History Holidays: Mughal India

Solange Hando explores impressive sites that saw the birth and demise of the grand Mughal empire

Deer graze in the gardens by the distinctive red sandstone gateway to the mausoleum of the Mughal Emperor Akbar at Sikandra near Agra. (Photo by Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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The main Mughal sites of India can be toured in a week, visiting Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and Delhi, all significant places in the life of the great empire established in the 16th century.
In 1526, having left his dwindling kingdom in central Asia and failed to secure Samarkand, Prince Babur, descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur, claimed the Delhi Sultanate, once briefly held by his ancestor. Within a year, he had defeated the reigning Lodis and Rajput princes to become India’s first Mughal emperor. Unlike the previous Muslim dynasties, the Mughals managed to unify their possessions and thus create an empire of unrivalled magnificence, spanning 17 emperors and over 300 years.
Babur’s legacy was his love of gardens while his son Humayun started the construction of Delhi’s Old Fort, Purana Qila, continued by the usurper Sher Shah Suri. In 1555, Humayun regained his throne, bringing back from Persia the art of miniature painting, but his most enduring monument is his tomb in Delhi. Humayun’s Tomb was the first of the grand Mughal mausoleums and precursor of the Taj Mahal. Note the Indo-Islamic style, developed under earlier Muslim rulers as local craftsmen introduced Hindu motifs in their masters’ designs. Eventually, both traditions would blend into a distinctive Mughal style, lavish and refined.
The golden age begins with Akbar, crowned in 1556 aged thirteen. He was a leader of formidable strength and intelligence, though barely literate. An astute conqueror, striking alliances with Rajput princes, he brought most of Northern India under his rule, developed an efficient system of government and administration and preached religious tolerance to “unite India in heart and spirit”. Akbar the Great was an art lover and builder. Take time to visit Akbar’s Tomb in Sikandra and in Agra, his capital, the red sandstone Akbar’s Fort, further embellished in marble by his successors. According to contemporary historian Abul Fazl, it had 500 buildings.
In 1569, desperate for an heir, Akbar visited a Sufi mystic in nearby Sikri. His wish granted, he built an alternative capital on the site. Fatehpur Sikri was soon abandoned for lack of water but you can wander around the ghost city’s empty palaces, shrines, mosque and its Victory Gate, said to be the tallest in India.
His successors, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, enjoyed a period of relative stability when the arts flourished, be it painting or jewellery, gardens or architecture. In 1638, Shah Jahan decided to return to Delhi and lay the foundations of a new capital, Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi). Don’t miss the Red Fort with its vast fortifications and palace apartments completed, according to records, at a cost of ten million rupees, or Jama Masjid, the spacious mosque overlooking Old Delhi.
Meanwhile in Agra, born from inconsolable grief, Shah Jahan’s greatest achievement was taking shape, the mausoleum of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child. Nothing prepares you for the splendour of the Taj Mahal, its dazzling marble and pietra dura, its perfect symmetry and its domes and minarets reflected in the pool, the ultimate fusion of Indian and Islamic styles set in manicured gardens. Shah Jahan spent the last eight years of his life gazing at his “monument to love”, when his son Aurangzeb kept him under house arrest in Agra Fort. The emperor now rests with his wife.
With Aurangzeb, the empire was doomed. Obsessed by military campaigns, armed with religious zeal, he imposed a tax on heathen worship, alienating the Hindu Rajputs, and reduced patronage of the arts deemed contrary to his puritanical ideals. Weakened, his successors failed to prevent foreign incursions and internal rivalries.
By the end of the 18th century, the Rajputs had asked the British for help and the East India Company affirmed its power. The first governor-general was appointed. Following the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Bahadur Shah, the last Mughal Emperor was arrested in the grounds of Humayun’s tomb and tried in the Red Fort. He died in exile but history lovers continue to enjoy the stunning legacy of the Mughal Empire.