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  • Writer's pictureEd & Phil

S04 S02 Mughal Empire Part 1 transcript

Today, we're covering one of the great Indian empires of all time, and the second largest empire in Indian history.

Founded by the descendants of the Mongol empire (the largest contiguous land empire of all time) and arguably finally destroyed by the largest global empire of all time, the British Empire.

It’s the empire that, at its best, really knew how to do religious toleration, a flourishing arts scene and having loads of money without being naff…

It's the mighty Mughal Empire.


What was the Mughal Empire?

The Mughal Empire was like a federation of Indian states ruled by nawabs (or governors) with a single emperor overlord that lasted almost 300 years and, at its height, was spread across most of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and some of Afghanistan. It was ruled from the centre by an Isalmic elite gathered around the emperor and his court.

How many people were in the Mughal Empire?

At its height, probably about 150 million people in 1608, about one fifth of the world's population at the time. The Empire had an annual income of £100 million pounds, which is £10 billion in today’s money. Certainly, this is a lot less than Jeff Bezos earns every time he sneezes, but bear in mind that there was no next-day delivery at the time.

In the early 17th century, India produced one quarter of global manufacturing, especially textiles. And we’ve still got the words in English to prove it:

Chints, calico, shawl, pyjamas, khaki, cumerband, taffeta - all words of Indian origin. At the time, Indian goods were exported worldwide and reached as far as Mexico.

England at the same time only had 5% of the world’s population and produced 3% of manufactured goods. In the 17th century, Europe was a backwater compared to Asia.

In fact in 1632, when Portuguese missionaries started spreading Christianity in India, the Mughals turfed them out, turning missionaries into slaves or executing them - and there was bugger all Europeans could do about it. That was the power dynamic at the time.

Mughal cities were the megacities of their day and the Mughal state could boast a standing army of 4 million troops. The Roman Empire at its height still would have a lot of difficulty coughing up a force of 100,000 men. Europe had seen nothing like the vast scale and wealth of India.

What was the religion of the Mughal Empire?

Sunni Islam.


As in it's always Sunni in the Mughal Empire?


Actually, not quite. Only the elite were Sunni. The Mughal Empire was made up from many different faiths, with a Hindu majority among the population.

Ed: (mutters)

It's better when I read the script.

But yeah. Islam had been a big deal as a political power in India since the 12th century. In other places, like Persia and Turkey, conversion of the masses to Islam by their leaders was the norm.

But in India, this didn’t happen. India was just too multicultural and multi-faith for any centralised power to successfully enforce conformity. And successful Mughal leaders seemed to understand that they shouldn't try to force the issue.

How long did the Mughal empire last?

From roughly 1526, when what was to become a bit of the Mughal empire was founded by conquest, and the empire ended when it was effectively dissolved by the British in 1858 after what we grew up thinking of as “the Indian mutiny” but was in fact the first go at Indian independence. But we’re British. We’re bound to minimise. It’s a bit like the American War of Independence.


Do you mean the time when the unruly, drunken, cousin-marrying colonists threw tons of innocent tea into Boston Bay and caused an ecological disaster, caffeinating many endangered species of sea bird for no good reason?


That’s the one.

Who was Babur?

The founder of the Mughals, Babur had Turkic and Mongolian heritage. A few generations before, Central Asia and the Persian gulf had been conquered by the warlord Timur and his Timurids, which sounds like a 50s doop wap outfit.

Mongolian throat singing with 12 bar.

They may have been called Timurids but they weren't exactly timurid about conquering stuff.


But then Timur was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan.

But the way that Genghy put it about, who wasn't?


Hey Phil, got our test results from We're 0.02% Turkic Mongolian. What do you fancy doing this weekend?


Horse archery?


Horse archery!

GRAMS: Bad News: Burning, looting, raping and a shootin…

When Timur died in 1405, his empire fractured into different parts, and finally his descendant Babur founded the Mughal Empire in 1526. But not immediately though. At first he tried to go a-conquering in Asia to restore Timur's conquest of Samarkand. When that didn't work out, he took over Kabul, Afghanistan and then made incursions into India to carve out a corridor of land from Kabul to Delhi and Agra.

He was able to do this by winning the Battle of Panipat in 1526, where his small but technologically superior force armed with the latest artillery wiped out an Indian force many times its size. This should have been a lesson to future Mughal emperors that quality beats quantity every time. But spoilers. It wasn't.

By the time the smoke had cleared, Babur had been campaigning for a fair while and so didn't get to his enjoy his new conquests until the end of his life. And even then, he didn't seem to enjoy them, thinking India very much a runner up prize when he could have been hanging out in a yurt in Central Asia. We know this because he wrote an autobiography.

"I miss Central Asia. I hate India. There aren’t enough steppes, barely anyone wants to discuss archery, the food’s too spicy, no one told me about Dehli belly before I conquered it."

The Mughals too fancied themselves descendents of Genghis Khan. In fact the word Mughal is in fact just a Persian and Arabic corruption of the word Mongol.

But although the Mughals liked to associate themselves with horses and tents, they were actually far more comfortable in huge fancy palaces with exquisite rooms, walled gardens and luxurious courtly culture.

Sure, Babur liked to play the nomadic warrior but even he was totally obsessed with gardens and banged on about them in his personal memoir, the Baburnama…



…..which was written in a form of Turkish that he spoke.

If you're thinking, "what kind of fancy gardens and buildings are we talking here" just bring to mind the Taj Mahal, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his main squeeze. But we'll come to that later.

When Babur died in 1530, he was replaced by his son Humayun, who had a lot to live up to, but didn’t - apparently lacking the military skill and charisma of his dad.


I am as good a Shah as my father before me.


Sure you are.


What did you say.


I said… Shah, you are.


That’s all right then.

But it wasn’t all right. After ten years of patchy rule, Humayun was dethroned by Sher Shah Sur (one of his father’s generals) - who founded the Suri Empire, which remained for 15 years. Although low born, Sher Shah had the goods and introduced important reforms like a coinage system…

Currency fact: this is when the rupee first starts to circulate.

and land measurement for a better taxation system. Under Sher Shah, absolutely everything was measured. He ruled as the ruler ruler. Thems the rules. He was also known as Sher Khan because he was said to have killed a lion with his bare hands.


I bet no one was around to measure that!

Meanwhile, Humayun went into hiding in Safavid Persia. The guy hiding him, Shah Tahmasb, had been a patron of painting and illuminated manuscripts, but as he got older he turned into a more orthodox and less good-time ruler.

Taking advantage of this, Humayun invited his court artists back to the Mughal Empire where they took Timurid painting styles and adapted them for Mughal tastes.

After Sher Shah’s short lived dynasty met its end, Humayun returned triumphantly back to resurrect the Mughal Empire in 1555. Humyun then rather less triumphantly fell down some poorly lit stairs and died one year later. Pretty ironic since Humayun means the lucky one.


It’s like a rain on your wedding day. It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid. It’s like falling down some poorly lit stairs.

But it’s unfair to say… Babur good. Humayun bad. Humayun didn’t inherit anything like a stable empire. In fact it was a land split between him and his plotting brothers. And Humayun had even promised his father that he wouldn’t harm his brothers - which kinda hampered him when they were declaring war against him. It was only upon his return from exile that he reneged on the deal, imprisoning one and blinding another.

But ultimately what was bad luck for Humyun was good for the Mughal Empire as the person who succeeded him was his son Akbar, whose 50 year reign took the Mughal Empire to new heights of territorial power and glory, from Gujarat on the west coast to Benghal in the East. From Kabul in Afghanistan to the North, to the Deccan Plateau in the South. Everybody was going Mughal, and everybody was fine with it!




Mos… some people.

Why did the Mughal Empire have so much military success?

Pretty simple really. Unlike most other armies of the time, Mughal soldiers were paid well and regularly because the Mughal state was stinking rich. And one reason for that was that global economic conditions were juuust right. At this time the silver mines of South America were coming online/ being plundered. And since the Mughals were perhaps the manufacturing and trading powerhouse of the age, all the silver was pouring back to them.


Woo! Trade surplus!

The way Akbar expanded his empire was that he allowed defeated rulers to hang onto their holdings with the proviso that they report to a new line manager, i.e. him. That meant that after conquest, that's a whole load less fires to put out.


Except for the literal ones that are caused by conquest.

Akbar kept everybody loyal to himself by assigning his nobles a number and pay grade. Lower ranking nobles would have to report to the noble above them in this pyramid scheme. Nobles who lived in the provinces were required to attend court once a year, whereas those serving in the capital were expected to clock in daily.

Nobles weren’t paid in money, but in land. The revenues from that land were then split between the noble landlord and the Mughal state. But land allotments were changed around regularly so that no one noble could consolidate too much power in one area and so threaten the emperor. Akbar was no fool.

He also kept the peace by promoting religious tolerance in a policy called sulh-i kul meaning peace to all. His subjects were not held back in life by their faith and were taxed according to their land holdings. Whereas, in other Muslim states non-Muslims had to pay an additional tax known as the jizya.

Akbar was a devout Muslim, but he followed a type of Islam called Suffisim, which is sort of like an Islamic form of Puritanism.


Sounds boring!


But you know how Puritans don't party?




Sufiism is totally different. Its adherents dance themselves into trances - which seems fun.


Fun Puritanism? Why didn't you say?

Trance music in club

Someone says

Lots of Mughal emperors aligned themselves with Sufi mystics, who in turn gave their support to the dynasty - thus giving them extra legitimacy among large sections of the Indian populace.

There was a conscious effort by the Mughal state to try and make people gel. Famous Hindu epics (such as the Ramayana) were translated from Sanskrit into Persian complete with magnificent illustrations in the Persian tradition. Persian being the language of the Mughal elite.


Wait. A leader named Akbar in a position of power who spoke Persian? It’s a satrap!



No, because Satrap means governor in Persian… and… I HATE YOU!


Persian was a useful language of compromise, since it was neither Sanskrit (the religious language of Hinduism) or Arabic, the language of Islam and the Qu’ran.

All in all, Akbar built a successful secularised state that would allow everybody to play a part. Except for the poor, of course. Well, we need to draw the line somewhere, old boy.


I’ve got to say, for a 16th-century emperor, this Akbar sounds like a real down to earth guy.


Except that he also made himself a living saint endowed with god’s light that people of all religions could worship.


Praise unto his name most high.

In fact, Akbar had a neat trick of appearing to his subjects every morning at a high palace window. This neatly dovetailed the Muslim tradition that required rulers to be accessible to their subjects with the Hindu traditions that kings should be venerated.


Hey Doubting Thomas. Check out the holes in his hands. Pretty relatable huh? Yeah? Well, now I’m flying off to heaven to judge everyone forever… so judge that you *SWEARS*


Relatable but divine. It’s a classic religious format.

Like his forbears, Akbar encouraged creative endeavours.

Babur was a gardens man. Humayun had been into courtly art and architecture. Whereas Akbar got into carpets, shawls and textiles in a big way.

And let’s not forget about those illuminated manuscripts and architecture, which combined Persian, Indian and even European elements - thanks to Portuguese missionaries bringing images of the Virgin Mary which the Mughals happily plagiarised without paying attention to the boring religious bits. Like how Christians did to Pagan Christmas and then retail outlets did to Christian Christmas.

One incredibly illustrated work was the Tutinama, or Book of the Parrot. In it a wise parrot advises a young farmer’s wife not to cheat on her husband. The moral of the story more generally is basically…

Harry Enfield:

“Women, know your limits.”

It’s deeply sexist, parochial stuff.


But beautifully illustrated.


Fabulously illustrated.

But don’t be too quick to cancel Akbar on Twitter. Relatively speaking, women weren’t silent domestic robots in Mughal society. And despite his fondness for talking parrots, Akbar regularly consulted his mother when making decisions.

David Brent:

"How can I hate women? My mum's one."

Women of the court had the same access to entertainment and activities as men. And women were also artists, storytellers and teachers in the Mughal court.


What about normal, economically underprivileged women in Mughal society? Were they also free agents?


Eeeeerrrrr…. Let’s go back to manuscripts. Manuscripts are safe.

Another manuscript was The Adventures of Amir Hamza, about Hamza, the fictional uncle of the…non-fictional…Prophet Mohammad…

Ed: (quickly)

Phew. Close one.

…complete with 1400 illustrations on cloth dealing with villains, demons, giants, dragons and sorcerers which were held up for Akbar to look at as the massive book was read to him. It was HBO’s Game on Thrones...on cloth.

Samuel Johnson: (Blackadder)

A huge rollercoaster of a novel crammed with sizzling gypsies.

The Mughal state was in such a stable position that, in 1600 when Akbar’s son Prince Salim rebelled and set up a rival court - nothing really happened. The empire was so solid that even a rival court barely registered. And besides, they were reconciled in time for Akbar’s death and Salim’s succession in 1605.

Salim’s tantrum may have said something about the man since, on becoming crowned, he took the title Nur al-Din Muhhamad Jahangir Badshah Ghazi, which translates as Emperor Warrior Muhammad World-seizer who is the light of the religion.

This could have been overcompensation on his part since he was a rubbish warrior and left that kind of thing up to his sons, including his militarily competent son, Khurram. But rather than going by Salim, we know Nur al-Din Muhhamad Jahangir Badshah Ghazi by the name Jahangir… and that he was a bad shah.

Or maybe not that bad. Just more destabilising compared to his father. He executed Arjun, the fifth guru of the Sikh religion, which is just the sort of thing that Akbar wouldn’t have done - since Sikhism literally blended Islam and Hinduism.

But Jahangir didn’t have the guru clipped for religious reasons. It was simply that Arjun had declared his support for one of Jahangir’s sons to take over after Akbar’s death. He was all like:


“I think we should skip Charles and go straight to Wills.”

But the upshot of all this simmering resentment against the Mughals from the Sikhs. And this never quite went away. Never good for a happy empire.

The second booboo was Jahangir’s imprisonment of an influential Sheikh Ahmad Sihindi who criticised the Mughal state for not being orthodox enough in its brand of Islam.

On the one hand, you can’t really blame Jahangir for trying to hush up a man whose demands, if implemented, would have caused further division within the Empire. However, this particular Sheikh had his subscribers and putting him in the slammer massively ticked off lots of Muslims.

One of Jahangir’s less dickish decisions was to marry an intelligent Persian noble woman already in her 30s - which was an umarriable age in Indian society at the time.


Forget about marriage, sweetheart. You’ve left it too late.


Dad, I’m 31.


Hold still, love, I’m just measuring you up for your coffin.

He was so besotted with her that he made her his top wife and gave her the title Nur Jahan, or Light of the World. Jahangir was particularly besotted with Nur Jahan, and was particularly taken with her skill of hunting and killing lions (which are now close to extinction in India) so he apparently poured diamonds and pearls over her head.


I hope she was wearing protective goggles at the time.

The emperor consulted his wife over every decision and she had a lot of clout in court, with coins minted in her image and drums sounding whenever she arrived on the scene.

Nur Jahan:

Oh Jangahir…


Nur Jahan:

No, that's ok guys. I just left my purse on the throne…

Like Jangahir, she was a patron of the arts and architecture. Unlike, Jahangir she didn’t go on about it. One quote attributed to the emperor goes:

“I derive such enjoyment from painting and I have expertise in judging it that, even without the artist name being mentioned, no work of the past or present Masters can be shown to me that I do not instantly recognise who did it. Even if it is a scene of several figures and Each face is by a different master, I can tell who did which face. If in a single painting different persons have done the eyes and eyebrows, I can determine Who drew the face and who made the eyes and eyebrows.”


What a wanker.

But Jangahir was the archetypal Mughal emperor - an aesthete, a scholar of medicine and astronomy, a collector of everything from Venetian swords and Safavid silks to narwhal teeth.

He was obsessed with animals, breeding goats and cheetahs. Not together obviously.


And not only can it eat practically anything, but it can also run at 70 miles an hour.

*Doppler effect goat noise, aka Road Runner*

He was always blinged up, regularly wearing diamonds and pearls on his head, neck,chest, arms, fingers and wrists.

When English merchants visited him to try and get trade links going, they brought him artworks and a fine stage coach. Jangahir took one look at the stage coach and had his artists and craftsmen perfectly reproduce it within a week, but also had it pimped up with silk and jewels.

“Ah. Well, that’s hardly cricket.”

Then the Portuguese turned up with much better presents, humiliating the English further.

“What’s wrong with homemade jam anyway?”

But they were also very impressed with him. On one visit they watched Jangahir spend an hour with a moth-eaten holy man, embracing him freely and calling him father.

The English were said to be astounded by “such virtue in a heathen prince.” Merchants of the East India Company had to learn Persian, diplomacy and good old bribery to get any chance of a hearing in the Mughal court. It’s all they could do, since there was no way they could challenge the Mughals militarily. But in time that would change for the East India Company…

The East India what now?

The East India company was an English company owned by shareholders and founded in 1600. Mainly in response to European powers (like the Dutch, French and Spanish) that were going out and making a mint out of foreign trade.

It started with trade, but further down the line they got their own army, started their own wars and then directly ruled over territory and people. We’ll definitely have to come back to the East India Company, because they play a critical role in the decline and eventual destruction of the Mughal Empire.


Trade, bad? Capitalism, bad? Dream on Corbyn.


Didn’t you used to support him?




Cock crows.


Weird. That’s the third time that’s happened today.

Anyway, Jangahir was very much the emperor to impress. But his one weakness was drink, rather controversially for a Muslim monarch.

And with Jangahir’s health failing, thanks to booze, Nur Jahan stepped in and wielded yet more influence.

So much so, that she tried to have another son, Shahryar, favoured with succession since the heir apparent (Khurram) was having none of her guff. When Jangahir popped his clogs in 1627, this led to Khurram eventually winning and taking the title that his father had bestowed on him after a successful military campaign - Shah Jahan - or King of the World.


King of the world!

But the lights did go out for Shahryar, since when he defeated he was also blinded. And what of the scheming Nur Jahan? She was sent off to a very comfortable retirement with her daughter and continued grand architectural projects like her husband’s tomb. As far as being on the losing side in a civil war? It was none too shabby.

I guess when you’ve got a Shah whose name translates as King of the world, you can expect trouble. And indeed Shah Jahan painted himself as a direct descendent of the Timurids, and also adopted the name that the Islamic conqueror Timur used, i.e Meteor of the Faith.

The trouble with meteors is that they can be pretty destructive and while he started his reign by building mosques, making his court fast during Ramadan and pulling down some Hindu temples, he never proved to be the non-fun fundamentalist that his actions pointed to. In fact, he supported his son, Dara Shukoh’s claim that Hinduism and Islam had a lot in common.

And his was a successful 30-year reign, with military conquest and relative internal stability aplenty. However, Shah Jahan failed to conquer the formerly Timurid regions in Afghanistan and Central Asia, which bugged him much but was probably a blessing in disguise - as no empire does well when it’s overextended.

The empire was incredibly wealthy and it was under Shah Jahan that we get India’s most famous building and wonder of the world, the Taj Mahal. With its verdant gardens, running water and fruits trees, the Taj Mahal was meant to represent heaven on earth and the perfection of Shah Jahan’s rule.

So perfect, in fact, that the architect who designed it had his hands cut off so he could never build something like that again.


In fact?


In fiction.


Yeah, I thought so. Since architects don’t actually build anything.


I want to design a brand new building, much better than the Taj Mahal, but unfortunately I can’t since my hands have been cut off.


Yeah, or you could just tell me the shape and dimensions and all that and I could draw it for you.


Oh yeah! That works.

And it’s a testament to the Mughal’s wealth that the Taj Mahal was never intended to be a public monument, just a very massive but very private shrine dedicated to his wife Mumtaz Mahal. It was probably also intended to be his resting place - since he copied the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. So while Shah Jahan wasn’t really a religious bigot, he was certainly a religious big ‘ead.


And we’re going to leave it here for this week. The Mughal Empire is at the height of its power and wealth. From the hubble start of Babur the conqueror to the statescraft of Akbar the Great and the wondrous buildings of Shah Jahan.


Yep. I can’t see this Mughal Empire coming unstuck.


Join us next week when we explain how the Mughal Empire became unstuck. But for now, let’s bask in the wealth and splendour of the mighty Mughals…

(Money by Pink Floyd)


Move away

Mongols turn to Mughals and go the Indian way


Can’t be eclipsed

Babur used his best foot but Humayun slipped.

New carriage, manuscripts, diamonds, breeding cheetahs goats

Bury your wife in the Taj Mahal.


Conquer more.

Gujarat, Delhi, Deccan and Lahore.


Best by far

Show religious toleration or you can’t be Shah.


Sign off

Thanks for joining us for part 1 of the mughal empire (socials) - tune in next time for part 2, for in-fighting, out-fighting, just plain fighting, the meddling of the east india company and the eventual downfall of the empire - spoilers - on….

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