India, 1700-1750

The dominant feature of India during the first half of the eighteenth century was the decline of the Mughal empire. This majestic institution fascinated the political imagination of both Indians and Europeans and its fate was naturally their first object of attention. But it must not be supposed that its collapse was obvious to the contemporary observer or clearly foreseen by many. Bernier in 1660 pointed out some of the weaknesses of the empire; the decline in its authority was noticed by merchants in the later years of the century. But the ignominious failure of Sir Josiah Child's war against Aurangzeb made men more cautious. Its collapse was freely prophesied but its continuance was assumed. The factors who journeyed to Delhi in 1714 for fresh privileges were highly respectful and delighted at their grant. The empire was in fact regarded as being a going concern until Nadir Shah's invasion in 1738-39, and its imminent collapse was not realized until the marches and countermarches of Maratha and Afghan which culminated at Panipat in 1761.

Apart from this long drawn-out political event there are certain other factors to be taken into account. The first was that while the Mughal power was declining that of the Marathas was rising. The Mughals were Muslims and the Marathas Hindus. It is easy to think of the Maratha movement as a renaissance of Hinduism, a revival of an ancient civilization by a simple and vigorous mountain people with a healthier outlook than the luxury-sodden Mughal nobles. But the Marathas, for all their energy, hardihood, and martial prowess, showed little sign of advanced culture. Their contributions to the India of their time were not philosophy or the fine arts, but the art of guerrilla warfare, the technique of plunder, and the exaction from peaceful inhabitants of the payment known as chauth. We must beware, therefore, of regarding the fall of the empire in terms of a Muslim decline and Hindu revival. The Marathas could be as ruthless to their fellow Hindus as to the Muslims. To the typical Maratha


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India: A Modern History
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