Indian History Part 84 Aurangzeb Section I: Settling In – The First Two Decades

Canberra, 12 January 2021

On 5th June 1659 (or on 15th June, according to some historians), Aurangzeb celebrated his coronation for the second time, after two decisive victories, over Shuja at Khajuha and Dara at Deorai. Unlike the earlier crowning, grand banquets and dazzling illumination enlivened these functions with many loyal officers and nobles promoted and gifts distributed. Aurangzeb adopted the Persian word that was engraved on the sword that his captive father had given him, ‘Alamgir’, ‘World-Compeller’ as his regnal title. The Kutba was read in his name and he issued coins bearing the legend, ‘This coin has been stamped on earth like a shining full moon,/By King Aurangzeb, the conqueror of the world’. The joyous celebrations lasted 14 weeks, to mark the beginning of what was to be a singularly joyless and declining reign.

The nobles of the realm, almost all of them owing their positions to Shah Jahan, the deposed emperor, did not show any signs of discomfiture at the turn of events and for the old monarch’s plight. Considering the behaviour pattern of the Mughal nobles from the time of Humayun, this attitude should not surprise the astute analyst. Some historians have attributed this behaviour to fear that made them silent, which is a distinct possibility, especially so soon after the violent civil war in which they had witnessed the vindictive ferocity of the new emperor towards his own brothers. Nevertheless, Shah Jahan continued to be a prisoner in his marble palace in Agra—treated with indulgence and respect, according to few chroniclers—till he died eight years later. Even though supposedly treated well, all precautions were taken to ensure that Shah Jahan could not escape, or be rescued, and that he was incapable of interfering in any matter of government, even minor.

It is certain that Shah Jahan did not mind the loss of power; long before the civil war he had delegated full power to Dara, who had become the de facto ruler. It was his wounded pride that troubled him every waking minute of his life, which to his credit, he bore stoically. During the past few years of his life, Shah Jahan, once the magnificent emperor, became very pious, giving up all affairs of the world and only listening to religious discourses. After eight years of incarceration, he died on 1 February 1666 of a recurrence of fever and strangury. Aurangzeb never came to Agra while his father was alive, but had exchanged a number of acrimonious letters with him. Shah Jahan died in the early morning hours and he was buried without a state funeral next to his queen Mumtaz Mahal in the crypt of Taj Mahal. No descendent of his, or noble owing him gratitude, were there to carry his bier to the grave—a humble funeral for a magnificent Mughal.      

Early Life

Aurangzeb was born in Dahod, midway between Ujjain and Ahmedabad, on 3 November 1618 when Shah Jahan and his wife were accompanying the emperor Jahangir from Gujarat to Agra. After his unsuccessful attempt at a coup d’état and rebellion, Shah Jahan had been forced to send his sons Dara and Aurangzeb to the royal court as hostages, a common practice across the world in medieval times, meant to keep rebellious would-be usurpers in check. The young princes were reunited with their parents only after Jahangir’s death and Shah Jahan’s ascension to the throne. Aurangzeb was a sickly child, but lived far longer than any of his predecessors, dying only at the ripe of age of 89. Although Shah Jahan used to comment on his sickly appearance in his youth, Aurangzeb was indefatigable and was seriously ill only once during his long reign.

Aurangzeb’s education commenced when he was four years old, as was customary for Mughal princes. He was a diligent pupil, working hard because he was earnest, not because he valued the education being given to him. This is obvious because there are records of his berating his old teachers in his later-day interaction with them as the emperor, when he categorically stated that most of what he was taught as a child was a waste of time, and of no use. He also expressed his distaste of being taught in Arabic and not in his mother tongue, which obviously must have been a hybrid ‘Hindustani’.

At the age of 16, Aurangzeb was made a commander of 10,000 horse and permitted to use the red tent, the prerogative of royal commanders. In 1635, he commanded the Bundela campaign and in the next year was appointed governor of the Deccan. Although dismissed after eight years, for some unknown and obtuse reason, he was reinstated as the governor of Gujarat after seven months. In 1646, he was called to take charge of the struggling Mughal campaign in Central Asia. After a six-year stint as the governor of Multan and also leading the stalemated, but considered successful by the Mughals, Kandahar Campaign, he was once again appointed the governor of Deccan. Although his career seems to have been ascendant, by the time he went back to the Deccan the trust between the emperor, father, and the ambitious prince, son, had completely broken down. In a letter to Mir Jumla, written in 1656, Aurangzeb is bitter and angry at Shah Jahan for the manner in which he was being treated by his father.

The Beginnings of a Theocracy

Immediately after his coronation in 1659, Aurangzeb issued a number of ordnances meant to move public life closer to strict Islamic precepts. He also appointed a ‘muhtasib’, who was to act as a censor of morals, through a system of appointed lesser officials who were to supervise and enforce public morality. These were the first in a series of such edicts issued throughout his rule, which were increasingly puritanical and anti-Hindu.

Aurangzeb’s anti-Hindu policies are the subject of bitter and long-drawn debates. One side argues that his edicts were only a means for him to rule his kingdom according to the law of the Koran, in which he devotedly believed. The other side believes that Aurangzeb introduced these policies because he was a fanatic determined to persecute non-believers, meaning the Hindus. The debate continues into modern times. The fact remains that the hostility between the majority Hindus and the sort of ‘ruling elite’ Muslims increased noticeably during Aurangzeb’s reign. The division and dissonance between the followers of the two religions were further ‘cultivated’ and exploited by the British during their two centuries of dominance of the sub-continent. Not surprisingly, the British policy—a subtle and covert continuation of Aurangzeb’s overt anti-Hindu stance—culminated in the partition of the sub-continent and the appalling communal massacres of 1947. Truth as usual does not normally get told in its entirety.

By the time he came to the throne, wading through the blood of his brothers, Aurangzeb was a dour, humourless person, rigid in his thought process and completely lacking in imagination. There was not an ounce of the joy de vivre, the one quality that distinguished the Mughal emperors from others and made them stand apart, in this puritanical ascetic. He was completely pedantic and obsessed with the letter of the law—an obsession that was, and continues to be, considered a virtue by orthodox Muslims. In an overall appreciation of his rule, it would seem that Aurangzeb was only concerned with his personal salvation, from the day of his coronation onwards. In a cynical manner, some historians have opined that this preoccupation was not surprising since he actually should have been worried about his salvation, considering the trail of blood he left behind and the ruthlessness with which he treated his own brothers on his way to ultimate power. There is some truth in this assessment.

Minor Disturbances

In the early years of Aurangzeb’s reign, there were only few, and that too minor, disturbances to the overall peaceful situation. Champat Rai, the vassal ruler of Bundelkhand rebelled, which was easily put down. He fled from the kingdom, was pursued from place to place by the imperial forces till finally he committed suicide in 1661. In a disputed succession in Navanagar, Aurangzeb intervened and restored Raja Chhatra Sal as the Jam of Navanagar in 1663. During the same period, the standard Mughal attempt at territorial expansion continued unabated. In 1661, Daud Khan, the governor of Bihar invaded and annexed Palamau in south Bihar. In 1665, the governor of Kashmir annexed Ladakh, which was also referred to as Little Tibet, and built a mosque in the region.

Eastern Campaign

The Ahom people, originally inhabiting northern Burma, had migrated to Assam in early 13th century and occupied part of the River Brahmaputra valley.

The Ahom People

The Ahom people, also known as Tai-Ahom mainly reside in modern Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. They are the missed descendants of the Tai people who reached the Brahmaputra valley in the early 1200s and the local people. The Tai-speaking people were originally from the Guangxi province, who moved to South-east Asia in the 11 century after a long drawn battle with the Chinese. Their origin can be traced back to the Mong Mao of South China. Sukaphaa, a Tai prince, and around 9000 of his followers reached the Brahmaputra valley in 1228, and settled in its southern banks and east of the River Dikho. He established the Ahom kingdom, which controlled much of the Brahmaputra valley till 1826.

 The Ahom people were initially of indeterminate religious persuasion, worshipping a variety of deities and their society was feudal in nature. After settling in Assam, they were greatly influenced by Hinduism and gradually came to accept it as their religion.      

The Ahom dynasty continually expanded their territorial holdings till they controlled the entire area between the River Bar Nadi in the north-west and River Kalang in the south-west.

Early in the 17th century, the Mughal governor of Bengal conquered Kuch Hajo, comprising of the modern day Goalpara and Kamrup districts in Assam. This resulted in the Mughal Empire and the Ahom kingdom sharing a border—conflict was inevitable. Initially only desultory fighting ensued, with the Ahoms making a number of raids into the newly acquired Mughal territories. A negotiated peace was arrived at in 1638, with both sides recognising the River Bar Nadi as the boundary between the kingdoms. During the turmoil of the Mughal civil war, the Ahom king and the Raja of Cooch Behar encroached on Kamrup from the east and the west. The Mughal ‘faujdar’, commander, of Kamrup fled from Guwahati to Dacca and the Ahoms occupied Guwahati unopposed. The Ahoms then drove the Cooch Behar forces out of Kamrup. By 1658, the entire western Brahmaputra valley was under Ahom control.

After his coronation, Aurangzeb appointed Mir Jumla as the governor of Bengal, with instructions to punish the Ahoms and recover the lost Mughal territory. Jumla made adequate preparations and moved out of Dacca in November 1661 with a force comprising of 12,000 cavalry, 30,000 infantry and a flotilla of 300 war-vessels. The Mughal force initially moved towards Cooch Behar. The Raja fled and Mir Jumla occupied the capital and annexed the kingdom. The Mughal army then proceeded towards Assam.

Although the terrain was harsh with thick tropical forests and innumerable streams, the Mughals captured Guwahati, then destroyed most of the Ahom navy and reached their capital Garhgaon on 17th March 1662. The Ahom king, Jayadwaj, cautiously retreated, while the Mughals managed to capture a great amount of booty. The Mughals maintained a garrison at Garhgaon, but as the monsoon season arrived, it was separated from their naval forces. Although they had suffered a setback, the Ahom forces had not been depleted and were still strong; the king had conserved his strength and sustained his army by his judicious withdrawal. He now went on the offensive, surprising the Mughal garrison with night raids. Since the country was flooded and communications cut off, the Mughals under siege, were in a precarious position.

At this stage, an epidemic broke out in the Mughal camp at Mathurapur, taking a heavy toll on Mir Jumla’s forces. The troops withdrawing from Mathurapur infected the garrison at Garhgaon and also spread the epidemic to the general population of the region. It is estimated that 230,000 people finally died of the illness. Even though in bad shape, the Mughal garrison in Garhgaon held on. At the end of the monsoons, Mir Jumla led a relief force towards Garhgaon. However, he was unable to make rapid progress as he was personally afflicted by fever and pleurisy. Since both sides recognised that victory would come at a heavy price, Mir Jumla and Jayadwaj concluded a peace treaty. Jayadwaj gave a daughter to the imperial harem, paid some reparations and ceded half a district to the Mughals. During this entire campaign Mir Jumla demonstrated great fortitude, sharing all hardships with his soldiers. However, his health failed because of a combination of over-exertion, unhealthy climate and rough-living. He died on 31March 1663, on his way back to Dacca.

The Mughals held on to most of their conquests till 1667, when the Ahom king Chakradwaj send forces along both banks of the River Brahmaputra capturing all the Mughal forts. He also captured Guwahati, took the Mughal commander prisoner and installed an Ahom viceroy. The Mughals subsequently made a number of attempts to recapture the lost territories in Assam, all of which failed. Ultimately the Mughal governor recalled the eastern force in 1676, bowing to the inevitable that the Mughal Empire had lost Kamrup forever.  

Capture of Chittagong

The River Fenny was accepted as the border between the Mughals and the Magh kingdom in the Arakan ranges. The Magh people were riverine pirates allied with Portuguese adventurers and their half-breed offspring. They carried out regular raids of depredation into Mughal territory, capturing people to be sold as slaves. They used Chittagong, situated between the Arakan ranges and Bengal, as a convenient base for their piratical operations. The Magh/Portuguese raids damaged imperial prestige and also resulted in loss of revenue. Shayista Khan, the newly appointed governor of Mughal Bengal, decided to put an end to the Magh challenge.

After taking over, he built-up a navy of more than 300 war-vessels and assembled his army. He made special arrangements for the defence of Dacca, especially should the attack emanate from the harbour-side, and initiated the mission to counter the Magh forces. In the meantime, he managed to get the Portuguese to change allegiance through the time-honoured Mughal practice of bribery and the offer of employment. The Portuguese from Chittagong moved to Mughal territories with their families and were treated well by Shayista Khan. Shayista Khan’s son led an expedition from Dacca to Chittagong with a combined land and maritime force. The Magh forces were defeated in three separate but consecutive riverine encounters and the fort at Chittagong was besieged. The fort fell to the Mughals on 26th January 1666. As a result of this conquest a large number of peasants kept as captives and slaves by the pirates were liberated.

The Restive North-West Frontier

The North-West Frontier region had always been turbulent and an irritable thorn on the greater stability of the Punjab-Afghan region of the Mughal kingdom. The local tribes—Afridis, Yusufzais, Khattaks and others—cherished their independence and were prone to acting on their own, at will. They liked to plunder and loot when possible, which was made easy by the lucrative trade route that passed through their territory. Traditionally, the Mughals had adopted a system of bribing these hill-tribes to control them, rather than resorting to force to subdue them. Aurangzeb continued the custom, paying six lakh rupees to various tribal chiefs to buy their peace. However, when a new crop of tribal leaders came to the fore, trouble arose and had to be contained with the employment of force.

The Yusufzais normally occupied the Swat and Bhajau valleys and the plains to the north of Peshawar. In 1667, led by their chief Bhagu, they rebelled and crossed the River Indus at Attock, plundered large areas and destroyed several Mughal outposts. They reached the ferry at Harun, aiming to capture it to prevent Mughal reinforcements from crossing River Indus. However, the Mughal commander at Attock took the offensive and beat back the rebels. The Mughal army then crossed the river and subdued the rebels, who remained at peace for some years thereafter. The Mughal army under Muhammad Amin Khan retained control of the ferry and the region.

Five years later, in 1672, the Afridi chieftain Akmal Khan crowned himself king and declared a holy war against the Mughals. He invited all Pathans to join the ‘national’ struggle for independence and closed the Khyber Pass. The Afridi-led tribal army attacked the Mughal commander in Afghanistan, Amin Khan, who managed to escape with great difficulty and make it to Peshawar. This was considered a grand victory for Akmal Khan and more tribes and warriors joined the rebellion. Soon the entire region was in turmoil.

Aurangzeb was taken by surprise at the vehemence of the rebellion and changed the commanders twice. First he send Mahabat Khan who arrived at a secret understanding with the rebels but could not make any progress in reclaiming lost territories. He was replaced by Shajaat Khan who was defeated and killed by the rebels at Karapa Pass on 22nd February 1674. The Khyber Pass continued to remain closed, cutting off the Afghanistan province of the empire from Hindustan. Aurangzeb was now alarmed that the kingdom would be bifurcated and moved personally to Hasan Abdal near Peshawar to direct operations against the rebels.

As was his wont, Aurangzeb resorted to a combination of military action and diplomacy to control the situation. Many of the tribes were bribed to remain aloof from the Afridis and some were induced to join Mughal service. Some of the more recalcitrant tribes and clans were isolated and militarily subdued individually. The new Mughal military commander, Uighur Khan, won a number of battles against the tribes—with each defeat, the strength of the tribal forces became depleted. The situation improved gradually and Aurangzeb could return to Delhi by the end of 1675, after spending nearly 18 months in Hasan Abdal.

Before departure, the emperor appointed Amir Khan as the governor of Kabul. Amir Khan was a capable general and administrator, who managed to govern with tact, energy and strictness while also being reconciliatory. He gradually restored order by paying subsidies to tribal leaders, creating dissention and then weaning them away from Akmal Khan thus isolating the leading clan of the rebellion. The confederacy broke up on the natural death of Akmal Khan and the rebellion was reduced to a minor struggle. Only the Khattaks under the leadership of Khush-hal Khan continued the struggle until he was betrayed by his own son and captured. Aurangzeb had managed to subdue the North-West Frontier and the Afghan tribesmen. But at what cost?

The Mughals paid a heavy price in treasure and blood to bring the Afghan tribes under control. However, the political price that had to be paid was even more than what had been anticipated. The Afghan rebellion and its subjugation became the fundamental cause for the commencement of the decay of Mughal power in Hindustan. Even though they remained subdued, barring a few minor and inconsequential raids, the Afghans were now fully against the Mughals in spirit and unlikely to offer any assistance. However, they were the only warriors who could match the ferocity, bravery and tactics of the Rajputs; and even as the Afghan rebellion was being contained, the Rajputs were being gradually alienated from the Mughal government because of Aurangzeb’s inflexible and bigoted religious policies. In the absence of a sizeable Afghan force, the Mughals could not hope to win the on-coming Rajput wars.

There was also a secondary effect of the Afghan rebellion, which was slow in becoming noticeable. In order to fight the Afghans, some of the most capable Mughal forces had to be withdrawn from the Deccan. This move in turn relieved the pressure on the rising Maratha chief Shivaji who took the opportunity to conquer the Carnatic in 1667, which further enabled him to consolidate his own power in the Peninsula.

Stemming from fundamental religious intolerance and a lack of imagination, the onset of the decay of Mughal power was still not perceptible, but would become apparent soon enough.  

 © [Sanu Kainikara] [2021]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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