Book Review – The Great Mughals & their India

As someone who lived through learning ( and forgetting)  Mughal history consumed via droll and biased textbooks through Middle School growing up in India, Dirk Collier’s The Great Mughals and their India  is a captivating look at the lives of the Kings of the Mughal dynasty that rose from the ashes of the Delhi Sultanate and disintegrated spectacularly through a thousand cuts gradually inflicted by their own regional enemies and the British. 


An added benefit of visiting Delhi to see family is always the getaways to tourist attractions with the captivating tombs, forts, monuments that one can find as remnants of the Mughals. This book has been on my wish-list for a while and its been a wonderful ride through Mughal influence on Indian architecture, politics, philosophy, culture and outlook albeit through the eyes of a Belgian.

The book primarily covers the chaotic, brilliant, pathetic, conquests, defeats of the Mughal rulers in the order of their appearance starting with the  descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan  – Babur.

Babur, on the run from Uzbeks, sought refuge in India and destiny ensured that his descendants never left.

The unbiased commentary of the author on the subject is a refreshing change from the usual divisive literature available that I have come across. In the current political climate of rising nationalism and divisive politics, the Mughal era, in certain eras, seems to be the epitome of tolerant views and harmony amongst people of different religions , at least as described here.

The book takes you on a galloping ride through the highs and glory of Akbar to the lows and bigotry of Aurangzeb, from the magnificence of Shah Jahan’s imagination to the pitiful incompetence of Shah Alam. 

The earlier Hindu dynasties (Mauryas, Guptas etc) including Ashoka predominantly covered Northern India and cannot really be seen as ruling the entire sub continent. This was also largely the trend in the Mughal empire except for Akbar whose rule of over 100M inhabitants (1/5th of the world’s population) covered vast territories across India.

I found myself reflecting on the remarkable fact that the Mughal dynasty was all but a blip in the annals of Indian history which kicked off in the Indus Valley in 3300 BCE. The book does an amazing job of putting these 331 years into context while being cognizant of its impact to future generations.

  • Homo sapiens in India: Around 75,000 years ago.
  • IndusValley (Harappa) Civilization: c. 3300–1300 BCE
  • Vedic civilization: c. 1500–500 BCE
  • Spread of Buddhism and Jainism: 500–200 BCE
  • Maurya Empire: 297–250 BCE
  • Ashoka the Great: 304–232 BCE
  • Hindu revival and classical Hindu civilization: 200 BCE–CE 1100
  • Gupta Empire/golden age of Hinduism: CE 320–550
  • Late classical civilization: CE 650–1100
  • The Hindu-Islamic Period Early sultanates plus trading colonies: 1100–1857
  • Mughal Empire: 
    • Babur: 1526–1530
    • Humayun: (1530–1556)
    • Akbar the Great: 1556–1605
    • Jahangir: 1605–1627
    • Shah Jahan: 1627–1658
    • Aurangzeb: 1658–1707
    • The ‘Lesser Mughals’: 1707–1857
  • Their rivals and successors Maratha Empire: 1713–1818
  • Sikh Empire: 1799–1849
  • Afghan Empire: 1747–1862
  • British East India Company: 1757–1858
  • British Raj: 1858–1947
  • Independence, partition and beyond: August 1947 to the present

The last book I read on this subject years ago was WIlliam Darymple seminal study on the “The Last Mughal” which seemed to reach the heights of authoritative study on this subject. However, Dirk Collier’s easy style of writing and his genuine reflections on the state of affairs through every stage of the empire makes this a much more endearing read to me.

Babur :

The founder of the dynasty though a stranger in a strange land torn between grandiose ambition to rule large swathes of territory and nostalgia for his central asian home. Excerpts from his memoir are filled with longing for Central Asia and Kabul. Considering he was a forced immigrant fleeing Central Asia, he had no special affliction for the climate, food or people. India was more of a consolation prize when faced with the reality of Uzbeks occupying his beloved Samarqand.


Humayun who was born in Kabul, had life full of contradictions as he spent years of incompetence losing his inheritance, wandering about in exile with warriors of questionable quality and then regaining his throne with Persian help. A life spent in harems and opium addiction.  Strangely, also a voracious reader and builder of contraptions, patron of scholars and artists and highly knowledgeable in arcane matters like plants, herbs and metals. It was his misfortune that his regime coincided with the rise of Sher Shah Suri whose competence in government and military matters eclipsed anything that Human could throw at him. His innocuous death tripping on a library staircase epitomizes his life. This is well described in the book with the quote from  British orientalist and historian Stanley Edward Lane-Poole (1854–1931):

‘his end was of a piece with his character. If there was a possibility of falling, Humayun was not the man to miss it. He tumbled through life, and he tumbled out of it.’


The first of the Mughals emperors born in India, Akbar’s eventual empire stretched from the heartland of India down to central India. Akbar lies at the center of Mughal achievement in India (barring the Taj Mahal) due to his impact to the military, cultural, political and economic development that had never been seen before.

A micro-manager with a real interest in his royal duties, the book mentions charming stories about him wandering in disguise in the streets to gauge the efficacy of his rule. Universal tolerance to different forms of worship led to the concept of ‘Din-e-Ilahi’ emphasizing one god without divisive religion that combined the best of Hinduism and Islam. In some ways this was a failure that did not outlast him but its reflective of his forward thinking and rationalist views which were driven by an obsession to find the truth. Interestingly his interstate’s towards organized monetization led to development in design for the royal coin .

His cultural impact was astutely planned by forming alliances with non-Mughals and shrewd military acumen inspiring his forces with his own daring in the battlefield. The book also has interesting anecdotes of his encounters with the Portuguese who landed on the Indian shores who ostensibly set up trade and evangelize. The accolades go on and the book offers many details and insights in this glorious period while also inspecting his motivations for actions that helped cement his place. 


Known for drunken depravity, cruelty and excesses, Akbar’s successor was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The book refers to this reign almost as a placeholder between Akbar’s and Shah Jahan’s reign with no notable achievements apart from the constant struggle to keep the inherited empire intact. The reign here was characterized by kindling religious difference, orthodoxy and wanton destruction of non-islamic religious places. This notably set the stage for the absolute division of the empire that would ultimately, decades later  help the British pick apart the fragmented empire. There are also some contradictions and some historians disagree on this achievements and contribution. This should be an interesting read.  Some great quotes here:

 ‘I never saw any man keep so constant a gravity,’ affirms Sir Thomas Roe, the first English ambassador to the Mughal court.

“the only emotions apparent on his stone-cold face were extreme pride and utter contempt for others. “


References to Shahjahan are always accompanied by the Taj Mahal and his reign gets credit for the  best example of Mughal architecture and a symbol of India’s rich history rightfully. However, he is also reported to be another self-centered, humorless fundamentalist though of a lesser degree than his predecessor. Post the death of Mumtaz Mahal – he seems to have delved deeper into orthodoxy and bigotry. He abolished Akbar’s solar Din-e-Ilahi calendar, replacing it with the conventional lunar (Hijri) calendar. From a civil and military administration point of view, most of the empire seems to have been squandered. Myths around the blinding of the builders of the Taj Mahal are debunked by the author and shredded for their lack of authenticity. 


Characterized by some expansionism through the subcontinent but the hold was precarious at best with revolts all across the empire. Another religious bigot whose life was consumed warring against his brothers ( notable one being Darah Shikoh) . Another walking contradiction, he also expressed genuine interest in other religions while doing nothing to unite his own empire. He is universally reviled by non-islamists while being depicted as a pious servant of god by his apologists. His acts against non-muslims were yet another assault on the unified fabric that his great-grandfather had worked so diligently for. In many parts of India, he is known for his role destroying a lot of religious structures that had centuries of existence before his reign. Some great observations made by the author for this period include the rise of militant Sikhism thanks to his hounding of Sikh religious leaders. The rise of Shivaji the great Maratha is well documented here with the various stores of legend picked apart and debated. Another descriptive anecdote that does not disguise the author’s contempt for this period:

“In 1666, it was proudly announced that the emperor’s invincible armies had conquered ‘Tibet’; in actual fact, it merely meant that a petty local chief in the stony wastelands of Ladakh had been bullied into building a mosque and minting coin with Aurangzeb’s name – hardly worthy of a ‘universe-conquering’ monarch.”

Post- Aurangzeb :

This period was a succession of Mughal kings characterized by mismanagement,corruption and squandering of their empire.   Notable incidents include the ruler Farrukhsiyar’s imperial firman of 1717, granting duty-free trading and territorial rights to the British East India Company  which opened the gates for what was to follow. Barely , thirty years later the Persians under Nadir Shah would sack Delhi plundering and murdering its citizens including carting away the kohinoor diamond to Persia. This was essentially the death knell to the empire and further worsened the anarchy.

Overall, this was a great impartial summary of the mughal chronology and the impact it had on future generations. The author’s credentials re-enforce an objective view to the entire period without being unnecessarily romanticized by the majesty of certain phases and cultural folklore. Interestingly, the Mughal empire was at its zenith when it had its most tolerant and just empire in power which is a lesson to be learnt even in modern times of regionalism and divisive politics that break apart societies.