My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book gives a brief history and the politics of the first six emperors of the Moghul Empire namely Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb. My initial interest is to read Babur, Akbar and Aurangzeb.
1. Babur (1483-1530)
I thought it would be an easy read but I was wrong. How could you fit all of Babur in 37 pages when the stage is huge? I actually ended up with a quick revision of Temur and then the history of the Delhi Sultanate.
Babur is 5 generations after Temur ( 1336-1405 ) which makes him Temur's great-great-great-grandson...the bloodline being Temur, Miranshah (4th son), Sultan Mohammed, Abu Said and Omar Shaykh. The book take pains in picturing life and the politics in the steppes during the period. Temur was of Barlas Turk tribe thought to have been originally Mongol who had adopted the Turki language. Indeed it was the language spoken and written by Babur. Barlas Turk was also a subdivision of Chaghatai Turks. Temur had wanted to be thought of closely connected with the Mongols. When Husayn, a friend turned foe was assassinated, Temur married his widow. She was a princess descended from Genghis. Hence his children would now be a direct descendant of the Great Khan.
After the break up of the Mongol Empire some Turks have moved west and become civilised early. 10 years after the death of Temur, folks preferred to be known as Turks. Mongols to the north and east of Transoxiana have become synonymous with barbarism compared to the highly cultured courts created by Temur's descendants in areas now known as Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. It would take another 100 years for Moghul to become fashionable again.
Umar Shaikh was ruler of Fergana, east of Samarkand. He was short , stout and portly. He fell while attending to his pigeons and died hence making Babur (born 14/2/1483) the new ruler at the age of 11. He found himself among many petty rulers of a conglomerate of provices governed by his uncles and cousins, all descendants of Temur . He had always wanted Samarkand though and waited his time. He was to gain and lost both Samarkand and Fergana in the process while he was still a teenager.
Throneless life as a freebooter followed. He regained Fergana from his younger brother at the age of 16. A wife was arranged. By the age of 18 Babur had lost Samarkand twice whence he decided to leave it to Shahbani Khan, the Uzbek and find his fortune elsewhere. His leadership style won him many men. When Kabul became available for his picking, a more stable life ensued.
Babur was a naturalist. He built gardens , cultivated fruits, encouraged learning, craftsmanship, arts, poetry etc. In fact, Herat, which was ruled by his son, Shah Rukh, was even better than Kabul in terms of the arts. Unfortunately, it too fell to Shaibani, the Uzbek in 1507.
The story of Babur and Humayun would not be complete without the episodes of the Safavid's assistance in the recapture of Samarkand and at both times, with the condition that the Temurids embrace Shiaism. Both leaders did convert but not for long.
Shaibani met the wrath of the Safavid Emperor of Persia, Shah Ismail who defeated him and had his body dismembered and sent to various parts of Persia. Babur's sister, Khanzada now a widow, was saved and returned to Babur. I recall Khanzada the pillar of strength during Humayun's dark days.
After losing Samarkand for the 4th and final time, Babur returned to Kabul to plan his territorial expansion into Hindustan laying claim of Temur's conquest of 1399.
Delhi was then ruled by the 5th Sultanate of the Lodi Dynasty ( 1451-1526) of Afghan (Pashtun) origin. The first 4 had been of Turkic origin. Babur, together with his 17 years old son Humayun made 5 expeditions into Hindustan when it had become fragile. Sultan Ibrahim Lodi was defeated at Panipat. Some of the war tactics used have been subjects of study.
Alas, Babur had fallen ill very often, more so when in Hindustan.....a result of alcohol and drug ediction. This seemed to run in the family...... I recall that it is said that life of a leader may be lonely and decision making may take its toll. Leaders often take refuge and comfort in alcohol, opium. and their harem. Opium, afterall was grown in plentiful in that part of the world.
Much of his memoirs were lost but I know, Humayun had referred to them and just as well he shared an almost similar life to that of his father ... territories lost and territories gained....
Akbar was born when Humayun and his followers were in flight from Sher Shah, a Pashtun from Bengal. No thanks to Humayun’s half brothers Kamran and Askari who simply added to his miseries. Hindal had instead, run away when Humayun had fallen for Hamida, later to become Akbar’s mum. Sher Shah had then established the Suri Dynasty which ruled Hindustan for 15 years.
Baby Akbar, his wet nurse/foster mother Maham Anga and foster brother, Adham Khan, were at one time held hostages by Akbar’s uncle, Kamran. They were later saved and returned to Humayun by Hindal. Perhaps it was more for Hamida’s sake ………… Hindal left again only to return dead, killed by his own brother, Askari. Askari claimed it was by mistake.
It took Humayun 9 years to prepare for his return to Hindustan. During that time he had eliminated the problems of his half brothers. After the death of Sher Shah’s son, Islam Shah, the Suri Dynasty became weaken by rival princes Adil Shah and Sikandar. Delhi became an easy picking for Humayun.
Young Akbar had accompanied his father to battles since an early age of 10. He loved sports and physical activities. Marvelled at polo. However, his unsettled childhood - a life frequently on the move - took him away from books and as such, he did not learn to read.
Humayun tripped and fell from his steep observatory/library stairs in Delhi palace when. Akbar was then at a campaign in Punjab against Sikandar. He was only 14. He had a guardian and mentor, Bairam Beg, who had been in Babur’s service since the age of 16. Bairam and Tardi Beg were the last of Humayun’s companions during his throneless days in the wilderness . They later became Khans. However, the true danger to the Moghuls was in fact a Hindu Chief Minister of Adil Shah. He had captured Delhi with 300 elephants in a surprise tactic that caused panic to Tardi Beg ‘s forces. Then, he decided that he wanted to be king – Raja Hemu Vikramadthtya.
Bairam was appointed regent over the young monach and he continued to expand the Moghul Empire. The 2nd Battle of Panipat (1556) was perhaps one of the earliest significant battle fought during Akbar’s monarchy. The battle between his forces and Hemu’s. The Moghuls won when Hemu was struck in the eye by a chance arrow. Delhi was again recaptured by the Moghuls and Tardi Beg was executed for cowardice.
Maham Anga, Akbar’s foster mother became shrewd and ambitious for her son, Adham who was fierce and cruel. They became greedy and jealous of Bairam Khan and plotted his dismissal. When Bairam was on his way to the port for a trip to Mecca, he was killed. Adham was later dealt with after a failed assassination attempt on Akbar. He faced the Moghul retribution - thrown over the parapet twice till he died. Anga died soon after. Babur was then 19 and finally he was finally “free”.
The book extols Akbar’s policies of religious tolerance and reforms. He banned the suttee and introduced many tax reforms. Akbar, himself married a Rajput Hindu princess (later became mother of Jahangir), encouraged pluralism. His Hindu wives were allowed to retain their religion and were allowed to practice it within the walls of the royal harem. Rajput was reknown for its warriors for they went into war drugged with opium! For a minority to be ruling the majority of Hindus, Akbar found these decisions pragmatic. However, his religious attitude did not go down well with the conservatives.
Akbar was always troubled in the east (Bihar and Bengal) and in the west (Kabul). While he may be having just one possible pretender to the throne i.e. half brother Hakim, his cousins Suleiman amd Shahrukh were also troubling him. He tried giving his sons responsibilities at an early age. Two of them, Murad and Danyal died of alcohol. His oldest son Salim (Jahangir) was always rebelling. A reconciliation was reached in 1603 and two years later Akbar died of an illness.
The book did well to explain Akbar’s failure with his sons and provide a positive prospect that Jahangir would not end up too badly after all.
3. Aurangzeb (1618 - 1707)
Shah Jahan had mourned for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal for two years before he became active again in the business of the Empire. Meanwhile, the Empire had stagnated and sectarian hostilities had been on the rise. Western power viz the Portuguese had begun to trouble. While Shah Jahan had sent his sons to lead many campaigns, Dara, his eldest, had remained beside him. This had caused rivalry between Dara and his three other siblings, Shah Suja, Aurangzeb and Murad.
The book dwells on how better leaders could be honed – they need to be out on the fields. Aurangzeb appeared to be getting better results but Shah Jahan appeared to be giving more favour to Dara. Wars of succession ensued.
Aurangzeb succeeded in keeping Shah Jahan to his quarters in his harem. He also tricked and triumphed over Murad when he was drunk with alcohol and sent him into confinement on an island. That done, Aurangzeb proclaimed himself Emperor (1658) in a brief ceremony. He was soon back on the road in pursuit of Dara and Shah Suja, Dara first as he was the more dangerous of the two. Dara’s flight was reminiscent of Humayun’s. Aurangzeb was master of deceptions and underarm politics. (Fake news/emails of today would seem pale beside them).
History be told that it would take another Akbar to hold the empire but Aurangzeb was no Akbar. His strict religious conviction once again released hostilities between the different sects. Arts and culture were ignored and music was banned. Painting was allowed, strange as it may seem. He had little interest beyond the sacred texts. Nevertheless, many court artists left and sought patronage elsewhwre.
While alliance with the Rajputs have been maintained since the time of Akbar and many Rajputs have entered the services of the Moghul, Aurangzeb chose to pick a quarrel with Rajasthan and invaded it in 1676. This became disastrous to Aurangzeb.
There were problems in the Deccan too. The Maratha chieftain, Shivaji , was able to unite the various clans into a political and military unit. It was able to create perpetual turmoil amongst three powerful neighbours - Bijapur, Golconda and Mogul- through guerilla tactics and shifting alliances.
A state of never ending issues in the empire. I became so tired even reading about them but Aurangzeb soldiered on until he was in his 80s. He went through appalling hardship due to the Deccan landscape. His long absence from Hindustan slackened authority in the north …. So too at the centre of the empire at Agra. Corruption increased, Moghul caravans plundered and even Akbar’s tomb was ransacked for it’s gold and silver plates and splendid carpets. By the end of his reign, large portions of the treasures of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan had been brought south to sink without trace!
Aurangzeb lamented on the frailty of human affairs – for the lack of friends and shortage of good officers -. However, his failures were perceived as being his own fault – an obsessive mistrust and refusal to delegate. In comparison, during the times of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, even women made their achievements in the history of the empire. Whereas Aurangzeb treated his children like naughty children well into their 50s and 60s. Midway through Aurangzeb’s reign, only he stood out.
Aurangzeb fell ill in 1705. Unlike most fathers who would call their children to their deathbed, Aurangzeb sent his away. All knew there would be chaos after his death. He died on 20 Feb 1707 after Friday prayer as he had hoped for. His grave, a simplest sort … a reflection of the legacy he left of his Empire.
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