In review - Review essay

A historiographical account of Mughal India

Published Oct 05, 2017 02:39am

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Mughal princes Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad Bakhsh circa 1637
Mughal princes Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad Bakhsh circa 1637

Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur could not have known that the Mughal dynasty that he founded in India would come to be seen as a symbol of the Muslim or Islamic power in South Asia. In retrospect, he is seen in many ways much like his descendant, Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal emperor. Both are perceived as religious zealots out to convert the Hindus and wage jihad against them.

As American researcher and writer Audrey Truschke points out in her book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, rallies organised by the Hindu right wing in contemporary India hurl vitriol at both Babur and Aurangzeb, referring to the Indian Muslims as their descendants. She is right to point out that social media today is obsessed with Aurangzeb. One could add that the arguments between the Indians and the Pakistanis about his legacy also include a comparison between him and his great-grandfather Akbar — the latter is portrayed as a liberal emperor who was able to Indianise his rule and the former as the overly pious hardliner. As Truschke is at pains to point out in her very accessible book, that is hardly the case.

She uses a variety of sources to show us a picture in which Aurangzeb, often accused of having engaged in large-scale destruction of Hindu temples, left many temples in his territories untouched. For Truschke, his moves were about realpolitik and had reasons that could be religious but not necessarily Islamic. He, for instance, razed temples where some Brahmin priests were known to dupe the masses by giving them a skewed interpretation of the scriptures. In India’s syncretic society of the Mughal era, this would mean that both the Hindus and the Muslims could be affected by the teachings of these Brahmin priests. Technically, this is a religious reason for destroying temples but it does not show Aurangzeb as the Islamist bigot that the popular accounts would have us believe he was.

Similarly, the advice he gave to his sons about how to live a good and pious life included certain cultural practices that he knew to be of Hindu origin. In other words, in his personal life and in the decisions he took as a king, he was not as rigidly orthodox as his popular image suggests.

In Babur’s case, his own words – as recorded in Baburnama that he began writing when he was still a young boy – show that stereotyping is fundamentally based on the people’s unwillingness to read. He wanted to be more religious but was given to drink and did not leave that habit until much later in his life. When he came to the pagan land (India) to convert the pagans (as popular history portrays), he and his party (he makes that sound quite literal) were quite inebriated by the time they reached here.

Miniature painting shows Babur reading | Creative Commons
Miniature painting shows Babur reading | Creative Commons

It is clear that he did not think much of the people of Hindustan but this was more for snobbish, aristocratic reasons rather than because of a feeling of religious superiority: “They have no genius, no comprehension of mind, no politeness of manner … no skill or knowledge in design or architecture … no good food or bread in their bazaars, no baths or colleges, no candles, no torches, not a candlestick.” We can accuse him of snootiness or racial superiority but not of feeling a burning religious hatred. This is not to say that the Mughals were not conscious of their identity as Muslims or that religious ideology did not matter to them but simply that their black and white depiction as religious zealots needs to be challenged and (thankfully) is being challenged by contemporary scholarship.

If popular images of the Mughals are simplistic and exaggerated, why do they persist? Where have they come from? In order to answer this question, this essay will delve into the evolution of writings on Mughal India and, in a sense, will end at the beginning with works like Truschke’s that attempt to challenge traditional and popular ways of thinking about that era.

The earliest histories of Mughal India were written either by the Mughals themselves or by their contemporaries with or without state support and often took the form of autobiographies and chronicles. Out of these, one of the best known is Akbarnama, written in the reign of Akbar by his famed courtier, Shaikh Abu’l Fazl ibn Mubarak. It was texts like these that the East India Company found and subsequently translated into English when it arrived in India. The British taught some of these histories in educational institutions but their main interest was to understand the Mughals’ administrative system. The older tradition of history writing, sustained by the Mughal intellectual milieu and the Mughal court, thus started changing to cater to the needs of new rulers.

This should alert us to the fact that the writers and translators of these historical accounts had a particular perspective that they wanted to put forward. In British versions, the Mughal despotic prince came to dominate history because the founders of British colonial rule in India had an obvious interest in presenting themselves as bringers of improvement over those who came before them.

They also emphasised the foreign nature of the Mughal rule, something that later Indian nationalist historians, particularly with a communal bent, would take up after the Partition. But the idea of the Mughals as foreigners is an invention, as Indian historian Harbans Mukhia points out in his 2004 book, The Mughals of India. It was a byproduct of the very idea of European colonisation that understands only one kind of rule — that of a conqueror who exploits resources for the use of his own people in a far-off land. This is a substantially different system from the medieval mode of conquest followed by the Mughals that involved settling in the conquered land in perpetuity.

A different ideological angle was injected into Mughal history by scholars such as Allama Muhammad Shibli Nomani and Munshi Zakaullah. Their works used British sources somewhat uncritically but also added important new aspects. In a 2012 book, Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics, Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, both India-born historians, argue that Nomani’s work Aurangzeb Alamgir Par Ek Nazar (A Look At Aurangzeb) was mainly addressed to a non-Muslim audience as a prescriptive text that highlighted how the Mughals had taken care of their Hindu subjects. This was a time when communal violence was becoming frequent in British India. Nomani obviously had an agenda when he painted the Mughals as patrons of non-Muslims under their rule.

In spite of the writings by these historians, who are part of what is known as the Aligarh school, history writing about Mughal India done under the British colonial period was nowhere near as vibrant as it had been before the East India Company began to cease control of forms of knowledge production. It is, thus, not surprising that the members of the Indian Civil Service, such as William Harrison Moreland, eagerly concluded in the early 20th century – while comparing Mughal and the British rules – that the despotic nature of the Mughal empire produced poor administrative practices that, in turn, meant the Indian peasants were much better off under the British than they had been under the Mughals.

We, of course, know that nationalist sentiments had already started to stir in India by the beginning of the 20th century. So how were Indian historians contributing to this discourse? It is in this context that we turn to the work of Bengali historian Jadunath Sarkar (1870–1958). Perhaps his best known work on the Mughal period is a five-volume tome, History of Aurangzeb: Based on Original Sources. It highlighted how Aurangzeb’s Achilles heel was his Islamic outlook and religious behaviour.

Sarkar was always seen as having some kind of a cultural nationalist ideology but Kolkata-based historian Dipesh Chakrabarty points out in his book, The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and his Empire of Truth, that his writings on Mughal India revealed his religious nationalism as well. They also showed that, in subtle ways, he upheld the British ideals as a measure against which he assessed the Mughal state. His main explanation for the decline of the Mughals was rooted in their personal character rather than in their administrative and political systems.

Part of his explanation of what was wrong with the Mughal attitudes was their pre-modern outlook, which makes his analysis a derivative of British colonial historiography. Sarkar (as quoted by Chakrabarty) states: “The wealth of India was the wonder and envy of other nations. But the Mughal court and Mughal aristocracy had not the sense to insure this wealth by spending a sufficient portion of it on efficient national defence and the improvement of people’s intellect … ”

Mughal historiography experienced another shift around the Partition. Some of it was folded into communalist Hindu readings (as seen in such works as History and Culture of the Indian People edited by K M Munshi and R C Majumdar) and the Muslim communalist works such as Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi’s Akbar: The Architect of the Mughal Empire. To some extent, these communal readings can be traced back to the periodisation of history into ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘British’ in The History of British India, an 1817 book by British historian and political thinker James Mill. He put forward the idea that religion was the main defining element in Indian society and that it was not until the British arrival that a modern outlook had been imparted to India.

The nationalist and communalist versions of Mughal history were (to an extent) interrupted by the publication of Goa-born Indian polymath Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi’s book, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, which gave primacy to class instead of religion. Writing of this shift, Chakrabarty points out how the older classics that were taught in schools (by historians such as Sarkar) gave way to new texts that replaced the romanticised focus on the role of heroes with a desire to take institutional analyses seriously. Some Indian historians, consequently, moved away from an analysis of dynastic models and those that sought to glorify India’s past to the one that focused on social and economic history.

The historians who took this path were engaged with the modes of production debate, the origin of which lay in the currency that the Marxist modes of analyses had acquired in India at the time. There is not enough space here to go into the details of this debate but it entailed a discussion on whether capitalist development could have taken place in India without the British or did the British inject the dynamism needed to propel India toward capitalism. The desire to answer these questions obviously had a nationalist, political agenda.

Arguably the most acclaimed of the Marxist historians was Irfan Habib who belonged to the Aligarh school. His work, The Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1556-1707 (published in 1963), very quickly acquired the status of a classic. It was an important turning point though his critics accused him of inflating the role of class struggle and peasant resistance as an explanatory variable for the decline of the Mughal empire.

Babur hunting rhinoceros in Peshawar
Babur hunting rhinoceros in Peshawar

Habib was followed soon by other historians such as Iqtidar Alam Khan and M Athar Ali, both from Aligarh Muslim University. Their main propositions can be seen in the relevant volumes of the Cambridge Economic History of India. They tend to focus disproportionately on the period between the start of Akbar’s reign and the end of Aurangzeb’s rule – from 1556 to 1707 – arguing that the main institutions that sustained throughout this period were laid down under Akbar. They focus on the increasing centralisation of the state apparatus, particularly the revenue system, in this time period.

They also describe the state as becoming increasingly extractive, putting pressure on the peasantry, but using the surplus only unproductively, mainly on elite consumption and imports. The implication here being that the Mughals lacked scientific curiosity or the desire to invest and, therefore, did not use their surplus to produce a more dynamic economy, which is probably the same thing that historians like Sarkar were saying though in a different context and in a different way.

More recent works have challenged much of this historiography, including its problematic assumption about the Mughal religious beliefs and attitudes. The book by Alam and Subrahmanyam mentioned earlier offers an important critique in this regard. Truschke’s work provides another corrective for assumptions about Aurangzeb’s rigid behaviour and Islamic motivations.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the recent work is its attempt to expand the traditional foci of history of Mughal India. Aligarh-based historian Shireen Moosvi – whose writing is very much in the tradition of Irfan Habib – has, for example, written on the various forms of labour under the Mughals. The mainstay of her piece, The World of Labour in Mughal India (c. 1500–1750), published in 2011 in a journal, International Review of Social History, is that wages in money were being given for most types of work during Akbar’s rule. She, thus, expands class categories in the Mughal agrarian system that, according to her, did not merely employ indentured labour paid in kind. If that was the case, an entire story of labour and circulation of money in the Mughal period remains untold.

Other recent work pushes readers to look beyond kings and rulers and focus on social classes below aristocracy. Rajeev Kinra’s 2015 book, Writing Self, Writing Empire, focuses on Chandar Bhan Brahman, the Mughal state secretary (or munshi) who lived through the reigns of Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. Stephen P Blake’s 2013 book, Time in Early Modern Islam: Calendar, Ceremony, and Chronology in the Safavid, Mughal, and Ottoman Empires, goes in an entirely unexplored direction and compares how differently Safavids in Iran, Mughals in India and Ottomans in Turkey measured time and its social implications.

The focus on gender roles under Mughal rule is not something new but previous writings on the Mughal court and the harem focused on seclusion and exploitation of women. This trend has changed over time with the harem coming to represent a space where traditionally masculine matters of politics and public policy were also negotiated and decided. New works offer insights into how women of the harem were very much a part of public life. An example of this is Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, a 2005 book by Ruby Lal — a professor of South Asian Studies at Emory University, Atlanta. In a somewhat similar vein, The Princes of the Mughal empire, 1504–1719, a 2015 book by Munis D Faruqui of Cambridge University, focuses on how political intrigues and alliances among the Mughal princes actually deepened the reach of the empire as opposed to the idea that such tactics undermined Mughal power.

These writings on subjects ‘below’ the level of rulers themselves are also being accompanied by a push to produce histories concerned with Mughal India’s links with regions outside the Subcontinent. In recent years, greater stress has been laid on the Central Asian origin of the Mughals in an attempt to understand them without geographically limiting them within India. This, of course, is an important attempt given that the concept of nation state at the time of the Mughals had no real meaning. Seeing them as a singularly-Indian phenomenon is, therefore, problematic. An example of this is American historian Lisa Balabanlilar’s 2012 book Imperial Identity in the Mughal Empire: Memory and Dynastic Politics in Early Modern South and Central Asia.

In the final analysis, the story of Mughal India’s historiography, and particularly the role of colonisation in this story, should not be forgotten if we are to ever soften the rigid contours of the myth of Aurangzeb and Babur. New writings, particularly the recent work done by Truschke, are an important step in this direction.


This was originally published in the Herald's September 2017 issue under the title "History revisited". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer has a PhD in history from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and is currently an assistant professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.