Babur in Kabul: AD 1504-1525

Babur, founder of the Moghul dynasty in India, is one of history's more endearing conquerors. In his youth he is one among many impoverished princes, all descended from Timur, who fight among themselves for possession of some small part of the great man's fragmented empire. Babur even captures Samarkand itself on three separate occasions, each for only a few months. The first time he achieves this he is only fourteen.

What distinguishes Babur from other brawling princes is that he is a keen oberver of life and keeps a diary. In it he vividly describes his triumphs and sorrows, whether riding out with friends at night to attack a walled village or mooning around for unrequited love of a beautiful boy.

Babur's 'throneless times', as he later describes these early years, come to an end in 1504 when he captures Kabul. Here, at the age of twenty-one, he is able to establish a settled court and to enjoy the delights of gardening, art and architecture in the Timurid tradition of his family.

With a powerful new Persian dynasty to the west (under Ismail I) and an aggressive Uzbek presence to the north (under Shaibani Khan), Babur's Kabul becomes the main surviving centre of the Timurid tradition. But these same pressures mean that his only chance of expanding is eastwards - into India.

Babur feels that he has an inherited claim upon northern India, deriving from Timur's Capture of delhi in 1398, and he makes several profitable raids through the mountain passes into the Punjab. But his first serious expedition is launched in October 1525.

Some forty years later (but not sooner than that) it is evident that Babur's descendants are a new and established dynasty in northern India. Babur thinks of himself as a Turk, but he is descended from Genghis khan as well as from Timur. The Persians refer to his dynasty as mughal, meaning Mongol. And it is as the Moghul emperors of India that they become known to history.

Babur in India: AD 1526-1530

By the early 16th century the Muslim sultans of Delhi (an Afghan dynasty known as Lodi) are much weakened by threats from rebel Muslim principalities and from a Hindu coalition of Rajput rulers. When Babur leads an army through the mountain passes, from his stronghold at Kabul, he at first meets little opposition in the plains of north India.

The decisive battle against Ibrahim, the Lodi sultan, comes on the plain of Panipat in April 1526. Babur is heavily outnumbered (with perhaps 25,000 troops in the field against 100,000 men and 1000 elephants), but his tactics win the day.

Babur digs into a prepared position, copied (he says) from the Turks - from whom the use of Guns has spread to the Persians and now to Babur. As yet the Indians of Delhi have no artillery or muskets. Babur has only a few, but he uses them to great advantage. He collects 700 carts to form a barricade (a device pioneered by the Hussites of Bohemia a century earlier).

Sheltered behind the carts, Babur's gunners can go through the laborious business of firing their Matchlocks - but only at an enemy charging their position. It takes Babur some days to tempt the Indians into doing this. When they do so, they succumb to slow gunfire from the front and to a hail of arrows from Babur's cavalry charging on each flank.

Victory at Panipat brings Babur the cities of Delhi and Agra, with much booty in treasure and jewels. But he faces a stronger challenge from the confederation of Rajputs who had themselves been on the verge of attacking Ibrahim Lodi.

The armies meet at Khanua in March 1527 and again, using similar tactics, Babur wins. For the next three years Babur roams around with his army, extending his territory to cover most of north India - and all the while recording in his diary his fascination with this exotic world which he has conquered.

Humayun: AD 1530-1556

Babur's control is still superficial when he dies in 1530, after just three years in India. His son Humayun keeps a tentative hold on the family's new possessions. But in 1543 he is driven west into Afghanistan by a forceful Muslim rebel, Sher Shah.

Twelve years later, renewed civil war within India gives Humayun a chance to slip back almost unopposed. One victory, at Sirhind in 1555, is enough to recover him his throne. But six months later Humayun is killed in an accidental fall down a stone staircase. His 13-year-old son Akbar, inheriting in 1556, would seem to have little chance of holding on to India. Yet it is he who establishes the mighty Moghul empire.

Akbar: AD 1556-1605

In the early years of Akbar's reign, his fragile inheritance is skilfully held together by an able chief minister, Bairam Khan. But from 1561 the 19-year-old emperor is very much his own man. An early act demonstrates that he intends to rule the two religious communities of India, Muslim and Hindu, in a new way - by consensus and cooperation, rather than alienation of the Hindu majority.

In 1562 he marries a Rajput princess, daughter of the Raja of Amber (now Jaipur). She becomes one of his senior wives and the mother of his heir, Jahangir. Her male relations in Amber join Akbar's council and merge their armies with his.

This policy is very far from conventional Muslim hostility to Worshippers of idols. And Akbar carries it further, down to a level affecting every Hindu. In 1563 he abolishes a tax levied on pilgrims to Hindu shrines. In 1564 he puts an end to a much more hallowed source of revenue - the jizya, or annual tax on unbelievers which the Qur'an stipulates shall be levied in return for Muslim protection.

At the same time Akbar steadily extends the boundaries of the territory which he has inherited.

Akbar's normal way of life is to move around with a large army, holding court in a splendid camp laid out like a capital city but composed entirely of tents. His biographer, Abul Fazl, describes this royal progress as being 'for political reasons, and for subduing oppressors, under the veil of indulging in hunting'.

A great deal of hunting does occur (a favourite version uses trained cheetahs to pursue deer) while the underlying political purpose - of warfare, treaties, marriages - is carried on.

Warfare brings its own booty. Signing a treaty with Akbar, or presenting a wife to his harem (his collection eventually numbers about 300 - see Harems), involves a contribution to the exchequer. As his realm increases, so does his revenue. And Akbar proves himself an inspired adminstrator.

The empire's growing number of provinces are governed by officials appointed only for a limited term, thus avoiding the emergence of regional warlords. And steps are taken to ensure that the tax on peasants varies with local circumstances, instead of a fixed proportion of their produce being automatically levied.

At the end of Akbar's reign of nearly half a century, his empire is larger than any in India since the time of Asoka. Its outer limits are Kandahar in the west, Kashmir in the north, Bengal in the east and in the south a line across the subcontinent at the level of Aurangabad. Yet this ruler who achieves so much is illiterate. An idle schoolboy, Akbar finds in later life no need for reading. He prefers to listen to the arguments before taking his decisions (perhaps a factor in his skill as a leader).

Akbar is original, quirky, wilful. His complex character is vividly suggested in the strange palace which he builds, and almost immediately abandons, at Fatehpur sikri.

Fatehpur Sikri: AD 1571-1585

In 1571 Akbar decides to build a new palace and town at Sikri, close to the shrine of a Sufi saint who has impressed him by foretelling the birth of three sons. When two boys have duly appeared, Akbar's masons start work on what is to be called Fatehpur ('Victory') Sikri. A third boy is born in 1572.

Akbar's palace, typically, is unlike anyone else's. It resembles a small town, made up of courtyards and exotic free-standing buildings. They are built in a linear Hindu style, instead of the gentler curves of Islam. Beams and lintels and even floorboards are cut from red sandstone and are elaborately carved, much as if the material were oak rather than stone.

The palace and mosque occupy the hill top, while a sprawling town develops below. The site is only used for some fourteen years, partly because Akbar has overlooked problems of water supply. Yet this is where his many and varied interests are given practical expression.

Here Akbar employs translators to turn Hindu classics into Persian, scribes to produce a library of exquisite manuscripts, artists to illustrate them (the illiterate emperor loves to be read to and takes a keen interest in painting). Here there is a department of history under Abul Fazl; an order is sent out that anyone with personal knowledge of Babur and Humayun is to be interviewed so that valuable information is not lost.

The building most characteristic of Akbar in Fatehpur Sikri is his famous diwan-i-khas, or hall of private audience. It consists of a single very high room, furnished only with a central pillar. The top of the pillar, on which Akbar sits, is joined by four narrow bridges to a balcony running round the wall. On the balcony are those having an audience with the emperor.

If required, someone can cross one of the bridges - in a respectfully crouched position - to join Akbar in the centre. Meanwhile, on the floor below, courtiers not involved in the discussion can listen unseen.

In the diwan-i-khas Akbar deals mainly with affairs of state. To satisfy another personal interest, in comparative religion, he builds a special ibabat-khana ('house of worship'). Here he listens to arguments between Muslims, Hindus, Jains, Zorastrians, Jews and Christians. The ferocity with which they all attack each other prompts him to devise a generalized religion of his own (in which a certain aura of divinity rubs off on himself).

The Christians involved in these debates are three Jesuits who arrive from Goa in 1580. As the first Europeans at the Moghul court, they are a portent for the future.

Jahangir: AD 1605-1627

Akbar is succeeded in 1605 by his eldest and only surviving son, Jahangir. Two other sons have died of drink, and Jahangir's effectiveness as a ruler is limited by his own addiction to both alcohol and opium. But the empire is now stable enough for him to preside over it for twenty-two years without much danger of upheaval.

Instead he is able to indulge his curiosity about the natural world (which he records in a diary as vivid as that of his great-grandfather Babur) and his love of painting. Under his keen eye the imperial studio brings the Moghul miniature to a peak of perfection, maintained also during the reign of his son Shah Jahan.

Moghul miniatures: 16th - 17th century AD

When Humayun wins his way back into India, in 1555, he brings with him two Persian artists from the school of Bihzad. Humayun and the young Akbar take lessons in drawing. Professional Indian artists learn too from these Persian masters.

From this blend of traditions there emerges the very distinctive Moghul school of painting. Full-bodied and realistic compared to the more fanciful and decorative Persian school, it develops in the workshops which Akbar establishes in the 1570s at Fatehpur sikri.

Akbar puts his artists to work illustrating the manuscripts written out by scribes for his library. New work is brought to the emperor at the end of each week. He makes his criticisms, and distributes rewards to those who meet with his approval.

Detailed scenes are what Akbar likes, showing court celebrations, gardens being laid out, cheetahs released for the hunt, forts being stormed and endless battles. The resulting images are a treasure trove of historical detail. But as paintings they are slightly busy.

Akbar's son Jahangir takes a special interest in painting, and his requirements differ from his father's. He is more likely to want an accurate depiction of a bird which has caught his interest, or a political portrait showing himself with a rival potentate. In either case the image requires clarity and conviction as well as finely detailed realism.

The artists rise superbly to this challenge. In Jahangir's reign, and that of his son Shah jahan, the Moghul imperial studio produces work of exceptional beauty. In Shah jahan's time even the crowded narrative scenes, so popular with Akbar, are peopled by finely observed and convincing characters.

Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb: AD 1627-1707

During the reigns of Shah Jahan and his son Aurangzeb, the policy of religious toleration introduced by Akbar is gradually abandoned. It has been largely followed by Shah Jahan's father, Jahangir - though at the very start of his reign he provides the Sikhs with their first martyr when the guru Arjan is arrested, in 1606, and dies under torture.

In 1632 Shah Jahan signals an abrupt return to a stricter interpretation of Islam when he orders that all recently built Hindu temples shall be destroyed. A Muslim tradition states that unbelievers may keep the shrines which they have when Islam arrives, but not add to their number.

Direct provocation of this kind is untypical of Shah Jahan, but it becomes standard policy during the reign of his son Aurangzeb. His determination to impose strict Islamic rule on India undoes much of what was achieved by Akbar. An attack on Rajput territories in 1679 makes enemies of the Hindu princes; the reimposition of the jizya in the same year ensures resentment among Hindu merchants and peasants.

At the same time Aurangzeb is obsessed with extending Moghul rule into the difficult terrain of southern India. He leaves the empire larger but weaker than he finds it. In his eighties he is still engaged in permanent and futile warfare to hold what he has seized.

In the decades after the death of Aurangzeb, in 1707, the Moghul empire fragments into numerous semi-independent territories - seized by local officials or landowners whose descendants become the rajas and nawabs of more recent times. Moghul emperors continue to rule in name for another century and more, but their prestige is hollow.

Real power has declined gradually and imperceptibly throughout the 17th century, ever since the expansive days of Akbar's empire. Yet it is in the 17th century that news of the wealth, splendour, architectural brilliance and dynastic violence of the Moghul dynasty first impresses the rest of the world.

Europeans become a significant presence in India for the first time during the 17th century. They take home descriptions of the ruler's fabulous wealth, causing him to become known as the Great Moghul. They have a touching tale to tell of Shah Jahan's love for his wife and of the extraordinary building, the Taj mahal, which he provides for her tomb.

And as Shah Jahan's reign merges into Aurangzeb's, they can astonish their hearers with an oriental melodrama of a kind more often associated with Turkey, telling of how Aurangzeb kills two of his brothers and imprisons his ageing father, Shah Jahan, in the Red Fort at Agra - with the Taj mahal in his view across the Jumna, from the marble pavilions of his castle prison.

Moghul domes: AD 1564-1674

The Paintings commissioned by the Moghul emperors are superb, but it is their architecture which has most astonished the world - and in particular the white marble domes characteristic of the reign of Shah Jahan.

There is a long tradition of large Muslim domes in central Asia, going as far back as a tomb in Bukhara in the 10th century. But the Moghuls develop a style which is very much their own - allowing the dome to rise from the building in a swelling curve which somehow implies lightness, especially when the material of the dome is white marble.

The first dome of this kind surmounts the tomb of Humayun in Delhi, built between 1564 and 1573. The style is then overlooked for a while - no doubt because of Akbar's preference for Hindu architecture, as in Fatehpur sikri - until Shah Jahan, the greatest builder of the dynasty, develops it in the 17th century with vigour and sophistication.

His first attempt in this line is also his masterpiece - a building which has become the most famous in the world, for its beauty and for the romantic story behind its creation.

Throughout his early career, much of it spent in rebellion against his father, Shah jahan's greatest support has been his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. But four years after he succeeds to the throne this much loved companion dies, in 1631, giving birth to their fourteenth child. The Taj Mahal, her tomb in Agra, is the expression of Shah jahan's grief. Such romantic gestures are rare among monarchs (the Eleanor crosses come to mind as another), and certainly none has ever achieved its commemorative purpose so brilliantly.

There is no known architect for the Taj. It seems probable that Shah jahan himself takes a leading role in directing his masons - particularly since his numerous other buildings evolve within a related style.

The Taj Mahal is built between 1632 and 1643. In 1644 the emperor commissions the vast Friday Mosque for his new city in Delhi. In 1646 he begins the more intimate Pearl Mosque in the Red Fort in Agra. Meanwhile he is building a new Red Fort in Delhi, with white marble pavilions for his own lodgings above massive red sandstone walls. At Fatehpur sikri he provides a new shrine for the Sufi saint to whom his grandfather, Akbar, was so devoted.

All these buildings contain variations on the theme of white and subtly curving domes, though none can rival Shah jahan's first great example in the Taj.

Aurangzeb, Shah jahan's son, does not inherit his father's passionate interest in architecture. But he commissions two admirable buildings in the same tradition. One is the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, begun in 1673; even larger than his father's Friday mosque in Delhi, it rivals it in the beauty of its domes. The other, begun in 1662, goes to the other extreme; the tiny Pearl Mosque in the Red Fort in Delhi, begun in 1662 for Aurangzeb's private worship, is a small miracle of white marble.

It is these marble highlights which catch the eye. But the Red Forts containing the two Pearl Mosques are themselves extraordinary examples of 17th century Castles.

The Moghuls after Aurangzeb: 18th century AD

When the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb is in his eighties, and the empire in disarray, an Italian living in India (Niccolao Manucci) predicts appalling bloodshed on the old man's death, worse even than that which disfigured the start of Aurangzeb's reign. The Italian is right. In the war of succession which begins in 1707, two of Aurangzeb's sons and three of his grandsons are killed.

Violence and disruption is the pattern of the future. The first six Moghul emperors have ruled for a span of nearly 200 years. In the 58 years after Aurangzeb's death, there are eight emperors - four of whom are murdered and one deposed.

This degree of chaos has a disastrous effect on the empire built up by Akbar. The stability of Moghul India depends on the loyalty of those ruling its many regions. Some are administered on the emperor's behalf by governors, who are members of the military hierarchy. Others are ruled by princely families, who through treaty or marriage have become allies of the emperor.

In the 18th century rulers of each kind continue to profess loyalty to the Moghul emperor in Delhi, but in practice they behave with increasing independence. The empire fragments into the many small principalities whose existence will greatly help the British in india to gain control, by playing rival neighbours off against each other.

In the short term, though, there is a more immediate danger. During the 1730s a conqueror in the classic mould of Genghis khan or Timur emerges in Persia. He seizes the Persian throne in 1736, taking the title Nadir shah.

Later that year he captures the stronghold of Kandahar. The next major fortress on the route east, that of Kabul, is still in Moghul hands - a treasured possession since the time of Babur. Nadir shah takes it in 1738, giving him control of the territory up to the Khyber Pass. Beyond the Khyber lies the fabulous wealth of India. Like Genghis khan in 1221, and Timur in 1398, Nadir shah moves on.

In December 1738 Nadir shah crosses the Indus at Attock. Two months later he defeats the army of the Moghul emperor, Mohammed Shah. In March he enters Delhi. The conqueror has iron control over his troops and at first the city is calm. It is broken when an argument between citizens and some Persian soldiers escalates into a riot in which 900 Persians are killed. Even now Nadir shah forbids reprisals until he has inspected the scene. But when he rides through the city, stones are thrown at him. Someone fires a musket which kills an officer close to the shah.

In reprisal he orders a massacre. The killing lasts for a day. The number of the dead is more than 30,000.

Amazingly, when the Moghul emperor begs for mercy for his people, the Persian conqueror is able to grant it. The killing stops, for the collection of Delhi's valuables to begin.

Untold wealth travels west with the Persians. The booty includes the two most spectacular possessions of the Moghul emperors - the Peacock Throne, commissioned by Shah Jahan, and the Koh-i-Nur diamond. Nadir shah is able to send a decree home from Delhi remitting all taxes in Persia for three years. In addition to the jewels and the gold, he takes with him 1000 elephants, 100 masons and 200 carpenters. The parallel with the visit of Timur, 341 years previously, is almost exact.

Europeans in the fragmenting empire: AD 1746-1760

The raid by Nadir Shah is the greatest single disaster to have struck the Moghul empire, but a more serious long-term threat soon becomes evident. In 1746 open warfare breaks out between European nations on Indian soil, when a French force seizes Madras from the British.

In the south, where Aurangzeb spent his Last years trying to impose imperial control, French and British armies now march against each other in shifting alliances with local potentates. India begins a new role as a place of importance to the European powers, and in particular to Britain. The development does not bode well for the Moghul emperors in Delhi.

Both the French and the English East India Companies, to advance their commercial interests, offer military support in dynastic struggles within powerful Indian states. Helping a candidate to the throne opens a new region of influence, a new market.

The death in 1748 of the Moghul viceroy in Hyderabad is followed by French and English assistance for rival sons of the dead ruler. Soon the two European nations are also fighting on opposite sides in a war of succession in the Carnatic (the coastal strip north and south of Madras).

The French candidate succeeds in Hyderabad, and the English favourite prevails in the Carnatic. But the most striking event in either campaign is a dramatic intervention by Robert Clive in 1751. With 200 British and 300 Indian soldiers he seizes Arcot (the capital of the Carnatic) and holds it through a seven-week siege.

His action, and his subsequent defeat of a French and Indian force in battle, wins the throne for his candidate. It also has the effect of diminishing the prestige in Indian eyes of the French army. Until now the French have had the better of the British in India (most notably in their capture of Madras in 1746).

France and Britain remain rivals in southern India for the rest of the century. It is in the north that the balance changes significantly in Britain's favour, after a disaster of 1756. In that year the nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daula, overwhelms the British settlement in Calcutta and locks some of his captives overnight in a room of the fort. The details of precisely what happened that night are obscure, but the event becomes known to the British as the Black Hole of Calcutta.

To recover Calcutta, Clive sails north from Madras in October 1756. The fort is back in British hands by January 1757. But Clive now decides to intervene further in the politics of Bengal.

He aims to place a more compliant nawab, Mir Jafar, on the throne of Bengal, and he achieves his purpose after defeating Siraj-ud-Daula at Plassey in June 1757. For the next three years Clive virtually rules the rich province of Bengal, using Mir Jafar as his political puppet. In doing so he establishes the pattern by which British control will gradually spread through India, in a patchwork of separate alliances with local rulers.

In 1760 Clive returns to England, the possessor of vast and rapidly acquired wealth. Here too he sets a pattern, this time an unmistakably bad one. He is the first of the 'nabobs', whose fortunes derive from jobbery and bribes while administering Indian affairs.