusion (maya)  


Our mistaking of illusion for reality causes us to fail to realize that we must breakthrough this “veil of illusion” to find the eternal spiritual reality behind it all.


End:  Liberation from the cycle of rebirth. (moksha). 


Life has four goals according to classical Hinduism: 1) right conduct (dharma); 2) material gain; 3) pleasure; and 4) liberation (moksha). Thus Hinduism recognizes a time and place for the pursuits of wealth and pleasure. However, the ultimate goal of life is liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

Liberation is not a form of life after death. It is spoken of by some as communion of the Eternal Soul with a personal deity in eternal bliss. Some have said it is a complete release which defies description. Others have said that liberation is essentially the absorption of the soul into Brahman, the ultimate basis and source of all existence in the cosmos.


Means: Various paths.


Dharma, meditation, and devotion are all valid paths to take towards liberation.



Theravada Buddhism (Myanmar, Thailand)


Problem: Suffering


First of the Four Noble Truths.

Suffering unavoidable. Even in life of material abundance, one suffers.


Cause: Craving and Delusion


What causes suffering (dukkha)? Answer: (The Second Noble Truth) Craving. Desire leads to attachment. We suffer because our desire leads us to become attached to things or people and deluded as to the real nature of our situation in life.

One must not strive for anything, even enlightenment or liberation. It cannot happen as long as we strive for it. We must let go all desires, no matter how good they may seem if we are to live an authentic spiritual life.


Reality: Impermanence and “No Self”


All reality is impermanent. Even at our core, there is no permanence. Theravadans deny the Hindu concept of an eternal Atman. There is no permanent spiritual substance in us, and we must free ourselves from the desire to find what is not there.

So long as the soul is “on fire” with desire, its influence will be passed into a new existence, igniting a new life. When the flame of desire in human life is blown out, there is no more rebirth.

Our separate identities are not from an eternal soul, but from aggregates such as form, feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness. When these aggregates are held together there is an individual. They have no permanence though.

They are held together by Karma- the “law of action” made possible by desire. When desire is broken, karma is likewise broken and the aggregates disappear. Human existence is a never-ending cycle of causes and effects.

There is no permanent God or Soul in the cosmos either. All reality is constantly in flux.


End: Nirvana


Escape from our suffering comes from liberation from the cycle of rebirth. All we know is that when desire is conquered, suffering ends, as does rebirth.

Third Noble Truth- there is a cessation to suffering.

What follows liberation?   Nirvana. It is not a state of existence after death. It is a phenomenon experienced through “awakening.” 


Means: The Eightfold Path (the Fourth Noble Truth)

Right belief

Right aspiration

Right speech

Right conduct

Right means of livelihood

Right endeavor

Right mindfulness

Right meditation


This is a middle way between indulgence and self-denial. The individual is on one’s own in following the path.  Under right livelihood, one must avoid occupations that involve killing, and those engaged in commerce or services for hire.


Sacred: Spiritual Atheism


Denies a central role for a personal god or gods. Gods have nothing to do with human liberation. That is a task only for the individual.

Functional atheism- does not deny existence of gods in theory, only their role in liberation.