How Indian was the Mughal Empire?

How Indian was the Mughal Empire?

In 1937, elections were held for the Constituent Assembly of India. This was on top of Provincial Governments already being run by Indians, not to mention many municipalities and municipal corporations. All this was separate from the huge tracts of land still nominally held by a large collection of princes and kings. Ergo, a huge number of Indians were helping run the British Empire –running into thousands and lakhs. Still, the freedom struggle continued and all of us will agree that it had good reason to do so! The reason being, that the administrative machinery was still in British hands. The top echelons of the administration and military were places where an ordinary Indian could not even dream to reach. Hence, for all purposes British rule in India was as foreign on the last day as it was on the first.

The funny thing is that the Mughal Empire was also rather foreign but instead of being called so, it has been eulogised as the best thing to have happened to India! Much is made of how the Rajputs were allied with the Mughals, and one would think they occupied everything at the top of the administration. For throwing a few crumbs at the Rajputs, Akbar is referred to as ‘the Great’. We shall see how much Indians benefitted in the administration from his rule.

This article shall explain how, from the time of Babur to that of Aurangzeb, foreign born nobility always formed the major component of Mughal nobility. No, not descendants of the original bunch who accompanied Babur or Humayun, but fresh recruits or their sons, arriving at every Mughal’s court. This component was very high during the reigns of Babur and Humayun stayed around seventy percent during the reigns of Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan and dipped slightly during the latter part of Aurangzeb’s reign mainly due to the influx of Dakkhani Muslims and Marathas.

By foreign nobility, I mean the Uzbeks, Persians, Turkish and other races of the Central Asian and Persian regions. From the vast barren wastelands north of the Oxus and from the great stretch of desert from Persia to parts of Iraq. Turani and Irani, to use a more common and loose appellation. These people came from regions that were outside of the Mughal Empire, and were in fact parts of the Safavid and the Uzbek empires! Hence use of the word foreign. There were also a few Arabs and Habshis, but the bulk of the nobility was made up of Irani and Turani factions. They were rewarded with high mansabs and formed the ‘tall, fair, almond eyed’ Ashraf nobility which among other things even treated the local converted Muslims with contempt!

Babur, the first of the Mughals, came with a huge retinue of Uzbeks and Turks. This he attempted to slightly offset by the induction of Afghans into the government machinery. Aim was dual – to clip the wings of his adversaries, who like him, were Uzbek and also to accommodate the Afghans whom he had replaced in the administration of large parts of India.

Humayun, when he returned to India had around fifty nobles with him, the vast majority being made up of Iranis and Turanis. It was Persians who had helped him, and hence they and Turanis formed over eighty percent of the nobility with Humayun.

But it is with Akbar that the most interesting stats are found. Here was a Mughal, a third generation Uzbek born in in today’s Sindh. Save his first few years spent in Iran, Akbar’s life was entirely spent in Hindustan. But even this symbol of everything great about the Mughals could not muster anything more than 21 Hindu mansabdars! Percentage wise, they formed about twelve to thirteen percent of the total nobility under Akbar. The converted Indian Muslims, known as Shaikhzadas formed another fifteen percent of the Mughal court. All put together barely one third of the top Mughal nobility was made up of people originally of this land throughout Akbar’s reign (Ref.: W.E Moreland – India at the death of Akbar, Ain-e-Akbari). Not that Akbar remained problem free – one of his toughest tests came from his half-brother in Kabul – Mirza Mohammed Hakim. Uzbek nobles rallied behind Mirza Mohammed to give Akbar a real scare. This event itself describes the power and pelf the Turani faction had at the Mughal court. Akbar sought to offset this Turani influence by recruiting large numbers of Persians into the administration. Point to be noted here, that Akbar preferred importing talent from the Safavid Empire rather than finding it among the Hindus and Muslims here; or among his favourite Rajputs.

Much is made of a court poet called Mahesh Das – popularly known as Birbal. Some pages on the internet quote him as having been appointed ‘Vazir-e-Hindustan’. Nothing of the sort happened, in fact, no Hindu ever became a vazir throughout the Mughal rule. He only became a minor mansabdar of two thousand and died fighting the Yusufzai tribals near Kohat. Akbar knew that Birbal’s importance ended where the prestige of his Irani and Turani nobles started! The Akbar – Birbal stories are a later day phenomenon. As the below table will show, during the period 1565 to 1596 (Akbar’s reign), Rajputs barely made up 20 odd mansabdars. Of the top ministers (refer to the table attached), i.e. Vazirs, Diwans, Mir Bakshis etcetera barely a few were Indian Muslims or Rajputs.  Like in other higher echelons of the administration, here too foreigners, Iranis and Turanis, ruled the roost.

Jahangir, succeeded Akbar, and like him was born in India to the famous Jodhabai as Prince Salim. Although he included more Indian Muslims or Shaikhzadas as compared to Akbar, Turanis and Iranis still maintained pole position. In fact, Mirza Aziz Koka, a minister from Akbar’s days was upset with Jahangir for preferring Indian Muslims over Rajputs! But in the latter part of his reign, large numbers of Persians were recruited, the end result being that in his rule too, the majority was still overwhelmingly foreign. As compared to Akbar, it dipped to around sixty percent but still was the majority and like during his father’s reign, the top rung of ministers continued to be of foreign origins (refer to the table attached).

Another thing to note is that fresh candidates turned up at the Mughal court from Persia or Central Asia during the reign of each of the Mughals. So, the foreign nobility was actually foreign born or at most sons of foreign born nobility.

The Irani faction, although it did provide some excellent soldiers, is better known for providing the intellectual backbone of the Mughal Empire. Farsi became the court language, it was the language used on coins and in official correspondence. It remained throughout a language of the elite – aloof and removed from the general populace. Urdu, derived from it, was initially limited only to the common soldiers in the barracks and riff raffs in the kothis of northern India. It would acquire a ‘royal’ status only in the late eighteenth century. But Persian, it was for the Mughal court, and much like the brown sahibs of the British Empire, it too created an elite class well versed in Persian!

‘Iranian Nobility under Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb’ – Muhammad Afzal Khan gives a long list of Iranian nobles who made their way to India during the reign of Shah Jahan. Bear in mind that it was the fifth generation of the original Uzbek invader and still they had not found people capable enough of running the high offices for them! It reminds me of how Indians could never aspire to certain positions in the army or administration right up to 1947. A large number of Kurds also made their way to the Mughal court during his reign. During the first decade of his reign, over eighty percent of the nobles holding higher mansabs (1000+) were Muslim, the rest – Hindu. Among the Muslims too, over 50 % were Iranis and Turanis. The Mughal Empire had nearly reached its hundredth year and Indian Muslims could barely muster 15 % at the Red Fort! (Ref.: Nobility under Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb). Again, in the highest ranking Umrahs and Amirs (mansab 5000+), Irani and Turani domination was total, cornering over 70 % of the share. At the latter part of his rule, the Muslim component fell to 75 % and Hindu rose to 25 %, but apart from that the importance given to foreign blood more or less remained the same. As with Akbar and Jahangir, the top ranks of Vazir, Diwan, and Mir Bakshi etcetera were dominated by the foreign element. Out of nine Diwans only one Hindu – Rai Raghunath – made it to the post. His tenure too, was temporary and short. Even for a high military rank like the Mir-e-Atish, only one Indian Muslim made the grade out of the eight or so during his reign. Rest all were Iranis and Turanis.

The Mughals remained conscious of their Timurid descent throughout. Shah Jahan gave himself the title of Sahib Qiran-e-Sani and even sent Aurangzeb on an expedition to conquer Balkh and Badakshan – situated near today’s Uzbekistan, ostensibly because these regions once belonged to his great grandfather – Babur. At the same time, he did not strengthen the Turani faction at the Red Fort and in fact increased the numbers of Iranis and Rajputs. Much can be written on discrimination at the court between Hindu and Muslim mansabdars, but for now I shall limit the article to foreign and Indian.

Under Aurangzeb, the number of Hindu mansabdars did increase. This has been touted as one of his ‘secular’ credentials. How can he be anti-Hindu when so many Hindu mansabdars found service? The point to be noted is that these additional Hindus were Marathas and other Dakkhanis recruited from the Deccan after fall of the Bijapur and Golconda dynasties. There was also an influx of Iranis from the Deccan at the same time. He had recruited them because they formed important positions in the Bijapur and Golconda governments. Hence their khidmat was much sought after. As to why were there Hindus at important places in the Deccan? Forward thinking Deccan Sultanates? Nothing of the sort – that itself was a function of north Indian politics, which made it difficult for the Deccani Sultanates to source Iranis and Turanis for themselves! During the first part of his reign (up to 1678), the 80 – 20 Muslim – Hindu ratio was maintained; although the Irani – Turani total dipped to around fifty percent. But at the same time, a fifth of the nobility was formed out of Arabs, Abyssinians etcetera. The author of my source – Mohammed Afzal Khan – does mention that information as to racial affiliations in this part of Aurangzeb’s reign is sketchy. Afghans, like before, constituted about ten percent of the Mughal court. Still, it can be safely surmised that the foreign component of the Mughal court dipped during Aurangzeb’s rule although they still did not lose their prominent position. Moreover, Aurangzeb himself acted like a foreigner in his own land in more than one way.

During the latter part of his reign, Aurangzeb employed many Maratha mansabdars so that the Hindu total went to 35%. But this was a direct function of his war in the Deccan. Moreover, as Athar Ali author of Mughal Nobility under Aurangzeb points out, this number is not certain since many Maratha mansabdars defected to Rajaram and there was constant churn at the court. For example, Nemaji Shinde left the Mughal siege at Gingee and joined Rajaram at the fort.

Beyond Aurangzeb – the Muslim elite, landlords, Pakistan!

Pakistan’s national anthem is in Persian! Not in Punjabi, the language of majority of its population, nor in Urdu, its forced national language. Neither is it in Sindhi, Balochi, Seraiki, Pashto, Hindko or any other of the minor or major languages of the land. Granted, it is perfectly intelligible to anyone who can understand Urdu but Persian it is and has only one purely Urdu word in it – ‘ka’. For a country fancying itself as a successor of the Mughal Empire, I guess this is understandable. The Mughal nobility devolved into the landed gentry and Muslim elite of especially the United Provinces. Nostalgic about their past eminence, they greatly funded the Pakistan movement. They regarded themselves superior to the ordinary peasant class Muslims and a section genuinely believed the Mughal Empire could be resurrected. Take the case of one such Muslim aristocrat –

“If India is to be represented by her best and not by her inferior races…in accordance with…the past glories of [an]…ancient race, I call upon the Congress to rule, not that there shall be as many Mahomedans as Hindus in the councils, but that there shall always be three times as many Musalman as Hindu members.”

-Syed Wahid Ali Rizvi, a delegate to the 1889 annual session of the Indian National Congress, speaking on the proposed introduction of representative bodies in India.

Sounds quite ridiculous, but for an elite with fond memories of tall, fair skinned, ‘true Muslims’ – Turanis and Iranis populating the Mughal court, this was par for the course. After all, in 1889 it had been just thirty years since the last Mughal durbar!

Or as M.J Akbar mentions in his “Shade of Swords” – a Muslim aristocrat with foreign ancestry politely tells a British officer he is not one of ‘them’ – the proletariat – when asked whether he is a Hindustani! The memory of the Amu Darya persisted long after the Mughal Empire waned!


Thus, we can see from the preceding paragraphs that Mughal rule from Babur to Aurangzeb and beyond was almost entirely foreign. It started off with an Uzbek invader and kept giving preferential treatment to Central Asians and Persians right through. The court language was Persian and its usage restricted to an elite few. Much like British rule, where Indians could not rise above the rank of Subhedar, the top ranks in Mughal administration were also more or less off limits. We have seen how Akbar’s much touted Rajput alliances made for a tiny fraction of the total nobility and the government machinery remained in foreign hands. Little wonder then, that popular memory of the Mughal Empire is not exactly a positive one.

Were contemporary Indians aware of this ‘foreignness’?  It would appear to be so, since the word ‘Yavan’ is used quite a few times to describe them in medieval texts. This was the word used for the original invaders from the North West – the Greeks. Another example is how the Shivaji – Chhatrasal dialogue refers to the word “Turkan”; and of course we have the whole ‘bhasha shuddhikaran’ effort of Chhatrapati Shivaji.

The Great Mughals story is a carefully crafted narrative, created by the left and their nostalgic camp followers in Delhi and the Doab region. Reality shows it to be something else. It is hypocritical reading of history, bordering on funny that British rule is an era of darkness while Mughal rule is one of bright light in our textbooks. Both were tyrannical and foreign.

What all this means is that every fight given by native rulers against the Mughals – whether it be the Marathas or the Ahoms or the Bundelas or in latter years the Rajputs, was a struggle to establish swarajya. A fight against foreign rule, not unlike the one fought between 1857 and 1947!


  1. Mughal nobility under Aurangzeb – Ali Athar.
  2. Iranian nobility under Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb – Mohammed Afzal Khan
  3. Ain-e-Akbari – Abu Fazl / Blochmann translation
  4. India at the death of Akbar – W.E Moreland
  5. History of India – Main Aspects and Themes (prescribed for 12th CBSE board) – Dr Malti Malik
  6. Elites in South Asia – Edmond Leach, SN Mukherjee
  7. Shade of Swords – MJ Akbar
  8. Indiafacts article – Islam and syncretism in Indian history.

Featured Image: Victoria & Albert Museum

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Aneesh Gokhale

Aneesh Gokhale is the published author of two books. His second book "Brahmaputra" is about Lachit Barphukan , the Assamese contemporary of Chhatrapati Shivaji. His articles on Maratha and Assamese history have appeared in various online and print media. He has also given public talks on a dozen occassions.