A Persian people who came to dominate the Indian subcontinent.
Who were the Mughals?
Before the start of the early modern period, Central Asia was dominated by two of the most powerful emperors in history: Timur and Genghis Khan.
In the early modern period, one of their ancestors continued their legacy by founding the Mughal Empire. This civilization roughly aligned with modern India and Pakistan, and was one of the largest empires in the world.
The Mughals were famous for their brutal warfare, skilful diplomacy, and open-minded religious tolerance. They were also excellent architects, constructing iconic buildings like the Taj Mahal. In the modern day, this site draws 8 million visitors every year, and is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The origins of the Mughals
The Mughal Empire was founded by Babur, a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Timur. Central Asia was already ruled by his relatives, so he decided to seek a different path by launching a conquest of India.
Timur had also controlled part of India, and Babur decided to target the same region: the Punjabi area in the north. In 1526, he defeated the local Sultan at the Battle of Panipat, and took control of the Punjab.
Babur wrote afterwards that “by the grace of the Almighty God, this difficult task was made easy to me and that mighty army,” but his victory was also helped by modern weapons. Along with the Ottomans and the Safavids, the Mughals are remembered as a gunpowder empire.
Akbar the Great
Up until his death in 1530, Babur continued to expand his territory down into India. He laid the foundations for the Mughal Empire – but he is not remembered as its greatest leader.
That title goes to Akbar the Great, grandson of Babur and third Mughal emperor. He is credited with expanding the empire to its greatest extent: an area of land even larger than modern India, with a population of 100 million people.
Alongside many examples of military force, Akbar was also a masterful diplomat, who used marriage alliances and strategic treaties to gain control of India’s subcontinent. He also used these skills to build relationships with foreign superpowers. These diplomatic successes meant that Akbar could focus on internal matters rather than having to constantly fight wars; this ushered in a period of stability and prosperity.
During his time in power, Akbar the Great established a centralized court, with a tolerant approach to different religions and cultures. He wanted his empire to be peaceful and unified, with everyone made to feel welcome.
For example, he abolished the jizya tax on non-Muslims, giving them more religious freedom. He also welcomed Sunni refugees who had fled from the violent religious persecution of the neighboring Safavid Empire.
Akbar also experimented with a new religion called Din-i-Ilahi, which combined aspects from all the existing religions into one. He hoped that Din-i-Ilahi would allow all of his subjects to merge their beliefs into a single practice, and become even more unified than before. This religion never became popular, but it demonstrated Akbar’s commitment to religious unity.
The golden age
The Mughal Empire enjoyed a cultural golden age during the reign of Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan. He was a great patron of art and encouraged painting and architecture, which both flourished under his rule.
Shah Jahan is most famous for commissioning the iconic Taj Mahal in 1631. It was built out of love for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child. It is considered one of the most beautiful buildings ever created and still stands as a symbol of India’s rich cultural heritage.
During Shah Jahan’s reign, many miniature paintings were also produced by Mughal artists. These miniatures often adorned the pages of important books, and captured significant historical events, or the beauty of the natural world.
Curries and spices
The Mughal Empire had a rich cuisine, and many of their dishes remain popular today. Curries were especially common, including kormas, biryanis and chicken tikkas.
These dishes were often a combination of Central Asian recipes, brought over when the Mughals migrated from the region, and local Indian delicacies. They were aromatic and spicy, and the most popular dishes were recorded in official recipe books complete with painted illustrations.
When modern people think of curries, they often think of chili peppers, but this plant is not native to India. It was introduced to India by European traders shortly before the Mughals arrived in the region. Chilis were discovered by Europeans when they met the Aztecs in Mesoamerica.
The decline of the Mughals
The Mughal Empire began to decline in the early 18th century, a couple of generations after the golden age of Shah Jahan.
Historians have long debated the reasons for Mughal decline. Some argue that it was due to weak rulers, while others point to external factors like European colonialism. India’s outer provinces may also have played a role. Some of them resented the central court, and started to push for autonomy.
Whatever the causes, the British Empire took advantage. They started to establish colonies in India, eating away at the edges of the Mughal Empire. In 1857, they crushed one final Mughal rebellion, and officially took control of India. This marked the end of the Mughal Empire, and the beginning of the British Raj.
The legacy of the Mughals
Despite the collapse of the Mughal Empire, they left a lasting mark on the culture of modern India and Pakistan – perhaps more of a mark than the British Raj which followed Mughal rule.
For example, the cuisine of both countries is heavily influenced by Mughal cooking, with dishes such as biryani, kebabs and korma still being popular staples. Many of these dishes are also popular in Britain, after Mughal culture influenced the tastes of India’s new rulers.
Mughal architecture, like the Taj Mahal, is also a clear mark of their legacy. Other famous sites include the Red Fort in Delhi, which was also commissioned by Shah Jahan. These icons of India would never have existed were it not for the Mughal Empire.