Which force was more instrumental in the destruction of the Mughal Empire, Nadir Shah or the Marathas?

By Sunil Kumar

Consider the Mughal Empire as a fine old building; decaying and about to collapse in 1857. Founded by Babur; expanded by Akbar; Aurangzeb’s reign sees a consolidation and puritanical intolerance.

Two formidable enemies are more forged by Aurangzeb’s religious policies; the Sikhs and the Marathas. Most earlier rulers are more fond of the artistic life; combined with wine, architecture and women.

Aurangzeb’s brutal slaying of Dara Shikoh; and his suppression of most revolts certainly kept most of the population subjugated; but built great resentment among the people.

With his long reign ending in 1707; the imperial capital Delhi and the Mughal empire enters into an era of chaos with colorful characters like Muhammad Shah “Rangeela” who is emperor from 1719 to 1748.

A patron of the arts unlike the more “warlike” Aurangzeb; Shah is guided by largely incompetent viziers. He encourages paintings, calligraphy, music and “qawwalis” but neglects foreign policy and the deteriorating internal situation.

The Marathas; who have now started to conquer more land are yet to reach the zenith of their power; which they will obtain under Baji Rao I(now famous in India due to the movie).

Compared to the refined Mughal empire; which is a custodian of art and culture(ironically a large amount of it Persian); a weak base and strategic opening is sensed by a vile but aggressive Nadir Shah who has achieved formidable victories in his native Iran.

His military genius is renowned; as he deposes the Safavids who have been ruling the country for 200 years. A fan of Genghis and Taimur; he has heard about the legendary wealth of the Mughals; the Peacock Throne; the Kohinoor and mounds of gold and jewellery in their treasury.

Although India has been invaded many times previously by barbarian hordes; Nadir Shah reportedly led one of the most savage “sackings” of Delhi ever.

As the wealthiest state in Asia(and arguably the World); the Mughal Emperor’s capital is the most sophisticated city from Constantinople(Istanbul) to Imperial Edo(Tokyo).

With two million inhabitants(more than the combined population of London and Paris of the time); Delhi is a rich prize for the mercenary Shah. Compared to Nadir Shah or even Aurangzeb; Rangeela is an aesthete; fond of wearing ladies peshwaz(long outer garment) and shoes with pearls.

The palace and the nobles are fond of courtesans, dances and even naked parties. ( a certain Ad Begum). His disinterest in governance and military power means two power centres in Avadh and Hyderabad(the Nawabs Sa’adat Khan and Nizam ul-Mulk). The Sikhs with their hit-and-run tactics are gaining in strength as an irritant to the Mughals.

Nadir Shah; on the other hand is the son of a humble shepherd and a tough cookie; humourless and unrefined compared to “Rangeela”. After he takes Kandahar; the Mughal armies consolidate into a huge unit but are untrained and indisciplined compared to the shrewd Nadir Shah’s forces.

After defeating Sa’adat Khan who resented the Emperor and Nizam ul-mulk; he gets an insider’s perspective on the wealth of the Mughals.

After a brutal slaughter of the capital’s citizens; his soldiers loot all the grain, diamonds, jewellery; dishes of gold. 10,000 women are taken as slaves; and Nadir Shah begins the return journey to Persia with the Peacock Throne; the Kohinoor and a whole lot of wealth. Nadir’s court historian Mirza Mahdi Astarabadi is reported to have said that the quantities beggared all description.

Now; this long story is to illustrate that Nadir Shah dealt a body blow to Mughal finances and their military pride; something so “severe” that it undermined future efforts for all time.

In the Deccan; the Maratha Empire(post 1739 and Nadir Shah’s invasion) was constantly increasing in size but infighting was prevalent with Nizam ul-Mulk still operating as a powerful independent actor and even getting a few Maratha generals to pledge alliance to the Mughals.

Bajirao Ballal; the famous military genius and effective counterweight to the Nizam was succeeded by Balaji Baji Rao; who underestimated the Durrani invasions of India; resulting in the greatest loss of face for the Maratha empire(1761 loss at Panipat). The Marathas become more of a confederacy with clans such as the Holkars, Scindias and the Bhonsles becoming powerful.

The Marathas although committed to their culture and ideals; fancied the impressive cultural legacy of the Mughals to the extent that Mahadji Shinde even restored the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II to the throne in Delhi(1770) after defeating Rohilla Afghans. By this time; the Mughal Empire was in terminal decline from which it was to never recover. Increasing British presence in India; the defeat of the Marathas in 1818; and the Sikhs in 1849 made them the undisputed masters of the land.

1857 was only the last assault on a leaky artifice; and old ornate building that was about to collapse anyways.

As Bahadur Shah Zafar; a poet; old and frail emperor was declared as the unofficial “leader” by the sepoys spearheading the rebellion; the British got the opportunity they were looking for a long time; and drove the final nails in the Mughal empire’s coffin.

Delhi, Lucknow etc are again drenched in blood as the East India Company’s reprisals were severe all across North and Central India(every kingdom that had rebelled). Hindus and Muslims were sewn up in cow and pig carcasses respectively; and many soldiers were shot by cannons after they were tied up in front.

So; finally; Nader Shah and the Marathas are only partially responsible for a rot which had already set in the Mughal Empire culminating in the killing of Zafar’s sons; his exile to Mandalay in Burma; and the final collapse of the Mughal empire.

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