By the beginning of the 18th century, symptoms of a crisis appeared in the
Mughal system. The Marathas had shaken the empire to its foundations by
inflicting defeats on Mughal armies in the Deccan and the west. In northern
India the Jat landlords and peasants had repeatedly challenged the imperial
authority, while in the Punjab region in the northwest, rebellious groups
embracing Sikhism emerged as a significant hostile force. Aurangzeb’s policies
and the increasing association of his government with a narrow Islamic orthodoxy
dealt a serious blow to the empire, as he reversed the time-honored tradition of
Mughal rulership accepting indigenous culture.
Shah Jahan Builds the Red Fort in Delhi
Despite Aurangzeb’s actions, the setback to the empire was only temporary, as his successors abandoned his policies. There were, however, several other factors that contributed to the final collapse of the empire. The terms on which the zamindars’ relations with the Mughal state were worked out depended on the strength or weakness of the people and the areas under zamindar control. In time, as the regions experienced economic growth, rulers in these regions felt strong enough to stand on their own. They not only refused to cooperate with the Mughals, which in turn affected Mughal military strength and ability to collect taxes, but were often up in arms.
Akbar Begins Building Fatehpur Sikri
The nobles, on the other hand, had their own problems. They depended on the emperor for position and power and had no hereditary estates to bequeath to their successors. The principal means of tax collection, which required local Hindu gentry to collect revenue from peasants while keeping part for themselves and paying the rest to a treasury, was cumbersome for the nobles. Its enforcement was thus resisted by the nobility even in the 17th century. Under the conditions of the 18th century, many nobles sought to carve out power bases of their own in league with the local magnates, throwing the interests of the empire overboard. The empire collapsed within 40 years of Aurangzeb’s death. However, while there was chaos in some regions, a kind of autonomous regional political order emerged broadly within the Mughal institutional framework. The symbols of the empire therefore outlived the demise of its de facto power.