Was Emperor Aurangzeb Really Such A Villain?

Prince Aurangzeb, 1653-1655, gouache with gold on paper. Image via Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad Aurangzeb Alamgir (1618-1707 CE) was the 6th Emperor of the great Mughal Empire, which stretched from the Indus basin in the west to Kashmir in the north; and from Assam in the east to Deccan in the south. He ruled for forty-nine years over 150 million people and approx. 4 million square kilometres of land. Aurangzeb expanded the Empire to its greatest extent, and was responsible for bringing most of the Indian subcontinent under a single rule. He espoused the values of being a just king, a good Muslim and a sustainer of Mughal culture. He made great contribution to implementing legal codes and was customarily recognised for his justice. He was also the richest man of his day but chose to be buried in a simple unmarked grave as compared the imposing tombs of his predecessors.

Aurangzeb, as a man and a ruler, has always been difficult to study because he was a complex character whose life was full of conflicting aspirations and inspirations. He was bright, just, ruthless, moral, ambitious, and modest at the same time. Honest historians, therefore, only agree on the basic data that he was born in 1618; had his first coronation in 1658; moved his court to Deccan in 1681; and died in 1707 at the age of 89. His current bad reputation seems to have been initiated by the colonial writers, flagged by Jawaharlal Nehru, stirred by some Sikh groups, and propagated by the Bhartia Janata Party (BJP) in Hindustan. Aurangzeb does not fare better in Pakistan; the conservatives hail him for being an orthodox Muslim, the liberals hate him for his ruthlessness, and the general public views him with suspicion.

Emperor Aurangzeb had ruled in the time of kingdoms and empires; therefore, his ideas of governance can only be validated by keeping in mind the time and place he lived in. Similarly, his decisions and actions as a ruler would also fail to meet the standards set by the modern-day democratic norms, human rights and egalitarian principles. Like his predecessors, he was not a saint. We do not need to like him but he needs to be judged as we would judge his contemporaries – Suleiman II (Ottoman Empire), King Charles II (England), and King Louise XIV (France). Having cleared this out of the way, let us now examine the evidence for his legendary cruelty towards kith & kin, bigotry, massacre of millions of Hindus & Sikhs, and widespread destruction of temples.

He was third in line among four brothers (Dara Shukoh, Shah Shuja, Aurangzeb, Murad) born to Shah Jahan’s favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal (Taj Mahal fame). All of them were locked in an unannounced struggle for succession from a young age because among the Mughals all male offsprings of a king had equal claims to power. Shah Jahan openly favoured Dara Shukoh as was evident from the unmatched spectacle at his first wedding. While Aurangzeb spent 22 years of life fighting enemies of the state and developing administrative skills, Dara enjoyed a life of comfort at the court. An intellectual and liberal Dara versus an austere and dogmatic Aurangzeb as king has always been a matter of much speculation among the historians and the public. The reality is that Dara was poorly equipped for a showdown with his three brothers who had better political and martial skills. In the power struggle (takhat ya takhta – throne or death) that ensued following Shah Jahan’s illness in 1657, Aurangzeb came on top.

By the time Aurangzeb held his 2nd coronation in 1659, he had already executed two of his brothers, driven the 3rdbrother Shah Shuja out of the country, and imprisoned his father. We may be horrified by this blood-spattered outcome but this was not without precedence. Shah Jahan had murdered his two brothers; and his father, Emperor Jahangir, had a hand in his own brother Danyal’s death. While Aurangzeb’s actions cannot be condoned, none of his brothers had backed down from claim to the throne either. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that they would have acted the same way. When Aurangzeb asked Dara what he would do if the roles were reversed; he said that he would have quartered Aurangzeb’s body and got it displayed on Delhi’s four main gates. Considering that, Aurangzeb may have acted with “restraint” by executing his brothers with, no matter how unconvincing, charges of apostasy (Dara Shukoh) and murder (Murad)); and by allowing Dara to be buried at Humayun’s tomb.

The Mughals never showed mercy to those who militarily opposed the state, irrespective of their religious status. Aurangzeb also went after those Hindus, Sikhs, Mahdavis (millennial Muslim cult), and Ismaili Bohras who had hostile political ambitions. Tegh Bahadur, the 9th Sikh guru, was executed during Aurangzeb’s reign for causing unrest in Punjab. Legends aside, there are conflicting historical reports about the time, place and reasons behind his execution. It might not have helped that Bahadur’s nephew and the 7th Sikh guru, Har Rai, had supported Dara Shukoh during the war of succession. Similarly, despite mutual personal dislike, Shivaji’s feud with Aurangzeb had less to do with him than with other established Rajput nobles in the court. They viewed him as an uncivilized nonentity who was unfamiliar with the Persian court culture and etiquette. Shivaji and Aurangzeb met only once but described each other as “Kumbhakarna” and “mountain rat” respectively. After tormenting Aurangzeb for some years, Shivaji was either poisoned by his ambitious second wife or died a natural death in 1680.

As a Mughal tradition, Aurangzeb was a guardian of temples and they were entitled to state protection. However, if a temple or its associates acted against the state’s interests, orders to punish and/or destroy them were issued. This was no different than anywhere else in the world but colonial-era writers exaggerated fictional accounts to help the British divide and rule the local Hindu-Muslim community. One would find multiple motivated “sources” claiming atrocities by Aurangzeb against the Hindus but this cannot be further from the truth. Hindus defined themselves as Rajputs, Jats, Mahratta, etc. in those days than a unitary creed perceived currently. Aurangzeb had thousands of Hindu temples under his protection but destroyed no more than a dozen due to sedition. As a moral man, Aurangzeb believed that kings were shadows of God on earth and condemned any king, “… who is guilty of razing God’s prosperous creations and destroying divine foundations…”. At the start of his reign, he had issued an order at Benares that became a common refrain – that no state official would interfere in the affairs of the temples.

Throughout his reign, Aurangzeb ensured well-being of Hindu religious institutions by protecting their independence, granted lands to Hindu communities, and provided stipends to Hindu spiritual leaders. During his rule, Hindu participation at elite level rose by 50%, and by 10% in the Mughal nobility. There is a very long list of examples including those of Umananand Temple (land grant), Bhagwant Gosain (personal freedom), Ramjivan Gosain (land grant), Balaji Temple (land + tax-freedom), Jangam – Shaivite group (extended land grant & rent freedom) and Rang Bhatt (rent-free land), which were spread across India to support his commitment. He also treated the Jain communities favourably by granting lands and protection. In 1672, Aurangzeb issued an order to recall Hindu lands to please the ulema but it was a political exploit because it was not enforced except in some areas of Punjab. He was, however, guilty of issuing a farman (order) not to build or tear down any temples in Benares because there too many already. Richard Eaton, an authority on the subject, confirmed that approx. twelve temples were destroyed during Aurangzeb’s forty-nine-years reign; only a few were tied to his direct orders.

Aurangzeb was perhaps the most brilliant military strategist in the Mughal dynasty. He was also fond of political power and spent most of his life fighting to expand and/or preserve it. Like other medieval kings, Aurangzeb had his own understanding of ethical and moral values and every so often acted beside those. He was as interested in delivering justice as was Emperor Jahangir; but Aurangzeb was less dramatic and more interested in cracking down on corrupt officials, admin errors behind rotten mangoes, and protecting religious places. As he grew old, he became more concerned with personal aspects of his belief system – meaning and observance of virtue, devotion, charity, and simple living. He is wrongly accused of supporting conversions to Islam; he actually condemned people for bragging about it and imprisoned some of them for their hypocrisy. He banned Ahmed Sirhindi’s works for creating controversy between Muslim communities. He also cracked down on violent and obscene aspects of Muharram, Holi and Diwali celebrations in the mid-1660s.

As a moral leader, Aurangzeb tried to limit the usage of “vices” including alcohol, opium, gambling, prostitution and hate speech (and writing) for public welfare. He never drank or used opium himself but their use was rife among the elite. Ulema (Muslim clergy) were always a kingpin in the balance of Mughal power. To appease them, he imposedjizziah tax on non-Muslims in lieu of military service (state officials & Brahmins were exempt) which had been abolished 100 years ago. This decision neither pleased the public nor completely won the hearts of the ulama (who kept bugging him throughout his reign). Aurangzeb considered the royal treasury to be held in trust for the citizens of his empire. He wrote, recited, and memorised the Quran in his spare time. Due to his preoccupation with justice, Aurangzeb sponsored Fatawa-i-Alamgiri, a synthesis of Hanafi legal judgements, completed over eight years through hard intellectual labour. He did sack a few Sanskrit pundits but they found employment with other nobles and continued to compose poems dedicated to him. He, however, continued to sponsor the Persian Ramayana; a tradition started by Akbar.

Aurangzeb followed most of the cultural traditions established by his Mughal ancestors. He fell in love with Hirabai Zainabadi, a singer and dancer, in 1653 but he was heartbroken when she died a year later. He also erected a monumental tomb in Aurangabad when his first wife, Dilras Banu, died. He continued to be weighed in gold and silver on his birthdays that was distributed to the poor. For years, he summered in Kashmir, and enjoyed music immensely. Authors wrote more essays on music during his reign than in the previous 500 years of Indian history. Persian poetry thrived during his rule and his own daughter, Zebunnisa, was a notable poet. Kalim, his poet laureate, composed verses to commemorate Aurangzeb’s bravery. He built the most beautiful Badshahi Mosque (Lahore) in 1673 to celebrate his victory against Shivaji. An important example of Mughal architecture, it is similar but much larger than the Jamia Masjid in Delhi. It was built over a period of two years with an exterior decorated with carved red sandstone with marble inlay.

Aurangzeb was a remarkable man and an emperor in Indian history. It is unfair to define him simply through his “Muslimness” by holding him up against Akbar and Dara Shukoh – a mistake which colonial-era writers and Nehru made by rebuking him as too Muslim to be a successful Indian king. Politicians in Hindustan and Pakistan also exploit him as they fancy but he was more complex than just be reduced to “Pious” or “Bigot” in the public opinion. Aurangzeb needs to be understood in the true historical context; and not by way of prejudice or Bollywood, as a man and an emperor of his times. Shaped by his own ideas of piety and the Mughal culture, he dispensed justice, upheld Mughal traditions and expanded his kingdom like no one before or after him. And he fought everyone who came in his way. Some say we might have viewed him differently if his reign was shorter; others are more circumspect, “To attempt a summary of the major events of a fifty-year reign of an emperor the equal of Jamshed is to measure the ocean’s water with a pitcher”.


Dr Humayun Iqbal July 6, 2020 - 10:21 am

An other excellent not to be missed “a written sculpture” by Dr Sarfraz, clarifying history with facts and proofs. I would not hesitate to say that it’s perhaps the best, eloquent and honest article (offcourse with constraints of limited words for it to be published) on Aurangzeb Alamgir, about whom many of us didn’t know much facts and just relied upon heresay. Thanks for sharing your hard home work Dr Sarfraz.

Dr syed Intezar hussain July 6, 2020 - 11:45 am

Excellent read
There is lot of bias towards Aurangzeb and it’s hard to summarise in such a nice manner
Clearly he was another ruler who destroyed everything that came his way as any powerful king will do. But there is something about him which attracts more attention from supporters and opponents alike

Tahira July 7, 2020 - 9:20 am

What a balanced and wonderfully written piece.
ND: you have a star writer here with so much knowledge. You should ask him to write more; on every topic under the sun

NISHITH Kumar Singh July 7, 2020 - 11:39 am

Excellent article, read it with great interest and also took liberty to share on Facebook.We can judge a person correctly and objectively ,only if we do it in the context of time and place . Leaving aside a lot of bias and prejudice heaped against him ,I think he was the most able and ,of course ,a strict administrator of his time .

Aamer Sarfraz July 13, 2020 - 7:59 pm

Thank you guys for your generous comments. The credit goes to researches like Eaton and Truschke for setting the record straight. I am just guilty of synthesising latter’s work into this review article.

Aamer July 13, 2020 - 8:04 pm

Thank you guys for your generous comments. The credit goes to researches like Eaton and Truschke for setting the record straight. I am just guilty of synthesising latter’s work into this review article.

Dr Farah Khan July 17, 2020 - 3:05 pm

An excellent read, enjoyed reading it. I think Aurangzeb was an awesome ruler. Nice to read about different shades of his personality.

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