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.
Historians have given several explanations for the rapid collapse of the Mughal Empire. It has also been a subject on which scholarly opinion is more sharply divided than on any other aspect of the history of the Mughals.
The historiographical perspective on the Mughal decline can be divided into two broad sections.
First, the Empire-Based Approach, i.e., historians attempt to identify the causes of the decline within the structure and functioning of the empire itself.
Secondly, the Region-Centric approach where the perspective goes out of the confines of the empire into the regions to look for the causes of turmoil or instability in different parts of the 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. It 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 self aggrandizement 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.
During medieval times in India, the administration was personal and autocratic. The king was the fountain head 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 purse estate 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.
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.
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.
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.
Interpretations of the Mughal Decline
Different interpretations related to the decline of the Mughal Empire have been propagated among historians from time to time. However, the historiographical perspective on the Mughal decline can be divided into two broad categories—Empire-Based approach and the Region- Centric Approach.
The Empire-Based Approach makes an effort to look for the causes of decline within the structure and functioning of the Empire itself.
The region-Centric Approach, however, tries to identify the root causes of the turmoil in different regions of the empire outside its boundaries.
This approach for explaining the decline of the Mughal Empire has gone through several stages. To begin with, the theories concentrated on individual rulers and their policies. William Irvine and Sir Jadunath Sarkar attributed the decline to the Emperor’s and their noble’s deteriorating characters.
Aurangzeb was considered to be the main culprit by Sir Jadunath Sarkar. He claimed that Aurangzeb was a religious fanatic. He discriminated against some members of the nobility and officials on the basis of religion.
As a result, the nobility became deeply resentful. He believed that the successors of Aurangzeb and their nobles were nothing more than pale imitations of their predecessors and therefore unable to undo the evils of Aurangzeb’s legacy.
Crisis in Jagirdari System
Satish Chandra scrutinized the working of two Mughal institutions—Mansabdari and Jagirdari in his publication, “Parties and Politics at the Mughal Court”. He opines that the decline of the Mughal Empire has to be seen in the failure to maintain the system of the mansabdar-jagirdar towards the end of Aurangzeb’s reign. As this system went into disarray, the empire was bound to collapse. M.Athar Ali in his work, “The Mughal Nobility under Aurangzeb” mentions that the sudden increase in the number of nobles caused due to the expansion of the Mughal Empire into the Deccan and Maratha territory led to the shortage of jagirs. The nobles competed for better jagirs, which were increasingly becoming rare due to the influx of nobles from the South. Consequently, there was erosion in the political setup which was based largely on jagirdari.
Historian S.Nurul Hassan opines that the agrarian relations that developed during the Mughal rule gave rise to an authority structure that worked similarly to a pyramid. Consequently, the bulk of the revenue demand of the state was transferred on to the cultivators. In the 18th century, with the decline of the Mughal authority, and with pressure on jagirs, there was a crisis in the agrarian economy.
As a class, the zamindars were quite loyal to the state. However, in the kind of agrarian crisis, the conflict between them and the state could not be checked. This often resulted in law and order problems and decimated the state’s authority. The situation deteriorated after the death of Aurangzeb and led to the collapse of the system.
Historians have worked very hard to identify the reasons for the decline of the Mughal Empire. They have attempted to examine the various aspects as to how the empire operated. Gradually, the attention shifted away from the personalities and policies of individual rulers to larger and broader developments that were weakening the Mughal Empire.
In his book, “The Agrarian System of Mughal India”, Professor Irfan Habib attempted to make an in-depth analysis of the decline of the empire. He found faults with the system of collection of land revenue under the Mughals. The Mughal government followed a policy of fixing the revenue at the highest rate possible for increasing the strength of the army. They had a tendency to squeeze the maximum from the jagirs, even at the expense of the local peasantry and its ability to generate income.
Since the jagirs of the nobles were liable to be transferred frequently; they did not see the need to pursue a long-term strategy for agricultural development. The peasantry frequently lost access to their very means of survival as they were overburdened. Consequently, they were left with no other choice but to protest this overt exploitation. Irfan Habib believes that these peasant protests damaged the political and social fabric of the empire.
Review of the Crisis
Some other historians such as J.F Richards, M.N Pearson and P.Hardy lay emphasis on the involvement of Mughals in the Deccan and their struggle with the Marathas in their explanation of the decline of the Mughal Empire. They, however, are not in agreement with the Aligarh historians in their understanding of the nature of the Mughal Empire. According to Pearson, the Mughal rule was indirect. It was local ties and norms which governed the lives of people and not the state. He laid emphasis upon the absence of impersonalized bureaucracy. Once Mughal patronage loosened, the personalized bureaucracy showed signs of distress which led to the decline.
J.F Richards believed that the absence of jagir was the major cause of Mughal decline. He opines that the increase in revenue resources of the empire due to the annexation of the Deccan states hardly kept pace with the expansion of the nobility during the later phase of Aurangzeb’s reign. Therefore, Richards holds the view that the crisis was artificial and not the result of deficiency of resources.
Dr.Satish Chandra believes that the jagirdari crisis did not occur as a result of the increase in the number of nobles and the corresponding decrease in the revenues, but due to the nonfunctionality of the jagir system. According to him, there was a tri-polar relationship between the peasants, zamindars and the mansabdar-jagirdar which formed the base on which the Mughal structure rested. Any factor which could disturb this neat balancing of this relationship would ultimately cause the decline of the empire.
Satish Chandra opines that the rapid development of the agricultural and non-agricultural economy was the only manner that could have delayed the jagirdari crisis. The medieval social system, which restricted agricultural growth, was the fundamental basis of the jagirdari crisis. The remaining factors were contributory to the growth of the crisis.
Karen Leonard propagated the ‘Great Firm’ theory of Mughal decline which suggested that the indigenous banking firms were essential allies of the Mughal state and the great nobles were directly dependent upon these firms. When these banking firms started rerouting of their economic and political support toward local rulers, this led to bankruptcy, a series of political crisis, and the decline of the Mughal Empire. This theory, however, did not receive adequate support from the current studies of Mughal economy and polity by Philip Calkins and M.N Pearson.
Some learned scholars such as Muzaffar Alam and Chetan Singh have propagated a region based approach in their writings to explain the decline of the Mughal Empire.
Muzaffar Alam has compared the developments in the Mughal provinces of Awadh and Punjab while Chetan Singh has conducted a thorough study of the regional history of 17th century Punjab. Their research is noteworthy in that they throw new light on both the nature of the Mughal Empire along with the process of its weakening and eventual decline in the 17th and early 18th centuries.
According to Muzaffar Alam the Mughal decline in the 18th century was due to its failure to maintain checks and balances between mansabdars, jagirdars and the local indigenous elements. He believes that the decline and disintegration of the Mughal Empire was a very complex process as a number of factors, including empire-centric and region-centric were collectively responsible for bringing together the core and periphery and for the emergence of regional identities in the Mughal successor states.
Finally, he says that the decline of the Mughal Empire was manifested both in Awadh and Punjab in a type of political transformation and in the emergence and formation of the elements of a new subedari. The seeds for the rise of independent regional units were found in both provinces. However, it resulted in chaos in Punjab while Awadh experienced a stable dynastic rule.
Contours of Regional Politics
The work of Muzaffar Alam was continued by Chetan Singh. His book “Region and Empire” gives a fresh perspective on the regional history of North India during the Mughal rule. He argues that although the Mughal administrative infrastructure undoubtedly connected the region to the Mughal administrative center yet this conventional form of integration had its limitations. Due to a variety of stresses that local and politics were under, the administrative structure responded by disobeying the formal administrative divisions and sub-divisions of the Mughal governmental structure. This was true both of the general administration as well as of revenue administration. As time progressed, some norms and conventions helped to maintain the stability of the Mughal Empire.
By the late 17th century, however, the silting of the Indus river led to a gradual decline of the highly commercialized economy of Punjab. Punjab experienced social unrest due to the loosening of its socio-economic structure. Chetan Singh, however, argues that since the benefits of trade and commerce had been unevenly distributed in the region, the distresses caused by the decline of trade varied in different areas of Punjab. Thus, he concludes that long-term processes were the cause of the social unrest that eventually led to the dissociation of Punjab from the Mughal Empire.
Therefore, Chetan Singh’s research adds a new dimension to the problem under consideration. He observes the process at work during the zenith of the empire, contrary to Muzaffar Alam’s study of Mughal Awadh and Punjab, which traces the region’s separation from the Mughal Empire from the early 18th century. Hence, a different picture emerges from the perspective of the regional history of Punjab.
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.
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.
The causes for the decline and disintegration of the Mughal Empire have been a debatable topic among the scholars of medieval Indian history.
War of succession, weak successors of Aurangzeb, vastness of the empire, degeneration of the Mughal nobility, foreign invasions, economic and intellectual bankruptcy, administrative and military weaknesses, advent of the Europeans absence of the spirit of nationalism, all led to the decline of the Mughal Empire.
Sir Jadunath Sarkar, who had analysed the developments in the empire in the context of law and order, is of the view that Aurangzeb was mainly responsible for the decline and disintegration of the Mughal Empire. He believed that by his religious fanaticism Aurangzeb alienated the support of the Hindus to the empire.
Aurangzeb’s Deccan policy was also responsible for the Mughal decline.
The historiographical perspective on the Mughal decline can be divided into two broad sections—Empire-Based Approach and the region-Based Approach.
In the pre-independent period, the historians such as Jadunath Sarkar, Stanley Lanepoole followed the Empire-Based Approach. It attempt to identify the causes of the decline within the structure and functioning of the empire itself.
In the post-independent India, historians such as Satish Chandra, M.Athar Ali, Irfan Habib followed the Region-Centric approach where the perspective goes out of the confines of the empire into the regions to look for the causes of turmoil or instability in different parts of the empire.
Satish Chandra, M.Athar Ali, S.Nurul Hasan and Irfan Habib believes that crisis in the jagridari and agrarian system was mainly responsible for the Mughal decline.
According to Irfan Habib defective mechanism of revenue collection led to the protest of the peasants which weakened the political and social fabric of the empire. However, historians such as J.F Richards, Pearson and Hardy re-examined the crisis and differed in their conclusions.
On the basis of developments in the Mughal provinces of Awadh and Punjab, scholars such as Muzaffar Alam and Chetan Singh propagated the Empire-Centric Approach to explain the Mughal decline.
According to Muzaffar Alam, the empire declined because of its failure to maintain checks and balances between the mansabdars, jagirdars and the local elements.
Chetan Singh, however, concludes that long-term processes were the cause of the social unrest that eventually led to the dissociation of Punjab from the Mughal Empire.