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Mughals and the making of the Indian ethos

The Mughals may have been invaders in India initially, but they were invaders who came home

By Debobroto Das
  • Published 10.05.19, 6:11 PM
  • Updated 10.05.19, 6:11 PM
  • 7 mins read
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Jade bowl, late Mughal period, National Museum (Wikipedia)

A stone’s throw from the tony restaurants and boutiques of the up-and-coming Said-ul-Ajab neighbourhood in Delhi lie rambling ruins of the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal era in the Mehrauli architectural park. When my wife, the budding gardener, proposed a walk through the rose gardens, I, the amateur historian, gratefully accepted the offer. Walking through the winding pathways, gazing upon the now decrepit, sun-bleached domes, running one’s hands over the once intricate carvings is a decidedly surreal experience – one can almost hear the muted sighs of lament from these once-imposing structures at having been discarded by modernity, relegated to a forgotten sanctuary, while developers erect retail malls in the vicinity. Yet, the fading remains of the Mughals make their last stand on that hill in Mehrauli, whispering reminders of their legacy to those who care to strain their ears and listen.

Syncretic culture

In recent years it has become politically savvy to brand the Mughals as ‘invaders’, to dismiss their three centuries of rule (1526 – 1857 CE) as an age of Islamic domination over the Hindu-majority population. In doing so, the Mughals are clubbed together with the British, and similarly portrayed as colonizers and oppressors. The religious fundamentalism of Aurangzeb finds special mention as the subject of rebuke by the religious fundamentalists of today, and is then used to dismiss the legacy of the Mughals. Whatsapp University relentlessly disseminates this now popular interpretation of Indian medieval history to misguided zealots with smartphones.

The Mughals, however, in stark contrast to these attacks peddled by political hacks, left a legacy of a syncretic culture, the foundation of the graceful Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (etiquette), that still glitters in some refined corners and personalities of the subcontinent. The early Mughals were adherents of Sufi religious tradition, and laid emphasis on the spiritual rather than the dogmatic. Akbar (ruled 1556-1605 CE), the third Mughal emperor and arguably India’s greatest nation-builder, was notoriously heretical. He even founded his own religion, Din-i-Ilahi, borrowing from the philosophies of major Indian religions. Jahangir (ruled 1605–1628 CE), his son and successor, Shahzada Salim of Mughal-E-Azam fame, was christened in honour of Salim Chishti, the revered Sufi saint. Jahangir, a pleasure-loving aesthete, carried forward his father’s syncretic tradition of a pluralistic court, where advisors and allies came from all faiths and persuasions.

Both Jahangir and his successor Shah Jahan (ruled 1628-1658 CE) were born of mixed marriages to Rajput princesses and institutionalized their mixed heritage in court etiquette and festivals. Holi, Diwali, Nauroz and Shab-E-Baraat were the biggest celebrations that marked the Mughal calendar; pictures of Hindu deities adorned the palace halls and private chambers of the Emperors in Agra and Old Delhi. 

Akbar holds a religious assembly of different faiths in the Ibadat Khana in Fatehpur Sikri
Akbar holds a religious assembly of different faiths in the Ibadat Khana in Fatehpur Sikri (Wikipedia)

More than tolerance

From the beginning of their rule to the very end, the long line of Mughals were surprisingly tolerant of the majority religion, with Akbar repealing the jiziya tax on non-Muslims and Bahadur Shah Zafar (ruled 1837-1857 CE) issuing an ordinance against cow slaughter in Delhi during Hindu festivals. Aurangzeb (ruled 1658-1707 CE), with his hard-line attitude towards religion, is emphatically the exception to this rule. His memory is reviled in the Indian subcontinent precisely because he stood out amongst the pantheon of the great Mughal Emperors on account of his fundamentalism. To hold him up as a representative of the Mughal cultural and religious milieu is disingenuous and defies all established scholarship and historical research. Even Aurangzeb’s record, on closer inspection, is far from unidimensional. While he was certainly far more austere in his private life compared to his free-thinking and merry-making predecessors, at the time of his death in the early 18th century, the Mughal administration employed more Hindus and Sikhs than it had at any time before him.

But a tolerant culture alone doesn’t make a well governed empire. Babar (ruled 1526-1530 CE), even though he may have come to India from his Central Asian homeland of Fergana in Uzbekistan, settled down in Kabul and Delhi – his successors made India their home and never looked back – they absorbed and in turn were absorbed into the Indian cultural melting pot. 

"Alexander Visits the Sage Plato in His Mountain Cave" - illustration by the sixteenth-century Indian artist Basawan, in a folio from a quintet of the thirteenth-century Indian poet Amir Khusrau (Wikipedia)

Cultural patronage

Akbar reorganized the land revenue system and codified Mughal law, documented extensively in Ain-i-Akbari, the official record of Mughal administration by his court historian, the decorated Abul Fazl. He and his successors Jahangir and Shah Jahan established a system of patronage that extended to all sections of Indian society. They evolved a distinctive architectural style, a culmination of centuries of cultural osmosis, a composite of Rajput, Deccani, Vijaynagara, Persian and Central Asian influences, instantly recognizable today as symbols of India’s aesthetic brilliance – the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid being the three most famous examples of the thousands of delicately carved and ornately decorated calling cards that the Mughals left behind. The court painting style was similarly cosmopolitan and evolved into the distinctive Mughal Miniature school, replete with both Hindu and Islamic cultural motifs.

These syncretic forms reflected Indian sensibilities - Jahangir, when visiting Kabul, the seat of his great-grandfather Babar, excitedly ordered a lavish spread of the famous melons, cherries and pomegranates that he must have read Babar longed for during his absence from Kabul in his erudite autobiography, the Babarnama. Having had his fill, he noted in his own autobiography, the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri - “the excellence of the fruits of Kabul notwithstanding, not one is as delicious as the mango in my opinion.” And in so far as a blind love of mangoes is as distinct an Indian trait as any, Jahangir was most definitely possessed of it.

Different from the British

While the Mughals came to India at the head of a conquering army, the British, in stark contrast slunk into the Mughal and Deccan courts as supplicants and merchants. Sir Thomas Roe, the first resident at the Mughal Court arrived in Agra to seek trade concessions from Jahangir. Towards the end of the 18th century, as Mughal power waned, under the weight of incompetent leadership and ill-advised wars in the Deccan, and as political rivals grew stronger with the Maratha federation encroaching on Mughal territory from the South and the Sikhs and Afghans gnawing away at the North, the British sensed their opportunity and began a series of rapacious land-grabs. The Nawab of Bengal Siraj-ud-Daula fell at Plassey in 1757 to deceit and chicanery among his ranks, with Robert Clive bribing away defectors. The combined forces of Awadh and Mughals were defeated at Buxar in 1764, paving the way for the British East India Company to consolidate an empire.

What followed was a series of brutal wars and political arm-twisting against peaceable kingdoms, as one after another were annexed into British territories – Lord Dalhousie (Governor General, British East India Company 1848-56), the architect of the “Doctrine of Lapse”, under which the British had the right to absorb states into their dominions if the ruler was either incompetent or passed without a male heir, led a devious marketing campaign, branding Indian Nawabs and Kings “oriental despots” and used his very convenient doctrine to steal their crowns in broad daylight, despite stiff resistance from local populations. Jhansi and Nagpur were annexed in 1854, Punjab brought to heel in 1849 and Awadh unceremoniously relieved of its poet-prince Wajid Ali Shah in 1856, consigned to exile in the British capital of Calcutta.

Thus the British East India Company, a corporate entity governed by and run for the benefit of its Board of Directors came to rule over the grandest empire of its day, and thus its Governor General, a private employee while in Britain, became a virtual monarch of the subcontinent’s many varied peoples, whom the Company and its British officials regarded with colonial contempt and mercantile greed.

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The opposite of syncretism and governance

The British, over their nearly two centuries of rule in India (1757-1947 CE) did everything they could to divide its peoples in order to retain political control, destroy its teeming native industries, denigrate its indigenous cultures and subject its economy to outrageously unequal policies, turning Mughal India from the world’s most powerful and prosperous nation into an economic and technological back-water by the time they left her in the throes of Partition, a last disgrace to close a disgraceful act. During this time, they enacted usurious land taxation laws, on an average charging three times the land rents in cash compared to local rulers, causing and abetting famines in which unknown millions perished.

They systematically dismantled indigenous industries, often by enacting unfair British monopolies, like those over the Malabar and Coromandel spice trade, textile manufacture, indigo and tea plantations and ship building. While they forbade local competition, they made sure to drain Indian raw materials at dirt cheap prices, wilfully fomenting rural distress and landlessness. British policy further stratified the already hierarchical society they had inherited, by classifying and sub-classifying caste categories that had often been fluid until then, and then by distributing state patronage in the form of jobs and grants to favour one group over another. The Muslims, now the vanquished rulers and the already marginalized Dalits, were disproportionately excluded from economic and educational opportunities. 

Imperial adventures for profit

The physical and social infrastructure the British built in India was for the benefit of their administration and business interests. Expensively constructed Indian railway lines brought fabulous returns for British and American investors while expediting the plunder of Indian resources from her interior provinces. They introduced liberal English education, at a scale that would not benefit the masses, but be adequate to create a trained bureaucracy adept at carrying out clerical functions. Britain, in its two centuries of discharging “The White Man’s Burden”, subverted all the Enlightenment Principles she so proudly proclaimed back home.

The Indian independence movement was not the result of British efforts at cultivating informed democracy amongst her subjects, rather the movement was spearheaded by British-educated Indian intellectuals and leaders, disillusioned at Britain’s oppression and her hypocrisy. Such was Britain’s wanton greed for Indian wealth and so effective the rapacity of her officials, that during the course of Britain’s rule, India’s contribution to global GDP sharply contracted from around 25% in 1750 to 4% in 1947.

Plain as day

The facts are plain enough if viewed objectively – the Mughals presided over a prosperous, unified and forward-looking Indian empire, while the British governed India only to better loot it. It is our responsibility as citizens of a free India to acknowledge and celebrate the pluralistic Indian ethos that the Mughals fashioned and bequeathed to us, or we run the risk of falling prey again to the ‘divide and rule’ tactics the British engineered and ruling parties today cynically leverage, turning communities and religions against one another for political gains. If we fail to distinguish between good governance and political propaganda, we might be fooled into turning our country over once again to rapacious capitalists and greedy merchants.

Jahangir, ever the cultivated aesthete, is said to have quoted the still famous couplet from Amir Khusro, marvelling at Kashmir’s natural beauty:

Gar firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami ast, hami ast, hami ast
(If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here)

It is not hard to imagine Jahangir, relishing his favourite Chausa mangoes, on the banks of the Yamuna, feeling the same about the entire Indian subcontinent whose sovereign he was. The Mughals may have been invaders in India initially, but they were invaders who came home.

Debobroto Das is an investment professional with a private equity firm in Mumbai. He started his career at McKinsey & Co. He has a BA in Economics from St. Stephen's College and an MBA from Harvard Business School.