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British success at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 marked a decisive upswing in the East India Company's fortunes, for less than a decade later in 1765 the Mughal emperor gave it the official right to collect Bengal's revenues. This was little more than a recognition of the Company's actual position as de facto ruler of Bengal; by this time the independent government of Bengal had been rendered toothless. A good deal of Bengal's resources was already entering the coffers of the EIC and its employees; now all of the state's revenues would officially belong to the Company, except for the annual tribute owed to the Mughal emperor in Delhi. The conferment of an official position on the East India Company was primarily a pragmatic means for the imperial court to ensure that it obtained some small share of Bengal's riches. Its symbolic significance was tremendous, however, since it meant that the English were now formally incorporated into the Mughal imperial system. Foreigners and merchants they might be, but now they were also sanctioned participants in the realm of Indian politics.
In practical terms, by 1765 the Mughal state was merely a small regional kingdom among a welter of others. Several Mughal successor states had made cash payments to the imperial dynasty in their first decades of existence, but by this time had ceased to express any loyalty other than in name.
The roughly hundred years from 1650 to 1750 were marked by a series of radical political and social changes in South Asia. Many of these changes were triggered by developments that transpired during the nearly fifty-year reign of the sixth Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707). This Mughal emperor remains the most controversial in the popular mind and even, to some extent, in scholarly literature. Aurangzeb is often compared unfavorably with Akbar, whose reign also spanned close to half a century. In part, this is due to the work of J. N. Sarkar, the first modern historian to write extensively on Aurangzeb. Sarkar held Aurangzeb personally responsible for the reversal of the tolerant policies first fostered by Akbar, which were instrumental in unifying the vast territories of the Mughal empire in the minds of many scholars. Instead, in Sarkar's view, Aurangzeb promoted an aggressively Islamic state that discriminated against Hindus and other non-Muslims, leading to a loss of unity and the decline of empire. Other scholars have accused Aurangzeb of weakening the empire not so much by his orthodox religious stance as by his prolonged campaign to pacify and annex the Deccan.
In this chapter, we look at both these charges against Aurangzeb, as well as at the Maratha community which opposed Mughal expansion fiercely, and at political developments after Aurangzeb's death.
The beginnings of the Mughal empire's eventual demise can be traced back to the reign of Aurangzeb in the late seventeenth century. His preoccupation with the Deccan wars and the consequent loss of morale among the nobility are two important causes of the weakening of empire, leading by the mid eighteenth century to the dismemberment of Mughal territory into numerous smaller states. In this chapter, we cover additional reasons for the political instability that engulfed the empire following Aurangzeb's death. As the empire disintegrated, local elites and communities sought, and in many cases were able to obtain, more autonomy and control over their own affairs. Each region had a different experience in the aftermath of empire, however, not only politically but also economically, with some regions faring far better than others. Events in the Bengal area were especially wrought with significance for the subsequent history of the subcontinent, for it was there that the English first obtained an extensive foothold within the internal affairs of the erstwhile empire. We therefore both begin and end this chapter with an account of the activities of the European trading companies, whose long-term effect on Indian history was so disproportionate to their numbers and even to their immediate impact on the era from 1650 to 1750.
The European trading companies
The Dutch and English trading companies, who had begun their activities in India at the outset of the 1600s, made a major contribution to the Indian economy by supplying the bullion that enabled the twin trends of monetization and commercialization to gather steam.
By the time of Akbar's death in 1605, a qualitative change in the scale of political and economic activities in the Indian subcontinent had occurred. The sheer size of the empire Akbar left behind is an important factor, for an estimated 110 million people resided within its borders out of a total South Asian population of slightly less than 150 million. Akbar implemented a more systematic and centralized form of rule than had prevailed earlier, which led to greater uniformity in administrative practices over a vast territory. At the same time, Akbar's economic policies stimulated the growth of commercial activity, which interconnected the various parts of South Asia in increasingly close networks. His stipulation that land taxes be paid in cash forced peasants into the market networks where they could obtain the necessary money, while the standardization of imperial currency made the exchange of goods for money easier. Above all, the long period of relative peace ushered in by Akbar's power, and maintained by his successors throughout the seventeenth century, contributed to India's economic expansion.
The greater circulation of people, goods, and practices that characterized India in the centuries after 1550 is also found in Europe and other parts of the world in this era. After direct sea links were established between Europe, Asia, and the Americas around 1500, a global economy spanning diverse regions of the world gradually emerged.
The rise of the Delhi Sultanate, although it brought many changes to north India, had little direct impact on the lands south of the Narmada river. Only from around 1300, when the Delhi Sultanate began sending armies down into the peninsula, did the histories of these two parts of the subcontinent start to converge. The military successes of the Delhi Sultanate gave a north Indian state control over portions of south India for the first time in many centuries. Although the Delhi Sultanate did not retain this control for long, its intervention into the affairs of the peninsula was to have long-lasting repercussions. Because a separate state headed by Central Asian Muslim warriors known as the Bahmanis was founded in the Deccan in 1347, the Islamic religion and culture that had taken root in the Deccan under the Tughluq sultans of Delhi continued to flourish in subsequent times. Another significant result of Delhi's military expeditions was the destruction of the existing regional kingdoms of the south. This paved the way for the emergence of Vijayanagara, a new state ruled by indigenous warriors that shaped the society and culture of south India for centuries thereafter. The empire of Vijayanagara is often credited with preserving a distinctly Hindu way of life in south India that had been lost in the north, a misconception that overlooks both the creativity and cosmopolitan nature of the Vijayanagara elite.
During the fifteenth century a series of regional states developed across north India, some ruled by Muslims and some by Hindus, but in all of them considerable tolerance was shown toward other religions, a fact that most histories overlook. In these independent states what it meant to be culturally sophisticated was increasingly defined not only by parties who subscribed to pan-Indian trends but also by those who promoted distinctly regional vocabularies. The new cultural styles are in part reflected in the production of progressively more substantial architectural projects, both secular and religious, and of illustrated manuscripts and music. The products of the regional kingdoms were more composite in nature, incorporating local cultures with larger Indic and Islamicate ones. In addition, literature in the regional languages began to flourish as never before. Religion too took on new forms in both the Muslim and Hindu traditions, with some movements seeking ways to bypass the traditional ulama in the case of Islam or Brahman priests in the case of Hinduism. Thus, saints and devotees, intense in their emotion for the divine, infused society with an impassioned discourse that was transmitted in literature and religious practice. Although the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were a time of political fragmentation and weakness in north India, it was simultaneously an era of considerable cultural innovation.
Beginning in the late fourteenth century the now weakened Tughluq dynasty, once spanning much of the Indian subcontinent, began breaking into a series of small regional successor states.
Today in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi – in any big city in India – people, old, young and in-between, are everywhere chatting on cell phones or mobiles. The ring tones that chime constantly from every conceivable nook and cranny are ubiquitous, adding to the general cacophony of a modern South Asian street scene. The sound of portable phones is the most recent addition to the hodgepodge of noises one might hear, intermingling with loudspeakers playing music from the latest Bollywood hits, car and bus horns blaring, vendors of food and other items shouting out their wares, temple bells being struck, and the calling of Muslims to prayer. The new telecommunication technologies allow a person in Bangalore or Hyderabad to answer the questions of a customer of a multinational corporation calling from North America, while TV networks based in the West such as MTV, BBC, and CNN are now broadcast throughout the Indian subcontinent. Meanwhile, the Western pop culture transmitted to other parts of the globe is more and more permeated with influences from South Asia: Nora Jones, the daughter of world famous sitarist Ravi Shankar, is among the best selling artists of the early 2000s; the voice of the late Nusrat Ali Khan serves as a backdrop to the hit film Dead Man Walking; and the grocer Apu figures on the long-running animated TV show, The Simpsons.
India Before Europe is the product of collaboration between two scholars from different disciplines, who have joined together to write a volume on Indian history and culture from 1200 to 1750. Catherine Asher is an art historian who has worked on north India's Indic, Islamic, and Islamicate cultural traditions. Cynthia Talbot is a historian who has worked largely on the social history of pre-Mughal south India and also is aware of larger trends in world history. When first approached by Marigold Acland of Cambridge University Press to write a history of the five hundred plus years immediately prior to the rise of British colonial power in India, neither of us felt competent to tackle this challenging task alone. Only by pooling our quite distinct spheres of training and knowledge, we thought, could we possibly do justice to the complexity and richness of this very important era. Little did we realize then how much more we had to learn, not only from each other but also from a wide range of individuals upon whose scholarship we relied. The end result is one that neither of us could have achieved on our own.
The book was written jointly in Austin and Minneapolis when the two authors could meet, but more often it evolved in cyberspace, where attachments were constantly zinging across the country or, at times, even across countries, for the other person's perusal.
India is a land of enormous diversity. Cross-cultural influences are everywhere in evidence, in the food people eat, the clothes they wear, and in the places they worship. This was especially the case in the India that existed from 1200 to 1750, before the European intervention. The book takes the reader on a journey across the political, economic, religious and cultural landscapes of medieval India, from the Ghurid conquests and the Dehli Sultanate to the great court of the Mughals. This was a time of conquest and consolidation, when Muslims and Hindus came together to create a unique culture which still resonates in today's India. As the first survey of its kind in over a decade, the book is a tour de force. It is beautifully illustrated and fluently composed, with a cast of characters which will educate students and general readers alike.
The year 1206 is a watershed in the history of the Indian subcontinent. In that year Qutb al-Din Aibak, a slave of Turkic origin, seized control of the armies from Afghanistan that were occupying numerous forts in the heartland of north India. Qutb al-Din Aibak's act was but the first in a series of struggles for dominance among the leading members of the Turkic forces in India. This event easily could have been relegated to the status of a footnote in history had the occupying Turkic armies eventually retreated back to their area of origin, as had Mahmud of Ghazni two hundred years earlier, or had the fledgling Islamic state torn itself apart in internal conflict. Instead, Qutb al-Din's political successors were able to entrench themselves in India for centuries thereafter and, in doing so, ushered in momentous changes not only in the political makeup of the subcontinent but also in its culture. The importance of the date 1206, when the first of a series of dynasties collectively known as the Delhi Sultanate was founded, is thus clear as we look backwards in time.
Establishment of the Delhi Sultanate
The Ghurid conquest
The origins of the Delhi Sultanate can be traced to the career of Muhammad Ghuri, so-called after the mountainous region in Afghanistan where his family was based. His full name was Shihab al-Din Muhammad bin Sam, but he is also known in the historical sources as Muizz al-Din.