The great grandson of Tamerlane, Babar, who on his mother’s side was descended from the famous Genghiz Khan, came to India in 1526 at the request of an Indian governor who sought Babar’s help in his fight against Ibrahim Lodi, the last head of the Delhi Sultanate. Babar defeated Lodi at Panipat, not far from Delhi, and so came to establish the Mughal Empire in India. Babar ruled until 1530, and was succeeded by his son Humayun, who gave the empire its first distinctive features. But it is Humayun’s son, Akbar the Great, who is conventionally described as the glory of the empire. Akbar reigned from 1556 to 1605, and extended his empire as far to the west as Afghanistan, and as far south as the Godavari river. Akbar, though a Muslim, is remembered as a tolerant ruler, and he even started a new faith, Din-i-Ilahi, which was an attempt to blend Islam with Hinduism, Christianity, Jainism, and other faiths. He won over the Hindus by naming them to important military and civil positions, by conferring honors upon them, and by marrying a Hindu princess.
Akbar was succeeded by his son Salim, who took the title of Jahangir. In his reign (1605-1627), Jahangir consolidated the gains made by his father. The courtly culture of the Mughals flourished under his rule; like his great grand-father, Babar, he had an interest in gardens, and Mughal painting probably reached its zenith in Jahangir’s time. Jahangir married Nur Jahan, “Light of the World”, in 1611. Shortly after his death in October 1627, his son, Shah Jahan, succeeded to the throne. He inherited a vast and rich empire; and at mid-century this was perhaps the greatest empire in the world, exhibiting a degree of centralized control rarely matched before. Shah Jahan left behind an extraordinarily rich architectural legacy, which includes the Taj Mahal and the old city of Delhi, Shahjahanabad. As he apparently lay dying in 1658, a war of succession broke out between his four sons.
The two principal claimants to the throne were Dara Shikoh, who was championed by the those nobles and officers who were committed to the eclectic policies of previous rulers, and Aurangzeb, who was favored by powerful men more inclined to turn the Mughal Empire into an Islamic state subject to the laws of the Sharia. It is Aurangzeb who triumphed, and though the Mughal Empire saw yet further expansion in the early years of his long reign (1658-1707), by the later part of the seventeenth century the empire was beginning to disintegrate. Aurangzeb remains a highly controversial figure, and no monarch has been more subjected to the communalist reading of Indian history. He is admired by Muslim historians for enforcing the law of the Sharia and for disavowing the policies pursued by Akbar; among Hindus, laymen and historians alike, he is remembered as a Muslim fanatic and bigot.
In the event, Aurangzeb’s far-flung empire eventually eluded his grasp, and considerable disaffection appears to have been created among the peasantry. After Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, many of his vassals established themselves as sovereign rulers, and so began the period of what are called “successor states”. The Mughal Empire survived until 1857, but its rulers were, after 1803, pensioners of the East India Company. The last emperor, the senile Bahadur Shah Zafar, was put on trial for allegedly leading the rebels of the 1857 mutiny and for fomenting sedition. He was convicted and transported to Rangoon, to spend the remainder of his life on alien soil.