The Mughal Empire
It is hard, today, to appreciate the large space that the Mughal Empire occupied in the world of the 1600s. In land mass, it was relatively modest. Akbar’s Hindustan bordered Iran in the northwest, included present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, swept across the lion’s share of India, and went as far east as Bengal, including present-day Bangladesh. In the northeast it braved the Himalayas, to push up against Tibet. In the south, it had a contentious border with three hold-out kingdoms, Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda. All told, the Mughal Empire was smaller in land-mass than its two rivals at the time: the Persian Empire and Ottoman Empire. But what it lacked in area, it made up for with its people. The historian John Keay reports that the population of Akbar’s Hindustan is estimated at about a 100 million people. By contrast, all of Europe at the time was 40 million, and the population of Great Britain could not have been more than 5 million.
Paradoxically, this large population was the source of Hindustan’s wealth. An ancient, unbroken tradition of village handicrafts reached its zenith during the Mughal era. Villagers produced not only food from the abundant, fertile land but village factories, born of family-run local enterprises, produced fabrics, dyes, metalwork, jewelry, weapons — anything imaginable, with a level of artistry and innovation that are still admired today.
Akbar’s genius was to create structures and liberties for his subjects that turned this industry into the most explosive, longest-sustained economic boom the world had known. Artisans flourished. A bustling middle-class grew up. Stone-cutters and architects reached a level of sophistication that permitted them to create the joyful facades of the Agra Fort and of Fatehpur Sikri.
A generation later these skills would evolve to create the Taj Mahal. An adventurer in the employ of the Persian Emperor could hope to triple his salary by traveling to India and switching allegiance to the Mughal Empire.3
To be sure, this wealth did not do much for the average Indian peasant, who then, as now, lived in poverty. The Mughals wrote the book on exploitation. About the only things that can be said in mitigation is that the lot of the Hindustani peasant was similar to that of peasants all over the world at the time, and it was probably better than the grinding poverty of some rural areas of India today. Two factors contributed to this. Land was still plentiful, and the price of food as a proportion of the cost of living was higher. Hence, produce from rural areas comprised a significant part of the economy and fetched a good price.
Not the least of Akbar’s leaps was his edict of suhl-i-kul, or universal tolerance. “Let not difference of religion interfere with policy, and be not violent in inflicting retribution,” he advised his son Murad when appointing him governor of Malwa. Hindu tradition, which by its very nature is inclusive of different sects, had already made the Indian sub-continent among the most tolerant places in the world at that point in history. Akbar’s enshrinement of an active and inquisitive multiculturalism into state policy created a fluidity and an emphasis on merit in Hindustani society that undoubtedly contributed to its economic success. In the words of William Dalrymple, “...as Mughals and Hindus visited the same shrines, followed the same holy men and began to intermarry... the dialogue between the rival religions reached its climax, the two cultures finally fused into one and flowered into a civilization of breathtaking beauty and perfection.”
Ten thousand miles away, shivering European nations watched the moving feast that was Hindustan and yearned for a piece of the action. In 1600, the English, envious of the flourishing Portuguese trade with India, formed the East India Company of London for the express purpose of developing trade in the Indian subcontinent. Two years later, the Dutch followed suit. The foreigners brought gold and silver bullion (which they took from the New World), and exchanged it for cottons, silks, dyes, furnishings and “spices”.
It was in this bright, hopeful world of contrasts, of genius and vanities, that the events of this novel take place.