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S04 S03 Mughal Empire Part 2 transcript

Welcome to Countries That Don’t Exist Anymore and welcome back to Part 2 of the Mughal Empire. Last time we saw the rise of the empire from a small and shaky string of conquests to a mighty empire. But can the Mughal Empire keep getting stronger and last forever? Find out on this episode of…

*Theme tune*

In 1657, Shah Jahan became ill which sparked a civil war of succession between his sons. Unfortunately for Shah Jahan, he recovered. Unfortunate because his son Aurangzeb had already triumphed and didn’t seem to be willing to give up the victory for dear old dad, so had him imprisoned instead in the fort of Agra until he died in 1666. Kids, eh?

If imprisoning his popular father wasn't enough, Aurangzeb went on to prove himself a bit of a blunderer. Fancying himself a bona fide orthodox he then set about putting everybody else's nose out of joint. He got rid of court musicians and artists, he refused to sit at the window because he thought it wasn't an Islamic practice, he banned the wearing of gold at court…


I mean…it's hardly Nuremberg is it? No gold. Does the world need any more Salt Baes? Or any Salt Baes at all?

He also started taxing non-Muslims.


Ok. Big deal. Didn't he realise that most of his subjects weren’t Muslim?

Yes, but he was bound to be right anyway because he was following god's will or something.


Ah, the religious Catch-22.

He clamped down on the practices of the majority Hindu population and viciously put down subsequent rebellions. Not particularly wise since the empire had only been a success since it was based on a network of alliances, and one of the key alliances were the Rajputs, a Hindu warrior power.

But as with most things in life, it's not that simple.

While he sort of nudged in the direction of Sharia Law, it was never wholesale imposed. He also tore down a few Hindu temples and built mosques, including a huge one in Lahore. But before we’re too “oh look it's Oliver Cromwell about him, a lot of the Hindu temples were related to political feuds, not religious ones. And the mosques were as much to outdo his father's buildings as some statement of religious zeal.

For all our setting up of “it’s religious discord that’s going to do the empire in” that we’ve been setting up this episode - here’s the twist. It was over extension all along!


What really obsessed Aurangzeb wasn't religious stuff but military stuff.

The Mughal Empire extended south into the Deccan. And things had never been particularly settled there. And the question for any ruler of a place that doesn't much want to be ruled by you is: how much do you want to push it?

So making the inevitable comparison with the Roman Empire at its peak, this is like Parthia. At the very height of its powers, Trajan extended the empire into Parthia, but Parthia was a place where the locals really didn't take too kindly to the Roman empire. So much so that his successor Hadrian took the sound decision to move the borders right back.

Yes, it wasn't a popular move at the time but it saved the Romans a ton of blood and treasure that they sorely needed to defend their borders elsewhere.

But rather stubbornly, Aurangzeb didn't do something similar. He obsessed about the problem of the Deccan. And rather than stopping to smell the roses, saying you can't win them all and generally taking some him time, he instead moved his entire court south in 1681, so he could give his military campaign in the Deccan 100% of his meddling incompetence.

The problem for the Mughals was their approach to military strategy was to steam roll their way through other armies, throwing though money at the problem until it got out the way. But this didn’t work in the Deccan where they were facing up against the fast-moving hit and run cavalry units of the Maratha.

According to one Jacobean traveller, the Maratha light cavalry were: “Naked, starved rascals, armed only with lances and long swords two inches wide” but who were brilliant at “surprising and ransacking.”

They were the ultimate guerilla fighters, carefully picking key economic targets like warehouses, ports and palaces - in a conscious effort to try to destroy the Mughal economy.

They were so successful that their leader Shivalji was anointed as Hindu emperor, or Samarajyapada and the reincarnation of Vishnu,. Aurangzeb was less impressed, calling him a “mountain rat.”

When they caught Shivalji’s son, Sambhaji, they made him wear a stupid hat and ride around on a camel.


Doesn’t sound too bad.

Then they brutally tortured him for a week, put nails into his eyes, cut out his tongue and flayed off his skin with tiger claws, before putting him to death. Then they threw his body to the dogs and stuffed his head with straw before mounting it on the Dehli gate.


That’s the bad bit.

And with the court relocating to the south, rebellions in the north became all the more powerful. By the time of Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, the massive Mughal empire (which spanned most of modern day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and half of Afghanistan) was losing money fast trying to put out fires throughout its sprawling empire.

The Mughals had been at their most stable when their nobility were in pay of the court and all power flowed downhill from the emperor. But in the face of an imperial centre that couldn’t foot the bill and local unrest, nobles were becoming increasingly independent.

Meanwhile there was a peasant rebellion amongst Sikhs of the Punjab and banditry across the land was endemic. Even Aurangzeb's son, Prince Akbar, raised the flag of rebellion against his father.

On his deathbed, Aurangzeb acknowledged his failure.

"I have not been the guardian and protector of the empire. The past is gone and there is no hope for the future. The whole Imperial army is like me: bewildered, perturbed, separated from God, quaking like quicksilver. I fear my punishment."

And after him, things went downhill further. Rebellions grew in strength, weak and powerless emperors were too busy stabbing each other in the eyes, strangling each other's mothers or pushing each other's fathers off precipices while on their elephants. All things that actually happened!

And it's not so much that Aurangzeb just had a bunch of useless sprogs. It’s more that he was so obsessed with conquest that he completely neglected to give them any emperor training or government posts of any authority.

Things were so bad that the new emperor Shah Alam Bahadur Shah couldn’t even enter his own capital of Dehli, having to wait 5 years after his coronation for things to settle down. And even then political intrigue and plots were rife.

In 1719, 4 different emperors occupied the Peacock Throne of the Mughals. And there was much stabbing of guts and poking out of eyeballs.

In the palace, generals started pulling the strings of their puppet emperors. The myth of the all-powerful Mughal Shah was well and truly over.

In response to weakness in the middle, local governors of the empire started ruling their own backyards. Then kingdoms started to break away from the failing empire under Maratha, Sikh and Hindu rulers. Even the British East India company was getting in on the act.

The empire was less a power, more of an excuse. All of the new kings claimed to be ruling in the name of the Mughal Emperor, but that was just to legitimise their own power grabs.

All this was very bad timing. While the empire was losing out on revenue, trade and manufacturing was at an all-time high. The traditional landed classes were losing their grip as a new merchant class rose to prominence. Cotton, silk and other goods were highly sought after, hence the Europeans steaming in to take a piece of the action.

And with the imperial family in Dehli unable to foot the bill, artists and architects went off to find work in the successor states or with new-money merchants, leaving further Mughal projects to look decidedly scaled down. Precious stones and marbles were replaced by bricks and MDF. It was an IKEA golden age.

One interesting development which arose from the general anarchy was the rise of banking in India. See, not everywhere was peeling away from the empire. In fact prosperous Bengal kept paying into the Imperial treasury but, due to banditry, Bengali leaders didn't trust sending taxes by road. Their solution? Banking.

The Mughal emperors turned to the Jagat Seths, who were granted the title Bankers of the World, to move money about virtually, since they had branches everywhere.

Add possible sketch…


Oh no. Our village is going through a period of economic stagnation. But who can save us?


We are the Jagat Seths, but you may also know as us… Bankers of the World! (music)


We’re saved!

Seths: (rock music)

That’s right! With our combined fiduciary powers, we will save your village by slightly lowering interest rates. You should see some cost of living improvement within 3-5 years.



The Seths were like the Indian Rothschilds.


In that they were a cabal of lizards?


In that they were a powerful banking dynasty.


But could they also have been lizards? That's not for us to say, but what do you think? Let's keep the conversation open and respectful of all views…and monetised.


All right Russell Brand.

Perhaps a downside to this, if you're a fan of Indian independence, is that another big customer of the Seths were the East India Company who were borrowing huge amounts of money to fund their trading and expansion activities.

In fact when Mughal governor Da'ud Khan complained about the East India Companies unregulated behaviour in Madras, which the EIC had established as a base, the EIC replied that they paid a lot of tax, employed a lot of people and, if the Mughals didn't value them, they could move their operations to someone who did, causing the Mughals to back off. It's the same script multinational companies have been using ever since.

But in the face of anarchy, the East India Company did offer Indian merchants something like stability. While areas of Bengal were constantly being ravaged and plundered by the Marathas, East India Company towns seemed safe and prosperous by comparison.

Even the marauding Marathas seemed unwilling to square up to the organised muskets and artillery of the East India Company. And meanwhile the Royal navy protected trade routes, ensuring access to markets abroad.

One Indian Persian merchant, while deciding that the EIC were still basically barbarians, conceded some good points too.

“The English have no arbitrary dismissal and every competent person keeps his job until he writes his own request for retirement or resignation. More remarkable still is that take part in most festivals and ceremonies of Muslims and Hindus, mixing with the people. They pay great respect to accomplished scholars of whatever sect.”

It was almost like the EIC was offering the kind of tolerance and security that the Moghul Empire had provided at its height. But bear in mind that this was still the mid 18th century. This was a time of racial intermarriage and relative tolerance. We haven’t yet reached the time where the EIC has really started to asset strip India or when the Indian people were yet subject to the full frontal racism of Victorian imperialists.

So while many areas were going to rack and ruin, EIC bases like Calcutta offered security and lower taxes than the Empire - and as refugees fled there seeking safety, the city of Calcutta’s population tripled in a decade.

In an East India town, you make a stash,

But In the Mughal state you can’t keep your cash.

In an East India town of opportunity

You can get super drunk and pay no VAT.

East India Company.

In an East India town called

Meanwhile the Mughal Empire was collapsing in slow motion and its emperors seemed to be doing bugger all about it. Emperor Muhammad Shah spent very little time worrying about what was going on and instead dedicated himself to watching plays and eating dinners.

He barely looked up from his programme when the Marathas invaded its heartland in 1728 and defeated its great general, the Nizam Ul-Mulk. Unfortunately, this was a taste of things to come.

Sensing the general disarray, the Persians invaded with 80,000 troops in 1739 under Nadr Shah, a former shepherd turned ruler.


So Nadr. So, you're applying to become Persian emperor but your CV tells me your were a shepherd. What makes you think you can control a large group of men?


*Whistles* come by, come by.


You’ve got the job.

Their musketeers and gun carrying horsemen were able to rout a Mughal Army said to be one million strong.

The crowning humiliation was when Nadr Shah captured the dinner loving Muhammad Shah by inviting him to dinner…and then just didn't let him go.


Thank you for inviting me to dinner, Nadr. What are we fishing with this evening?

Nadr: (mutters)

Prison for you.


What did you say?


Tiramisu. Don't worry, you'll get your just desserts.



Delhi was plundered and its people were massacred. The Nizam al-Mulk asked Nadr Shah to stop the carnage to which he agreed but with the proviso that he was paid 1 billion rupees, the equivalent of 13 billion pounds. So the Nizam basically did the looting of his own people, systematically stripping the empire of 300 years of accumulated wealth. Bugger.

And once Nadr Shah had sort of conquered everything and had extracted all the wealth, he went home, since he had no interest in ruling the place. He was actually only after a war chest to fight his real enemies, the Ottomans and the Russians. So he loaded up his treasure wagons with all his loot, including the world's biggest diamonds and the actual Peacock Throne, and off he went.

And after the dust had settled, Muhammad Shah was allowed to go back to ruling. But ruling what exactly? A contemporary poet wrote:

"Nobles are reduced to the status of grass cutters. Palace dwellers do not possess even ruins to give them shelter."

Traditionalists blamed all this woe on decadence, conveniently ignoring that much of the damage to the empire had been done under the most orthodox emperors.

Muhammad Shah's answer to all this was to ignore everything and continue pleasure seeking, although that was difficult without a comfortable seat. He didn't even have the ancestral Peacock Throne to sit on anymore. Still, he didn't let that bother him and spent his days hunting and enjoying his gardens.

Everybody seems to think I’m lazy, I don’t mind, gardens amaze me.

They invade our empire under orders.

But I prefer digging borders.

Please don’t spoil my day,

I’ve brought a spade

And after all, I’m only weeding.

Outside activities were probably his best bet, since almost everybody stopped sending money back to Dehli and the Mughal state was now properly bankrupt. And since there was no money, they couldn't afford an army. Can't have an empire without an army.

And then the Afghans invaded on 4 occasions starting in the 1750s.

But bad times for the centre often means good times for the periphery.

The Maratha, the Rohilla Afghans, the Sikhs of the Punjab, the Jats of Deeg and Baraphur all carved out independent states.

Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Rajput no longer had to pay and now could feather their own nests. Culture and creativity sprung up in those regions.

Dark Age or Renaissance? I guess it depends where you're standing.

But it wasn't other Indian rulers who filled the power vacuum left by the failing Mughal Empire. No. It was two European trading companies, the East India Company and the French Compagnie des Indes.

The British East India Company, who for years had to mind their step and keep their heads down had seen how easily the Persians had defeated the Mughals and thought "we'll have a bit of that."

Governor Thomas Saunders of Madras reckoned that "any European nation with a tolerable force may overrun the whole country."

But why did he think that? Well, he had seen it first hand, at the Battle of Adyar in 1746.

During one of Britain and France's almost constant wars, the French had taken Madras with some well drilled African colonial troops.

Since Madras was technically on their land, the Mughals decided to steam in with 10,000 troops to take it back. But despite outnumbering the French 10-1, the Mughals were beaten back. The Mughals lost 300 men in the process, the French are said to have suffered no casualties. So what's going on?

The answer is probably technology. Because Europe had been warring interminably (as usual) their technology had come on leaps and bounds. Half a century before, the Mughals would have been facing an army equipped with pikes. Now they had flintlock muskets and were trained to produce a barrage of continuous fire with field artillery to back them up.

Even when the Nizam Al Mulk died, his sons fought over his inheritance using French mercenaries and French arms. And a weak and fragmented India found its lands piece by piece being swallowed up by pesky European armies. A mercenary Colonel Mills reckoned:

"The policy of the Mughals is bad. Their army worse, they are without a navy. The country might be conquered and laid under contribution as easily as the Spaniards overwhelmed the naked Indians of America."


Wrong, Colonel Mills. That was smallpox. And by the way, I bet your breath really stinks and you have lice.

But let’s talk about the East India Company a bit more. At the heart of the EIC were ambitious rotters like Robert Clive.

Who was Robert Clive?

Clive was an ambitious young man on the make. The closest thing we have to a school report was what his uncle said of him when he was just 7 years old:

“He is out of all measure addicted to fightin, which gives his temper a fierceness and imperious, so that he flies out upon any triflin occasion.”

And as a teenager, he ran protection rackets in his hometown of Market Drayton.

After corruptly frittering his money away on a rotten borough…

Prince George:

What is a robber button?

…Clive entered parliament, but didn’t last long. Needing cash and fast, he fled to India. This was the calibre of men that the Mughal Empire would have to deal with.

Robert Clive came sailing into a situation not of his making, but one which he was keen to take advantage of.

Bengal was then being ruled by the Mughal nawab or governor Aliverdi Khan, who’d been brought to power thanks to the backing of the Jagat Seths. His domains included the EIC hub of Calcutta, and Khan generally didn’t seem bothered by their presence. He said:

“The Europeans are like a hive of bees of whose honey you might reap benefit, but if you disturb their hive, they might sting you to death.”

During the various Anglo-French wars that were raging, the English took the opportunity to rebuild the fortifications of Calcutta, but crucially without the permission of the nawab. When told to tear down the fortifications, the British told Aliverdi Kahn that:

(Vicky Pollard)

“We have to defend ourselves against the French, and they started it anyway, and we’ve been here for like 100 years and we’ve never missed rent once so I don’t know what you’re having a go at us for because that’s well rude actually.”

Aliverdi Khan advised his nephew Saraj, who was also his heir, to base his rule on agreement and obedience with only decline and regret stemming from a path of quarrel and hostility.

“As the prosperity of the state depends on union and cooperation and its ruin on quarrel and opposition, your rule must to be based on agreement and obedience. If you take the path of quarrel and hostility, it is very likely that this state will soon decline from its good name for a long period and grief and regret will prevail.”

Unfortunately Aliverdi Khan died in 1756, and his famously difficult nephew, Siraj, seemed intent on the quarrel and hostility path.

What this translated to was the attack of an English factory compound at Kasimbazeer - where 30,000 Mughal troops surrounded a garrison of 200 until its commander William Watts surrendered and was humiliated in front of Siraj, being forced to hug his feet and repeat “I am your slave, I am your slave.”

He then took an army of 70,000 and (after fierce fighting) took Calcutta, looted it and said it would be renamed Alinagar.

The East India Company troops had put up a good fight, despite the fact that many of them were totally inebriated and (by Mughal standards) they were treated quite well initially. This was until a fight broke out between English and Indian troops and so the Company men were rounded up and imprisoned in a very confined room, in which some of them suffocated. When this story spread back to Britain, this room gained the name “The back hole of Calcutta” and lived long in the English imperial mind as the very height of cruelty and depravity.


Didn’t we do some cruelty and depravity too though?


That’s not how British newspapers work.



And this was just when Robert Clive arrive in India. His orders had been strictly been to attack the French but, hearing the news, he instead he gathered up some forces and raided Mughal settlements. His troops were effective despite being totally drunk. When an English ship blew a hole in the side of a Mughal fort, one drunk company man ran in waving a sword and declared “the place is mine.”

To exact revenge, Siraj gathered a force of 60,000 and marched on Calcutta, by stopped short north of the city to camp. Rather than trying to come to terms, Clive attacked under the cover of fog - his line infantry advancing and firing meticulously while being supported by mobile artillery.

This so terrified Siraj that the nawab legged it. The peace that was signed after, the Treaty of Alinagar proved to be a turning point. Not only was the Company’s dominion over their territory recognised but their interests were also protected.

And now weak and unpopular, Siraj was so despised that the Jagath Seths funded Robert Clive and his army to remove Siraj from power. And this happened at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 where Clive’s force of hundreds (who were outnumbered 20-1) advanced and routed a Mughal Army of 35,000 infantry, 15,000 cavalry and 53 pieces of artillery overseen by French experts.

Once again, the Indian cavalry were no match for the power of the European war machine. But Clive had some things going for him too. For one thing he was in cahoots with one of Siraj’s generals - who retreated from the battlefield taking his forces with him at an appointed time.

For another thing, one Major Kilpatrick defied Clive’s orders and took a force to capture Mughal artillery - thus leaving the English to take potshots at the Mughals uncontested.

But battles are fought on morale - and this was no one-sided massacre. Yes, the EIC lost 22 soldiers compared to the Mughals 500 - but really it was the fact of how easily Mughal armies were willing to give up the fight when they felt things weren’t going their way. And this is probably a reasonable metaphor for the state of the Mughal Empire at this time.

The result of all this? EIC rule was cemented, the Mughal Empire effectively lost one of the last remaining profitable areas of their empire - which the EIC then went about totally asset stripping. A model that the British Empire would stick rigidly to in later years.

In one medium sized skirmish, Robert Clive became one of the richest men in Europe was given a peerage and (according to the Salisbury Journal) his wife’s ferret wore a necklace worth a quarter of a million pounds.


His wife’s ferret? Isn’t that what they used to call vajazzle?

So, Clive was triumphed, Siraj was hacked to bits by assassins and a puppet was installed in Beghal by the EIC and the Jawat Seths, leading to observe:

“I am fully persuades that after the Battle of Plassey, we might have appropriated the whole country to the Company through the terror of English arms and their influence. The Mughal Empire is greatly broken and its total ruin has been prevented only by the sums of money sent to Delhi from Bengal.”

After further conflict, Bengal was then conceded to Robert Clive in 1765 - allowing the EIC to tax and govern directly.

The East India Company continued to be way more than a bunch of angry bees for the Mughals - and in fact financially supported factions taking on the Empire.

In 1803, the EIC took a step further and did what everybody else seemed to be doing at the time - they invaded Dehli.

But this wasn’t even war on the Mughal Empire, or whatever was left on it. This was a war on the Marathas who already controlled the city and already controlled the emperor. But sides proclaimed they were there to safeguard the emperor - by this time one Shah Alam II.

A saying of his time had it that: “The empire of Shah Alam is from Delhi to Palam.” Palam being a suburb of Dehli.


In the same way, Countries That Don't Exist Anymore is one of London's best podcasts. Between Streatham and Streatham Hill.

The reality is that the Mughal Empire had no power, but almost every faction and nawab up and down India borrowed the legitimacy to rule from the continuing existence of an emperor, which is why coins were continued to be minted with his face on it - though everybody really knew that the Empire was basically over.

In fact the Empire was finally put to bed in its last vestiges with the outbreak of what was known as the Indian Mutiny in 1857 - now thought of as India’s first war of independence. While the causes are many and various and too much to get into here - but you can take it as read that by this time maaaaany Indians has had more than enough of the British.

And the reluctant figurehead of this rebellion? 81-year-old Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar who basically just wanted a milky cup of Chai and an early bedtime. Bahadur was proclaimed emperor of all India and only the Sikhs didn’t want to go along with this - as they didn’t want a return to Muslim rule.

When the rebellion was pretty brutally put down, Zafar’s potential heirs were shot and he was sent off to exile in Rangoon - where he died a few years later.

But the throne wasn’t totally vacant for long. In 1877, Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India mainly because her daughter had just become an empress and she hated being upstaged.

Queen Victoria:

Ha ha ha! Now who's empress bitches!

The British Raj basically just swiped many of the Imperial structures of the Mughals to rule India in a Mughal manner. And ceremonies from the court of the Mughals made their way back to the British Royal family too.

And the Mughal influence lived on. Although they were Sunni, many Shia Muslim rulers continued to view the Mughals as the apex of civilisation.

What was the legacy of the Mughal Empire?

We can still see the great impact of the Mughals on India in the art, architecture and the blending of peoples and traditions into a deliciously rich and spicy melting pot.


God. I really fancy a curry now.

Take a look at the Taj Mahal, The Agra Fort, Humayun's tomb. These are still marvels even now.

Architecture and art positively flourished under Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. On the royal workshops, Iranian masters worked with Hindu and Muslim master craftsmen of the north to develop something very much Mughal. And we still have some of the illuminated manuscripts - literally. You can see some of them in the V&A in London or in the MAK in Vienna.

They combine Iranian detail and use of precious materials with the Hindustani celebration of the natural world. Divine meets approachable. Like the Mughal monarch sat in his window every morning.

This blend also saw great Hindu texts turned into works of art. At its best, the Muslim Mughals not only tolerated other cultures. They venerated them. Akbar had a Translation Bureau tasked with creating Persian versions of Sanskrit masterpieces. In doing so he hoped:

"those who display hostility may refrain from doing so and may seek after the truth".

When Akbar had his own Akbarnama commissioned, it was a reflection of the kind of state he wanted, even showing European influences from the Jesuit mission he allowed in his court.

Art, architecture and ornaments are important for another reason. They reflect the stability and wealth of the Mughal court. So while we have treasures from the Mu ghals at the peak of their power, these drop off when they have rulers that become more austere, more orthodox, more obsessed with conquest in the south and less able to hold their empire together.

Song (Paint It Black)

I see an empire

And I want it painted gold

Illuminated manuscripts

Can never be too bold.

I see the girls walk by

My parrot makes a point

It’s not easy keeping quiet

When your beak’s out of joint.

No more will my new mosques

Be built simple or small

Let’s make the Taj Mahal

To justify my rule.

Maybe we won’t fade away

And be lost to history

Ce-le-brate the Mughal might, not East Innnndya Compa

I wanna see it painted

Painted gold

Gold as bling

Gold as Abba’s greatest hits…

Thanks for listening

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