The Sad Decline of the Mughals

At the time of Aurangzeb’s death, Mughal power was yet unchallenged.

Published: 06th February 2014 12:11 PM  |   Last Updated: 06th February 2014 12:11 PM   |  A+A-


At the time of Aurangzeb’s death, Mughal power was yet unchallenged. The first to inherit Aurangzeb’s legacy was his oldest son, Muazzim, who predictably murdered two of his brothers on his way to the throne. Once installed on the throne, he took the name of Bahadur Shah. He was an aging soldier of 63 who had earlier spent a part of his time languishing in one of his father’s prison cells and all of his life under his shadow. But during his short term in office, he displayed a flair for good governance and decisiveness.

He first decided to deal with the Sikhs of Punjab who were rapidly becoming a brotherhood of fanatical warriors. In 1710 their leader Banda took the town of Sirhind with brutality. He butchered, bayoneted, strangled, hanged and burnt alive every Mohammedan in the place. The mosques were burnt down and the mullas and maulvis were subjected to the greatest indignities and torture. In retaliation, 60,000 soldiers from a number of Muslim territories were assembled and made to fight in the famous battle of Gurdaspur where the Sikhs were defeated and Banda was put to flight. Five years later he was believed to have been captured by the Mughals and executed.

The Sikh communities became completely united and fought the Mughals like lions and contributed to the decline of the Mughals. While battling the Sikhs, Bahadur Shah kept the Marathas at bay, reinstated the arts, restored a degree of toleration to official policy and pursued a programme of appeasement to the Hindus. If this kindly and intelligent monarch had lived longer, the decline of the empire would undoubtedly have been delayed.  His demise in 1712 precipitated the inevitable vicious fight for the throne among his sons in which Jahandar Shah emerged the victor.

Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb’s spending on lavish monuments and endless wars had exhausted the Mughal treasury. After their demise, it was the common people of India who were the hapless victims of these policies of poor governance. The government raised the taxes on farmers who were already forfeiting a considerable part of their produce to the state. This exploitation increased the misery of the common people to unbearable levels. Starvation and famine now invaded even the more prosperous districts and tax collectors and petty officials were liable to bribery than ever before.

This corruption created a system of payoffs so widespread that promotion by merit became nonexistent and government jobs could be purchased by those who could afford the price.

The Mughal empire had grown large and the stature of its rulers had become too small. A man like Babur swam every river on his way to India. But now a new breed of rulers travelled only in gilt palanquins and silver howdahs, when they left their palaces at all. Hard work, tolerance, vision and learning was replaced by indolence, disinterest and ignorance. The jewelled and corpulent Mughal aristocracy became soft in its pursuit of leisure, focusing only on its own political ends while the empire disintegrated.

The sons of Mughal nobility possessed no good education, they grew up cosseted by eunuchs and servants, living a sheltered life from birth to manhood, every thorn being removed from their path. They were familiar with vice early on in life. By 1740, the Deccan became independent, the Punjab went to the Afghans and soon the whole of Afghanistan became a separate country.

After the demise of Shivaji, the Marathas were bereft of his enlightened leadership and now resorted to lawlessness as they increased their strength. Shivaji’s ideals and principles were thrown to the winds and they now became the slayers of pregnant women, children and the poor. Their plundering was complimented by those of the Jats who in 1764, captured Agra and ransacked the Red Fort, taking with them the Taj Mahal’s finest gems and its silver gates. The Sikhs and other clans joined the quest for autonomy and so a great empire disintegrated and all that remained was its once great name. 

The 8th Mughal emperor ruled for 11 months, in which short time he turned the court into a brothel and the monarchy into a joke. Infatuated by a beautiful dancing girl, Lal Kumari, he surrendered all powers of state to the chief minister. At the bidding of the courtesan, he appointed her relatives to important posts, her musician friends and even old Zuhara, a vegetable seller. The finest mansions in Delhi were confiscated to house this group of misfits. The emperor and his mistress passed their hours in idleness, tossing rocks at passersby from the roof of the Red Fort and having boats sunk in the Jamuna so that Lal Kumari could quench her sadistic pleasure of watching women and children drown.

While the couple caroused on the rooftops of Delhi, the nobility was scheming for dominance, prominent among them were the Sayyid brothers. The Sayyids inveigled their way to power and finally into the emperor’s very bedroom, where at the feet of his beloved dancer, Jahandar Shah was strangled.


The Taj Mahal by David Carroll


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