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The Mughals: History and Architecture
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History

The Mughal Empire is arguably the greatest of the Indian empires. From 1527, with the victory of Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire and first of a dynastic succession of great princes, until 1707 and the death of the Aurangzeb, the Mughals unified the fragmented subcontinent of many Hindu clans and squabbling Muslim factions into a great nation. The power of the Mughals was so great that even after their downfall at the hands of the northern Hindu Rajputs, the Marathas and ultimately the British, their legacy has survived, particularly in the form of unparalleled architectural splendor.

Babur originally hailed from Farghana, a tiny kingdom found in today's Uzbekistan. Descended from both Genghis Khan and the great central Asian conqueror Timur (better known in the West as Tamerlane), he had grandiose aspirations that he was unable to realize in his native land. After repeated and successful, but only short-lived attempts to take Samarkand, great capital of his Timurid forebear, he turned his attentions south. In 1526, with a small but well-armed force (the Timurids had gunpowder, whereas the South Asians did not), Babur defeated at Panipat the troops of the Sultan of Delhi. Almost a year later, he crushed the Hindu Rajput resistance of the north and laid claim to India. An observant and literary man, Babur wrote copiously about his life and the times. His private journals have proven to be one of the most valuable documents of Mughal India.

Babur died only four years after his victories and passed the throne to his son Humayun. Humayun was not as able a leader as his father and found in his new empire a great deal of throttled disenchantment. In 1540, he was defeated by Sher Khan, a rival Muslim ruler. For 15 years, the usurper Sher Shah Sur (as he came to be known) and his son Islam Shah ruled while Humayun wandered in Persian exile. However, in 1555 Humayun returned to reclaim his throne. Unfortunately, he died soon after from injuries sustained by falling from a tower in Purana Qila, a fort whose walls he had begun during his earlier reign.

Humayun's son, Akbar took control of the empire at the age of 13. Although young at the time of his accession, he grew to become the greatest of the Mughal leaders and is known today as Akbar the Great (a redundancy, since 'akbar' actually means 'great'). During the nearly 50 years of his reign, he oversaw the consolidation and expansion of Mughal holdings. He also expertly developed the empire's bureaucracy, from governance practices to taxation and communication. Akbar is also noteworthy for his interest in and tolerance of all religions, engaging in frequent discussions with leaders of many faiths and going so far as to create his own. Akbar is responsible for the construction of Fatehpur Sikri, the enigmatic"City of Victory" near Agra.

Akbar's son, Jahangir, inherited a grand and stable empire in 1605. He did little to expand it but was competent in maintaining it and stamping out periodic internal rebellion. A scribe as capable as his great-grandfather Babur, Jahangir also wrote his own memoirs and encouraged the development of the arts, particularly miniature painting. Jahangir was particularly fond of Lahore and Kashmir in the northern reaches of the empire. He spent a great deal of time there, and eventually died there. His tomb is in Pakistan's Lahore.

Shah Jahan , Jahangir's son, continued to promote the arts, but turned his attentions back to central India and raised Mughal lapidary and architectural accomplishment to a level never before contemplated. It was under Shah Jahan that the greatest Indian building projects were undertaken, like the Taj Mahal, a sober jewel-encrusted marble gem built as a tribute to Shah Jahan's wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died soon after his enthronement.

In 1657, an ailing Shah Jahan watched as his sons battled for the empire. Although Shah Jahan recovered, he lived his remaining eight years under house arrest imposed by Aurangzeb, his triumphant son. Although Aurangzeb's reign was long and involved the expansion of the empire to its greatest extent, it was also the beginning of the end for the Mughals. Aurangzeb was a more devout Muslim than his ancestors had been and his piety led to a reversal of the tolerant practices established during Akbar's years. Free artistic expression was curbed. Unimpeded temple building by all religions came to an end and non-Muslim centers were often destroyed. A tax on non-Muslim worship was re-imposed. With the empire already stretched beyond its administrative means, discontentment brewing among the non-Muslims (particularly with the already rebellious Rajput), and Aurangzeb's oldest son's defection to the Rajputs, the empire fell into a period of decline from which it never recovered.

Building and Architecture

The Mughals built many forts, palaces, mosques, and tombs throughout their realm. These structures were as much functional as they were imperial symbols of wealth, power, and indomitability. Nothing is known about the inspired individuals directly responsible for the construction of the great Mughal monuments. At the time, design was an anonymous group effort, glory belonging to the purse that paid rather than the hands that carved. Thus no one individual was credited with the labor other than the emperor, and no emperor was ever content just to inherit the work of his predecessor, rather seeing fit to build more, sometimes using material salvaged from the former structures razed to make room for new. It was important for each new ruler to put a stamp on his own particular reign.

Many people have thought Mughal architecture as little more than imported Muslim Persian design. While it is true that the Mughals were Muslim and that artisans certainly had to conform to certain Islamic strictures, it must also be remembered that the conquerors were new arrivals to a land with a long Hindu and Buddhist tradition and 300 hundred years of earlier Muslim influence. Locally hired craftsmen were not brought in to follow a particular plan but to help improvise a new one and add their unique abilities to it. And so, they were wont to rely on what they knew. Thus, local history and practice heavily influenced much of the design, which, neither Persian nor Hindu, can be considered as something uniquely Mughal. Touched with classically Muslim features like the pointed arch the buildings were nevertheless inspired by local design.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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