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17th Century Mughal Landscape

Signature Aspects of the Mughal Dynasty

by Pomy

Table of Contents

Monarchical Rule and Succession Wars in the Mughal Empire

The Mughal Empire operated under a monarchy where the king’s son would inherit the throne. However, there was no established rule determining which son would succeed, and the absence of a clear line of succession resulted in rivalries and conflicts among the king’s sons. Each son desired to ascend the throne, leading to a fierce competition for power. The victorious prince would claim the throne and become the new emperor, while his defeated brothers often faced imprisonment, exile, or even execution. This succession system created instability and violence in the empire, as well.

Elitism and Socioeconomic Divide

The Mughal Empire was characterized by a small number of elites who ruled over the common masses. Commoners lived in houses made of mud, often consisting of a single room. European visitors to the subcontinent were shocked by the living conditions they observed. While India did have a small middle class that owned mills and fertile agricultural lands, it was relatively limited in size. The gap between the rich and the poor was enormous, and the common people had little access to education, food, or justice.

Openness to Sex and Relationships

The Mughals had a liberal and tolerant attitude towards sexual diversity and expression. Within the Mughal society, sex and extramarital relationships, particularly for wealthy men, were not taboo. Homosexuality was prevalent among the Muslim Mughals. Men were free to marry whomever they pleased, regardless of the woman’s marital status. Prostitution was also common, and Emperor Akbar established regulated prostitution camps to maintain records of customers. Hijras (a generic term for trans women and may include eunuchs and intersex people) and hermaphrodites were a common presence during the Mughal period.

Women’s Status and Hierarchy

In Indian society, women were not secluded or required to wear veils. Due to the necessity of both men and women working outside the house and the hot climate, unnecessary clothing, and segregation were not widely practiced. However, for wealthy and royal women, life was different. They were confined within their palaces, and commoners were forbidden from speaking to them. Rich households had separate areas called harams for women, which included wives, mothers, granddaughters, sisters, and daughters. Eunuchs served as intermediaries between the harams and men’s areas within the palaces. The status and role of women varied greatly depending on their class and religion, and some women wielded significant influence and power in the empire.

Slavery

During the Mughal Empire, slavery existed in various forms, and slaves were obtained through different means, such as warfare, raiding, and trade. Since the Mughals had access to various trade routes, they engaged in domestic and international slave trading. Slaves served in various roles, and eunuchs, who were castrated males, worked as servants in the royal household. Some skilled slaves, known as ‘bandagan,’ held positions as military generals or advisers. Slavery was an integral part of the Mughal economy and society, and the treatment and rights of slaves depended on their origin, function, and status.

Polygamy and Women’s Roles

Polygamy was common among the Mughals and was often used for political treaties and alliances. It was also practiced to ensure the production of many children, which was significant for maintaining the Mughal Empire, as infant mortality rates were high during that time.

Art Patronage and Cultural Significance

The Mughal rulers highly valued literature, art, cuisine and culture. Each ruler had a library, including Emperor Akbar’s extensive collection of over 20,000 books, despite his dyslexia. Akbar was commissioned to write Akbarnama (book of Akbar). Jahangir maintained a diary called the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. The Baburnama, also known as the “Memoirs of Babur,” is an autobiographical account written by Emperor Babur. Dara Shikoh wrote multiple books, one of them “Majma-ul-Bahrain,” which focuses on Sufism. The Mughals produced a rich and diverse cultural heritage, which reflected their Persian, Turkish, Mongol, and Indian influences, and which still inspires admiration and appreciation today.

Divide Between Ruling Class and Masses

The cultural and economic divide between the Indian commoners and ruling classes hindered significant European cultural influence during the Mughal era. The limited access to education during the Mughal era, which was primarily reserved for the elites, further contributed to the cultural and economic divide between the ruling classes and the general masses. As a result, the rulers did not readily adopt European technologies or techniques in farming and manufacturing, especially in textiles, because of the poor and lack of skilled labor class until a later period when British influence became predominant. The implementation of modern techniques was primarily seen as benefiting the British ruling class rather than the common masses.

Architecture, Gardens, and Landscapes

Mughal architecture was renowned for its grandeur and intricate designs. The empire was known for its impressive gardens, such as the famous Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, and the construction of iconic monuments like the Taj Mahal.  The Mughals deeply appreciated aesthetics and created stunning landscapes throughout their empire, enhancing their beauty and charm.

Religious Coexistence 

The Mughals had an appreciation for various cultures due to their Central Asian origins, and they coexisted with different religions, finding a middle ground for peaceful coexistence with Hindus for centuries. They adopted a policy of religious tolerance and pluralism, which allowed them to rule over a diverse and heterogeneous population and fostered a syncretic and eclectic culture.

Sufism 

During their rule, the Mughals played a significant role in the flourishing of Sufism in India. Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, emphasizes the pursuit of spiritual truth and a direct personal experience of the divine. 

The Mughal emperors, particularly Akbar and Jahangir, were known for patronizing and supporting Sufi saints and institutions. Jahangir granted land and financial support to Sufi orders, allowing them to establish khanqahs (Sufi centers) and dargahs (shrines) throughout the empire.

Sufi orders, such as the Chishti, Naqshbandi, and Qadiri, flourished under Mughal patronage and contributed to India’s spiritual and cultural landscape.

The Mughal rulers’ support for Sufism helped foster an atmosphere of religious tolerance and spiritual diversity, enriching the social fabric of their empire. 

Selective Engagement with the West: Missed Opportunities for Modernization in the Mughal Empire

While the Portuguese had already arrived in India before the Mughals set foot on Hindustan’s land, the Mughal rulers, characterized by a sense of selectivity and caution in their dealings with the Western world, navigated a complex balance between embracing certain aspects of Western influence and preserving their traditional way of life. This cautious approach, aimed at safeguarding the core values of the Mughal Empire, also resulted in missed opportunities for modernization and improvement.

The Mughal Empire was one of the most powerful and influential empires in history, spanning over three centuries and covering most of the Indian subcontinent. The Mughals were known for their political, military, and cultural achievements, as well as their challenges and failures. The Mughal Empire was marked by several distinctive characteristics, such as monarchical rule and succession wars, elitism and socioeconomic divide, openness to sex and relationships, women’s status and hierarchy, slavery, polygamy, and women’s roles, art patronage and cultural significance, architecture, gardens, and landscapes, Sufism, religious coexistence, and limited implementation of Western technologies and ways of life. These characteristics shaped the Mughal society and legacy and impacted the region and the world.

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