The Reasons Behind the Decline of the Mughal Empire

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The Mughal Empire was the first large empire in India since the Gupta Empire (nearly a millennium years of difference); it was made up of many ethnicities, a variety of geographic localities, and hundreds of nobles and their principalities. At its largest extent, this empire contained over 140 million inhabitants, as well as encompassing 3.5 million square kilometers. However, as all empires do, the Mughal Empire faced many difficulties, and by the turn of the 19th century, had weakened significantly.

The first leader of the Mughal Empire in India was Babur, who reigned from 1527-1530. His original territory was in Afghanistan, but had aspirations to move into the weakened Indian subcontinent. The clincher for this move was when a noble of northern India asked him to invade, and promised support. While at first he suffered a few hardships, he eventually swept across northern India, finally defeating the Sultan of Delhi's larger force outside the city. After his death, a steady stream of successful emperors took over, expanding the empire's territory in all directions. However, with Aurangzeb Alamgir the last of the “great moguls” (although he arguably sowed the seeds for the empire's eventual decline) in 1707, the Mughal Empire suffered poor leadership throughout the rest of its history. However, even if it wasn't for poor leadership, the empire would've fallen, according to Paul Kennedy. The historian argues that empires must eventually face the problem of “imperial overstretch.” By imperial overstretch, Kennedy means that an empire will continue to expand until it reaches the point that the economic, demographic, and military costs of maintaining the empire become overwhelming. Consequently, the first administrative problem confronting the Mughals was a direct result of their empire’s scale, and given the geographic expanse of the Mughal realm, it is not hard to believe that it eventually reached the point of overstretch.The costs of maintaining such an empire were enormous, and for this reason alone, only the Mauryan dynasty had achieved the geographic expanse of the Mughal dominion.

The relationship between the imperial scale and imperial maintenance costs becomes clearer when considered from the theoretical perspective of industrial organization. Imagine that during the early phase of imperial growth, during the reign of Babur (1527-30) and Humayun (1530-56), it cost the Mughals 1 silver rupee in order to expand their dominion by an extra square kilometer. Imagine further that by the time of the Emperor Akbar (1556-1605), the Mughals had become more proficient at military administration, and so the costs of expanding their empire by an extra square kilometer fell below 1 silver rupee. As the Mughals became more efficient at conquest, the per unit costs of maintaining their empire went down, and at this point the Mughals achieved what is called “economies of scale”, or simply “scale economies,” because they had become more expert at organizing the military and at incorporating new subjects into their realm.

At some point however, as the Mughal dominion continued to grow, the empire became more expensive to maintain. There are several reasons why the costs of empire would eventually go up. We may hypothesize that as the number of subject peoples under the Mughals grew, so too did the number and intensity of the local resistance movements that challenged Mughal authority.

Just as their realm reached its greatest extent, during the reign of Aurengzeb, the Mughals had to face the Maratha rebellion in the Deccan (1650-1710), the Sikh rebellion in Punjab (1660-1720), another set of rebellions in Rajasthan (1680-1700), Bengal and Bihar (1650-60), and an increasingly disobedient Nizam in Hyderabad. Not only did the cost of maintaining the Mughal realm become more expensive, but even worse, the Mughals eventually had to give up land that they had previously held, due to the costs of suppressing rebellions and...
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