‘Mughals were at the right place at the right time’

Published August 21, 2015
Munis D. Faruqui speaking at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture on Thursday.—White Star
Munis D. Faruqui speaking at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture on Thursday.—White Star

KARACHI: In the context of the Mughal Empire, an open-ended succession system was at the heart of Mughal success. It allowed a certain kind of dynamism and vitality that coursed through the political veins of the empire. This was the central point that Munis D. Faruqui made during his talk on the topic ‘The Princes of the Mughal Empire’ on Thursday afternoon at the Indus Valley School (IVS) of Art and Architecture.

Mr Faruqui, who is a historian and assistant professor in the department of South and South East Asian Studies at University of California, Berkeley, first briefly introduced the Mughals to his audience which largely comprised IVS students. He said they were ethnic Turks from Central Asia who conquered most of South Asia to create one of the largest political entities in the world.

He raised the question, which he said was often raised by historians, as to how the Mughals managed to control such a large expanse of land. He said scholars usually came up with four approaches to answer the query. The first was mainly about personalities, that is, they were geniuses in individual capacities, such as Babar who defeated the Lodhis or Akbar or Shahjahan who brought different things to the table.

The second was to do with the administrative and bureaucratic institutions that they built through various networks. The third was their military history and their use of military technology like gunpowder.

The final approach to answering the question, he said, was the geo-economic situation at the time.

In 1492 Christopher Columbus discovered a new world, followed by the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The Spanish monopolised all the gold and silver of the world but the vast majority of gold and silver, nearly 40 per cent, was deposited in China and India. Akbar became emperor in 1556. So the Mughals were at the right place at the right time, he explained.

Mr Faruqui said he did not wish to repudiate any of the arguments but wanted to build on some of the explanations. He opined the Mughals had an open-ended system of succession. Unlike Europe’s primogeniture right (the firstborn male child to inherit the family estate) in the Mughal Empire every son, whether born to an Iranian mother of good lineage or a slave girl, had an equal right to the throne. Since it pitted brother against brother, some historians found it repulsive, he said, but argued that in the context of empire, the open-ended succession system was at the heart of Mughal success because it allowed a certain kind of dynamism and vitality to course through the political veins of the empire.

Mr Faruqui claimed the Mughal harem was an extraordinary space. It was run by senior women and even the emperor was required to have their permission to enter it. The senior women were the ones who decided who the emperor would get to sleep with, he said.

There was a clear pattern behind the reasons for choosing a particular young woman to become a mother, but the son could be born to a noble woman or a concubine, he remarked. What’s known though, he said, was the fact that the number of boys to a reigning emperor was always very small. From the 1500s to 1700s the number of boys born to an emperor ranged between two and five, he said.

Shedding light on the adult status of the princes, Mr Faruqui pointed out four things.

1) Once the boy reached adulthood (which happened between ages 13 and 19) he would attain enormous wealth. For example, Shahjahan, by the time he got to the throne, was earning $150m a year.

2) The prince would create a household constituting of 20,000 to 40,000 people – soldiers, tailors, helpers, etc.

3) Marriage was an important moment in the prince’s life; he would marry at a very young age, and through his wife would have more connections outside of his area of influence. However, the Mughals didn’t over-marry and would have no more than three to four wives.

4) The prince had the right to leave the Mughal court, having other assignments such as governorship or getting military command. Mr Faruqui said the princes spent most of the time travelling, learning the tricks of the trade and getting to know the people of the empire – Sufis, saints, artists, etc – trying to mould their perception of them. Aurangzeb, before becoming emperor, had only two brief stints at the imperial court, he said.

All of this also had a paradox: as the boy (prince) became stronger and more people got attached to him, he became a threat to the emperor himself therefore every emperor had to contend with the fear of a rebellion. To clip his son’s wings the emperor would often send a prince to a less lucrative area or poach people from his household to lessen his power.

But, Mr Farqui said, rebellion was used by the boy (prince) as a last resort, because it would weaken him for the future war of succession. For the prince, rebellion was the moment of truth to find out who his real friends were. And if the prince was killed in rebellion, the violence would immediately stop and the people who had sided with the prince would be re-accommodated in the empire, he said. “The system was designed to defuse long-term hatred and animosity,” he commented.

Responding to the thought as to why there were no Mughals today, Mr Faruqui talked in detail about Aurangzeb’s son Akbar’s rebellion and him heading south to be with the Marathas as well as about the fact that Aurangzeb was 91 when he died, whereas the average life expectancy at the time was 35.

When he died his sons were in their 60s and grandsons in 40s, which meant that in a system which depended on two to five princes there were 23 princes trying to take on each other, causing quite a few wars of succession from 1707 to 1719, he added.

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2015

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