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The Religious Policies of the Mughal Empire (1556–1707)

By Animekh Pandey | Part 2/2

This story is a continuation of the previous story:

We see this pattern continuing when Shah Jahan rebels against his father and even goes one step ahead of him, killing his brother. This act proves to be very dangerous later for him. We know that Shah Jahan was in his initial reign,

The first ten years of Shah Jahan’s reign were decidedly marked by orthodoxy, and events moved on theological lines. Soon after his accession Shah Jahan revived the pilgrim-tax, though he remitted at the instance of the Kavindracarya of Benares whom Shah Jahąn revered. He forbade the completion of temples begun in his father’s time. He caused the destruction of about seventy-two temples in and near Benares, four in Allahabad, three in Gujarat and some in Kashmir. Beautiful temples of the Orchha family were not spared by Shah Jahan.

What about the temple desecrations?

Photo by hiurich granja on Unsplash

This policy of temple desecration is seen rampant earlier in his tenure which is followed by more fervour in his son’s regime. While temple desecration is always linked to the oppression of religion, we find a fresh viewpoint on this by Richard M. Eaton,

It would be wrong to explain this phenomenon by appealing to an essentialized ‘theology of iconoclasm’ felt to be intrinsic to the Islamic religion. For, while it is true that contemporary Persian sources routinely condemned idolatry (but-parasti) on religious grounds, it is also true that attacks on images patronized by enemy kings had been, from about the sixth century AD on, thoroughly integrated into Indian polices of temple desecration that occurred amidst inter-dynastic conflicts. In 642 AD according to local tradition, the Pallava king Narasimhavarman I looted the image of Ganesa from the Chalukyan capital of Vatapi. Fifty years later armies of those same Chalukyas invaded North India and brought back to the Deccan what appeared to be images of Ganga and Yamuna, looted from defeated powers there. In the eighth century, Bengali troops sought revenge on king Lalitaditya by destroying what they thought was the image of Visnu Vaikuntha, the state deity of Lalitaditya’s kingdom in Kashmir.

We infer from here that this practice of demolishing an Emperor’s temple predates the Turkish invasion and that temples had been the natural sites for the contestation of kingly authority well before the coming of Muslim Turks.

First, acts of temple desecration were nearly invariably carried out by military officers or ruling authorities; that is, such acts that we know about were undertaken by the state. Second, the chronology and geography of the data indicate that acts of temple desecration typically occurred on the cutting edge of a moving military.

However, whenever Mughal armies pushed beyond the frontiers of territories, formerly ruled by the Delhi sultans and sought to annex the domains of Hindu rulers, we again found instances of temple desecration. In 1661 the governor of Bengal, Mir Jumla, sacked the temples of the neighbouring raja of Kuch Bihar, who had been harassing the northern frontiers of Mughal territory.

The next year, with a view to annexing Assam to the imperial domain, the governor pushed far up the Brahmaputra valley and desecrated temples of the Ahom rajas. All of these instances of temple desecration occurred in the context of military conflicts when Indo-Muslim states expanded into the domains of non-Muslim rulers.

Temples, merely a religious symbol?

Contemporary chroniclers and inscriptions left by the victors leave no doubt that field commanders, governors, or sultans viewed the desecration of royal temples as a normal means of decoupling a former Hindu king’s legitimate authority from his former kingdom, and more specifically, of decoupling that former king from the image of the state-deity that was publicly understood as protecting the king and his kingdom. This was accomplished in one of several ways.

Most typically, temples considered essential to the constitution of enemy authority were destroyed. Occasionally, temples were converted into mosques, which more visibly conflated the disestablishment of former sovereignty with the establishment. Whatever forms they took, acts of temple desecration were never directed at the people, but at the enemy king and the image that incarnated and displayed his state-deity.

A contemporary description of a 1661 Mughal campaign in Kuch Bihar, which resulted in the annexation of the region, makes it clear that Mughal authorities were guided by two principal concerns, the first was to destroy the image of the state deity of the defeated raja: Bhim Narayan and the second was to prevent Mughal troops from looting or in any way harming the general population of Kuch Bihar.

To this end, we are informed, the chief judge of Mughal Bengal, Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq, was directed to issue prohibitory orders that nobody was to touch the cash and property of the people, and he should go personally and establish order everywhere. Moreover, if temples lying within its domain were understood as state property, and if a government official, who was also a temple’s patron, demonstrated disloyalty to the state, from a juridical standpoint ruling, authorities felt justified in treating that temple as an extension of the officer, and hence liable for punishment.

Temple desecration in the Mughal era

Photo by Peter Borter on Unsplash

We find the same pattern with the Mughals. In 1613 while at Pushkar, near Ajmer, Jahangir ordered the desecration of an image of Varaha that had been housed in a temple belonging to an uncle of Rana Amar of Mewar, the emperor’s arch-enemy. In 1635 his son and successor, Shah Jahan, destroyed the great temple at Orchha, which had been patronized by the father of Raja Jajhar Singh, a high-ranking Mughal officer who was at that time in open rebellion against the emperor.

Aurangzeb’s policies respecting temples within imperial domains generally followed those of his predecessors. Viewing temples within their domains as state property, Aurangzeb and Indo-Muslim rulers in general punished disloyal Hindu officers in their service by desecrating temples with which they were associated.

What about mosques?

Photo by Mohd Danish Hussain on Unsplash

How, one might then ask, did they punish disloyal Muslim officers? Since officers in all Indo-Muslim states belonged to hierarchically ranked service cadres, infractions short of rebellion normally resulted in demotions in rank, while serious crimes like treason were generally punished by execution, regardless of the perpetrator’s religious affiliation.

Simultaneously a question arises as to why Mosques of earlier Muslim rulers were not destroyed so as to send a similar message. Mosques in Mughal India, though religiously potent, were considered detached from both sovereign terrain and dynastic authority, and hence politically inactive. As such, their desecration could have had no relevance to the business of disestablishing a regime that had patronized them.

Not surprisingly, then, when Hindu rulers established their authority over territories of defeated Muslim rulers, they did not, as a rule, desecrate mosques or shrines, as, for example, when Shivaji established a Maratha kingdom on the ashes of Bijapur’s former dominions in Maharashtra, or when Vijayanagara annexed the former territories of the Bahmanis or their successors. In fact, the rajas of Vijayanagara, as is well known, built their own mosques, evidently to accommodate the sizable number of Muslims employed in their armed forces.

By contrast, monumental royal temple complexes of the early medieval period were considered politically active, inasmuch as the state-deities they housed were understood as expressing the shared sovereignty of king and deity over a particular dynastic realm.

Therefore, when Indo-Muslim commanders or rulers looted the consecrated images of defeated opponents and carried them off to their own capitals as war trophies, they were in a sense conforming customary rules of Indian politics. Similarly, when they destroyed a royal temple or converted it into a mosque, ruling authorities were building on a political logic that, they knew, placed supreme political significance on such temples. That same significance, in turn, rendered temples just as deserving of peace-time protection as it rendered them vulnerable in times of conflict.


Thus what we can conclude is that Mughal religious policy in itself was based so as to protect the position of the Emperor. The Mughals manifested the art of using religion to consolidate their position. The religious policy in Mughal India considered from different angles offers a very interesting study.

Unalloyed Arabian principles could not be applied in India; precedents had been created by the Turko-Afghans; the Chagtais had their own traditions; Hindus had their own heritage; Iranian culture had its own contribution to make, marriage and blood connection tended to bridge the gulf between the conquerors and the conquered. In the opinion of HL Chodhary,

Had not a European power intervened, the Mughals might have left a legacy no less brilliant than that of their Romans and the Macedonians in the ancient world.

The wonderful assimilative tendencies of the Hindu culture were as much responsible as the eclectic Mughal spirit of accommodation for this brilliant episode of the world. At last what I urge is history to be read with the lens of that age, so that we don’t do injustice with history itself.




The Opinion is a publication based on Medium. We publish short articles on social and legal subjects, providing an opportunity to the early writers who face trouble in finding people who can review, enhance, publish, and promote their pieces.

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