Babur laid the foundations of the Mughal Empire in India in 1526 CE which consolidated itself during the reign of Akbar, Jahangir, Shahjahan and reached its pinnacle of glory under Aurangzeb. The Mughal Empire ruled over a large part of India for nearly 300 years, but a drastic decline in its power and prestige came about by the first half of the 18th century.

Not only did the political boundaries of the empire shrink, the decline also witnessed the collapse of the administrative structure. Due to the collapse of the Mughal power, a number of independent principalities emerged in all parts of the empire. The death of Aurangzeb in 1707 CE was the signal for the disintegration of the Mughal Empire. Certainly, the Mughal emperors ruled till 1857 CE, but only in name.

Aurangzeb’s successors, called the Later Mughals, lost control over the empire and independent kingdoms emerged in all parts of the empire. Most of the Later Mughal emperors were merely puppets in the hands to their powerful nobles or pensioners of the Marathas and, later on, of the British. The last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah II, was deposed by the British after the revolt of 1857 CE and deported to Rangoon where he died as a prisoner. Several factors contributed to the downfall and extinction of the Mughal Empire.

Causes of the Decline of Mughal Empire

The twilight of the Mughal rule set in 1707 CE after the death of Aurangzeb and the decline and disintegration of the Mughal Empire saw its logical end in 1761 CE and the empire continued only in name till 1857 CE. Several political, social, economic and institutional factors were responsible for the decline of the Mughal Empire.

War of Succession

  • Wars of succession are noticeable phenomena in the history of the ancient and medieval world. The Mughals did not believe in the law of primogeniture, where the eldest son inherited the father’s estate. Instead, they followed the Mughal and Timurid tradition of coparcenary inheritance in which each son had an equal share in the property of his father. It usually meant a war of succession among the sons of the dying emperor in which the military leaders of the time took sides.
    • Erskine commented, ‘The sword was the grand arbiter of right and, every son was prepared to try his fortune against his brothers’.
    • The fratricidal conflict among the four sons of Shahjahan is well-known. War of succession subsequent to the death of Aurangzeb were caused by the uncertainty of the law of succession.
  • However, such a system also had advantages. It provided the country with the ablest son of the dying Emperor as the ruler. But the new principle that emerged in the later Mughal period was ‘the survival of the weakest instead of ‘survival of the fittest’.
  • The Mughal princes became inactive while the leaders of rival factions fought wars using the royal princes as nominal leaders Authoritative nobles acted as kingmakers.
  • The wars of succession thus seriously undermined the stability of the Mughal Empire, divided the country, disorganized the government, and caused untold misery and sufferings to the people.

Weak Successors of Aurangzeb

  • Historians such as Sir Jadunath Sarkar opined that it was the crisis of personality and the weak successors of Aurangzeb were responsible for the decline of the Mughal Empire. If they had been capable, they could have stopped the decline that had set in the time of Aurangzeb. Unfortunately, all of them proved to be worthless. They were busy in their luxuries and intrigues and did nothing to remedy the evils that had crept into the Mughal polity.
  • However, other historians such as T.G.P Spear have pointed out that in the 18th century India there was no dearth of able personalities. Sayyid brothers, Nizam-ul-Mulk, Murshid Quli Khan, Raja Sawai Jai Singh were some of the able politicians and generals.
  • Unfortunately all these were preoccupied more in selfaggrandizement and had very little concern for the fate of the empire. As a result, they could not provide leadership during the times of crisis.

Vastness of the Empire

  • The Mughal Empire extended over entire Northern India, from coast to coast, and comprised Kabul and some areas in the Deccan under Akbar’s reign. But the process of expansion reached at its peak under Aurangzeb. He succeeded in establishing perhaps the biggest empire in Indian history.
  • However, expansion without consolidation was meaningless. This unwieldy expansion of the empire made its governance almost an impossible task, particularly under weak and inefficient rulers.
  • Moreover, the means of communication and transport were not so much developed at that time. Such a vast empire was required to be divided into a number of provinces under the provincial governors who were to be controlled.
  • Some of the provincial governors were strong enough to declare their independence from the central authority. At that time there were neither sufficient economic resources nor an effective bureaucracy to administer such a vast empire.
  • As a result, the vastness of Mughal Empire created more difficulties than it was able to cope. Consequently, chaotic conditions prevailed all over the Mughal Empire which prepared a fertile ground for the forces of disintegration.

Administrative Weakness

  • During medieval times in India, the administration was personal and autocratic. The king was the fountainhead of all power. His powers were delegated to the governors of provinces and faujdars who often misused their power.
  • Although Aurangzeb worked hard to keep the administration intact and personally also devoted himself to discharge administrative responsibilities yet he failed to avert its break down. Oppression, tyranny, corruption, slackness and inefficiency were the features of the day to day administration.

Aurangzeb’s Responsibility

  • Although the expansion of the Mughal Empire reached its zenith under Aurangzeb’s reign, it only resembled the inflated balloon. It was beyond his ability to govern such a vast empire. His intention was to restore the Islamic character of the Mughal state which according to him was disturbed by his predecessors. His religious bigotry proved counter-productive and provoked general discontent and the same exhibited itself in the form of revolts in different parts of the empire.
  • (i) The Revolt of Jats
    • The revolt of Jats of Mathura was the first organized revolt against the religious policy of Aurangzeb. The Jats were infuriated by the destruction of Kesava Dev temple at Mathura and a few of the Hindu temples. Abdul Nabi, the local Muslim officer, destroyed a Hindu temple and raised a mosque on its ashes. Gokla, the Jat zamiindar of Tilpat, collected a small force of nearly 20, 000 and defeated a few small Muslim forces sent against him. However, he was defeated and put to death in the Battle of Tilpat.
    • In 1686 CE, the Jats rose in revolt under the leadership of Rajaram and caused serious trouble to the Mughals. However, he was also defeated and killed in 1688 CE. The Jats then continued their struggle under Rajaram’s nephew Churaman, which dragged on till the death of Aurangzeb. Eventually they succeeded in in forming their own independent kingdom with Bharatpur as their capital.
  • (ii) The Revolt of Bundelas
    • The Bundela Prince Chhatrasal was originally a mansabdar in the Deccan army of Aurangzeb. He was inspired by Shivaji.
    • Taking advantage of the popular discontent with Aurangzeb’s religious policy in Malwa and Bundelkhand, he led a revolt and won many battles against the Mughal forces.
    • He succeeded in carving for himself an independent kingdom in the Eastern Malwa, with Panna as the capital. He died in 1731 CE.
  • (iii) The Satnami Revolt
    • The Satnamis were originally a militant sect of the Hindu devotees. Their primary centers of functioning were Narnaul (Punjab) and Mewar (Rajasthan). Though they dressed like sanyasis, they carried on trade and agriculture. A number of them carried weapons or arms. They broke into revolt in 1672 CE due to a quarrel between a Satnami peasant and a Mughal soldier.
    • Further, there was resentment against Aurangzeb’s religious policy. A few small forces sent by Aurangzeb were defeated. Then Aurangzeb sent a large force against them. Though the Satnamis fought valiantly, they were defeated in a battle.
  • (iv) Struggle with Rajputs
    • Aurangzeb committed the blunder of not realizing the value of the alliance of the Rajputs who had formerly contributed so much to the growth of the empire, especially during the reign of Akbar.
    • Instead, he started rubbing them on the wrong sides. The wars between Aurangzeb and Rajputs proved to be disastrous for the Mughal Empire.
      • Several thousands of lives were sacrificed and enormous amounts of money were squandered away without any lasting success or benefit to the emperor. The result was highly damaging to the imperial prestige
  • (v) Conflict with Sikhs and Marathas
    • The Sikhs in Punjab and the Marathas in Maharashtra rose in revolt against the Mughal Empire. The conflict of Mughals with Sikhs occurred during the reign of Jahangir. However, open fighting began during Aurangzeb’s reign. Guru Gobind Singh, and later Banda Bahadur, kept large areas in the Punjab disturbed. However, the Sikhs were crushed by 1716 CE, and their power did not revive till after 1761 CE.
    • From the zenith of his power in 1687 CE, Aurangzeb could never anticipate that a small principality, brought into existence by Shivaji would not only defy the Mughal army but also pose a serious threat to the Mughal Empire. The Marathas played a formidable role in bringing about the decline of the Mughal Empire. Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Marathas as well as the Sikhs as powerful forces were largely the creation of Aurangzeb.
  • (vi) Deccan Policy of Aurangzeb
    • The Deccan policy of Aurangzeb turned out to be another great blunder. He was bent upon crushing the power of the Marathas. However, Deccan became his undoing in a manner similar to Napolean’s failure in Spain. For almost twenty years he labored in the Deccan for no useful purpose, letting lose all the centrifugal forces in the heart of his empire in the North. It drained the resources of the empire.
  • (vii) Aurangzeb’s Character
    • Aurangzeb’s own character has a part to play in bringing about the downfall of the Mughal Empire. Aurangzeb was a man of suspicious nature. He did not trust even his own sons. As a result, whenever he sent an expedition, he put two persons in charge of the same. The object was to put a check on the power of both. However, that led to the division of responsibility. It proved to be absolutely suicidal from the point of view of efficiency and success. Aurangzeb remained very lonely and could not turn to anybody in a time of distress.

Degeneration of the Mughal Nobility

  • The degeneration of the Mughal nobility during the 18th century had a large share in hastening the decline of the Mughal Empire.
  • The history of India of the time of Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjahan was made by nobles such as Bairam Khan, Munim Khan, Muzaffar Khan and Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khana, Itmad Ud daulah and Mahababat Khan, Asaf Khan and Saadulla khan.
  • However, the nobility in the 18th century became selfish and eager for self-aggrandizement and personal ascendancy. They never hesitated to plunge the country into suicidal civil wars, disastrous conspiracies, and hopeless confusion and anarchy.
  • Sir Jadunath Sarkar points out that if a nobleman’s achievements were recorded in three pages, that of his son filled a page, that of the grandson only a few lines such as nothing worthy of being recorded.

Foreign Invasions

  • The growing military and political weakness encouraged the foreign invaders to hawk upon the crippling Mughal Empire.
  • The bold Irarian adventurer, Nadir Shah, invaded India in 1739 CE. This invasion gave a death blow to the tottering Mughal Empire. It forced the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah to accept a humiliating treaty. This invasion exposed the growing helplessness and weakness of the dying Mughal Empire.
  • The process of disintegration was almost complete. And whatever little remained was shattered by invasions of the Afghan invader, Ahmad Shah Abdali. His victory at the Third battle of Panipat (1761 CE) reduced Mughal Emperor into a symbol of past glory. Moreover, these invasions proved disastrous for trade and industry.

Economic Bankruptcy

  • Shahjahan’s wars in Central Asia and Qandahar and his wasteful expenditure on the construction of buildings had depleted the treasury.
  • Aurangzeb’s long wars in the South had further drained the state’s exchequer. As a result, they increased the tax to one-half of the produce of the soil and as the revenue demand rose, the production fell in the same proportion. The peasants began deserting their fields but they were compelled by force to carry on the cultivation.
  • The contractors oppressed the peasants to get maximum revenue from them. Bankruptcy began to stare the Mughal government in the face during times of Aurangzeb and his successors who had to fight many wars to gain the throne and retain it.
  • The economic collapse surfaced during the reign of Alamgir II (1754- 1759 CE) who was starved and the revenues even of the royal privy purseestate were seized by the corrupt Wazir, Imad-ul-Mulk. A month and a half after his accession to the throne, Alamgir II had no suitable convenience to enable him to ride in procession to the Idgah and he had to walk on foot from the harem to the stone mosque of the Fort.
  • Describing the economic hardships of the royal family during the reign of Shah Alam II (1759-1806 CE), Sir Jadunath Sarkar writes, “No fire was kindled in harem kitchen for three days, and one day the princess could bear starvation no longer and in frantic disregard of purdah rushed out of the palace to the city, but fort gates being closed, they sat down in the man’s quarters for a day and night, after which they were persuaded to go back to their rooms”.
  • The wonder is that the bankrupt Mughal government lasted for another half a century.

Military Weaknesses

  • The Mughal army had inherent defects. It was organized along feudal lines in which the common soldier was loyal to the mansabdar instead of the emperor. Besides, such an army could be effective only under a capable commander. Perhaps the absence of a regular standing army was the greatest defect of the Mughal army.
  • The Mughal emperors started the practice of taking their wives, concubines and slave girls on the battlefield. This practice was followed by their nobles and then the soldiers started taking the prostitutes on the battlefield. This not only led to the moral degradation of the Mughal army but also seriously affected its mobility and its determination to fight in times of adversity.
  • Consequently, the Mughal army became weak under Akbar’s successors. The Mughals gave no attention to scientific, technical and new military inventions. Later on, the weak Mughal army could not face the foreign invaders and the European navy.

Demoralization of the Mughal Army

  • The demoralization of the Mughal Army was the another major reason for the decline of the Mughal Empire the Mughal army which by origin and composition was became weak and defective. It consisted chiefly of contingents recruited and maintained by the high offices and nobles who were assigned revenues of large tract of the country for their maintenance. On account of this the individual soldier looked upon his mansabdar as his chief and not as his officer. There was no touch between the emperor and the individual soldiers who were paid by their, commander or mansabdar and not directly from the Royal treasury. The inherent defects of this radically and sound system work aggravated during the reign of Aurangzeb and his successors.
  • As the authority of the later Mughul emperors relaxed, the great nobles or officers of the empire began to convert the assignment which they held for maintaining troops, into their hereditary possessions. This left the emperor without a strong body of personal troops to enable him to assert his authority. Besides, on account of the weakness of imperial authority the mansabdars became so jealous of one another that a commander often deliberately refrain from bringing three- fourth won battle or a siege to a successful conclusion, if he felt that another officer would share the credit of a success.
  • It became the habit of the Mughul officers from the last quarter of the 17th century to be in treacherous correspondence with the enemy. As the emperor and the Mir Bakshi themselves lacked ability and firmness of character they could not enforce proper discipline in the army which was reduced to a well-armed mob. Military crimes were overlooked even by Aurangzeb and no regular punishments were inflicted for dereliction of duty. For this reason the army which had carried the Mughal banners to the extreme corners of the country and even beyond to the river Oxus and the Helmand in Central Asia became useless for offence and defenses.

The Advent of the Europeans

  • In the prevailing conditions of lawlessness, European companies profited immensely. These companies outshined the Indian princes in every sphere whether it was trade, commerce, diplomacy or war.
  • The static and stationary Indian society was faced with challenges from the dynamic and progressive West. While the spirit of the renaissance had given an expansive touch to European energies, the Indians stepped in divinity and drew sustenance from the philosophy of escapism. India lagged far behind in the race for civilization.

Absence of any Spirit of Nationalism

  • There was an absence of any spirit of nationalism during this period. The nobles and the individuals were prepared to join anyone if they happened to line up with their personal interests. The loyalty of the common people did not extend beyond their family, village or region. People fought for dynasties or individuals, not for any high ideals or principles.
  • Therefore, the death or desertion of a single individual altered the whole course of the campaign or engagement.

Intellectual Bankruptcy

  • It is believed that the Mughals suffered from intellectual bankruptcy. They failed to evolve an educational system that could fulfill the requirements of the modern age. There was progress during their rule due to political stability and their personal protection. However, both these factors were inexistent in the century under consideration.
  • As a result, the Indians failed to make any progress in any field of life. There was no intellectual progress in the 18th century. The British were far advanced not only in science and technology but also in intellectual caliber.

The Jagirdari Crisis

  • The Mughal emperor was a highly centralized bureaucratized structure with the emperor at the top his vitality depending upon the strength of the military aristocracy, who were placed just below him. With the introduction of the mansabdari system in civil and military organisation in the late 16th century Akbar, had accommodated the aristocracy within this structure. Those mansabdars who were not paid in cash were awarded a jagir or landed estate in lieu of salary. They were the jagirdars who were required to collect the revenue from the particular jagir of which one part would go to the state and the other two parts would cover his personal expenses and the maintenance allowances for his soldiers and horses.
  • During the last years of Aurangzeb’s reign, the number of jagirdars appointed had risen to such a great number that there was a serious shortage of paibaqi land (land earmarked to be given as jagirs). This decrease in the resources of the Empire ruptured the functional relationship between the emperor and the aristocracy indicating the beginning of inefficiency within the imperial Mughal administrative system.
  • As a result of this economic crisis in the 18th century the various ethno-religious group within the aristocracy began competing each other. About four-fifths of the land revenue of the Mughal Empires was under the control of mansabdars and jagirdars; but this income was unevenly distributed among them, creating jealousies within the aristocracy- particularly at the time when the resources of the Empire were diminishing. This economic situation known as the ‘jagirdari crisis’ of the 18th century– has been defined by Satish chandra in the following words, ‘the available social surplus was insufficient to defray the cost of administration, pay for Wars of one type or another and to give the ruling classes a standard of living in keeping with its expectations’. In this situation the actual revenue collection was much less than what had been estimated, there by diminishing the expected income of the jagirdars.
  • The crises increased during the last year of Aurangzeb’s reign mainly because of the Deccan war, since a greater number of mansabdars was required, the ensuing political turmoil made the collection of revenue a more difficult task, the jagirdari crisis lead to an unhealthy competition to gain control over the fertile jagir. This added to the already existing factionalism at Court after the death of Bahadur Shah in 1712 A.D. the problem intensified as low ranking officials now found it difficult to maintain their lifestyle with the meager amount they got from the jagirs.

As a result of several diverse yet interrelated factors led to the decline of the Mughal Empire with dramatic suddenness within a few decades following the death of Aurangzeb. The period of the great Mughals, which constitutes a glorious era in medieval Indian history ended in this manner, yielding way to the establishment of many independent regional Kingdom in its wake.

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