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The New Cambridge History of India: The Mughal Empire.

by John E Richards. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1993. xvi, 320 pp. $44.95 U.S.

In twelve chapters of his book, The Mughal Empire, John Richards encapsulates a very complex panorama of the Mughal emperors: their revenue management, their unceasing conquests, their personal idiosyncrasies, their vast building activities, and their eventual downfall. He has succeeded brilliantly. Without wasting much efforts detailing the ineffectual reigns of Babur and Humayun, Richards quickly goes on to analyze Akbar's (1556-1605) centralized administrative and revenue systems, his military achievements, and his role in institutionalizing the Mughal political ideology. As Richards says, the political ideology of the Akbar emphasized absolute loyalty to the emperor (who was viewed as recipient of the light emanating from God), irrespective of the religious affiliation of the persons who served him, as opposed to Islamic ideology based on a principle that "shared political community must also be shared religious belief" propagated by Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughal emperor.

Akbar's legacy was sustained by Jahangir (1606-27). Richards discusses Jahangir's rule stating that Jahangir was not a great general nor was he a great administrator, but his routine presence in the Royal Court enhanced and stabilized the image and the mystic of the Mughal ruler. By being stationary in royal residences most of the time in his career, he brought to fruition Akbar's policies and his political ideology, especially the personal bonds of loyalty between the emperor and his trusted officers, according to Richards. Fortunately, for the students of Mughal history, Richards has spared the description of Jahangir's drunken bouts -- his habitual use of wine and opium -- described to us by Captain Hawkins, and repeated by every modern writer on Jahangir. Quite rightly, the emphasis is on Jahangir's routine of court life and his love for things beautiful as he articulated them in his tuzuk (autobiography), and by creating aesthetically pleasing Mughal gardens. Nur Jahan's crucial role in Jahangir's life as his wife is aptly described. She was the power behind Jahangir's throne. Richards points out a fact, often forgotten, that despite Jahangir's inactive life, he and his generals were able to check the threats and rebellions of his powerful son Shah Jahan (1627-58).

Richards convincingly argues that during Shah Jahan's reign, his building activities (for example, Tajmahal and Shah Jahanabad) did not exhaust his treasury surplus; the amount spent on building activities was a pittance compared to that spent on military. In fact, Richards states that the assessed revenues, the jama, of the empire had doubled in Shah Jahan's time from that of Akbar's, from 4061.1 million dams to 8,800 million dams.

In describing all the major Mughal emperors, Richards explains away the Mughal princes' struggle for dynastic succession -- all the Mughal princes were involved with conflicts, often violent, with their fathers and with their brothers. He says that such internecine struggles for the throne went a long way towards maintaining the unity of the empire. The most able won the throne. The empire was never divided (1556-1707).

Aurangzeb's (1658-1707) championing the cause of Islam and Muslims of India, "theocratic particularism," as Aziz Ahmad (Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment, 1964) calls it, drastically altered the perception and reality of the Mughal rule under him. The emperor used all the means in his power to turn his state into Dar-al-Islam (the land of Islam), and in the process of doing so initiated discriminatory policies against predominantly non-Mustim population; his policy directive may have hurt him politically as it created unsustainable tension among them.

Aurangzeb might have succeeded in conquering and consolidating the whole of India, had he not been the victim of the Maratha insurgency in the south. The emperor's inability to contain the Maratha insurgency led to the downgrading and failure of the Mughal military might. Richards, in describing the Maratha military encounter with Aurangzeb's army, quite appropriately, builds the context of the Marathas' military prowess. He describes the life of Shivaji, the founder of the independent Maratha kingdom, and his successors. Richards emphasizes the defiance of the Maratha captains and generals who challenged Aurangzebk grand Mughal army, and who succeeded in creating. tax collecting parallel government in Maharashtra during Aurangzeb's presence in their country, and thereby sustaining their war efforts against him.

In a very succinct manner Richards gives reasons for the rapid decline of the Mughal empire after Aurangzeb's death in 1707. He summarizes the recent researches on the subject. In this context, the military stalemate with the Marathas experienced by Aurangzeb must be emphasized. Richard correctly observes that the Mughal failure to defeat the Marathas created a cycle of unresolveable political and administrative problems for the Mughals. Richards rejects Irfan Habib's (The Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1963) thesis that the Mughal decline was due to the ruthless appropriation of the peasants' surplus by the Mughal Central state, Zamindars and the Jagirdars. The oppressed peasants, according to Habib, were unable to sustain the heavy tax burden of the empire, and this led to the destabilization of revenue collection by the Jagirdars (the Mughal officers who were assigned revenues of the territory, jagirs for their jobs).

Utilizing the results of the recent researches on the subject, Richards favours the view that because of the stability and affluence brought about by the long Mughal rule (1596-1689), at least in north India, the coalition of interests of landowners and the powerful class of receivers of tax-free land, and some of the governors of the Mughal provinces, resulted in successful challenges to the Mughal rule during Aurangzeb's successors' time. Aurangzeb's long engagement with the Marathas in the south may have exacerbated situations in the north. The north in Aurangzeb's time had started experiencing less centralized Mughal imperial control.

Richards had a rather difficult task to perform in his book; he had to integrate the administrative policies of the Mughals in his narrative, while at the same time analyze the achievements of the Mughal emperors as persons. Perfect balancing of the institutional policies of the Mughals with the description of the personalities of the individual emperor is a strong point of this book. Richards accurately analyses Mughal land and revenue policies and effect of trade on empire, at the same delineating the important role that military expeditions and wars played in the expansion and stabilization of the empire.

The book is so well written that it is difficult to find any major lacunas in author's analysis and description. However, Richards could have been more perceptive in describing Aurangzeb's character as it emerges from his famous letters. Jadunath Sarkar (History of Aurangzib, 5 vols., 1912-24) had succeeded in giving us the profile of Aurangzeb as a tragic hero. An emperor with a mission, but with a lost cause. The analysis of Akbar's Din-i-ilahi has been short circuited. The narration of Akbar's personal religious idiosyncrasies would have made him into a more interesting character to read. Richards describes the institution of khanazads ("sons of the emperor's household," the Mughal aristocratic military and administrative upper echelon cadre), but does not give an in-depth description of their courtly life style. Notwithstanding the portrayal of the empress Nur Jahan, the portraits of other women in Mughal court and their rich cultural contributions to the Mughal empire is missing in the book. Abstracts from indigenous Persian narratives of the times, and the records of the foreign observers visiting Mughal India, would have brightened the picture of cultural high-water mark reached in seventeenth-century Mughal India.

Richards' book is by far the best concise military, dynastic, and administrative history of Mughal India from 1526-1720 this reviewer has read. It will remain a standard text for a long time to come.
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Author:Wagle, N.K.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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