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Sultans, Mughals, and pre-colonial Indian society

Imagine a time traveller standing in Mughal Delhi, amidst the splendour of the emperor Shah Jahan’s (r. 1627–58) elegant, riverside city, in the year 1707 (plate 1.1). News had come of the death of Shah
Jahan’s long-ruling son, Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707) in the distant Deccan, where he had been engaged in arduously extending his vast empire.

The traveller, understandably wondering what the death of a mighty monarch would mean, might first have looked back in time a century, say to the death of Shah Jahan’s grandfather, Akbar (r. 1556–1605). Had he done so, he would have seen the key institutions in place that had made the Mughals, in the intervening century, the most powerful empire the subcontinent had ever known.

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It was far greater in population, wealth, and power than the contemporaneous Turko–Mongol empires with which the Mughals shared so much: the Persian Safavids and the Ottoman Turks. The Mughal population in 1700 may have been 100 million, five times that of the Ottomans, almost twenty that of the Safavids.(Indo Pak History Books Pdf  For CSS)

Given the trajectory of continuity and growth that had taken place in the seventeenth century, our time traveller at the turn of the eighteenth century might legitimately have imagined a Mughal future to match the glorious past. He would have seen an empire existing only in name amidst a landscape of competing for regional powers. (Indo Pak History Books Pdf  For CSS)

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Among these regional states was one which, in 1707 only a minor European trading body operating from coastal enclaves, was now transformed into a governing body based in the rich, eastern province of Bengal. The Mughal emperor, though still a symbolic overlord, was now confined to the area around Delhi, himself prey to Afghans, the western Deccan-based Marathas, and, in 1803, placed under the control of that very English Company which, as this new century turned, had lately come to a vision of creating an empire itself.(Indo Pak History Books Pdf  For CSS)

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The most familiar ways of understanding the Mughal era in Indian history were forged in a framework created by the British as they themselves devised a national history for their own emerging nation. Central to their image of themselves, as well as to their image of what they came to see as a backward but incipient nation, was what the historian David Arnold has called the Orientalist ‘triptych’ of Indian history.(Indo Pak History Books Pdf  For CSS)

In this vision, the ancient ‘Hindus’ had once created a great civilization. With the advent of Islamic rulers in the early thirteenth century, Indian culture rigidified, political life gave way to despotism and the gap between foreign ‘Muslim’ rulers and a native ‘Hindu’ populace of necessity made for a fragile structure.

Moral arguments, particularly a focus on what became a caricature of Aurangzeb’s ‘intolerance’, were central in explaining ‘decline’. Stage three brought modern British colonial rule with its enlightened leadership, scientific progress, and – for some adherents to this vision more than others – tutelage to independence. (Indo Pak History Books Pdf  For CSS)

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This tripartite schema was explicit in much British writing, and it often underlay even anti-colonial Indian nationalist historiography. Even today it has been tenaciously persistent as unrecognized ‘common sense’ in historical writing; and, as we shall see in chapter 9, it is today treated as fact in Hindu nationalist ideologies.

Today historians of the centuries preceding the British period reject the earlier characterizations of the period of the Muslim dynasties. They also argue, perhaps surprisingly, in relation to the eighteenth century, that it was the culmination of long-term transitions in trade, finance, culture, and society that offered the English the very resources. 

They needed to exercise their own remarkable innovations in finance, organization, and military and naval technology. This chapter introduces the middle frame of the ‘triptych’, covering roughly 1206 to 1707 when patterns were set that help explains our traveller’s view both back in time and ahead. the Delhi sultanate

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The common image of India’s past has been profoundly influenced by two interrelated misperceptions: one that the classical texts of the Brahmans described an existing society; and, second, that, because India was ‘timeless’, the village and caste organization of colonial or even contemporary India was a guide to its historical past.

In fact, the periods of the Sultanate and Mughal rule accelerated already existing patterns of change. These centuries saw the expansion of the agricultural frontier, extensive commercial networks, gradual technological change, and development of political and religious institutions. These changes, not some stagnant society, form the prelude to the colonial era.(Indo Pak History Books Pdf  For CSS)

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Nor, one might add, did Muslim rulers fit the caricature assigned them. It is, for instance, misleading to speak of them as ‘foreign’, for, in patterns set by the earliest Sultanates, Muslim and non-Muslim polities and cultures changed in interaction with each other. It is also misleading to speak of this era as the period of ‘Muslim’ rule. Such an expression exaggerates the differences

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