India: Turks, Afghans, and Mughals (600-1800)

A Brief History of India. Editor: Judith E Walsh. 2nd edition. Brief History New York: Facts on File, 2011.

We placed our feet in the stirrup of resolve, grabbed the reins of trust in God, and directed ourselves against Sultan Ibrahim, son of Sultan Sikandar, son of Bahlul Lodi the Afghan, who controlled the capital Delhi and the realm of Hindustan at that time.

~The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor (Thackston 2002, 320)

In the eighth century C.E. the armies of a newly energized Arab Empire brought the religion of Islam to India. The Central Asian Turks and Afghans who conquered India in the centuries that followed were fierce warriors. As rulers, however, they struggled with their commitment to Islam and their minority status among a greater Hindu population. The Mughal emperor Akbar found the most successful resolution to this conflict. The Mughal war machine he created maintained Mughal dominance over most of India until the 18th century.

Islam Enters India

In 622 the Mecca-born Arab Muhammad (570-632) and a small number of followers established themselves and their new religion, Islam (meaning “submission”), in the Arabian city of Medina. This date marks the start of a rapid military expansion that within a century had created the Islamic Empire, the most powerful empire the Western world had ever known. At its height this empire controlled the Mediterranean Sea and lands from Spain in the west through the Middle East and as far east as India.

Islam spread quickly through the lands conquered by the Arabs. As the third “religion of the book,” Islam claimed a heritage that included both Judaism and Christianity. At the heart of Islam was submission to the will of Allah, the one, only, and omnipotent God. Muhammad was “the seal of the prophets,” the last in the line of human transmitters of Allah’s message that began in the Old Testament. For Muslims, as for Jews and Christians, human history began with Allah’s creation of the world and would end in a Last Judgment, when human souls would be punished for their sins or rewarded for their virtues.

By the time armies from the new Islamic Empire entered India in the eighth century, Muhammad was long dead, and political power over the expanding empire had been placed in the hands of a caliph. The caliph’s office (caliphate) was located, at the empire’s height, ca. 750-1258, in the city of Baghdad. The Qur’an, Allah’s revelations to Muhammad, had been written down in Arabic. Islam had already divided into two competing sects: the Sunnis, a majority sect that based its teachings on Islamic law (the sharia) as interpreted by special theologians-scholars (the ulama); and the Shiites, a minority sect that followed the charismatic teachings of the 12 imams, the true spiritual descendants of Muhammad, the last of whom would disappear in the 12th century. Islam’s mystic tradition, Sufism, would begin only later, in the eighth century, and between the 13th and 15th centuries the great Sufi orders would spread throughout north India.

Dar al-Islam

In many ways Muslim rulers in India behaved just as Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain kings before them. They increased their lands through battle. They bound defeated rulers to them through alliances and gifts. They endowed buildings and supported the religious activities of religions other than Islam, and they adapted themselves and their courts to local Indian institutions, culture, and customs. Islam and Hinduism mutually influenced each other’s social structures, art, architecture, and religious practices for more than 1,200 years.

But Islam also had a well-defined location outside the Indian subcontinent. When Muslims prayed, they faced in the direction of the holy city of Mecca. When they recited the Qur’an, they were encouraged to recite it in Arabic, for no translation was authentic. As often as they could, good Muslims should join the annual religious pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj). In all their dealings—religious, social, or political— they should see themselves as part of a brotherhood of Muslims and seek to spread Islam and its teachings. All these practices tied Indian Muslims, kings, courts, and elites to the Arabian Peninsula and its centers of Islamic scholarship and law.

Muslim rulers, courts, and communities also saw themselves within a worldwide Muslim context. They were part of a global network of places—dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam)—where Muslim peoples observed the religion of Allah, or where Muslim kings and/or powerful men maintained Islamic practices even while ruling non-Muslim populations. The strictest interpretation of Islamic injunctions would have required a jihad (holy war) against all non-Muslims, the destruction of all infidel temples and churches, and the death or conversion of all nonbelievers. The realities of ruling a large non-Muslim population, however, caused Muslim rulers in India, as elsewhere, to give the Hindu population the protected status of dhimmis (protected peoples), a status previously applied to “peoples of the book,” that is to Jews and Christians. This allowed the continuation of Hindu religious rites and customs on payment of a yearly tax. To satisfy their own orthodox ulama, however, Muslim rulers would sometimes declare their local conflicts a jihad (holy war) or deface prominent local temples.

In the wider Muslim world (dar al-Islam), elite Muslims found others like themselves with whom they could share their knowledge of and perspectives on Islamic laws, customs, and practices. When the Moroccan-born Ibn Battuta traveled the world in the 14th century, he met many non-Arab peoples and encountered non-Muslim cultures. But although he traveled from Spain and North Africa to sub-Saharan Africa, India, and China, for most of his travels he remained within an elite Islamic world and with “individuals who shared his tastes and sensibilities and among whom he could always find hospitality, security, and friendship” (Dunn 1986, 7). In India, as elsewhere in the medieval world, Muslim kings and their related elites lived with a deep awareness of their location within an Islamic network of places and peoples linked throughout the world.

Arabs and Turks

By 711, Arab military commanders attacked and eventually conquered the western region of Sind. In the northwest, by the 10th century, independent Persian Muslims controlled the lands between Persia and the Oxus River (later called Amu Darya). Buddhism, which had flourished earlier in these regions, was abandoned as Turkic tribes converted to Islam.

Arab traders, new converts to Islam, had been settled peacefully in permanent communities along India’s west coast from as early as the mid-seventh century. Arab merchants replaced moribund Roman trade routes with global routes that linked India to both the Mediterranean world and to Southeast Asia. Like the Christian communities that had settled in Kerala, Muslim traders were given land, allowed to maintain their own religion, and incorporated, as jatis, into the west coast’s political and social structures. The Mappila (Moplah) community on the Malabar Coast and the Navayat Muslim community in the Konkan are the modern descendants of these early Arab settlements.

Mahmud of Ghazni

In the late 10th century, a Turkish military slave, Sabuktigin, established an Afghan kingdom centered on the city of Ghazni and, in 986, attacked and defeated a neighboring Hindu ruler who controlled lands between Kabul and the northwest Punjab. Sabuktigin’s son, Mahmud of Ghazni (r. 998-1030) continued his father’s raids into India, carrying out between 16 and 20 raids in the years between 1000 and 1027. Mahmud’s raids destroyed and looted major Hindu temples at Mathura, Kanauj, and Somnath, and brought back to Ghazni great caravans of riches and slaves. The slower elephant-based armies of the Hindu dynasties in the northwest could not withstand the elite mounted archers of the Ghaznavid cavalry. Writing to the caliph at Baghdad, Mahmud boasted that his raids had killed 50,000 infidels and 50,000 Muslim heretics. He asked for (and received) the honor of being named a fighter in the cause of Islam.

The Ghaznavids looted cities in Iran and India, Muslim as well as Hindu. Their raids were needed to pay for their professional slave-based army. In addition, Mahmud used his plunder to bring Muslim scholars to Ghazni and establish a library there—the books were plundered from conquered Persian libraries—and to build a beautiful mosque. His dynasty was succeeded by the Ghurids, a dynasty of eastern Iranian origins, in 1151. The Ghurids were more ambitious than Mahmud, who had nominally extended his kingdom into the Punjab but had made little effort to control the lands he raided. By 1206 Ghurid rulers had conquered much of the north, controlling the cities of Delhi, Kanauj, and Varanasi (Benares), much of Rajasthan, and destroying the Sena dynasty in Bengal along with the Buddhist monasteries that the Senas supported.

South India (600-1300)

The flat farmlands of the northern Indo-Gangetic Plain invited the establishment of large agrarian empires. In regions south of the Narmada River, however, a more rugged geography enabled smaller, more regional clans and lineages to survive. The Chalukyas in Karnataka, the Pallavas in Kanchipuram, the Pandyas in Madurai, and the Cholas at Tanjore all struggled for power with one another and with even smaller kings and local rulers between the sixth and ninth centuries. The Chalukya control of the Deccan during the seventh century kept the North Indian emperor Harsha from expanding farther south. But by the eighth century Chalukya power was gone. In the far south, the Pandyas held on to their Madurai region by a series of ever-shifting alliances until the 10th century.

Unlike the Chalukyas, Pandyas, and Cholas—lineages that had fought one another for power since Mauryan times—the Pallavas were a new dynasty. One Tamil legend attributed their origin to a love match between a local prince and a Naga (snake) princess from the underworld. Contemporary historians link the Pallavas to an Iranian lineage (the Pahlavas, or Parthians) that briefly held power in the northwest during the first century B.C.E. Pallava kings controlled the eastern peninsula between the Krishna and Kaveri Rivers by the seventh century and remained powerful for the next 300 years. The last Pallava king died in the early 10th century.

By the ninth century, the ancient lineage of the Cholas had reemerged in the south. From the mid-ninth century to 1279, kings of the Chola dynasty controlled most of the Tamil-speaking south, including the region around Tanjore, the Coromandel Coast, and much of the eastern Deccan. Two Chola kings (Rajaraja I [985-1014] and Rajendra I [1014-44]) extended the Chola domains to the northern part of Sri Lanka, which remained a Chola tributary until the 1070s.

Bhakti Is Born

“I was born in Dravida [South India],” says the goddess Bhakti in a Puranic story about the origins of devotional Hinduism. “I was born in Dravida and grew up in Karnataka. I lived here and there in Maharashtra; and became weak and old in Gujarat” (Prentiss 1999, 31).

Although the concept of bhakti appears as early as the Bhagavad Gita (ca. first century C.E.), the first bhakti sects are not seen in South India until the seventh to 10th centuries. Bhakti was in North India by as early as the 10th century B.C.E., and bhakti devotional sects proliferated in the north during the 15th through 18th centuries. Bhakti sects were regional movements linking language, geography, and cultural identities in the devotional worship of a god—and sometimes blurring distinctions between Hinduism and Islam in the process.

Bhakti became the most popular form of Hindu worship, not so much replacing Vedic Hinduism as existing alongside it. The major bhakti gods were Vishnu (in any of his nine incarnations), Shiva, or a form of the Mother Goddess (Devi). Shiva was most popular in the south, Vishnu (particularly in his incarnation as Rama or Krishna) in northern India, and the Goddess in the east (Bengal). The choice of god, however, could also be a matter of personal preference, one brother in a family becoming a Vaishnavite (a devotee of Vishnu), while another was a Shaivite (a devotee of Shiva).

Sixty-three Shaivites (called the Nayanars) and 12 Vaishnavites (the Alvars) made up the earliest south Indian bhakti saints. “I have never failed to worship you,” sang the Tamil saint Appar, “with flowers and incense and water, never failed to sing you in melodious Tamil songs” (Peterson 1998, 176). The saints sang to all castes and classes of society. They linked their songs to specific Tamil places and to the ordinary tasks of work and daily life.

Bhakti in South India

The Tamil bhakti movement was quickly linked to a temple-centered Hinduism in which puja (worship) rather than Vedic sacrifices was the central mode of veneration. As early as the Pallava dynasty, the songs of the itinerant saint-devotees were being sung in Hindu temples. Chola kings built temples to Shiva all across Tamil land, particularly in places identified in the bhakti saints’ songs. By the 12th century, devotional songs were a regular part of the liturgy and worship of South Indian temples. The performance of temple rituals and sacrifices was still the unique provenance of Brahman priests, but now a special class of non-Brahman Shudra singers was attached to the temples to perform the bhakti songs.

Although South Indian Hindus recognized the four classes of the varna system, these four classes were not well represented in South Indian society. In much of the south the main distinction was between Brahman and non-Brahman classes, and most non-Brahmans were classified as Shudras. Thus the Vellala community of South India was technically classified as Shudras, although they were a dominant jati in regional society and in many places were major landowners. Despite their Shudra status the Vellalas were allowed to recite the Tamil saints’ songs in temples.

In the same period as the South Indian bhakti movement, two South Indian Brahmans used the central insights of the Sanskrit Upanishads to develop different branches of a philosophy called Vedanta (the end of the Vedas). The first to do this was Shankara (ca. eighth-ninth century C.E.), who emphasized the unqualified monism in earlier Upanishadic teachings that the Brahman (universal spirit) and the atman (individual self) were one. Only when individual souls recognize that the world around them is illusion (maya), according to Shankara, can they recognize the identity of Brahman and atman and escape the cycle of reincarnation (samsara). Such liberation or release (moksha) was, for Shankara, the ultimate goal of Hinduism. Shankara’s teachings were spread through the subcontinent by the monastic order (matha) he founded and by the missionaries his order sent out. A later philosopher, Ramanuja (d. ca. 1137 C.E.), also a South Indian Brahman, developed a school of Vedanta that emphasized the importance of devotion (bhakti) in attainingmoksha.

Bhakti in North India

By the 15th century bhakti sects had spread throughout North India. By the 18th century these sects had appeared in virtually all Indian regions and vernaculars. In Varanasi (Benares) on the Ganges River, Kabir (1440-1518), an ex-Muslim weaver, sang of a god without attributes (nirguna), unlimited by Islamic sectarianism or Hindu caste. In the Punjab, Nanak (1469-1539) rejected the caste system of his Hindu birth and founded the Sikh religion, the devotional worship of a monotheistic nirgunagod. In eastern India, the Bengali ex-Brahman Chaitanya (1485-1533) and his followers replaced caste and Hindu rituals with ecstatic public dances and songs of devotion to Krishna. Chaitanya’s Krishna was a god with attributes (saguna), worshipped, not as the warrior-god of the Mahabharata, but as a naughty child or adolescent lover. Other 16th-century bhakti saints also sung of sagunagods. The North Indian Hindi speaker Tulsidas (16th-17th century) retold the story of Rama in the devotional Ramcaritmanas (Spiritual lake of the acts of Rama). Surdas, a blind saint from Mathura, and Mirabai, a woman devotee from Rajasthan—both dated by tradition to the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar (1556-1605)—worshipped the god Krishna in their songs. In Maharashtra, Tukaram (1608-49) sang in Marathi to the god Vitobha (a form of Vishnu). As in the south, bhakti worship was incorporated into Hindu temples, but bhajan maths (singing halls) were also built in many North Indian towns where saints and their followers could meet, sing, and worship their god. Sang Surdas to the god Krishna (Hari):

Songs to Hari work great wonders.
They elevate the lowly of the world,
who celebrate their lofty climb with drums.
To come to the feet of the Lord in song
is enough to make stones float on the sea…. (Embree et al. 1988, 362)

Mirabai Worships Krishna

One of the most popular of bhakti saints in North India was Mirabai. According to legend, she was a Rajput princess devoted to the god Krishna from childhood. Forced to marry, she nevertheless dedicated herself only to the god Krishna. In her in-laws’ home she refused to bow to her mother-in-law or to the family’s household goddess. In spite of her sister-in-law’s pleas she spent her time with wandering holy men. When the rana (the king, and her father-in-law) tried to poison her, the god Krishna transformed the poison and saved Mirabai’s life. She eventually left her in-laws’ home to became a wandering saint; according to legend she disappeared, drawn into the Krishna image one day as she worshipped it.

Mirabai’s devotion shows the unselfish devotion of the true wife. Her struggle to maintain this devotion reveals the many difficulties women faced in their in-laws’ homes and shows a strength of character often found in popular Hindu goddesses:

Life without Hari is no life, friend,
And though my mother-in-law fights,
my sister-in-law teases,
the rana is angered,
A guard is stationed on a stool outside,
and a lock is mounted on the door,
How can I abandon the love I have loved
in life after life?
Mira’s Lord is the clever Mountain Lifter:
Why would I want anyone else? (Hawley and Juergensmeyer 2004, 134)

(In one legend, the boy-god Krishna holds aloft Mount Govardhan to shelter cows and cowherds from the anger of the rain-god Indra.)

Persecution of Jains and Buddhists

During the seventh to 12th centuries South Indian kings increasingly identified themselves as devotees (bhaktas) of particular Hindu gods. Kings of the Pallava, Pandya, or Chola dynasties incorporated the institutions and ceremonies of devotional Puranic Hinduism into their royal functions and used this new revived Hinduism to solidify their control over the peoples and territories they claimed. Kings built temples dedicated to the god with whom they identified, generously endowed those temples’ operations, and gifted whole villages to temples, to Brahmans, or to Brahman communities. Kings gave these gifts in temple pujas, ceremonies that now replaced older Vedic rituals as the way a king legitimated his relationships. Such gifts left kings constantly searching for new sources of land or wealth. The more plunder a ruler had, the more subordinates (such as lesser kings, temple officials, and Brahman jatis) he could bring under his sway.

Where earlier rulers had given gifts and used ceremonies drawn from many different religions, South Indian kings were increasingly willing to consider the rivals and enemies of the Hindu sect they endorsed as their own rivals and enemies. Tamil bhakti saints sang of the differences among themselves (as devotees of Shiva) and the Buddhist monks or Jain ascetics with whom they competed for royal favor. “The Jains who expose their skulls,” sang the saint Appar, “Conceal Shiva with their minds. / But is it possible to conceal him?” (Prentiss 1999, 72). After the Shaivite saint Appar converted the Pallava king Mahendravarman I (ca. 580-630 C.E.) from Jainism to Shaivism, a 12th-century Shaivite text tells us, the king attacked the Jains’ temples and monks. According to another legend, after the Shaivite saint Campantar defeated the Jains in debate in the Pandya-ruled city of Madurai, 8,000 Jain monks were impaled on stakes (Peterson 1998, 180-181).

By the 13th century, as a result of these persecutions, Jain and Buddhist communities in South India had lost influence and power. The Jain religion survived in western India, where it retains a strong presence down to the present day. Buddhism, however, disappeared entirely from India. In North India Buddhism was incorporated into Hinduism, the Buddha appearing as one of the nine incarnations (avatars) of the god Vishnu. In the mountain regions farther to the north—the old centers of Gandharan culture—Buddhism disappeared as local populations converted to Islam.

The Delhi Sultanate

The Delhi Sultanate was not a single dynasty but a succession of five unrelated lineages: the Slave, or Mamluk, dynasty; the Khaljis; the Tughluqs; the Sayyids; and the Lodis. For more than 300 years (1206-1526) the sultans (rulers) of these lineages ruled a north Indian kingdom with its capital at Delhi. At its largest the sultanate controlled virtually all of India, but at its weakest it could barely rule its own capital and the encircling villages.

Sultanate lineages came from Turkish and Afghan military clans, initially forced into the subcontinent by tribal movements related to the expanding Islamic Empire. In theory the sultans governed as Muslims under the political authority of the caliph at Baghdad; in reality they were independent kings, most focused on wealth and glory. During the first two centuries of the sultanate, Delhi sultans faced the constant threat of attacks from the Mongol armies that swept across Central Asia and into Persia and Arabia. By 1258 the Mongols had destroyed the caliphate itself at Baghdad. Mongol power cut off local Turks and Afghans from their original homelands beyond the mountains, while, at the same time, making the sultan capital at Delhi an attractive refuge for Muslim elites fleeing south.

The Mongol Threat

The Mongols were a nomadic, pastoral people based in the arid grasslands north of China. Mongol tribes had been unified in the early 13th century under the leadership of Chinggis Khan, whose grandson would found the Yuan dynasty in China. In 1220 the killing of a Mongol emissary brought Mongol cavalry under Chinggis Khan to the Oxus River region north of the Indian subcontinent. A second Mongol invasion destroyed the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad in 1258 and established Mongol rulers in territories that reached from the Mediterranean through Central Asia and into China.

As Mongol armies terrorized lands to India’s north and west, successive sultans kept the Mongols from overrunning India by a combination of diplomacy, military skill, and luck. Attacks from Mongol forces between 1229 and 1241 overran the Punjab region but were stopped at the Mamluk dynasty’s Indus border. During the Khalji dynasty, the Mongols made a series of attacks between 1299 and 1307, but each time the sultan’s armies drove them back. Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, the sultan’s court at Delhi was a refuge for elite Muslims—scholars, religious leaders, and intellectuals—fleeing Mongol violence beyond India’s borders.

At the end of the 14th century, the Turkish/Mongol ruler Timur (Tamerlane) based in Transoxiana (modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Southwest Kazakhstan) conquered Persia and occupied Russia. The violence of Timur’s campaigns exceeded even the Mongol heritage he claimed as his own. In 1398-99 Timur’s armies, already resident in the Punjab, occupied, sacked, and plundered Delhi, dragging back across the northern mountains wealth and thousands of slaves; behind him, in Delhi, Timur left towers made out of the skulls and bodies of slaughtered Delhi residents. Timur’s invasion broke the power of the Tughluq dynasty, which was overthrown in 1413.

Sultanate Dynasties

The power of the Delhi sultans, as that of Indian kings before them, was based on constant warfare and on alliances with conquered lesser kings. Sultans also faced the constant threat of plots by sons, wives, relatives, and courtiers, all eager for their power. What was gained in one season might easily be lost in the next. As the sultans expanded their territories across north India, they appointed Muslim subordinates to govern regions they had conquered. In this way Muslim rule spread through north India, for when a region declared its independence from the sultan, the ruler who did so, more often than not, was also a Muslim.

The first dynasty of the Sultanate was the Mamluk, or Slave, dynasty, established by Qutbuddin Aybak (r. 1206-10/11), who proclaimed himself sultan of Delhi in 1206, when the last Ghurid ruler was assassinated. Qutbuddin was a Mamluk, a Turkish military slave bought as a child and trained to fight for his masters. Mamluks were widely used throughout kingdoms in Central Asia, Persia, and the rest of the Islamic Empire. They made fierce and skillful soldiers, particularly as cavalrymen, and were famed for their ability to fire their crossbows backward as they galloped away from an enemy. Qutbuddin, however, died in a polo accident. His military slave and successor, Shamsuddin Iltutmish (r. 1210/1211-36), secured the kingdom’s northern frontier along the Indus River and expanded its territories into Sind, Rajasthan, and Bengal. The sultan pacified his Hindu subjects by granting all Hindus the status of dhimmis. His daughter Raziyya (r. 1236-39) briefly succeeded him on his death. Within three years she was deposed and then subsequently murdered by a coalition of palace guards (known collectively as “the Forty”), one of whom, Balban, later ruled as sultan between 1266 and 1287.

The Khalji dynasty, founded by Jalaluddin Firuz Khalji (r. 1290-96), had Turkish origins but had long been settled in the Afghan region. The second Khalji sultan, Alauddin (1296-1316), used gold gained from his raids in the Deccan to arrange his uncle’s assassination and then to buy the loyalty of his nobles. Alauddin’s army—funded through increased taxation—successfully repelled repeated Mongol raids and attacks between 1297 and 1307. When the Mongols withdrew, Alauddin sent his armies south under the command of Malik Kafur, a Hindu convert from Gujarat with whom the emperor was said to have a homosexual relationship. The Khalji forces conquered as far south as the city of Madurai, giving the sultan dominion over virtually all of India. By 1316, however, when Alauddin died, the empire was in disarray. Malik Kafur was killed by his own soldiers, and both Gujarat and Rajasthan had regained independence.

The Tughluq lineage was founded by Ghiyasuddin Tughluq in a revolt against the Khaljis in 1320. Both Ghiyasuddin and his heir died suddenly in 1325, when a pavilion collapsed, and another son, Muhammad (r. 1325-51), came to the throne. Muhammad’s reign was characterized by plans to rebuild the empire and by idiosyncratic decisions that suggest he may have been mentally unstable. In 1327, in an effort to gain better control over conquered South Indian territories, he attempted to move the capital—his administration and all Delhi residents—500 miles south to the Deccan. Many died in the move, and heat and health conditions later caused the Deccan capital to be abandoned. In the same period Muhammad also introduced a new copper and brass currency, which had to be withdrawn several years later because of difficulties with forgeries. In 1335-42, when a severe drought caused famine and death in the Delhi region, the sultanate offered no help to the starving residents. The latter years of Muhammad’s rule saw many regions of his empire in rebellion. In 1334 the provincial governor of Madurai declared himself an independent “sultan,” and in 1338 Bengal became independent under a Muslim ruler. In 1346 the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar solidified its control over the southern half of peninsular India.

In 1351 Muhammad died from fever while in Sind trying to quell a rebellion. His cousin Firuz Shah (r. 1351-88) was the choice of court nobles and religious leaders. Firuz repaid these nobles and orthodox ulama for his appointment by returning previously confiscated estates and lands, building no fewer than 40 mosques, and through laws that required Brahmans (previously exempt) to pay thejizya (a tax on non-Muslims). After his death, the dynasty had no strong rulers and was finally destroyed at the end of the century by the invasion of Timur.

The Sayyids, a Turkish clan, took power in 1414 and remained in control until 1451. From this time on, regional Muslim rulers controlled most of what had once been sultanate lands. Sind, Gujarat, Malwa, the Deccan, and Bengal were all governed by independent Muslim rulers. The Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar held the southern peninsula, and independent Hindu Rajputs ruled in Rajasthan. During the rule of the last Sayyid, Alauddin Alam Shah (1445-51), the Delhi Sultanate ruled over little more than the city of Delhi and its immediate surrounding villages.

The last dynasty was founded by a Sayyid provincial governor, Buhlul Lodi (r. 1451-89). The Lodis were descended from Afghans, and under their rule Afghans eclipsed Turks in court patronage. Buhlul’s son Sikandar (r. 1489-1517) once again extended the sultanate control to the northern reaches of the Indus and southeast along the Ganges River valley up to, but not including, Bengal. The last Lodi, Sikandar’s son Ibrahim (r. 1517-26), antagonized his own Afghan nobles by assertions of the absolute power of the sultanate. They appealed for help to Kabul, where Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, a Turkic descendant of both Timur and Chinggis Khan, had established a small kingdom.

Vijayanagar and the Bahmani Sultanate

In south India, in the 1330s and 1340s, five Hindu brothers of the Sangama family took advantage of rebellions against the Tughluq dynasty to establish the city and independent kingdom of Vijayanagar. By 1347 Harihara I (d. 1357), the first ruler of Vijayanagar, together with his brothers ruled a kingdom that included virtually all of the southern half of the peninsula. Vijayanagar rulers protected themselves by adopting Muslim tactics, cavalry, and forts. Vijayanagar kings developed tank-irrigated agriculture in their higher lands and made their coastal regions into a center of trade between Europe and Southeast Asia. Among Vijayanagar’s greatest rulers were Krishnadevaraya (r. 1509-29) and its last powerful ruler, Aliya (son-in-law) Rama Raya, who held power from 1542-65.

Farther north in the Deccan, the Bahmani Sultanate was founded by a Turkish or Afghan military officer who declared his independence from the Delhi Sultanate and ruled under the name of Bahman Shah from 1347. Over the next 200 years, Bahmani rulers fought Vijayanagar kings over the rich doab (land between two rivers) on their border. In 1518 the sultanate split into five smaller ones: Admadnagar and Berar, Bidar, Bijapur, and Golconda. In 1565 these five kingdoms combined to attack and defeat Vijayanagar. All five Deccani sultanates were subsequently absorbed by the Mughal Empire.

The Mughal Empire

Babur, the ruler of Kabul, had dreamed for 20 years of conquering India. In 1526, when discontented Lodi nobles invited him to save them from their power-mad sultan, Babur invaded India. At Panipat in 1526 his mobile cavalry, matchlock-equipped infantry, and light cannon drove the sultan’s larger army and war elephants from the field. A year later Babur’s cavalry and firepower had a second victory, this time over a confederacy of Hindu Rajput kings with an army of 500 armored elephants.

Babur became the first ruler of the Mughal dynasty, which continued to rule powerfully and effectively for nearly 200 years (1526-1707) and then survived in a much weaker form through to the mid-19th century. At the height of the Great Mughals’ rule the empire covered almost all of the subcontinent and had a population of perhaps 150 million. The wealth and opulence of the Mughal court was famed throughout the world. Even today the vibrancy of Mughal miniature paintings and the elegance of the Taj Mahal show us the Mughals’ greatness. For Mughal contemporaries, Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne more than demonstrated the empire’s wealth: Ten million rupees’ worth of rubies, emeralds, diamonds, and pearls were set in a gold encrusted throne that took artisans seven years to complete.

No one could foresee this greatness, however, in 1530, when Babur died in Agra and his son Humayun (r. 1530-56) took the throne. Humayun, struggling with an addiction to opium and wine, soon found himself under attack from his four younger brothers and the even stronger ruler of Bengal, Sher Shah (r. 1539-45). Sher Shah drove Humayun out of India and eventually into refuge at the court of the Persian Safavids. There, to gain the court’s acceptance, Humayun converted to the Shiite sect of Islam. In return the shah sent him back to India in 1555 with a Persian army large enough to defeat his enemies. Within a year, however, Humayun died from a fall on the stone steps of his Delhi observatory. His son, Akbar, was 12 years old at the time.


Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar became emperor 17 days after his father’s sudden death in 1556. An accord among the regime’s nobles placed the boy under the authority of a regent, Bairam Khan. By 1560 Akbar and his regent had expanded Mughal rule across the Indo-Gangetic heartland between Lahore and Agra. Within two decades, Akbar, now ruling on his own, extended the Mughal Empire into Rajasthan (1570), Gujarat (1572), and Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa (1574-76). By the late 1580s he would annex the provinces of Sind and Kashmir, and by 1601 he would take Berar and two other provinces in the Deccan Plateau.

Akbar’s military expansion was accompanied by the use of both diplomacy and force. Over the 40 years of his reign, which ended with his death in 1605, Akbar diluted his own Turkish clan within the Mughal nobility and gave the high rank of emir (amir, that is, military officer or nobleman) to men of Persian, Indian Muslim, and Hindu (mostly Rajput) descent. At the same time, in the 1567 siege of the Rajput city of Chitor, Akbar demonstrated the high cost of resistance to his will: His armies destroyed the fort itself, massacred its inhabitants, and killed 25,000 residents in the surrounding villages.

Akbar was a brilliant military commander and a man of great personal charisma and charm. Illiterate—and perhaps dyslexic (four tutors tried unsuccessfully to teach him how to read)—he was still curious and interested in history, religion, and philosophy. Above all, Akbar was a great leader of men not only on the battlefield but also within his own court and administration. It was the structures of Mughal organization and administration devised by Akbar and his Muslim and Hindu ministers that held the Mughal Empire together over the next century and a half.

After 1560 Akbar administered his empire through four ministers: one each for finance, military organization, the royal household, and religious/legal affairs. He reserved for himself control over the army, relations with other rulers, and appointments/promotions in rank. The Mughal system assigned all mansabdars (those in Mughal military service) a rank that specified status, salary, and assignment. Ranks were not hereditary; they could change as a result of service, great courage in battle, or the emperor’s wish. Each mansabdar provided the Mughals with a fixed number of soldiers (determined by rank) and, in return, each received a salary. Higher-ranking mansabdars might also receive a jagir (the right to collect land revenues from a specified village or region).

The Mughal War Machine

War was the business of the great Mughals. Mughal emperors from Akbar through Aurangzeb spent fully one-half their time at war. Mughal wars were initially fought to bring the different regions of the subcontinent under Mughal authority, and then, subsequently, Mughal military power and warfare was used to maintain Mughal rule against unruly regional powers. As early as the end of Akbar’s reign, the Mughal war machine was so powerful that local and regional rulers saw their only alternatives as surrender or death. The Mughals, however, never solved the problem of succession. The saying went, “takht ya takhta” (throne or coffin) (Spear 1963, xiii), and before and after the death of each emperor, contending heirs turned the great Mughal army viciously against itself.

Under the Mughal system, as it evolved, all mansabdars, whether noble or non-noble, military or bureaucratic, were required to recruit, train, command, and pay a fixed number of soldiers or cavalry for the emperor’s armies. The number of soldiers varied from 10 to 10,000, with the lowest mansabdars providing the former and the highest nobles the latter. This system gave Mughal emperors a ready, well-equipped army, and they depended on these armies and their mansabdar leaders to extend and preserve the Mughal Empire. At the end of Akbar’s reign, 82 percent of the regime’s revenues and budget supported the mansabdars, their troops, and assistants.

The Mughal administrative system existed to funnel vast sums to its armies. As Mughal land revenues paid the mansabdars, Akbar’s Hindu revenue minister, Todar Mal, ordered a survey of Mughal North Indian lands. Beginning in 1580 Mughal revenue officials determined land holdings, climate, soil fertility, and appropriate rent assessments at the district level. Annual assessments were set at approximately one-third the crop (lower than had been traditional or would be customary later). Taxes were to be partially remitted in years of bad crops. Local chiefs and zamindars (lords of the land) could keep only 10 percent of the revenues they collected each year. Unlike earlier tributary relationships between kings and subordinates, Mughal rule required local rulers to pay an annual tax based on crops and place all but lands personally occupied under Mughal fiscal and administrative control.

Such a military system required emperors to spend much of their time on the move. Akbar spent at least half of his long reign at war. He had capitals at both Agra and Lahore and at the city of Fatehpur Sikri, which he built outside Agra and which he used as a capital between 1571 and 1585. The emperor also took much of his court, wives, children, and servants with him on military campaigns. The Jesuit father Antonio Monserrate, who tutored Akbar’s second son, accompanied the emperor on one such expedition into Afghanistan in 1581. The entire court lived in a great white city of tents, after the fashion of the Mongols. On the right, Monserrate wrote, “are the tents of the King’s eldest son and his attendant nobles; these are placed next to the royal pavilion … [Behind the tents of the King’s sons and nobles] come the rest of the troops in tents clustered as closely as possible round their own officers …” (Richards 1993, 42).

Akbar’s Religion

The more intensive military, economic, and administrative control of the Mughal emperors was accompanied, in Akbar’s reign at least, by greater religious freedom. Early in his reign (1563) the emperor abolished taxes on Hindu pilgrims and allowed Hindu temples to be built and repaired. In 1564, he abolished the jizya (the tax paid by all non-Muslim dhimmis). “Both Hindus and Muslims are one in my eyes,” one imperial edict declared, and thus “are exempt from the payment of jazia [jizya]” (Richards 1993, 90). Land grants were still made to Muslims and the court ulama, but now they also went to monasteries, Zoroastrians (Indian followers of Iranian Zoroastrianism, later called Parsis), and Brahman priests. Cow slaughter was even prohibited late in Akbar’s reign.

On a personal level, Akbar’s religious convictions also changed. As a young man he had been a devotee of the Sufi saint Sheikh Salim Chishti (d. 1581), but by the 1570s he was developing more eclectic religious ideas. He invited representative Hindus, Jains, Parsis, Sikhs, and Christians to debate religious ideas in his Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audiences). He began to practice his own “Divine Faith,” a form of worship centered on the Sun. High nobles were encouraged to become Akbar’s personal disciples, agreeing to repudiate orthodox Islam and worship Allah directly.

Europeans in India

During the 16th-17th centuries, the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French established trade with India, built “factories” (trading posts and warehouses) in various Indian ports, and hired independent armies to protect them. Trade was lucrative: Imports of black pepper to Europe in 1621 were valued at £7 million. Cotton textiles were the second most valuable commodity, with Indian silks, indigo, saltpeter, and other spices following behind. Unlike China or Japan in these centuries, Europeans could travel freely in Mughal India and had settled in most major cities by the end of the 17th century.

Trading wars (and actual armed conflict) between European companies in India were frequent. The Portuguese initially dominated Indian and Asian trade from their Goa settlement (1510). The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier (1506-52) came to Goa in 1542, and as early as Akbar’s reign Jesuits were in residence at the Mughal court, working both as Christian missionaries and to further Portuguese trading interests. Portugal’s union with Spain (1580), however, the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588), and Portuguese naval defeats in the Indian Ocean all reduced Portuguese dominance in India. Under a grant from Jahangir, the English established factories at Surat and Bombay (now Mumbai) (1612), Madras (now Chenai) (1639), and Calcutta (now Kolkata) (1690). By 1650 the Dutch controlled the Southeast Asian spice trade from their bases on Sri Lanka. In the late 1660s the French company established settlements at Surat and Pondicherry (south of Madras) and in Bengal upriver from Calcutta.

The Great Mughals

By Akbar’s death in 1605, the Mughal military and administrative systems were well established and would remain, more or less unchanged, through the reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707), the last of what are called the “Great Mughals.” Mughal military expansion was blocked to the far north by mountainous terrain and resistant hill tribes, to the east and west by the oceans, and to the south at the Kaveri River and—in spite of Aurangzeb’s efforts—by Deccani resistance.

The Mughals maintained public order throughout this vast empire through constant military readiness and a well-organized infrastructure. Hindu service castes such as the Khatris and Kayasthas, as well as Brahmans, had learned Persian and staffed the provincial levels of Mughal government. An extensive road system, built and maintained by a public works department, connected the Agra-Delhi region to the provinces, allowing for the easy movement of troops and the securing of routes against roving bandits or local armies. A far-flung “postal system” of couriers relayed paper reports, news, orders, and funds back and forth from the imperial center to the mofussil (rural) periphery.

Trade flourished in markets, towns, and cities throughout the empire, and the manufacturing of traded goods was widely dispersed. Cotton textiles, such as calicoes, muslins, and piece goods, were the largest manufactured product, produced for both internal and external trade. Economically the Mughals were self-sufficient. Foreign traders found they needed gold or silver to purchase products desired in Europe or Southeast Asia.

This centralized, orderly, and prosperous empire did not survive Aurangzeb’s reign. Its greatest problem was not the religious differences between Muslim rulers and Hindu populations; Muslim rulers adapted their religious convictions to the realities of governing a mostly Hindu land. The Mughals’ great weakness was succession. From Babur through Aurangzeb and beyond, an uncertain succession pitted impatient sons against aging fathers, and brothers against brothers in violent, costly, vicious struggles that only escalated in destructiveness throughout the Mughal period.


Jahangir (r. 1605-27), Akbar’s eldest son and heir, became emperor after a six-year struggle that began with his own attempt to overthrow his father in 1599 and ended with his own son Khusrau’s attempt to usurp the throne. On his deathbed Akbar recognized Jahangir as emperor, and Khusrau was imprisoned and partially blinded. Khusrau’s supporters, among whom was the fifth Sikh guru, Arjun, were all captured and executed.

Jahangir maintained with little change the lands he inherited from his father and continued Akbar’s political alliances and his policy of religious tolerance. He allowed the Jesuits to maintain churches in his capital cities, and he treated both Hindu holy men and Sufi saints with reverence. Like his father Jahangir took a number of Hindu wives. Like Akbar he also encouraged court nobles to become his personal disciples. The mixture of Persian and Indian elements in Mughal court culture became more pronounced during his reign. Persian was now the language of court, administration, and cultural life throughout Mughal India. Court artists, both Hindu and Muslim, developed distinctively “Mughlai” styles of painting and portraiture.

In 1611 Jahangir married Nur Jahan (light of the world), the beautiful Muslim widow of one of his officers who was also the daughter of one of his high-ranking nobles. Nur Jahan, in conjunction with her father and brother, dominated court politics for the remainder of Jahangir’s reign.

Shah Jahan

Jahangir died in 1627. His son Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58) assumed the throne at the age of 36, after a brief but bloody succession struggle that was resolved by the execution of two brothers and several adult male cousins. At the time, Shah Jahan was already a mature general in his father’s armies. Over the course of his reign he maintained Mughal military dominance against challenges from Afghan nobles, through campaigns in Sind, and against regional rulers in Central India. He ruled a mature empire, enormous in size and wealth, where the revenues from a large district in Lahore or Agra brought in more than 1 million rupees each year.

Shah Jahan was a seasoned general, and his army overall was larger than it had been in Akbar’s time. Yet he spent a smaller proportion of his wealth on military and government officials than had his grandfather. Instead he directed a series of spectacular building projects. For his coronation he had the Peacock Throne constructed. At the death of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, he commissioned the Taj Mahal as an eventual tomb for both their bodies. In 1639 he ordered a new capital city, Shajahanabad, to be built on a site just south of Delhi. When finished in 1648, the new city contained a great royal fortress and the largest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid.

During Shah Jahan’s reign, prominent Sufi leaders were urging orthodox Sunni Muslims to adhere strictly to sharia laws. Perhaps this, as much as personal inclination, accounts for the more Muslim style of Shah Jahan’s rule. He celebrated Islamic festivals with great enthusiasm and resumed sponsorship of a yearly pilgrimage to Mecca. Beginning in 1633 he enforced sharia laws forbidding the repair of churches or temples. In his relations with court nobles he abandoned the personal discipleship encouraged by his father and grandfather, emphasizing instead the long-standing familial ties Muslim nobles had with Mughal rulers. By the middle of his reign all 73 of the most elite nobles and 80 percent of higher-ranking mansabdars were Muslim.

Conflict among Shah Jahan’s adult sons (and their court factions) preoccupied the last years of the emperor’s reign. Dara Shukoh, the emperor’s favorite and appointed heir, shared his great-grandfather’s ecumenical interest in religion. He had had the Upanishads translated into Persian and believed that they reflected a monotheistic religious sensibility that was, at its core, Islamic. Dara attracted those at court who yearned for a return to Akbar’s more religiously diverse court. At the opposite pole was Shah Jahan’s third son, Aurangzeb. An excellent military commander and experienced administrator, Aurangzeb was a pious Muslim. “He pretended to be a faquir (faqir), a holy mendicant,” observed an unsympathetic Italian at the court, “by which he renounced the world, gave up all claim to the crown, and was content to pass his life in prayers and mortifications” (Richards 1995, 153). Aurangzeb attracted those who wanted a court committed to Islam and the institution of a religiously orthodox state.


When Shah Jahan fell seriously ill in 1657, these two court factions turned the Mughal military inward upon itself. The struggle for succession lasted two years. It ended with Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707) as emperor; his father, Shah Jahan, imprisoned; and all three of his brothers dead. Dara Shukoh was executed after the Delhi ulama convicted him of apostasy and idolatry.

Aurangzeb’s rule inaugurated a more aggressively orthodox and Islamic court culture. The new austerity curtailed large building projects, ended Mughal patronage of musicians and painters, and banned wine and opium from court. The sharia, as interpreted by court ulama, was to provide the ideological basis for Mughal government. New temple construction was banned, and old temples and idols were often destroyed; new taxes were imposed on temple pilgrims and Hindu merchants; and in 1679 the jizya was again imposed on all Hindus. Aurangzeb also sought to increase the number of Muslims in Mughal service and to restrict Rajput access to the higher mansabdari ranks. When he learned that the ninth Sikh guru had converted Muslims to his religion, Aurangzeb had him arrested and put to death. His armies pursued the 10th guru for years in the Himalayan foothills.

The first 30 years of Aurangzeb’s reign aimed at creating a more Islamic Mughal regime. But in 1681, in part because of the emperor’s anti-Hindu policies, Rajput clans supported the efforts of a son, Akbar II, to usurp the throne. The attempt failed, and Akbar fled to the Maratha kingdom and eventually to the court of the Persian kings. Aurangzeb, fearing a possible coalition of enemies at court with Rajputs, independent Deccani sultans, and Marathas, determined to bring the Deccan under his control. He marched south, taking with him his own army, the armies of his three sons, and those of his major generals. In 1685 he defeated the sultans of Bijapur (the Karnatak) and Golconda (Hyderabad). In 1689 his forces tracked down and killed the Maratha king Sambhaji. By then Mughal territories extended from the Himalayas to all but the very tip of the Indian peninsula.

But the Marathas refused to surrender. Aurangzeb spent the last 20 years of his life in the Deccan, much of it living in a giant tent city 30 miles in circumference, vainly attempting to bring the Deccan under his control. Even after Mughal troops killed Sambhaji’s brother Rajaram in 1698, Rajaram’s widow, Tara Bai, fought on as regent for her infant son. From 1700 to 1705 the Mughals repeatedly besieged and captured Maratha hill fortresses only to have the Marathas recapture them as soon as the Mughals withdrew. In the countryside, Maratha armies collected the land revenues before the Mughals could secure them.

In the north, Mughal administrative and fiscal systems were breaking down. The cost of the Deccan war was depleting the treasury even as the growing practice of “tax farming” (hiring a third party to collect revenues from a jagir) was reducing overall revenues. The old mansabdari military system was no longer honored—soldiers were either not provided or inadequately horsed and equipped. Rebellion, disorder, and disaffection were breaking out even in the Indo-Gangetic heartland. In the late 1680s, Hindu Jat peasants south of Agra plundered Mughal supply trains with such impunity that Aurangzeb had to send troops from the Deccan to stop them.

In 1705, old and ill, Aurangzeb abandoned his war and began a slow march north. Two years later he died, in his tent city outside Aurangabad. “My famous and auspicious sons should not quarrel among themselves and allow a general massacre of the people,” he wrote in almost identical letters to his three sons and heirs shortly before his death. “My years have gone by profitless…. I have greatly sinned and know not what torment awaits me” (Smith 1958, 426).

Muslim Society

The Muslim society that developed across India over the centuries of Muslim rule was divided into elite, or ashraf (honorable), and nonelite households. Ashraf Muslims were urban, religious officials (ulama), soldiers, and administrators. By the end of the Delhi Sultanate, independent Muslim rulers had established themselves throughout much of the subcontinent. Muslim elites settled along with these rulers in their capitals and trading centers. By the 15th century elite Muslims who claimed Arab ancestry were called Sayyids; from Central Asian ancestry, Mughals; and Afghan ancestry, Pathans.

Non-ashraf Muslims were urban artisans and rural cultivators organized into endogamous jati communities, some of which certainly had preexisted the Muslims. The first British census in the mid-19th century found that Muslims made up one-quarter of the population, concentrated in the largest numbers in the Punjab and Bengal. Conversions in Bengal probably date to Mughal efforts to expand deltaic farmlands under Aurangzeb and were carried out by Sufi masters who established mosques and Muslim religious centers in the eastern Bengal region.

Muslim elites and Muslim artisan jatis lived in the urban centers of India, in the prosperous trading cities and in the various provincial capitals and the capitals of independent, regional sultanates. The Bengal sultanate, for instance, had its capital in Gaur in the early 16th century. Gaur was a large and prosperous city. It had a population of 40,000 and stretched for several miles along the river. Its markets were full of cheap and plentiful food, and its streets and lanes were paved with bricks. A Portuguese traveler who visited it noted how crowded its streets had become: “The streets and cross-lanes are so full of people that [it] is impossible to move and it has reached the point where the high noblemen have taken to being preceded along the road to the palace by men carrying bamboo sticks to push people out of the way” (Eaton 1993, 98).


The Qur’an places women and men in terms of absolute equality before God (Allah), but in social terms, Muslim women were subordinate to Muslim men. “Men are in charge of women,” says the Qur’an, “because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend their property (for the support of women)” (Eaton 1993, 297). The Muslim practice of purdah (meaning literally “veil” or “curtain”) required that women not be seen by men unrelated to them. Elite Muslim women lived in the zenana (women’s quarters) of the home, away from all men but their husbands and closest male relatives. When they traveled, they did so in covered conveyances. Ancient Indian society had also developed practices that restricted women’s social mobility and behavior, particularly in the early centuries C.E. Over the centuries in which Muslims ruled many sections of India, Muslim conventions intensified these Hindu practices, and by the 19th century purdah was the customary practice of high-caste Hindu and elite communities throughout India.

In Decline

The centralized Mughal Empire did not survive much past the last of its great Mughal leaders. Aurangzeb’s ambition to control the Deccan forced him to spend long years there, to the detriment of his North Indian empire. Wars of succession, the one problem the Mughals never solved, tore them apart periodically during the time of the Great Mughals. After Aurangzeb’s death, with administrative and revenue systems in growing disarray, succession struggles brought Mughal power more or less to an end. In the succession crisis that followed Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, Bahadur Shah (r. 1707-12) killed his two competing brothers and became the sixth Mughal emperor. Between his death in 1712 and 1720, repeating wars of succession convulsed the Mughal court. By 1720 regional Mughal nobles were asserting their independent control over Punjab, Oudh, Bengal, Gujarat, and the Deccan. Rajput kings and the Marathas encroached on Mughal territories at every opportunity. By the mid-18th century the Mughals themselves controlled little more than the territory surrounding Delhi. It would only be under the next great empire—that of the British—that the centralization begun by the Great Mughals would reach its logical conclusion.