Hodder History Expert Blog

The Mughal Empire
By Jamie Byrom and Michael Riley
27 Oct
It was a delight to carry out the research for this book.  We deepened our own knowledge and understanding of the Mughals as we read about their lives and the development of one of the most remarkable empires the world has seen.

A fascinating period

It was a fascinating book to write especially as it has some features that are unusual, even compared with the other ‘world period studies’ in the OCR B specification. For example:
  • Central to the unfolding story are six different rulers whose contrasting personalities and preoccupations influenced the empire over which they held sway.  Paying such close attention to the nature and role of a sequence of individual rulers is now surprisingly rare in school history. It was important to let the character of each ruler show through  
  • There is a strong theme of cultural history throughout the book as it traces remarkable developments in Mughal art and architecture. We found ourselves marvelling at paintings, buildings and even gardens created on the orders of the different emperors. We wanted to make every effort to help students enjoy and understand these in their context.
  • Europeans appear within the study but the Europeans play a small part. This really is a ‘world study’ where the people and their culture are investigated from their own perspective … and yet Britain’s own historical, economic and cultural connections have been so strong since the peak of Mughal power that this, too, lends an unseen dimension of fascination to the study.

A visual treat

We have tried to capture the Mughals’ astonishing achievements in art and architecture through the generous and delightful images that appear throughout the book. We gave several paintings a full page each. These include the actual-size Mughal miniature showing a scene in a poor village and the beautiful depiction of a Mughal prince seated on jewelled scales before his weight in gold is distributed to the poor. We think the book’s images are an aesthetic treat, but we also believe they support the learning. We want the paintings and the photographs of palaces, tombs, forts and statues to help build the strong sense of time, place and culture that is so important to creating a ‘period-feel’.
Alongside the fine photographs, the book has many excellent maps. We chose to use relief maps for most of these as we think this will help students appreciate the physical diversity of empire. They were a real challenge to get right but we think they will play a valuable role in making the story of the expanding empire accessible to all. They are suitably positioned and carefully labelled to help readers make sense of the relevant text.

Strong themes

As we worked, we found that the period is filled with many strong and recurring themes. These included:
  • The diversity of people living under Mughal rule and the challenges this created for the emperors
  • The challenge of governing enormously extensive lands
  • Deadly rivalries between the generations and between Mughal royal siblings
  • Addictions to alcohol and opium and other physical indulgences
  • The influence of religion both as a personal and a social force
  • The tensions created by a model of government and taxation that was primarily aimed to ensure the lavish lifestyle of the rulers
  • The difficulty in finding out about the lives of the millions of subjects whose voices and experiences barely appear in any sources. Just as the miniature paintings of the emperor’s lavish court travelling through the empire, they are always there, but usually in the distant in the background.

Memorable moments 

Despite all those wider themes, now that the book is finished we are left with images in our heads of each of the different emperors.

It seems appropriate to end this blog by picturing a moment in the life of each one, starting with the most recent and moving back through the generations to the start of the empire: we see …
  • The sad, pious and remote figure of Aurangzeb in old age, sewing simple caps and selling them to pay for his own funeral.
  • Shah Jahan falling asleep each night to the sound of his favourite stories being read to him from behind a screen by a servant chosen for the mellifluous quality of his voice.  
  • Jahangir, with his remarkable wife Nur Jahan, sitting in a pavilion in the gardens they had constructed in Kashmir. Above their heads are inscribed the words of Persian poet: “If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”.  
  • Akbar sitting in earnest debate with Hindus, Jains, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians on the specially constructed private platform set high in his new palace at Fatehpur Sikri.  
  • Humayan lowering a veil over his face as courtiers enter his presence. He wants to them to be protected from his splendour.  
  • Babur descending from the heights of the Hindu Kush into northern India and recording in his own memoir how “… a new world came into view – different plants, different trees, different animals and birds, different tribes and people, different manners and customs. It was astonishing, truly astonishing”.
We hope the students and teachers who use this book feel something like Babur’s amazement as they make their way into the world of the Mughal Empire through this book.

Jamie Byrom and Michael Riley

The Mughal Empire 1526-1707
is available here 
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