The Great Mughals and their contribution to India

by Rana Safvi

Historian Harbans Mukhia, an authority on medieval India, describes colonisation as “governance of a land and its people, now on behalf of and primarily for the economic benefits of a community of people inhabiting a far-off land”.

According to him, the Mughals came to India as conquerors but lived in the subcontinent as Indians, not colonisers.  They merged their identity as well as that of their group with India and the two became inseparable, giving rise to an enduring culture and history.

He goes on to say Mughals being seen as foreigners was never a point of discussion till quite recently, so well had they integrated and assimilated into the country they had made their own.

There was no reason for it either, since Akbar onwards, all Mughals were born in India with many having Rajput mothers and their “Indianness” was complete.

Babur had invaded India at the behest of Daulat Khan Lodi and won the kingdom of Delhi by defeating the forces of Ibrahim Khan Lodi at Panipat in 1526 AD. Thus he laid the foundation of the Mughal Empire.

Most Mughals contracted marriage alliances with Indian rulers, especially Rajputs.  They appointed them to high posts, with the Kachhwaha Rajputs of Amber normally holding the highest military posts in the Mughal army.

It was this sense of a shared identity with the Mughal rulers that led the Indian sepoys who rose up in 1857 against the British East India Company in the first war of Indian Independence, to turn towards the aged, frail and powerless Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar — they coronated him as Emperor of Hindustan and decided to fight under his banner.

Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Mughal Empire was the richest and most powerful kingdom in the world and as French traveller Francois Bernier who came to India in the 17th century wrote, “Gold and silver come from every quarter of the globe to Hinduostan.”

This is hardly surprising considering that Sher Shah and the Mughals had encouraged trade by developing roads, river transport, sea routes, ports and abolishing many inland tolls and taxes.

Indian handicrafts were developed. There was a thriving export trade in manufactured goods such as cotton cloth, spices, Indigo, woollen and silk cloth, salt etc. Indian merchants trading on their own terms and taking only bullion as payment led Sir Thomas Roe to say, “Europe bleedeth to enrich Asia”.

This trade was traditionally in the hands of the Hindu merchant class who controlled the trade. In fact, Bernier wrote that Hindus possessed “almost exclusively the trade and wealth of the country”. Muslims, on the other hand, mainly held high administrative and military posts.

A very efficient system of administration set up by Akbar facilitated an environment of trade and commerce.

This led the East India Company to seek trade concessions from the Mughal Empire and eventually control and destroy it.

A very interesting painting in the possession of the British Library named “The East Offering Her Riches to Britannia” dated 1778 shows Britannia looking down on a kneeling India who is offering her crown surrounded by rubies and pearls.  The advent of the famous drain of wealth from India started with the East India Company not the Delhi Sultanate or the Mughals.

Edmund Burke was the first to use the phrase in the 1780s when he said, India had been “radically and irretrievably ruined” through the Company’s “continual drain” of wealth.

Let us examine India’s economic status prior to its becoming a British colony.

The Cambridge historian Angus Maddison writes in his book, Contours of the world economy, 1–2030 CE: essays in macro-economic history, that while India had the largest economy till 1000 AD (with a GDP share of 28.9 per cent in 1000AD) there was no economic growth. It was during the 1000 -1500 AD that India began to see a economic growth with its highest (20.9 per cent GDP growth rate) being under the Mughals.

In the 18th century, India had overtaken China as the largest economy in the world.

The changing share of world GDP in 1600-1870 (in million dollars)

In 1952, India’s GDP was 3.8 per cent. “Indeed, at the beginning of the 20th century, “the brightest jewel in the British Crown” was the poorest country in the world in terms of per capita income”, said former prime minister Manmohan Singh.

In 2016, on a PPP-adjusted basis, India’s was 7.2 per cent of the world GDP.

Since its established now that the Mughals did not take away money let’s talk of what they invested in. They invested in infrasturcture, in building great monuments which are a local and tourist draw generating crores of rupees annually. As per figures given by the ministry of culture in Lok Sabha, just the Taj Mahal built by Shah Jahan has an average annual ticket sale of more than Rs 21 crore. (Last year saw a drop in visitors to the Taj Mahal and figures stood at Rs 17.80 crore.)

The Qutub Complex generates more than Rs 10 crore in ticket sales, while Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb generate around Rs 6 crore each.

A beautiful new style known as Indo-Islamic architecture that imbibed the best of both sensibilities was born.

They invested in local arts and crafts, and encouraged old and created new skill sets in India. As Swapna Liddle, the convenor of INTACH’s Delhi Chapter says, “To my mind the greatest Mughal contribution to India was in the form of patronage to the arts. Whether it was building, artisanal crafts like weaving and metalworking, or fine arts like painting, they set standards of taste and perfection that became an example for others to follow, and brought India the global recognition for high quality handmade goods that it still enjoys.”

Mughal paintings, jewels, arts and crafts are the key possessions of many a western museum and gallery as they were looted in and after 1857. Some can be found in Indian museums too.

Art and literature flourished under the Mughal Empire. While the original work was being produced in the local and court languages, translation from Sanskrit to Persian, too, was taking place.

Akbar encouraged the translation of the Ramayana and the Mahabharat to dispel the ignorance that often led to communal hatred.

Dara Shukoh’s Persian translation of the Upanishads named Sirr-e-Akbar was taken by Bernier to France, where it reached Anquetil Deperron, who translated it into French and Latin.

The Latin version then reached the German philosopher, Schopenhauer, who was greatly influenced by it and called the Persian Upanishad “the solace of his life”. This awakened an interest in Post-Vedic Sanskrit literature among the European Orientalists.

It wasn’t only Mughal emperors who were building structures — Hindu mansabdars and traders were building temples and dharmshalas in many cities, especially Banaras.

Madhuri Desai, in her extremely well-researched book Banaras Reconstructed, writes: “The riverfront ghats bear an uncanny resemblance to the Mughal fortress-palaces that line the Jamuna river in Agra and Delhi.”

It’s dangerous to generalise history especially on communal lines. While economic deprivation for the ordinary Indian existed, as it did in other societies of the world, as Frances W Pritchett, Professor Emerita, Columbia University says, “The impression one gains from looking at social conditions during the Mughal period is of a society moving towards integration of its manifold political regions, social systems and cultural inheritances. The greatness of the Mughals consisted in part at least in the fact that the influence of their court and government permeated society, giving it a new measure of harmony.”

Thus, to say that the Mughals looted India is a falsification of history.

It’s always best to read history to get facts, and not WhatsApp forwards — where people often share false information to suit their own bias.

Article was first published on dailyo.in