Aurangzeb’s Mughal Legacy, 1707

From The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury, 2019), Kindle pp. 62-63, 82-83:

It was the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 that changed everything for the Company.

The Emperor, unloved by his father, grew up into a bitter and bigoted Islamic puritan, as intolerant as he was grimly dogmatic. He was a ruthlessly talented general and a brilliantly calculating strategist, but entirely lacked the winning charm of his predecessors. His rule became increasingly harsh, repressive and unpopular as he grew older. He made a clean break with the liberal and inclusive policies towards the Hindu majority of his subjects pioneered by his great-grandfather Akbar, and instead allowed the ulama to impose far stricter interpretations of Sharia law. Wine was banned, as was hashish, and the Emperor ended his personal patronage of musicians. He also ended Hindu customs adopted by the Mughals such as appearing daily to his subjects at the jharoka palace window in the centre of the royal apartments in the Red Fort. Around a dozen Hindu temples across the country were destroyed, and in 1672 he issued an order recalling all endowed land given to Hindus and reserved all future land grants for Muslims. In 1679 the Emperor reimposed the jizya tax on all non-Muslims that had been abolished by Akbar; he also executed Teg Bahadur, the ninth of the gurus of the Sikhs.

While it is true that Aurangzeb is a more complex and pragmatic figure than some of his critics allow, the religious wounds Aurangzeb opened in India have never entirely healed, and at the time they tore the country in two. Unable to trust anyone, Aurangzeb marched to and fro across the Empire, viciously putting down successive rebellions by his subjects. The Empire had been built on a pragmatic tolerance and an alliance with the Hindus, especially with the warrior Rajputs, who formed the core of the Mughal war machine. The pressure put on that alliance and the Emperor’s retreat into bigotry helped to shatter the Mughal state and, on Aurangzeb’s death, it finally lost them the backbone of their army.

But it was Aurangzeb’s reckless expansion of the Empire into the Deccan, largely fought against the Shia Muslim states of Bijapur and Golconda, that did most to exhaust and overstretch the resources of the Empire. It also unleashed against the Mughals a new enemy that was as formidable as it was unexpected. Maratha peasants and landholders had once served in the armies of the Bijapur and Golconda. In the 1680s, after the Mughals conquered these two states, Maratha guerrilla raiders under the leadership of Shivaji Bhonsle, a charismatic Maratha Hindu warlord, began launching attacks against the Mughal armies occupying the Deccan. As one disapproving Mughal chronicler noted, ‘most of the men in the Maratha army are unendowed with illustrious birth, and husbandmen, carpenters and shopkeepers abound among their soldiery’. They were largely armed peasants; but they knew the country and they knew how to fight.

From the sparse uplands of the western Deccan, Shivaji led a prolonged and increasingly widespread peasant rebellion against the Mughals and their tax collectors. The Maratha light cavalry, armed with spears, were remarkable for their extreme mobility and the ability to make sorties far behind Mughal lines. They could cover fifty miles in a day because the cavalrymen carried neither baggage nor provisions and instead lived off the country: Shivaji’s maxim was ‘no plunder, no pay’.

But what appeared to be the end of an era in Delhi looked quite different in other parts of India, as a century of imperial centralisation gave way to a revival of regional identities and regional governance. Decline and disruption in the heartlands of Hindustan after 1707 was matched by growth and relative prosperity in the Mughal peripheries. Pune and the Maratha hills, flush with loot and overflowing tax revenues, entered their golden age. The Rohilla Afghans, the Sikhs of the Punjab and the Jats of Deeg and Bharatpur all began to carve independent states out of the cadaver of the Mughal Empire, and to assume the mantle of kingship and governance.

For Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and the other Rajput courts, this was also an age of empowerment and resurgence as they resumed their independence and, free from the tax burdens inherent in bowing to Mughal overlordship, began using their spare revenues to add opulent new palaces to their magnificent forts. In Avadh, the baroque palaces of Faizabad rose to rival those built by the Nizam in Hyderabad to the south. All these cities emerged as centres of literary, artistic and cultural patronage, so blossoming into places of remarkable cultural efflorescence.

Meanwhile, Benares emerged as a major centre of finance and commerce as well as a unique centre of religion, education and pilgrimage. In Bengal, Nadia was the centre of Sanskrit learning and a sophisticated centre for regional architectural and Hindustani musical excellence.

To the south, in Tanjore, a little later, Carnatic music would begin to receive enlightened patronage from the Maratha court that had seized control of that ancient centre of Tamil culture. At the other end of the subcontinent, the Punjab hill states of the Himalayan foothills entered a period of astonishing creativity as small remote mountain kingdoms suddenly blossomed with artists, many of whom had been trained with metropolitan skills in the now-diminished Mughal ateliers, each family of painters competing with and inspiring each other in a manner comparable to the rival city states of Renaissance Italy.

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Filed under art, democracy, economics, military, nationalism, piracy, religion, South Asia, war

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