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Aurangzeb's time and ours

June 06, 2020 19:17 IST

The emperor's appetite for enlarging his realm translated into a fetish for raising taxes, despite the simplicity of his personal lifestyle, points out Devangshu Datta.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

An emperor in Delhi

It is said that history repeats itself and it is also said that those who don't know their history are condemned to repeat its mistakes.

A corollary would be that the mistakes are more catastrophic when people think they know their history but are actually ignorant of it.

Think of the subcontinent in the second half of the 17th century. There was an emperor in Delhi. He was a simple man, with simple tastes. He wore lovely clothes. But that was a function of his position.

He spent almost nothing on himself, earning his pocket money by selling calligraphy.

He did not drink or gamble, or womanise.

He exercised regularly.

He was ostentatiously religious.

He had a poetic streak, and a talent for aphorisms.

When he wrote a firman advising one of his generals to construct an artificial lake to ensure water supply for the Bahadurgarh fort, he waxed lyrical about the beauty of water bodies surrounded by greenery and birds.

The emperor had developed a reputation for competent generalship, and good administration in his youth.

He had been the sword arm of his father's army, and an efficient governor of his father's provinces.

Then, he waded to the throne through the blood of his siblings and chucked his elderly father in prison. The old man waffled on for several years before finally dying.


The emperor was an absolute ruler. He worked through a complicated bureaucracy of princelings and mansabdars.

They held appointments at his pleasure and he replaced them when they expressed opinions that contradicted his.

The emperor needed to expand his realm. There were these irritating fellows to the north, and the east, and the west, who were always looking to loot it.

The only way to prevent them from indulging in lawless activities was to extend his frontiers and impose law, his law, upon them.

To the south, there were these even more irritating fellows, who thought they could flout his authority because they were civilised and prosperous.

They had to be taught that being civilised and prosperous didn't exempt them from being subject to his law either.

The emperor's appetite for enlarging his realm translated into a fetish for raising taxes, despite the simplicity of his personal lifestyle.

He taxed anything and everything he could conceptualise a tax for, on the basis that he needed revenues to fund the expansion of his realm.

Those who could pay, paid, often under duress.

Those who couldn't pay were useless anyhow. They could starve, or leave.

Down south, there was an unholy mishmash of sultanates and kingdoms, all of which kept trying to bargain with the big man in Delhi.

That led to a khichdi of complex relationships. Sometimes he kicked the southerners around and extracted tribute from them.

Sometimes he forced them to pay taxes -- that is, imposed a more regularised system of paying tribute.

Sometimes he backed one aspiring Deccan sultan against another pretender, offering carefully calibrated financial and military aid.

Sometimes he allowed one of them to carve out his own little niche.

It was all very complicated. The map kept changing. One of the things that held 17th century India together was de facto currency union.

Even in places where Delhi's writ did not officially run, the coin was acceptable.

What the emperor could not win by main force, he could usually buy.

But one or two of these southerners turned into outright rebels. Not only did they object to paying taxes, they raided his coffers, fought his soldiers and opposed his law, his ideology. One even escaped from his custody and crowned himself!

One day, in the fullness of time, the emperor passed on. His successor was an elderly, obese lunatic with a sadistic streak.

Many of the southerners established their independent kingdoms.

So did the easterners, and the northerners.

Within a few years, the map of his realm had become a polka-dotted tapestry of different kingdoms, each with different laws, different ideologies and different taxation systems.

It's nice to imagine this couldn't happen again.

Production: Rajesh Alva/

Devangshu Datta
Source: source image