In this article we will discuss about the reign of Shah Jahan and why it is called the golden age of Mughul empire.
Many historians describe the reign of Shah Jahan as the golden age not only of the Mughul empire but that of entire medieval Indian history. But there are other historians who not only refuse to accept his reign as such but, on the contrary, describe that it marked the beginning of the weaknesses of the Mughul empire which, ultimately, resulted in its disintegration. Thus, there is a controversy among historians.
European scholars have mostly decried the reign of Shah Jahan. They contend that the period of the reign of Shah Jahan was only seemingly prosperous while in fact it was not. They contend that the treasury was full, peace and prosperity prevailed within the empire and there were less foreign wars.
Shah Jahan inherited vast fortune from his grandfather and father and as there was a stable empire in Persia, India enjoyed brisk favourable trade with western countries including Europe, yet, the military strength and state economy suffered during the reign of Shah Jahan.
Shah Jahan squandered the royal treasury on his personal hobbies, burdened peasants and labourers by heavy taxation and therefore, ruined the economy of the state which became acute and visible during the reign of his successor.
Thus, in fact, the economic bankruptcy of the Mughul empire began during the reign of Shah Jahan. V.A. Smith has described that historians have been misled by the outward magnificence of his court and the beauty of his buildings particularly that of Taj Mahal and they praise his rule.
Otherwise, neither he was a capable commander nor a good organiser of the army. He writes- “In affairs of state, he was cruel, treacherous and unscrupulous,” Describing his justice, he says- “Shah Jahan’s justice was merely the savage, unfeeling ferocity of an ordinary Asiatic despot, exercised without respect of persons and without the slightest tincture of compassion.”
He supports his contention by describing the description of other historians and contemporary travellers. He writes- “So far as Mundy saw, nothing to help the suffering people (famine-stricken) was done by the government; (though) meantime, the camp of Shah Jahan at Burhanpur was filled with provisions of all kinds.”
Smith refers to the description of Bernier as well who wrote that in northern provinces there was complete devastation. He also quotes the description of the court historian, Abdul Hamid to justify his contention.
Therefore, V.A. Smith is not prepared to accept the reign of Shah Jahan as the golden age of the Mughul empire. Dr Jadunath Sarkar is not so much critical of Shah Jahan, yet in his famous book, Studies in Mughul India, he observes that though Shah Jahan was extremely laborious, yet the seed of disintegration of the Mughul empire was sown during his reign.
The same way, Dr A.L. Srivastava writes:
“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 resulted in extorting money from the unwilling masses and classes, and his sensual tastes set a bad standard of public and private morality.”
The majority of historians also accept that during the reign of Shah Jahan the religious policy of the Mughuls had moved towards religious intolerance, the reactionary forces of Islam had become influential in administration and politics, and the Rajputs were not getting that much importance in the state as they got during the reign of Akbar and Jahangir. Thus, the basis of state-power built up by Akbar was narrowed down during the reign of Shah Jahan which was, certainly, detrimental to the interest of the state.
Thus many historians have pointed out those weaknesses which developed during the reign of Shah Jahan and have either refused to accept his reign as the golden age of the Mughul empire or have accepted it only in limited fields. But, there are certain other historians who have described his reign as the golden age of the Mughul empire.
Dr S.R. Sharma is one among them. He writes:
“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 on 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.”
He contends that we have no intention to cover the weaknesses of the reign of Shah Jahan, but this is also necessary that we should accept the prevalent prosperity during his reign however limited it might be. It is not logical to blame him for misfortunes of Aurangzeb and the downfall of the Mughul empire while the contentions of wastage on bureaucratic set-up, heavy burden on peasants and labours and the resultant bankruptcy of the empire are controversial.
He says that V.A. Smith has deliberately attempted to ignore the favourable points of Shah Jahan’s reign and has emphasised on its bad points. Dr Smith himself has agreed that probably the reign of Shah Jahan was not bad as compared to other contemporary rulers of his age but was certainly not better than theirs.
Dr Sharma further argues that Dr Smith has brought to light only those descriptions of Peter Mundy and Bernier which narrate only the unfavourable pictures of the reign of Shah Jahan and has forgotten those descriptions which support the facts that his period was that of prosperity and the Emperor generously helped the poor.
Many other contemporary and modern historians as well have described the reign of Shah Jahan as the golden age of the Mughul empire. Contemporary historian Rai Bharmal wrote that the paragana which yielded three lakhs per annum during the reign of Akbar now yielded ten lakhs per annum and though the expenditure of previous rulers was four times more, the emperor had collected enormous wealth in the treasury.
Khafi Khan, another contemporary historian wrote- “Akbar was pre-eminent as a conqueror and law-giver, yet for the order and arrangement of his territory and finances and good administration of every department of the state, no prince ever reigned in India that could be compared to Shah Jahan.”
Tavernier who travelled widely in India, wrote- “(Shah Jahan) reigned not so much as a king over his subjects, but rather as a father over his family and children.”
Shah Jahan successfully maintained peace and order within his empire. He supervised the administration personally. Bernier described- “In Hindustan every acre of lana is considered the property of the king, and the spoliation of a peasant would be a robbery committed upon the king’s domain.”
“The reign of Shah Jahan was a period of agrarian tranquility.” Shah Jahan’s justice was, of course, severe but that was unbiased. Among European scholars Elphinstone praised his reign. He wrote- “The reign of Shah Jahan was the most prosperous period in Indian history.”
Thus many historians have praised the reign of Shah Jahan. Nobody denies the fact that Shah Jahan was a capable, laborious and just king. There was peace and order, trade and industry progressed, peasants were well-protected, corrupt officials and offenders were punished and the state was progressing during his reign.
The enormous wealth which he possessed could not be collected if there would have been disorder in his empire or the subjects would have been impoverished. Shah Jahan not only collected wealth but displayed it also.
He sent a present costing rupees two lakhs and fifty thousand to the mosque of Prophet Muhammad, another rupees fifty thousand to the chief priest at Mecca, another rupees sixty thousand to be distributed in charity to the people in Mecca and rupees fifty thousand for the people of Madina.
His peacock-throne was prepared in seven years and costed nearly rupees one crore. He possessed the world-famous diamond, Kohinoor. The nobles of Shah Jahan were also rich and led a luxurious life. Yet, there occurred not a single revolt due to economic discontentment during the reign of Shah Jahan.
When there was famine in the Deccan and Gujarat, the state gave all possible help to the people and whenever cultivation suffered during the course of a war, the concerned farmers were compensated by the state. Therefore, it has to be accepted that the prosperity of the Mughul empire reached its zenith during his reign.
Shah Jahan conquered Ahmadnagar and forced Bijapur and Golkunda to accept his suzerainty. He thus extended the territory and influence of the empire. Of course, the attempts to conquer Central Asia and Kandhar failed but that did not endanger the empire in any way.
Shah Jahan gave protection to scholars. Persian, Sanskrit, Hindi and other literatures developed during his reign. Jagannath Pandit, the author of Gangadhar and Ganga-Lahri was his court-poet while poet Chintamani Acharya Sarswati and Sundar Das, the author of Sundar Srangar, Sinhasan Battisi and Barahmasa received patronage from him.
Dr Saksena writes:
“The period of Shah Jahan’s reign partially coincided with what is described as the most brilliant epoch in the development of Hindi literature and language.” Literary works were produced in Persian language as well. Abdul Hamid Lahori wrote Padshahnama and Am in Oazwani wrote Shahjahannama. Dara Shukoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan, was also a scholar of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit.
Many scholarly works of Sanskrit were translated into Persian under his patronage. Munshi Banarsi Dar translated Prabodh-Chandrodaya and Ibn Har Kiran translated Ramayana. Besides literature, progress was made in the fields of astrology, algebra, trignometry, mathematics etc. during the reign of Shah Jahan. Different scholars produced their work even without the patronage of the court.
Shah Jahan patronized all fine arts. He maintained the tradition of Jahangir in the field of painting. He was a singer himself and enjoyed music. He patronized musicians like Sukhsen, Sursen, Jagannath etc.
However, architecture made tremendous progress during the reign of Shah Jahan. All historians agree that in this field it was certainly the golden age of the Mughul period. During his reign, not only buildings were constructed in large numbers but there was progress in the art itself.
Among most notable buildings of Shah Jahan are Red Fort and Jami Masjid at Delhi, Moti Masjid, Diwan-i-Aam and Diwan-i-Khas in the fort at Agra, the Taj Mahal at Agra.
Diwan-i-Aam, Musaminam Burj, Shis-Mahal. Nau-Lakha and Khwab-Gah in the fort of Lahore and many other places, gardens, mosques etc. in different places like Kabul, Kashmir, Ajmer, etc. Taj Mahal has become famous in the world because of its beauty while Moti Masjid is as beautiful as a real pearl.
Shah Jahan constructed two canals—the one was Ravi canal which went up to Lahore and was ninety-eight miles long and the other one was the Nahar-i-Shah which was the enlargement of the canal constructed by Firuz Shah Tughluq. Thus, the reign of Shah Jahan was the golden period of the Mughul empire from the point of view of the extension of the empire, peace and order within it. economic prosperity and cultural progress.
W. Hunter writes:
“The Mughul empire attained its highest union of strength and magnificence under Shah Jahan.” The same way Sir Richard Burn writes- “Shah Jahan had reigned for thirty-one years, during which time the Empire of his House reached the height or its glory and wealth.”
Yet, one fact remains true. The advantage of the increased prosperity during the reign of Shah Jahan was mostly enjoyed and shared only by the Emperor and his nobles. The common people were devoid of it. On the contrary, as revenue was increased to 1/2 of the produce, the peasants were burdened economically. Besides, the conversion of Khalisa-land into jagirdari-land to much extent, certainly, went against the interests of the peasants.