Sunday, October 21, 2012

Indian Mutiny 2 - the Mughals

Continuing the story I began in Indian Mutiny 1 - trouble at Meerut, to understand both the causes of the mutiny that began on that stinking hot Sunday in 1857 and the events that followed, a bit of history helps. This post looks at the Mughals, also know as the Moguls in traditional English spelling.

Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur was born on 14 February 1483, the eldest son of Omar Sheykh Mirzā who ruled the Fergana Valley in Central Asia.

The geopolitics of the time are complicated, especially for an Australian who does not properly understand the geography of Central Asia. Suffice to say that, in family terms, Barbur was well connected to the power structures of the time. His father was, if I have the family structures right, the great great grandson of the legendary conqueror Tamerlane (Timur) who ruled a large Empire from Samarkand. His mother was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan.   

As an aside, and its probably worth a post at some point, I don't think that current Australians (or the English for that matter) have any recollection of the fascination that Central Asia exercised on the European imagination. I am just old enough to have caught the tail end; not directly, but through the novels and travel books still to be found on school and family shelves.  Samarkand, Bukhara, the Great Silk Road, the mystic religions, all played themselves out in writing and conversation. 

Barbur himself was a highly educated man, a rare ruler who wrote his own autobiography, giving us a picture of his world as perceived by him.

On the death of his father, Barbur inherited rule. However, this was challenged by his uncles leading to a series of fights. In the complicated events that followed, Barbur himself became a conqueror. An innovator in technology terms, he introduced fire arms to his forces, giving him a military edge.

In 1526, Barbur took control of Delhi and Agra, establishing the base for what would become the Mughal Empire in India. Initially, that base was tenuous. Barbur died in December 1530. His son Humayun succeeded him, but lost much of the territory Barbur had won in part because of conflict with his brothers and especially half brother Kamran Mirza who had his own territorial ambitions. It was not until 1555 that Humayun, with Persian support, regained control over all of Barbur's territory.

As a second aside, while I am giving links to the Wikipedia entries, they are dreadfully messy, sometimes inconsistent and need a good edit. Just writing this short piece required hours tracking backwards and forwards trying to establish basic facts and patterns. I think that's a real pity, for the geopolitics are quite fascinating.        

In January 1556, Himayun tripped and fell down a flight of stone stairs while carrying an arm load of books. He died three days later from head injuries and was succeeded by his thirteen year old son, Akbar. Akbar, sometimes known as Akbar the Great, ruled from 1556 to 1605. During this period he consolidated and then extended the Empire. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Empire controlled much of modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and was arguably the wealthiest empire in the thFile:Taj Mahal 2012.jpgen world.  

I am not sure how many Australians today would actually know what the Mogal or Mughal Empire was, but there would be few in this or other countries who have not heard of the Taj Mahal.

Built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal is one of the most iconic buildings in the world. While visible to all, this is only the most public sign of the Empire's enormous cultural influence.

From the beginning of the eighteenth century the Empire fell almost as fast as it had risen. The reasons for that decline appear much disputed. Part of the reason lay in the rise of the Hindu Maratha Empire who fought a long running war against the Mughals. On paper, the Mughal Empire should have been triumphant because of its resources, and yet it failed time and time again to defeat the attacks. Part of the reason also lay in dynastic disputes and in progressive administrative failures within the Mughal Empire.  

Whatever the reasons, by 1857 the last of the Mughals (Bahadur Shah II) had been largely reduced to the position of pensioner of the British East India Company. Yet he retained considerable prestige with both the Hindu and Muslim communities.

All large empires face common problems in managing ethnic, cultural and religious diversity within their territories. All large empires depend for their survival on a mix of power and propitiation. The empire cannot be sustained in the long term without at least a measure of acquiescence, of acceptance, by the populations and power structures within the empire.

Generally, the Mughal emperors followed a policy of what today we would call inclusion. They reached out to various groups in the population and especially the Hindus. This is actually a modern story, for the approaches that they followed, their successes and failures, are directly relevant too today.

Leaving that aside, the symbolic position occupied by Bahadur Shah II was important. The mutineers at Meerut, Hindu and Muslim alike, saw him as important and marched on Delhi, the ceremonial Mughal capitol. They wanted support from Bahadur Shah II. 

Bahadur Shah II was then over eighty. A noted Urdu poet, a kind man, an intellectual like so many of his processors, he lacked the political skills to manage events. Further, he had court of officials and pensioners that had been living in a strange world of ceremony and ceremonial importance totally isolated from the practical aspects of governance. The symbols remained, but without substance. This meant that there was no one really able to guide him.

The final result would be the end of the last vestiges of Mughal Empire. Bahadur Shah II himself would die in 1862 in exile in Rangoon. The successor empire created by the mutiny, Queen Victoria's Indian Empire, would briefly occupy a greater territory than the Mughals. Its failure to effectively manage diversity and change in the turmoil associated with global wars and political change would see the political break-up of the Indian subcontinent and beyond. The mutiny destroyed old India, laying the base for a new if somewhat diminished India. But that part of the story has still to come,       


Anonymous said...

Forgot to say how fascinated I was by your first post in this series, and now this one. Thank you Jim for taking the time to collate and organise all these links.


Jim Belshaw said...

A pleasure,kvd. The compliment is greatly appreciated.