History of International Relations Textbook

India and indianization

India and indianization

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The history of India is long, as long as China’s, and India, just as China, is not just a country or a state but a world onto itself. Indeed India is often referred to as a “Subcontinent” which today not only includes India but Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka too. India has always surprised its visitors with the enormous size of its population. There are thousands of ethnic groups in India, each one with its separate language, customs, and sometimes religion. Today there are in total well over a billion people in the Subcontinent as a whole. Indeed India and China between them contain about a third of the world’s population and it is estimated that India in another fifteen years’ time will become the country with the largest population in the world.

Although both China and India have a long history, China’s is easier to summarize. From the third century BCE, China called itself an empire and although various dynasties have replaced one another, it is nevertheless possible to tell the history of China as the story of one political entity. In the case of India, there is no such continuity. There is no single political subject — however tenuously held together — about which a story can be told. Instead various empires have replaced each other in the course of the millennia, and much of the time the political diversity has mirrored the ethnic diversity. These different units were independent of each other, often at war with each other, although there also have been periods when most, or at least much, of the subcontinent has been united under one ruler. Today India is a country, but throughout most of its history India was an international system of interacting states. At the same time, the Indian international system was held together by a strong sense of shared identity based around Hindu practices and beliefs.

Another similarity with China is that India always has been menaced by invasions. The invaders always swept down on the country from the north-west, across the mountain passes of what now is Afghanistan and Pakistan. The reason for these invasions was always the same: the extraordinary wealth of the Indian subcontinent. In India everything grew in great abundance — in the fertile rice-fields of the south it was possible to gather three harvests per year — and the surplus which the agriculture produced could pay for an elaborate hierarchy of social classes and for powerful states with rulers famous for their treasures and ostentatious displays. In the Classical period — roughly the first millennium CE — India was the richest country in the world, with a wealth approximating perhaps half of the world’s total. And well after that — during the Mughal period — India continued to be the emporium mundi, the world’s greatest hub for trade and manufacturing. In India everything could be found and everybody tried to get there. And those who had nothing much to sell, like the invading armies coming from the north-west, sought to take what they could by force.

The first of these invaders were the Indo-Europeans, some two thousand years BCE. Not that much is known about them, but the Vedas — the earliest religious texts — contain traces of their rituals. [Read more: Horse sacrifices] There are words in the Indo-European language which can be found in the roots of European languages too and these indicate a shared origin somewhere in Central Asia.

Alexander the Great’s invasion of India is perhaps the most famous, but in this case because it did not take place. After having conquered the Persian empire in 331 BCE, Alexander’s armies swept into Central Asia, and he crossed the Indus river in today’s Pakistan in the spring of 326. But right at the threshold of the Indian Subcontinent his troops mutinied and he was forced to turn back. Yet Alexander’s presence in Central Asia, and the Indo-Greek culture that flourished here, was to have a profound influence on Indian history.

This region, Bactria, in today’s Afghanistan, was the staging-post for several waves of subsequent invasions. The most famous of these was that of the Mughals in 1526 CE. The Mughals ruled much, if not all, of present-day India of the next three hundred years. It was to this empire that the Europeans arrived in the course of the eighteenth-century and which the British eventually occupied. The Europeans too, like everyone else, had been attracted here by the country’s immense wealth and the opportunities for trade. It was India, not the Americas, that Columbus wanted to reach.

But India has not only been an international system which outside armies have invaded, but it has also exercised a profound influence over the rest of Asia, Southeast Asia in particular. Starting in the first centuries of the Common Era, Indian cultural practices, ideas regarding society and religious beliefs were disseminated all around the Indian Ocean, leading to new cultural combination in their contact various with indigenous societies. We can talk about this process as “indianization,” and in contrast to other processes of cultural imperialism, it was carried out peacefully, indeed without any support from rulers in India itself. This is why today’s Thailand is a Buddhist country, why Angkor Wat in Cambodia was built as a Hindu temple complex and why a majority of people in Indonesia are Muslim. Indeed the very name of the country — “Indonesia” — reveals some of this history, as does the designation “Indo-China” for the three countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Vedic India

The first written records of Indian history are the Vedas, dating from around 1,500 BCE. The Vedas were the written-up version of secret oral teachings and dialogues between religious teachers and students. There is a heavy emphasis on the role of rituals, including sacrifices of various kinds. There are even references here to cultural practices which seem to belong to people who lived outside of the Indian Subcontinent itself. The Vedas are written in a very concise language and they are for that reason difficult to decipher. Commentaries on the Vedas, known as the Upanishads, written some time around 500 BCE, are more elaborate statements and they are considered as the founding texts of Hinduism. Because of the importance of the Vedas, this early age in the history of the Subcontinent is often known as the “Vedic” period.

Northern India during the first millennium BCE contained of a large number of different groups and tribes which all spoke their respective languages. A majority of the people were farmers and they specialized in cattle-breeding. The cow was already at this time a sacred animal and the number of cows a family possessed was a measure of their wealth. Slowly the villages came together to form smaller city-states. In each city-state there was a king and each king surrounded himself with a court with courtiers, including philosophers, magicians and priests. These courts were centers of culture but also of scholarship and religious learning, but the life of the farmers was not far away. Teachers who had proven themselves particularly important to a king, or philosophers who had won a philosophical debate, would be rewarded with gifts of cows.

Politics was another topic which as discussed at the courts of northern India. Arthashastra is a work of political wisdom which traditionally is ascribed to Chanakya, an adviser at the court of Chandragupta, the first Mauryan emperor, in the 4th century BCE. [Read more: Arthashastra] The aim of the book was to teach the ruler how best to maintain his rule and defeat his adversaries. Chandragupta and the line of Mauryan kings who followed him seem to have bee good students. In addition, they benefited from the political confusion in which the retreat of Alexander the Great’s army had left northern India. At this time the kshatriya, the caste made up of warriors, established themselves as a leading social class. The Mauryan Empire dominated India for the subsequent two hundred years and it was one of the largest empires in the world at this time.

Another topic they discussed at the various courts was religion. Broadly speaking, two quite different religious traditions developed on the Gangetic plain — on the vast, fertile, plain created by the river Ganges. To the west — towards today’s Pakistan — there was a priestly culture, described in the Vedas, which focused on rituals and on the secret teachings conveyed between a teacher and his disciples. Here the emphasis was on the sacrifices which the gods required and the rewards you might get if you performed them properly. This is the religious tradition which later was to become Hinduism. It was the leading social class, the Brahmins, who were the keepers of these traditions. They presided over the sacrifices on which the fortunes of the kshatriya class of warriors as well as ordinary farmers and everyone else in Indian society depended.

In the eastern part of the Gangetic plain — towards today’s Bangladesh — the emphasis was rather on ascetic practices, on meditation and the religious development of each individual. It is here that we find the first writings on philosophy, psychology and morality. Much debated questions included the nature of consciousness and the status of subjectivity and of the self. There is brahman, the “World-Soul,” some teachers argued, but there is atman too, the soul of each individual, and an important topic of debate concerned how the two related to each other. Other topics included the nature and status of the self. How can the self remain the same from one moment to the next, philosophers asked, or from one lifetime to the next? In order to investigate such questions ascetics engaged in various physical practices which later were to develop into practices such as yoga and meditation.

It was in this environment that two schools arose which later were to become two new religions — Jainism and Buddhism. Although they both were heavily influenced by the philosophical teachings common in the eastern parts of the Gangetic plain, and engaged in the same ascetic practices, they broke explicitly with the ritualistic culture of the Brahmins. They also rejected many traditional social practices — such as the caste system. The Jains are famous for the doctrine of ahimsa, or non-violence, which not only made them renounce war but also turned them into vegetarians. As far as Buddhism is concerned, it was to have a profound impact on most of East Asia, although the religion all but disappeared from India itself. [Read more: The Buddha] In addition to Jains and Buddhists there were many other kinds of religious and philosophical teachings, including rationalists and atheists, but also mathematicians and scientists teaching at large schools which often have been compared to present-day universities.

This was the India into which King Ashoka, 304-232 BCE, was born. Ashoka was the grandson of Chandragupta and the most successful of the Mauryan rulers. During his reign he united all of the sub-continent apart from the southernmost tip, creating the largest empire in Indian history. Ashoka also introduced writing to India and put up a large number of pillars and other monuments on which he declared himself the ruler of the country and explained his policies and aspirations to his people. His only aim, he declared, was everybody’s happiness, and he renounced violence and condemned corruption.[Read more: Pillars of Ashoka]

But Ashoka had not always been such a morally upstanding ruler. In order to make himself heir to the throne, legend has it, he first had to kill no fewer than 99 of his brothers, and once he became king he was both selfish and cruel. It was the spectacular bloodshed at the battle of Kalinga, 260 BCE — in which no fewer than a quarter of a million soldiers died — that finally made him change his evil ways. As Ashoka explained on a pillar, referring to himself in the third-person:

“Beloved of the gods, conquerer of the Kalinga, is moved to remorse now. For he has felt profound sorrow and regret because of the conquest of a people previously unconquered involved slaughter, death and deportation.”

Disgusted with his previous life, Ashoka converted to Buddhism, gave away his possessions to the poor and took up vegetarianism. He planted trees along the roads, dug wells and canals for irrigation, built rest-houses for travelers and hospitals for the sick, and instructed his officials to keep an eye out for the welfare of the poor, the aged and widowed. He replaced the traditional hunting parties in which Indian king were required to take part with religious pilgrimages.

Ashoka’s conversion was crucial for the dissemination of Buddhism in India and further afield. He sent missionaries not only into the remoter parts of his empire, but also into the independent kingdoms abroad, and his own son is said to have been the first Buddhist missionary to Sri Lanka. Yet the state he had created barely outlived him. The Sub-continent was invaded by various armies coming from Bactria, in today’s Afghanistan, and the Mauryan empire fell in 185 BCE.

Ashoka’s legacy has been mixed. Among Indian nationalists he had admirers such as Mahattma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nerhu, but many Hindu nationalists were skeptical, even hostile. Violence was required, they argued, if India ever was going to get rid of the British, and Ashoka’s teaching of ahimsa, non-violence, were considered too meek. Besides Hindu elites disliked him for his rejection of the caste system — there is no caste system in Buddhism. Over the years, Indian history textbooks have periodically been rewritten to reduce Ashoka’s roll.

Classical India

This section is not written yet — jump to next section below.

Kushan empire

first four centuries CE. another wave of peoples sweeping down from Central Asia — Bactria, Afghanistan. Greaco-Buddhis culture. legacy of Alexander the Great. speaking Greek language. Buddhas in Greek togas — cf. the Buddhas a Bamiyan, although they were a bit later — 6th century

Trade routes. connects India to the “Silk road” — to China, Central Asia and Europe. Buddhist travels to China — and the Chinese undertake the “journey to the West.” Chinese visitors best source of information about the Kushan empire. trade with Rome: Roman women in Chinese silk — peacocks from India — Romans complaining that they were ruining themselves buying Indian fashions

Gupta empire

320-550 CE — ruled much of northern India. Creation of proper states — with institutions and bureaucracies — the kind of entities that can survive the death of a ruler. Issuing gold coins — with the image of the ruler — as a way to spread the presence of the king throughout the land. First permanent images of the gods — Vishnu with four arms; Shiva dancing, elephant god Ganesh, etc. Interesting how this happens in Buddhism too — yet another way to spread the power of the state … and the Greek toga becomes Buddha’s standard dress …

Gupta culture:

from this period come much of what we think of as “Indian” culture — since this was the first time everything was written down and organized. Kamasutra — sexual experiences as heightened human experiences — interesting for anyone interested in human consciousness — also a part of life. A period which Hindu nationalists love to return to – mainly as a way to annoy Buddhists and Muslims …

Sciences: mathematics — the number zero and pi. astronomy — calculate the days in the year — the circumference of the earth.

Industry: iron pillar — India as center of iron production in the world. took Europeans another 1,000 years to catch up

Chola dynasty

In south India – protected from the invasions from the north – the Aryans etc – many cultural practices have survived. 4th to 13th century CE. Tamil Nadu in the very south

Incursions from the north:

11th century CE — more invasions from the north — peoples of the steppe — nomadic background — and Muslims. Sultanate of Delhi, 1206–1526, — Muslim kings establish themselves, Turkic origin


Although the Indian subcontinent repeatedly was invaded by various armies and peoples coming from the north-west, Indian kings and empires themselves never sought to expand abroad. Despite this fact, India’s impact on other societies throughout Asia was profound. The power exercised in this way was civilizational rather than political and it relied on commerce rather than the force of arms. This process is often referred to as “indianization,” although the term, as we will see, is quite controversial. Indianization, on other words, refers to the process whereby the cultural practices of the Indian sub-continent, together with aspects of its political and social system, came to influence developments in the rest of Asia — Southeast Asia most directly, but China, Japan and Central Asia too.

Since indianization never was a matter of an official policy, it is difficult to say exactly when the process began and how it developed. We are talking about osmosis here — “a mutual exchange through semi-permeable membranes” — rather than cultural imperialism. However, it seems clear that Indian influences first spread once trade-routes were established between the Indian sub-continent and the rest of Asia. It was more than anything the Indian Ocean that helped connect these far-flung markets with each other. Of particular importance were the seasonal changes in wind-direction — the monsoons, or “trade winds” — which made it easy to travel. Thus a trader in southern India could set sail for, say, the Malacca peninsula in the summer and then just as easily return home in the winter when the direction of the winds had changed.

In the 3rd to 5th centuries C.E. there were already well-established contacts between ports all around the Indian Ocean where Indian merchants came to settle. Together with the trade and the traders came various Indian religious practices, but also ideas regarding politics and society together with some of the institutions required to implement them. A strong influence from India is detectable from the 8th century CE, and it was to continue for at least some 500 years. This was when Hinduism spread to much of Southeast Asia, followed by Buddhism and then Islam. But this was also how the Pali and Sanskrit languages spread, together with Indian music, theater and dance, food, ways of dressing, and much else.

But it is at the same time clear that the indigenous populations of Southeast Asia were far more than the passive recipients of these influences. For one thing, they often traveled to India themselves, to southern India in particular, and they were active importers not only of various Indian products but also of Indian cultural practices. Many aspects of Indian society were highly elaborate and urbane and thereby quite alien to the agricultural traditions which characterized the local cultures of Southeast Asia. As a result, India could offer things which no one in Southeast Asia ever previously had experienced. Far-away India seemed sophisticated whereas the local culture seemed hopelessly backward. Not surprisingly competition soon ensued regarding who among the locals that would become the most Indian.

This logic mattered in particular for the local rulers. An East-Asian king who could surround himself with the trappings of Indian civilization was quite automatically regarded as sophisticated and thereby as powerful and legitimate. As such he would stand out from his competitors — at least as long as they did not copy the same Indian models. In addition the local rulers were eager to adopt any institution or technique than might help them strengthen their hold on power. This included Indian manuals on statecraft, the Indian legal system, and various political institutions, such as the institutions of diplomacy.

However, given that much of this knowledge was confined to the brahmin caste and not something that ordinary Indian merchants would have been familiar with, it seems unlikely that commercial contacts alone could be responsible for the dissemination. We can thus imagine an exchange whereby ordinary Indian merchants first helped instill a taste for things Indian among local rulers who then, on their own initiative, invited high-caste scholars and artists from India to settle in their kingdoms.

There were many indianized states throughout East Asia. This is only a small sample:

  • Langkasuka, 200s-1500s CE, was the oldest kingdom in the Malay Peninsula thought to have been created by descendants of the Indian Buddhist king Ashoka. Mixing Hindu, Buddhist and Malay culture, Langkasuka was a part of the Chinese international system and their tribute bearers are mentioned in imperial Chinese records.

  • Srivijaya, 650-1377 CE, was a kingdom on the island of Sumatra in today’s Indonesia, heavily influenced by Indian culture. Srivijaya was a thalassocracy, an empire stretching across the sea, with strong connections to the Malacca peninsula and societies bordering on the South China Sea. Srivijaya attracted pilgrims from other parts of Asia and was home to more than a thousand Buddhist scholars.

  • Medang, 800s-1100s, was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom on Java in today’s Indonesia. They built the Borobudur, a Buddhist temple complex, and the Prambanan, a Hindu temple complex. At the court of the Medang rulers Indian texts where translated, but the culture included distinct Javanese influences. Medang buildings are known for their bas-reliefs which often include long quotations from Buddhist sutras, holy texts.

  • Champa, 192 to 1832 CE, was a kingdom located in southern and central Vietnam which adopted Sanskrit as a scholarly language and made Hinduism into a state religion, although Indian influences were heavily mixed with local religious lore. In 1832 the Champa were conquered by the Viet, a society with far closer cultural ties to China. There are still people in Vietnam today who speak Chamic, a language related to Malay.

  • The Khmer was a Hindu empire which existed between the 9th and 13th centuries in today’s Cambodia. Its political and religious center was the Angkor Wat, an enormous complex of more than 900 temples. The kings were considered as incarnations of Vishnu, the Hindu god. [Read more: Angkor Wat]

  • Kingdom of Tondo, 900s to 1589, was an Indianized kingdom in today’s Philippines. They traded with China and participated in the Chinese international system.

  • Pagan, 849-1297 CE, was a kingdom in central Burma, predominantly Buddhist but also incorporating Hindu beliefs. They were invaded by the Mongols in 1297 and never quite recovered.

  • Ayutthaya, 1351-1767, a kingdom in today’s Thailand. They engaged in extensive trade, sent ambassadors to foreign courts, and expanded into the Malay peninsula. The Ayutthaya kings combined Hinduism and Buddhism and were considered semi-divine rulers. Their armies made extensive use of war elephants. [Read more: War elephants]

  • Majapahit, 1293-1527, was another thalassocratic empire, based in Java in today’s Indonesia. They had some 98 states paying tribute to them from areas including Malaysia, southern Thailand, the Philippines and New Guinea. Majapahit rose to power in the wake of the Mongol invasion of the country. They combined Buddhism with Shaivism and Vaishnavism, two Hindu sects. The Majapahit built stupas in red brick, statues in terracotta, and figurines in gold.

  • Bali, in today’s Indonesia, an island strongly influenced by Hindu culture from the first century CE. An Indian-style caste-system was put in place, although it was vastly simplified. Hinduism is practiced in Bali to this day but it is combined with many Buddhist beliefs and indigenous religious practices.

The spread of the idea of the caste system illustrates the logic of this cultural expansion. Although the local rulers often were keen on the idea of castes, they were not, with the exception of Bali, able to impose the system on society at large. In the Khmer kingdom, for example, the caste system was only implemented within the temple compound of Angkor Wat itself. Clearly this way of organizing social relations, with its many fine-tuned gradations between social classes and professional groups, fit badly in societies where next to everybody was a farmer. This also shows that there were limits to how far Indian cultural references would spread. In many cases, it was only the local elite that was thoroughly steeped in Hinduism.

The final result was thus never a faithful copy of Indian culture and society. Instead, in all cases Indian influences were mixed with indigenous traditions.  For one thing, the nuclear family was often more powerful in Southeast Asia than in Indian society. Thus in Bali reincarnation is thought to happen within the family lineage and not randomly in society at large. Women have often also played a more prominent role in Southeast Asian societies than they did, or do, in India, and the adoption of Indian cultural practices did not change this fact. The script used for writing Sanskrit was also adopted by people in Southeast Asia, but it was soon adapted to be used for writing indigenous scripts. Today languages such as Thai and Burmese are written with letters that may remind us of Sanskrit, but which still are entirely different.

We see the same syncretism — the same mixing of cultural references — in religion. Buddhism was of course originally an Indian religion, yet Buddhism almost completely died out in India itself while continuing to thrive throughout Southeast Asia. Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma are still predominantly Buddhist societies. Although there are many reasons for this, we can guess that the social structure of the respective societies made a difference. Throughout Southeast Asia the sangha, the community of Buddhist monks, always played an important role. The sangha constituted a brotherhood of equals which always was more amenable to Southeast Asian traditions than to India itself.

Religious syncretism was further facilitated by the fact that neither Hinduism nor Buddhism were monotheistic faiths. A religion with one omnipotent god will always reject the possibility of there being other competing divinities and as a result the religions in question have problems coexisting peacefully. For Buddhism and Hinduism there were no such problems, and both religions happily borrowed references from each other. The fact that both put more emphasis on religious practices than on beliefs also facilitated matters. The doctrines of the respective creeds mattered far less than the rituals which their adherents carried out. While doctrines often come into conflict, practices and rituals are far easier to combine. Thus you could be a Buddhist part of the day, or part of your life, and a Hindu the rest of the time. Or, more likely, you were unlikely to make a sharp distinction between the two religions in the first place.

In these respects Islam was of course entirely different. Like other Mosaic religions with their origin in the Middle East, Islam was monotheistic and doctrinaire; that is, based on doctrines, beliefs, which all believers were required to embrace. Islam, just like Christianity or Judaism, is not the kind of religion which easily blends with others. Yet even the Mughal rulers of India, Muslims to a man, found it difficult to insist on religious purity in a situation where the vast majority of their subjects belonged to other faiths. And once it was transported to Southeast Asia, Islam was even further relaxed. In Java, for example, various ingenious ways were often found by which indigenous traditions could be combined with the new faith. Such mixing of religious and cultural references is on display, to this day, in the traditional art of shadow puppetry. [Read more: Shadow puppets].

In the end, “Indianization” can be considered as quite a controversial term. Indeed, the first ones to use it were Indian nationalists in Bengal in the 1920s, at the time when India itself still was a British colony. Inspired by French excavations of Angkor Wat and other ancient temple sites, they began to speculate regarding the existence of an ancient “greater India” which had spread out over much of East Asia. This had not been a political entity, they explained, but a civilizational one. India had brought progress and prosperity to its neighbors but not, like the British, through military conquest, but instead through peaceful exchange. Yet it is easy to see why people throughout Southeast Asia would object to this version of history. First because they were far more than passive parties to the exchange, and second, because it never was a question of a wholesale adoption of Indian models. As we have seen, Indian traditions were often diluted, or completely reconfigured, or perhaps they maintained their original form while being filled with entirely different cultural content. If we go on using the term, we should think of indianization as a process of hybridization — such as when two plants interbreed to form a unique combination of the two. Indianization is not the spread of Indian culture as much as the creation of new species of culture.

Indian civilization has continued to have a profound impact on other societies, but now its influence is global. Today Indian food — curries — are happily consumed by Japanese and Jamaicans alike, and many people in Europe and North America have an interest in Indian religion and spiritual practices. Women in West Africa have been known to wear saris and to put on tilaka, marks on the forehead made by a powder or paste, as a way to model themselves on the stars of the Bollywood movies they watch. The films produced in Bollywood — the Indian film industry centered in the city of Mumbai — regularly attract larger audiences than the films produced in Hollywood. [Read more: Curries, the Beatles in India and Bollywoodization]

The Mughal empire

The Mughal empire, 1519-1857, was a Muslim kingdom which originated in Central Asia but which conquered increasingly larger parts of India and eventually came to dominate the northern and central parts of the subcontinent, all the way from Afghanistan to today’s Bangladesh. There were altogether 19 Mughal rulers in one continuous lineage. During the first part of the reign, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the country enjoyed great wealth from trade and manufacturing. The Mughals built impressive palaces — of which the Taj Mahal no doubt is the most famous — and organized Indian administration on a continent-wide basis. [Read more: Taj Mahal] As rulers of a country which was predominantly non-Muslim, the Mughals were forced to adopt a more liberal version of their faith. Hindu religion and culture remained strong, and in India too, much as in the Muslim caliphates of the Middle East, both Christians and Jews had a protected position.There are five Mughal emperors whose names we should remember: Babur and his four direct descendants.

Babur, 1483-1530, was the first Mughal ruler. He was a 13th generation descendant of Genghis Khan’s son Chagatai, and also a relative of Timur Lenk, who had created a vast, if short-lived, empire in Central Asia in the fourteenth-century.[Read more: Tamerlane] Not surprisingly, Babur found it difficult to live up to his family traditions. Born in the fertile Fergana valley in today’s Uzbekistan, he settled in Samarkand where he surrounded himself with a small band of retainers. At this stage he was a king without a kingdom. Pushed out of Samarkand by the advancing Uzbeks, he moved on to Afghanistan and eventually settled in Kabul. From here his armies began making incursions into northern India where he gradually established more of a foothold. The Mughal soldiers used guns to great effect and eventually Babur settled in India itself. He was a great supporter of libraries and learning, and he wrote a famous autobiography.  As he confessed, he regarded life in India as something of a temporary exile and remained homesick for Central Asia to the end of his day.

Humayun, 1508-1556, was Babur’s son. His name means “the lucky one,” but he was clearly quite inappropriately named. He lost the Mughal throne and was exiled to Iran, but reconquer it in 1555 with Persian support. He died, only 48 years old, when falling down a staircase — according to one version, while running to get to Friday prayer on time.

On the unexpected death of Humayun, it was quite unclear who would succeed him, but eventually his son Akbar, 1542-1605, did. He was only 13 years old at the time and he was to rule for another 50 years. Akbar was the Mughal ruler who more than all the others put his mark on the empire. He loved hunting, horse-riding and archery, and although he remained illiterate all his life, he was clearly an exceptionally capable leader. During Akbar’s reign trade and manufacturing flourished and the country grew rich. This was a time of great expansion in world trade, and Mughal India was its hub. This was the opulent India of unspeakable wealth which so amazed all foreign visitors.

As far as relations between the religions were concerned, Akbar abolished the jizya, the tax imposed on non-Muslims, and he raised the status of women in the eyes of the law. Akbar moved closer to Shiism than to the Sunni version of Islam, and he took several Hindu wives. He even tried to amalgamate the faiths of the country into one religion, knowns as Din-e Ilahi, which professed a belief in one god in heaven and one emperor on earth. [Read more: Din-e Ilahi]

Akbar embarked on far-reaching administrative reforms and imposed uniform rules on the bureaucracy which were tightly controlled from the center. He also reformed the military: organizing the cavalry into the same units of ten soldiers which had been a feature of Genghis Khan’s armies; establishing an elephantry; and rotating his commanders on a regular basis to stop them from rooting themselves too securely in one place.[Read more: War elephants] Once these reforms were completed, Akbar made a serious attempt to conquer all of the Indian subcontinent. He was constantly on the move, and much as Genghis Khan before him, he took his bureaucrats with him wherever he went. In the end he did not conquer all of India — a small tip in the very south remained — but it was Akbar who turned the Mughals into a proper empire.  Akbar’s reign was also a time of cultural flourishing. Persian culture was influential at his court — with Persian-style music, poetry and illuminated manuscripts as primary art forms.

Jahangir, 1569-1627, was the oldest surviving son of Akbar and the fourth Mughal emperor. Jahangir means “conqueror of the world” and he tried his best to live up to his name, although to posterity he is more remembered for his active love life. The economy of the country remained strong and so did the Mughal administration. He too encouraged religious debates and tolerance of other faiths.

Shah Jahan, 1592-1666, was Akbar’s grandson. He was a great builder of empire in all sense, not least architecturally. He constructed the Red Fort in Delhi and made Agra into his capital. He was also the person responsible for building the Taj Mahal. [Read more: Taj Mahal]  He is famous for the peacock throne and the Koinoor diamond.

As for the remaining 14 descendants in the line, they were less distinguished, even though the empire continued to expand — it reached its greatest extent in 1707. But by now it was clear that Mughals had overreached themselves. The country was too large, their forces too thin on the ground, and the supply lines too difficult to maintain. Economically the country continued to prosper, but there were revolts against higher taxes and discontent regarding religious matters. In the course of the eighteenth-century the Mughal rulers became increasingly dogmatic defenders of the Muslim faith. They continued to build palaces, mosques and libraries and made Delhi, with its white marble buildings, into their permanent capital.

In the latter part of the eighteenth-century, the Mughal rulers grew weaker and the empire eventually fell apart as a result of internal divisions and foreign pressure. We will talk more about that in the final chapter.