Thursday, July 31, 2003

The Mughal Empire

I sometimes wonder if slight changes in my past experiences would have led to me studying something radically different in graduate school. Leaving aside English, my other major, there are several areas in history I find fascinating. When Rob went to Japan, I used the chance to give an outlet to some of my interests in old Japanese history. I have a friend named Cathe whose brain I routinely sucked when she went to Thailand, and others named Scott and Dania who are currently in Egypt and susceptible to the same treatment. Since I began blogging, threads like this one on the Byzantines have definitely gotten my interest. Yet I've noticed that while the Middle East always seems to turn up some new subject of interest, most other areas I come to need a serious break from.

One area I think I could have been happy studying is the Mughal Empire. I'm not sure why, but the Mughals brought India one of the greatest periods of prosperity and cultural productivity in its history, and their empire has left a mark on the modern world. The Urdu language, today spoken primarily in Pakistan, was formed as a cross between the court Persian and Indian languages in Mughal cities and army barracks. While Babur was never a big India fan - he complained about it a lot in his autobiography, and regretted he didn't conquer Central Asia like his Mongol ancestors - his descendants came to embody much of what India represented during their periods, and interestingly, of the six emperors who reigned before the monarchy lost real control, all were fairly important, and at least four were unquestionably competent. Akbar was perhaps the greatest - it was his policies that allowed Hindus and Muslims to coexist in a single political system, and his minister Todar Mal produced an economic system which while not always beneficial to the peasants, provided a stable income for the regime for decades. Shah Jahan, of course, left his mark on the world in the Taj Mahal. One little-known figure in the dynasty was Nur Jahan, a woman who had coins struck in her own name and ruled as sovereign during periods of her husband Jahangir's incapacity.

No empire lasts forever, however, the the Mughals seem to fall into that Gibbon-defying class that fell without having first bothered to decline. Really, though, it might have had to do with over-extension under Aurangzeb, who also undid a lot of Akbar's work regarding Hindu integration. Also, it's not so much a question of falling into chaos as it was a reversion to traditional Indian political patterns, with the Mughal Emperor filling the position of maharaja. Still, from a historian's standpoint, the source material for those social topics which interest me is excellent, and I kind of regret that John Keay's India: A History, the book which inspired this post, didn't make use of more of it.

I do have two former officemates who work on this period, though oddly both concentrate on areas outside Mughal control. Chris Chekuri, currently working on his dissertation while on a short-term appointment in New York, does "Between Family and Empire: Nayaka Strategies of Rule in Vijayanagara, c.1400-1700 A.D." (Vijayanagara was the big Hindu power just before and during the early Mughal period.) Ian Wendt is off in the Netherlands poring over archives learning about "The Textile Industry in the Early Modern Coromandel, 1500-1800." I should talk to my peers more to find out what they're doing.

But I still love my own work, which now has a working title: "Horses' Reins and Ships' Cables: The Azd in the Early Islamic Centuries." One thing about the medieval Middle East is the way it reaches tendrils out into virtually every region of the Eastern Hemisphere. This topic focuses on one of the groups doing the reaching...the Azd, an Arab tribe which came to dominate the Indian Ocean trade. I'm looking mainly at the ways in which they changed with the coming of Islam and the development of the caliphate. Wish me luck!


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