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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
A place to settle
Aryans and Alexander
Mauryans and Guptas
11th - 16th century
16th - 17th century
     Babur in India
     Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb
     Indian and Japanese castles
     Europeans in India
     Bombay and the Parsees

18th century
To be completed

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Babur in India: 1526-1530

By the early 16th century the Muslim sultans of Delhi (an Afghan dynasty known as Lodi) are much weakened by threats from rebel Muslim principalities and from a Hindu coalition of Rajput rulers. When Babur leads an army through the mountain passes, from his stronghold at Kabul, he at first meets little opposition in the plains of north India.

The decisive battle against Ibrahim, the Lodi sultan, comes on the plain of Panipat in April 1526. Babur is heavily outnumbered (with perhaps 25,000 troops in the field against 100,000 men and 1000 elephants), but his tactics win the day.


Babur digs into a prepared position, copied (he says) from the Turks - from whom the use of guns has spread to the Persians and now to Babur. As yet the Indians of Delhi have no artillery or muskets. Babur has only a few, but he uses them to great advantage. He collects 700 carts to form a barricade (a device pioneered by the Hussites of Bohemia a century earlier).

Sheltered behind the carts, Babur's gunners can go through the laborious business of firing their matchlocks - but only at an enemy charging their position. It takes Babur some days to tempt the Indians into doing this. When they do so, they succumb to slow gunfire from the front and to a hail of arrows from Babur's cavalry charging on each flank.


Victory at Panipat brings Babur the cities of Delhi and Agra, with much booty in treasure and jewels. But he faces a stronger challenge from the confederation of Rajputs who had themselves been on the verge of attacking Ibrahim Lodi.

The armies meet at Khanua in March 1527 and again, using similar tactics, Babur wins. For the next three years Babur roams around with his army, extending his territory to cover most of north India - and all the while recording in his diary his fascination with this exotic world which he has conquered.


Humayun: 1530-1556

Babur's control is still superficial when he dies in 1530, after just three years in India. His son Humayun keeps a tentative hold on the family's new possessions. But in 1543 he is driven west into Afghanistan by a forceful Muslim rebel, Sher Shah.

Twelve years later, renewed civil war within India gives Humayun a chance to slip back almost unopposed. One victory, at Sirhind in 1555, is enough to recover him his throne. But six months later Humayun is killed in an accidental fall down a stone staircase. His 13-year-old son Akbar, inheriting in 1556, would seem to have little chance of holding on to India. Yet it is he who establishes the mighty Moghul empire.


Akbar: 1556-1605

In the early years of Akbar's reign, his fragile inheritance is skilfully held together by an able chief minister, Bairam Khan. But from 1561 the 19-year-old emperor is very much his own man. An early act demonstrates that he intends to rule the two religious communities of India, Muslim and Hindu, in a new way - by consensus and cooperation, rather than alienation of the Hindu majority.

In 1562 he marries a Rajput princess, daughter of the Raja of Amber (now Jaipur). She becomes one of his senior wives and the mother of his heir, Jahangir. Her male relations in Amber join Akbar's council and merge their armies with his.


This policy is very far from conventional Muslim hostility to worshippers of idols. And Akbar carries it further, down to a level affecting every Hindu. In 1563 he abolishes a tax levied on pilgrims to Hindu shrines. In 1564 he puts an end to a much more hallowed source of revenue - the jizya, or annual tax on unbelievers which the Qur'an stipulates shall be levied in return for Muslim protection.

At the same time Akbar steadily extends the boundaries of the territory which he has inherited.


Akbar's normal way of life is to move around with a large army, holding court in a splendid camp laid out like a capital city but composed entirely of tents. His biographer, Abul Fazl, describes this royal progress as being 'for political reasons, and for subduing oppressors, under the veil of indulging in hunting'.

A great deal of hunting does occur (a favourite version uses trained cheetahs to pursue deer) while the underlying political purpose - of warfare, treaties, marriages - is carried on.


Warfare brings its own booty. Signing a treaty with Akbar, or presenting a wife to his harem (his collection eventually numbers about 300 - see Harems), involves a contribution to the exchequer. As his realm increases, so does his revenue. And Akbar proves himself an inspired adminstrator.

The empire's growing number of provinces are governed by officials appointed only for a limited term, thus avoiding the emergence of regional warlords. And steps are taken to ensure that the tax on peasants varies with local circumstances, instead of a fixed proportion of their produce being automatically levied.


At the end of Akbar's reign of nearly half a century, his empire is larger than any in India since the time of Asoka. Its outer limits are Kandahar in the west, Kashmir in the north, Bengal in the east and in the south a line across the subcontinent at the level of Aurangabad. Yet this ruler who achieves so much is illiterate. An idle schoolboy, Akbar finds in later life no need for reading. He prefers to listen to the arguments before taking his decisions (perhaps a factor in his skill as a leader).

Akbar is original, quirky, wilful. His complex character is vividly suggested in the strange palace which he builds, and almost immediately abandons, at Fatehpur Sikri.


Jahangir: 1605-1627

Akbar is succeeded in 1605 by his eldest and only surviving son, Jahangir. Two other sons have died of drink, and Jahangir's effectiveness as a ruler is limited by his own addiction to both alcohol and opium. But the empire is now stable enough for him to preside over it for twenty-two years without much danger of upheaval.

Instead he is able to indulge his curiosity about the natural world (which he records in a diary as vivid as that of his great-grandfather Babur) and his love of painting. Under his keen eye the imperial studio brings the Moghul miniature to a peak of perfection, maintained also during the reign of his son Shah Jahan.


Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb: 1627-1707

During the reigns of Shah Jahan and his son Aurangzeb, the policy of religious toleration introduced by Akbar is gradually abandoned. It has been largely followed by Shah Jahan's father, Jahangir - though at the very start of his reign he provides the Sikhs with their first martyr when the guru Arjan is arrested, in 1606, and dies under torture.

In 1632 Shah Jahan signals an abrupt return to a stricter interpretation of Islam when he orders that all recently built Hindu temples shall be destroyed. A Muslim tradition states that unbelievers may keep the shrines which they have when Islam arrives, but not add to their number.


Direct provocation of this kind is untypical of Shah Jahan, but it becomes standard policy during the reign of his son Aurangzeb. His determination to impose strict Islamic rule on India undoes much of what was achieved by Akbar. An attack on Rajput territories in 1679 makes enemies of the Hindu princes; the reimposition of the jizya in the same year ensures resentment among Hindu merchants and peasants.

At the same time Aurangzeb is obsessed with extending Moghul rule into the difficult terrain of southern India. He leaves the empire larger but weaker than he finds it. In his eighties he is still engaged in permanent and futile warfare to hold what he has seized.


In the decades after the death of Aurangzeb, in 1707, the Moghul empire fragments into numerous semi-independent territories - seized by local officials or landowners whose descendants become the rajas and nawabs of more recent times. Moghul emperors continue to rule in name for another century and more, but their prestige is hollow.

Real power has declined gradually and imperceptibly throughout the 17th century, ever since the expansive days of Akbar's empire. Yet it is in the 17th century that news of the wealth, splendour, architectural brilliance and dynastic violence of the Moghul dynasty first impresses the rest of the world.


Europeans become a significant presence in India for the first time during the 17th century. They take home descriptions of the ruler's fabulous wealth, causing him to become known as the Great Moghul. They have a touching tale to tell of Shah Jahan's love for his wife and of the extraordinary building, the Taj Mahal, which he provides for her tomb.

And as Shah Jahan's reign merges into Aurangzeb's, they can astonish their hearers with an oriental melodrama of a kind more often associated with Turkey, telling of how Aurangzeb kills two of his brothers and imprisons his ageing father, Shah Jahan, in the Red Fort at Agra - with the Taj Mahal in his view across the Jumna, from the marble pavilions of his castle prison.


Indian and Japanese castles: 16th - 17th century

By a coincidence of history some of the most spectacular castles of the world date from the same period in India and Japan. These buildings of the 16th and 17th century are fortified palaces, with superbly decorated pavilions rising above secure walls.

The Indian tradition develops from the example of Hindu princes and is brought to a peak by the Moghul emperors. The Japanese castles evolve from the small fortresses of local feudal chieftains, which are a practical necessity during the civil wars of the Ashikaga shogunate.


The best early example of an Indian castle is the fortress of Gwalior, built in the early 16th century. The entrance road, climbing a steep hill, makes its way through heavy walls to an elevated plateau and an exquisite palace of carved sandstone and decorative tilework.

The great 17th-century forts of Rajasthan, such as Amber and Jodhpur, follow the same pattern of delicacy within massively strong defences. The theme is taken to its most famous conclusion in the Red Forts of Delhi and Agra, where the Moghul emperors and their harems dwell in white marble pavilions surmounting vast red sandstone walls.


Europeans in India: 16th - 17th century

During the first century of the Moghul dynasty three European nations - Portugal, Netherlands, England - gradually establish a strong presence (that of aggressively armed traders) around the coasts of India. The Portuguese are by far the first in the field, with safe ports of call down the west coast of India in the early 16th century and (from 1537) a factory at Hooghly for trading in the Ganges delta.

The Dutch and the English begin to challenge this Portuguese monopoly in the early 17th century. Success depends on maritime strength, and the decisive issue is control of the Indian Ocean.


Until the arrival of the Portuguese the Indian Ocean has been the preserve of Arab ships. Apart from the usual problems of piracy, the Arabs pose no threat to Indian Muslims sailing on pilgrimage to Arabia. But from 1514 the Portuguese control these waters, after seizing and fortifying the island of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.These new masters even have the effrontery to make Muslim pilgrims carry passports printed with images of Jesus and Mary.

Portuguese sea power goes unchallenged for a century - until, in 1612 and again in 1615, English ships defeat the Portuguese in engagements off the west coast of India.


The English victory of 1615 coincides with the arrival of Thomas Roe, England's first official ambassador to India, at the court of Jahangir. He warns the emperor, with some justification, that 'the King my master would be lord of all these seas and ports to the prejudice of his subjects'.

Jahangir's powerful neighbour in Persia, Shah Abbas, uses to his advantage this perceptible change in sea power. With English help, in 1622, he drives the Portuguese from their fortified island of Hormuz. He builds on the mainland a new port named after himself (Bandar Abbas), where he grants special trading privileges to the English East India Company.


Persia, with its relatively short coastline, resists further intrusion by seafaring Europeans. India proves more vulnerable. The English are established in Surat by 1613. They are joined there by the Dutch in 1616 and by the French in 1668 - after the founding of the French East India Company in 1664. By 1690 the French have six settlements round the coast of India, including Pondicherry in the southeast and Chandernagore in the Ganges delta.

The Dutch also have a settlement on the Ganges (at Chinsura, founded in 1653), but their interests are mainly focussed on southeast Asia. By the end of the 17th century the main European rivalry round India's coasts is between the French and English East India Companies.


Surat remains the English headquarters on the west coast until it is gradually replaced, between 1672 and 1687, by Bombay (given to Charles II in 1661 as part of the dowry of his Portuguese bride, Catherine of Braganza, and leased by him to the company in 1668).

Meanwhile the English are establishing secure footholds on the east coast. Fort St George is begun at Madras in 1640 and is completed in 1644. Calcutta is eventually selected, in 1690, as the best site for a trading station in the Ganges delta; it is fortified, as Fort William, in 1696. By the end of the 17th century the three English presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta are securely established.


Bombay and the Parsees - from the 17th century

When Bombay becomes the seat of government of the East India Company in western India, complete religious toleration is declared to be the policy of the new territory. This immediately attracts the Parsee community of Gujarat, eager to adapt their talents to the entrepreneurial skills of commerce, trade and shipbuilding. They become the leading partners of the British in the development of Bombay.

The city has remained the centre of modern Zoroastrianism. The Zoroastrian rituals of sacred fire are maintained, and until recently the dead have been exposed to vultures in Bombay's famous 'towers of silence'.


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