Medieval History of India (16th to 19th Century A. E.)

 Dr. Vaidehi Bhagwat

Indian history is divided into three consecutive broad spans of time, viz., ancient, medieval and modern. Medieval period refers to a long transitory period of the Indian subcontinent’s history between ancient and modern periods. Further medieval history can be divided between two phases, namely, early medieval and late medieval periods. The late medieval period in India commences typically with advent of Mughals and stretches from 16th to 19th century. Predominated by Mughals as central power this long period also witnessed rise and fall of different kingdoms from north to south and east to west who took a commanding role in shaping the history of medieval India. The rise of Sikhs in North, Marathas in Deccan and Asaf Jahi in further south are remarkable milestones in this regard.


Mughal Empire: The Mughal Empire was one of the largest centralized states known in pre modern world history. By late 1600 the Mughal emperor held supreme political authority over a population numbering between 100 and 150 million and the lands covering most of the Indian subcontinent (3.2 square kilometer). (John Richard, the Cambridge History of India, Mughal Empire, 1993).


It was founded by Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babar Chghatai Turkish ruler (1526-1530) after defeating Sultan Ibrahim Lodi, the last Sultan of


Sultanate period in the famous battle of Panipat on 21st April 1526. It was the first battle of Panipat that decided the fate of Indian subcontinent. Babar died in 1530 leaving behind his empire to his son Humayun. During his rule Humayun faced a great set back in the form of Shershah Sur, an Afghan ruler who defeated Humayun and drove him out. Shershah Sur could not rule for long and died in 1540 after ruling only for five years. His short reign is known in history for his administrative and other reforms.  Death of Shershah Sur presented an opportunity to Humayun who was seeking shelter in other royal courts in hope to regain his lost empire in India. In 1555 Humayun found a favourable opportunity to invade India and won it back with the help of ruler of Iran.


Humayun restored his claim to his father’s monarchy in mid 1555. His untimely death in the year 1556 led to coronation of his 12 year minor son who became famous as Akbar the Great in Indian history. In the very beginning of his reign he had to face a military threat from Hemu, a minister of Sur dynasty. Akbar with the help of his preceptor Bairam Khan consolidated his power by defeating Hemu in second battle of Panipat (1556). Akbar’s conquests included Gondwan, Mewar, Gujarat, Bengal and Bihar, Kabul, Kashmir, Sindh, Orissa, Baluchistan, Kandahar, in short, most of the parts of North India. Having thus subjugating north India, Akbar turned his attention to Deccan which was divided among four sultanates (Shahis) at that time. He weakened the two sultanates of Deccan, Bijapur and Golkonda and subjugated two sultanates, Ahmadnagar and Khandesh. Akbar revolutionized the administration of his empire. He introduced many social reforms. He founded a new order Din-i-Ilahi (Divine Faith) which freely borrowed its tenets from other religions. He was an able commander, shrewd politician and visionary administrator.


After Akbar’s death his son Jahangir (1605- 1627) ascended the throne. As compared to his father Jahangir had few military conquests to his credit. However, he was a king of highly refined tastes. He wrote his autobiography, Tuzuk- i- Jahangiri. It was in his reign the first Englishmen arrived India. Jahangir’s death in 1627 brought Shahjahan (1627-1658) on throne. In his political career Shahjahan subjugated rebellion of Khan Jahan Lodi and rebellion at Bundelkhand. He completed the conquest of Ahamadnagar and humbled Bijapur and Golkonda. Shahjahan was the most magnificent king of Mughal Empire. He was a great lover of art. Shahjahan’s sense of Mughal grandeur found creative expression in monumental buildings at various scale. His first commissioned work, Peacock- Throne got the tone for new era of ceremonial display. The world famous Taj Mahal, a dream in marble, was built b him as a mausoleum for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal.


The second half of Shahjahan’s rule was marked by war of succession between his two sons, Dara Shukoh and Aurangazeb. Aurangazeb rose victorious in this blood shaded war. He put Shahjahan in life imprisonment for life in the fort of Agra and ascended the throne. Aurangazeb (1658- 1707) ruled for fifty years. The long tenure of Aurangzeb’s reign can be divided into two consecutive phases. In the earlier phase of his rule (1658- 1682), his policies were confined mainly to North India, whereas, the later phase (1682- 1707) he spent in Deccan in hope of vanquishing growing threat of Maratha dominions.


Aurangzeb’s military exploits of the first part of his reign comprise of wars on north- west and north- east frontiers. He tried to put check to the tribes of north- west frontier, which were constant source of trouble to the Mughal Emperors. Besides these military exploits the opening years of Aurangzeb were also marked by the rebellions of un-submissive chieftains. The important among them were the rebellions of Champat Rai Bundela, Rao Karan Sing of Bikaner, Chero Raja of Palamau in Bihar and Raja Bahadur Chand of Kumaon region. Aurangazeb successfully suppressed most of them. Aurangzeb’s inclination towards religious fanaticism alienated his non- Muslims subjects. The Jats of Mathura, Satnamis who lived in Narwal and Mewat opposed increasing religious tyranny of Aurangzeb’s regime.  Another formidable resistance came from Sikhs. Aurangazeb captured Guru Teg Bahadur Singh, the ninth Guru of Sikhs in 1675 and executed him in Delhi on his refusal to convert himself to Islam. After Guru Teg Bahadur’s death, the tenth Guru of Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh (1675- 1708) converted the Sikhs into a military fraternity called the Khalsa (the pure). They continued to oppose the oppressive policies of Aurangzeb.


Second half of Aurangzeb’s reign was spent in Deccan in an attempt to root out budding Maratha power founded by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. The Maratha dominion will be dealt separately in following pages. Shivaji’s death in 1680 presented a great opportunity for Aurangzeb to complete the conquests of the Shia kingdoms of Bijapur and Golconda and to deal effectively with the Maratha threat. He moved to Deccan to pursue his ambition. Though he completely wiped out the kingdoms of Bijapur and Golconda; in spite of his best efforts he was not able to crush the Marathas who continued to defy and demoralize the Mughal forces. Aurangzeb breathed last in 1707.


With the death of Aurangzeb Mughal Empire began to crumble. Quick successions involved struggles in which the country suffered much and often. Aurangzeb was succeeded by his son Bahadur Shah I. His accession was followed by no less than 11 rulers in quick succession with exception to Muhammad Shah who managed to rule for thirty years (1719- 1748). However during Muhammad Shah’s reign an invasion and plunders of Nadir Shah, Persian ruler showcased pathetic and weakling state of once great Mughal Empire. Most of the successors of Aurangzeb had remained mere puppets in the hands of their scrupulous nobles. P. N. Chopra has rightly observed this was a time,” …when the empire could neither defend itself against external and internal threats, not foresee that the future of India lay with the English, who had come as traders and were fast strengthening their power political power.”  With the capture and imprisonment of the last nominal Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar at the time of revolt of 1857 by British the Mughal Empire came to its end.


The Mughals, who came from outside left a lasting impress not only political but also on socio- cultural and economic institutions of Medieval India. This was a period of amalgamation of different cultures. Persian dominated royal court. Many illusive works were produced in Persian. At the same time growth and development of regional languages like Bengali, Marathi, Punjabi, Rajasthani and Hindi were witnessed. Urdu became expression of  linguistic amalgamation. Various forms of arts received impetus in royal and provincial courts. Music, painting, literature, architecture achieved new dimensions in Mughal and other provincial courts. Miniature painting is gift of this period. To conclude, different aspects of life in India underwent dramatic changes during this period. Due to constraint of space, it’s difficult to review all of them.              


Maratha Empire: At the time of Babar’s invasion in 1526 there were five sultanates of Berar, Ahmadnagar, Bijapur, Bidar and Golconda which were ruling Deccan. These states had either been absorbed in the Mughal Empire or subjugated by it by the middle of the 17th century. While Aurangzeb was still realizing the annexations of Deccan sultanates in his second viceroyalty of Deccan and even after his accession to throne, in the hilly areas of the western Deccan near Pune, there emerged a formidable source of resistance to Mughal power in the form of Marathas under the able leadership of Shivaji Bhosale (1630- 1680). Shivaji began his exploits as early as in 1646 by conquering fort of Torna. His father Shahaji was a Maratha general and aristocrat and his mother Jija Bai was daughter of Lakhuji Jadhav, a Maratha nobleman of Nijamshahi Sultans of Ahmadnagar.


Shivaji’s earlier exploits and achievements were mainly if defiance of authority of Adilshahi of Bijapur at whose expense Shivaji began to expand his domain in the western hills. His second phase represented his direct conflict with Imperial Mughals when in 1660 Shaista Khan, a new governor of Mughal Deccan crossed paths with Shivaji. His two daring raids of Surat, a flourishing Mughal trade centre posed a direct threat to Mughal authority. Aurangzeb succeeded in subjugating Shivaji with the help of Mirza Raje Jaisingh, a shrewd diplomat and veteran of many battles. Shivaji was forced to surrender his 20 forts to Mughals and travelled to Agra to pay visit to the Emperor Aurangzeb in 1666. At Agra Shivaji was sentenced to in- house confinement. However he managed a dramatic escape returned to Raigad safely. On his return Shivaji again indulged in the task of expanding his dominions and there by realizing his dream of founding Swaraj (self- government). In 1674 Shivaji crowned himself as King in the coronation ceremony held at Raigad, a capital of newly founded Swaraj. His coronation legitimized his claim to kingship of Deccan. This great hero died on Raigad in 1630. Chhatrapati Shivaji was not only a military leader but also a consolidator. He laid a foundation for his newly carved principality in the form of sound, civil, military and economic administration. Shivaji, one of the greatest figures of Indian history was a great general, a shrewd statesman and a skilful diplomat. He respected all the religions and made the hill- forts along the Sahyadri ghats, his main line of defense. He created Maratha Navy on realizing an importance of establishing navy. Therefore he is rightly called the Father of Indian Navy. After the death of Shivaji, his son Sambhaji (1680- 1689) succeeded him. Immediately after his succession, Sambhaji strengthened the forts near borders. Sambhaji was caught at Sangameshwar (Dis. Raigad) by Mughal forces and was tortured to death.

The insurgent Maratha State did not die with Sambhaji. His younger brother hastily crowned himself as king and escape to Jinji in extreme south. Marathas continued an intensifying campaign against Mughals in Deccan. Mughal forces put siege to Raigad and captured Yesubai, Sambhaji’s wife and his 9 year old son, Shahu. They were carried to Mughal Camp. Rajaram continued to rule Maratha State from Jinji. However siege and fall of Jinji brought Rajaram back to his homeland. Upon his death in 1700 his widow Tarabai took up the reigns of government having crowned her 4 year old son, Shivaji II. She herself commanded the troops in the battlefield. She reorganized administration and silenced discordant Maratha chiefs.


After death of Aurangzeb in 1707, his son Azam released Shahu, Sambhaji’s son in hope of creating rift between Marathas. Tarabai opposed Shahu with the help of some Maratha nobles.  Shahu was joined by few other Maratha leaders. Balaji Vishwantah, Sarsubha of Pune and Daulatabad regions was one of them. A civil war that followed between Tarabai and Shahu, Tarabai was defeated. Balaji Vishwanath rose to the position of Peshwa (Prime- minister) of Shahu at this time. The office of Peshwa became hereditary and descendents of Balaji Vishwanath continued to hold it till fall of Peshwas (1818).


After the death of Balaji Vishwanath in 1720 his son Baji Rao succeeded him as Peshwa. He was an able general and statesman. He firmly advocated expansion of Maratha State in further North. Baji Rao had to face a new contestant in the Deccan in person of Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah, who had been appointed as Mughal Viceroy in south in 1713 by Sayyad brothers, king makers at Delhi. Growing rebellious Nizam carved out a principality for himself in south. Baji Rao put check on his military advances in Deccan.


Baji Rao was succeeded by his son Balaji Bajirao alias Nanasaheb as Peshwa upon Baji Rao’s prematured death in 1740. By this time, after Shahu’s death in 1749, Peshwas had become de facto rulers. It was in Nanasaheb’s time Ahmad Shah Abdali, the general of Nadir Shah invaded India. The Mughal Emperor approached Marathas for their aid against Afghan invaders. A treaty was concluded between Marathas and Mughal entrusting Marathas with the defense of Empire from external aggression and internal foes. The Marathas under Peshwas and the Afghans under Abdali met at historical battlefield of Panipat. What came to be known in history as the Third Battle of Panipat (1761) Marathas had to face crushing defeat with irreparable losses in terms of man power and resources. 


The third battle of Panipat proved to be disastrous for the Marathas. After hearing this news Nanasaheb Peshwa died heart- broken. His office was inherited by his son Madhavrao I in. At the time of his accession Maratha State was in complete shambles. Exhaustion of resources has left treasury empty. Madhavrao restored the lost pride Marathas. He effectively checked advances of Nizam of Hyderabad by humbling him on battlefield. On family- front he came in conflict with his own uncle, Raghunathrao, brother of Nanasaheb Peshwa who wanted to inherit Peshwai (office of Peshwa) after death of Nanasaheb. Madhavrao died prematurely in 1772 to be succeeded by his younger brother, Narayanrao. Narayanrao could rule only till 1773 when he was assassinated in a plot devised by his uncle Raghunathrao. At this time Narayanrao’s wife was pregnant. This deplorable act of Raghunathrao was condemned by contemporary Maratha nobles and led to formation of regency council.  Twelve influential, leading Maratha nobles under the leadership of Nana Fadanvis came together to defy actions of Raghunathrao and look after pregnant wife of Narayanrao. This came to be known as Barbhai conspiracy in history. Gangabai, Narayanrao’s wife gave birth to a son in 1774. He was installed as Peshwa Madhavrao II in 1782 after the First Anglo- Maratha war in which Mahadji Shinde, a Maratha Sardar inflicted defeat on English and got installation of Madhavrao II as Peshwa recognized by English. Madhavrao II died in 1795. He was succeeded by Bajirao II, son of Raghnunathrao as Peshwa in 1795. During his reign the third Anglo- Maratha war at Khadki (1818) was fought sealing the fate in favour of English who destined to rule Indian subcontinent for next 150 years.  


Dr. Vaidehi Bhagwat works as Research Officer in Gazetteers Department, Government of Maharashtra. She specializes in the history of Early Medieval Deccan. She has one book and some articles to her credit.