The Mughals, who ruled the Indian subcontinent from 1526 to 1857, built a magnificent empire based on well-founded and enduring institutions. Muhammad Zahir al-Din Babur (r. 1526-1530) laid the foundation of a dynastic rule which inaugurated the most glorious period in the history of South Asian Islam. Babur’s grandson Jalal al-Din Muhammad Akbar (r.1556-1605), who succeed Humayun, is considered the builder of the empire. His territorial expansion, an effective fiscal policy, and most importantly his pluralistic administrative system contributed to the strong foundation of the Empire.
An avid patron of the arts, Emperor Akbar established centres of artistic production for the court, illustrated manuscript studios, a translation academy, and workshops for textiles, carpets, jewellery, and metalwork. He commissioned royal manuscripts that incorporated Persian, Indian, and European elements, creating a distinct Mughal style which was further developed and refined by his successors. Although Akbar was illiterate and possibly suffered from dyslexia, his chronicles describe him as having a “good memory for the books”* that were read to him daily. By the year 1605, Akbar had collected 24,000 volumes, which were catalogued according to content, author, calligrapher, and language – Hindi, Persian Greek, Arabic, and Kashmiri.
The Mughal Emperor’s major project was the construction of his father’s tomb in Delhi, designed according to Timurid concepts, establishing the cultural identity of the dynasty. Concerned about the lack of an heir, Akbar sought the intervention of a Sufi saint, Sheikh Salim Chisti (d.1572). In 1569, his son and future emperor was born. In gratitude, Akbar named his son Salim, and established a walled city and an imperial palace in Agra focused around the shrine of Sheikh Salim located in the courtyard of the Friday mosque.
In order to overcome religious schisms between various religious communities, Akbar introduced a temporary order centred on the worship of light. Akbar is also credited with establishing the tradition of being weighed in gold – twice a year, on the first day of the lunar and solar years, the Mughal Emperor was weighed in gold, silver, and other metals as well as silk and grains; the proceeds from these would go to the poor.
In 1584, Akbar moved his capital to Lahore, where he died in 1605. He was succeeded by Prince Salim who took the titles of Jahangir (“World Seizer”) and Nur al-Din (“Light of Faith”), continuing the light imagery used so frequently in his father’s metaphors of sovereignty. Akbar’s mausoleum lies in Bihishtabad (“Abode of Paradise”) outside Agra.
*Philippa Vaughan “Decorative Arts” Islam: Art and Architecture Edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius, Konnenman
Sajida S. Alvi, “Islam in South Asia.” The Muslim Almanac Edited by Azim A. Nanji, Detroit, Gale Research Inc. 1996.
Compiled by Nimira Dewji