The Mughal Empire

The 1500s were a turbulent time. The Conquistadors ran rampant through the Americas. Suleiman the Magnificent expanded the Ottoman Empire through Europe. In India, a young prince named Babur emerged. He defeated Lodi, the last Delhi Sultanate and went on to establish the Mughal Empire. The empire’s hold on India was shaky in the beginning, but went on to have a great impact on Indian and Persian arts and culture.

Love of Art and Wine and Religion

While he came to conquer, Babur is also known for his more civilized side. He kept a diary with great detail and brilliant prose. He depicted the landscapes and wildlife he found on his journeys. He loved poetry, gardening, and wine. He loved wine a little too much. His diary included tales of his over-indulgence. His grandson later memorialized these tales with illustrations.

Babur’s son, Humayun, took the throne after Babur. While the empire’s presence in India during his reign was brief, it still had an impact. He invited Persian artists into his court. When he regained the Indian part of the empire, he brought the court artists with him. He opened his studio to Indian artists also, creating the unique blend of Persian and Indian perspectives that is the hallmark of Mughal art.

Akbar, Humayun’s son, elevated the Mughal Empire to its grandeur. Mughal emperors were Muslim, but under Akbar the empire enjoyed religious freedom. He formed a new religion that blended elements of Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, and Christianity. Akbar included Hindus when appointing prestigious military and civil positions.

The arts continued to thrive under Akbar. He further developed the Indo-Persian Mughal style. He hired scribes to translate Hindu classics. Akbar was illiterate, but he loved to be read to. He had his artists illustrate the manuscripts in great detail. 

Politics, Economy, and Society

The Mughal Empire social structure was feudal style. Zamindars held huge tracts of land and extracted taxes from the peasants. This system allowed a chance for rising in status that was not possible in the Indian caste system. The emperor and his nobles enjoyed great riches funded by taxes, and they enjoyed a life of leisure. They indulged in the finest food and drink and had to time to play games. 

The economy boomed due to a system of roads and a uniform currency. A new middle class emerged comprised of merchants and other professionals. They were separate from the nobles, yet some members of the middle class were able to afford a few luxuries. The lowest class lived in poverty. They were barely more than slaves, and their status dropped even further toward the end of the empire.

Beginning of the End

Akbar’s son, Salim, took the name of Jahangir when he ascended to the throne. He elevated the miniature painting style to its height during his reign. The Empire’s wealth grew as trading with Europeans strengthened. The trading included alcohol to fuel Jahangir’s addiction. The Empire thrived despite the lack of leadership during this reign.

The Mughal Empire reached its height during the reign of Shah Jahan, Jahangir’s son. Mourning the death of his beloved wife, he built the Taj Mahal. This enduring icon of romantic love still draws people from all parts of the world. Its architectural brilliance captures the characteristics of the Mughal swelling dome.

Shah Jahan’s reign ended the era of religious tolerance. He had all new Hindu temples destroyed. He brought back strict Muslim laws such as jizya, which placed a tax on all non-Muslim people. This lack of tolerance fueled discontent in the Hindu majority. His son expanded the empire at the beginning of his reign, but the Mughal Empire continued to decline. The last emperor was deposed in 1858. 

Facts about the Mughal Empire

  • Babur was a descendant on his father’s side from Timur, a vicious Turkish conqueror. On his mother’s side he was descended from Genghis Khan.
  • Akbar loved to hunt, and used trained Cheetahs for deer hunting.
  • During the 17th century the Mughal ruler was called “The Great Mughal” in Europe, spawning the phrase “media mogul”.
  • The Mughal Empire consolidated power in a central government. They brought many kingdoms together under a single ruler.
  • You can still find Mughal gardens in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. They typically feature pools, fountains, and canals.