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The best books on The Mughal Empire

recommended by Richard M. Eaton

India in the Persianate Age, 1000-1765 by Richard M. Eaton

India in the Persianate Age, 1000-1765
by Richard M. Eaton


The Mughals ruled the Indian subcontinent for three centuries, a multicultural empire that brought together an extraordinary mix of Mongol, Islamic, Persian and Indian practices, religious beliefs and philosophies. Here, historian Richard M. Eaton, a professor at the University of Arizona, chooses some of the best scholarly works on the Mughals that shed new light on how the empire functioned.

Interview by Benedict King

India in the Persianate Age, 1000-1765 by Richard M. Eaton

India in the Persianate Age, 1000-1765
by Richard M. Eaton


Before we get to the books, could you very briefly say what the Mughal Empire was, when it was around and what held it together—in as far as it did hold?

The Mughal Empire was launched in 1526 when its founder, Babur, overthrew the last dynast of the old Delhi Sultanate. He’d come straight out of Central Asia, from Samarkand and Kabul. The first five emperors are the rulers that every student of Mughal history knows about. The last of them, Aurangzeb, takes us into the early 18th century. After his death, in 1707, the empire experienced a century of gradual decline. It wasn’t formally extinguished until 1858, after the great uprising of 1857 against British rule. In that year Queen Victoria simply dissolved the Mughal state and declared India part of the British realm. So, officially, the dates extend from 1526 to 1858. But the period of its greatest splendour was the late 16th and 17th centuries, the period of Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. I would also include ‘Alamgir, the last of these five great emperors. In a nutshell, what the Mughals did was to establish this idea of a ‘king of kings’ or ‘shahanshah’, which is by definition an empire, not simply a kingdom. There were many subordinate kings, or ‘rajas’, underneath them. One of their great achievements was to incorporate Hindu kingdoms in Rajasthan within their imperial fold. In this way, they became something much more than simply a Central Asian Muslim state transplanted to South Asia. By assimilating much pre-existing Rajput culture and architecture into their courtly style, they gradually became an Indian state.

This was the opposite trajectory of the British experience in India. In its early days, the 17th and most of the 18th century, employees of the English East India Company assimilated a great deal of Indian culture by, in essence, ‘going native’. The English did not see themselves as an utterly distinct group until towards the end of the 18th century, and that feeling gradually increased until you reach full-blown racism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Let’s look at the books. The first one is Nandini Chatterjee’s Negotiating Mughal Law: a Family of Landlords across Three Indian Empires. What can you tell me about this one?

I chose it because before this book came out, people thought of law in precolonial India in terms of normative, codified texts, such as the Shari‘a or the Dharmashastras, Hindu law. By contrast, Chatterjee’s book examines how law actually operated at the village level. Nobody had done that before. Her method was to go out and discover a family in central India that had collected and preserved legal documents extending from the late 1500s down to the early 20th century. These people were by no means elite members of the Mughal nobility, but rather rural entrepreneurs who over the centuries had been landlords, clerks, businessmen, judges, even warlords who raised and recruited small armies. This is a book of microhistory.

Chatterjee’s book is important for another reason. For decades, historians of India have lamented the fact that we don’t have any central archive of Mughal records—unlike, say, the Ottoman Empire, with its neatly organized archives carefully preserved in Istanbul. Successive foreign invasions and internal chaos in 18th century Delhi left the country without a sustained and centralized documentary record. But Chatterjee argues that there is an archive, and that archive is to be found in the villages. And the reason villagers over many generations kept legal documents in their possession was that these records could support their claims of all sorts—to revenue, to their own rights, and to other people’s obligations. Families had a strong motive to preserve documents in their possession.

“Like many multicultural empires, the Mughals were a many-splendoured thing”

The book also reconsiders the idea of local taxation as traditionally understood. From the manuals and chronicles patronized by the central government, the Mughals might appear as an almighty Leviathan state, extracting resources from a passive, rural peasantry. But the documents that Chatterjee studied reveal something very different. From the villagers’ perspective, these documents served as vehicles by which they could, among other things, gain entitlements. They reveal how villagers interacted with Mughal authorities, how they ‘worked the system’ in order to get ahead in the Mughal world.

The villagers’ understanding of both taxation and law, as Chatterjee presents it, is very different from what many historians have been led to believe, which is of vast legal or revenue systems that were simply imposed from above. It’s an important book, and it came out just last year.

Let’s move on to Munis Faruqui’s Princes of the Mughal Empire, 1504-1719. What story does this book tell about the ‘big five’ that you were talking about earlier?

This is about Mughal princes. Rather than discuss emperors, what Faruqui does is to shift the focus to their sons. More specifically, he studies the contestations over succession, with a view to discovering what happened when an emperor died, and why. It really comes down to a study of princely networking, of how the successful princes were able to establish political allies and outmanoeuvre their cohorts.

The Mughals had inherited a combination of Islamic law and Mongol law, neither of which had a principle of primogeniture, where the oldest son automatically inherits everything. The Mongols had the idea that every male member of the ruling house had an equal shot at becoming emperor. There was also an idea of territorial division. So the Mongol Empire was divided among the sons of Chinggis Khan, and further subdivided over time, the idea being that sons have a degree of territorial independence from the centre.

Babur brought these inherited ideas with him when he established the Mughal Empire in North India. Consequently, for about half a century the princes were given semi-independent territories to govern, following Mongol precedent. But in 1585, Emperor Akbar made some important changes. First, the number of contenders for the throne was reduced from anybody in the extended ruling family to only the legitimate sons of the emperor. Second, princes were no longer given semi-independent territories to govern. Rather, they were shuffled around the empire and given temporary revenue assignments like any other noble, except on a much larger scale, which enabled them to maintain enormous households. But they were purposely deprived of fixed territorial regions to govern where they could concentrate all their energies and put down deep political roots that might pose a threat to the central government.

A number of important consequences followed from these changes. First, the abolition of those semi-independent territories meant that contestations for the throne were now an all-or-nothing affair, since the empire was considered indivisible. Second, this winner-takes-all struggle forced the princes to compete with their brothers for the support of people from all over the empire, not just within one region. This, in turn, turned them into politicians of a sort. They had to articulate a platform of how they would rule, should they win the succession. Most of all, it forced them to engage in a very deliberate process of political networking, actively seeking the support of new groups. We see this with each successive ruler.

The system thus guaranteed that the prince who was best networked, and who displayed the most administrative and military ability, would win the throne. The losing princes, on the other hand, were either blinded, killed or exiled. It was a brutal sort of Darwinian struggle of the fittest. Significantly, once the dust had settled and a new winner had emerged, supporters of the losing groups were not annihilated, but were quickly reintegrated into the political order.

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The process of Mughal succession is often seen in negative terms—as characterized by violent civil wars that caused untold social and economic disruption. Faruqui turns that around, arguing that what succession conflicts really did was to replenish the empire’s political composition with new groups, as the winning prince brought large numbers of his own supporters into the system. He contrasts this with the Ottoman or the Safavid systems that ruled contemporaneously over Turkey and Iran, respectively. In those states, the princes were not allowed to run around the empire and gather support for an impending succession struggle. Rather, they were confined to the palace, as a result of which they had zero experience in engaging with the larger political-administrative system or with constituent political players. They were not even used as governors.

By studying the princes, then, Faruqui allows us to reconceptualize the nature of the Mughals’ political system in a more positive way than was previously the case.

Let’s move on to A. Azfar Moin’s Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship & Sainthood in Islam. What light does this book shed on kingship in the Mughal Empire?

Moin is interested in the Mughals’ ruling ideology. He starts by noting that Indian history is conventionally seen through the prism either of the British Raj or of a thousand years of Hindu-Muslim interaction. Moin argues instead that we need to take seriously the political ideologies that Babur had brought to India in 1526. He was a Central Asian prince who had expected to remain in Central Asia and inherit at least part of the great empire of his forefather, Tamerlane or Timur (d. 1405).

Things did not work out that way. He was edged out by the Uzbeks, a rival confederation of Turks that drove him not only out of Samarkand, Timur’s glorious capital city, but out of Central Asia altogether. He fled first to Kabul, and finally to India in 1526, where he overthrew the last dynasty of Delhi’s sultans. But he brought with him a great deal of ideological baggage from Central Asia, most importantly this idea of millennial kingship. Hence the title of Moin’s book, which explores how kingship, sacrality, and millennialism formed a heady ideology on which the rulers of the Mughal empire drew in order to articulate their claims to sovereignty.

The book elaborates this idea of ‘The Lord of the Conjunction’, a title that Timur himself never actually claimed, but that was attributed to him. It refers to astrologers’ understanding that the rare conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn signified an especially auspicious moment, and that anyone born under that conjunction was destined to have an exceptional career as a restorer of order, even a messiah, or at least an extremely important and powerful king. Earlier figures thought to have been born under such a conjunction included Alexander the Great, the Prophet Mohammed, Chinggis Khan, and then finally, Timur. So, by Babur’s day, the idea of the ‘Lord of the Conjunction’ was already widely accepted by populations across the entire eastern Muslim world, including Central Asia. Moin’s book explores how the first five Mughal emperors, as well as rulers in contemporary Iran, had been steeped in this potent ideological brew, which included Illuminationist thought, messianic beliefs, and esoteric schools of Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, as well as the idea of the ‘Lord of Conjunction’.

These ideas were manifested in different ways by Mughal rulers. Descended just several generations from Timur, Babur was acutely mindful of his exalted inheritance. He was also personally devoted to certain Sufi orders and deeply committed to astrology. His son Humayun went further and aligned his courtly regimen with the heavens, believing that each day was associated with the influence of one of the five major planets, the sun, or the moon. In court, he aligned the colours of his clothing with whichever celestial object was ruling on that day.

The real break came with Humayun’s son Akbar, who usurped juristic authority by claiming to be the renewer of the age, a central idea in both Shi‘i and Sunni theology, as it has quasi-millennial connotations. Soon after he did that, there was an actual conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, which gave him additional millennial heft. In the last 10 years before the year 1000 in the Islamic calendar—which was 1582—he stopped dating his coins with the actual date and simply stamped ‘1000’ on them. By this time he had clearly come to see himself as a millennial sovereign. When the year 1000 finally did come around in 1582, he patronized the writing of a chronicle entitled The Millennial History, which portrayed him as ushering in the second Islamic millennium. So, with Akbar, you have a very explicit case of how these ideas played out.

“We need to take seriously the political ideologies that Babur had brought to India in 1526”

Akbar’s son, Jahangir, inherited these same ideas. Yet Jahangir is often seen as having turned toward a stricter understanding of Islam. That’s certainly the impression one might get from writings in the chronicles about him. But if one looks at the art that he patronized, as Moin does, one finds something very different. In Sufi thought, it was great shaikhs, not kings, who were the real sovereigns of the world. Such shaikhs bequeathed temporary earthly kingship on this or that warlord, typically through the act of ‘predicting’ who would be the next ruler.

This notion of sovereignty is often depicted visually, as in a Sufi holding a miniature globe of planet Earth, suggesting that spiritually powerful shaikhs were the true rulers of the world. Indo-Islamic writing is full of the trope of the pure and pious shaikh juxtaposed with temporal rulers, surrounded by courtly splendour and covered with blood spilt en route to the throne. But with Jahangir, such a juxtaposition is transformed. Some paintings depict Jahangir paired with Shaikh Moin al-Din Chishti, the most venerated Sufi saint of the Mughals. In one such miniature we see the shaikh holding a globe, with Jahangir also holding a globe, side by side, as if the saint is bequeathing the planet to the emperor. In many miniature paintings, moreover, Jahangir is seen enveloped in a huge sun or a moon, symbols associating him with universal kingship.

The penultimate of these five great rulers, Shah Jahan, surpassed all of his predecessors in articulating claims to millennial sovereignty. As the patron of the Taj Mahal and the Peacock Throne, he used art and architecture in very deliberate ways to project himself as a distant and majestic sovereign. He also built what we now know as Old Delhi (called Shahjahanabad in his day), which served as a vast stage for enacting his carefully-fashioned image as a sovereign far beyond the earthly realm of ordinary people. Above all, he claimed to be the Second Lord of Conjunction, following Timur in this respect. Not only did he happen to be born in the Islamic year 1000, which already gave him millennial credentials, he also sent huge armies into Central Asia with a view to conquering and annexing at least part of the core territory once ruled by Timur himself. Nobody had done that before, although the mission failed spectacularly and nearly bankrupted the empire.

The last of the five great emperors, Shah Jahan’s son ‘Alamgir, actually rejected his inheritance of sacred kingship and sought to redefine Mughal sovereignty by codifying the Shari‘a and placing the empire under the idea of impartial, impersonal law, rather than a sacred king. But his experiment ultimately failed, as the people didn’t buy it. By this time they had come to see the emperor as a charismatic, sacred sovereign—someone who connected Heaven and Earth. Occasionally ‘Alamgir had to play that role himself, which, again, shows the staying power of those Central Asian ideas. In short, Moin goes further than other modern historians in trying to connect rulership under the Mughals with Central Asian ideologies.

The next book up is Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court by Audrey Truschke. What does this say about the empire?

In one way or another, each of these five books revises earlier scholarship. For her part, Audrey Truschke upends the long-held assumption, which she demonstrates to be incorrect, that the Mughal Empire was an essentially Persianate empire, ruled through the Persian language to the exclusion of other literary traditions. This she does by highlighting the prominent role played by Sanskrit literati who were active at the very heart of the empire: the Mughal court. From reading most histories of Mughal India, one might imagine that Sanskrit, if not suppressed, was at least absent from the courtly world. But she shows how the Mughals, in fact, patronized a large number of Sanskrit intellectuals, both Brahmans and Jains. Some were given Sanskrit as well as Persian titles. For about a hundred years, extending from Akbar’s reign through the end of that of Shah Jahan in the mid 17th century, a large number of Sanskrit intellectuals were present at the court, particularly from the 1560s to roughly 1600.

Her findings thus complement what Moin was saying about the presence of Central Asian ideas in Mughal ideology. Even while the Mughals articulated claims to sovereign authority that had originated in Iran or Central Asia, they also incorporated Indian, indeed Hindu, conceptions of kingship. They wished to be seen as Indian kings just like earlier Indian kings. One of the things they did was to follow the ancient Indian royal practice of patronizing Brahmans. In Hindu kingdoms, Brahmans had served not just as priests, but as ministers of state, poets, astrologers, and literati who authored treatises on a broad range of topics, including statecraft.

While inheriting such indigenous traditions, the Mughals also wanted to recenter the Persianate world around India, rather than Iran. Like many multicultural empires, the Mughals were a many-splendoured thing. Truschke convincingly shows how, for the Mughals, the Indian component of their ruling ideology focused on patronizing Brahman and Jain intellectuals, thereby integrating Sanskrit as part of their ruling repertoire. Dozens of dictionaries were compiled under Mughal patronage, both from Sanskrit to Persian and Persian to Sanskrit. Fundamental Hindu texts, particularly the great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, were translated into Persian under court sponsorship.

We actually have miniature paintings of Brahmans and Persian literati seated on either side of a room, busily translating texts from Sanskrit to Persian through the medium of spoken Hindawi, their common, vernacular language. The image draws our attention to how avidly the Mughals sought to incorporate into their own Persian-speaking world the classic epics that for centuries had enlivened the Indian imagination. To make the Mughals a truly Indian empire, then, Persian-speaking courtiers and administrators endeavoured to participate in this larger, mythic universe.

The scale of this translation project, moreover, was considerable. There are 24 separate Persian versions of the Ramayana, and thousands of manuscripts of this and other translated Sanskrit works scattered across India, which is quite remarkable. We might think of these projects as ‘creative adaptations’. For example, Krishna, who is both a human and divine figure in the Sanskrit Ramayana, is not at all divine in the Persian translation; he’s simply a wise teacher. Or again, whereas the Sanskrit Ramayana emphasizes ‘dharma’ (proper behaviour according to one’s social station), the emphasis in the Persian translation is on kingly virtue. Similarly, the other Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, is filled with many deities, whereas its Persian translation is pervaded by a monotheistic spirit.

So Truschke’s book explores not just the fact of translation, but how those translations accommodated the cultural expectations of their target audience. Not surprisingly, theology was a tricky dimension that the translators had to negotiate, and it required a certain sleight-of-hand. For example, the Mughals understood the Jain worldview as having a god which, of course, is not really the case, since Jainism, like Buddhism, is strictly speaking atheistic. Nonetheless, Mughal translators defined the arhat, or the enlightened teacher, as standing in for God, and many Jains seem to have played along with the idea. In essence, the book explores a fascinating dimension of cross-cultural interaction under the Mughals.

Tell us about your last choice for these five books, which is Writing Self, Writing Empire: Chandar Bhan Brahman and the Cultural World of the Indo-Persian State Secretary by Rajeev Kinra. What story does this book tell us about the Mughal Empire?

In a sense, this book follows on Truschke’s study, with the important difference that Truschke was looking only at Sanskrit intellectuals who were affiliated with the court, and not those involved with the empire’s administrative machinery. Kinra, on the other hand, is interested in the empire’s cadre of munshis, that is, the many thousands of clerks and writers who actually ran the empire, and most particularly, the secretaries who oversaw those clerks.

Conventional scholarship understands the Mughal Empire as a Persian-using empire, and it’s true that Persian was the language of administration used by those many munshis. But British Orientalists like Henry Elliot and Indian nationalist scholars like Jadunath Sarkar assumed that Persian was an essentially ‘Muslim’ language, which would be like construing English as a ‘Christian’ language. So, in the scholarship of men like Elliot or Sarkar, any Hindu who wrote in Persian was, implicitly, a traitor to his own religion. One of Kinra’s points, then, is that Persian was an unproblematic neutral language, accessible to anybody, used for everyday discourse, and that—unlike Arabic—it was not a language of religion. This was why non-Muslims were in no way disqualified from entering clerical service. On the contrary, the Brahman secretary that this book highlights argued that it was precisely because he was a Brahman that he had the sensibility to align himself with Sufi ideas of worldly detachment, so critical for effective governance. Thousands of Hindu clerks learned Persian in order to get a job in the bureaucracy, just as they would do later on with English under the Raj.

But Persian was more than just a medium for pen-pushing clerks. Owing to its rich literary canon, it also informed and promoted a refined and cosmopolitan sensibility for a myriad of Indians, no matter what their personal religion. To illustrate this point, Kinra focuses on a single administrator, Chandar Bhan Brahman, whose lifespan extended from Akbar all the way through Jahangir, Shah Jahan and ‘Alamgir. For 30 years he was the principal secretary to prime ministers or other high officials for the last three of those emperors. That placed him near the very top of the empire’s administrative structure. Kinra’s book analyzes the correspondence, the documents, and most importantly, the treatises that were written by this Brahman—all of them in Persian. Here was a man who not only mastered the Persian language but was thoroughly steeped in Persian literature and thought.

The heart of Kinra’s book is his analysis of Chandar Bhan’s treatise titled Chahar Chaman, or ‘The Four Gardens’. The treatise’s first chapter, or ‘garden’, elaborates the qualities that any Indian administrator—implicitly, Persianized Hindus—must have. These include a balanced temperament, managerial skills, a mystical sensibility, and a concern for public welfare.

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In another chapter, Chandar Bhan takes the reader on a geographical tour of the Mughal empire, starting in the capital Shahjahanabad and then moving through each of the empire’s provinces in a literary analogue to the classic Indian digvijaya, or ‘conquest of the quarters’, in which a raja would manifest his claim to sovereign territory by undertaking a military conquest of regions surrounding his political core. This chapter of Chandar Bhan’s treatise, then, is not simply a gazetteer that describes the empire’s regional flora, fauna, economy, society, and so forth. By displaying the vast extent of the Mughals’ constituent provinces, it aims to project their power and majesty. In another chapter, Chandar Bhan discusses and illustrates the forms of Persian prose composition that a proper munshi must master.

Kinra closes his book by suggesting that a study of how the Mughal Empire actually operated compels us to expand our notion of modernity and its relationship to ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ culture. For many years, historians have understood modernity in terms of the European Enlightenment, nation-states, capitalism, secularism, and so forth. More recently, it has been understood in terms of individual self-fashioning, something that is often presumed to have begun in Europe with the advent of letter writing and personal correspondence, which subtly induced people to articulate their sense of personhood. Kinra’s point is that this same tradition is amply present among Mughal literati and ordinary civil servants. One of Chandar Bhan Brahman’s four gardens is entirely autobiographical in nature. In it, he doesn’t even bother to describe important political events of his day, such as the sickness of Shah Jahan, which led to a great war of succession, or that war itself, which brought ‘Alamgir to the throne. Rather, it is his own life, his own experiences, his own relationships with members of the nobility and other imperial officials, that drive the narrative. In other words, one sees in this book a distinctively modernist sensibility. That, I think, is another reason that Kinra’s book is important. It enriches our understanding not only of the Mughal Empire, but of modernity itself.

Interview by Benedict King

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Richard M. Eaton

Richard M. Eaton

Richard Eaton is Professor of History at the University of Arizona. His books include Sufis of Bijapur: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India; The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760; Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives (Cambridge, 2005); and Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600. In 2020 Penguin Books, London, published India in the Persianate Age, 1000-1765, a survey of India’s most controversial historical period.

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Richard M. Eaton

Richard M. Eaton

Richard Eaton is Professor of History at the University of Arizona. His books include Sufis of Bijapur: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India; The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760; Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives (Cambridge, 2005); and Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600. In 2020 Penguin Books, London, published India in the Persianate Age, 1000-1765, a survey of India’s most controversial historical period.