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Mughal Decline - 1707-1857

The successors of Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707) were puppets in the hands of the too powerful soldiers or statesmen who raised them to the throne, controlled them while on it, and killed them when it suited their purposes to do so. The subsequent history of the empire is a mere record of ruin. In the century- and one-half that followed, effective control by Aurangzeb's successors weakened. Contenders for the Mughal throne fought each other, and the short-lived reigns of Aurangzeb's successors were strife-filled. The Mughal Empire experienced dramatic reverses as regional governors broke away and founded independent kingdoms.

The Mughals had to make peace with Maratha rebels, and Persian and Afghan armies invaded Delhi, carrying away many treasures, including the Peacock Throne in 1739. For a time Mughal emperors still ruled India from Delhi. But of the six immediate successors of Aurangzeb, two were under the control of an unscrupulous general, Zul-fikar Khan, while the four others were the creatures of a couple of Sayyid adventurers, who well earned their title of the 'king-makers.' Succession to imperial and even provincial power, which had often become hereditary, was subject to intrigue and force. The mansabdari system gave way to the zamindari system, in which high-ranking officials took on the appearance of hereditary landed aristocracy with powers of collecting rents. As Delhi's control waned, other contenders for power emerged and clashed, thus preparing the way for the eventual British takeover.

From the year 1720 the breaking up of the empire took a more open form. The Nizam-ul-Mulk, or Governor of the Deccan, severed the largest part of Southern India from the Delhi rule (1720-1748). The Governor of Oudh, originally a Persian merchant, who had risen to the post of wazir, or prime minister of the empire, practically established his own dynasty as the Nawab Wazfr of Oudh which had been committed to his care (1732-1743). Amidst the general disintegration of the Moghal empire, and the rise of new political powers in all parts of India, the leading part was taken by the Mahrattas, and the leading story of the eighteenth century in India is the story of Mahratta supremacy. The Marathas having enforced their claim to black-mail (chauth) throughout Southern India, burst through the Vindhyas into the north, and obtained from the Delhi emperors the cession of Mahvd (1743) and Orissa (1751), with an imperial grant of tribute from Bengal.

The Mughals sought not only to block the historical western invasion routes into India but also to control the fiercely independent tribes who accepted only nominal control from Delhi in their mountain strongholds between the Kabul-Qandahar axis and the Indus River -- especially in the Pashtun area of the Suleiman mountain range. As the area around Qandahar changed hands back and forth between the two great empires on either side, the local Pashtun tribes exploited the situation to their advantage by extracting concessions from both sides. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the Mughals had abandoned the Hindu Kush north of Kabul to the Uzbeks, and in 1748 they lost Qandahar to the Safavids for the third and final time.

The Hindu subjects of the empire were at the same time asserting their independence. Akbar had rendered a great Empire possible in India by conciliating the native Hindu races. He thus raised up a powerful third party, consisting of the native military peoples of India, which enabled him alike to prevent new Muhammadan invasions from Central Asia, and to keep in subjection his own Muhammadan Governors of Provinces. Under Aurangzeb and his miserable successors this wise policy of conciliation was given up. Accordingly, new Muhammadan hordes soon swept down from Afghanistan; the Muhammadan Governors of Indian Provinces set up as independent potentates: and the warlike Hindu races, who had helped Akbar to create the Mughal Empire, became, under his foolish posterity, the chief agents of its ruin.

The Sikh sect in the Punjab was driven by the oppression of the Delhi Emperors into revolt, and was mercilessly crushed (1710-1716). The indelible memory of the cruelties then inflicted by the Mughal troops nerved the Sikh nation with that hatred to Delhi which served the British cause so well in 1857. Their leader, Banda, was carried about in an iron cage, tricked out in the mockery of imperial robes, with scarlet turban and cloth of gold. His son's heart was torn out before his eyes, and thrown in his face. He himself was then pulled to pieces with red-hot pincers; and the Sikhs were exterminated like mad dogs (1716). The Hindu princes of Rajputana were more fortunate. Ajit Singh of Jodhpur asserted his independence, and Rajputana practically severed its connection with the Mughal Empire in 1715.

While the Muhammadan governors and Hindu subjects of the empire were thus becoming independent of the Delhi emperors, two new sets of external enemies appeared ; one set from Central Asia, the other set from the sea. In 1739, Nadir Shdh, the Persian monarch, swooped down on India, with his destroying host, and, after a massacre in the streets of Delhi and a fiftyeight days' sack, returned through the north-western passes with a booty estimated at 32 millions sterling. The destroying host of the Persian king was succeeded by a series of invasions from Afghanistan. Six times the Afghans burst through the passes under Ahmad Shah Duranf, pillaging, slaughtering, and then scornfully retiring to their homes with the plunder of the Mughal empire.

In 1738, Kabul, the last Afghan Province of the Mughals, was severed from Delhi; and, in 1752, Ahmad Shah obtained the cession of the Punjab from the miserable emperor. The cruelties inflicted upon Delhi and Northern India during these six Afghan invasions form an appalling tale of bloodshed and wanton cruelty. The wretched capital opened her gates, and was fain to receive the Afghans as guests. Yet on one occasion it suffered for six weeks every enormity which a barbarian army can inflict upon a prostrate foe. Meanwhile the Afghan cavalry were scouring the country, slaying, burning, and mutilating, in the meanest hamlet as in the greatest town. They took especial delight in sacking the holy places of the Hindus, and murdering the defenceless votaries at the shrines.

The other set of invaders came from over the sea. In the wars between the French and English in Southern India, the last vestiges of the Delhi authority in the Karndtik disappeared (1748-61). Bengal, Behar, and Orissa were handed over to the English by an imperial grant in 1765. The British obtained these three fertile Provinces as the nominee of the emperor; but the battle of Pam'pat had already reduced the throne of Delhi to a shadow. That battle was fought in 1761, between the Afghan invader Ahmad Shah and the Maratha powers, on the memorable plain of Panipat on which Babar and Akbar had twice won the sovereignty of India. The Afghans defeated the Marathas; but although the Muhammadans could still win victories, they could no longer rule India. During the anarchy which followed, the British patiently built up a new power out of the wreck of the Mughal Empire.

Puppet emperors continued to reign at Delhi over a numerous seraglio, under such lofty titles as Akbar II. or Alamglr II. But their power was confined to the palace, while Marathas, Sikhs, and Englishmen were fighting for the sovereignty of India. The last of these pensioned Mughal kings of Delhi emerged for a moment as a rebel during the Mutiny of 1857, and died a State prisoner in Rangoon, the capital of British Burma, in 1862.

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Page last modified: 09-02-2017 19:32:57 ZULU