Were the Mughals anti-Hindu? Did their alleged bigotry lead them to destroy temples in Azerbaijan? Did ‘Anti-Hindu Mughals’ destroy Azerbaijan’s Parsi and Hindu temple, does the claim check out? Let’s have a look as Citizens for Peace and Justice busts these myths for you.

19, Mar 2024 | CJP Team

Claim # 1: Mughals were looters and murderers and anti-Hindu.

Busted! Mughal rulers were like any kings and rulers, and there was nothing from history that points to them being sinister, with an anti-Hindu plan, as right-wing trolls attest.

The Mughal Empire was a dynasty that ruled over the Indian subcontinent from the early 16th to the mid-19th century.

First and foremost, though dynasts from a feudal era, the Mughal dynast settled here, brought their culture, assimilated. A vast section of Indians collaborated under their rule and remained wedded to their original faiths. The gross domestic product of Mughal India in 1600 AD was estimated at about 24.3% the world economy, the second largest in the world. By this time the Mughal Empire had expanded to include almost 90 per cent of South Asia, and enforced a uniform customs and tax-administration system. They did not, technically or otherwise “loot” the country even though a vast section of India’s artisans, farmers and working class lived on poor means as under the rule of other rulers who were neither Mughal nor Muslim.

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Besides, the Mughal dynasty has left an indelible mark on the region’s history, culture, and architecture. However, when it comes to the present age, several labels are thrown at the Mughals, and they are being called out for being particularly ‘anti-Hindu’. However, historians offer another perspective to view the past that is contrary to this communal perspective.

For instance, in an interview with Teesta Setalvad from November 2015 , acclaimed historian D. N. Jha argues that while Mughal rulers, like rulers across the world in that day and age, destroyed temples, it was not with a religious intent that we witness today. The reasons for the destruction may have been political and related to the empire. Churches and sometimes, even mosques were subject to such destruction. Jha cites that the raiding of the acclaimed Somnath Temple was not purely religious but for the mass wealth that the temple had stacked. Thus, historical records seem to be different from what is claimed by politicians and critics who seek to paint Mughals with a communal paintbrush. On the contrary, while there is evidence of demolition of temples, there is also evidence of official encouragement by the state to indigenous Indian traditions and scholarship.

A review by Harbans Mukhia for The Wire of the book, ‘Mughal Samrat Akbar Aur Sanskrit’ (2012) written by Pratik Kumar Mishra, points out how the book states that history cannot be seen as ‘Hindu versus Muslim.’ The book by Misra also posits that Akbar, amongst other kinds, used to give a number of grants to many Pandits for Sanskrit scholarship. Mughal kings such as Shahjahan were noted to celebrate art beyond faith, for instance, Jagannatha Paṇḍita (1590-1670) was a famous Sanskrit poet, musician and literary critic from Telangana, according to Y. S. Walimbe. He was present at the courts of the emperors Shahjahan and Jahangir. Several Mughal kings and their relatives, such as Dara Shikoh, eldest son of Shahjahan, and Aurangzeb’s uncle Shaista Khan were known to have learned Sanskrit. Shikoh had also reportedly worked with Sanskrit scholars to translate the Upanishads.

So, should we consume propaganda without question, and believe that all the rulers of the Mughal Empire were mad barbarians whose official policy was to destroy the Hindus? The fact that kings patronised Sanskrit scholarships, arts, and literature and invited famous Hindu scholars of these arts to preserve, and not destroy, such art in their courts does not seem to support this theory.

Akbar meeting some Jesuit priests. By Chester Beatty. Source: Sutra Journal.

Claim #2: Mughal kings destroyed a significant fire temple called Ateshgah in Azerbaijan.

Busted! Mughals did not rule the land of Azerbaijan, Mongols did. While they share the same dynasty, the Mongols and Mughals were different, as the latter also shared a Turkic ethnicity and were offshoots of the Mongol empire. Secondly, the remains of the temple are speculated to have been destroyed by industrialists searching for gas and oil in the 19th century, and not the Mughals!

This video from Kreately Media argues that Mughals destroyed a centuries old statue of Ganesh at the fire temple in Azerbaijan, but interestingly the Mughals as we know them never ruled Azerbaijan. Kreately Media is an online media portal, describes itself on its website as ‘Pro-Hindutva organisation’ and a platform that “allows you to speak up in support of dharma.”

The Ateshgah Temple of Azerbaijan contains a lot of layers of history, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. While it is primarily, however, a Zoroastrian temple, it contains Greek, Persian and Zoroastrian ruins, as well as evidence of links with India with Punjabi and Sanskrit inscriptions. It houses an eternal flame which Parsis revere around the world. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Indian travellers and pilgrims also made their way to the site and added their deities to worship at the site, according to The Hindu. It was even visited by the late external affairs minister from BJP, Sushma Swaraj in 2018.

Source: Baku City Tours.

Thus, as social media claims such as these make an attempt to go global and attribute crimes of barbarity to Mughal kings in nations outside of India, they yet again fail to check in with history. Let us take a trip down in the past to check the facts.

The Mongols were known for their diverse tolerance and pluralism, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. At one point of time, they had people of all faiths, including Jewish, Muslims, and Christians in their armies. Gulegu Khan himself was not known to have adhered to religion, but historical archives suggest that he may have had an interest in Buddhism. However, it was not the Mughals who ruled Azerbaijan, but the Mongols.  According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Mughals and Mongols are not the same group even though the Mughals were descendants of the Mongols. The former got their name by mispronouncing the word Mongol and are actually ethnic Turks according to a paper by Nicholas F. Gier published by the University of Idaho. The Mongol empire 300 years after the death of Chingiz Khan (1162-1227), was split into four, one of which was the Mughal Empire in the Indian subcontinent.

Therefore, the region was initially under Persian rule under the kingdom of Sasanians in the 3rd century CE, according to Britannica. Thereonwards, it was ruled by Arabs from the 7th to 11th century, and after which it was succeeded by Turkish nomads, who were later defeated by the Mongols, led by Hulegu Khan. Thus, following the Mongols, and not Mughals, who ruled for 300 years, the region was conquered by the Persian Safavid dynasty. The dynasty ruled till the 18th century, by the time it was for the Russian empire to take over as it was beginning to consolidate and encroach into Azerbaijan.

Furthermore, an article in The Hindu suggests that the remains of the old temple in Azerbaijan were most likely to have been destroyed by industrial development in the 19th century, when excavators were searching for oil and gas. Thereby, we can understand from this that right-wing trolls mistakenly attribute destruction of religious sites to Muslims, or whoever they consider their present enemy.

Aurangzeb the marauder of temples?

However, accusations of temple destruction remain common among the right-wing. Amongst these campaigns of declaring Mughals as exclusive-temple breakers is a figure who features widely, Aurangzeb. It is commonly asserted that he ordered the destruction of numerous temples. The incident –much touted—of his destruction of the Kashi Viswanath temple in Varanasi cannot be doubted; the only counter is that in his expansionist military campaigns he also destroyed the Mosque at Golconda Fort!

Other historical narratives also present us accounts that challenge this image of Aurangzeb of an irrational ruler. Undoubtedly a stark and sectarian believer in Islam (he levied the controversial and selective jizzia tax on a section of the people), Aurangzeb however was also engaged in acts of donating to temples. The Telegraph’s essay cites one interesting example is the Dao Ji Maharaj temple near Mathura, where Aurangzeb allocated the revenue of five villages as a donation. Additionally, he extended his support to various temples in Kashi and Mathura as well. Hence while distinct from his forbears in some ways, Aurangzeb upheld the longstanding tradition of charitable contributions to temples, a practice that had been established by preceding Mughal monarchs. A report by Scroll on Audrey Truschke’s book on Aurangzeb titled ‘Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth’, also reveals that Hindu temples flourished under his rule, and were even granted the Mughal state’s protection and Aurangzeb would ensure that this protection would be in place. The essay notes that the emperor’s goodwill towards a particular temple could be taken back, however, if the temple sought to act against the state.

Speaking to Teesta Setalvad for the India Cultural Forum in December 2015, historian Irfan Habib talks about how history has been mythologised. He cites the example of how Hindu Mahasabha started the claim that ‘we’, Indians, have been under ‘foreign rule for the past 2000 years. Muslim rulers were foreigners, and they sent wealth abroad.’ The second aspect is that they have further distorted the history of the national movement. Although they (RSS) were formed 22 years before independence, they did nothing against the English…they have no heroes, they took no part in the national movement, their leaders never went to jail except like they went by mistake. To claim ancient India or Hindu civilisational achievements, like claiming that civilisation is above every other civilisation. This took early, like creating, all kinds of scientific achievements.”

Similarly, the hateful misinformation about Muslim rulers may not just be a modern Hindutva conspiracy. Historian Ruchika Sharma in a piece on Scroll.in traces fictional accounts defaming the Allaudin Khilji, of the Delhi Sultanate, that go as far back to the 16th century, and can be traced to the Rajputs. For instance, the story of Padmavati, Sharma writes, was one such example through which the Rajput kings tried to paint Khilji as a barbarian. The Rajput kings were often spurned by the lack of patronage and finances accorded to them by the Kings, which when they would resort to such tactics and thus such depictions of kings came out due to rivalry, competing kingdoms, and even disgruntled rulers.

Anti-Mughal bias a result of anti-Muslim prejudice?

“They looted Bharat and sent our gold to Islamic countries to spread their religion,” is among the five first posts that come up if you search for Mughals on the social media site, X. Folk tales and selective narratives about Mughals and other rulers perforate the local everyday traditions.

What are these?

For example, in Uttar Pradesh’s Hardoi district of Uttar Pradesh lies a temple known to people as Chhoti Kashi or Little Kashi which is called Baba Sunaasir Nath Mandir and is dedicated to Shiva. Believers recount that this is an ancient temple in which the Shivaling was installed by the deity Indira himself. The priest of this temple in Hardoi, according to News 18 Hindi, explained that during the Mughal era, Aurangzeb attempted to destroy it and he ordered his army to destroy all the temples in the country. During this period, the Mughal army also attacked the Sunaasir Nath Mandir in Hardoi. However, they couldn’t uproot the Shiva Lingam. When they tried, various creatures like insects, moths, scorpions, snakes, and wasps emerged from the Shiva Lingam, causing havoc in the Mughal army. Eventually, they had to retreat. However, while these folk tales exist, there seems to be an even more insidious side to the narratives on Mughals in India. For instance, Hindutva narratives continue to pit history as communal and argue that India’s past was one of bloody religious communalism. Pertinently, after the BJP has come to power, chapters on Mughals have been removed from history books of the NCERT (National Council for Research and Training) textbooks for class 12th students. The NCERT books are taught to students in more than 24,000 schools across the country.

Along with this, NCERT also removed portions of textbooks which talked about the 2002 Gujarat massacre and also portions on Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination and communalism in 2023, as per reports. This development can only point to the beginning of a one-sided view of history that also seeks to portray certain figures in a good light and others in a negative light – which makes a book more a propaganda than a piece of knowledge.

Similarly, the internet is awash with such trends about Mughals. According to a report from The Quint, the website Getdaystrends, which analyses Twitter trends in 2022, disclosed that approximately 1.97 lakh tweets in India featured the hashtag #HindusUnderAttackInIndia. This surge in the dissemination of misinformation surrounding the Mughals, with a pronounced Islamophobic tilt, that is particularly fuelled by right-wing narratives in India and abroad.

Many such selective myths exist about the Mughal Empire. Why are they relevant to us? Because not only do they distort and puncture history, they also, if left unchecked, perpetuate unfiltered hate and prejudice against modern-day Muslims in India. This distortion of historical facts also serves to undermine the rich and complex legacy of Indian history, including the Mughals, and contributes to the spread of harmful stereotypes and prejudice that curb critical thinking and critical readings of history. Thus as rulers who sought to create an empire and held onto it for years, the figure of the Mughals does not fit in the simplistic and politically motivated binaries constructed & circulated today.


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