The Mughal legacy


HISTORY as part of the curriculum in the education system of a nation state is vital for creating an understanding of its roots and identity for its populace as well as pride in its past. It was in a recent teacher training workshop on Pakistan Studies for secondary school teachers that a heated argument arose about whether the Mughals had contributed to India anything other than buildings and gardens while praising the British rulers for developing India through education, roads and railways.

Both sides were unwilling to give in to the other and, finally, the matter was left unresolved. This perception is prevalent among history school teachers who, perhaps, have not read widely on the subject to form such an opinion. What is not delved into here is the fact that history has to be a balanced account or narrative and students must be made to use their thinking skills to analyse and evaluate historical facts rather than be swayed by foregone conclusions.

More recently, with the decline in education standards in Pakistan and history textbooks being used for ideological purposes, the perception and knowledge of history as a discrete subject discipline has deteriorated considerably. Consequently, history lessons can be used for either eulogising the British colonial rulers; for the defamation of the Hindus; or belittling our Mughal heritage.

K.K. Aziz, a Pakistani historian, in an interview shortly before his death had said that the Mughals had left nothing behind except for monuments and gardens. The neglect of the Social Sciences in our educational policies has had a detrimental effect on the importance of historical research and the writing of historical accounts post partition. It is only historical scholarship which can project a balanced view of the Mughal Empire in a detached way using primary sources to explain the era.

Historians such as Percival Spear use a sensible way of approaching the study of Mughal and British rule of India. In A History of India (Volume II) he takes a look at both the periods separately as two different entities and says that the Mughals and the British each ruled India for approximately two hundred plus years. However, with the rise of the technological age coinciding with British rule, the status of Mughal India is relegated to a decaying state and deteriorating society.

This assumption throws up the impression that it was always like that under the Mughals. Conversely, when studying both Mughal and British periods separately, Percival Spear says that British India is greatly indebted to Mughal India in many ways on the one hand while on the other, the impressive Mughal dynasty surpasses any other in the previous thousand years.

Akbar S. Ahmed’s well-researched and insightful Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity — The Search for Saladin (OUP) terms the Mughal Empire as the “super power” of their age. In modern language that would mean economic superiority and prosperity of the people of that nation state. It would also mean, in today’s context, a large arsenal, technological advancement and a stable, viable, democratic governance with a literate population. When we look at the historian’s view of labeling the 17th century as “the great age of the Mughals”, the underpinning is that their rule matched the might of the other powers of their age such as the great Sophia of Constantinople and grand Cham of Persia. Nevertheless, Mughal India from the layman’s perspective is often denigrated to a baser level and the British rule of India highlighted as being the real benefactor of the modern states of Pakistan and India.

To correct the obvious, let us take an overview of the life and times of the Mughals. One indicator of a civilisation is what it has generated in terms of knowledge and how literate is its population. William Dalrymple writes in his highly-regarded book The Last Mughal (2006) that Delhi was a celebrated intellectual centre and by about 1850 was at its cultural peak with “six famous madressahs and at least four smaller ones, nine newspapers in Urdu and Persian, five intellectual journals published out of Delhi College, innumerable printing presses and publishers, and no fewer than 130 Yunani doctors.” He quotes Colonel William Sleeman as admitting that the madressah education given in Delhi was “quite remarkable”. Sleeman himself wrote on a visit to Delhi, the Mughal capital:

“Perhaps there are few communities in the world among whom education is more generally diffused than among Mohammadans in India. He who holds an office worth Rs20 a month commonly gives his sons an education equal to that of a Prime Minister. They learn through the medium of Arabic and Persian, what young men in our colleges learn through those of Greek and Latin — that is grammar, rhetoric and logic.”

Leitner’s report of 1882 confirms the educational status of just the Punjab as having 330,000 pupils learning “all the sciences in Arabic and Sanskrit schools and colleges, as well as Oriental literature, Oriental law, Logic, Philosophy and Medicine were taught to the highest standard”. After 1857, when the British system of education took hold the number of pupils taking this form of education diminished to 190,000. Nevertheless, Leitner’s analysis of the indigenous system of education proved that it was far superior to that set by the British in 1835 with Macaulay’s Minute on Education for the Indian colony.

How then was education delivered in Mughal times? Firstly, schooling of Mughal princes was taken very seriously. Great importance was given to an all round education of the princes with the study of logic, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, law and medicine. Particular emphasis was put on female education by Mughal emperors and most princesses were highly educated, too. Secondly, almost all Mughal emperors encouraged education by setting up schools and seminaries with generous grants to scholars, writers, poets and teachers to keep up the high standard of education.

Although Akbar was unlettered, he gave much thought to education, syllabi and their content, and the teaching methodology for his subjects. Ain-i-Akbari records that there were 52 universities in and around Thatta in Sind during Jehangir’s time. Poets and historians have left outstanding literary works in prose, poetry, history and religious study. Mughal emperors Babar and Jehangir wrote their own biographies — Tuzk-i-Barbari and Tuzk-i-Jehangiri. Under Aurangzeb, the Fatwa-i-Alamgiri was compiled which added to the literature on Muslim law. Most books were transcribed by hand, yet a personal library was essential for a Mughal scholar as well as a Mughal nobleman. In 1641, the library at Agra contained 24,000 volumes and was valued at six and a half million rupees. When the Imperial Library at Delhi was torched by the British in 1803, the vast accumulated knowledge of the Mughal Empire was lost forever.

Literacy in Mughal times is gauged by a reading public among whom the most commonly read books were Gulistan, Bostan, Akhlaq-i-Nasiri and Anwaar-i-Suhaili. Education is also visible in the conduct of governance and administration. Ministers were well read and the empire functioned effectively with separate departments dealing with Agriculture, Trade, Justice, Education, Military and the running of the royal households. Law and order was maintained throughout the empire with justice accorded by Qazis and Muftis, a system later emulated by the British.

Finally, the promotion of the arts and literature during Mughal times could not have been possible without a high standard of education. The historian Rawlinson says that “the high degree of culture in Mughal India was largely the result of the excellent system of education.”

Most civilisations such as the Greek, Egyptian, Persian and Byzantium are judged by their artistic expression in paintings, sculpture and monuments. The renaissance is mostly depicted in the myriad of paintings now on display in Florence, Italy. The undeniable flourishing of artistic expression through painting, poetry and architectural magnificence in the Mughal period is witness to the high degree of civilisation attained by them. The miniature school of paintings evolved in this period and the art form of calligraphy developed greatly and is beautifully evident in all their buildings.

As to the monuments, tombs, forts, and mosques that Mughal architecture left to India is a testament to the highly-skilled craftsmanship and engineering marvels of the era. The water systems of the gardens and forts were developed for the heat of the subcontinent and their planning can only be attributed to an educated mind. The architectural ethereal beauty of the Taj Mahal has not been surpassed to this day and has earned it the position of one of the wonders of the world. In modern times it has managed to contribute to the Indian economy as a tourist attraction that cannot be overlooked. Tourism relies on an exposition of a country’s visible achievements in the form of monasteries, churches, courts of law, palaces and museums. Hence, Mughal buildings and gardens are a valuable asset for Pakistan’s culture and history.

In spite of this, the legacy of the Mughals most relevant in today’s Pakistan is the religious tolerance for the other communities in India. The Mughals were imperialists or kings by profession and Muslims by birth and circumstance. The religious orthodoxy did play a part in their rule but it never interfered with the belief of the bulk of the population which was Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh. Their places of worship were respected and their customs and festivals upheld so much so that in 1857, both Muslims and Hindus rallied around the Mughal emperor to expel the British from India.

Accurate knowledge of the legacy of the Mughals in education is vital to our new generations as libraries and a reading culture is now missing in the lives of ordinary Pakistanis. Teachers need to have a holistic education encompassing a multi-disciplinary approach rather than just a command of their subject. In many cases, Pakistan Studies is taught by those who, perhaps, just have a working knowledge of History and Geography from their school days. Thus, knowledge from a biased history textbook is likely to be passed on to students by a teacher not too familiar with historical nuances and biases. Thus, the cultural and historical heritage of a nation must be safeguarded at all costs for its future depends on it.

The writer is an educational consultant based in Lahore.