S Roy Chowdhury
7 min readNov 29, 2017

How To Disagree With a Mughal India Scholar When You are Not a Mughal India Scholar

Before you start reading the book, Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), the one you’ve already decided to hate, do this:

1. Assess what you know about Mughal India. Visually and spatially, I know a lot! This is because like many of us who spent any time in northern India or the Deccan , I have actually visited many of the structures the Great Mughals built. Also, before the Indian education system began to produce bizarre mutants who claim the Taj Mahal was a temple, many in my generation could have sworn that the Mughals built the Delhi Red Fort, the Agra Fort, Sikandra, Humayun’s Tomb, but not Delhi’s Jamali Kamali (that’s a great spot for a moonlight picnic, though).

2. Ask yourself: what else do you know about Mughal India (especially if you’re from India)? I knew the Mughal dynasty was established by Babur (1483–1530) when he was driven out of Samarkand and turned his attention to, first, Kabul, and then the dusty plains of Hindoostan, i.e. Delhi. The Mughal Empire stabilized under Akbar (r. 1556–1605) and his successors, including Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58) who built the Taj Mahal for his wife Mumtaz.

Full disclosure: I have a teaching interest in Mughal India so I read way more about the period than the average social media history opinionator. I’ve read Christopher Bayly, John F. Richards, Athar Ali, Muzaffar Alam, Harbans Mukhia, S. R. Sharma, etc. Among the way older texts I still like are the books by Jadunath Sarkar (yes, I understand his language and approach is dated). And for fun I still read the mawkish Amar Chitra Katha comics for I have an undeniable affection for them, weird illustration colors notwithstanding.

I am not, however, a Mughal India scholar. I do not have the required language skills and read no Persian or classical Sanskrit nor Urdu. Before I started teaching, I had little interest in the Mughals or any other early modern state. They all seemed so remote and the modern era seemed so much more interesting. These days, I teach courses that cover early modern states and dynasties and therefore I read a lot about them. Still, I’m not invested enough that I want to learn old languages to research the sources in the original prose.

3. Read the book. This step is mandatory. Here’s what I, a bit of an Aurangzeb-skeptic, read in the book (some of which I already knew):

— — In 1659 Aurangzeb issued a farman ordering his officials to not harass the priests of the Benares temples. In fact, he issued quite a few orders giving land grants to Hindu temples, returning confiscated lands, and prohibiting the harassment of Jain and Hindu religious leaders (Truschke, Aurangzeb, 79–82).

— — The 1672 order that reverted to the crown all land grants given to Hindus and Jain religious communities remained moribund and unenforced.

— -The 1669 destruction of Benares’s Vishvanatha Temple and the 1670 demolition of Mathura’s Keshava Deva Temple were linked to the politics of faction at the Mughal court. Man Singh’s great-grandson Jai Singh, and some Benares landowners had helped Shivaji escape the Mughal court and the destruction of their patronized temple in Benares was political retribution.

— -In the 1680s when Aurangzeb moved south to the Deccan, he rarely demolished temples (Truschke, Aurangzeb, p. 88).

— -True to the violent tradition of seventeenth-century imperial political culture, Aurangzeb wasn’t above having his enemies executed in pretty barbaric ways and displaying their tortured bodies to the public. Prof. Truschke argues that such methods were standard practices of the time when it came to rulers punishing perceived crimes against the state. (Truschke, Aurangzeb, pp. 53–54). This was how the Maratha chieftain Sambhaji and the Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur met their end on Aurangzeb’s orders. The resentment that these acts generated still linger in the collective memory of communities. I find these violent executions deplorable but then I study the modern period where gruesome state violence is at least condemned as a deviation from the norm. But, I get that early modern kingship was not for the fainthearted and that Elizabeth I of England did similar things to her rivals.

4. Ask yourself: how do you feel about the Mughal Empire now that you’ve read the book? I like that in Prof. Truschke’s work individuals have been reinserted into Mughal history (though hopefully we are not returning to the Great Man Theory of history). Marxist historiography had focused so singularly on structures — economy and political frameworks — that the history of Mughal India had become bone-dry. There is a place for a cool, detached look at underlying economic processes and overarching political frameworks. But, Audrey Truschke’s focus on Aurangzeb as Emperor restores the agency of individuals to the narrative.

Where I differ: I interpret the events in Aurangzeb’s reign differently than does Prof. Truschke. I believe that on balance Aurangzeb’s rule was disastrous for Mughal authority.

— -Sometime around 1669, Aurangzeb began to dismantle key elements of Mughal courtly culture like the patronage of music, appearing at the window or jharokha for the public to see him, and the practice of having himself weighed against gold and silver on his birthday (Truschke, Aurangzeb, p. 43). These changes, in my view, weakened a key aspect of the Mughal court — the personalization of political and cultural authority in the figure of the Emperor. Prof. Truschke acknowledges that these rituals had Hindu roots but attributes some of these stoppages to Aurangzeb’s personal taste (such as music). She further points out that when Aurangzeb ceased to perform these duties of patronage, subimperial patrons like Shaysta Khan, Aurangzeb’s maternal uncle, took over these traditional Mughal roles. I read this as a weakening of imperial Mughal authority. By separating these two strands and handing one role off to lesser figures, the Mughal court lost its ability to wield cultural power effectively.

— Having spent much of his early career in the south (well, south-ish), it was to the Deccan Aurangzeb turned in the 1680s. One suspects it was with a sense of relief that he did so because he seemed to have been uncomfortable with what these days would be labeled the “Lutyens elite”. The Mughal equivalent were the courtiers of Shahjahanabad and their cozy circles of privilege and connection. Alamgir’s dismissive attitude towards the old elites became a real problem when he expanded the Mughal territory. He could neither mobilize their support when it was needed nor, having chosen the role of austere, pious, and remote semi-monk, could he set the pace for an assimilative cultural agenda when the empire really needed this policy.

The composite Mughal bureaucratic elite was a warrior elite. Alienating the Rajputs (and the Sikhs and the Jats, zamindars, soldiers and farmers) was not a wise step for maintaining the cohesiveness of the rather splendid bureaucratic-military elite created by Akbar. The composite culture of the Mughal court could have absorbed the new Deccan aristocracy but it required an Emperor more available personally than Aurangzeb and one less insistent on Islamic legitimation. With his distant and aloof personality and his austere religious habits Aurangzeb was unable to be the personal bridge between the racist, disdainful Indo-Persian northern aristocrats and the scrappier, less courtly Deccan elites. Like Henry IV, Aurangzeb could have had his “Paris is worth a mass” moment of political acceptance of the diverse realm he ruled but he chose instead to emulate Oliver Cromwell. I know this is mixing metaphors and continents, but you get my point.

Aurangzeb’s austerity and self-conscious inflexibility was therefore a big political problem for the Mughal state. The same qualities that allowed him to prevail in civil wars with his brothers became obstacles when the empire needed more agreeability from its leader. Aurangzeb was never able to bind the Deccan warrior elites to the Mughal court in as personalized a way as Akbar and Jehangir had done with the Rajputs in previous eras. Alienating or at least angering the existing composite elite was specially not a wise move when Aurangzeb’s new Deccan mansabdars had not been integrated for as long as had been the northern warrior elites, Hindu or Muslim. I agree with historian J. F. Richards on this point.

I appreciate Prof. Truschke’s new effort to rehabilitate the last Great Mughal Emperor’s reputation as an individual ruler. I remain overall, however, an Aurangzeb-skeptic.

6. OK, now you’ve read the book. Now what? You may have questions for the author. That’s fine. But, if you reach out to Prof. Truschke on Twitter, Facebook, or email, then….

7. Interact with the author with respect. Remember you chose to study B.Com or B.Tech. (or maybe flunk out of school) and tweet random nonsense like this:

Prof. Truschke chose to invest her time studying classical languages instead, like Sanskrit or Persian. If you find yourself spluttering with indignation now because you can’t read the original sources yourself, you should have invested the time in studying the humanities for yourself. Just as Prof. Truschke is not going to advise you on how to design a bridge or run your business, she doesn’t need you to tell her how to read sources in the original. Quoting your cousin who studied electrical engineering and has some half-witted theory about “Out of India” won’t cut it. To keep your B.Com/B.Tech/flunked-out-of-school disdain for the humanities going, though, I mis-numbered section 6. Did you notice? Thought not.

8. Finally, write your own darned book if you’re so mad about Aurangzeb. But, please don’t think that just because you have an opinion a reputed academic publisher is obliged to print your non-expert diatribe. Yeah, I know. Tant pis!

S Roy Chowdhury

Historian, researcher, aspiring gourmand. Sometimes a raconteuse.