The name Mughal derives from Mongol. Though today
the term evokes the grandeur of an empire, it was
not the name the rulers of the dynasty chose for
themselves. They referred to themselves as Timurids,
as descendants of the Turkish ruler Timur on the
paternal side. Babur, the first Mughal ruler, was
related to Ghenghiz Khan from his mother’s side.
He spoke Turkish and referred derisively to the
Mongols as barbaric hordes.
(more content follows the advertisement below) A D V E R T I S E M E N T
During the sixteenth century, Europeans used the
term Mughal to describe the Indian rulers of this
branch of the family. Over the past centuries the
word has been frequently used – even the name
Mowgli, the young hero of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle
Book , is derived from it.
The empire was carved out of a number of regional
states of India through conquests and political
alliances between the Mughals and local chieftains.
The founder of the empire, Zahiruddin Babur, was
driven from his Central Asian homeland, Farghana,
by the warring Uzbeks. He first established himself
at Kabul and then in 1526 pushed further into
the Indian subcontinent in search of territories and
resources to satisfy the needs of the members of
His successor, Nasiruddin Humayun (1530-40,
1555-56) expanded the frontiers of the empire, but
lost it to the Afghan leader Sher Shah Sur, who drove
him into exile. Humayun took refuge in the court of
the Safavid ruler of Iran. In 1555 Humayun defeated
the Surs, but died a year later.
Many consider Jalaluddin Akbar (1556-1605) the
greatest of all the Mughal emperors, for he not only
expanded but also consolidated his empire, making
it the largest, strongest and richest kingdom of
his time. Akbar succeeded in extending the frontiers
of the empire to the Hindukush mountains, and
checked the expansionist designs of the Uzbeks of
Turan (Central Asia) and the Safavids of Iran.
Akbar had three fairly able successors in Jahangir
(1605-27), Shah Jahan (1628-58) and Aurangzeb
(1658-1707), much as their characters varied. Under
them the territorial expansion continued, though at
a much reduced pace. The three rulers maintained and
consolidated the various instruments of governance.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
the institutions of an imperial structure were created.
These included effective methods of administration
and taxation. The visible centre of Mughal power was
the court. Here political alliances and relationships
were forged, status and hierarchies defined. The
political system devised by the Mughals was based
on a combination of military power and conscious
policy to accommodate the different traditions they
encountered in the subcontinent.
After 1707, following the death of Aurangzeb, the
power of the dynasty diminished. In place of the vast
apparatus of empire controlled from Delhi, Agra or
Lahore – the different capital cities – regional powers
acquired greater autonomy. Yet symbolically the
prestige of the Mughal ruler did not lose its aura. In
1857 the last scion of this dynasty, Bahadur Shah
Zafar II, was overthrown by the British.
The Production of Chronicles
Chronicles commissioned by the Mughal emperors
are an important source for studying the empire and
its court. They were written in order to project a
vision of an enlightened kingdom to all those who
came under its umbrella. At the same time they were
meant to convey to those who resisted the rule of
the Mughals that all resistance was destined to fail.
Also, the rulers wanted to ensure that there was an
account of their rule for posterity.
The authors of Mughal chronicles were invariably
courtiers. The histories they wrote focused on events
centred on the ruler, his family, the court and nobles,
wars and administrative arrangements. Their titles,
such as the Akbar Nama, Shahjahan Nama, Alamgir
Nama, that is, the story of Akbar, Shah Jahan and
Alamgir (a title of the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb),
suggest that in the eyes of their authors the history
of the empire and the court was synonymous with
that of the emperor.
From Turkish to Persian
Mughal court chronicles were written in Persian.
Under the Sultans of Delhi it flourished as a
language of the court and of literary writings,
alongside north Indian languages, especially Hindavi
and its regional variants. As the Mughals were
Chaghtai Turks by origin, Turkish was their mother
tongue. Their first ruler Babur wrote poetry and his
memoirs in this language.
It was Akbar who consciously set out to make
Persian the leading language of the Mughal court.
Cultural and intellectual contacts with Iran, as well
as a regular stream of Iranian and Central Asian
migrants seeking positions at the Mughal court,
might have motivated the emperor to adopt the
language. Persian was elevated to a language of
empire, conferring power and prestige on those who
had a command of it. It was spoken by the king, the
royal household and the elite at court. Further, it
became the language of administration at all levels
so that accountants, clerks and other functionaries
also learnt it.
Even when Persian was not directly used, its
vocabulary and idiom heavily influenced the language
of official records in Rajasthani and Marathi and
even Tamil. Since the people using Persian in the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came from
many different regions of the subcontinent and
spoke other Indian languages, Persian too became
Indianised by absorbing local idioms. A new
language, Urdu, sprang from the interaction of
Persian with Hindavi.
Mughal chronicles such as the Akbar Nama were
written in Persian, others, like Babur’s memoirs,
were translated from the Turkish into the Persian
Babur Nama . Translations of Sanskrit texts such as
the Mahabharata and the Ramayana into Persian
were commissioned by the Mughal emperors. The
Mahabharata was translated as the Razmnama
(Book of Wars).