Decline of Mughal Empire

  • The Mughal Empire held sway over a large part of India for nearly three centuries, but a drastic decline in its power and prestige came about by the first half of the eighteenth century.
  • Not only did the political boundaries of the Empire shrink, the decline also saw the collapse of the administrative structure so assiduously built by rulers like Akbar and Shah Jahan. In the wake of the collapse of the Mughal power a number of Independent principalities emerged in all parts of the Empire.
  • However, the processes of the decline and the emergence of regional polities have been intensely debated among historians. It has also been a subject on which scholarly opinion is more sharply divided than on any other aspect of Mughal history.
  • The historiographical perspective on the Mughal decline can be divided into two broad sections. First, the Mughal-centric approach, i.e., historians attempt to identify the causes of the decline within the structure and functioning of the Empire itself.
  • Secondly, the region-centric approach where the perspective goes out of the precincts of the Empire into the regions to look for the causes of turmoil or instability in different parts of the Empire.
  • There are two approaches regarding the decline of the Mughal Empire:
    1. Empire centric approach
    2. Region centric approach

Empire-centric approach

  • Historians attempt to identify the causes of the decline within the structure and functioning of the Empire itself.
  • Personality centric view:
    • This was propagated by Jadunath Sarkar, Stanley Lanepoole, V.A. Smith, William Irvine.
    • Attributed the decline to a deterioration in the characters of the Emperors and their nobles.
    • Jadunath Sarkar had analyzed the developments of this period in the context of law and order. He considered Aurangzeb as the arch culprit. He said:
      • Aurangzeb was a religious fanatic. He discriminated against sections of the nobles and officials on the basis of religion. This led to widescale resentment among the nobility.
      • Aurangzeb’s successors and their nobles were mere shadows of their predecessors and were thus unable to set right the evils of Aurangeb’s legacy.
  • Socio-economic-cultural-administrative centric view:
    • Jagirdari Crisis:
      • Satish Chandra:
        • Mughal decline has to be seen in the Mughal failure to maintain the system of the mansabdar-jagirdar towards the end of Aurangzeb’s reign. As this system went into disarray, the Empire was bound to collapse.
        • S. Chandra was the first one to make serious attempt to study the structure of the Mughal Empire. This led to shift of focus from personalities and policies of individual rulers to larger and broader developments that were weakening the very structure on which the Mughal edifice had been built.
      • Athar Ali:
        • The nobles competed for better jagirs, which were increasingly becoming rare due to the influx of nobles (Marathas and Deccanis) from the south.
        • The logical consequence was the erosion in the political structure which was based on jaglrdari to a large extent.
      • Nurul Hassan:
        • In the eighteenth century, with the decline of the Mughal authority, and with pressure on jagirs, agricultural economy began to face a crisis.
        • As agrarian situation worsened, conflict between zamindars and the state as also among themselves could not be checked. This often resulted in law and order problems and decimated the authority of the state.
    • Agrarian Crisis :
      • Irfan Habib:
        • Peasant protests weakened the political and social fabric of the Empire.
        • The mechanism of collection of revenue that the Mughals had evolved was inherently flawed.
        • The imperial policy was to set the revenue at the highest rate possible to secure the greatest militery strength for the Empire, the nobles. On the other band, tended to squeeze the maximum from their jagirs, even if it ruined the peasantry and destroyed the revenue paying capacity of the area.
        • Since, the nobles’ jagirs were liable to be transferred frequently, they did not find it necessary to follow a far-sighted policy of agricultural development.
        • In reaction to this excessive exploitation the peasantry, protested. Very often the peasants protested against the state by refusing to pay the revenue and were up in arms against the Mughals (Jat, Satnami, Sikh rebellions).
    • Re-examination of ‘Crisis’:
      • Pearson:
        • Mughal rule was indirect. It was not state control but local ties and norms which governed the lives of people.
        • The nobles were bound to the Empire only by patronage, which depended on the “constant military success” of the Emperor.
        • Once Mughal patronage slackened due to the lack of any further military expansion, and, a shortage of fertile areas to be allotted as jagirs arose, the “personalised bureaucracy” of the Mughal Empire showed signs of distress. This sounded the death-knell for the Mughal system.
      • J. F. Richards:
        • He questioned the long held belief that the Deccan was a deficit area which generated bejagiri (absence of Jagir) leading to the Mughal decline.
        • He said, the jagirdari crisis was of an administrative and managerial nature. The augmentation of the revenue resources of the Empire following the annexation of the Deccan states roughly kept pace with the expansion of the nobility during the second half of Aurangzeb’s reign.
        • The lack of pai baqi land was due to a deliberate decision on Aurangzeb’s part to keep the most lucrative Jagirs under khalisa in order to provide for a continued campaigning in the Karnataka and against the Marathas. Thus, the crisis was an administrative one and not caused by bejaglrl.
      • Distinction between bejagiri and the crisis in Jagirdari:
        • Satish Chandra resolved problem of bejagiri to some extent.
        • The crisis of the Jagir system did not occur because of the growth in the size of the ruling class and the corresponding decline in the land earmarked to be assigned in jagir (i.e. bejagiri). Jaglr system was in crisis because of its non-functionality.
        • Functioning of the Jagirdari system:
          • A tripolar relationship between the peasants, the zamindars and the mansabdar/jagirdar formed the base on which the Mughal edifice rested.
          • The ability of the mansabdar/jagirdar to collect land revenue from the zamindars and keep the raiyat engaged in agricultural production was the key to successful working of the jagir system.
          • The jagirdar could perform his functions properly if he could maintain his military might.
          • This of course was based on his ability to muster enough revenue and resources from his jagir in order to maintain the requisite contingent of troopers.
          • Any factor which could disturb this neat balancing of jagirdar-zamindar-peasant parameter would ultimately cause the decline of the Empire.
        • Satish Chandra argues that:
          • The crisis of the jagir system had made its appearance fairly early in the history of the Empire. The problem re-surfaced under Jahangir and Shah Jahan when the Empire had expanded to fringe arms beyond the fertile tracts of the Ganga-Yamuna doab.
          • Towards the end of Shah Jahan reign, the difference between jama (assessed revenue) and hasil (revenue actually collected) in jagir lands became too glaring. The number of sawars he maintained had to be reduced proportionally and influence of the jagirdar proportionally lower.
          • Once the military power of the jagirdar was eroded, the tripolar relationship which sustained the Empire fell apart.
          • Crisis of Jagirdari system could have been deferred if there was rapid economic development both in agricultural and non-agricultural sectors (trade).
    • Cultural failure theory (By Athar Ali):
      • According to this theory, the cultural failure of rulers of India in imbibing western knowledge and learning was responsible for the decline of the Mughals. The technological backwardness of the Indians in various fields like agricultural production, craft production, seafaring activities (Mughal did not have control over high seas), military fields etc. led to the decline of the Mughals.
    • The “Great Firm” Theory of the Decline of the Mughal Empire (by Karen Leonard):
      • The Mughal decline has also been explained in terms of participation in the eighteenth century politics of groups conventionally regarded as non-political.
      • Indigenous banking firms were indispensable allies of the Mughal State, and that the great nobles “were more than likely to be directly dependent upon these firms. When in the period 1650-1750 these banking firms began “the redirection of their economic and political support towards regional politics and rulers, including the English east India Company in Bengal, this led to bankruptcy, a series of political crises and the down fall of the Empire.
      • But this theory does not get adequate support from other historians as it is not right to suggest that the Mughal finance system was dependent on merchants’ credit.

The Region-centric approach

  • The perspective goes out of the precincts of the Empire into the regions to look for the causes of turmoil or instability in different parts of the Empire.
  • Muzaffar Alam and Chetan Singh have used this approach.
  • Centre-Region Relationship:
    • By studying the regional literature of Mughal Subas of Awadh and Punjab, Muzaffar Alam gave his argument.
    • He suggests that the Mughal Empire signified a co-ordinating agency between conflicting communities and the various indigenous socio-political systems at different levels.
    • The Empire’s strength lay in the inability of the local  communities and their systems to mobilize beyond relatively narrow bounds.
    • The late 17th and early 18th century, at least in the Awadh and Punjab regions, registered unmistakable economic growth.
      • Social groups that had hitherto shared Mughal power and contributed to the political stability of the Empire, now began to take advantage of the economic boom in their regions.
      • Many of them amassed wealth which helped them to increase their power to encroach on the rights and privileges of others.
      • The political edifice of the Empire was bound to suffer in the face of these developments.
      • This is in sharp contrast to the more generalized argument that it was financial crisis which led to Mughal’s decline, as postulated by Satish Chandra and others.
    • Political integration in Mughal India was, up to a point, inherently flawed. It was dependent on the realization of local magnate (nobles) that they could not amass fortunes by themselves.
    • Madad-i ma’ash holders were meant to establish pockets of influence for the Empire in the far flung regions of the countryside. The emperors were of the view that the madad-i ma’ash grantees would keep in check the power of the recalcitrant zamindars and thereby aid in balancing the social and political groups that constituted the base of the Empire.
    • The Mughal decline in the early 18th century has to be seen in the inability of the state to maintain its policy of checks and balances between
      • Zamindars,
      • Jagirdars,
      • Madad-i ma’ash holders (men of learning, who were given revenue free grants of land by the Mughal Emperors) and
      • The local indigenous elements; like the shaikhzada in Awadh.
    • Tension between these social group was not new and had happened earlier also but in the hey-day of the Empire these tensions had been contained, sometimes using military force and at other times by balancing out the power of one social group by settling another in the vicinity.
    • Muzaffar Alam concludes that the decline of the Mughal empire was manifested both in Awadh and the Punjab in a kind of political transformation and in the emergence and configuration of the elements of a new subadari. The genesis for the emergence of independent regional units was present in both the provinces. But in Punjab it ended in chaos, while Awadh witnessed a stable dynastic rule.
  • Contours of Regional Polities:  
    • Chetan singh followed Muzaffar Alam and tried to understand Mughal decline by looking at regional development in early 18th century.
    • He argues that the Mughal administrative infrastructure no doubt linked the region to the Mughal administrative core. Yet, this conventional form of integration had its limitations.
    • He sees the process of dissociation at work in the hey day of the Empire.
    • Erosion of highly commercialized Punjab economy:
      • By the late 17th century the silting of the river Indus  had adversely affected the riverine traffic of Punjab.
      • The political upheavals in contemporary Turkey, fall of Qandahar to the Shah of Iran and the Mughal attempt to recover it virtually brought overland traffic to a standstill.
      • This development coincided with the Yusufzai uprising (1667) in North-West Punjab and the Afridi rebellion (1678).
      • These developments had grave social and economic consequences for Punjab: they disrupted trade and thereby gradually eroded the economy which was based on a commercialized agrarian sector.
    • The loosening of Punjab’s socio-economic structure led to social unrest in Punjab. However, since the benefits of trade and commerce had been unequally distributed in the region, the discomforts caused by the decline of trade varied in different areas of the Punjab. Thus the areas most closely associated with the Sikh rebellion were those that were also among the most commercialized and therefore most easily affected by economic regression.
    • He concludes, the social unrest which eventually led to the dissociation of Punjab from the Empire was the product of long term processes. These processes had silently and steadily been at work in the region even before the political weakening of Empire had gained momentum in the 18th century.
  • Thus looking at the disintegration of the Empire from the point of view of the regional history of Punjab different picture emerges. Not only did different subas of the Empire dissociate from it for different reasons, but very often the dissociation were caused by political, social and economic developments beyond the purview of the Mughal Empire.


  • reasons it is difficult to accept a view of Mughal decline which applies uniformly to all parts of the Mughal Empire.
    • The Mughal Empire at best represented a consensus of both the centre and the peripheries. In the early 18th century, it was this consensus which was disturbed.
    • Different peripheries that had constituted the Empire followed their own different paths of developments.
    • The eighteenth century regional histories thus indicate the endeavour to make use of the possibilities for growth within existing social structures.
  • Evidently the regional history perspective on Mughal decline negates the application of one general theory to explain Mughal collapse all over India.
    • For the Mughal Empire, at best, represented a consensus between the centre and the peripheries. The peripheries were integrated to the Mughal core not merely administratively.
    • For there was an economic and cultural assimilation between the conqueror and the vanquished. It was on certain shared economic and cultural spaces that the Mughal state structure rested. Regions, held together by these heterogeneous linkages to the Mughal core, were bound to be vulnerable to the kinds of social, economic and cultural changes that swept through 17th century Mughal India.
    • Different regions were affected in different ways. While in some regions links with the Mughal core were severed, in others they were retained.
    • It was logical that the different regions followed different paths of dissociation from the Mughal Empire. Mughal decline was thus much more complex than what the historians subscribing to the Mughal-Centric approach would have us believe.
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