On October 15, 1542, a baby was born to a fugitive prince and his fifteen-year-old wife in the Sindhi desert town of Umarkot. The prince had been driven from his throne in Delhi, and fleeing westward through the wastes of Rajasthan toward Persia, he survived by eating horsemeat boiled in the helmets of his last bodyguards. Nothing about the circumstances of the birth looked promising, yet the horoscope cast for the child by his father was auspicious in every detail—and rightly so, as it turned out.

For the child born in the desert was the future Mughal Emperor Akbar (1542–1605), the greatest ruler of his remarkable dynasty, who in time not only restored the lands lost by his father, the Emperor Humayun (1508– 1556), but laid the foundations for what would grow to be the greatest and most populous of all Muslim empires. At their peak, the Mughals ruled over some 100 million subjects—five times the number ruled by their Ottoman rivals, and many times that ruled by their immediate westerly neighbors, the Safavids of Isfahan in Iran.

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the great bustling Mughal cities are revealed to Adam after the Fall as future wonders of God’s creation. To a man of Milton’s generation, this was no understatement, for Lahore dwarfed any city in the West: “The city is second to none, either in Asia or in Europe,” thought the Portuguese Jesuit Father Antonio Monserrate,

with regard to size, population, and wealth. It is crowded with merchants, who foregather there from all over Asia…. There is no art or craft useful to human life which is not practised there…. The citadel alone…has a circumference of nearly three miles.1

From the ramparts of that citadel—the Lahore fort—Akbar ruled over most of India, all of what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh, and much of Afghanistan. For their impoverished contemporaries in the West, the Mughals became symbols of luxury and might—attributes with which the word “mogul” is still loaded.

But if the Mughals represented Islamic rule at its most magnificent, they also defined Islam at its most open-minded, tolerant, and syncretic. Unlike the Ottomans or the Safavids, who ruled largely Muslim polities, the Mughal Empire was effectively built in partnership with India’s Hindu majority, and succeeded as much through diplomacy as by brute force: Akbar in particular was a true humanist who strove for the reconciliation of his Hindu and Muslim subjects, and managed to unite them in the service of a coherent multireligious state.

As emperor, Akbar promoted Hindus at all levels of his administration, married a Rajput princess, and entrusted his army to his former Hindu opponent, Raja Man Singh of Jaipur. He ended the jizya tax levied only on non-Muslims, ordered the translation of the Sanskrit classics into Persian, codified minority rights, and filled his court with Hindu and Muslim artists and intellectuals. Akbar personally adopted many Hindu and yogic practices, and even became a vegetarian, criticizing meat-eaters for having converted “their inner sides, where reside the mysteries of Divinity, into a burial ground of animals.”2 So great an impression did all this make on his Hindu subjects that in some of the Bardic traditions of Rajasthan, Akbar came to be equated with the Hindu divinity Lord Ram.

More remarkable still to a modern world lazily used to thinking of Islam and Christianity as sworn and eternal enemies, both Akbar and his son Jahangir (1569–1627) were enthusiastic devotees of Jesus and his mother Mary, something they did not see as being in the least at variance with their Muslim faith. The main gate of the principal mosque at Akbar’s capital of Fatehpur Sikri still bears the following inscription:

Jesus, Son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: The World is a Bridge, pass over it, but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day, may hope for eternity; but the World endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen.

Recent scholarship on the Mughals has also emphasized another, no less surprising aspect of their court, and one that again goes against all the usual preconceptions of Muslim rule. For contrary to all stereotypes, it seems that Mughal women were better educated and had a far more central part in court and diplomatic life than has previously been recognized. Women in Iran and the Arab world were always more confined and less able to act in the public sphere than in India, where notions of purdah and ideas about the seclusion of women were always less central to notions of male honor. As a result, Muslim women in India have always been more prominent in politics than their sisters in the Middle East.3

Three books have recently been published which in very different ways all emphasize the degree to which the rule of the Mughals resists all our received ideas of what a Muslim empire should be like. Goa and the Great Mughal, a collection of essays accompanying a recent exhibition in Lisbon, shows the surprisingly close spiritual, artistic, and intellectual relationship that existed between the Mughals and the Portuguese, especially the Jesuits. Ruby Lal’s new book on Mughal women, Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, describes a female world quite at odds with the usual image of harem life as a place of orgiastic sexual pleasure for men, and of harsh and exploitative confinement for women; while Ebba Koch’s new study, The Complete Taj Mahal, gives an authoritative account of the origins, methods of construction, and complex symbolism of the greatest masterpiece of Mughal architecture, one which was built by an emperor in memory of his beloved wife—something that in itself defies the usual image of the place of women in Muslim society.


In 1580 the Emperor Akbar invited to his court near Agra a party of Portuguese Jesuit priests from Goa. According to one account, their arrival caused a sensation:

On entering the city they became the cynosure of all eyes on account of their strange attire. Everyone stopped and stared in great surprise and perplexity, wondering who these strange-looking, unarmed men might be, with their long black robes, their curious caps, their shaven faces, and their tonsured heads.

Soon, however, it was the turn of the Portuguese to be surprised. The Emperor allowed them to set up a chapel in his palace, where they exhibited two paintings of the Madonna and Child before an excited crowd. To the astonishment of the Jesuits, Akbar prostrated himself before the images of Jesus. Akbar took a particular interest in Jesus’ function as messiah and questioned the Jesuits closely about the Last Judgment and whether Christ would be the judge. Akbar also showed his appreciation of his guests by listening to madrigals and putting on Portuguese garb—“a scarlet cloak with gold fastenings…[and he] ordered his sons also to don the same dress, together with Portuguese hats.”

The Jesuits were soon persuaded to take part in the religious discussions held at the court, debating with holy men from all of India’s different religions, each of whom was invited to make the case for his particular understanding of the metaphysical. The presence of the Jesuits at the Mughal court, and the dialogue they engaged in, is the subject of several fascinating essays in Goa and the Great Mughal. Perhaps the most striking is by Gauvin Alexander Bailey, a remarkable young Canadian art historian4 who writes that in the history of the misunderstandings and misrepresentations in encounters of Muslims and Christians, Akbar’s court was a “brilliant exception”:

In an atmosphere comparable to Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Platonic Academy in Florence a century earlier, these enlightened [Mughal] rulers invited scholars and priests from around the world to their court, hosting them in their palaces and fielding weekly interfaith debates into the small hours of the morning. Operating in a spirit of experimentation, creativity and receptiveness, the emperors and their distinguished guests engaged in cultural dialogues of the highest intellectual calibre, expounding in the texts and traditions of faiths as varied as Judaism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, and occasionally finding similarities and connections between them…. Although it should be stressed that the Jesuits and the Muslim mullahs rarely agreed on the key tenets of their faiths, the emperors themselves openly tried to bridge the gap between the two religions and bring their teachings into harmony. In the history of Muslim– Christian relations, few encounters were as tolerant or as culturally rewarding.

Goa and the Great Mughal also demonstrates very well the degree to which Portuguese embassies radically changed the course of Mughal art, a subject well covered in excellent essays by two of the leading scholars on Mughal painting, Milo Beach and Amina Okada. Akbar had always been fond of painting, an art much patronized by his father Humayun, who believed that artists “were the delight of all the world.” Early in his reign, Akbar had made it clear that he had no use for ultra-orthodox Muslim opinion that objected to depiction of the human form. “There are many that hate painting,” he wrote,

but such men I dislike. It appears to me as if a painter had a quite peculiar means of recognizing God; for a painter in sketching anything that has life, and in devising its limbs, one after the other, must come to feel that he cannot bestow individuality upon his work, and is thus forced to think of God, the giver of life.5

Akbar soon gave an ambitious commission to his court painters to produce an illustrated version of the great oral epic the Hamzanama. Before this project, the Mughal miniature painting atelier contained only two artists, both of whom his father Humayun had lured to India from Persia. By commissioning no fewer than 1,400 huge illustrations—the largest single commission in Mughal history—the atelier was forced to train more than a hundred Indian artists in the Persian miniature style; many of them were apparently Hindu painters from the newly conquered province of Gujarat. The resulting volumes took more than fifteen years to produce and effectively gave birth to an independent Mughal miniature tradition.6


In the illustrations, one can see the two worlds of the Mughals—India and the Persianate world of Timurid Central Asia—coming together. Some of the illustrations are purely Persian in style: flat linear forms remarkable for their precise geometric perfection. Other pages are wholly Indian in spirit: the palate is brighter and the colors more saturated, and there is a love of the natural world that is very Indian. In some of the most interesting images, the two styles can clearly be seen merging for the first time.

It was not long before the European Christian images brought to the court by the Portuguese also began to make their influence shown. This was especially so when Akbar sent a return embassy to the Portuguese colony of Goa in 1575, including “many clever craftsmen…in order that…rare crafts be imported” into India. Akbar ordered the craftsmen to make copies of Portuguese reliquaries and altar retables, but in particular he got his painters to reproduce engravings of religious subjects in the Portuguese Bibles and Books of Hours. In this way, not only did Mughal painters learn about perspective and landscape painting from the European images brought to the court, they also learned the art of portraiture—something quite new in Indian art. “His Majesty himself sat for his likeness,” wrote Abu’l Fazl, Akbar’s friend and biographer, “and also ordered to have likenesses taken of all the grandees of the realm. An immense album was thus formed—those who have passed away received a new life, and those who are still alive have immortality promised to them.”

Subsequent Portuguese embassies to Akbar’s court reported with surprise that the gospel books given to the Mughals had led to murals of Christ, his mother, and the Christian saints being painted not only on the walls of the palace but also on Mughal tombs. “[The Emperor] has painted images of Christ Our Lord and Our Lady in various places in the Palace,” wrote one Jesuit father, “and there are so many saints that…you would say that it was more like the palace of a Christian king than a Moorish one.” By the end of Akbar’s reign, a mural of the Nativity filled a wall of the imperial sleeping chamber. Such enthusiasm for Catholic devotional images naturally disturbed not only the more orthodox members of Akbar’s ulema, or learned religious authorities, but also the English Protestant envoys to the court, notably the East India Company’s Thomas Kerridge, who wrote with irritation about the popularity of “those prattling, juggling Jesuits.”

Akbar’s son Jahangir, however, continued the tradition, competing with his father to collect Christian images, and keeping large framed pictures of Jesus and the Madonna in his sleeping chamber, “which one day he exhibited at his window to prove that this was so.” He also owned a “carved image of our Saviour on the cross”—a particular surprise since the Koran maintains that Christ was returned to God alive and not crucified.

In 1578 a party of ten royal pilgrims left Akbar’s new capital of Fatehpur Sikri heading westward to the Sufi shrine of Ajmer. They then cut south through the province of Gujarat where they boarded a ship for the Hejaz and Mecca.

The party stayed away on the hajj for three and a half years, before heading back to a magnificent welcome: as the returning pilgrims neared the capital, a succession of princes were sent out to escort them on the last leg of the journey, and once Akbar himself joined the cortege “there were hospitalities, and that night they remained awake engaged in pleasing discourses.” According to Father Monserrate, on arrival back at Fatehpur Sikri “the king had the street-pavements covered with silken shawls…scattering largesse to the crowds.”

What was most unexpected about this group of pilgrims was that they were all women of the royal harem. For Ruby Lal, the young Indian historian whose study of the domestic life of the Mughals is likely to rewrite completely the social history of the period, the pilgrimage is a perfect symbol of the way the life of Mughal women has been comprehensively misrepresented. She argues throughout her Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World that writing on Mughal women has been entirely centered on their perceived confinement, their powerless indolence, and above all their sexuality. The first lurid accounts by seventeenth-century European travelers told of cucumbers and radishes being banned from the harem for fear of their misuse for purposes other than nourishment. Most speculation about harem women in Mughal times has centered on what one previous Indian historian described as

sex orgies…the harem was not meant for the old and ailing. It was meant to be an abode of the young and beautiful, an arbour of pleasure.

Lal argues that this sexualized image of Mughal women’s lives is unhistorical and misleading. Far from being merely ornamental objects of desire, the women of the Mughal harem actually had a central part in the court and diplomatic life of the day. When the Emperor Akbar left Agra to pursue a rebel, for example, he left his formidable mother, Hamideh Banu, in charge of the capital and the empire—the same woman who many years earlier had, as a fourteen-year-old, initially refused the hand of the Emperor Humayun, declaring, “Oh, yes I shall marry someone; but he shall be a man whose collar my hand can touch, and not one to whose skirt it does not reach.” Throughout the chronicles of Akbar’s reign, the comings and goings of Hamideh Banu Begum to her son’s camps and campaigns are minutely chronicled and she was clearly an assertive and influential figure.

Lal’s book is full of equally strong-minded senior matriarchs: Isan Dawlat Begum, grandmother of the first Mughal, Babur, who was known, according to her grandson, for “her strategy and tactics”; and Khanzadeh Begum, renowned in the chronicles of the time for the great “sacrifice” she made by marrying Shiybani Khan Uzbek, in order to bring about peace between the Mughals and the Uzbeks. Lal also shows how emperors would frequently get senior and respected women of the harem to act as advisers and envoys to their brothers and cousins, to settle disputes, or to offer counsel and advice. There are frequent references to elderly begums speaking their mind to their children: when Prince Hindal rose in rebellion against his brother Humayun, his mother Dildar Begum received him in blue mourning clothes. When he asked why, she replied, “I am wearing mourning for you; you are young [nineteen] and have, from the instigation of irreflecting sedition-mongers, lost the true way; you have girded your loins for your own destruction.” Prince Hindal quickly sued for peace.

Moreover, Mughal women also tended to be richer and to possess far greater powers of patronage than their secluded counterparts elsewhere in the Muslim world: half the most important monuments in Shah Jahan’s Mughal Delhi were built by the women, especially the Emperor’s favorite daughter Jahanara, who constructed several mansions, a garden, a bathhouse, and a palatial caravanserai; she also laid out the city’s principal avenue, Chandni Chowk.7 Mughal princesses were also notably well educated, and were taught at home by elderly male scholars or “educated matrons”; the curriculum included ethics, mathematics, economics, physics, logic, history, medicine, theology, law, poetry, and astronomy.8 As a result there were many cases of princesses who became celebrated writers and poets: Gulbadan, the sister of Humayun, wrote her brother’s biography, The Humayun Nama, while her great-great-great-niece Jahanara wrote a biography of the Indian Sufi Mu’in ud-Din Chisti, as well as several volumes of poetry.

Lal is especially good on how harem life was not something fixed but kept changing as Mughal rule developed. The founder of the dynasty, Babur, was a semi-nomadic Central Asian warlord who wrote one the most fascinating diaries by a great ruler.9 In its pages, he opens his soul with a candid frankness and lack of inhibition similar to Pepys, comparing the fruits and animals of India and Afghanistan with as much inquisitiveness as he records his impressions of the differing pleasures of opium and wine, and of loving men or marrying women. Typical is his unembarrassed description of falling in love with an adolescent boy from an Afghan bazaar:

Before this I had never felt desire for anyone…. In the throes of love…I wandered bareheaded and barefoot around the lanes and streets and through the gardens and orchards, paying no attention to acquaintances or strangers, oblivious to self and others.

The passage shows that for Babur and his generation, as for so many males in traditional Persian court culture, romance meant not harem girls but “beardless boys.” By the time of his grandson Akbar, however, not only had Babur’s peripatetic world given way to a stable and settled court, but homosexuality had come to be regarded with distaste and looked on as transgressive and morally repulsive.10

Yet even in the court of Akbar, heterosexual athletics do not seem to have been a particular feature of harem life. The emperor certainly had a huge number of wives—over three hundred according to one contemporary estimate—but they were married for diplomatic reasons, and Akbar regarded sexual restraint as the ideal to be aimed at; indeed he had, as Father Monserrate explicitly noted, “a hatred of debauchery and adultery.”11 Both the subsequent emperors, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, were notably uxorious, so there is a strong case to be made for the Great Mughals in many ways representing the very opposite of the usual stereotype of the sensual, dissolute, and depraved Muslim ruler that figures so constantly in Western imaginings of the Oriental courts.

One measure of the prominence of Mughal women is that it was a Mughal princess who inspired the building of what is certainly the most famous monument raised by the dynasty: the Taj Mahal. The mausoleum was built in white marble in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, “the Chosen One of the Palace,” Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, as a memorial to their marriage. In the words of the court historian Muhammad Amin Qazwini:

The intimacy, deep affection, attention and favor which His Majesty had for the Cradle of Excellence [another title of Mumtaz] exceeded by a thousand times what he felt for any other. And always that Lady of the Age was the companion, close confidante, associate and intimate friend of that successful ruler, in hardship and comfort, joy and grief, when travelling or in residence…. The mutual affection and harmony between the two had reached a degree never seen between a husband and wife among the sultans and rulers, or among the ordinary people.

As Ebba Koch explains in her new book, The Complete Taj Mahal, the mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal was designed to be a model and symbol on earth of the heavenly mansion prepared for the Emperor’s wife in paradise. It was also very deliberately designed to be a monument of political propaganda, celebrating the power and glory, genius and good taste of Shah Jahan and his dynasty. Qazwini wrote:

The eye of the Age has seen nothing like it under the nine vaults of the enamel blue sky, and the ear of Time has heard of nothing like it in any past age…it will be a masterpiece for ages to come increasing the amazement of all humanity…until the day of resurrection.

Professor Koch is generally recognized as the leading expert on Mughal architecture, and The Complete Taj Mahal is her masterpiece, the result of both a careful combing through primary Persian sources and the first full architectural survey of the building in two generations. In the course of this she found and studied a web of masons’ marks that enabled her to work out the exact methods used to build the mausoleum, and the role of the different groups of skilled craftsmen that Shah Jahan lured to Agra to work on his masterpiece.

The book is beautifully illustrated and written with great clarity, free of academic jargon. Perhaps its most exciting revelation is the reconstruction it provides of the entire architectural setting of the Taj, in which Koch demonstrates that Agra was centered around the landscape of the Jumna riverbank; people moved by boat between a succession of riverside palaces and “sweet-smelling gardens with sweet blossoms,” spanning both banks of the river.

Tracking down the last remains of many of these palaces in the slums of the modern city—now one of the most unlovely in northern India and the center of a vicious leather and shoemaking mafia—Koch brings back to life Agra when it was the capital at the very peak of Mughal rule. As the Mughal chronicler Abdul Aziz put it, the city was “a wonder of the age—as much a centre of the arteries of trade both by land and water as a meeting-place of saints, sages and scholars from all Asia…a veritable lodestar for artistic workmanship, literary talent and spiritual worth.”

Nevertheless, for all that Shah Jahan’s rule marked the high point of the Mughal Empire, the reign also contained the seeds of its destruction. Just as the Taj contains many fewer signs of Hindu influence than the architecture produced by the Emperor’s grandfather Akbar, so there was a markedly less pluralistic and tolerant spirit abroad in the court, and a revival of the power of the ulema, a tendency that was exacerbated in 1658 with the seizure of power by Shah Jahan’s rigidly fundamentalist son, Aurangzeb.

Aurangzeb’s rule was harsh and repressive, and made a clean break with the liberal attitude toward the Hindu majority of his subjects pioneered by Akbar. The ulema were given a free hand to impose Sharia law. Prostitution was banned, as was wine, hashish, and the playing of music. Many Hindu temples across the country were destroyed or converted into mosques, and the Emperor reimposed the jizya tax on Hindus that had been abolished by Akbar; he also executed Teg Bahadur, the ninth of the gurus of the Sikhs.

The religious wounds Aurangzeb opened in India have never entirely healed; at the time they literally tore the country in two. Unable to trust anyone, Aurangzeb marched to and fro across the empire, viciously putting down the successive rebellions of his Hindu subjects. On his death in 1707, the empire fragmented. Built on tolerance, mutual respect, and an alliance with the Hindus, especially with the warrior Rajputs, who formed the core of the Mughal war machine, the breakdown of that alliance and the Mughal retreat into bigotry shattered their state and lost them the backbone of their army. That collapse left a vacuum that was eventually filled by a very different empire, that of the British. In time, only the magnificent monuments of the Mughals remained to witness what could be achieved in the successful merging of South Asia’s two great streams of civilization.

This Issue

November 22, 2007