Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Mughal Empire

Book Cover

Book Title

The New Cambridge History of India: The Mughal Empire. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993


Richards, John F.


The nature of the Mughal empire and the legacies it left behind are central in this book. Besides connecting the nature of Mughal empire directly as the end-result of the larger Indian historical experience, he also remarked on the role of Muslim generals who built new states commanded by Turkish, Persian, Afghan and other foreign Muslim elites, thus exploring the differences that have occurred depending on who was ruling the states in the Mughal empire at that period.

Overland, coastal and deep-water trade routes linked local economies with the wider world. Indian trading communities in Gujarat, North India, and the South could scarcely be equaled for the sophistication of their skills and resources. However, in the early decades of the sixteenth century, the compressed social energy of Western Europe began to have an impact upon the Indian subcontinent, enhanced with Iberian expansion which contributed to this phenomenon when new maritime connections with western Europe became the conduit for direct, unmediated transfers to India.

Finally, the decline of the Mughal empire was not only attributed to the failure of the Mughal system involved, but in the failure to renegotiate relationships with the tributary states and other players that play a role in the governing of the different areas within the Mughal empire. In this way, the Mughal empire was unable to survive when they encountered strong resistance mounted by formidable rulers and peoples who were not assimilated into the Indo-Muslim political system.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The starting year for this volume is 1526, the date of Babur's victory at Panipat, while the ending point is 1720, the date of Muhammad Shah's accession in Delhi. Richards attempts to cover the entire span of the Mughal empire in terms of its rise and decline, as well as include the rule of three other rulers: Jahangir (1605-1658), Shah Jahan (1628-1658) and Aurangzeb's imperial expansion (1658-1689). In this way, besides explaining the causes for rise and decline, the interaction of the nature of empire i.e. its ruling structures and socio-economic structure are examined in the context of international economic changes, particularly with international trade and interaction with other empires.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Richards starts by tracing the larger public events, primarily political and military, that shaped imperial history. He argues that war was the principal business of the Mughal emperors, such that to understand the nature of the Mughal empire one should have some knowledge of its dynamic growth in territory and resources in the course of war. Besides arguing that Mughal courtly culture had retained its appeal long after the empire itself has declined into a shell, Richards makes a valiant attempt in identifying the major causes for the decline of the Mughal empire. His definition of empire is of an intrusive, centralizing system which had unified the subcontinent. Thus, the Mughal empire is a point on the trajectory of Indian history in that it was seen to have emerged from the Indian historical experience; the end-product of a millennium of Muslim conquest, colonization and state-building in the Indian subcontinent.

Indo-Muslim rulers appealed regularly to Muslim militancy in the jihad or holy war against the idolatrous Hindus of the subcontinent and thus emphasized on the implicit contract between ruler and religious leaders as an important aspect of Islamic conquest and expansion.

Mughal imperial expansion is argued to have stopped in the south. Reasons cited was that Mughal diplomatic pressures weakened centralized control of the Deccan states so much so that Mughal generals found it difficult to conquer and rule regions win which political power was fragmented. Imperial policies also failed to fully adapt to the differing cultures and social structures of the dominant Maratha, Telugu, Kannada and Tamil landed aristocracies. Thus, it is in the south after 1689 that Mughal expansion faltered and ended.

Intermittent internal warfare between kingdoms and chiefdoms not subject to direct administration by Mughal governors, the intrinsic shortcomings of the Mughal revenue system which failed to transform armed, parochial warrior-aristocrats into quasi-officials and in engaging the zamindars in a broadly shared imperial culture are some of the arguments put forth in order to explain the decline of the Mughal empire. Another important factor was the dilemma of Indian-Muslim rulers, who could neither restrict the higher levels of political and military service to Muslims nor open recruitment to all persons of talent and substance for fear of offending either.

Finally, Richards proposed that the structural break-up of empire in the early eighteenth-century did not necessarily force the complete dissolution of the inter-regional imperial economy, since there remained a strong incentive for economic growth for the successor provinces to the former Mughal empire, whose centralized structure broke apart between 1707-1720 with the four wracking, bitter wars of succession after Aurangzeb's death.

Annotated by Michelle Djong