Times & Places

Mughal Empire (1526-1858)

From the era of its inception, Islam had a significant impact on India. Muslim warriors brought their faith to the area of the Indus Valley from the 8th century onward, beginning to establish Islam in what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India. To these adventurous leaders, the Gangetic plains of northern South Asia were compelling conquests, agriculturally rich, and also wealthy in gold and precious materials. Early Muslim campaigns in northwestern South Asia (ancient Gandhara) and in Central Asia led to the decline of Buddhism there. By the 11th century, the Turkish Mahmud of Ghazni had invaded the plains area and destroyed many Hindu cities. In the late 12th century another Afghan warrior, Muhammad of Ghori, invaded the plains again. His successor founded the Sultanate of Delhi, which ruled there in five successive dynasties from 1206 to 1526. In 1398 the great Central Asian warrior Timur, also known as Tamerlane, sacked Delhi, but he did not remain long in India and the Sultanate continued. Major Islamic art forms, particularly religious architecture including mosques and tombs, and decorative arts such as tilework and inlay, enjoyed rich developments during this period.

In areas under Muslim rule in India, Islam became the domi­nant religion, most often the Shiite form. However, Hinduism remained the religion and culture of many of the conquered peoples. Significant parts of India, such as the Rajput states in Rajasthan and the Himalayan hills, remained Hindu or Jain, even when many Rajput princes were employed by Muslim sultans. Southern India also remained largely outside the Muslim sphere. The diverse cultural and religious mix that had marked the city of Mathura in the early centuries CE endured throughout much of South Asia. Indian arts and sciences were known as far away as Baghdad. The period between the 8th and 15th centu­ries was an immensely creative time in Hindu arts and religious philosophy.

In 1526 Babur, a descendant of Tamerlane, conquered the Sultan of Delhi and founded the Mughal dynasty. The era of the Mughals in South Asia spans several centuries, from the early 16th to the later 19th centuries. The Mughals are renowned for their lavish patronage of the arts and architecture. The age of the Mughals also was a time when many independent principalities flourished in various parts of India. Interactions among different religions, traditions, languages, and cultures produced fascinating developments in all spheres of the arts.

The Mughal emperors ruled much of northern and central India until the later 19th century, although there were also important independent Hindu kingdoms, particularly in Rajasthan and in the south. The Muslim states were far from unified. Babur’s descendants, Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan, ruled most of India during the 16th and early 17th centuries, a period of great artistic splendor. European arts also became known in India at this time. The emperor Akbar (1542–1605) in particular culti­vated an intellectually progressive court and patronized diverse art styles. His new capital at Fatehpur Sikri exemplifies a Mughal style that had assimilated a broad range of influences, including European ones. Prints, drawings, and oil paintings from Europe were known to Mughal artists. Akbar exemplifies the cosmopoli­tanism, intellectual open-mindedness, and dynamic, creative spirit of the Mughal age.

The Mughal court derived its artistic heritage from Persia and Central Asia. Mughal taste and craftsmanship intermingled with local Indian traditions in an environment that favored the visual arts. Imperial patronage supported the creation of inlaid and bejeweled objects, fine metalwork in a variety of materials, sumptuous textiles, paintings inspired by Persian styles, gor­geously illustrated books with fine calligraphy, and new kinds of architecture suited to the needs of Islam. The lavish lifestyle of the Mughal elite was reflected in both miniature paintings and decorative arts. Yet in all these forms the long tradition of Indian craftsmanship was blended with Mughal sensibilities to produce brilliant artworks reflecting a creative synthesis of influences.

Many famous monuments admired in contemporary India, such as the emperor Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, the many constructions at Fatehpur Sikri, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the emperor Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra, are creations of the Mughal court. The prestige and brilliance of Mughal courtly arts profoundly influenced South Asian arts at all levels of culture and in various religious contexts. Islamic arabesque patterns may be seen in many Mughal works; so, however, may the persistence of Hindu deities, subjects, and Indic artistic techniques.

Beginning in 1857, there was a major uprising against the British in northern India, known to the British as the Indian Mutiny but as the 1857 War of Independence to Indian nationalists. The British had been a significant mercantile and administrative presence in India since the 18th century, primarily through the auspices of the British East India Company. The uprising was subdued in 1858, marking the end of the Mughal dynasty and the beginning of official British control of the Indian subcontinent. Following the nationalist movement and freedom struggle led most famously by Mahatma Gandhi in the early 20th century, the South Asian subcontinent officially achieved independence from Britain in 1947, and was partitioned into the modern-day nations of India and Pakistan.

Adapted from

Anne R. Bromberg, T__he Arts of India, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 99-100.