At the beginning of the 16th century, India was divided among a number of autonomous or semi-autonomous territories. The first steps towards unification occurred when Babur (1483-1530) established the Mughal (the Persian pronunciation of Mongol) Empire in 1526. His father, the ruler of a small central Asian state named Fergana in what is now Uzbekistan, was a descendant of the famous conqueror Timur.  In 1494, at the age of eleven, when Babur became ruler of Fergana following his father’s unexpected death, he set himself the task of gaining control of all the lands that had once fallen to his illustrious ancestor Timur. In 1504, he made a bold move. Striking out across the Hindu Kush mountains accompanied only by his family and two hundred fighting men, he conquered the city of Kabul in Afghanistan. In 1526, using tactics he had learned from the Persians, with whom he had allied in the past, including the use of artillery, Babur defeated the much larger army of the Delhi Sultanate, a Muslim state in northern India, and established his Empire.  Under his leadership, north India enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity. Agricultural activity increased as Babur encouraged land-clearing, irrigation projects, and the planting of new crops such as indigo, sugar cane, cotton, and mulberry trees for silkworms. He was an intelligent man who left behind a remarkable autobiography which his descendants preserved and used to guide them in their leadership. By 1530, the year of his death, Babar had built an empire that stretched from Kabul (Afghanistan) to the borders of Bihar in northeastern India.


A painting of Babur crossing the Indus River, 1589. (Source: Wikimedia)

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Explore the Memoirs of Babur which he began to write in 1494 and continued writing until his death.

After Babur’s death, his son Humayun became the new ruler.  When he died, his son (Babur’s grandson) Akbar (1542-1605), came to power and became the greatest of all Mughal rulers. In a reign that lasted fifty years, he showed remarkable leadership skills. He was an admirer of learning (even though he was almost illiterate due to what many scholars believe was extreme dyslexia) and supported the arts. His statesmanship was demonstrated most fully in his handling of the problems created by the religious differences among his people. Recognizing the deep religious divide in Mughal India in which the ruling class was Muslim and the vast majority of the common people were Hindu, Akbar worked to create a peaceful and prosperous empire in which both Muslims and Hindus could live in peace and harmony.  He made no effort to enforce conformity to Islamic customs or to impose the Muslim religion on his subjects. In 1568, he abolished the jizya, a tax imposed on non-Muslims. He allowed new Hindu temples to be built, which had previously been prohibited, and provided several of them with money to support their activities. Both Hindus and Muslims were welcomed into the army and Akbar’s administration.

To consolidate his hold on India, Akbar married the sisters and daughters of local rulers, both Muslim and Hindu. He did not force his Hindu wives to convert to Islam, and their marriage ceremonies included both Hindu and Muslim elements. Akbar, did, however, introduce to India an institution found elsewhere in the Muslim world: The women of the royal family were physically secluded in a harem. Women’s separation from the men of the court did not mean they were not influential, and wives, mothers, and even nursemaids often played a role in important political decisions. Nevertheless, during Akbar’s reign, efforts to remove women from public life also led to the disappearance of their names from official records, and the practice of segregating them spread from Mughal households to those of the Hindu ruling classes, who adopted the custom.

Akbar revolutionized his empire’s bureaucratic apparatus. The realm was divided into provinces, and each province was assigned a governor, a chief judge, a military commander, and a financial administrator. Akbar appointed civil servants known as mansabdars. Promotion was based on effort and expertise. Acting in ways that displeased Akbar could result in demotion or transfer to a less desirable location. Each mansabdar was also responsible for recruiting cavalry to serve in the Mughal army.

Not only did Akbar marry Hindu women and welcome Hindus into his administration, but he also proved tolerant of other religions and their adherents. He gave Hindus a role in governing by incorporating them into the administrative structure of the empire. He also financially supported the building of Hindu temples and Muslim mosques. In the capital city of Delhi, he built a special House of Worship in which he oversaw discussions about religion between representatives of many religions, including Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Jains, and Zoroastrians.


A painting of Akbar by Govardhan, 1630 (Source: Wikimedia)

For the most part, India prospered under Akbar. His conquests left much of the subcontinent united and peaceful. Domestic and international trade flourished. Gold and silver flowed into India in exchange for textiles, spices, and precious gems. Handicraft industries boomed, and merchants grew wealthy. The peasants were heavily taxed to pay for the empire’s bureaucracy, but they were excused from paying in full in times of drought or other natural disasters.  Among those who benefited from the prosperity of Akbar’s reign were wealthy Mughal women, who reinvested in commerce the revenues derived from landed estates, gifts of the emperor and his predecessors to female relatives. They used the profits they earned to endow mosques, build shelters for travelers, support artists and poets, and fund charitable endeavors. They also used their wealth to give gifts to the emperor and court officials, one of the ways in which they attempted to influence the workings of the Mughal government.

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Watch a Khan Academy video explaining the history of the Mughal Empire.


A new religion that had emerged in the late 15th century in the Punjab region of the Indian peninsula continued to grow in this century. Merging the teachings of both Islam and Hinduism, Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469-1539) articulated the fundamental beliefs and practices of this religion called Sikhism. He is said to have famously proclaimed, “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim.” He taught that all peoples worship the same deity and that therefore all religions are equally valid. Born in 1469 in Talwandi, Guru Nanak Dev Ji advocated for a virtuous life, emphasizing devotion to one God, truthful living, and service to humanity. He preached about the unity of all religions, recognizing the shared humanity that transcends cultural and belief systems. Sikhism’s most sacred site was the Golden Temple which sheltered their Holy Book, the Granth Sahib, at their capital at Amritsar.

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Watch this short video produced by the Khan Academy to learn more about the history and beliefs of the Sikhs.


Despite their power, the Mughals never controlled all of India, and several areas remained relatively free of their dominance. In the sixteenth century, one such area, the Sultanate of Gujarat on the northwestern coast of India, was an important center of Indian Ocean trade. Gujarat was located on the Arabian Sea, close to Persia and the Arabian Peninsula.  From May through September monsoon winds blew, and the resulting ocean currents pushed sailing ships from East Africa and Arabia in the direction of Gujarat and other spots on the western coast of India, such as the province of Kerala to the south. In the winter months, the monsoon winds and currents reversed, helping sailors return home. In the period between these changes brought by the monsoons, foreign sailors and merchants made their home on India’s western coast, and thriving commercial hubs developed with a year-round population of both Indians and non-Indians.

This map shows Gujarat which is located on the northwestern coast of India. (Source: Wikimedia)

The populations of Gujarat’s ports were diverse. Although most residents were Hindus, other religious communities were well represented. For the most part, these were trade diaspora communities, communities established by merchants from foreign lands who came to do business but often settled and married into the local population. The most significant of the trade diaspora communities in Gujarat were those founded by Muslims.  Sufis, Islamic mystics, had arrived in India in the eleventh century, and a substantial number of Muslims had Sufi ancestors. Yet other Muslims were descended from soldiers who had arrived in India in the armies of central Asian or Afghan invaders from the tenth through the thirteenth centuries. There were also large numbers of Parsis in the cities of Gujarat. The Parsis were Zoroastrians, members of a religious sect that worshipped fire and whose ancestors had arrived in India from Persia in the seventh century. They may have fled Persia after the Islamic conquest for fear of religious persecution, or they may have settled in India before the conquest and never returned home.  Also present in Gujarat were Jews and Nestorian Christians, who had split from the larger Christian Church in the fifth century over an argument regarding whether Jesus was of one nature—divine—or two—one human and one divine. The Nestorian Christians had come primarily from Syria and Persia. A larger Christian community lived in Kerala. Gujarat also housed small communities of Indian Jains (followers of Jainism) and Buddhists.

The great religious and ethnic diversity of Gujarat contributed to its commercial success because merchants there traded more easily with others of the same religion and ethnic background in other parts of the world. Arabs traded with Arabs and Persians with Persians. Jews in Gujarat maintained ties with Jewish communities elsewhere in India, North Africa, and the Middle East. The prominence of the Muslim merchant community in Gujarat was undoubtedly aided by the fact that the Mughal emperors were Muslim.

In the southern part of the Indian subcontinent (present day Bangladesh and southern India), the Vijayanagara Empire, in the Deccan plateau region, remained prosperous under the leadership of King Krishna Deva Raya (1471-1529). Gold coins were the major currency along with silver, copper, and seashells. A great textile industry developed in the region of Gujarat on the west coast leading to economic prosperity. Buddhism lost adherents and a form of Hinduism that paid special reverence to Vishnu became the dominant faith of the people.


A painting of Vishnu (Source: Wikimedia)


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