India: Peeps at History - Beatrice Home

How the Empire of the Moghuls Broke Up

When Aurunzebe, the last great Emperor of the Moghuls, ascended the throne of Delhi in 1658, the year of Cromwell's death, he deserted the ways of Akbar and began greatly to oppress the Hindu people. Not only did he make them pay heavy taxes, but he burnt down their magnificent temples throughout the land, and forbade Hindus to hold any further employment under the Government.

A noble protest, addressed to him by a great Rajput leader, Rana Raj Singh of Udaipur, helps us to understand the change which had come over the empire. He wrote: "Your Royal ancestor Gul-ul-ud-din Akbar conducted the affairs of State in dignity and security for fifty-two years, keeping every class prosperous, whether followers of Jesus, or Moses, or of Muhamad; were they Brahmans, were they Atheists, all alike enjoyed his favour. . . . Jehanjir also extended for a period of twenty-two years the shadow of protection over his people. . . . Not less did the illustrious Shah Jehan in a fortunate reign of thirty-two years acquire for himself immortal fame, the just reward of clemency and righteousness."

After this the Hindu chief points to the bitter contrast between the rule of Aurunzebe and of those who had gone before him. But all protests were in vain. When the Hindus assembled in crowds to defend their temples he sent elephants amongst them and trampled them to death. So it came about that the Hindu fighting spirit, which had died out for a hundred years, burst forth once more. The Rajputs flew to arms again, and further south in the Deccan a Hindu robber race, called the Mahrattas, who lived in the mountains, found a great leader in a chief called Sivaji. In the north, too, a Hindu reformer, called Nanuk, formed the fighting sect of the Guru Govin Singh, which in time to come grew into the great Sikh power of the Punjab.

Of all these new enemies Sivaji was the cleverest and most daring. He was a sort of Hindu Robin Hood. For a long time he had carried on warfare against the small Mohammedan kingdoms of the Deccan, and his cunning was extraordinary. On one occasion the Sultan of Bijapur had sent an army against him to punish his constant raids and robberies. Sivaji, instead of flying, pretended to be terribly frightened. He implored forgiveness, and persuaded the Mohammedan general to meet him with one attendant near the hill fort of Partabghar, where he promised to make his submission. But Sivaji was bent on murder. He was very clever in the use of those treacherous weapons called the "scorpion," a crooked dagger hidden in the sleeve, and the "tiger-claws," curved hooks made of steel and fastened to the fingers by rings. They were invisible when the hand was closed, but a terrible weapon when the hand was opened.

At the appointed time on an open slope of the hills stood the leader of the Bijapur army, clad in white muslin and with no more than one attendant. Presently Sivaji, a slim, slight figure also in white, with one follower, is seen descending the rocks from his stronghold. With a submissive obeisance he draws near, chain armour hidden beneath his muslin robe, the deadly tiger-claws on his left hand, and the scorpion-dagger concealed in his right sleeve, near to the hand with which he made his salaam or bow.

He had got very close now. Instantly, before the general realised his danger, the tiger-claws had fastened upon his flesh and he was stabbed to the heart. Meanwhile Sivaji's robber bands, having crept by secret paths round the Mohammedan camp, fell upon the surprised soldiery and put them to flight.

Aurunzebe, instead of helping the sultans of Bijapur and Golkonda to keep Sivaji and the Mahrattas in order, conquered these two small kingdoms and added them to his empire. But, cunning as he was, he could never destroy Sivaji or the Mahrattas.

Only once he managed to entice him to visit Delhi, but Sivaji, who found that Aurunzebe was going to play him some trick, dressed up as a flower-seller and slipped out of the city. He was pursued, but after numerous adventures managed to get back to his mountains. Later on Aurunzebe sent against him the imperial general Shaista Khan, who marched to Poona to find and punish Sivaji. Nothing could be seen or heard of him. But one day a large wedding procession entered the town amidst great rejoicings. As they passed Shaista Khan's house, where the general was holding a feast, a large part of the wedding procession suddenly rushed in with drawn swords. It was Sivaji and his men disguised. They very nearly captured the general, who had to jump from a window, but they killed his son and many of his retinue, after which they succeeded in escaping.

Aurunzebe tried all sorts of cunning tricks to entrap Sivaji. Once he sent his eldest son to command the army in the Deccan, with secret orders to sham a rebellion against the empire. Many joined him, but the man who was especially wanted sent a message from his mountain stronghold to say that he was all in favour of the rebellion and hoped Prince Shah Alam would succeed in pulling his father from the throne. He promised that when the prince and his army left the Deccan he would keep order for him, but that he was obliged to remain in his hills at present for the sake of his health.

Sivaji did not mean to run any risks, and he must have watched with amusement the rebellion come suddenly to an end and Shah Alam make a sham surrender, while some of those who had joined him were actually beheaded. But, although Aurunzebe had not caught Sivaji, he was pleased because he had made it impossible for his eldest son to cause a real rebellion afterwards, since, of course, no one would trust him again.

It was largely Aurunzebe's crafty and suspicious nature which caused him to ruin the empire. He distrusted every man who was not safely imprisoned or beheaded, and so made enemies of his best friends and best sons, who would otherwise have remained true.

So wars arose on all sides, and, in spite of his great age, he was ceaselessly in the field with his armies, dashing, like an old lion, now at the Afghans in the north, now at the Rajputs in the west, or, again, at the Mahrattas in the south. But he never completely subdued any, for the overgrown empire was gradually breaking up like a castle of sand around which the waves are beginning to wash.

It is necessary for us to understand what was happening in India at this time, because it was out of the general confusion which followed the death of Aurunzebe that the power and influence of Great Britain, supported by her victorious navy, began to spread in a number of directions. Thirty years after the death of Aurunzebe the Moghul Empire received its death-blow. Once more, as of old, through the Afghan passes, now no longer guarded, came Nadir Shah with a great invading Persian host. Beginning as a robber chief, like Sivaji, he had become a great conqueror like Cyrus or Nebuchadnezzar, and the ruler of a mighty empire from the Euphrates to the Indus.

He was a man of noble presence, with large eyes and a voice like thunder. It is said that his aspect was so terrible that men trembled in his presence. Before him the Moghul armies fled like sheep from a lion, and he entered Delhi with all the pride of a conqueror. That same night the people rose and massacred a number of his soldiers. Next day Nadir Shah took his revenge. From eight in the morning till three o'clock in the afternoon his army of Persians sacked, burnt, and slew, while he himself sat in the public square and exulted with the ferocity of a demon at the awful scene of carnage. The city ran with blood, and when all was over the streets were choked with dead bodies and burning houses. When Nadir Shah marched away he took with him all the treasures of Delhi, and carried them, together with the famous Peacock throne, to Persia.

Meanwhile the Mahrattas, now growing into a great power, were sweeping over central and western India like a mighty flood, and the whole country was covered with wild confusion. The Indian people became a masterless multitude, like leaves blown by the storm, until gradually the different provinces of the old empire emerged as independent states. These the British, after long years of warfare, were to combine into another and greater empire than that of the Moghuls, which with every year became more like a fading shadow.