Posted on 14-11-2009
Filed Under (Accident of History, History, India) by Rashtrakut

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The next rumination in this series focuses on what I term as an accidental empire – Mughal Empire.  For the descendants of a bunch of Central Asian marauders, the Mughals have been indelibly entwined with the image of India.  From the Taj Mahal, to the Mughlai cuisine that is the staple of Indian restaurants across the world, to the loan word Mogul that has been incorporated into the English language the cultural influence of the Mughals survives to this day.

Yet the Mughals were in many ways an accident.  The survival of their Empires territorial integrity for so long is in marked contrast to their Timurid cousins.  The prevalence of polygamy and concubinage caused recurrent succession problems across most Islamic dynasties.  The Ottomans would solve this by a mass slaughter of the siblings of the new monarch (Mehmed III would notoriously commence his reign by executing 19 of his siblings).  After this blood letting almost brought the dynasty to an end following the death of Murad IV (his only surviving heir was his insane brother Ibrahim), the Ottomans would formalize the policy started by their father Ahmed I.  Henceforth princes would be locked in the Kafes (literally the Cage), a section of the harem where they were under surveillance and often with concubines too old to get pregnant, and the succession to the throne rotated through seniority.  While this stopped the blood letting, it eventually resulted in the succession of emasculated, unprepared and often psychologically disturbed men who oversaw the Ottoman Empire’s long decline.

The Timurids did things differently.  Traditionally each prince received an appanage to rule.  The obvious result was a fragmentation of authority and near constant fratricidal strife following the death of the founder of the house Timur-e-lang (Tamerlane).  Weakened by civil war, the fragmented Timurid states would be mopped up by the emerging Safavid Empire of Persia in the west and the Shaybanid Uzbeks from the east.  This pressure from both ends ultimately forced the founder of the Mughal dynasty Zahir ud din Muhammad Babur to abandon his dream of restoring Timur’s empire from Samarkand and head east where the disorder in the Delhi Sultanate under the incompetent Ibrahim Lodi opened up new venues of action.  Accidental opportunity #1

Yet even after conquering the Gangetic plain and “establishing” the Mughal Empire, Babur remained a Timurid to his core.  On his death he divided his state among his 4 sons, weakening the position of his eldest son and heir who ruled in Delhi, Humayun.  Within 10 years the Mughals had been driven out of India by one of the most remarkable men in history to rise from obscurity to an imperial diadem, the Afghan adventurer Sher Shah Suri.  This should have marked an abrupt end to the Mughal interlude, but for the Mughals unexpectedly getting a second chance when the Suri domains collapsed in civil war following the death of Sher Shah’s son Islam Shah.  Profiting from this opportunity the relatively unimpressive Humayun would retake Delhi.  Accidental opportunity #2.

Now comes an event that is not as well known, largely because it did not impede Mughal success in the traditional Timurid fashion.  Humayun, like his father also split his kingdom by giving Kabul to his younger son Mirza Muhammad Hakim.  This incompetent prince is a footnote to history and overshadowed by his brother Akbar the true founder of the Mughal Empire.  After causing no end of trouble to his brother by his incompetence, he did the Mughal dynasty a favor by dying without a son.  This allowed Akbar to annex Kabul into his expanding realm and not worry about his brother being used as a proxy by ambitious nobles, particularly since Akbar failed to father a surviving son until the fourteenth year of his reign.  Accidental opportunity #3.

Akbar’s oldest son Salim appears to have been the intended heir in a very non-Timurid fashion.  However, this was never put to the test since conveniently for the Mughals Akbar’s other sons Murad and Danyal predeceased him.  By the time Akbar died in 1605, a division of the empire in traditional Timurid fashion was probably unthinkable.  The absence of mature heirs to the throne (Danyal appears to have produced sons) reduced the likelihood of an exhausting war of succession.  Another historical accident that worked to the Mughal dynasty’s favor was that it was the younger sons who predeceased Akbar.  This avoided the temptation of a young grandson from an older son with a more “legitimate” claim than the only surviving son of the Emperor.  I raise this as an historical accident, because such a succession was not unknown and it had a history of failing badly.  Timur’s designated heir and grandson survived only two years.  In the Delhi Sultanate, both Ghiyas ud din Balban and Firuz Shah Tughlaq failed to assure the succession of a grandson who was the son of a predeceased older son.  Yet the succession of Salim was not without its drama.  Akbar and a group of nobles were still miffed at Salim’s rebellion against his father and there was an attempt to put his oldest son Khusarau on the throne.  But the legitimate heir would not be denied and Salim ascended the throne as Jahangir.  Accidental opportunity #4

The incident would have a tragic sequel.  With his ego puffed up Khusrau revolted against his father, was defeated, was blinded and would die mysteriously in the custody of his younger brother Khurram.  With his oldest son abruptly eliminated from the succession, most of Jahangir’s reign was consumed by underlying tensions over the succession.  The sons of the disgraced Khusrau do not seem to have factored into serious discussion, a decision probably encouraged by their youth.  The next son Parwiz predeceased Jahangir.  That left the third and most competent son Khurram (Shah Jahan) and the effete Shahryar who was championed by Jahangir’s favorite wife Nur Jahan.  The most competent heir does not always survive palace intrigue and after his unsuccessful rebellion against his father Shah Jahan could have easily suffered the fate of the unfortunate Khusrau (or worse the fate of the son and intended heir of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent who was executed in favor of a more incompetent heir).  But Jahangir was not as bloodthirsty and was probably aware of the extremely limited choices of competent heirs among the  indolent Mughal princes (starting with Babur and with the notable exception of Akbar most Mughal prices struggled with opium and alcohol addictions).  This probably stayed his hand.   Accidental opportunity #5.

Another factor in Shah Jahan’s favor was the close presence of his father in law (and Nur Jahan’s brother) to the corridors of power.  When Jahangir died he promptly neutralized Nur Jahan, arrested Shahryar and put Khusrau’s son Dawar Baksh on the throne as a place holder until Shah Jahan arrived.  On his arrival, Shah Jahan made a decisive break from Timurid tradition and embraced Ottoman practice by ordering a whole sale slaughter of Shahryar, Dawar and all his remaining cousins and nephews.  The Mughal Empire would remain indivisible and would not be torn apart by civil war until the end of Shah Jahan’s reign.  Accidental opportunity #6

It was this series of historical accidents that enabled the Mughal Empire to survive longer than any of its historical predecessors and create the cultural and artistic heritage that shaped India into the British Age.  But it did not have to happen.  Any one of the accidental opportunities outlined above could easily have torn the Empire apart much faster.  Between the 1540s when Humayun eliminated his brothers until the end of the reign of Shah Jahan in 1658, the Mughal Empire did not face full scale civil war.  The rebellions of Salim and Shah Jahan against their father’s were localized and a testament to the strength of the state Akbar built.  All of this was ultimately aided by a series of fortuitous deaths that eliminated mature contenders to the throne.  This would end with the reign of Shah Jahan.  Unlike his predecessors he had four healthy sons.  Dara Shukoh was the designated heir, but the other three sons had been posted to the far corners of the Empire – Shuja in Bengal, Aurangzeb in the Deccan and Murad in Gujarat.  A rumor of Shah Jahan’s imminent death sparked rebellion and civil war that saw Dara and Murad executed and Shuja exiled to an ultimately violent end in Arakan.  With the precedent of a bloody succession initiated by Shah Jahan now firmly established, the next four successions would occur as the result of civil wars.  At the end of these the imperial pretenders would be puppets in the hands of ambitious noblemen and surviving princes would in the Ottoman model be locked in the harem.

The series of fortuitous accidents that allowed the glory years of the Mughal Empire were over.  Racked by civil war, unable to control Maratha raids from the south, weakened by Persian and Afghan raids from the northwest, and with the Emperors reduced to ciphers the Mughal Empire entered terminal decline.

(1) Comment   


Ashok A on 27 December, 2009 at 8:16 pm #

Well researchd and written Deven.. Keep up the keenwork.

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