Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Imperial Identity in the Mughal Empire

Book Cover

Book Title

Imperial Identity in the Mughal Empire: Memory and Dynastic Politics in Early Modern South and Central Asia. New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2012


Balabanlilar, Lisa


Lisa Balabanlilar’s study of the Mughal empire is an effort to redress the traditional neglect of the Central Asian legacy in its foundation and subsequent rule. That the Mughals perceived themselves not as a new dynasty but as a continuation of the Timurids, perpetuating many of the Turco-Mongol and Perso-Islamic political, cultural and religious features that characterised other Muslim empires of the early modern era, is a fact recognised by many scholars but seldom accredited or carried over into common knowledge.

Balabanlilar argues that the Timurid-Mughal exiles in Afghanistan and India fashioned, through manipulation of common cultural practices and a shared imagined history, the markers of a distinct identity based on this Central Asian inheritance that would shape their system of rule and provide them with the unity, continuity and legitimacy upon which their dynastic success rested. This edifice of imperial power, constructed from local Indian and universal Turco-Mongol and Persianate traditions, would outlast the real ability of Mughal emperors to sustain it by effective administration or military power.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book’s main focus lies in the period in Mughal history from the time of its founder, Babur (1483-1530), through that of Aurangzeb (1618-1707), at its greatest extent. After a short prologue recounting the history of the Chinggisid conquests, the rise of Timur, and the development by his successors of a distinct Turco-Mongol cultural personality and charismatic genealogy, Balabanlilar follows the Timurid-Mughals through the flight from their ancestral homeland in Transoxiana (Mawarannahr) ahead of Uzbek invasion to the eventual transplantation of the dynasty in Afghanistan and India by Babur. Mughal imperial identity would coalesce around this narrative of traumatic displacement and exile, creating in subsequent generations the nostalgia, even after its recovery proved militarily impossible, for a lost Central Asian world which they sought to preserve and recreate, through the valorisation of ancestral virtues and values, the sacralisation of genealogy, and artistic and literary reproduction, in their South Asian territories.

The rest of the chapters are arranged in thematic rather than chronological sequence, each exploring a specific attribute of the Central Asian political and cultural tradition and its influence on the South Asian empire of Babur’s descendants. In these, the author systematically engages such topics as architecture, memory, linguistics and gender, tying them together to demonstrate the numerous linkages between the Mughals and Timurids in the former’s construction and conceptualisation of its collective identity in the new territorial circumstances in which it found itself.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Restoring the primacy of the dynasty’s Timurid origins is undoubtedly the most important contribution of Balabanlilar’s work to the study of Mughal history. While the fact itself is not contested, much of the prior historiography has overlooked, disregarded or sought to downplay the debt to their Central Asian roots, painting them as a singularly Indian phenomenon within the longer historical experience of Islam on the subcontinent beginning from the 8th Century. In a similar vein, scholarship of the Middle East and Central Asia tends to marginalise the Mughals, situating them purely on the periphery of the early modern Islamic world. Relying upon a close reading of Chagatai Turkish and Persian sources (the colloquial and court languages of the Mughals respectively), Balabanlilar endeavours to show that they were not only the principal inheritors of the powerful Turco-Persian legacy of Timur but its foremost exponents in the two centuries after the fall of Samarqand. 

Comparisons by the author between the Mughals and their contemporaries are useful in illustrating this point as well as illuminating the differences and commonalities in the historical experience of early modern Islamic empire. Admiration for the Timurid legacy was mutual among the Muslim successor states: the Ottomans and Safavids were also claimants to the Turco-Mongol political legacy and Perso-Islamic culture– expressed through art, literature, Sufism, and monumental architecture– from which Timurid rulers derived their charismatic and moral authority. Only the Mughals, however, could claim direct descent through Babur to the line of Tamerlane and Genghis; consequently they would come to rely more upon the power and legitimacy this association conferred and style their dynastic practice more closely on their Timurid antecedents. Certain Turco-Mongol political traditions– one example cited prominently is the importance of maternal genealogy in establishing royal pedigree– remained of vital importance, both psychological and practical, to the Mughal dynasty and state long after its Ottoman counterpart had discarded them, although a few others, like tanistry and princely appanage, would continue to see use in both empires.

By crafting aesthetic, charismatic and genealogical narratives that tied them not just to the ancestral homeland in Central Asia but the new conquest territories of the subcontinent, the Mughals were not only able to impress their Timurid lineage upon subject peoples and rivals but also amongst themselves, ensuring that intra-dynastic conflict between pretenders over imperial succession– by far the greatest challenge posed to Mughal rule–  would not threaten the overall sovereignty of the ruling family. Similar evocations of Timurid heritage were expressed in the features of Mughal peripatetic court practice, such as the hunt, the travelling imperial camp, and the building of pleasure gardens in the Persian-Timurid tradition, intended both as political theatre as well as an official effort at re-enacting a memorialised, semi-nomadic past. In short, while they maintained a collective identity that was responsive, elastic and flexible, the Mughals ultimately remained, consciously and deliberately, the Timurid kings of India. Loyalty to this imagined past was both the basis of their political legitimacy and the defining trait of their self-image, possibly to the detriment of their ability to accept indigenous custom or derive new understandings from it – an observation on which the author concludes.

The same might conceivably be said of her work as a whole: if it has perhaps one shortcoming, it is that there was not as rigorous or insightful an engagement of Mughal assimilation and adaptation towards their Indian environment as the skilful and impressive study of their Central Asian origins presented. Also potentially helpful would have been an extension of the book’s timeframe to include the Mughals in their period of decline: showing how, in the face of emerging regional rivals and foreign encroachment, their self-declared identity as successors of Timur evolved with or influenced this development.

The questions such an addendum would address are pertinent to our understanding of early modern empire in Asia, concerning not just the Mughals but other conquest dynasties with nomadic origins like the Qing and Ottoman. How did these empires structure or redefine themselves to be able to assert their rule, whether by coercion or compliance, over the subject populations of larger, relatively more sophisticated civilisations, both outnumbering and culturally alien to them in most respects? And how did the conquerors balance the preservation of their distinct cultural identity against the practical considerations of government? Prof. Balabanlilar’s study is a thorough and convincing investigation into the Mughals’ experience without resolving the latter quandary.

Annotated by Daniel Lee