10 Greatest Mughal Emperors & Rulers

The Mughals, who according to Dirk Collier, liked to call themselves the Exalted Descendants of the Gurkaniya dynasty, happen to mark the most glorious period in the History of the Indian subcontinent. Not only did the world come to see this vast, rich land as an integrated, invulnerable national entity, but also saw it rise to a perigee of economic abundance, political stability and social harmony. Arts flourished like never before as the symbolism used in different religious contexts began to merge under benevolent, tolerant monarchs, and India earned it’s coveted title of the sone ki chidiya  through the burgeoning trade within and across national borders. So let’s take a few moments today and get a glimpse into this semi-barbaric, yet progressive line of rulers and emperors who left a resplendent seal on the story of our country.

 1. Abu Zafar Sirajuddin MuhammadBahadur Shah Zafar


The last emperor of the celebrated Mughal Dynasty, evokes both awe and a deep pang of pain. Yes, the Mughals were foreign invaders too, but Hindustan grew to love them as they loved her with all their hearts that bled for her on pages in poetry and on battlefields in fervent wars. Bahadur Shah Zafar ascended the throne when the might of the Mughals had already been subdued before the East India Company, and apparently showed little ambition for power. Yet he’s seen as a freedom fighter for heading as Commander-in-Chief , the army of mutiny soldiers who tried to crowbar British domination to re-enter the past era of solidarity.

We all know how it ended though. Till the 1857 revolt he was paid meager respect and a small pension; after, he was exiled to Burma and still received the abominable pension. The stories from the end of his nominal reign are simply tragic. In one, he was presented the decapitated heads of his sons by a haughty and sadistic Major Hudson on Nowroz, and the poor father could do nothing but remain calm- a real shot in the proud faces of his fiery Timurid ancestors. He was known to be a prolific and accomplished urdu poet. A significant portion of his work was lost during 1857, but whatever survived unscathed was later combined into the Khulliyat-i-Zafar. In his incarceration, he was disallowed paper and ink, and so he composed his own epitaph on the walls which closes with the lines:

How unfortunate is Zafar! For his burial
Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved.

9.Abu Al-Fatah Nasir-ud-din  Roshan Akhtar Muhammad Shah


Muhammad Shah didn’t make name for posterity, and even though his rule also stood witness to the then ongoing decline since generations, he can be called great for some of his developments in the area of administration and cultural arts. He ordered the use of Urdu as the official language in court, and his most passionate patronage paved the way for reincarnation of the musical arts. Many novel instruments such as the sitar, surbahar and sursinger were rendered popular, and Muhammad Shah’s court itself , where Qawali now flowed gaily again, was embellished by noted musicians like Sadarang and Adarang, who were uncle and nephew. He ardently buttressed the growth of music and dance as cultural arts, allegedly at the cost of administrative decay.

8.Sahib-i-Quran Muazzam Shah Alamgir Sani Abu Nasir Sayid Qutbuddin Abu’l Muzaffar Muhammad Muazzam Shah Alam Bahadur Shah I Padshah Ghazi (Khuld Manzi



Bahadur Shah I, the eighth emperor in the Mughal dynasty, brought a brief spell of relative peace and stability in Hindustan after his father, Alamgir’s onerous rule ended. In his short reign that went on for about five years (he ascended the throne when he was 60), he established and maintained friendly relations with the Sikhs, Rajputs and the Marathas. He wasn’t quite the ideal conqueror, but was known for his intelligent  administration and restorative actions in order to revive peace in the aftermath of his father’s divisive reign across the incredibly vast Indian subcontinent that Alamgir had consolidated. He was far more liberal than Aurangzeb as well, considering himself to be a sufi at heartHe happens to be the very last of effective emperors ruling over our country.

7. Nasir- ud-din Mohommad Humayun.


He was also affectionately called, Insan-i-kamil (the Perfect Man) among most people within his harem and ichkis, for his placid temperament and gentle speech. The Second Mughal emperor lost his empire quite shortly after his arrival to power, mainly due to his generosity and leniency towards his brothers who eventually proved traitors and tried to usurp his throne. But by the end of his reign, the empire lay, once again, secure as it spanned approximately one million square kilometers. His death is encapsulated in a famous saying : He tumbled in life and he tumbled out of it too. This refers to the episode of his demise, wherein he fell from the stairs of his vast library when his foot got caught in his robe as he bent in reverence to the Adhan called out by the muezzin –some even say he was pushed- and hit a jagged stone edge. For a week after his death, the closest members of his kin and trusted inner circle concealed this news from all of the world, using a doppelganger to appear in his stead in the jharoka rituals, so as to safeguard the Mughal foothold over India.

6. Abul Muzaffar Muhi-ud-din bin Aurangzeb 


The last powerful Mughal emperor, also known as Alamgir, ascended the throne after fulfilling a legacy of war for succession that had been begun by his grandfather and tread upon by his father as well. He was an orthodox Muslim, an intolerant, oppressive and bigoted emperor; who also went on to ban consumption of alcohol, opium, servitude, eunuchs, narcotics and nautch in the empire. Despite being one of the wealthiest Mughal emperors, he led an austere life based on frugality. He contributed little to architecture, but much to calligraphic translations of religious texts of Islam.  He revived the Jizya and the poll tax, and prohibited religious discourse in the open. However, he was indeed an accomplished administrator, and under his leadership, the Mughal empire stretched along to the farthest boundaries it had ever known. His darkest deed was to affect the massacre of the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Teg Bahadur ji. Inspite of his religious fanaticism, one cannot deny his greatness as the last, strong leader in the Mughal Dynasty.

5. Nur-ud-din Muhammad Salim Jahangir


Jahangir, the oldest son of Akbar-e-azam, is considered to be one of the greatest Mughal rulers the world ever saw. The story of his coronation, however, is not at all sweet to taste. Known to have been plagued by vices as in a profound weakness for alcohol, opium and dalliances with women, he was given a bit too often, to impulsive and reckless behavior. And no, we’re not talking about his liaison with the mysterious Anarkali, a concubine from his father’s harem (which does deserve a mention too) , instead we speak of his rather audacious rebellion against Akbar- driven by impatience to feel the crown upon his head.  Having  embittered his Shahenshah, had it not been for the unyielding support he enjoyed from the chief ladies in Akbar’s zenana , his future would have been bleak. Anyhow, he finally ascended the throne of Hindustan in 1605. His reign was an extension of his father’s secular rule blended with an inclusive, astute administration. He was a great patron of the arts, and so under his wing, art flourished like never before. The entire period was marked by political stability, economic advancement and social integration. He was known far and wide for his absolute justice, and was popularly known as Adil Padshah . He successfully resolved animosities and reconciled with Rajputana groups that had continued to resist Mughal domination during Akbar’s reign. In fact, in the very beginning of his rule, he brought to dust a rebellion of over 2000 men, spearheaded by his eldest son Khusrau Mirza, whom he later castigated by blinding him for life. While he was ruthless with rebels and other deviants, for the rest of his subjects, he maintained a paternal, protective aura of an emperor who could be reached and seen, through services and rituals such as Nyaya ke zanjeer (60 bells hung to a chain that a common man seeking justice-not-delivered could set off so that the clamor could be heard in every niche of the Fort) and the Jharoka appearances, where he appeared before his people in a balcony thrice everyday.

A’la Azad Abul Muzaffar Shahab-ud-din Muhammad Khurram Shah Jahan


Shah Jahan ascended the throne after years spent in exile and having committed some very grave fratricidal murders for the sake of the throne. But that’s not how it all began. He opened his eyes to a world where an illustrious grandfather doted on him and cocooned him with the kind of affection and privilege that was never even spared for his father and uncles. In fact, Akbar even plucked an infant Khurram from his mother’s defeated arms and put him into the noble ones of his Padshah Beghum and first, but  infecund wife, Ruqaiya Sultan, to keep him close in his own harem. Even though the law of inheritance didn’t fall unambiguously along primogeniture, it was often assumed that the first prince was best suited to be the successor of the ruling Emperor. The youngest prince, consequently, was far from being even considered the Heir Apparent, yet he grew to harbor ambition- some suspect, at the provocation of his much loved primary consort, Arjumand Banu Beghum, or Mumtaz Mahal as she is known to the world. After laying his brothers to rest in a series of conspired murders, instigating open rebellion and suffering exile and denouncement, he finally ascended to power after Jahangir’s death in 1627. Just as troubles seemed to have receded, four years after his succession , his beloved wife died while giving birth to their fourteenth child. This episode became a sharp turning point in his life. He’s known to have retreated into his private apartments for days, cut off from any contact with any person except his eldest daughter Jahanara Beghum; a period after which when he finally emerged for his jharoka appearance, he seemed to have aged by a decade. For two years, he continued to wear only white in mourning. As devastating as this was, the event also inspired his most marvelous architectural gift to India- the Luminous Tomb, Taj Mahal. But this wasn’t all. Shah Jahan was the most opulent of all Mughal Rulers, and invested a vast amount of money from his treasury in erecting the greatest edifices and imperial assets known to history. The magnificent Takht-e-taus or the Peacock throne, was estimated to cost about six and a half million pounds sterling. Other contributions by him include the Red Fort, sections of the Agra and Lahore forts, Jama Masjid, Shalimar gardens, Shahjahan Mosque, Moti Masjid, and financing of his father’s mosque – the construction of which was seen through by Nur Jahan.

3.Zahir-ud-din Muhammad  Babur


Babur’s greatness lies in his indomitable pursuit of laying the foundations of the Mughal Dynasty in India. Essentially the King of Kabul, and a descendant of Timur, he began his vehement campaign of conquest of this country in 1519. But till 1524, his sole objective was only to widen his empire and take root till the region of Punjab, so as to bring to substance his predecessor Timur’s legacy. After two years of being invited for invasion and later deceived by Daulat Khan Lodi and Ala-ud-din Lodi, he finally set his heart on Delhi and Agra, and consequently Hindustan. Only after the crushing defeat he laid on Ibrahim Lodi in the epic First Battle of Panipat in 1526, did he finally herald a new era for India and his bloodline- each of which were forever transformed with the embrace of the other.

2.Nur Jahan


So she never inherited the throne, in fact, she was never even an official ruler of the Mughal Empire either. Yet, she deserves to be mentioned among the greatest historical personalities that shaped the Mughal times as they were. Born as Mehr-un-nissa to a noble expatriate from Afghanistan, Mirza Ghias Begh, she went on to become the most powerful Mughal Empress the world has ever seen- perhaps the only woman in her times to accomplish such a feat. Her journey is nothing less than awe-inspiring. In her arresting novels, Indu Sundaresan crayons a delightfully vibrant portrait of this remarkable, enigmatic woman through a semi-fictional retelling of her entire life story. Picking up from where her ascent to power began, Mehrunnissa, after losing her much older, slightly brute husband to massacre, took refuge within the imperial harem under the service of Ruqaiya Sultan Beghum. Many a tales are often told about how Jahangir and Mehrunnissa fell head over heels in love with each other at first sight in the Meena Bazaar, and some even say they had been in love since the time Mehrunnissa was just seventeen, but betrothed as future wife to the crude Sher Afghan. But the questioning of credibility of these intermediary stories becomes dwarfed in the face of a fact- Mehrunnissa became, at the then considered silvering age of 30, Emperor Jahangir’s last legal and twentieth wife, also the first he’d married for love and not for political gain, given her less-than-royal roots. Post this critical event, Jahangir’s health began to deteriorate- an effect of his grave alcohol and opium abuse- and so, being the most trusted member of his ichkis, Mehrunnisa, then titled Nur Jahan (Light of The World) became the power behind the veil. Plenty of historians and chroniclers who visited his court, attest to the claim, that as Jahangir descended to being just a nominal head, it was her royal seal of Padshah Beghum that contoured the lands and moved the men in his Empire. She even went on to be the first and only mughal empress to have coins issued in her name, and also rescued her husband during an unwittingly affected military coup, executed by his friend and general, Mahabat Khan. Using her incisive intelligence and commendable physical strength, she is known to have attacked the enemy camps, mounted on an elephant, by the very night Jahangir was captured. In times when women were kept within the confines of homes and harams, dazzled and content with trinkets and luxury, Nur Jahan ventured out into the Men’s world and threw aside all conventions to prove her worth as a sharp, able ruler, even if that was not in name. She remained a pioneer as such in many an aspect of her life,from setting new trends of fashion, to building a first-of-its-kind tomb in fond memory of her father (an honor that was usually granted to the sons in a family, and Nur Jahan had  an elder as well as younger brother). In fact, few know that a cherished feature in the glorious Taj Mahal, the artistry of pietra dura  (precious gemstones engraved in marble into floral and other patterns) was inspired from that incorporated in Ghias Beghs’s pulchritudinous tomb where it seems to have made it’s maiden appearance in noted architecture.

1.A’bul-Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar


Popularly known as Akbar The Great, he remains the undisputed trailblazer for conquering the most far-reaching domains of India and neighboring countries,  and devising effective administration by a foreign invading community on a land of incredibly diverse people, even though he wasn’t the first among his kin to set foot on Indian soil. Crowned Emperor of Hindustan at the very tender age of thirteen by his regent, Bairam Khan, on a make-shift throne in Kalanaur , he began his timeless journey to transform from an indefatigable and expeditious conqueror, to a spiritual seeker who ruled with an open mind and heart, but an iron fist. His fervent consolidation of the empire and prompt trouncing of the then frequent upsurges of rebellion, came to congeal his position as the supreme monarch- and the title of Shahenshah given to him on the eve of his coronation became prophetic. Even though his progressive outlook towards religion did cause threat to his kingship, majorly because of the sourness that crept into the Ulemas, Qazis and other upholders of Islam, he went on to rule by his own book for about half a century. This period saw the end of the humiliating and widely detested Jizya and poll taxes, an astounding degree of inclusion of Hindu administrators into the nobility and a pervasive blending of the two most contrasting cultures in the world- the Hindus and the Muslims. It was under Akbar’s magnanimity, that the Portuguese and the English began their commercial and religious probings towards the heart and soul of India. Akbar’s soul-seeking is, in fact, legendary. He even went on to found a novel religion, called Din-i-ilahi which brought together all the strengths of the numerous religious schools and communities that the civilized world knew of. However, this new cult didn’t amass many a followers, since Akbar never even tried to force anyone- right in accordance with his policies of tolerance- to change their dharma.

Despite his apparent dyslexia, Akbar was a highly learned man. He was known to have someone read to him, any random selection from his vast imperial library, every night before bed. In fact, Akbar’s contribution to literature in India is commendable, solely on the basis of thousand and thousands of translations of miscellaneous texts that he saw through during his reign. He was a firm patron of the arts as well, and bequeathed many an architectural marvels to our lands. These include the glorious city of Fatehpur Sikri, built , shortly after the birth of prince Salim, in the honor of Sheikh Salim Chisti who promised him the arrival of three sons after a long spell of failure to bring forth an heir to the Mughal throne. This also remained Akbar’s capital for a while, before it became too perilous to rule his vast empire from a non-central position. In historical accounts, as well as in popular culture, Akbar is painted as a charismatic, powerful presence; a person who was as gentle as he was dauntless, as awesome as he was debilitating; and who’s brilliance surpassed that of many a scholars, saints and soldiers.


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