In this article we will discuss about the decline of the Mughal empire.

The great Mughal Empire, the envy of its contemporaries for almost two centuries, declined and disintegrated during the first half of the eighteenth century. The Mughal emperors lost their power and glory and their empire shrank to a few square miles around Delhi.

In the end, in 1803, Delhi itself was occupied by the British army and the proud Mughal emperor was reduced to the status of a mere pensioner of a foreign power.

A study of the process of decline of this great empire is most instructive. It reveals some of the defects and weaknesses of India’s medieval social, economic and political structure which were responsible for the eventual subjugation of the country by the English East India Company.


The unity and stability of the empire had been shaken up during the long and strong reign of Aurangzeb; yet in spite of his many harmful policies, the Mughal administration was still quite efficient and the Mughal army quite strong at the time of his death in 1707. Moreover, the Mughal dynasty still commanded respect in the country.

On Aurangzeb’s death his three sons fought among themselves for the throne. The 65-year-old Bahadur Shah emerged victorious. He was learned, dignified, and able. He followed a policy of compromise and conciliation, and there was evidence of the reversal of some of the narrow-minded policies and measures adopted by Aurangzeb. He adopted a more tolerant attitude towards the Hindu chiefs and rajas.

There was no destruction of temples in his reign. In the beginning, he made an attempt to gain greater control over the Rajput states of Amber and Marwar (Jodhpur) by replacing Jai Singh with his younger brother Vijai Singh at Amber and by forcing Ajit Singh of Marwar to submit to Mughal authority. He also made an attempt to garrison the cities of Amber and Jodhpur.

This attempt was, however, met with firm resistance. This may have made him recognize the folly of his actions for he soon arrived at a settlement with the two states, though the settlement was not magnanimous.


Though their states were restored to the Rajas Jai Singh and Ajit Singh, their demand for high man-sabs and the offices of subahdars of important provinces such as Malwa and Gujarat was not accepted. His policy towards the Maratha sardars (chiefs) was that of half-hearted conciliation.

While he granted them the sardeshmukhi of the Deccan, he failed to grant them the chauth and to satisfy them fully. He also did not recognise Shahu as the rightful Maratha king. He thus let Tara Bai and Shahu fight for supremacy over the Maratha kingdom.

The result was that Shahu and the Maratha sardars remained dissatisfied and the Deccan continued to be susceptible to disorder. There could be no restoration of peace and order so long as the Maratha sardars fought one another as well as against the Mughal authority.

Bahadur Shah had tried to conciliate the rebellious Sikhs by making peace with Guru Gobind Singh and giving him a high mansab (rank).


But when, after the death of the Guru, the Sikhs once again raised the banner of revolt in the Punjab under the leadership of Banda Bahadur, the emperor decided to take strong measures and himself led a campaign against the rebels, who soon controlled practically the entire territory between the Sutlej and the Jamuna, reaching the close neighbourhood of Delhi.

Even though he succeeded in capturing Lohgarh, a fort built by Guru Gobind Singh north-east of Ambala at the foothills of the Himalayas, and other important Sikh strongholds, the Sikhs could not be crushed and in 1712, they recovered the fort of Lohgarh.

Bahadur Shah conciliated Chatarsal, the Bundela chief, who remained a loyal feudatory, and the Jat chief Churaman, who joined him in the campaign against Banda Bahadur. There was further deterioration in the field of administration in Bahadur Shah’s reign.

The position of state finances worsened as a rescuer of his reckless grants of jagirs and promotions. During his reign the remnants of the royal treasure amounting in 1707 to some 13 crores of rupees, were exhausted.

Bahadur Shah was groping towards a solution of the problems besetting the empire. Given time, he might have revived the imperial fortunes. Unfortunately, his death in 1712 plunged the Empire once again into civil war.

A new element entered Mughal politics in this and the succeeding wars of succession. While previously the contest for power had been between royal princes, and the nobles had merely aided the aspirants to the throne, now ambitious nobles became direct contenders for power and used princes as mere pawns to capture the seats of authority.

In the civil war following Bahadur Shah’s death, one of his less able sons, Jahandar Shah, won because he was supported by Zulfiqar Khan, the most powerful noble of the time.

Jahandar Shah was a weak and degenerate prince who was wholly devoted to pleasure. He lacked good manners and dignity and decency. During his reign, the administration was virtually in the hands of the extremely capable and energetic Zulfiqar Khan, who had become his wazir.

Zulfiqar Khan believed that it was necessary to establish friendly relations with the Rajput rajas and the Maratha sardars and to conciliate the Hindu chieftains in general in order to strengthen his own position at the Court and to save the empire.

Therefore, he rapidly reversed the policies of Aurangzeb. The hated jizyah was abolished. Jai Singh of Amber was given the title of Mirza Raja Sawai and appointed governor of Malwa; Ajit Singh of Marwar was awarded the title of Maharaja and appointed governor of Gujarat.

Zulfiqar Khan confirmed the earlier private arrangement that his deputy in the Deccan, Daud Khan Panni, had concluded with the Maratha King Shahu in 1711. By this arrangement, the Maratha ruler was granted the chauth and sardeshmukhi of the Deccan on the condition that these collections would be made by the Mughal officials and then handed over to the Maratha officials.

Zulfiqar Khan also conciliated Churaman Jat and Chhatarsal Bundela. Only towards Banda and the Sikhs did he continue the old policy of suppression.

Zulfiqar Khan made an attempt to improve the finances of the empire by checking the reckless growth of jagirs and offices. He also tried to compel the mansabdars (nobles) to maintain their official quota of troops. An evil tendency encouraged by him was that of ijarah or revenue-farming.

Instead of collecting land revenue at a fixed rate as under Todar Mai’s land revenue settlement, the government began to contract with revenue farmers and middlemen to pay the government a fixed amount of money while they were left free to collect whatever they could from the peasant. This led to increased oppression of the peasant.

Many jealous nobles secretly worked against Zulfiqar Khan. Worse still, the emperor too did not give him his trust and cooperation in full measure. The emperor’s ears were poisoned against Zulfiqar Khan by unscrupulous favorites.

He was told that his wazir was becoming too powerful and ambitious and might even overthrow the emperor himself. The cowardly emperor dared not dismiss the powerful wazir, but he began to intrigue against him secretly. Nothing could have been more destructive of healthy administration.

Jahandar Shah’s inglorious reign came to an early end in January 1713 when he was defeated at Agra by Farrukh Siyar, his nephew. Farrukh Siyar owed his victory to the Saiyid brothers, Abdullah Khan and Husain Ali Khan Baraha, who were therefore given the offices of wazir and mir bakshi respectively.

The two brothers soon acquired dominant control over the affairs of the state. Farrukh Siyar lacked the capacity to rule. He was cowardly, cruel, undependable and faithless. Moreover, he allowed himself to be influenced by worthless favourites and flatterers.

In spite of his weaknesses, Farrukh Siyar was not willing to give the Saiyid brothers a free hand but wanted to exercise personal authority. On the other hand, the Saiyid brothers were convinced that administration could be carried on properly, the decay of the empire checked, and their own position safeguarded only if they wielded real authority and the emperor merely reigned without ruling.

Thus there ensued a prolonged struggle for power between the Emperor Farrukh Siyar and his wazir and mir bakshi.

Year after year the ungrateful emperor intrigued to overthrow the two brothers; year after year, he failed. In the end, in 1719, the Saiyid brothers deposed him and killed him. In his place they raised to the throne in quick succession two young princes who died of consumption.

The Saiyid brothers now made the 18-year-old Muhammad Shah the Emperor of India. The three successors of Farrukh Siyar were mere puppets in the hands of the Saiyids. Even their personal liberty to meet people and to move around was restricted. Thus, from 1713 until 1720, when they were overthrown, the Saiyid brothers wielded the administrative power of the state.

The Saiyid brothers adopted the policy of religious tolerance. They believed that India could be ruled harmoniously only by associating Hindu chiefs and nobles with the Muslim nobles in governing the country.

Again, they sought to conciliate and use the Rajputs, the Marathas, and the Jats in their struggle against Farrukh Siyar and the rival nobles. They abolished the jizyah immediately after Farrukh Siyar’s accession to the throne.

Similarly, the pilgrim tax was abolished from a number of places. They won over to their side Ajit Singh of Marwar, Jai Singh of Amber, and many other Rajput princes by giving them high positions of influence in the administration.

They made an alliance with Churaman, the Jat chieftain. In the later years of their administration they reached an agreement with King Shahu by granting him the swarajyca (of Shivaji) and the right to collect the chauth and sardeshmukhi of the six provinces of the Deccan. In return, Shahu agreed to support them in the Deccan with 15,000 mounted soldiers.

The Saiyid brothers made a vigorous effort to contain rebellions and to save the empire from administrative disintegration. They failed in these tasks mainly because they were faced with constant political rivalry, quarrels, and conspiracies at the court. This continued friction in the ruling circles disorganized and even paralyzed administration at all levels. Lawlessness and disorder spread everywhere.

The financial position of the state deteriorated rapidly as zamindars and rebellious elements refused to pay land revenue, officials misappro­priated state revenues, and central income declined because of the spread of revenue farming. As a result, the salaries of the officials and soldiers could not be paid regularly and the soldiers became undisciplined and even mutinous.

Even though the Saiyid brothers had tried hard to conciliate and befriend all sections of the nobility, a powerful group of nobles headed by Nizam-ul-Mulk and his father’s cousin Muhammad Amin Khan began to conspire against them. These nobles were jealous of the growing power of the two brothers.

The deposition and murder of Farrukh Siyar frightened many of them: if the emperor could be killed, what safety was there for mere nobles? Moreover, the murder of the emperor created a wave of public revulsion against the two brothers.

They were looked down upon as traitors—persons who had not been ‘true to their salt’ (namak haram). Many of the nobles of Aurangzeb’s reign also disliked the Saiyid alliance with the Rajput and the Maratha chiefs and their liberal policy towards the Hindus.

These nobles declared that the Saiyids were following anti-Mughal and anti-Islamic policies. They tried to arouse the fanatical sections of the Muslim nobility against the Saiyid brothers. The anti-Saiyid nobles were supported by Emperor Muhammad Shah who wanted to free himself from the control of the two brothers.

In 1720, they succeeded in treacherously assassinating Husain Ali Khan, the younger of the two brothers. Abdullah Khan tried to fight back but was defeated near Agra. Thus ended the domination of the Mughal empire by the Saiyid brothers known in Indian history as ‘king makers’.

Muhammad Shah’s long reign of nearly 30 years (1719-48) was the last chance of saving the empire. There were no quick changes of imperial authority as in the period 1707-20. When his reign began Mughal prestige among the people was still an important political factor.

The Mughal army and particularly the Mughal artillery was still a force to reckon with. Administration in northern India had deteriorated but not broken down yet.

The Maratha sardars were still confined to the South, while the Rajput rajas continued to be loyal to the Mughal dynasty. A strong and farsighted ruler supported by a nobility conscious of its peril might still have saved the situation. But Muhammad Shah was not the man of the moment. He was weak-minded and frivolous and over fond of a life of ease and luxury.

He neglected the affairs of state. Instead of giving full support to able wazirs such as Nizam-ul- Mulk, he fell under the evil influence of corrupt and worthless flatterers and intrigued against his own ministers. He even shared in the bribes taken by his favorite courtiers.

Disgusted with the fickle-mindedness and suspicious nature of the emperor and the constant quarrels at the court, Nizum-ul-Mulk, the most powerful noble of the time, decided to follow his own ambition. He had become the wazir in 1722 and made a vigorous attempt to reform the administration.

He now decided to leave the emperor and his empire to their fate and to strike out on his own. He relinquished his office in October 1724 and marched south to found the state of Hyderabad in the Deccan. “His departure was symbolic of the flight of loyalty and virtue from the empire.” The physical break-up of the Mughal empire had begun.

The other powerful and ambitious nobles also now began to utilise their energies for carving out semi-independent states. Hereditary nawabs owing nominal allegiance to the emperor at Delhi arose in many parts of the country, for example, in Bengal, Hyderabad, Avadh, and the Punjab.

Everywhere petty zamindars, rajas and nawabs raised the banner of rebellion and independence. The Maratha sardars began their northern expansion and overran Malwa, Gujarat and Bundelkhand. Then, in 1738-39, Nadir Shah descended upon the plains of northern India, and the empire lay prostrate.

Nadir Shah had risen from shepherd boy to Shah (King) by saving Persia from sure decline and disintegration. In the beginning of the eighteenth century Persia, hitherto a powerful and far flung empire, was under the weak rule of the declining Safavi dynasty. It was threatened by internal rebellions and foreign attacks.

In the east, the Abdali tribesmen revolted and occupied Herat, and the Ghalzai tribesmen detached the province of Qandahar. Similar revolts occurred in the north and west. In Shirvan, religious persecution of the Sunnis by fanatical Shias led to rebellion. Here, “Sunni mullahs were put to death, mosques were profaned and turned into stables, and religious works were destroyed.”

In 1721, the Ghalzai chief of Qandahar, Mahmud, invaded Persia and occupied Isfahan, the capital. Russia under Peter the Great was determined to push southward. Peter began his invasion of Persia in July 1722 and soon forced Persia to sign away several of her provinces on the Caspian Sea, including the town of Baku. Turkey, deprived of most of her European possessions, also hoped to make good the loss at Persia’s cost.

In the spring of 1723, Turkey declared war on Persia and rapidly pushed through Georgia and then penetrated south. In June 1724, Russia and Turkey signed a treaty dividing all northern and most of western Persia between them. At this stage, in 1726, Nadir emerged as a major supporter of Tahmsap and as his most brilliant commander.

In 1729 he won back Herat after defeating the Abdalis and expelled the Ghalzais from Isfahan and central and southern Persia. After long and bitter warfare he compelled Turkey to give back all conquered territory.

In 1735, he signed a treaty with Russia receiving back all seized territory. The following year, he deposed the last of the Safavi rulers and made himself the Shah. In the following years, he re-conquered the province of Qandahar.

Nadir Shah was attracted to India by the fabulous wealth for which it was always famous. Continual campaigns had made Persia virtually bankrupt. Money was needed desperately to maintain his mercenary army. Spoils from India could be a solution. At the same time, the visible weakness of the Mughal empire made such spoliation possible.

He entered Indian Territory towards the end of 1738, without meeting any opposition. For years the defences of the north-west frontier had been neglected. The danger was not fully recognised till the enemy had occupied Lahore. Hurried preparations were then made for the defence of Delhi, but the faction-ridden nobles refused to unite even in sight of the enemy.

They could not agree on a plan for defence or on the commander of the defending forces. Disunity, poor leadership, mutual jealousies and distrust could lead only to defeat. The two armies met at Karnal on 13 February 1739 and the invader inflicted a crushing defeat on the Mughal army. The Emperor Muhammad Shah was taken prisoner and Nadir Shah marched on to Delhi.

A terrible massacre of the citizens of the imperial capital was ordered by Nadir Shah as a reprisal against the killing of some of his soldiers. The greedy invader took possession of the royal treasury and other royal property, levied tribute on the leading nobles, and plundered the rich of Delhi.

His total plunder has been estimated at 70 crores of rupees. This enabled him to exempt his own kingdom from taxation for three years! He also carried away the famous Kohinoor diamond and the jewel-studded Peacock Throne of Shahjahan. He compelled Muhammad Shah to cede to him all the provinces of the empire west of the river Indus.

Nadir Shah’s invasion inflicted immense damage on the Mughal empire. It caused an irreparable loss of prestige and exposed the hidden weakness of the empire to the Maratha sardars and the foreign trading companies. The central administration was paralyzed temporarily. The invasion ruined imperial finances and adversely affected the economic life of the country.

The impoverished nobles began to rack-rent and oppress the peasantry even more in an effort to recover their lost fortunes. They also fought one another over rich jagirs and high offices more desperately than ever. The loss of Kabul and the areas to the west of the Indus once again opened the empire to the threat of invasions from the north-west. A vital line of defence had disappeared.

It is surprising indeed that the empire seemed to revive some of its strength after Nadir Shah’s departure, even though the area under its effective control shrank rapidly. But the revival was deceptive and superficial. After Muhammad Shah’s death in 1748, bitter struggles and even civil war broke out among unscrupulous and power hungry nobles.

Furthermore, as a result of the weakening of the north-western defences, the empire was devastated by the repeated invasions of Ahmed Shah Abdali, one of Nadir Shah’s ablest generals, who had succeeded in establishing his authority over Afghanistan after his master’s death. Abdali repeatedly invaded and plundered northern India right down to Delhi and Mathura between 1748 and 1767.

In 1761, he defeated the Marathas in the Third Battle of Panipat and thus gave a big blow to their ambition of controlling the Mughal emperor and thereby dominating the country. He did not, however, found a new Afghan kingdom in India. He and his successors could not even retain the Punjab which they soon lost to the Sikh chiefs.

As a result of the invasions of Nadir Shah and Abdali and the suicidal internal feuds of the Mughal nobility, the Mughal empire had by 1761 ceased to exist in practice as an all-India Empire. It remained merely as the Kingdom of Delhi. Delhi itself was a scene of ‘daily riot and tumult’.

The descendants of the Grand Mughals no longer participated actively in the struggle for the Empire of India, but the various contenders for power found it politically useful to hide behind their name. This gave to the Mughal dynasty a long lease of life on the nominal throne of Delhi.

Shah Alam II, who ascended the throne in 1759, spent the initial years as an emperor wandering from place to place far away from his capital, for he lived in mortal fear of his own wazir. He was a man of some ability and ample courage. But the empire was by now beyond redemption.

In 1764, he joined Mir Qasim of Bengal and Shuja-ud- Daula of Awadh in declaring war upon the English East India Company. Defeated by the British at the Battle of Buxar, he lived for several years at Allahabad as a pensioner of the East India Company. He left the British shelter in 1772 and returned to Delhi under the protective arm of the Marathas.

The British occupied Delhi in 1803 and from that year until 1857, when the Mughal dynasty was finally extinguished, the Mughal emperors merely served as a political front for the English.

In fact, the continuation of the Mughal monarchy after 1759, when it had ceased to be a military power, was due to the powerful hold that the Mughal dynasty had on the minds of the people of India as the symbol of the political unity of the country.