Historian’s have expressed divergent views on this issues. While historians like Rai Bharmal, Khafi Khan, Travernier, Bernier, Moreland, Eliphinstone, W. Hunter, Richard Barns have lavished praise on the rule of Shah Jahan, others like Dr. V.A. Smith, Edwards and Garret, and Sir William Forster put forward several points of criticism.
Dr. Yadunath Sarkar and Dr. A.L. Srivastva have given a balanced view of Shah Jahan’s reign.
Before discussing the various aspects of the rule of Shah Jahan, we may list the important features of a glorious rule. These are:
1. Peace in the reign.
2. Material prosperity of the people.
3. Religious harmony.
4. Ruler and administration receptive to people’s needs.
5. Equal justice.
6. Cultural development.
1. Fatherly treatment towards his subjects:
Travernier wrote, “Shah Jahan reigned not so much as a king over his subjects, but rather as father over his family and children.”
2. Agrarian prosperity:
According to Moreland, “The reign of Shah Jahan was a period of agrarian tranquility.” Eliphinstone considered the reign of Shah Jahan, “As the most prosperous period of Indian history.”
3. Best administrative system:
Travernier wrote, “Though Akbar was a greater conqueror and an expert in formation of laws and regulations but there was no emperor equal to Shah Jahan so far as best arrangement for the administration of each part of the empire was concerned.”
In the words of Khafi Khan, “Akbar was preseminent as a conqueror and law-giver, yet for the order and arrangement of his territory and finances and good administration of the state, no prince ever reigned in India that could be compared to Shah Jahan.”
4. Magnificence Period:
W.H. Hunter stated, “The Mughal empire attained its highest union of strength and magnificance under Shah Jahan.”
5. Enormous wealth of the state:
Sir Richard Barns remarked “Shah Jahan had reigned for thirteen years, during which time the empire reached the height of its glory and wealth.”— Barnier has observed, “The economic condition of Bengal was very good.”
Dr. Ishwari Prasad, while comparing Shah Jahan with Akbar says,” The income from the Parganas had increased from Rs. 3 lakhs during Akbar’s time to 13 lakhs.”
6. A benevolent rule:
Lane-Poole observed, “Shah Jahan was renowned for his kindness and benevolence which endeared him to the people.”
Why is it called the golden age of the Mughal period?
7. All round Cultural development and advancement:
In the words of K.T. Shah, “The imperial patronage was no longer the monopoly of the poet and the painter but every kind of artist was recognised and encouraged.”
Percy Brown, the noted artist has praised Shah Jahan’s architecture as “Shah Jahan founded the Mughal cities of sandstone and left them of marble.”
The Taj Mahal of Agra has been various praised as, “Queen of architecture,” “Dream in Marble” etc.
Likewise music, painting and literature made phenomenal progress.
In short the protagonists of the view of the golden period state the following reasons:
(a) There was peace and order.
(b) Trade and industry progressed.
(c) Peasants were well-protected.
(d) Corrupt officials and offenders were punished.
(e) Building activity was at its height.
(f) Several monuments were built which are still prides for India.
(g) Scholars were given patronage.
(h) Literature flourished.
(i) Artists in various fields were given encouragement.
(j) Export trade was carried on profitably.
(k) Justice was available to all.
Critics of Shah Jahan’s rule:
Dr. V.A. Smith is the greatest critic. His observations on his personality and rule are, “Shah Jahan failed both as a man and as a ruler and that the dazzling splendour of his court and the remarkable beauty of his buildings, specially of the Taj Mahal misled the world into thinking that his reign was a golden period in Mughal history.”
Smith further observed, “Shah Jahan was cruel, treacherous and unscrupulous in state matters. He had no skill as a military leader and the organisation and command of his army was inefficient. Thus his administration was far from satisfactory. Besides, Shah Jahan squandered a large sum of public money which could have been used for the social and economic welfare of the people. This in due course of time led to the financial bankruptcy which proved a potent cause of the downfall of the Mughal Empire.”
William Hawkins who spent some time in India calls Shah Jahan, “a talented drunkard.”
Bernier states, “The Jesuits were severely punished by the Emperor.”
Peter Mundy who was in Deccan when famine took place during Shah Jahan’s reign, describes the disasters of famine in these words. “The highways were strewn with corpses which emitted intolerable stench. In the towns especially they drag them (dead bodies) out by the heels, stark naked of all ages and sexes, till they are out of the gates and then they are left, so that the way is half barred up”.
The critics level the following charges against Shah Jahan’s rule:
Barbaric penal code:
About the barbarous penal code and justice, Manuchi wrote, “One official kept a basket full of venomous serpents in
Shah Jahan’s court and Shah Jahan used to leave the criminals to die painfully after getting them bit by the serpents in his presence”.
1. Shah Jahan’s justice was very savage.
2. Cruel towards his opponents:
Shah Jahan was very cruel and barbaric in his behaviour and action. He killed all his brothers and all probable contenders of the throne. He revolted against his own father.
3. Extravagant expenditure:
He wasted enormous money to fulfil his personal pleasures and hobbies.
4. Religious intolerance:
He was intolerant towards other religions. He destroyed several temples. He forced Hindu captives to accept Islam. He was very cruel to Christians.
5. Increase in land-revenue:
He increased land revenue which created economic hardships to the peasants.
6. Weak military leadership:
His attempts to conquer Kandhar and Central Asia failed.
There was a good deal of corruption in his administration. He extorted money from the unwilling masses and classes.
8. Period of disorder:
There were so many revolts during his reign. He failed to check his sons to fight among themselves during his life time.
He himself was kept in prison. In grief and sorrow, he wrote the following lines to his son Aruangzeb who had imprisoned him.
“Praised be the Hindus in all cases,
as they even offer water to their dead. And thou,
my son, art a marvellous Musalman,
As thou caused him in life to lament for lack of water.”
Balanced view about Shah Jahan’s rule:
Dr. A.L. Srivastava has observed, “Shah Jahan’s reign has been described as a golden period in the medieval history of India. This is true in one respect only and that is in the domain of art, particularly architecture.” He further writes: “His religious bigotry and intolerance anticipated the reactionary reign of Aurangzeb…His love of presents accorded sanction to a pernicious custom of gilded bribery.
The offering of nazars and presents became common not only at the royal court and camp, but also in the households of imperial nobles and officers and became responsible for a great deal of corruption in administration. His display of pomp and magnificence extorted money from the unwilling masses and classes, and his sensual tastes set a bad standard of public and private morality.”
Dr. Jadunath Sarkar has stated in his book Studies in Mughal India that Shah Jahan was “extremely laborious, yet the seed of disintegration of the Mughal empire was sown during his reign.”
While discussing pros and coins of the reign of Shah Jahan, Dr. S.R. Sharma has observed, ” In spite of the early rebellions, which were soon crushed; in spite of the foreign wars of aggression beyond the frontiers, which cost enormously with no return whatsoever; in spite of the famine in the Deccan and Gujarat, which devastated a vast portion of the country; and in spite of the constant fighting in the Deccan, which, while it resulted in the subjugation of Ahmadnagar, Golkunda, and Bijapur, also involved a great drain in the resources of the empire, the age of Shah Jahan showed much that was glorious, and many an unmistakable sign of unique prosperity, to justify this period being described as the Golden Age of the Empire.”
Shah Jahan occupies a place lower than his grand father Akbar but certainly a higher place than his father Jahangir and his son Aurangzeb.