The Mughal Empire

The Mughal Empire of India was one of the great empires of world history. This was the second of two great Islamic empires which dominated the history of the Indian subcontinent from the early 13th to the early 18th centuries. The first of these empires was the Delhi Sultanate.

In many ways the Mughal empire represents the climax of Indian civilization, before the coming of Europeans brought new global influences to bear on its ancient traditions. It marks the transition from medieval India to modern India.

A Historical overview of the Mughal Empire


In 1525, a minor Afghan chieftain called Babur, invaded northwest India. The ruler of the Delhi sultanate, the large state which covered much of northern India at that time, moved up to meet him. The two sides met at the Battle of Panipat, in April 1526. There, Babur defeated and killed the last of the Delhi sultans.

Babur was of Mongol origin (he claimed descent from Genghis Khan). As a result, he and his descendants were called the Mughal (Afghan for “Mongol”) dynasty. 

Babur had three years of hard fighting before he was able the defeat his many enemies in northern India, but by 1530 he had emerged victorious. However, he had been unable to establish order within the large territories that he dominated before he died in that year.

Interlude: Humāyūn and Sher Shah

Babur was succeeded by his son, Humāyūn. He faced a chat situation, and was unable to hold on to his throne in the face of numerous rebellions. Over the next decade he was driven back out of India into Afghanistan. 

His main and most able opponent was one of Babur’s former generals, a far-sighted leader called Sher Shah. He established his power in northern India, and proved not only a successful military commander but also an able ruler. He reformed the currency and tax systems, and upgraded the road network. 

Like Babur before him, however, Sher Shah too died after only a short reign, in 1545. He had not had the time to firmly consolidated his power, and on his death internecine struggles immediately broke out. Humāyūn, who had meanwhile been holding out in Afghanistan, was able to mount a successful counter-attack, and regained his throne by 1555. 

But once again fate intervened. The very next year Humāyūn died in an accident in his library. This event left his 12-year old son, Akbar, the task of consolidating Mughal power in northern India.

Akbar the Great and his successors

For the first years of his reign Akbar was dominated by regents, but in 1564, when 20 years old, be took the reins of power into his own hands. 

Akbar vigorously put down all opposition to his rule, including several major rebellions. He expanded the Mughal empire far and wide over northern and central India, and initiated policies which would place Mughal power on much more solid foundations. 

These rested on the twin principles of religious toleration (Hindus of course made up the vast majority of his subjects), and political centralization. 

Religious toleration

Akbar openly showed his approach to religious matters in the most public way possible, by marrying a Rajput (and therefore Hindu) princess. He abolished the hated tax on non-Muslims, and recruited Hindu nobles (especially Rajputs) into the highest reaches of government. 

Most remarkably of all, and in line with his own liberal religious convictions, towards the end of his reign he deposed Islam from its position as the official religion of the Mughal empire.

Centralization of power

To concentrate government power more firmly in his own hands, Akbar strengthened and rationalized the central administration, and imposed a more centralized provincial structure across the empire.

Revenue reforms

He also carried out a comprehensive land survey of the empire to ensure a fairer and more effective system of tax-collection. In fact he re-enacted Sher Shah’s reforms, and refined them to make them more effective. He insisted on peasants paying their taxes in coin rather than kind, and carried out a survey of agricultural land, for productivity and crops grown, to make it fairer.

Road building

Akbar also carried out a major road-building program to improve connections between northern and central India with central Asia (and the Silk Road); eastwards into Bengal; and westward to the Indian Ocean ports .

A new capital

A less welcome action of Akbar’s came in 1571, when he moved the Mughal capital from Agra to a new city called Fatehpur. Despite the huge funds Akbar poured into its construction and the magnificent palaces he built there, it quickly proved unsuitable for the role – it was short of water and thus unable to house a large population easily. In 1585 he moved the capital to Lahore, and later to Agra.


When he died, in 1605, Akbar bequeathed a large, peaceful empire to his successor, Jahāngīr. As usual in Indian politics, however, the death of an old emperor was the signal for rebellion to break out. Jahāngir had to immediately face a rebellion, not from an ambitious noble or general, but from his own son.

Jahāngīr continued Mughal expansion in central India, although gains here were somewhat counter-balanced by losses of territory in Afghanistan, at the hands of a resurgent Persia.

Jahāngīr’s last years were beset by rebellions and palace intrigues. In 1627 he died and was succeeded by his son, Shah Jahān (reigned 1627-58).

Shah Jahān

Shah Jahān’s accession was marked, as usual, by palace intrigues, which culminated in the slaughter of several of the emperor’s brothers and cousins. Later in his reign, Shah Jahān had to contend with rebellions by Mughal generals and Hindu leaders alike also broke out.

He was able to defeat all these, and his reign saw further expansion in the Deccan, as well as the recapture of Afghant territory lost in his father’s reign. Further expeditions in Afghanistan and central Asia were not a success, however. Shah Jahān moved his capital from Agra to Delhi in 1648 to shore up the defences of the northeast of the empire.

Shah Jahān is particular noted as a patron of the arts. At his court he surrounded himself with the best poets and painters of the day. Above all he is famous for building the peerless Taj Mahal.

Although Akbar’s, Jahāngīr’s and Shah Jahān’s reigns had experienced palace intrigues and rebellions, these had all been dealt with comparatively easily and quickly, without much damage to wider stability and prosperity. Under these three emperors, the Mughal empire had expanded in size, had experienced strong economic growth, and had produced wonderful art and architecture. In the long reign of the next emperor, however, the tide began to turn against the Mughals. 

In 1657, Shah Jahān fell ill, and unsurprisingly this was the trigger for an armed contest (1657-9) between four of his sons. From this, Aurangzeb emerged successful, who imprisoned his father and began his long reign. Shah Jahān died in captivity in 1666.


Aurangzeb (reigned 1657-1707) continued the expansionist policies of his predecessors. His campaigns pushed Mughal power further and further south, and under this emperor, the Mughal empire reached its largest extent.

Religious policies

However, even before Aurangzeb’s accession the Mughals had been losing the support of some Hindus, and the new emperor’s austere religious policies did not help. Aurangzeb was a devout Muslim with no patience for his predecessors’ tolerant approach, and attempted to restore Islam to its former place as  the official religion of the empire. He reimposed the tax on non-Muslims, and forbade the building of new Hindu and Sikh temples, and even the repair of old ones. 


Rebellions began to mount – the Jats (a tribal people in northern India) in 1669, Pathans (an Afghan group) in 1667 and 1672, Sikhs in the 1660s – their leader, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was brutally executed in 1675 – and a major Rajput rebellion lasting from the 1660s through to the 1680s. Most dangerously (although it did not seem so at the time) the Marathas, a militant Hindu community based in central and southern India, also rebelled. Between c.1655 and 1680, they had an outstanding leader called Shivaji, who not only inflicted humiliating defeats on Mughal forces, but laid the foundations for future Maratha success. 

The Marathas

Aurangzeb dealt with all these revolts with some degree of success – for a time. The Marathas, however, refused to recognize their defeat and after a short pause took up arms again. Aurangzeb spent almost the entire final 25 years of his reign in the Deccan attempting to deal with them. Little by little, however, they gained the upper hand against Mughal forces. By the end of Aurangzeb’s reign they had effectively asserted their independence from the Mughals, and controlled large areas of southern India.

Tax revenues

Maratha success was not the only harbinger of decline for the Mughals. While Aurangzeb was attempting to deal with them in far off in southern India, the collection of tax revenues was being affected by Aurangzeb’s anti-Hindu and Sikh policies, which provoked widespread passive resistance from the Hindu majority and their leaders in the localities. Even many of his nobles resisted Araungzeb’s policies, and failed to implement them fully in their areas. 

With declining amounts of tax revenues coming in to the treasury from the provinces, taxes had to be increased in this areas which were under more effective Mughal control.

In 1707, when Aurangzeb died, the giant edifice of the Mughal empire was beginning to break apart.

The Decline of the Mughal Empire

Aurangzeb’s successors were more conciliatory in their policies towards their Hindu subjects. They abolished the tax on non-Muslims, and conciliated the Rajputs and Marathas. These measures met with some success, but in the process they effectively confirmed the de facto independence of both these groups.

Many troubles

By this time, the fiscal position of the Mughal regime had become dire. It was unable to reward its nobles and officials properly, and this undermined their loyalty. Matters were made worse by vicious palace intrigues, wars of succession, and the rise of over-powerful favorites at court. Finally came a series of violent political feuds over control of the throne. These culminated in the execution of emperor Farrukhsiyar in 1719.

Over-powerful governors

In the absence of firm and consistent control from the court, provincial governors grabbed more and more power for themselves. It was in these years that the key areas of Hyderabad, Bengal and Orissa, Ayodhya and the Punjab, all slipped out from the effective control of the Mughal court. The latter, concerned primarily with ensuring the continued flow of revenues from the provinces, had little choice but to come to terms with these powerful governors, recognizing their wide-ranging powers in exchange for tribute.

Invasions and raids

In the 1730s the Marathas, taking advantage of the unsettled conditions within the Mughal empire, invaded northwards and eastwards, conquering much of central India. 

Then, in 1739, a Persian army under Nādir Shah invaded India and brutally sacked Delhi, the capital of the Mughal empire. He returned to Persia laden with booty, including some of the most priceless regalia of the Mughal emperors. He also forced the Mughal court to cede large amounts of territory in Afghanistan and northwest India to him.

The northwest defenses of what remained of the Mughal empire were now destroyed, and chieftains from Afghanistan repeatedly plundered these regions. At the same time the Marathas were raiding from their new bases in central India. 

Continued Mughal prestige

Despite all this, the Mughal emperor and his court remained a powerful symbol of authority. Afghans, Marathas, and the increasingly independent governors, sought to control the court rather than destroy it: they needed the legitimacy that it conferred on them to maintain their authority over local populations.

By the mid-18th century, therefore, a sort of confederacy of regional principalities had emerged, all proclaiming some kind of loyalty to the shadowy Mughal emperors in Delhi but each pursing its own interests in rivalry with the other power-centers.

Puppet rulers

As a centralized state, however, the Mughal empire was no more. Mughal emperors continued to reign in theory, but were completely unable to control the forces swirling around them. Their effective power did not reach much beyond Delhi and its surrounding territories. Then, as the British gained control of more and more of the subcontinent, the Mughal emperors suffered the fate of becoming puppet rulers, increasingly propped up by British power. 

Finally, in the Great Rebellion against the British in 1857-8, the rebels took control of person of the last Mughal emperor and set him up as a figurehead, to which (they hoped) the Indian population would flock and drive out the foreigners. But the time had past for such an outcome to be a serious possibility, and the last Mughal emperor ended his days as an exile in British captivity.

The Government of the Mughal Empire

The fact that the Mughal empire lasted for over 150 years shows that it was built on strong foundations. These were largely laid down during the long reign of the emperor Akbar the Great.

Government personnel

The Mughals’ roots lay in Afghanistan, where nobles were used to sharing power with their monarch. This was not a recipe for efficient, stable government, however, and conflicted with Akbar’s ambition to hold as much state power as possible in his own hands. 

He therefore encouraged men from different backgrounds – Indian Muslims, Persians, Hindu Rajputs – to join the Mughal imperial service, and appointed many of them to high office.

The Mughal nobility

To incentivize them to work together effectively, Akbar created a single imperial nobility based on a hierarchy of military ranks. Its members (mansabdars) were given differing amounts of land (jagirs) according their rank, from which they received tax income.

These parcels of land were held at the emperors’s pleasure, were not inheritable and could not be bought or sold. They did not come with any public authority over the farmers and other people living on them, other than the collection of revenue. From the revenue that was collected, the mansabdars were required to contribute a certain number of soldiers to the imperial army, ranging from 10 for the lowest rank of mansabdar to 5000 for the highest (usually a prince of the royal family, or in some cases a leading Rajput prince).

Men from the various backgrounds mentioned above could rise through the ranks of the imperial service to the highest posts. This was thus an aristocracy of service which were only partially non-Indian in origin, and reflected something of India’s diverse ethnic and religious composition. Its members were motivated to work loyally for their imperial masters through a regular system of promotions and other rewards.


Central administration

Akbar set up an efficient central administration, which at the top was divided into just four departments, those of the prime minister, the minister of finance, the paymaster general, and the chief justice (who was also responsible for religious affairs).

These ministers were appointed by the emperor himself, and held office at the emperor’s pleasure. The responsibilities of each department were well-defined, so the ministers had clear accountability to the emperor.

Provincial administration

Provincial administration was also made more clear-cut. The empire was divided into 15 provinces, each under a group of senior officials – a governor, a military commander, a religious administrator and a judge. 

This separation of responsibilities tendency to create tensions within this group, and therefore increase central control over provincial officials. This was enhanced by the fact that there were also agents stationed in each province whose job it was to keep the court well-informed on what was going on.


The provinces were divided into districts, each with its military officer, tax collector, judge, official in charge of public works (especially sanitation, police and administration), head clerk and treasurer.

Towns and villages had their own councils, who had wide responsibilities to run affairs within their communities.

Revenue collection

Through a long process of trial and error, Akbar and his ministers refined the revenue system so that it was as fair to farmers as it could be whilst yielding large revenues for government. The final system placed a severe tax burden on the peasantry – between a third and half of what they produced. However, it took account of agricultural productivity of the land, and the different crops grown.

The tax was payable in copper coin. This forced peasants to sell produce in local markets to get the cash to pay their taxes. It encouraged the spread of the market economy, and stimulated economic expansion. It also led to the rise of moneylenders and grain dealers in the countryside.

The system was operated by well-trained, professional officials and clerks. Crucially, it had the support of the local elites, including the hereditary revenue collectors, the zamindars. These were effectively the local landowners. In return for paying tribute to the Mughal treasury, they were confirmed in their positions by the emperor’s officials.

This was the system which was in force in the northern and central Indian heartlands of the Mughal empire; it was never effectively applied to the newer and more frontier territories.


Akbar tried, and to a large extent succeeded, in establishing a uniform coinage throughout the Mughal empire. He also reformed the currency. This was initially based on copper coinage. In the 17th century, however, an influx of silver from the Americas led to silver coinage replacing copper coinage as a common medium of circulation.

The Army of the Mughal Empire

Modern weaponry

Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, used firearms and cannons in his army, the first in India to do so. 

Modern scholars view the Mughal empire as one of the three Islamic “gunpowder empires” – i.e these empires whose armies contained trops armed with firearms and cannon (the other two were the Ottoman empire and the Safavid empire). 

At the Battle of Panipat, Babur used gunpowder weapons to good effect, and thereafter they were a regular feature of Mughal armies. 

Later, the use of rockets and grenades was not unknown, long before they made their appearance on Europe battlefields. Indeed, Indian rockets were the model on which the British inventor William Congreve based his rockets in the early Nineteenth century.


In many respects, however, the military was organized along traditional Indian lines. The army of the Mughal empire was divided into four branches: infantry, cavalry, artillery and naval forces. These were recruited in different ways.

As we have seen, the individual Mughal nobles (mansabdars) were expected to raise and maintain troops (together with the equipment and animals they needed) from the revenues they collected from the parcels of land (jagirs) given them for their services. This was true of those who were performing civil duties just as much as those who had military roles. Indeed, Mughal public servants were expected to be proficient in both, and could be moved from civilian to military duties at any time. 

Each mansabdar was expected to raise different kinds of soldiers – horsemen (and their horses or elephants) for the cavalry and foot soldiers for the infantry.

A small standing army

The system meant that the standing army kept permanently in place by the Mughal emperors could be small, numbering only several thousand. These were recruited from the Afghans who belonged to, or were closely linked to, the royal clan. They served as a royal bodyguard, and many also had duties as palace officials.

The standing army also contained the artillery force.

When an emergency arose, or a foreign war was being planned, the cavalry and infantry troops contributed by the mansabdars made up the bulk of the Mughal army.

The navy was also raised by the mansabdar system. This contained a few warships, mainly for anti-pirate duties, but its main function was probably to transport troops along the big rivers to a position as near as possible to where they were needed.

The Economy and Society of the Mughal Empire

The Economy

Government policies

Under the Mughal empire, the Indian economy prospered, undoubtedly expanding to a level never seen before. It greatly benefitted from the internal peace and stability that the empire brought, particularly under Akbar, Jahāngīr and Shah Jahān, who together reigned for a hundred years. Specific Mughal policies also added to the prosperity of the times. 

As we saw above, the Mughal government built, improved and maintained the road system throughout the empire, and also developing the seaports and river ports of the subcontinent. The government also funded the construction of large-scale irrigation systems. Akbar’s tax reforms stimulated monetization and helped expand the market economy. New levels of demand for luxury goods encouraged manufacture and trade.


Crucially, an expanding banking sector facilitated a dramatic increase in the use of money across India. Big bankers enabled landed aristocrats, and even the Mughal court, to invest in large-scale commercial operations, something they had not done before on any scale.

Banking operations became more sophisticated, with, for example, bills of exchange increasingly being used to transfer funds from provinces to the capital. At a local level, moneychangers and grain merchants helped peasants pay their taxes in coin.

These developments acted as a powerful stimulus to commerce and manufacture.

European trade

India benefitted from the global expansion of international maritime trade, which gathered pace from 16th century onwards, in the wake of the European age of exploration and discovery. 

Europeans began by shipping goods back to Europe, but soon became involved in the regional Indian Ocean trade as well. Their involvement should not be exaggerated, however. By far the bulk of local and regional trade was carried on in Indian, or at least non-European, ships. Some Muslim merchants of the 17th and 18th centuries were very wealthy indeed; just one of them is said to have operated more ships than all the Portuguese vessels in the Indian Ocean at any one time. 

In fact, the general world-wide upswing in maritime trade benefitted all involved, not just the Europeans. It gave Indian exports a global market and greatly stimulated production. 

European trading bases

The Portuguese established trading posts (sometimes by force) along the coast of India and the Persian Gulf from the late 15th century. From early 17th century they were joined by the Dutch, French and English.

In the wider context of the Indian subcontinent, these trading bases were of almost no significance at all at the time, politically at least; yet, as the first European footholds in the region, they were of immense importance for the future.

Indian exports

The most important Indian export industry was textiles. Cotton cloth (especially calicos and muslins) was especially in demand, and up to the mid-18th century were the most important manufactured goods in world trade. Jute and silk products were also exported on a large scale.

Other key exports were agricultural products such as spices, peppers and indigo. 

Saltpeter (used in gunpowder) was also an important export.

The terms of trade were largely to India’s advantage in this period. The European demand for India’s textiles, spices and other agricultural products could not be met by European products, which had limited appeal in the Indian market. They had largely to be paid for in silver bullion (which came ultimately from the Americas). In India, this was minted into silver coin, and its circulation in the economy boosted trade and manufacture at all levels.

Besides the growing European market, Indian goods were also exported to South East Asia, and even Japan. 

The increase in foreign trade expanded domestic trade as well. It added to the prosperity of the urban elites and so boosted the demand for luxury goods.


It is estimated that, until the mid-18th century, India produced about 25% of all the world’s manufactured goods. 

Apart from manufacturing for export (and all the above goods found important domestic markets as well), major industries in Mughal India were steel manufacture (mainly for weapons) and shipbuilding. Europeans operating in the Indian Ocean and South East Asia rated Indian ship-repairing superior to that in European dockyards.


The demands of the cotton industry led to advances in production technology, notably the spread of the use of the cotton gin, first developed at the time of the Delhi sultanate, across India in Mughal times.

Many farmers were also increasingly drawn into market economy, not just by having to sell products to pay their taxes, or to raise crops for export. Many also supplemented their farming income by undertaking industrial processes of some kind or other. For example, farming families bought raw cotton from merchants to spin into yarn, which they sold back to the same merchants to be woven into finished cloth. This was the “putting-out” system, a kind of proto-industrialization which was exactly paralleled by that which preceded the industrial revolution in Europe.


Of course, like all pre-19th century societies, India remained a predominantly agricultural economy. Nevertheless, the expansion of commerce and manufacturing, and of towns and cities, led to more market-orientated agriculture, and less subsistence farming. The strong growth in the population of India during the period of the Mughal empire was partly stimulated by an intensification of agricultural production.

As noted above, the Mughal government funded the building of large-scale irrigation schemes, but the vast majority of irrigation works were constructed by the local communities on their own initiative.

From the 17th century, farm production was further boosted by the extensive cultivation of American crops, maize and tobacco. This had the great benefit of being able to be grown on land that was unsuited to native crops. They thus helped more land to be brought under cultivation.

These developments increased agricultural production considerably. We have seen above that this stimulated technological innovation, with the intensification of cotton cultivation leading to the spreading use of the cotton gin in Mughal India.

The Population of Mughal India

India’s population grew strongly in the period of the Mughal Empire. Estimates vary considerably, but it certainly grew at a faster rate than it had ever done before, probably doubling in the two centuries between 1500 and 1700.

Urban growth

Along with economic expansion came urban growth. Cities such as Delhi, Lahore and Agra were some of the largest in the world at that time. The network of market towns grew throughout the empire as the market economy expanded. It has been estimated that 15% of the population of the empire lived in towns and cities rather than in the countryside – a larger proportion than in Europe at the time, as would be the case for a century or more.

Religion under the Mughal Empire

By the time the Mughal empire came into existence, the basic religious outlines of Indian civilization had been clearly demarcated, at least for the majority of the population. By far the majority of ordinary Indians were Hindus, but there existed a sizable minority of Muslims. This of course was more influential than the numbers would suggest. After centuries in which most of the Indian subcontinent had been ruled by Muslim dynasties, as was of course the case with the Mughal empire itself.

At the time when the Mughal empire was first coming into existence, however, a new religious community was emerging, in the Punjab in the north-west of the subcontinent. This was the Sikh community. 

The Sikhs

The Sikh faith was a mingling of Hindu and Muslim elements. Its founder, Guru Nanak (1469-1539), taught that there is only one God, that all people are equal before Him (so no castes), and that following him involves treating others with integrity and kindness.

Akbar seems to have been attracted to Sikh teaching, but after his time relations between the Sikhs and the Mughal regime deteriorated rapidly. Akbar’s successor, Jahangir, suspected the Sikhs of plotting against him, and had the Sikh leader at the time, Guru Arjun, imprisoned, tortured and executed. 

This poisoned relations between the Mughals and the Sikhs from that time on. The Sikhs militarized themselves and regularly clashed with Mughal forces. With the accession of the devout Muslim Aurangzeb as emperor, they were actively persecuted by the Mughal regime. As a result they rose in rebellion on several occasions and added to the problems faced by the hard-pressed Aurangzeb. In the process, the Sikhs became a formidable military power, especially in the Punjab of north-west India.

Cultural developments under the Mughal Empire

Under the Mughal empire the cultural fusion between Indian and Islamic elements, in literature, art and architecture reached its peak. This culminated a process which had begun under the Mughal empire’s predecessor, the Delhi sultanate. 

One of the important features of cultural development in the Mughal empire was the central place that the Mughal court played. Its patronage resulted in some of the most brilliant achievements of the period. The reign of Shah Jahān appears as the high water mark of this. At his court, the emperor collected around him leading Indian and Persian scholars, poets and painters – surely some of the most accomplished in the world at this time. He had the iconic Peacock throne of the Mughals made, and of course built one of the most beautiful buildings in all the world the Taj Mahal.


The official language of the Mughal empire was Persian. Unsurprisingly, therefore, one of the major Mughal achievements in literature was the translation of many Sanskrit works into Persian. These included some of the most important of all, for example the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Ramayana and some of the most ancient of all, the Vedas. This output of works central to the Hindu tradition illustrates the tolerant atmosphere of the Mughal court under Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. 

For original works, the Mughal court was a major center for the composition and recitation of Persian poetry. Histories were also popular, and indeed the memoirs of the Mughal emperors are themselves regarded as works of real literary merit.

Another reflection of Mughal tolerance was the fact that Hindi literature was also patronized at the Mughal court. 

Away from the court, the regional languages of India reached their literary maturity during this period with works of all kinds – poetry, history, philosophy and science, as well as translations and adaptations of the great Sanskrit works. One of the languages that was beginning to produce literature at this time was Urdu. This was a new tongue that had emerged in northwest India from the intermingling of peoples from central Asia with native Indians. It was a mixture of Hindi and Persian, and under the Mughals it began to produce a literature of its own. This would become one of the dominant of Indian languages and literatures in later times.


One of the major cultural outputs of the Mughal court were beautifully illustrated books, with texts richly decorated with superb calligraphy and miniature painting. Classic works of both Persian and Sanskrit literature were illustrated in this way, as well as contemporary original works. Not the least of these were the memoirs of the Mughal emperors, which contained some of the most lavishly decorated texts. 

The subjects of these miniature paintings were more varied than traditional Islamic miniature work; they included portraits, court and hunting scenes, and battles.

Mughal painting shows a mixture of Persian and Indian influences. It was Persian in its basic form, but was less formal, more lively and realistic than classic Persian painting. Animals and plants were depicted more accurately and in a more vivacious way.

The Mughal workshops

The Mughal court had its own workshops, which played a huge role in the production of the artwork of the the time and setting the standard for artistic excellence in the Mughal empire. As time went on, Mughal style painting was produced in the courts of the Hindu kings and princes within the empire. This reinforced the new directions in which art was taking, in which realism and naturalism were more pronounced.

From Jahangir’s time, Mughal court painters began to be influenced by European painting. For example, perspective, which in the Persian tradition was applied from a multiple viewpoint and gave the paintings a flattened feel, was now applied more from a single viewpoint, in the European style. This gave the paintings a more lifelike appearance. Beautiful studies of birds, flowers and animals were produced, as well as portraits.

Later still, Mughal painting began to lose its liveliness, becoming more formal and rigid. Nevertheless, wonderful works continued to be produced right to the end of the Mughal empire. By then, indeed, it had come even more under western influence than before, with an increasing use of perspective and 3D effects.


The mingling of Persian and Indian styles was even more evident in architecture than in painting, as, in this medium, Indian elements were more to the fore. Under the Mughal empire, in fact, the Islamic-Indian architecture which had begun to emerge under the Delhi sultanate, reached its sublime maturity. Such edifices as Humayun’s tomb, Fatephur Sikri (Asoka’s short-lived capital city), the Red Fort, the Agra Fort, the Lahore Fort and above all, the Taj Mahal, are the outstanding examples – all are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the last-named must surely be a candidate for the most beautiful building in the world – but there are many more wonderful Mughal palaces, mausoleums and forts still standing in Agra, Delhi, Fatephur and Lahore. Moreover, many features of Mughal architecture can be seen in the Rajput and Sikh palaces and monuments of the period.


Related TimeMaps articles:

Medieval India gives broad historical background to the situation in India prior to the rise of the Mughal empire.

The Delhi Sultanate looks in more detail at the large state which immediately preceded the Mughal empire in India, and which in many ways paved the way for it.

European World Empires gives the European context for the growth of European trade in the Indian subcontinent.

British India covers the decline of the Mughal empire from the point of view of the British.

Related maps in TimeMaps:

India and South Asia in 1648

Premium maps: The Magnificent Mughals a sequence of maps tracks the rise and fall of the Mughal empire.

External links:

The Victoria and Albert Museum‘s site has a great page, with (as you’d expect) a slant towards painting, jewelry and decorative objects.

For a short but beautifully illustrated treatment of the subject go to Yesterday.com‘s page on the Mughal empire.