Another view on Aurangzeb

Published: August 12, 2012
Mughal emperor Aurangzeb

Mughal emperor Aurangzeb

Source: Akbar meets Jesuits in the Ibadat Khana (House of Worship) in Fatehpur Sikri. Mughal emperor Akbar Mughal emperor Aurangzeb

Historians do not often agree on much, least of all about South Asian history, but there seems to be an almost unanimous consensus that the downfall of the Mughal Empire should be blamed on Aurangzeb.

Most historians who study the Mughal Empire have sought to blame the sixth emperor entirely for its collapse, contrasting his religious conservatism with his great grandfather Akbar’s eclectic tolerance that undoubtedly led to architectural innovations and cultural synthesis during the latter’s reign. Those who admire the synergetic traditions that developed in Akbar’s court point to the stylistic fusion that took place in Fatehpur Sikri and to how some talented Hindus played an important role in his administration.

But even as Aurangzeb’s sectarian and messianic tendencies may have been the immediate catalyst for some of the rebellions that eventually triggered the downfall of the Mughal Empire, they should not be seen as the sole reasons for the empire’s disintegration. Challenges to Mughal rule had already begun right after Akbar’s military successes and historians, who write admiringly and uncritically about Akbar’s “secularism” and eclectic tastes and draw too sharp a distinction between Akbar and Aurangzeb, miss many such crucial points.

One of the points that these historians appear to overlook is that although most Mughals were consciously “secular”, at no point during their rule did they allot administrative posts in proportion to the actual population of Muslims and Hindus; Muslims were always over-represented. It is pertinent, then, that although Aurangzeb identified closely with Islamic orthodoxy, more Hindus were employed in his court than Akbar’s. Aurangzeb, like his predecessors, continued the practice of seeking alliances with Hindu rulers but he abandoned the practice of developing marital ties with them. This decision did come with a cost and it is true that without the bonds of inter-marriage and with a tax base that was becoming less stable, the motivation for the Rajputs to fight Mughal battles began to wane.

Furthermore, in their support of the arts and music, the tastes of the early Mughals remained strongly biased towards the Muslim traditions of Central Asia and Persia. The only foreign non-Muslim influences were the Chinese traditions. Miniatures sponsored by Babar were entirely in the Samarqand/Bukhara tradition while, during Akbar’s rule, Persian and Western imitations also became popular.

Interestingly it was only with Akbar’s son Jahangir, who was born of a Rajput mother, that the Mughal arts lost their hotchpotch and uneven character and began to develop a distinctive and more consistent style. Jehangir was considerably influenced by Rajput tastes and rewarded skilled Hindu artisans with prominent positions in his court. With a remarkable eye for excellence in design and execution in the arts and crafts, he encouraged talent and promoted merit without discrimination. He also took an interest in local flora and fauna and, like Akbar, had an interest in philosophy. Aurangzeb’s elder brother Dara Shikoh and father Shah Jahan were inheritors of this taste for creative sophistication and ornamental exuberance.

Yet even as it became more influenced by indigenous Indian cultures, Mughal court culture remained inaccessible to ordinary citizens of the empire. With Shah Jahan, a refined delicacy came to define courtly tastes, but there was also a trend towards rarefied formalism, which prevented the Mughal tradition from imbibing popular and folk influences in the manner of the Rajput or Bundelkhand rulers.

Mughal courtly culture also remained somewhat apart from the folk traditions of the Indian masses through the promotion of Persian as the language of culture, and Urdu as the language of administration. Although popular with urban intellectuals and the cultural elite, Urdu, with its plethora of Persian and Arabic words and non-Indian script could not gain mass acceptance and remained a language primarily of the elite. Outside the Hindi belt, this was an even bigger problem.

But it was not just a cultural aloofness or the dominance of the Muslim minority that made Mughal rule unpalatable. Even more fundamental factors were in play. For instance, the high rate of taxation on the peasantry was simply unsustainable. But another important reason for the unravelling of Mughal power was that beyond Sindh, Punjab, Kashmir and the Yamuna and Gangetic plains, Mughal rule had simply not made enough of a positive contribution to justify its continuity.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that some of the highest admiration for the Mughal Empire’s “unification” of India into a highly centralised polity comes from people who are ardent advocates of economic and political decentralisation of modern India.  Another factor often ignored is that the “unification” of India that Akbar had achieved was almost entirely through war and coercion.

But more importantly, the benefits of this centralisation did not flow throughout the empire. Some territories paid tribute but received no tangible gains in exchange. In particular, the regions corresponding to present-day Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Chota Nagpur and Vidarbha, eastern Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and much of North Bihar were starved of investment, and experienced stagnation or decline.

Furthermore, beyond the main trade routes that linked northern India to the rest of the world, the Mughal state invested neither in agricultural expansion nor in manufacturing or infrastructure to promote trade. Since the bulk of the Mughal manufacturing towns was located either along the Yamuna and Gangetic plains (or along the Indus), it is no coincidence that Mughal legitimacy survived primarily only in these regions of India.

Thus, considering the steady drain of wealth from areas further away from Mughal capitals and urban centres, it was almost inevitable that alienation from Mughal rule would set in very quickly. The plateau regions of Central India (and other outlying regions) simply had no stake in a unified Mughal empire and that is why a broad and secular coalition of forces arose in defiance of Mughal authority in such areas.

Unfortunately, such shortcomings of Mughal rule have largely escaped the attention of serious historians in India. And those who have been critical have focused almost exclusively on the communal angle (on the repression of Hindu religion and culture), ignoring socio-economic and political factors that may have been equally, or far more, relevant. Communally focused critics of Mughal rule have often ignored how particular caste categories offered their services and allegiance to the Mughals, and received tangible benefits in return. The Kayasthas in particular experienced upward mobility as they rose from being scribes and junior record-keepers to holding important administrative posts, and achieved a social rank comparable to court Brahmins. Mercantile caste categories also had a stake in the success of Mughal rule. Hindu money-lenders and shopkeepers did quite well in the prosperous Mughal towns, and a majority of the top revenue administrators under the Mughals (even during the reign of Aurangzeb) were either Hindu Banias or Brahmins.

Bihar’s Maithil Brahmins had been promoted by earlier Islamic rulers, and their regional and local authority was not challenged by the Mughals. And while other regional Hindu rulers (such as the Mewar and Hill Rajputs, or the Bundelkhandis) often felt oppressed by Mughal rule, they nevertheless lived lives of considerable comfort and leisure, and this restrained them from organising collectively and mounting any serious challenge to Mughal rule.

But perhaps the most crippling deficiency of Mughal rule was the failure of Mughal rulers to devote even a fraction of their treasuries to anything resembling modern education. In that respect, Aurangzeb can be held to blame as he was especially sceptical about the relevance of modern science and technology. Whereas the European nations had begun to invest in printed books and public universities, the Mughal rulers demonstrated at best a passing interest in the sciences. As a result, even though the Mughal Empire under Aurangzeb had successfully fended off the expansion of European trading settlements in India, no durable foundation for the unity and scientific advancement of India had been laid by the Mughals. Mughal rule had left India largely incapable of dealing with the challenge of European military and cultural ascendance.

For British historians, however, treating Mughal rule as the high point of Indian civilisation has served a tactical purpose: by depicting it as such, they have tried to create an impression that all great things in India have required external stimulus.

Their interest in Mughal rule has also stemmed from the subconscious desire to represent colonial rule in India as not too different from that of the Mughals. The fact that the Mughals came as alien conquerors and created a vast empire gives apologists for British colonial rule an excuse to ignore the uniquely devastating consequences of European colonisation.

That the Mughals increased the taxes on the peasantry, introduced a language that was laden with foreign words and written in a foreign script, and in certain respects remained aloof and apart from indigenous cultural trends, makes British rule appear more a continuation than a sharp departure from the Indian experience.

But in spite of such parallels, there are vital and important distinctions that separate Mughal rule from British rule in India. Firstly, at no point during the Mughal rule was the impoverishment of the peasantry and the broad masses as extreme as it was during the period of British colonisation. It should also be noted that whereas Indian manufactures acquired a well-deserved reputation for outstanding quality, and were in great demand during the reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan, India became a dumping ground for European exports and manufacturing suffered a precipitous decline after the Battle of Plassey.

For all their flaws and alien instincts, the Mughals came to settle in India. Over time, they became steadily indigenised and that is why the last Mughals resisted the British during the rebellion of 1857. Local influences rubbed off on the Mughals to a much greater extent than on the British rulers.

But more importantly, even as the Mughals frittered away the wealth they extracted from the peasantry, their legacy of fine arts and architecture remained in India and India’s wealth was not systematically transferred to another country (as was the case with the British).

Thus, no matter how artfully British intellectuals have used their representations of Mughal rule to rationalise the immiserization of India during British rule, the colossal drain of wealth and destruction that took place simply has no parallels in Indian history. For that reason, Mughal rule cannot and should not be equated to European colonisation.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 12th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (30)

  • Asad Lakhani
    Aug 12, 2012 - 11:38AM

    From what I know Aurangzeb was one of the worst Mughal emperors, and I would have to agree with that. Muslim rulers of India always fought with each other amongst the families, they were bent on killing each other and were power hungry most of the times. The best Mughal emperor was Akbar in my opinion. He was very tolerant towards non-muslims such as the hindus.


  • Rahul
    Aug 12, 2012 - 11:40AM

    The Brits did not make Hindus pay Jizya tax. Also the Brits did not demolish Kashi Vishwanath Temple, AYodhya Ram Temple or Krishna Temple or the Somnath temple to loot the wealth of the Hindus.


  • Vivek
    Aug 12, 2012 - 12:00PM

    That was a wonderful and very enlightening article. That said, I have to point out that you started your article by asserting that the demise of the Mughal Empire was not primarily a result of Aurangzeb’s rule, but it is was somewhat discordant to see the argument veering off towards a comparison of the Mughal Empire and the British colonial rule.

    All the same, very readable, thanks.


  • unbeliever
    Aug 12, 2012 - 12:41PM

    Mr. NADEEM wagan:
    infact a very good analysis.
    however, the title was not suitable for the entire write-up, as you are in general dealing with mughal empire and subsequent fallouts.


  • FU
    Aug 12, 2012 - 12:55PM

    A very misleading article i would say.No one in their right mind would take pride of invaders. Mughals destroyed the very social fabric of Indian society. India has never been able to recover from then on. Instead India should have developed intolerant approach to invaders. India has been too tolerant over the period of history that has been the reason it has been taken advantage by outsiders.


  • Zalim Singh
    Aug 12, 2012 - 12:59PM

    views cannot change facts.


  • sohaib
    Aug 12, 2012 - 1:09PM

    The British imposed a foreign language and culture which was alien to the local people but the same local people take pride in adopting that foreign culture more than decade and a half after the British took over India.

    The difference between the Mughal and British was that Mughals never imposed themselves on the local population and did not do the cultural subjugation of India as the Briitsh did.


  • R.A
    Aug 12, 2012 - 1:29PM

    There is no doubt that the fall of
    Mughal empire was because of
    religious conservatism of Aurangzeb
    And there is no doubt where
    religious converstism will take Pakistan
    The pity is that our leaders use this
    to prolong their rule just like Bhutto and Zia did

  • anil
    Aug 12, 2012 - 1:41PM


    Facts say something different .

    Aurenzeb was a notorious ruler and he spitted venom in Indian society . He started sowing seed of religious intolerance in Indian society by imposing Jijiya tax on non-muslims .He murdered his parents in their old days which is completely different from Indian values .Mughal rulers fought among each other and paved the way for British rule . We know our history well as our history books are not manipulated . Only reasonable Mughal ruler was Akbar .Recommend

  • Haroon
    Aug 12, 2012 - 2:01PM

    Shame on your Part;First go and study the History then talk who ruled the best! Unfortunately colonial mind set cannot change???


  • Harkol
    Aug 12, 2012 - 2:01PM

    How about the time when Aurangzeb decreed all Kashmiri Pandian be converted to Islam and they took refuge under Sikh guru Tegh Bahadur, who refused to give them up and was beheaded on the orders of Aurangzeb??

    How about the fact that in the years between 1100-1700, per British India went on to have about 25% Muslim population under the threat of sword and after British Muslim population never grew??

    Hindus have to be thankful to British for having saved them from savage Muslim rulers, who had cruel sharia laws, jiziya on Hindus. India would have been a majority Muslim nation today if europeans didn’t consolidate in India.

    British ofcourse took wealth away from India, but Muslims invaders did that too in the beginning 200-300years. bottom line – Mughals were no better for india than British.Recommend

  • Saima Khan
    Aug 12, 2012 - 3:04PM

    Being historian and Professor of history, I am totally agree to views of writer, over all I read articles of writer, found by me research oriented and ever true facts given by Mr.Wagan in his articles, by the way worth reading writing of Writer.


  • Haroon
    Aug 12, 2012 - 3:34PM

    @Harkol: What A Joke! How your people mindset works?See the world know brother who is ruling (Crusade) the world and bombing the innocent people in the Name of Democracy??(GARBAGE);Which Muslim country or the ruler kill the more Innocent people in the world;Who BOMBED the Country with NUCLEAR BOMB??


  • Donku
    Aug 12, 2012 - 3:48PM

    there is a clash between Indian version of history and real history. Indian bias aside, Aurangzeb will always be remembered as a strong Mughal king.


  • Ashvinn
    Aug 12, 2012 - 4:03PM

    Hhahaha u have colonial mindset not Rahul,didnt Muslim invaders plunde Hindu temple for wealth, didn’t they persecute Indians on the basis of religion,of course the Brits subjected Indians to political persecution all there games were to meet political objectives unlike some of the Muslim conquerors, good example is morden day Pakistan, which was originally inhabited by Hindus.As for Brit language and education well we can’t help as most of morden day science journals are written in English, why even most Pakistanis and Indians go abroad for higher studies and jobs , they seem to beextremely successful althoug, this is fast changing in case of India we find that people who can’t make it India go out and to make it big


  • Indian
    Aug 12, 2012 - 4:20PM

    @Haroon: You are mixing too many thing together.. First there is no doubt that Aurangazeb was like Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan. He made the life of commoner very difficult, forcefully converted people (while islam says there is no jabar in religion, people think if they convert people with force/without force they are guaranteed jannat), made the life of hindus and sikhs miserable, destroyed our famed temples, looted our riches. So people should have no doubt that aurangazed was the worst ruler of mughal empire.

    Nuclear bomb was thrown on Japan for two reasons. US wanted to test its bomb and was looking for a suitable place and it wanted to stop the world war. It has got nothing to do with Islam/Muslims. In fact if they really hated muslims so much they would have dropped it over middle east. I don’t support US war in Iraq and Afghanistan but to say nuclear bomb in 1945 has got to do anything with war on terror then you are grossly mistaken.

    Finally, Muslim ruler history is filled with killing and looting. They have not even left their own family members. Completely blinded by power.. Thank god that there were no nuclear weapons at that time otherwise we would not be here discussing such topics.

    Finally I will slightly agree with Harkol conclusion that “Mughals were no better for india than British”. Mughals have enriched Indian subcontinent culture esp. around Akbar time when he followed liberal policies, the later ones were more like dictators who needed to be thrown away.


  • Saima Khan
    Aug 12, 2012 - 4:34PM

    Nadeem your writings are so sweet like your personality, proud of you penning realities


  • kumail
    Aug 12, 2012 - 4:36PM

    It’s a pity that we are taught in our pak history books that aurangzeb was a pious man, who wrote the quran and use to sew caps by hand for a living. What can we say about the character of a man who killed his three elder brothers and nephews just for to get on the throne. The history of the subcontinent would have completely different without a barbaric man like aurangzeb.


  • Suzy
    Aug 12, 2012 - 5:36PM

    There is another difference between the Mughals and the British. Whilst some Christian missionaries did enter India during British rule, it was not the intention of the British to ‘Christianise’ India as it was the intention and practise of the Mughals to ‘Islamise’ India and turn India into a land of Islam. The Mughals had a very definite Islamic imperial mission, which resonates today in the self image of many Muslims of the sub-continent, and in the state of Pakistan especially as being one of civilising ‘outsiders’ who had a historical mission to end the ‘darkness’ of India and bring it to the ‘light’ of Islam. A motivating precept as chauvinistic as any.


  • Justin Truthful
    Aug 12, 2012 - 8:05PM

    Unfortunately, objective writing on Aurangzeb is scant as preconceived notions have colored the depiction of his character, his achievements, and his failings!
    As regards the causes of the down fall of the Mughal Empire, stress should also be placed on the lack of scientific, technological, and industrial development which remained behind that of Europe. Also, therefore, the Moghuls lacked the power of the barrel of the gun, which the British used to their advantage along with the political chicanery in which they excelled.


  • wolfie loves kulfi
    Aug 12, 2012 - 10:08PM

    the downfall of mughals rule started with the crushing of rights and freedoms of non mughals, afghans the main people who crushed the mughals were the MARATHAS

    who are like Pathans of India they were a confederacy of tribes united by one leader shivaji who fought 22 years civil war and crushed the mughals and had the Maratha been helped by sikhs and rajputs as the mughals enjoyed support

    the Martha would have crossed Lahore which they had occupied from mughals into Afghanistan mughals survived in India only because of respect to emperor Akbar who was a just emperor and treated both mughals and non mughals alike with support of rajputs and Hindus kings mughals would have been crushed in India without their alliance.

    mughals survived cause they played dirty politics putting rajput against martha , Afghan against afghan , afghan against martha and maratha against shia nawabs of Deccan

    the British just used their politics against the already crumbled mughal empire lets not forget the mughals were the ones who gave a foothold to the British by handing bengal on a platter
    to East India Company

    auragzeb was a blot on history this guy killed his own brothers and his father in prison he brought shame to the legacy of his grandfather Akbar


  • Vikram
    Aug 13, 2012 - 6:43AM

    I agree only a strng Muslim can put his father in prison. Aurangzab also presented his brother’s head to his father on a platter. He also killed another brother of his. He was a true Muslim as he destroyed many temples.


  • Reddy
    Aug 13, 2012 - 7:20PM

    Mughals era was aphotic period of indian history,still reaping the fruits of that era…unfortunately we never could produce a king of the stature ashoka and mouryans. era of prosperity,knowledge and wealth is been demolished from the stem and replaced with a cannibalistic desert riding barbarians which looted,plundered,annihilated wealth and decimated the very essence of the land(knowledge) from it’s presence ,no love lost for them, good riddance.


  • Zalmai
    Aug 15, 2012 - 9:37PM

    The meaning of Mughal (Mongol) is lost on the average Pakistani. Aurangzeb was not a just or pious ruler, he was a tyrant. Defending a tyrant because of his faith seems to be en vogue with Pakistanis, which explains their love for ZAB, Zia ul Haq and Musharraf.

    Pashtuns hated the Mughals and Khushal Khan Khattak’s poems are testimony to this fact. The word Mughal takes on a derogatory connotation in Pashto and Dari/Persian because of their cruelty and ruthlessness.


  • Noise
    Aug 18, 2012 - 7:57PM

    Before he turned to Buddhism ashoka was just as much of tyrant and a kinslayer as any Mughal. And it didnt take much time for his people to turn their back on his legacy. Buddhism never really caught on in India, but it was a hit almost everywhere else it went


  • Dr Khan
    Aug 22, 2012 - 10:37AM

    Thought provoking essay. As much as it would offend some people, the Mughals are descended from barely civilized Central Asian tribes. The Hazaras are their half-breed descendants. Virtually all of Central Asia was populated by Iranian speaking peoples before the Turco-Mongol genocidal onslaught annihilated them. That is an area almost as large as present day China. Our hero worship of the Mughals is just as obscene as if we discovered that Jews hero worshiped Adolph Hitler because Hitler was found out to have converted to Judaism.


  • Aug 22, 2012 - 1:14PM

    Sir, Its a fact that The mughal dynasty collapsed because of Aurangazeb ,Such a tyrant and cruel ruler was ,40 years he spent on horse back in the deccans,
    His own brother Dara shukhov was marched undressed through the streets of delhi and his head was sent to shah jahan in a platter , inside a box ,On seeing this the old father collapsed and lost his teeth, But that was a blessing in disguise, Because of aurangaseb mughal dynasty collapsed and the british took over and the hindus heaved a sigh of relief
    35 crore of hindus died at the hands of Muslim Rulers
    Now we are getting this back from god ,EVery where around the world we are hunted, ill treated
    And on hearing the word muslim , people Faints and collapses


  • kundan kanan
    Aug 22, 2012 - 10:10PM

    we shuld also luk into history and try to understand whether mughals were considered outsiders or imperialist power during that time or not. British certainly were and we know it for sure because it is nearer in time.This is not to suggest that muslims should be considered as outsiders but only only abt Mughals. Whether the were or not during their rule. And the answer is yes. Other muslim groups like Pathans were considered local as well as volutary converts. For example, Sher Shah Suri did more development for India during 5 years of reign than during whole time of mughal rules and we aptly recognize tht. Mughals could never have a hindu as a chief even, no matter how high in position, he wud still be under mughal emperor.But pathans have no qualms abt a talented and skillful Hemu( he won 22 continuous wars leading frm front) leading them rather than inept Adil Shah Suri.In fact, hemu led a largely pathan army into second battle of Panipat.Unfortunately, he lost and after his head was sent to Kabul to be shown to Pathans(it shud be noted tht there was not much hindu population in Kabul) to scare them. So, as can be seen clearly, Mughals were considered outsiders. Subjugation to pwer in later mughal rule should not be confused with acceptance.In light of this incident, we can see mughals were considered as much outsider in their time as Britishers were during colonial time.


  • Majid sheikh
    Aug 25, 2012 - 12:23PM

    The Moghal Empire disintegrated because of the deficit run up. They owed three times more than what they ruled over. They did not invest in infrastructure, education, health and allowed ‘boots on the ground’ to foreign traders. As they were foreigners, they cared little what happened to the people. The Sikh ruler of Punjab fared far better. He built roads and spread education among women. They collapsed, after Ranjit Singh, for the same reasons and because the ones after him again mismanaged things.


  • Ahmed
    Aug 26, 2012 - 9:46AM

    Good article. One important point. India was always a magnet for invaders. Why? By any measure, India was the richest land on earth for 6000 years. And people always move from uncomfortable places (Afghanistan, central Asia) to comfortable places (fertile cultured Indian subcontinent). In fact, it is generally believed that india accounted for 35 to 40 percent for world GDP for thousands of years, a similar fraction to that of the US today. Even during the Mughals, India was still richer than all of Europe.

    Any one who came to India, eventually became Indians. Religion has nothing to do with it. The same central Asians came into India before Islam and became Hindu or Buddhist, like kushans. The same folks came later as Mughals, now as Muslims and stayed that way. So, Mughals were not special at all.

    Only the British were special. They were the only people who came to India to loot the country. They viewed India as a milking cow. And they never wanted to become Indians. That phenomena that we now call colonization is what caused India to become poor.


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