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The Express Tribune
November 30, 2022 at 12:00:00 AM
Mughal India through Western eyes

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Mughal India through Western eyes

The writer is a retired major general and has an interest in International Relations and Political Sociology. He can be reached at and tweets @20_Inam


I think it is about time to change focus from the self-destructive political discourse, where there are no winners, and the only losers are the people and state of Pakistan. Maybe a dig into history reveals some normative causes. Teaching of ‘History’ in India and Pakistan suffers from deep religious, ethnic and racial malaise. It is generally distorted to suit home-grown narratives, myths and folklores. Young kids are brought up in historical romanticism; and those grown-ups even have to dig deep to separate myths from realities.


The first official historical narration of Mughal India is Tuzzak-e-Babri, or more famously Babur Nama, the Gazetteer of India (translated from Turkish to Persian and, then Urdu in 1924). Written by the first Mughal Emperor, Zaheeruddin Babar, who conquered India in 1526 AD, Oxford University Press printed the English edition in 1996. It covers the events in present day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India circa 1494-1530 AD.


The second official gazetteer Akbar Nama in three volumes, of which the more famous Aeen-e-Akbari or the ‘Constitution of Akbar’ is a part, was the work completed under Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, the grandson of Babur and the greatest Moghul Emperor who consolidated the Mughal Empire (ruled 1556-1605 AD). The Aeen dilates upon Akbar’s mode of governance, including administrative reports and statistical returns of the late 16th Century Hindustan under Mughal rule.


In between, there are histories compiled by various writers mainly to eulogise governance and legacy of the rulers funding their work. It was around Emperor Jehangir’s time (ruled 1605-1627) that the western traders entered India’s south coast. Christian missionaries came along; and these educated literati wrote detailed accounts of their travels, conditions in India, local politics, and trade and commerce opportunities, besides preaching Christianity. These works were for their respective Churches and/or their foreign sovereigns. With little exceptions, these works till to date stand out for their ‘comparative’ objectivity, accuracy and historical quality.


Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605–1689), a 17th-century French gem merchant and traveler made six voyages to Persia and India between 1630 and 1668 to explore India’s trading conditions, in comparison to Persia and the Ottoman Empire. He took along compatriot François Bernier, a physician during some of these travels. Dr Bernier stayed for 12 years in India and his Travels in the Mogul Empire (AD 1656-1668), published in 1670, gives an interesting account of India under Shah Jehan (ruled 1628-1658), and later Aurangzeb (ruled 1658-1707), after a protracted war of succession (1656-1661). The following account would bring to light some little-known facts of Mughal India under the great ‘Moguls’ as seen by Bernier.


First, the religion. During the war of succession, Aurangzeb killed his brother Dara Shikoh being deviant from Islam. Dara was reportedly a Hindu (Gentile) with Hindus, privately Christian (baptized by one Father Busee, a Flemish Jesuit); but ostensibly without religion — a kafir. Aurangzeb’s second brother Shah Shuja had turned to Shia Islam, as Mughal Court had more nobles (omara) of Persian descent. Bernier’s observations about Hinduism to follow.


Second, the Mughal Court. The omara numbered 26-35 at any one-time including local Hindu rajas, Afghans (Pathans), Persians, Turks, Arabs and Uzbeks. There was endemic rivalry between Lodhi Afghans and Persian-origin nobles. Persian-origin noblemen were particularly attached to their native country and professed the Shia sect. Afghans being at greater odds since Mughals had usurped power from Lodhis.


Unlike Christian kingdoms of contemporary Europe, Mughal omara did not have proprietorship of land/jagir allotted to them and had no independent revenue except pay. On death everything reverted back to the crown and widow(s), children were dependent upon the emperor’s largesse.


The omara were required to appear in the emperor’s audience twice each day and the Amir entrusted with guard duties for the emperor would sleep inside the Fort. Omara were obliged to make presents to the King, hence would resort to a cut from the salaries of the under command besides forwarding false returns of income and horses under their care.

Central Asians (mainly Uzbeks), generally referred as Tartars, had greater embassy with the Mughal Court. Dr Bernier was critical of their conduct and lifestyle. The emperor detained foreign ambassadors to demonstrate his power and receive homage. Dutch Ambassador, who was actually, their factory chief in Surat, was one of the first to present gifts, congratulations and salam to Aurangzeb.


Third, politics. Mughals were foreigners in India and were dependent especially on Afghan nobles and Hindu Rajas; the latter bearing equal rank to the Muslim omara and Afghan nobility. Distant Hindu lands and frontier tribes like Afghans and Baloch wielded immense influence in the Mughal affairs, and had more freedom of governance in their fiefs — rajwaras.

Many ‘Franks’ (fugitive Portuguese, wandering Christians) in service with rulers of Bengal were marauding bands of pirates in lower Bengal. Shah/Sultan Shuja, the third brother of Aurangzeb, during the war of succession while escaping to Bengal, and thence to Burma sought help from these Franks and was never found. They robbed Shuja’s party of diamonds from the treasure it was carrying. Aurangzeb, however, later avenged his brother’s death from the Burmese (Rakan or Arakan) king for abandoning Shah Shuja. Descendants of Franks last lived in Feringee Bazar, 12 miles south of Dhaka.


The vast Indian state of Bengal fell to the three ‘Georgian’ slaves of the last local Monarch, Ramras and fragmented into Deccan, Visapore and Golkanda kingdoms, before it was assimilated into the Mughal Empire.

In contemporary Europe, succession was decided in favour of the eldest sibling by wise and fixed laws; whereas, the Orient generally feuded in civil wars.

Fourth, social life. Mughals generally avoided marrying off their daughter/sisters to locals as none were considered worthy of royal alliance. Daughter of Shah Jehan, Jahan Ara Begum (commonly called Padshah Begum or simply Begum Saheb); and Roshanara Begum another sister of Aurangzeb, remained unmarried royal consorts. These women wielded immense influence and were also credited with many works of philanthropy and public welfare; while the emperors were more consumed in thwarting conspiracies, quelling rebellions and hunting game and other passions.

Aurangzeb reproached his teacher, Mullah Shah, who was seeking an office or reward for tutoring him, for teaching him languages and subjects of no relevance to the art of governance and to deal with question of succession etc. That may be true for our education system to this day. 



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