The period of Indian history marked with the advent of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century up to the age of revolutions in the 18th century is usually referred to as the ‘Early Modern Period’. This period is also referred to as ‘Mughal Era’ or the late medieval period which started with the end of the Gupta Empire, the ‘Classical Era’ of Indian history. The establishment of the Mughal Empire in 1526 marked the beginning of the ‘Early Modern Period’. This period of early modern Indian history had witnessed the rise and fall of many Empires. It was the period rich with stories of valor and bravery displayed by small dynasties and rulers for protecting their Empire from foreign oppressions.
This period of history resonates with the bravery of the Marathas, the Nayak dynasty, and also Sikh dynasty among others. The Revolt of 1857 against East India Company is termed as the first war of independence and it also marks the end of the period of ‘Early Modern Indian History’. In the following article, we will go through the events forming the Indian period of ‘Early Modern History’.
Beginning of the Mughal Empire
The era began with the establishment of the Mughal Empire (Urdu- Mughliyah Sultanat) in 1526. The Mughal empire was founded by Babur (reigned 1526- 1530). Babur was born as Zahir ud Din Muhammed on 14 February 1483 in Uzbekistan in Central Asia. His idea of invading India was inspired by the exploits of Timur, who invaded the Indian subcontinent in 1398. Babur was the fifth-generation descendant of Timur. His excursions began in the period 1519-1524 with the invasion of Sialkot and Lahore, during when he expressed his desire to expand his empire to Hindustan.
At that time most of the Indian subcontinent was ruled by Ibrahim Lodi (1519-1526) a descendant of the Lodi dynasty which ruled Hindustan since 1451. But Ibrahim Lodi lacked the political and administrative acumen of his father Sikandar Lodi and was practically unable to control the sultanate of Delhi, making it unstable. Moreover, the states of Bengal and Punjab were in revolt. Rajputs were already up with arms under the leadership of Rana Sangha.
Babur got the first opportunity for realizing his dream of conquering Hindustan when Daulat Khan, then governor of Punjab sought his support in ousting Ibrahim Lodi. By 1525 Babur was in Lahore with his artillery and soldiers. He started marching towards Delhi with a contingent of 18000 soldiers armed with modern weaponry consisting of canons and muskets. Ibrahim Lodi met him at Panipat in April 1526, with an army of 100000 backed by war elephants. Lodi’s foot soldiers and war elephants were vulnerable in front of Babur’s equipped army and the elephants turned back and trampled their own army marking the dawn of the Mughal Empire. Ibrahim Lodi was killed in the battle.
Subsequently, upon establishing his Empire in Delhi, Babur occupied Agra and started making his advances towards Kannauj. In the battle of Khanwa in 1527, Babur subdued the resistance of Rajputs under the leadership of Rana Sangha of Mewar. Meanwhile, Mahmud Lodi, brother of Ibrahim Lodi had fled to Bengal from Panipat and raised an army there which was subsequently defeated by Babur in 1529 making Babur undisputable Emperor of Hindustan ruling mostly over all of the Gangetic plains.
The establishment of the Mughal Empire in Delhi ousted the rule of Delhi sultanate established under Muhammad Ghori in 1192. It was replaced by a Mughal Empire having its rule over almost all of South Asia including modern-day India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Babur died in 1530 due to declining health, leaving a vast Mughal Empire which lacked the administrative structure to be governed as a single Empire. The Mughal dynasty in India saw six descendants of Babur- Humayun (1530-40 and 1555-56), Akbar (1556-1605), Jahangir (1605-1632), Shah Jahan (1632-1657), and Aurangzeb (1657-1707).
The Mughal Empire was completely disintegrated within 50 years of Aurangzeb’s death.
The decline of the Mughal Empire
During Aurangzeb’s death, the boundaries of the Mughal Empire were covering all of the north and eastern India and in the south till Tanjavur, in modern-day Tamil Nadu. But this vast extent of Empire made it difficult to be managed. He was a fanatic who turned everyone against himself. Aurangzeb was intolerant of Hindu festivals and banned them also imposing jazia (Yearly tax levied on non-Muslim subjects), enraging Rajputs and intimidating them for revolt. His execution of Sikh guru ‘Guru Teg Bahadur’ and enmity with Marathas made them raise arms against him. The successors of Aurangzeb were weak and inefficient to preserve the legacy of ‘Mughaliya Sultanate ‘and the Empire disintegrated within 50 years of Aurangzeb’s demise.
A number of battles were fought by the Sikhs, Marathas and Rajput empires with Mughal Empire over a period of hundred years from 1634 to 1743, leading to the gradual decline of the Mughal Empire. We will just briefly go through the battles-
- Battle of Amritsar (1634)
Battle of Amritsar was a part of Mughal -Sikh wars resulting in the defeat of Mughals and the Sikh’s occupancy of Amritsar.
- Battle of Kartarpur (1635)
As a part of campaigns of the sixth guru of Sikh’s ‘Guru Hargovind Singh,’ a Mughal army made an attempt to siege Kartarpur, which was failed by the Sikhs.
- Battle of Pratapgad (1659)
The battle between the Maratha Empire and Adilashi dynasty or Adil Shahi dynasty formed by Yusuf Adil Shah saw the defeat of Afzal Khan by Shivaji.
- Battle of Surat (1664)
A battle between Marathas and Mughal Empire resulting in Maratha’s win over Surat.
- Siege of Trichinopoly (1743)
First of the six Maratha invasions of Bengal between August 1741 and May 1751 resulting in the defeat of Mughals.
Mughal dynasty was further weakened by the invasion by Nadir Shah who defeated Muhammad Shah in a battle at Karnal in 1739. Nadir Shah looted completely the treasury of Mughal Empire even taking with him the precious Kohinoor diamond.
The arrival of the East India Company
Trading with Europeans through sea route was one of the chief commercial activities established during the Mughal Empire. The Mughal Empire used the sea as a trade route and completely neglected its security to subdue any threat to the Empire. Due to the declining administrative control of the Mughal Empire many European’s easily established themselves in India. Many European nations started eyeing India as a political opportunity rather than just trading. The English East India Company first established itself in India in 1620 during the rule of Emperor Jahangir. They came on pretext of building forts and conducting trade in Surat, Agra, and Ahmadabad, but witnessing the gradual decline of the Mughal Empire and its enmity with Rajputs and Marathas they became politically ambitious.
In 1688 East India Company blocked Mughal ports including the port of Bombay and captured Mughal ships. Mughal retaliated fiercely forcing them to sign a treaty in 1690. As per the treaty the Company was required to return the occupied ships and pay a compensation of one and a half lakh rupees. Though the treaty humiliated the East India Company it also legalized their presence in India giving them an authority to trade.
Expansion of East India Company
Gradually the East India Company started to extend its influence over Madras, Bombay, and Bengal colluding with forces against the exploits of the Mughal Empire. The first decisive victory of East India came in the battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757 when it successfully defeated the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies, consolidating its presence in Bengal which would prove to be its foothold for the extension to rest of India following decade.
The company rule in India effectively began in 1757. East India Company ruled parts of India using its private army and was having total administrative control over the region. Constantly increasing in size the East India Company Army was the most influential armed force in the Indian subcontinent by the end of 1799. By 1803 it had nearly one lakh soldiers well equipped with modern weaponry. In their strategy of divide and rule, East India Company recruited Indian soldiers and used them against other Indians.
Well equipped and well-armed with a disciplined army the East India Company started on an expedition to conquer the southern region of the Indian subcontinent. Having strategic importance of establishing its base in Bengal, Mumbai, and Madras they were confident of their victory.
Subsequently with time due to the decline of the Maratha Empire, the British got hold of the Delhi-Agra region and a major province of Cuttack (including the districts of Odisha, Balasore, and Midnapore).
Much resistance to British forces was offered by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan the Rulers of Kingdom of Mysore. Despite the resilience, Tipu sultan was killed in the fight and Mysore went in their hands of East India Company in 1799.
Despite being politically ambitious the Britishers had their share of losses too. The Bengal famine of 1770 highly depleted their army strength, killing thousands of soldiers and civilians. Only 10% of British officers survived to take the final voyage home. The matter got much response in the British Parliament and the general public in Britain was sympathetic to the plight of East India Company.
Subjugation under the Crown
The East India Company Act of 1773 by the Parliament of Great Britain imposed a series of reforms establishing its administrative and economic sovereignty and ultimate control over the company. Under the Act’s most important provisions five members governing council was formed in Calcutta. The three members nominated by the government and protecting its interest could easily outvote the other two company members. The Act made the Governor-General having administrative and political powers of a state. East India Company was allowed to trade but was obliged to a minimum amount of goods supply to Britain annually including other tax liabilities.
The East India Company first accepted the conditions but later started feeling the financial burden due to the liabilities imposed. Similarly, the East India Company Act of 1784 further weakened the political hold of East India Company on the Indian subcontinent. The act clearly subordinated East India Company to the British Government in political matters. The Act also laid the foundation of a centralized British administration in India which would reach its peak in the coming century.
The East India Company Act 1813 ( Charter Act) renewed the East India Company for a further 20 years but deprived it of trade monopoly allowing only to trade in tea, opium and trade with China.
The Government of India Act 1853 was the last Act before the end of India’s early modern history period in 1857. The Act made the Company administrative head of the British India but pledging its loyalty to the crown until the parliament decides otherwise. It also allowed the recruitments of civil servants to look over administrative matters of British India.
Revolt of 1857
The Revolt of 1857 is also called as the ‘Great Indian Revolt’ or ‘The Indian Rebellion’. The rebellion began on 10th May 1857 in Meerut, with a contingent of Indian soldiers revolting against the use of bullets, supposedly greased with animal fat. The soldiers were given greased bullets the cover of which they were required to tear with their teeth. It was rumored that the grease was made of beef fat, which was offensive to Hindu’s and also pig’s fat, unacceptable to the Muslim soldiers.
The Indian soldiers, mostly belonging to higher caste took it as an attempt to destroy their religious sanctity and as a strategy to destroy Indian caste system. Despite the British army’s attempts to curtail it, the rebellion began on 10th May 1857 and quickly took the shape of a civilian rebellion involving the upper Indo- Gangetic Plain and Central India.
The rebellion was also the result of years of resentment and oppressive policies of the British government. After the revolt began the soldiers quickly reached Delhi and declared 81 years old Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah Zafar as the Emperor of Hindustan. The rebelled soldiers captured large parts of North West frontier and Oudh. British also promptly responded capturing back Kanpur by July 1857 and Delhi by the end of September. Subsequently, it took the East India Company nearly one year to suppress the rebels in Jhansi, Lucknow and Oudh.
The revolt was largely ineffective in the southern parts of India with states of Madras, Bombay and Bengal largely remaining peaceful during the period. Also, the East India Company had support of Sikhs in Punjab and princely states of Rajputs, Hyderabad and Mysore did not join rebellions.
The Revolt came to an end with Rebels defeat in Gwalior on 20th June 1858. Though the rebellion failed in its objective of unifying the Indian subcontinent in a fight against the East India Company it marked the beginning of a new era in Indian history with political reforms and beginning of a new independence struggle.
The revolt also led to the dissolution of East India Company and made the British take administrative control of the Indian sub continent, rethinking its military formation. On 1st November 1858, a proclamation was issued by Queen Victoria allowing Indians to subject equal rights as their British counterparts though lacking in the constitutional provision. In the coming years, India became more determined in its freedom struggle demanding political and administrative powers.
The period of Indian history from the establishment of Mughal Empire in 1526 to the ‘The Great Indian Revolt ‘of 1857 is considered by many historians as the ‘Early Modern History’ since it began marking the end of ‘Classical Period’ ruled by Maurya and Gupta Empires. The period saw opening of new trade routes with the West and huge infrastructure developments attributed to Mughals. After the revolt of 1857, a new India was born. An India which was more vocal in demanding rights for its subjects and whose political leaders became more assertive in fighting for political and administrative powers.