Aurangzeb, emperor

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Chinks in Aurangzeb’s armour

By Mubarak Ali


Aurangzeb Alamgir, the last great Mughal Emperor, died in 1707. He left a vast empire, which soon began to disintegrate as soon as he passed away because it could not be managed and administered by his successors.

He became a controversial figure in the history of India, especially during the second decade of the 20th century as a result of the emergence of communalism that influenced Indian historiography.

Aurangzeb’s critics condemn him for being an extremist and a fanatic who was responsible for the downfall of the Mughals. His admirers eulogise him for being pious and virtuous, a person of great talent who managed the empire in spite of a number of serious crises.

Though no academic work on his rule has been undertaken in Pakistan, the orthodox circles see him as a model for their ideals of Islamisation while comparing him with Akbar and Dara Shikoh who deviated from Islamic traditions and harmed the interests of the Muslim community in India. After Jadunath Sarkar, there have been a number of books and articles published in India on Aurangzeb to understand his role in Indian history.

According a new research, Aurangzeb should be understood in the context of power politics. He was a pragmatic ruler who pursued his policies and used religion for his political ends. He did not execute his brothers for any political reasons but on religious charges because it suited him. Dara was condemned to death by the council of ulema for being an athiest, while Murad was killed on the basis of qisas. The ulema were under his influence and he would get fatwas from them according to his liking.

For example, during the siege of Satara, four Muslims and nine Hindus were brought as prisoners of war. He asked the qazi about punishment. The qazi issued a fatwa that if Hindu prisoners converted to Islam, they would be freed and Muslims be kept in prison. The emperor did not like this and reprimanded the qazi that there were other schools of jurisprudence besides the Hanafi. The qazi understood what he wanted and issued another fatwa condemning all prisoners to death. On the other hand, when some Sunni nobles asked him to sack Shia nobles from high administrative offices, he refused and told them that religion and politics were two separate things.

Some suggest Aurangzeb demolished Hindu temples in Gujarat, Banaras, Mathura, and Thatta. His supporters justify these acts on the basis that these temples were centres of political intrigue at the time. However, there is no such evidence. As a matter of fact, the demolition was a deviation from Akbar’s policy of sulh-i-kul in which all Mughal subjects were treated on the basis of equality. By demolishing temples he wanted to assert his authority and put an end to the continuity of Akbar’s policies.

But recently, a number of framin have been discovered that were awarded by Aurangzeb to different temples belonging to Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains to maintain them through financial help which was given by the state. In the Deccan region, where he spent the last years of his life, he did not demolish any temple because it was not in his interest to violate religious sentiments of people.

About the imposition of jizya, a historian Satish Chandra argues that he implemented it in 1679, after 22 years of coming to the throne. That was the time when he was in conflict with the Rajputs and rulers of the Deccan states and wanted to get support from the orthodox groups of the Muslim community. However, the officers who were in charge of collecting jizya proved corrupt and inefficient, which is why he abolished it in 1704.

Aurangzeb was an austere man and never indulged in luxury. He abolished taxes which were unIslamic and were a burden on the people. He prohibited music and dance in the court. He personally supervised government functioning. In spite of his piety and frugality, the character of the ruling classes was quite different. Nearly all high officials were corrupt. His generals would receive bribes from the Marathas to unnecessarily prolong the siege of the forts. State officials were unpopular among the people because of their exploitative behaviour. Even Qazi Abdul Wahab was well known for his corruption. Wine drinking and sexual promiscuousness were common among the nobility. Aurangzeb failed to control or reform it.

There were weaknesses in his character. He never trusted anybody, not even his sons. He ruled for 49 years and did not allow his children to get experienced in politics and administration. He also failed to understand the emerging identities of the Rajputs, the Marathas and the Jats who wanted to play an independent role in their territories. He spent 17 years in the Deccan region fighting rulers of South India and exhausted the energies of his empire. His overstay in power overlooked North India, which was then the centre of the empire.

Was Aurangzeb responsible for the downfall of Mughals? He did have his share in the empire’s disintegration, but there were other factors as well.

His liberal side

The Times of India, Sep 13 2015

Aurangzeb, the emperor

Rajeev Mani

Aurangzeb gave grants, land to temples: Historian  A historian from the city has cited an inscription on the ancient Someshwar Mahadev temple to challenge the widely-held image of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb as a destroyer of Hindu temples. Pradeep Kesherwani, the principal of Serveshwari Degree College, has claimed that Aurangzeb offered lavish grants and land to the temple, located on the bank of Sangam, following a visit.

“During one of his military campaigns, Aurangzeb and his army spent time near the temple. During the stay, he not only visited the temple but also offered grants for its maintenance, and land,“ Kesherwani told TOI. “This fact is mentioned on the `dharma dand' (religious pillar) on the temple premises,“ he added.

“The pillar has 15 sentences in Sanskrit inscribed on it which read, `The ruler of the country visited the temple in 1674 and gave generous grants to the temple, in the form of both land and money',“ said Kesherwani. The historian lamented that regular use of vermilion on the pillar, situated near Lord Hanuman's idol, had made the inscription illegible. He said the fact also finds mention in the writings of former Allahabad mayor Vishamber Nath Pandey , who later became the governor of Odisha.

“Speaking in Rajya Sabha on July 27, 1977, Pandey told the House that during his tenure as chairman of Allahabad Nagar Palika, a dispute over the temple came before him. One of the parties presented documents re garding the grants made by Aurangzeb,“ he said.

“The matter was referred to a committee headed by Justice T B Sapru, who asked all temples that had received land or money from Aurangzeb to present documents about the donation,“ Kesherwani said. He added that several temples, including Maha Kaleshwar temple of Ujjain, Balaji temple of Chitrakoot, and Jain temples of Saranjay and some temples in South India, submitted such testimonials to the commission.

Allahabad University historian Professor Yogeshwar Tiwari supported the contention. “Akbar provided grants to temples as well to show his subjects that he was everyone's ruler,“ Tiwari said.

The Misunderstood Mughal

India Today , The Misunderstood Mughal “India Today” 20/2/2017

Aurangzeb 1691 farman endowing the Balaji Temple in Chitrakoot

Aurangzeb's name has repeatedly been effaced from road signs and school books, but the legend of his cruelty and intolerance endures. Even in his own day, he must have had a serious PR problem, and history can be unkind to father-usurping fratricides. But is the received view of the Mughal everyone loves to hate historically informed or a caricature formed by the prejudices of our own times? Rutgers' historian Audrey Truschke's new book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth revisits the historical record and context to upturn many presumptions and reveal a complex figure, ruthless and restrained by turns. A political animal whose similarities with the powerful, whether of the 17th or 21st centuries, are as fascinating as they are disturbing. Excerpts

Aurangzeb holds a special, uncoveted place among India's reviled kings. Common opinion, even among those who do not share the sentiments of the BJP and like-minded Hindu nationalist groups, pillories Aurangzeb as a callous Islamist oppressor who despised everything about India, especially Hindus. Across the border in Pakistan too, many endorse the vision of an evil Aurangzeb, even responsible for South Asia's modern woes. As Shahid Nadeem, a Pakistani playwright, recently put it: "Seeds of Partition were sown when Aurangzeb triumphed over [his brother] Dara Shikoh."

Such far-fetched suggestions would be farcical if so many did not endorse them. The Pakistani playwright's view has a precedent in the writings of Jawaharlal Nehru, a founding father of modern India, who was no fan of Aurangzeb. In his Discovery of India, first published in 1946, Nehru listed Aurangzeb's purported faults at length, rebuking him as "a bigot and an austere puritan". He excoriated the sixth Mughal king as a dangerous throwback who "put back the clock" and ended up destroying the Mughal empire. Perhaps Nehru's most damning blow was to pronounce Aurangzeb too Muslim to be a successful Indian king: "When Aurungzeb began to oppose [the syncretism of earlier Mughal rulers] and suppress it and to function more as a Moslem than an Indian ruler, the Mughal Empire began to break up." For Nehru, Aurangzeb's adherence to Islam crippled his ability to rule India. Nehru was hardly original in his censure of Aurangzeb as dangerously pious and therefore a bad emperor.

Such views were espoused by many of Nehru's contemporaries, including Jadunath Sarkar, the foremost 20th-century historian of Aurangzeb. British colonial thinkers had long impugned the Mughals on a range of charges, including that they were effeminate, oppressive, and Muslims. As early as 1772, Alexander Dow remarked in a discussion about Mughal governance that "the faith of Mahommed is peculiarly calculated for despotism; and it is one of the greatest causes which must fix for ever the duration of that species of government in the East". For the British, the solution to such an entrenched problem was clear: British rule over India. While Indian independence leaders rejected this final step of colonial logic, many swallowed the earlier parts wholesale. Such ideas filtered to society at large via textbooks and mass media, and several generations have continued to eat up and regurgitate the colonial notion that Aurangzeb was a tyrant driven by religious fanaticism. Over the centuries, many commentators have spread the myth of the evil, bigoted Aurangzeb on the basis of shockingly thin evidence. Many false ideas still mar the popular memory of Aurangzeb, including that he massacred millions of Hindus and destroyed thousands of temples.

Neither of these commonly believed 'facts' is supported by historical evidence, although some scholars have attempted, usually in bad faith, to provide an alleged basis for such tall tales. More common than bald-faced lies, however, have been biased interpretations of cherry-picked episodes selected with the unabashed goal of supporting a foregone rebuke of Aurangzeb. For instance, detractors trumpet that Aurangzeb destroyed certain temples without acknowledging that he also issued many orders protecting Hindu temples and granted stipends and land to Brahmins. They denounce that he restricted the celebration of Holi without mentioning that he also clamped down on Muharram and Eid festivities. They omit altogether that Aurangzeb consulted with Hindu ascetics on health matters and employed more Hindus in his administration than any prior Mughal ruler. We cannot reconcile these less frequently reported but historically important aspects of Aurangzeb's rule with the fictitious image of this ruler as being propelled by religion-based hate. Of course, no one would contend that Aurangzeb was without faults. It is not difficult to identify specific actions taken by Aurangzeb that fail to meet modern democratic, egalitarian and human rights standards. Aurangzeb ruled in a premodern world of kingdoms and empires, and his ideas about violence, state authority and everything else were conditioned by the time and place in which he lived. ...The aim of historical study is something else entirely. Historians seek to comprehend people on their own terms, as products of particular times and places, and explain their actions and impacts. We need not absolve those we study of guilt, and we certainly do not need to like them. But we strive to hold back judgement long enough so that the myth of Aurangzeb can fade into the background and allow room for a more nuanced and compelling story to be told.

Bans and restrictions numbered among the most common types of state policies Aurangzeb used to promote morality among those living in Mughal India. At different points in his reign, Aurangzeb tried to limit or bar the following vices: alcohol, opium, prostitution, gambling, inflammatory theological writings and public celebrations of religious festivals. Censors (muhtasibs) were charged with enforcing moral codes, and each city had its own drawn from the ulama. Aurangzeb's attempt to reduce the consumption of alcohol across his empire was one of the more spectacular policy failures of his reign.

Imbibing alcohol was rampant in Aurangzeb's India. William Norris, an English ambassador to Aurangzeb's court in the early 18th century, testified that Asad Khan (chief vizier from 1676 to 1707) and other government ministers were "fond of nothing more than hot spirits with which they make themselves drunk every day if they can get it". Accordingly, Norris tried to influence Asad Khan by sending him some liquor and choice glasses with which to imbibe the "strong waters". While he personally declined to consume alcohol, Aurangzeb knew that few of his imperial officers followed his example. Niccoli Manucci-unleashing his characteristic weakness for gossip and exaggeration-wrote that Aurangzeb once exclaimed in exasperation that only two men in all of Hindustan did not drink: himself and his head qazi, Abdul Wahhab. Manucci, however, divulged to his readers: "But with respect to Abd-ul-wahhab [Aurangzeb] was in error, for I myself sent him every day a bottle of spirits (vino), which he drank in secret, so that the king could not find it out."

Aurangzeb is commonly thought to have banned music throughout his empire, a misunderstanding that scholars such as Katherine Schofield have corrected but has yet to filter into popular awareness (Aurangzeb only limited certain types of music within his own court). Perhaps more interestingly, Aurangzeb did not prohibit satirical poetry, a popular genre at the time. One anecdote features a poet who wrote a coarse satire about the latelife second marriage of Kamgar Khan, a state official. The offended Kamgar Khan requested the king's intervention. Aurangzeb responded that the same poet "had not spared me [in his satires]; in return, I had increased his reward, that he might not do it again; yet in spite of this [favour] he had not on his part been less [satirical]". Aurangzeb then dismissed the petition, advising Kamgar Khan, whose ego had been bruised, "We ought to repress our feelings and live in harmony."

Many modern people view Aurangzeb's orders to harm specific temples as symptomatic of a larger vendetta against Hindus. Such views have roots in colonial-era scholarship, where positing timeless Hindu-Muslim animosity embodied the British strategy of divide and conquer. Today multiple websites claim to list Aurangzeb's 'atrocities' against Hindus (typically playing fast and loose with the facts) and fuel communal fires. There are, however, numerous gaping holes in the proposition that Aurangzeb razed temples because he hated Hindus. Most glaringly, Aurangzeb counted thousands of Hindu temples within his domains and yet destroyed, at most, a few dozen. This incongruity makes little sense if we cling to a vision of Aurangzeb as a cartoon bigot driven by a single-minded agenda of ridding India of Hindu places of worship. A historically legitimate view of Aurangzeb must explain why he protected Hindu temples more often than he demolished them. Aurangzeb followed Islamic law in granting protections to non-Muslim religious leaders and institutions. Indo-Muslim rulers had counted Hindus as dhimmis, a protected class under Islamic law, since the eighth century, and Hindus were thus entitled to certain rights and state defences. Yet, Aurangzeb went beyond the requirements of Islamic law in his conduct towards Hindu and Jain religious communities.

Aurangzeb's notion of justice included a certain measure of freedom of religion, which led him to protect most places of Hindu worship. Mughal rulers in general allowed their subjects great follow their own religious ideas and inclinations. Nonetheless, state interests constrained religious freedom in Mughal India, and Aurangzeb did not hesitate to strike hard against religious institutions and leaders that he deemed seditious or immoral. But in the absence of such concerns, Aurangzeb's vision of himself as an even-handed ruler of all Indians prompted him to extend state security to temples. Aurangzeb laid out his vision of how good kings ought to treat temples and other non-Muslim religious sites in a princely order (nishan in Persian) he sent Rana Raj Singh, the Hindu Rajput ruler of Mewar, in 1654: "Because the persons of great kings are shadows of God, the attention of this elevated class, who are the pillars of God's court, is devoted to this: that men of various dispositions and different religions (mazahib) should live in the vale of peace and pass their days in prosperity, and no one should meddle in the affairs of another." When we strip away the flowery style of formal Persian, Aurangzeb's point is: kings represent God on earth and are thus obliged to ensure peace among religious communities.

In the same princely order, Aurangzeb condemned any king "who resorted to bigotry (taassub)" as guilty of "razing God's prosperous creations and destroying divine foundations". Aurangzeb promised to turn his back on such unIslamic practices once he ascended the throne and instead to "cast lustre on the four-cornered, inhabited world" by following "the revered practices and established regulations" of his "great ancestors".

Aurangzeb had 49 years to make good on his princely promise of cultivating religious tolerance in the Mughal empire, and he got off to a strong start. In one of his early acts as emperor, Aurangzeb issued an imperial order (farman) to local Mughal officials at Benares that directed them to halt any interference in the affairs of local temples. Writing in February of 1659, Aurangzeb said he had learned that "several people have, out of spite and rancour, harassed the Hindu residents of Benares and nearby places, including a group of Brahmins who are in charge of ancient temples there". The king then ordered his officials: "You must see that nobody unlawfully disturbs the Brahmins or other Hindus of that region, so that they might remain in their traditional place and pray for the continuance of the Empire."

The ending of the 1659 Benares farman became a common refrain in the many imperial commands penned by Aurangzeb that protected temples and their caretakers: they should be left alone so that Brahmins could pray for the longevity of the Mughal state.


His changing stance

May 29, 2022: The Times of India

The Vishwanath temple in 1905. Aurangzeb first ordered his officials to protect the Brahmins and temples of Benaras. But a decade later, he ordered the destruction of the Vishwanath temple because of a betrayal
From: May 29, 2022: The Times of India
Rulers viewed the desecration of temples as a means of delegitimisng rulers. When Ulugh Khan looted Somnath temple in 1299, he sent its largest idol to Alauddin Khilji’s court
From: May 29, 2022: The Times of India
The Pratihara king seized a gold idol of Vishnu Vaikuntha when he defeated the king of Kangra. The idol was installed at the Lakshman temple of Khajuraho (Photo- Christopher Voitus)
From: May 29, 2022: The Times of India

During the second year of his rule, in February 1659, Aurangzeb ordered local officials in Benaras to protect Brahmin priests and their temples. A decree by the ruler published in an edition of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal reads…

“Information has reached our court that several people have, out of spite and rancour, harassed the Hindu residents of Benares and nearby places, including a group of Brahmans who are in charge of ancient temples there. These people want to remove those Brahmans from their charge of temple-keeping, which has caused them considerable distress. Therefore, upon receiving this order, you must see that nobody unlawfully disturbs the Brahmans or other Hindus of that region, so that they might remain in their traditional place.”

The emperor even justified the order with holy Islamic law: “According to the Shari’at, it has been established that ancient temples should not be torn down.” He added, however, that “nor should new temples be built” — a view that diverged from Akbar’s policy of allowing his Rajput officers to build temples on Mughal territory. 

So, what changed between this order and just a decade later when Aurangzeb ordered the destruction of Benaras’s Vishwanath temple in September 1669?

“In 1669, there arose a rebellion in Benares among landholders, some of whom were suspected of having helped Shiva ji, who was Aurangzeb’s arch enemy, escape from imperial detention. It was also believed that Shiva ji’s escape had been initially facilitated by Jai Singh, the great grandson of Raja Man Singh,” writes historian Richard Eaton in Temple Desecration and Muslim States in Medieval India .

Now, Man Singh built the Vishwanath temple. So, by destroying it, the emperor was punishing a family that had seemingly turned against him, explains Eaton.

Aurangzeb became increasingly intolerant and vengeful with time. In early 1670, when Jat rebels killed the patron of a mosque in Mathura, Aurangzeb had their leader captured, the city’s Keshava Deva temple destroyed, and an idgah or prayer site built at the spot, writes Jadunath Sarkar in a translation of Saqi Mustad Khan’s Maasir-i-Alamgiri .

Eaton notes that nine years later, Aurangzeb also ordered the destruction of several prominent temples in Jodhpur, Udaipur and Chittor that had become associated with the emperor’s enemies. 

Tearing down temples

How many temples did Muslim rulers desecrate? What was their main motive?

Answers to such questions have formed a lifetime of work for Eaton, a professor at the University of Arizona, who first came to India in the mid-1960s. Two of his books — The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 and Temple Desecration and Muslim States in Medieval India — are respected by other historians for laying down the scholarship on the subject.

Scanning evidence found in contemporary or near-contemporary sources spanning more than five centuries (1192-1729), Eaton identified 80 instances of temple desecration “whose historicity appears reasonably certain” during the half-millennium. Sixteen of them were destroyed during Aurangzeb’s rule.

Even if the number is much smaller than some other claims, what explained such violent acts of desecration? 

Why Muslims rulers destroyed temples

Eaton draws a difference between later Muslim rulers and earlier raiders like Mahmud of Ghazni, who plundered temples mainly for the riches that financed military campaigns back home. He shows that religion wasn’t the main cause: Mahmud also looted Iranian Muslim cities, such as Ray in 1029.

Later rulers, from the Tughlaqs to Akbar and beyond, built empires in the subcontinent and destroyed temples mostly to delegitimise earlier rulers. The time and place of the desecrations show that temple desecration typically occurred “on the cutting edge of a moving military frontier”, writes Eaton.

It was mostly about a ruler’s legitimacy that was derived from temples. “Contemporary chronicles and inscriptions left by the victors leave no doubt that field commanders, governors, or sultans viewed the desecration of royal temples as a normal means of decoupling a former Hindu king's legitimate authority… from the image of the state-deity that was publicly understood as protecting the king and his kingdom,” writes Eaton.

That’s why some of them showed off the deity from looted temples in their own capitals. When Ulugh Khan looted Somnath temple in 1299, he sent its largest idol to Alauddin Khilji’s court in Delhi.

When Firoz Shah Tughlaq invaded Odisha in 1359, he carried off a stone idol from Puri’s Jagannath temple and installed it in Delhi. 
 Temples were plundered also to punish rebels, like Aurangzeb did in Benaras. Eaton gives examples of Jahangir at Pushkar in 1613, when he ordered the destruction of a Varaha temple belonging to an uncle of Rana Amar of Mewar. In 1635, his son Shah Jahan destroyed the great temple in Orchha, which was patronised by the father of Raja Jajhar Singh, a high-ranking Mughal officer who had rebelled. 

Some Muslim rulers were different

It was believed that once a territory had been conquered and yielded tax, the people and their faiths deserved the ruler’s protection. 
We learn from a Sanskrit inscription quoted by epigraphist Pandurangrao Bhimrao Desai that in 1326, 13 years after he had annexed northern Deccan, Muhammad bin Tughlaq appointed Muslim officials to repair a Shiva temple in Kalyana in Bidar district, facilitating the resumption of worship. 

A few decades after Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s death, Sultan Shihabuddin (1355-73) of Kashmir rebuked his Brahmin minister for having suggested melting down Hindu and Buddhist idols to get quick cash, writes Sanskrit scholar Jogesh Chandra Dutt in Kings of Kashmir . 

Muslim jurists advised Sikandar Lodhi of Delhi that “it is not lawful to lay waste ancient idols in temples” and disallow people from taking dips in a sacred reservoir in Kurukshetra, quotes Eaton from Nizamuddin Ahmad’s Tabaqat-i-Akbari.

But some rulers like Aurangzeb, who reimposed the jizya tax on non-Muslims that Akbar had withdrawn, continued to destroy temples even in tax-paying territories. 

Even Hindu kings looted temples

Muslims who desecrated temples to project power were following centuries of earlier practices by Hindu kings. The connection between state power and large temples constructed in the name of the ruling family’s principal deities emerged in the 7th-8th centuries. 

Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya, who taught history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, writes in Historiography, History, and Religious Centres: Early Medieval North India about the period 700-1200 CE as when “the need to link one’s royal origins to religious and divine forces led to extraordinary temple building in this period". That meant the idols were the spoils of war. 
In the early 10th century, Pratihara king Herambapala seized a solid gold idol of Vishnu Vaikuntha when he defeated the king of Kangra. Richard Davis, in Lives of Indian Images , writes that by the mid-10th century the same idol was seized from the Pratiharas by the Chandela king Yasovarman and installed in the Lakshman temple of Khajuraho.

Also in the early 10th century, the Rashtrakuta king Indra III not only destroyed the temple of Kalapriya (at Kalpa near the Yamuna), patronised by their enemies, the Pratiharas, but “they took special delight in recording the fact”, writes Michael Willis in Religion and Royal Patronage in North India .

Eaton writes, “In the late 11th century, the Kashmiri king Harsha even raised the plundering of temples to an institutionalised activity; and in the late 12th and early 13th century, kings of the Paramara dynasty attacked and plundered Jain temples in Gujarat.”

Dattatray Balwant Parasnis’s A History of the Maratha People tells us that in 1759, the Maratha army looted the Tirupati temple when Haidar Ali ruled the state of Mysore, with whom they were fighting. When the Marathas looted Shringeri Math in 1791, Haidar Ali’s son Tipu Sultan vowed revenge and paid reparations to the Shankaracharya, addressing him as ‘Jagadguru’, or ruler of the world — in one of his 47 letters to the monk that are preserved, writes Anant Krishna Shastry in The Records of the Sringeri Dharmasamsthana .

As always, reading history in the context of its times yields shades of grey, rather than plain black or white.

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