Moghuls: Architects of Palaces Only

With so many recent actors to blame, it may seem far-fetched and unfair to dig up the buried deads of the Moghul kingdom from their splendid tombs to blame for the current royal mess in Pakistan. I certainly don’t mean to absolve the current actors of their crimes. Rather, my argument is that the current actors perform on a stage constructed by Moghuls.

The Moghuls, the first to unify India since pre-Christ Mauriya dynasty, ruled precisely when the development of science with the support of the state was unleashing modernization in Europe. While Europe took off, the Moghuls kept India chained to the ground. The Universities of Bologna and Oxford were established in 11th century. The only education available under Moghuls was religious education at seminaries. India was the second most industrialized country then after China. However, this was due to the efforts of artisans who learnt their trade from their fathers. The state provided little assistance in the development of new technology but taxed heavily. Fine palaces were built from the taxes but the hands of the builders were chopped off.

Even the neo-imperial World Trade Organization would struggle to better protect intellectual rights of the rich. Jagirs were granted to favorites, subsequently converted into fiefdoms by the British. This contributed to landlord dominated dynastic politics which holds sway even today in Pakistan. While the poor lived in squalor, the rich minority lived in splendor, as fine food, poetry and ‘designer’ clothing flourished. For descendants of marauding Central Asian nomads, this represented the pinnacle of accomplishment. However, for more economically complex India, Moghuls constituted dead weight around the neck. Given just three years, Suri built the GT Road to integrate Indian economy. Unfortunately, normal service resumed soon as the Moghuls managed to claw back to power. Thus, Moghul rule represented high culture, predatory politics and stagnant economy.

Even more damaging was the supine manner in which Moghuls succumbed to colonialism. To be fair, only around a dozen countries escaped European colonialism. Tribal societies and small kingdoms fell quickly, these comprising almost the entirety of the Americas, Australia and Africa and parts of Asia. Those that survived were mainly in Asia—either small, colonially valueless, logistically isolated countries like Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan, or Gulf sandpits with little attraction in the pre-oil era though even they had protectorate relationships. Most powerful kingdoms escaped colonization–Japan, China, Ethiopia, Thailand, Iran and the Ottomons till World War 1 (and Turkey subsequently)–though not subservience.  Three powerful kingdoms, beset with internal strife, did fall: the Inca, the Aztec and India. Of these, India was the most magnificent and was immediately declared the crown jewel of the British Empire in place of recently lost USA.

British colonialism cost India dearly as the British de-industralized it and divorced the best local minds and natural resources from local development. Large kingdoms, with their well developed state and human capacities, were the main candidates then to become industrialized countries, as a direct transition was a big leap for tribal societies. This potential was robbed for India by colonialism. Many consider colonialism a blessing as it introduced India to modern technology etc. However, these things could have reached India through trade too, as the British too needed our resources. Under a progressive Indian regime, this need could have become the basis for mutually beneficial trade to enable India to become a modern superpower—which it is gradually becoming 300 years later as it resumes its interrupted march in line with its inherent potential. European inventions would then have been adapted to foster genuine development rather than British exploitation. This is exactly what happened in Japan—the only country to rival the West today as it remained free to control its own development path and learn wisely from the West through trade. These Sheikh-Chillian dreams must of course be tempered by the reality check that the remaining free kingdoms failed to do so, given the lack of vision among their rulers. Given their predatory mindset, the Moghuls too would probably have failed. Thus, with the Moghuls, we were doomed either way. One can only wistfully dream of what our situation might have been today had Suri’s progeny or similarly progressive regime ruled India for 300 years instead of three. Unfortunately, India remained stuck with the Moghuls, till the British finally disposed off Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Zafar lies buried in Burma, the authoritarian, reclusive land of Suu Kyi’s detention. On the wall of his tomb hangs his faded photo—the only Moghul king to be photographed, presumably for the convict’s file after his trial, in line with British practice. On another wall is etched his famous poem—Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon—immortalized subsequently by Rafi. In the poem, Zafar complains bitterly that no one comes to offer fateha, spread four flowers or light a candle at his bekasi ka mazar. Writing near his end, he could presciently predict his posthumous future, for his forlorn tomb remained so for more than a hundred years until Rajiv accepted it as the Indian government’s responsibility to pay for its construction despite the contradictory nature of Moghul rule in India. The embassies of the two Muslim successor states have shown less interest in the remains of our common last emperor. Even so, his tomb–the size of a middle-sized mosque and in an alien land–cuts a sorry figure against the magnificence of his ancestral tombs back home. Standing by his grave, one is hit by a wave of powerful, conflicting emotions: awe, nostalgia, wistfulness, anger and finally pity for the old man. Weighed down by history and mindful of his complains with his progeny, I dutifully offered fateha, spread four flowers and lit a candle at the forlorn tomb of our last emperor from the magnificent, misruling Moghuls.

Dr. Niaz Murtaza, University of California, Berkeley,



Filed under Pakistan

15 responses to “Moghuls: Architects of Palaces Only

  1. Suvrat

    Dr Niaz it is a good article, but I would not place all blame on Mughals. After destruction of Nalanda University by Bakhtiyar Khilji, no dynasty in India tried to create a world class university in India. Incidentally Oxford was starting at the same time as Nalanda was destroyed. This explains why no innovation had been done in India in middle ages.

    Also interesting is the fact that Harvard University and Taj Mahal are contemporaries. I am sure the money spent on Taj would have been sufficient to start a Harvard like university in India. Only exception to lack of interest in technology after middle ages in India were Maharaja Jai Singh who created Jantar Mantar in several cities and Tipu Sultan who pioneered use of rockets in warfare. Kerala school of mathematics got no royal patronage.

  2. Anwar

    It is important to note that eastward advance of industrial revolution was blocked by Ottomans because of the territorial wars..

  3. Ahmed

    Excellent article by Niaz Murtaza. And, absolutely true. The Moguls (descendants of the mongols) did not come from a high culture and hence did not understand the complexities of the subcontinent where “culture” was practically invented 3500 years earlier. The subcontinent would have continued its economic prosperity if not for a few quirks of history.


  4. Suvrat

    Elements of industrial revolution could have been transmitted to India through contacts with Portuguese and Britain if Indian rulers were really inclined to learn from the external world

  5. ishfaq

    It is surprising that throughout South Asia there is no remains of an educational institution of Islamic period, whereas in Bengal we have remains of Universities in Paharpur, Mainamati of Buddhist era. Taxila in Pakistan is probably the biggest, almost a University city. Students from as far as China had come to India to study. If we had any organised schools, varsities during the Muslim rule, surely some would have survived. The only institutions we have are those strated by the British, Calcutta Aliya Madrassa, being the first in 1763. What the Muslim kings left behind are palaces, fortresses, dancing halls, mosques and of course, lots of Mausoleums. It appears to me that the Muslim kings were trying to beat the Pharaohs in the magnificence of their resting places. I was sad when I saw the Taj – such a wastage of public money when there was so much squalor all around. We have not learned any lessons from these. Bangladesh and Pakistan continue to spend less than 2% of GDP in education; much of what is spent is again wasted due to corruption and mismanagement. I see no light at the end of the tunnel.

  6. Straight-Talk

    First of all the Mughal rule in India do bring many changes. It brought peace, prosperity and safety from foreign invasion for about 200 years. Even produce from agriculture and industry(in the hand of petty artisans) was doubled between Akbar and Shah Jahan’s period. There was not only petty artisans but there were big royal factories (shahi karkhanas) where best of artisans were employed and the articles thus produced was only used by king, princes and as gift to friendly kings.

    India was the land of riches, there was abundant of water, good fertile land and different seasons, recipe for divergent crops. Here not much hard work was required to get the best of crops every year unlike central Asians and middle eastern who toiled hard on brazen land to make the both end meet.

    Therefore there was neither any compulsion nor any voluntary enterprise on adoption of newer technology in India.

    It would be clear from following instances that when Arabs came with their much faster and quicker cavalry, the Indians kings succumbed to and surrendered themselves, they’ve no answers to their blitzkrieg. But as Turks get used to this climate they also forget about the changes taking place in Central Asia so when Babur came with his artlry, Ibrahim Lodi and Rana Sanga caught unaware and completely annihilated by even small army of Mughals. And now mughals, when the get established, they also forget the art of battleship and technology of weaponry and after Akbar, they could not even hold up the Kandhar and lost to Shah of Iran, which of course have superior army. It was the cleverness of Aurangzeb that he brought back his army unscathed from failed mission to conquer Central Asia, the land of his forefathers. These all factors do point to some inherent weakness of Indian rulers, either they become lazy or aloof to world affairs.

    The notion of modern education inline of Europeans (primary, elementary and higher) was unheard in Mughal period, also as you know necessity is the mother of all the inventions, so neither necessity arose nor they required to fulfill it.

    One thing more even industrialized Europe in 17th centuries traded the Indians with the goods made by poor Indian artisans(and British and Indian traders even brokered) as Indian Silk and Cotton was famous in West till even 18th centuries and it was only when water and steam powered machine of Manchester produced the cloth which was fine and cheap, the poor Indian artisans lost out in the race.

  7. no-communal


    “Here not much hard work was required to get the best of crops every year unlike central Asians and middle eastern who toiled hard on brazen land to make the both end meet.

    Therefore there was neither any compulsion nor any voluntary…”

    “…also as you know necessity is the mother of all the inventions, so neither necessity arose…”

    The present system of numerals, zero, sine function, an approximate value of pi, were they out of necessity or voluntary?

  8. Suvrat

    @Straight Talk
    Please don’t insult the memory of our ancestors by saying that Indians never felt the need to innovate or were always lagging behind in technology/science.

    India was home to largest ancient universities in world. Taxila was the oldest university which attracted students from all over the old world and had illustrious teachers like Chanakya who helped lay the foundation of first pan Indian empire and Charaka who was the master in Ayurveda.

    By 1oth century, India was home to several universities like Nalanda, Vikramshila, Somapura etc. Nalanda was the largest with more than 10,000 students from all over the world.

    Due to this culture of learning India had made several advances in mathematics and medicine.

    However as Dr. Niaz correctly pointed out there was no patronage from Mughals or any other dynasty of centres of higher learning which led to decline in India’s technological edge. Maybe if Nalanda was not destroyed, India could have been first country to experience industrial revolution.

  9. Straight-Talk

    Please first refer to the period in debate. It is not ancient or early medieval period( although from this period onwards, economy and politics turns inward and shows the sign of stagnation) it was medieval period, period of arrival of Muslims rulers in India. Whenever in our history, we lost the connection with rest of world, the period of regression sets in.

    Now why in the ancient time, Chandragupta Maurya (against Greek Seleucus) Chandragupta II Vikramaditya (against Shaka’s) and Skandgupta (against Huns) were successful and why since 8th century we began to loose first against Arabs and then against Turks is matter of great debate and I’m etching to give out a few reasons but leave it for some other time.

    But I still insist that period of Mughals was quite good if we compare the period from 1206 to 1526 AD.

    2nd point, Nalanda or Taxila both university have great position in our ancient history but come 12th century and they had lost their eminent position. The period coincided with the establishment of Muslim rules in India in general and in Delhi particular, the period in discussion by Dr. Niaz Murtaza. So I’m not denigrating our history it is just that I’m not generalizing our total history as only good or only bad.

  10. Suvrat

    @Straight Talk
    Military defeat cannot be equated with sophistication in science and general well being of society. Before Arabs also India was defeated by Huns and Greeks but scientific progress did not stop. Therefore attributing scientific knowledge to mere military prowess is not the right approach.

    Why should Mughal performance be compared to just period between 1206 to 1526 AD and not before it when India was the leading country in science and technology. Ignoring higher learning was a folly of all the rulers whether they were from Rajputana, Marathas, Vijaynagar or Mughals, Bijapur or any other dynasty that ruled India after 12th century. This made India from once leading nation in the world to a third world country that it is today.

    Although I am pleased that they are trying to make some amends. Nalanda University is being resurrected with the collaboration of 16 countries. I hope it is a centre of excellence just like Ancient Nalanda.

  11. Straight-Talk

    Again if you’re taking overall picture then of course Mughals were lacking but the period in discussion was not the total history of India, it was only Muslims and British rule, you may again refer to the the whole article.

    2nd, the concept of a welfare state is modern thinking and stemmed out from the democracy. So was the application of technology in the welfare general public.In the ancient and medieval period there were only totalitarian and autocratic rulers……… the rulers who actually thought for well being of society were very few and their inclination to use the technology for well being of masses was even next to none. Even you can count those generous rulers on your fingers.

    3rd Military always have a greater use of technology available for them. Even it is true for current time too. Otherwise why every technology from this computer to fastest aircraft have come from the US Army’s Research Laboratories. Why India is so desperate to acquire newest and most modern equipment for its military where as in UP and Bihar, its farmers still using long obsolete instruments for agriculture.

    Use of newest technology in warfare was more required in ancient time while its application on other areas were generally unexplored. Why you have used Horse only in battle field and as beast of burden and not in agriculture…….. because the use of even harness was unknown to them, while it was used Europe.

    @ no-communal
    “The present system of numerals, zero, sine function, an approximate value of pi, were they out of necessity or voluntary”

    Dear…….First you find out, when all these were discovered and then find out the period which Dr. Niaz Murtaza talks about. You unnecessary bringing the period which is out of current debate.

  12. no-communal

    “You unnecessary bringing the period which is out of current debate.”

    Your theories – here not much hard work required to get the best of crops, etc. – should apply to any period, won’t they?

  13. shiv kumr

    The Mugals had no time.they were busy in jehad and tyranny,collecting jizya and killing kafirs or converting them.

    This is true of not only India but wherever Muslims gained power.Pls read history.

  14. Suvrat

    Even if we accept your argument, what were kingdoms of Vijaynagar, Rajputana, Mysore doing in the meanwhile, why did they not start a new university?

  15. amar

    The concept of university evolves with time. You can’t establish a university in five or ten years. It needs 200 years to create a university in the real sense of the word. A “university” dedicated to an ideology or religion is not one.