Early Modern Times – a Mu-galling irony

Early Modern Times - a Mu-galling irony

Dear readers,

Welcome to a new academic year! Last month on Aug. 15, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered a speech on the 75th anniversary of Indian Independence and Partition. In keeping with tradition , the speech was given at the Red Fort (Lal Qila) in Delhi (pictured above in an 1817 watercolour), built in 1638 by a Mughal emperor. That Modi, a Hindu ultranationalist, spoke on the anniversary of the bloody and chaotic division of India along religious lines–and at a building erected by a Muslim ruler–is a Mu-galling irony.

Let us review the rise, peak, and decline of the Mughal dynasty in India. The Mughals were of mixed Mongol and Turkish descent. They invaded India in 1526, following centuries of incursions by Muslim invaders. The conqueror, the first Mughal emperor, was Babur. He was contemptuous of Hinduism and Hindu culture, but impressed by the size and wealth of the Indian subcontinent. By the time of his death in 1530, he ruled much of northern India. His long-term ambition was for his Hindu subjects to Ba-bury the hatchet and accept Muslim rule.

He was succeeded by several remarkable emperors, especially Akbar (r. 1555-1605). Although Akbar was militaristic and bloodthirsty, spearing tigers in his spare time, as well as functionally illiterate, his reign was marked by religious tolerance and pluralism. Akbar was Sufi but patronised theological conversations between different Muslim sects, Hindus, Sikhs, Jainas, Jews, Jesuits, and even Indian philosophical materialists. Christian missionaries from Portugal thought that they might be able to convert him, but he was too devoted to his Sufi faith. Nevertheless, such were his tolerationist policies that his Hindu subjects defended him against orthodox Muslims opposed to Akbar and who issued a fatwa against the emperor (in the west, the most well-known fatwa today, of course, is the Ayatollah Khomeini’s decree against the author Salman Rushdie–with potentially fatal consequences, as indicated by his recent stabbing). For Sufi religious pluralists, then, Akbar’s long reign was an I-slam dunk.

Akbar consolidated Mughal rule; his son, Janhangir, was more interested in sponsoring artistic productions in the Mughal empire, especially naturalistic works created by his court painters. His ambitious Persian wife as well as quarrels in the court disrupted Jahangir’s reign, but he maintained control until his death in 1627. He was succeeded by his son Shah Jahan, who defeated his sibling rivals and embarked on aggressive military campaigns and religious persecutions. But Shah Jahan also patronised some of the greatest works of Indian and world architecture, including the Taj Mahal (built in tribute to his beloved wife who died bearing their 13th child) and the Red Fort (part of his ambitious redesign of the imperial capital in Delhi). Despite its many flaws, Shah Jahan’s reign was–architecturally at least–marked by a Taj of greatness.

Upon Shah Jahan’s illness in 1657, there was a succession war between his sons. His third son, Aurangzeb, killed his rivals and imprisoned his father in the Agra Palace. Shah Jahan was buried in the Taj Mahal with his favourite wife. Aurangzeb was religiously intolerant and expanded the Mughal empire. But after his death in 1707, Mughal power was resisted by rivals exploiting the dissatisfaction of Hindu subjects, and in turn challenged by the activities of the British East India Company. In the 18th century, the Red Fort became a symbol of past Mughal glory and its current decline. By the time the British took power, followed in the 20th century by Indian independence, Mughal rule was a mere after-Fort.

For more on the legacy of the Mughals in the early modern period, check out Dr. Parisa Zahiremami‘s exciting new winter course, EMSP 3640: Cross-Cultural Encounters with the Islamic World in Early Modern Art & Literature (and you can watch a video of Dr. Zahiremami describing the course here)!

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Early Modern Mughal-bladder Studies Program

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