Reign of Aurangzeb

Aurangzeb was a brilliant administrator, tireless warrior, and a cunning diplomat who imposed nominal Mughal power over most of India. His achievements were undermined by his incessant wars, punishing taxations, and a religious policy that replaced traditional Mughal toleration with a puritanical Sunni Islam that offended India’s Hindu majority. The revolts and impoverishment his autocracy produced would throw the Mughal Dynasty into irreversible decline.

Summary of Event

Emperor Aurangzeb came to power in 1658 after overthrowing his father, the emperor Shah Jahan Shah Jahan , and defeating his rival brothers in a prolonged civil war. When he ascended the throne, the Mughal Dynasty held direct control over most of northern India, covering the lands of the Indus, the Ganges, and Bengal. In many of these areas, however, actual power required cooperation with local princely authorities, Hindu as well as Muslim. [kw]Reign of Aurangzeb (1658-1707)
[kw]Aurangzeb, Reign of (1658-1707)
Government and politics;1658-1707: Reign of Aurangzeb[1940]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1658-1707: Reign of Aurangzeb[1940]
Religion and theology;1658-1707: Reign of Aurangzeb[1940]
India;1658-1707: Reign of Aurangzeb[1940]
Mughal Empire

To the south in the central Deccan lands and coastal regions, independent rulers of states such as Golconda, Bijapur, and the Marāthās shared with the Mughals in the wealth of India’s vigorous commerce but resisted occupation if threatened.

Officially, the Mughals supported the Sunni Islamic Islam;Sunnis faith and promoted the spread of Sunnism throughout its domains. In reality, the guiding principles of the regime constituted what could be called Indiaism Indiaism , a judicious mix of traditional Islamic religious tolerance, Hindu pluralism, opulent patronage of Indian culture, and promotion of commercial expansion. Such policies represented a dramatic departure from the historic approaches of Muslim rulers. Traditionally, non-Muslims were disarmed, prohibited from military service, subject to special taxes, forbidden to command Muslims, and stigmatized by mandates to wear and exhibit special clothing and to behave in a deferential manner. Under the Mughals, however, high-caste Hindu Hinduism;Mughal Empire princes, warriors, priests, and other members of the elite were exempt from these discriminations. The majority of Mughal subjects remained Hindus. In addition, Mughal religious pluralism had allowed non-Sunni Muslim groups such as Shia and Nizari Muslims to move around India. Interaction and dialogue between Hindus and Muslims gave rise to syncretistic movements that mixed beliefs and practices of both, producing new faiths, such as Sikhism, to compete with Sunni Islam.


(Library of Congress)

Aurangzeb represented a minority view within the Mughal household, which regarded Indiaism as failed politics and religious apostasy. As a provincial governor and military commander, the prince had come to trust his Muslim subjects over the Hindu. His father’s wastrel (foolish) spending appalled him, especially the construction of the famous Taj Mahal. The constant civil wars that accompanied seemingly every succession suggested to Aurangzeb that the state needed more efficient, more centralized control over its lands. The new emperor believed also that God had called him to power to make the Mughal Dynasty a more truly Islamic state, to impose the strictures of Islamic law upon non-Muslims, to end fiscal waste and cultural extravagance, and to carry Islam deeper into the subcontinent.

Taking the title alamgir (world conqueror), Aurangzeb began his reign in 1658 by purging his court of luxury, slashing expenditures for all but the state and army, and sending inspectors throughout his domain to compel Muslims to observe the prayers, fasts, and laws of Sunni Islam. He invested heavily in the recruitment and training of Sunni lawyers, judges, censors, and clergy. Troops were dispatched to Kashmir and Mewar to enforce the loyalty of dissident Muslim princes. Gradual enforcement of sectarian discriminations began immediately.

Over the next twenty years, the emperor steadily increased the exactions. Non-Muslims paid higher duties, customs, and taxes than did Muslims. Pretexts were raised to confiscate lands and houses of worship. Persecution, religious;Mughal Empire Revolts, such as that in 1669 in the Punjab, met savage repression. In 1679, the state imposed the poll-tax on all Hindus, exempting only the Rājput princely caste. Shia Muslims faced persecution as did the Sikhs. (In 1675, the ninth Sikh guru was executed for heresy.) The efficiency of Aurangzeb’s new taxation Taxation;Mughal Empire system, collected by military supervisors called mansabdars, compounded popular resentments of Muslim and Hindu alike because of their greed.

During these decades, Aurangzeb’s major foreign opposition came from the Shia sultans of the central plains and fromŚivājī Śivājī , Hindu leader of the Marāthā peoples of the western coastal mountains. Using both guerrilla and conventional tactics,Śivājī often eluded the Mughals, raiding border cities, inspiring revolts, and creating short-lived anti-Mughal alliances. His example led many of the Rājputs in the empire to revolt beginning in 1679, a revolt that led Aurangzeb’s own son, Akbar Akbar (Aurangzeb’s son) , to attempt a coup against his father under the banners of Indiaism.

Aurangzeb responded with overwhelming force. Driving Akbar south into the arms of the Marāthās Marāthā kingdom[Maratha kingdom] , he gained enough time to marshal his domestic supporters for a new war of pacification. From 1681 to 1689, Mughal armies pounded into submission the Shia sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda. The annexation of these states increased the ranks of Muslim fighters and the rolls of non-Muslim taxpayers—although, again, Hindu nobles still received preferential treatment. Works of art were destroyed and musicians and dancers banished.Śivājī’s death in 1680 also weakened the Marāthā state, and, by 1689, the Mughals had occupied most of the Marāthā land on the western and eastern coasts of India. Nearly all of central India now came under Aurangzeb’s banners

Occupation, however, did not bring pacification. In the west, Marāthā chieftains raised armies in the mountains and routinely swept downs on towns, garrisons, and estates. In the east, the House ofŚivājī established itself in the fortress town of Jinji. The Mughals besieged the town for eight years before it finally fell in 1698. (Even then, the Marāthā prince escaped the Mughals.) Many fortresses changed hands seasonally, the sieges were long, and there was pointless loss of life. Droughts, plagues, and famines combined with war to wreck local economies and prolong the misery of ordinary Indians Famine;India . At the same time, European merchants in some Indian ports had made themselves virtually autonomous. The Dutch in Pulicat, the French at Pondicherry, and the English in Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras increasingly manipulated local economies, recruited mercenaries, sold arms and expertise to dissidents, and infuriated Aurangzeb with their rivalry and meddling.

The fall of Jinji energized the elderly emperor, and he resolved to reduce the chains of fortresses that sheltered the Marāthā forces and their leaders. His first campaigns in 1699-1701 captured several key Marāthā strongholds. At one battle in Ahmadnagar, Mughal forces bloodied the Marāthās. More fortresses fell and more chieftains capitulated. However, the cost of these victories proved exhausting. Aurangzeb’s court and army numbered in the tens of thousands, supported further by thousands of retainers, horses, camels, and elephants. The occupation of fortresses did not end the guerrilla assaults or the relentless plundering of supplies, trains, and rear areas by smaller, swifter Marāthā bands. Meanwhile, the shifting of Mughal forces to the eastern Deccan only encouraged Marāthā chiefs in the west to attack the reduced towns and garrisons.

By 1705, Aurangzeb was almost ninety, exhausted, demoralized, and embittered. With three middle-age sons and numerous grandsons, the odds of a civil war at his death were daunting. Despite his victories and the new lands he had won, the emperor withdrew to the north to prepare for the succession. Failure crowned his last years, as Marāthā and other rebels continued to bedevil a shrinking Mughal army. Provincial governors in Bengal and other territories plotted secession openly. The imperial economy was in shambles, burdened by military debts and foreign trade slipping into the hands of Europeans. In his will, the emperor required a three-way division of the empire among his leading sons, men for whom he showed little respect. Aurangzeb died March 3, 1707. Within months, the civil war he sought to prevent broke out between his sons. The Mughal Empire began a relentless decline from which it would never recover.


Ruling India for almost fifty years, Aurangzeb clearly was the last of the great Mughal emperors. In his ambition to abandon Mughal Indiaism for a more traditional Islamic government, he helped deepen the roots of Islam on the subcontinent. Extremely gifted as an administrator and a military commander, he enlarged both the state structure and the imperial army. At his death, Mughal rule extended over more territory than it had ever—or would ever—occupy.

Nonetheless, after Aurangzeb’s death, the power of the Mughals declined rapidly. Instability plagued the dynasty regularly. Many provinces broke away or became semiautonomous. There were many wars, famines, and quarreling small states. British and French imperialism was relentless, laying the groundwork for the conquests of the next century.

Aurangzeb is an extremely controversial figure among historians of India. Hindu writers depict him often as a narrow-minded bigot who ruined his empire trying to impose unworkable Islamic discriminations on the non-Muslim majority he ruled. Muslim scholars tend to emphasize the need for a more centralized government in the face of internal turbulence and encroaching European imperialism. Beyond the religious context of his rule, historians continue to debate the impact of his policies on seventeenth century India.

Further Reading

  • Gascoigne, Bamber. A Brief History of the Great Moghuls. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002. A well-written, general history of the Mughals, first published in 1971, chronicling the empire from its founder, Bābur, through Aurangzeb. Profusely illustrated, the work presents a balanced view of Aurangzeb’s reign.
  • Hallissey, Robert C. The Rajput Rebellion Against Aurangzeb: A Study of the Mughal Empire in Seventeenth Century India. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1977. Examines the Rājput rebellion against Aurangzeb in light of the internal dynamics of the Rājput state and the religious differences between Hindus and Muslims. Reveals the complexity of the Mughal-Rājput relationship.
  • Keay, John. India: A History. New York: Grove Press, 2000. Keay is especially adept at making the convoluted politics and wars of the era understandable for general readers.
  • Richards, John F. The Mughal Empire. New Cambridge History of India 5, part 1. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Still the best single text in English on the history of the Mughal Empire.
  • Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A good overview from a classic college-level text. Includes a solid bibliography.

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Mughal Empire