Who was the Greatest Mughal Emperor?

When we run creative learning modules with Class 7, Mughal history is where they have the most fun! There are so many “big questions” to think about. This year our inquiry question was “Who was the greatest Mughal Emperor”. Now that one might sound easy  enough to answer- most people have already made up their mind (Akbar); but the tough part is providing evidence!

Finding out who the Greatest Mughal Emperor was:

  • Was Babur the greatest? For he truly established an Empire all by himself, starting from scratch?
  • Humayun, we assume to be the weakest. However, he brought so many Persian artists with him after his exile which helped the PR image of his court
  • There are countless accounts of Akbar’s “greatness” – the battles he fought, the creation of Fatehpur Sikri, the expansion of his empire, and most of all, the beginning of a Mughal atelier!
  • Jahangir stabilized the Empire but is still considered a man of little action. Nur Jahan asserted herself in politics and was almost the regent of Empire at the time. Jahangir focused all his attention on patronising the arts – something that the Mughals are known for even today.
  • Shah Jahan’s rule was nothing short of glorious. Not just the Taj Mahal, but the city of Shahjahanabad in Delhi is witness to his grand vision.
  • Aurangzeb is a much misunderstood Emperor. Did you know, he never charged the Empire a rupee for his services? In contrast to his father’s lavish lifestyle, Aurangzeb actually “worked” for money, sewing caps and writing Qurans! He was quite a respected man, not just in India but in Europe too ! Under his rule, the Empire was at it’s most expansive.

At the National Museum Delhi, we analyzed different objects, collecting evidence and building the case for our favourite Emperor.

Here are some of the paintings and objects we observed closely:

Babur inspecting the Gwalior Fort

greatest mughal emperor

What does this painting tell you about Babur? An interesting observation to make is how keenly he tried to understand his environment. This painting wasn’t created in real-time but was commissioned by his grandson Akbar to illustrate Babur’s memoirs. In this segment, Babur describes the Gwalior Fort as :

a pearl among the necklace of forts of the Hind

Students were asked to infer different characteristics of Babur from this one painting [ this was great in terms of getting students to increase their vocabulary]

Digging deeper, the students found out more about Babur’s conquests and achievements, his early struggles and how be build the huge legacy he left to Humayun.

Akbar receiving gifts

greatest mughal emperor

In class we had already discussed the painting Akbar & the Elephant Hawaii. So the students were already familiar about Akbar’s patronage of the arts, and the symbolism behind the painting. At the museum, this painting brought Akbar’s administrative side alive. He definitely achieved what Humayun, his father had not been able to – not only did he regain the lost inheritance, but conquered other parts of the subcontinent as well. His greatest accomplishment is perhaps his secular legacy, bringing people of different faiths together to live in peace.

Jahangir and the Virgin Mary

greatest mughal emperor

Jahangir holding up this portrait confused the kids a bit. Initially they wondered if it meant Jahangir converted to Christianity! It led us to discuss the European influence on Jahangir and the art of his time. Unlike Akbar, he was fascinated by portraits, and had his artists imitate European imagery a lot. Jahangir’s rule brought increased patronage of the visual arts. Some of his most famous commissions were that of the flora and fauna. Students once again, came up with a set of words to describe Jahangir; they noted that it was during this time that India became known worldwide – even Rembrandt (the artist) was getting inspired by Mughal miniatures! 

Coins minted during Akbar and Jahangir’s period

It was under the rule of Akbar, that the Mughal Empire truly became an “Empire”.  Known for his battles and hunting endeavours, an ‘Illahi’ Mohur in the Coins gallery commemorates Akbar’s victory of Asifgarh. It is pendant shaped and has poetry on it’s reverse side. On the front side (obverse), it has a hawk surrounded by floral motifs.

greatest mughal emperor
Illahi Mohur- Akbar’s coin

Jahangir on the other hand, was known for minting zodiac coins. A Lion & Sun, for instance is a prominent one.

greatest mughal emperor
Jahangir’s Zodiac coins
Did you know that Nur Jahan was the only Mughal Empress to have coins minted in her name! If that isn’t “power”, we don’t know what is [remember, this is the 17th century]!

What clues did the coins offer about Akbar and Jahangir as Emperors?

Shahjahan’s portrait

greatest mughal emperor

The Mughal court had not known opulence the way it did during Shah-Jahan’s rule. Often portrayed sitting on his famous “Peacock Throne”, this Mughal King was better known as the architect of the Taj Mahal. But unlike his predecessors, he didn’t stop at building monuments and forts – he envisioned an entire city, planned with markets, a palace, mosques, etc. Shahjahanabad or Old Delhi is the result of this vision; the Taj Mahal continues to attract visitors from all over the world in the 21st century as a World Heritage Site!!

Dara Shikoh’s Wedding [ Shahjahan’s time]

greatest mughal emperor

Did you know a whopping 1.6 million rupees was spent on this wedding? This was extravagant even according to Mughal standards. In today’s time, it would come up to at least 240 million rupees. But it’s not Shahjahan who spent this – it was Jahanara! She was in charge of organising the wedding. This was definitely the kids’ favourite painting because they could relate it to modern day’s big fat Indian weddings. The opulence is visible even in the gold used in the painting!

Aurangzeb’s armour

greatest mughal emperor

Aurangzeb is a much-hated character in Indian history. But then why would a European King spend a fortune in honouring / celebrating Aurangzeb ? In our discussions with our students, we asked if he was due for a re-evaluation. He maintained the empire for 49 years, defending it from militant Sikhs and Marathas. The Mughal empire was also the largest during his time.  However, in terms of patronage of the arts, his rule marked a U-turn. Thus instead of considering a painting, we visited the Arms and Armoury gallery to see the armour that used belonged to him.

With the help of this evidence-based learning activity, kids created CV’s of the Mughal Emperors. They figured out their own favourites, and in some cases redefined what is meant by ‘greatness’. Some of them even created artwork, and coins in “an ode to the Emperor”. In all, we had quite a bit of fun!

So, who would be the Greatest Mughal Emperor in your view? 

Share your reaction!

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