Common section


1500 to 1700 CE


1399 Timur, ruler of Central Asia, destroys Delhi

1526 Babur founds the Mughal Empire

1530-1556 Humayun reigns

1556-1605 Akbar reigns

1605-1627 Jahangir reigns

1627-1658 Shah Jahan reigns

1658-1707 Aurangzeb reigns

1713-1719 Farrukhsiyar reigns

Being aware of the fanatical hatred between Hindus and Muslims,
and being convinced that this arose out of mutual ignorance, the
enlightened ruler sought to dispel this ignorance by making the
books of each religion accessible to the other. He chose the Mahabharata
to begin with, as this is the most comprehensive and enjoys the
highest authority, and arranged for it to be translated by competent
men from both religions. In this way he wished to demonstrate to the
Hindus that a few of their erroneous practices and superstitions had
no basis in their classics, and also to convince the Muslims that it was
absurd to ascribe a mere 7,000 years of existence to the world.

Abu’l Fazl (1551-1602)1

The enlightened ruler in this passage is Akbar, by far the most pluralist of the Mughal rulers (indeed of most rulers anywhere and anytime in history). His attention to the Mahabharata is coupled with his disdain (or that of Abu’l Fazl, his chronicler) for “erroneous” contemporary Hindu practices in contrast with the ancient classics. Other Mughals too valued some aspects of Hinduism very highly, while still others hated the Hindus and regarded their practices as not merely “erroneous” but downright blasphemous. Hinduism continued to agonize over issues of caste and gender, often newly inspired by the Mughal example or the Mughal threat, or both.


Few people have been able to resist the fascination of the Mughals, whose very name comes into English (from a Persian form of “Mongols,” sometimes spelled “Mogul”) as a word denoting someone of extravagant wealth and power. True, the Mughals had their little ways; they did tend to try to kill (or blind, or lock up) members of their nuclear family rather a lot, and many of them seem to have been drunk and/or stoned most of the time.jh Punishment was severe under the Mughals (as it was under the Hindus—and, for that matter, the Europeans—of the period); people were impaled or trampled to death by elephants for a number of crimes and flayed or deprived of hands or feet for relatively minor misdemeanors.2 But the Mughals also made spectacular contributions to the civilization of the world in general and India and Hinduism in particular. Under the Mughals, industry and trade boomed. Around the court thronged “costumiers, perfumers, gold and silversmiths, jewelers, ivory-carvers, gun-smiths, saddlers, joiners and [an] army of architects, civil engineers, stonemasons and polishers.”3

Like the Arabs of the Delhi Sultanate, the Turks who became the Mughals were not all the same in their relationship to Hinduism. Some were religious zealots; some didn’t care much about religion; some loved Islam but didn’t believe that they should impose it on anyone else. Some (notoriously Aurangzeb) were quite (though not unambiguously) horrid; some (most notably Akbar) were quite (though not unambiguously) wonderful; and most of them were a bit of both. And there were many different sorts of Islam—Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and so forth. The Mughals as a group differed from the Delhi sultans as a group: The Mughals ruled longer as individuals and as a dynasty, were more centralized, and held a tighter rein, with more control over more of India; we also have much more available light, much more information, about the Mughals. Hinduism too had changed in many important ways since the days of the Delhi Sultanate (new sectarian movements, Tantra, philosophy), so that a different Hinduism now encountered a different Islam.


Zahir-ud-din Muhammad, otherwise known as Babur (“the Tiger”), the first great Mughal emperor, traced his descent, on his mother’s side, back to Genghis Khan and, on his father’s, to Timur the Lame (Tamerlane, in Edgar Allan Poe’s epic poem) who, in 1398, led Mongol forces across the Yamuna River and defeated the reigning sultan, massacring or enslaving all the Hindus, sparing only the Muslim quarters of the city. An inauspicious beginning. A century later, in 1484, Babur was born in Ferghana, in the mountains of Central Asia (now Uzbekistan). Despite his Mongol blood, he regarded himself as a Turk, and he was educated in Turki.4 A stunning mix of elegance and cruelty, Babur constructed gardens and fountains and planted melons wherever he went, a kind of Mughal Johnny Appleseed, but he also knocked down a lot of temples and killed a lot of people. He wrote an extraordinarily intimate, frank, and detailed memoir, the Baburnama, from which we can get a vivid sense of the man, from the early days, when he lived a nomadic life, riding his magnificent horse and carrying little with him but a book of poetry, exulting in his freedom.

As soon as he failed to conquer his first target, Timur’s old realm of Samarkhand, Babur had set his sights on India, Timur’s later conquest; he named his second son Hindal, which is Turkish for “Take India!”5 But once he actually got there he formed a low opinion of India:

Hindustan is a place of little charm. There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility, or manliness. The arts and crafts have no harmony or symmetry. There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no madrassas [Muslim schools]. There are no candles, torches, or candlesticks. . . . The one nice aspect of Hindustan is that it is a large country with lots of gold and money.6

(He adds, a bit later, “Another nice thing is the unlimited numbers of craftsmen and practitioners of every trade.”) Seldom has the nature of a conqueror’s interest in the object of his conquest been so nakedly expressed. The lack of good horses was, as we have seen, a perennial problem.

He had relatively little to say about Hinduism: “Most of the people in Hindustan are infidels whom the people of India call Hindu. Most Hindus believe in reincarnation.” That’s just about it. His interest in rebirth and the related philosophy of karma reemerged on another occasion, when he crossed a river that now forms the border between the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and is called the Karamnasa (“Destroyer of Karma”), sometimes referred to as the Anti-Ganges. Babur remarked of it: “This river is scrupulously avoided by Hindus, and observant Hindus will not cross it. They must board boats and cross its mouth on the Ganges. They believe that the religious merit of anyone touched by its water is nullified The etymology of its name is also said to be derived from this.” He objected to both Hindu and Jaina images, especially to a group of idols, some of which were twenty yards tall, “shown stark naked with all their private parts exposed. . . . Urwahi is not a bad place. In fact, it is rather nice. Its one drawback was the idols, so I ordered them destroyed.”7

His attitude to his own faith was simple and practical; on occasion he used Islamic fervor, which may or may not have been genuine in him, to rally reluctant troops against Rajputs.8 His dedication to his religion was inseparable from his dedication to his military victories; after one such victory, he wrote this verse: “For the sake of Islam I became a wanderer; I battled infidels and Hindus./ I determined to become a martyr. Thank God I became a holy warrior.” 9 His practice of Islam was leavened by his indulgence in the pleasures of the senses: “wines, composing of some very sensual poetry, music, flowers and gardens, women, even a young boy at one time in his youth.”10 Proselytizing and demolishing other people’s places of worship were not high on his list of priorities.

Babur is thought to have built several mosques, including the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, which an inscription attributes to him.ji But the pages of the diary covering the period in which such a mosque would have been built, sometime before 1528, are missing, and it is possible that Babur merely renovated an already existing mosque, built sometime after the armies of Muhammad of Ghor reached Ayodhya in 1194.

In 1530, Babur’s eldest and favorite son, Humayun, then twenty-two, fell ill and was expected to die. Babur is said to have prayed by Humayun’s sickbed and transferred his own health to his son (transferring karma, an action more Hindu or Buddhist than Muslim), offering up his own life if Humayun recovered. Humayun recovered and Babur died. He was buried first in a garden at Agra that he himself had designed, and then, as he had wished, he was carried back to Kabul, where he was laid to rest. He had never liked India very much.


Humayun, born in 1508 in Kabul, dabbled in astrology and spiritual matters. Neither of these religious interests prevented him from blinding his brother Hindal in retaliation for killing his (Humayun’s) spiritual guide.11 In 1556, as keen on astronomy as on astrology, Humayun tripped going down the stone stairs from his makeshift observatory in Delhi and fell to his death.12A messenger hurried to inform his son Akbar, only thirteen years old, that he was now the emperor; in the meantime a man who happened to resemble Humayan (what the Hindus would have called a shadow Humayun) was displayed, on a distant platform, to the anxious crowds.13


Akbar ruled for half a century. Like his grandfather Babur, Akbar was a fearless and tireless rider,14 a man of action who killed tigers with spears and was famous for both his courage and his cruelty. When, after a long and bloody battle and siege, Akbar captured the historic fortress of Chitor in Mewar in 1568, he watched the flames consume the women as the men rode out in their own suicidal charge, and then he gratuitously massacred some twenty thousand noncombatants.15

In dramatic contrast with Babur, Akbar himself neither read nor wrote. (No one really knows why; he may have been dyslexic, but he may just have been bored with school—a grade school dropout—or a mystic who preferred not to write.16) He more than compensated for this, however, by keeping at his court, among his “nine gems,” Abu’l Fazl, a great biographer, who wrote both the Akbar-Nama (a rather puffed hagiography) and the Ain-i-Akbari (a more sober history).


Open-minded Hindu and Muslim religious thinkers had engaged in serious interreligious dialogues long before this, as we have seen, but Akbar was the first to put the power of a great empire at the service of pluralism. In 1564 he began to host a series of multireligious theological salons,17serving as a source of entertainment and an opportunity to showcase rhetorical talents, much as the Upanishadic kings were depicted as doing two thousand years earlier, though of course with a different range of religious options. In the city that he built at Fatehpur Sikri (near Agra), Akbar constructed a room where religious debates were held on Thursday evenings. At first, the conversations were limited to different Muslim groups (Sunni, Shia, and Ismaili, as well as Sufi); then they were joined by Parsis; then Hindus (Shaiva and Vaishnava bhaktas); disciples of Kabir and probably also of Guru Nanak (Akbar is said to have given the Sikhs the land at Amritsar on which the Golden Temple was later built); Jainas, Jews, and Jesuits. This veritable circus of holy men even included some unholy men—Materialists (Charvakas or Lokayatikas).18 Or in the immortal (if somewhat overblown) words of Abu’l Fazl: “He sought for truth amongst the dust-stained denizens of the field of irreflection and consorted with every sort of wearers of patched garments such as [yogis, renouncers, and Sufi mystics], and other solitary sitters in the dust and insouciant recluses.”19 Sometimes Akbar wandered incognito through the bazaars and villages, a habit that may have stirred his awareness of or nourished his interest in the religious diversity among his people.

Fatehpur Sikri was the result of Akbar’s particular devotion to Sufism; ignoring the Shattaris, who were an important Sufi sect at that time and had influenced earlier Mughals, he had become attached to the Chishtis.20 In 1569, Akbar visited the Sufi saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, who lived in the village of Sikri. Salim predicted that Akbar would have the son and heir he longed for, and indeed a son (Salim, named after the saint, later to become Jahangir) was born in Sikri that very year. The grateful Akbar immediately made Sikri his capital (renaming it Fatehpur Sikri) and personally directed the building of the Jami Masji (the Friday Mosque) in 1571, as well as other structures that reflect both Hindu aand Muslim architectural influences. But he moved the Mughal capital back to Delhi in 1586, in part because of Fatehpur Sikri’s inadequate water supply but also because he was no longer so devoted to the Chishti saint for whom he had chosen the site.

Akbar proclaimed that “the wisdom of Vedanta is the wisdom of Sufism,”21 and that “all religions are either equally true or equally illusionary.”22 His eclecticism also extended to Christianity, with which he flirted to such a degree that the Portuguese missionaries congratulated themselves that he was on the brink of converting—until they realized that he continued to worship at mosques (and, on occasion, at Hindu temples, as well as participate in Parsi fire rituals23). Here, not for the first or last time, Muslim and Hindu pluralism ran up against Christian intolerance. (Indeed, at the very time when Akbar was pursuing these enlightened conversations, the Inquisitions were going on in Europe; Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600, “just as Akbar was preaching tolerance of all religions in Agra.”24) In 1603, Akbar granted the Christians the right to preach, make converts, and build churches. Three sons of Akbar’s youngest son, Danyal, were actually christened, although this had been a political ruse, to disqualify the boys from contending for the (Muslim) throne, and they soon reverted to Islam. On one occasion, Akbar proposed to a group of Jesuits and Muslim theologians the test of walking through fire (somewhat like the test that a South Indian Shaiva had proposed to the Jainas) in order to determine which was the true religion. But unlike the Jainas, the Jesuits (in the person of Father Aquaviva) refused. Sometime later Hindus seeking revenge for the destruction of some of their temples by Christian missionaries murdered Aquaviva.

Akbar had a number of wives (usually political rather than romantic alliances), but unlike Henry VIII in a similar pickle, he got his priests to stretch the rules about polygamy.25 He was less successful in establishing his new religion, his “Divine Faith” (Din-i-Ilahi) with himself at its center—as God or his humble servant? No one has ever been quite sure.26 Like Ashoka, Akbar carved out his own religion, his own dharma, but with a difference: The rallying call of the new faith—“Allahu Akbar”—was a very serious pun, which could simply be the usual pious invocation affirming that God (Allah) is great (akbar) but in this context suddenly revealed another possible meaning, that Akbar (Akbar) is God (Allah).

In keeping with his pluralism, Akbar’s new faith was designed to transcend all sectarian differences and unite his disparate subjects.27 But it did not have even the limited success that Ashoka’s dhamma had had. Not surprisingly, some people regarded it as a hodgepodge,28 but it did not merely peter out with a whimper. “Bang!” went the old elite, the orthodox ulama, in revolt against Akbar as a heretic.29 They issued a fatwa urging all Muslims to rebel, but Akbar rode it out, for the Hindus stood behind him against the Muslim old guard.


The first of the great Mughals to be born in India, Akbar regarded Hindus not as infidels but as subjects. And since some Muslims were his enemies, some Hindus (the enemies of his enemies) were his friends; he was sheltered by a Hindu king when he had to flee from a powerful Muslim enemy. He married the daughter of the raja of Amber (near Jaipur) and brought the raja, his son, and his grandson (Man Singh) into the Mughal hierarchy as amirs (nobles), his most trusted lieutenants, allowing them to retain their land, their Hinduism, and their caste status. In return, they (and other Rajput princes) provided him with cavalry (a reverse of the usual process whereby Muslims sold horses to Hindus).30

Two Hindus, both of whom simultaneously played Brahmin and Kshatriya roles and bridged the social worlds of Hindus and Muslims, were prominent among the inner court circle known as Akbar’s nine jewels. One was a Brahmin named Birbal (1528-1583), who was Akbar’s minister and a kind of unofficial court jester, inspiring many folktales about his humor and his wit. But he was also an important military leader, and Akbar called him Raja Birbal. The only Hindu to join in Akbar’s “Divine Faith,”31 he died (perhaps as the result of treachery) while he was fighting the Afghans. The other Hindu “jewel” was Todar Mall (also spelled Todar Mal and Todaramalla), a Kshatriya born in Oudh (north of Lucknow), who became Akbar’s leading general, finance officer, and then prime minister. Yet he was a pious devotee of Krishna, famous for setting up images of Krishna, and in 1572 he gathered together a group of Varanasi scholars to compose a giant Sanskrit compendium of Hindu culture and learning, the Todar-ananda(“Todar’s Bliss”). In it he criticized in general the “aliens” (mlecchas, surely meaning the Muslims) and in particular the rulers of darkness (tamas) (possibly meaning his patron, Akbar). He said that the rising tide of alien culture had inspired him to write the book in order to rescue the Veda when it had been sunk in the ocean of aliens (the old myth of the flooded earth) and to restore the light of empire that had been shut out by the darkness of the rulers in the cruel Kali Age.32

Akbar was not always good to Hindus, but he almost always apologized after he had done them harm. He approved the conversion of a temple into a mosque and a Muslim theological school (madrassa). In Nagarkot, near Kangra, during Akbar’s reign, Muslim soldiers under Birbal slaughtered two hundred cows and many Hindus and demolished a temple. Local tradition adds that later Akbar made amends and sent a golden umbrella to cover the idol. Akbar also allowed the reconstruction of a Hindu temple built at Kurukshetra, cite of the Mahabharata battle, when it had been demolished and a mosque built on its debris.33 He admitted that in his youth he had forced many Hindus to convert to Islam (he offered life to his first adversaries, after the battle of Panipat in 1556, only if they would convert to Islam34), but he later regretted it35 and went to great lengths to see that Hindus were treated with respect.

He did many good things for Hindus. He abolished the jizya, the tax on pilgrims, and other discriminatory measures against Hindus. He ensured that Hindus would have their own laws and their own courts. He celebrated the Hindu festivals of Divali and Dussehra. He put Hindus in charge of almost the entire moneylending system, acknowledging their competence in matters mathematical and financial.36 The lasting impression that this pro-Hindu policy made on Akbar’s Hindu subjects is suggested by the fact that in some of the bardic traditions of Rajasthan, Akbar came to be equated with Rama.37

In 1605, a few weeks before Akbar’s death, Prince Salim (who was to become Jahangir) inscribed his own genealogy on the Ashokan pillar that Samudra Gupta had already used as a palimpsest; Akbar sent Abu’l Fazl to deal with Jahangir, who had Abu’l Fazl murdered38 and had the head sent back to him (Salim) in Allahabad.39 Akbar was understandably infuriated and saddened; a few weeks later he died in Agra.


Akbar’s Rajput bride had given birth to Jahangir (Salim) in 1569. When he grew up, Jahangir murdered, in addition to Abu’l Fazl, several religious leaders, including both the Sikh guru Arjan and the Shi’i Qadi Nurullah Shushtari. He punished an insurgent by serving him the head of his only son, like a melon. Closer to home, when his own son Khusrau waged battle against him, Jahangir had him blinded, remarking that the relationship between father and son was irrelevant to a sovereign. Khusrau’s Rajput mother committed suicide.40

Jahangir’s attitude to Hinduism was disdainfully noninvasive. He talked with Hindu pandits and visited yogis in Peshawar, though he said they “lacked all religious knowledge” and he perceived in their ideas “only darkness of spirit.” At Kangra, in the Himalayas, Jahangir demolished a Durga temple, built a mosque at the site, and had a bull slaughtered in the fort, but he didn’t demolish the Hindu temple to the goddess Bhawani below the walls of the fort, at the bottom of the hill, which he spoke of in terms of admiration and even affection. Jahangir also left untouched—indeed, had both repaired and extended—the Jwalamukhi (“Mare with Flame in Her Mouth”) Temple, “after testing the priests’ claim that the fire there was divine and eternal and could not be extinguished by water”—at least, I would add, not until doomsday, when the ocean would extinguish it. Jahangir also allowed a temple to Vishnu’s boar avatar to be constructed at Ajmer; he objected not to the temple but to the boar (which was, after all, just a big pig, anathema to Muslims); he spared the temple but destroyed the boar image and threw it into a tank,41 declaring that it was an example of the “worthless Hindu religion.” Still he ordered that no temples be destroyed (though also that no new ones were to be built).42 Like Babur, he wrote an extensive memoir, but unlike Babur, he took no pleasure in horses. He died in 1627 while traveling from Kashmir to Lahore.


Shah Jahan was the third son of Jahangir and the Rajput princess Manmati. He discriminated against non-Muslims and destroyed many Hindu temples, seventy in Varanasi alone. In Kashmir, he demolished an ancient temple at Anantnag (“The Serpent of Infinity,” a name of the cosmic cobra that Vishnu rests upon) and renamed the town Islamabad. At Orchha, in Madhya Pradesh, he demolished a temple because it had been built by the grandfather of a Rajput raja who had rebelled against the Mughals.43 But Shah Jahan was still open to the culture of Hinduism—including Sanskrit poetry—and to some of its people, particularly the rajas. He took a verse that the Sufi poet Amir Khusra (1253- 1325), son of a Rajput mother and a Turkic father, had originally composed in praise of India (Khusra’s motherland) and had the words inscribed around the roof of the Audience Hall in his Delhi palace: “If there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.” When he built the great Jami Masjid, the Friday Mosque, in Delhi, he included a rather miscellaneous arcade made of disparate columns from twenty-seven demolished Hindu temples.44 Despite the alleged aniconic nature of Islam, the pillars are still graced with figures, some of Hindu gods, a few of them still with their heads on.

Shah Jahan also built the Shalimar Gardens in Kashmir, the white marble palace in Ajmer, and the high-carat golden, jewel-encrusted Peacock Throne. And when his beloved wife, Mumtaz, died in bearing him their thirteenth child, he built the Taj Mahal in her memory, on the banks of the Yamuna (Jumna) River, on a site bought from a Rajput and made of marble from Rajasthan. His son Aurangzeb imprisoned him across the river, where he could gaze at the Taj Mahal until his death eight years later.


Dara Shikoh (also spelled Shukoh) was Shah Jahan’s oldest and favorite son, the designated heir. But the orthodox Muslims of the ulama distrusted him, for he was a scholar who had argued that “the essential nature of Hinduism was identical with that of Islam,”45 a pronouncement that orthodox Muslims regarded as heresy.jj He consorted with Sufis, Hindus, Christians, and Jews.46 He learned Sanskrit and translated Sanskrit philosophical texts into Persian.

In 1657, when Shah Jahan was deathly ill, his sons hovered about, as princes are wont to do. Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh were the main contenders. When Aurangzeb attacked Delhi and imprisoned Shah Jahan in the Agra fort, he killed Dara’s sons in front of him,47paraded Dara through the streets, had him cut to pieces, and then (according to some stories) had the pieces paraded through the streets.


Aurangzeb was no more a typical Muslim than Torquemada was a typical Christian. A devout Sunni, he worked hard to repair what he regarded as the damage done by his more tolerant predecessors. In the eloquent words of Bamber Gascoigne, “Akbar [had] disrupted the Muslim community by recognizing that India was not an Islamic country: Aurangzeb disrupted India by behaving as if it were.”48 When Aurangzeb sacked Hyderabad in 1687, he stabled his horses in the Shiite mosques as a deliberate insult to what he regarded as the city’s heretics.49 Thus began twenty years of discrimination against Shiites, Hindus, and Sikhs.

The Sikh support of Dara in the 1658 succession crisis angered Aurangzeb. Moreover, the ninth Sikh guru, Tegh Bahadur, drew large crowds with his preaching and proselytized among Muslims as well as Hindus. Many Muslims converted to Sikhism, so infuriating Aurangzeb that he condemned Tegh Bahadur for blasphemy and executed him. Under Guru Govind Singh, the tenth and last Sikh guru (1666-1708), who insisted that Sikhs leave their hair uncut, carry arms, and use the epithet “Singh” (lion), Sikhism became not merely a movement for religious and social reform but a political and military force to be reckoned with. In 1708, Govind Singh was assassinated while attending the emperor Aurangzeb. This spurred Sikhs, Maharashtrians, and Rajputs to outright defiance.50

The Hindus suffered most under Aurangzeb. In 1679, he reimposed the jizya on all castes (even the Brahmins, who were usually exempt) and the tax on Hindu pilgrims that Akbar had lifted. He rescinded endowments to temples and to Brahmins, placed heavier duties on Hindu merchants, and replaced Hindus in administration with Muslims. When a large crowd rioted in protests against the jizya, he sent in the troops—more precisely, the elephants—to trample them.51 He put pressure on the Hindus to convert.

Aurangzeb attacked Hyderabad, plundered and desecrated the temples, and killed the Brahmins. He destroyed all newly built or rebuilt Hindu temples and replaced them with mosques; in particular, he replaced the great Vishvanatha Temple in Varanasi and the Keshava Deo Temple at Mathura with two great Aurangzeb mosques and changed the name of Mathura to Islamabadjk (as Shah Jahan had done to Anantnag). He also renamed the cave city of Ellora Aurangabad.52 In several places in Sind, and especially at Varanasi, “Brahmins attracted a large number of Muslims to their discourses. Aurangzeb, in utter disgust, ordered the governors of all these provinces ‘to demolish the schools and temples of the infidels and with utmost urgency put down the teaching and the public practices of these religious misbelievers.’ ”53 (He particularly hated Varanasi because it was the center of linga worship, which he regarded as the most abominable of all abominations.54) He sent someone to Rajasthan to demolish sixty-six temples there.55

Yet he financed the maintenance of several other Hindu temples and matts, and he even made land grants to some.56 He destroyed few old temples, generally only those that had political or ideological power. Nor, being puritanical and mean in all things and reacting against Shah Jahan’s architectural extravagances, did he allow any new mosques to be built (with the exception of the few mosques mentioned above, most of which replaced temples). This led to great hardship for the artisans.57 Other arts too suffered, as he suppressed poetry and music;58 dismissed dancers, musicians, and artists from the royal payroll; and hired jurists and theologians in their place.59 And when he went on to create the post of a muhtasib, a censor or guardian of public morality, whose task it was to suppress gambling, blasphemy, alcohol, and opium, the cumulative effect surely acted as a serious wet blanket on both addiction and night life.

Hindu astrologers had played an important role in the life of the Mughals until Aurangzeb replaced the Hindu astrologers with Muslim ones.60 Aurangzeb’s grandson fought against him on behalf of Hindus. Yet even Aurangzeb had Hindus in his court and ordered his officials to protect Brahmin temple priests who were being harassed, instructing them to leave the Brahmins alone so that they could “pray for the continuance of the Empire.”61 Aurangzeb lived to ninety and died in bed, alone.

When Jahandah Shah took the throne, he immediately reversed all of Aurangzeb’s policies that had curbed the pleasures of the flesh. Said to be a frivolous and drunken imbecile, Jahandah Shah surrounded himself with singers, dancers, actors, storytellers, and a notorious mistress, to whom he gave elephants and jewels. Other Mughals of that ilk followed him. Farrukhsiyar took over in 1713 and was murdered in 1719, though not before he carried out a bloody repression of the Sikhs, who continued to harass the Mughals until the British put an end to Mughal rule.62,


Aurangzeb’s puritanical repressions were in part a response to the history of his family, several of whom suffered from addiction to alcohol and/or drugs, “the bane of the Mughals.” They started young; opium was often given to small children to keep them quiet.63 The addictions of the Mughals may well have reinforced the Hindus’ awareness of the dangers of substance abuse.

It all began with Babur, whose memoir (begun when he was barely a teenager) abounds in wine, drugs, and the Mughal equivalent of rock and roll. The drugs included cannabis exported from Kashmir, but the drug of choice was opium, made from poppies grown in Varanasi and one of India’s major export products. The opium was usually taken in the form of ma’jun, a drug still known today; it was made by pressing dried fruits such as plums, tamarinds, apricots, sometimes also sesame, and mixing the extract with a small amount of opium, somewhat like cognac-filled chocolates or hash brownies, truly a Turkish delight. It was carried on military campaigns and consumed in large amounts at parties, “a socially acceptable recreational drug.”64

Drugs and drink played a central role in Babur’s memoir. A typical early entry:

We drank until sunset, then got on our horses. The members of the party had gotten pretty drunk. . . . Dost-Muhammad Baqir was so drunk that no matter how Amin-Muhammad Tarkhan and Masti Chuhra’s people tried they could not get him on his horse. They splashed water on his head, but that didn’t do any good either. Just then a band of Afghans appeared. Amin-Muhammad Tarkhan was so drunk he thought that rather than leaving Dost-Muhammad to be taken by the Afghans we should cut off his head and take it with us. With great difficulty they threw him on his horse and took off. We got back to Kabul at midnight.65

Babur was such a great horseman that he could even ride when he was totally stoned: “We drank on the boat until late that night, left the boat roaring drunk, and got on our horses. I took a torch in my hand and, reeling to one side and then the other, let the horse gallop free-reined along the riverbank all the way to camp. I must have been really drunk.”66 This image is also captured by a fine painting entitled A Drunken Babur Returns to Camp at Night, from an illustrated copy of the Babur-nama.67 These parties were usually bachelor affairs, royal frat parties, though occasionally women were present.68 A sure clue that we are dealing here not just with people of privilege having a very good long-running party but with genuine addiction is Babur’s frequent (almost always futile) attempts to rein in his drunkenness.69 Before one great battle, he went on the wagon, and to make sure he would not backslide, he had a quantity of the latest vintage from Ghazni salted for vinegar.70 When he took the pledge not to drink wine, some of the court copied him and renounced with him, for, he noted, “People follow their kings’ religion.”71 But he hated being on the wagon and wrote a charming poem about it, which ended: “People repent, then they give up wine—I gave it up, and now I am repenting!”72

There were also excuses to get stoned other than simply wanting to get stoned, another telltale sign of substance abuse: “That night I took some opium for the pain in my ear—the moonlight also induced me to take it. The next morning I really suffered from an opium hangover and vomited a lot. Nevertheless, I went out on a tour of all Man Singh’s and Bikramajit’s buildings.” And: “The weather was so bad that some of us had ma’jun even though we had had some the day before.”73 E. M. Forster wrote a wicked satire on the depiction of constant drunkenness, and constant travel, in Babur’s memoir: “Was this where the man with the melon fell overboard? Or is it the raft where half of us took spirits and the rest bhang,jl and quarreled in consequence? We can’t be sure. Is that an elephant? If so, we must have left Afghanistan. No: we must be in Ferghana again; it’s a yak.”74 Here, as so often, you only know where you are by seeing what animals are with you.

None of Babur’s successors wrote nearly so vividly about their drinking problems, though as a group they did manage to run up quite a tab. Humayun was an opium addict, particularly fond of ma’jun; it is quite possible that his fatal fall down the stairs of his observatory may have been aided and abetted by opium. Akbar drank very rarely, but his first three sons were alcoholics. Murad (Akbar’s second son) died of alcoholism, and when Akbar forbade Danyal (his third son, aged thirty-three) to drink wine, Danyal tried to smuggle some in inside a musket; the alcohol dissolved the rust and gunpowder in the musket and killed him.75

Jahangir’s excessive use of alcohol and opium was thought to have exacerbated his cruelty and vicious temper; his Rajput wife committed suicide by overdosing on opium. He sometimes forced his son Shah Jahan to drink, against his will.76 Jahangir recorded in detail his own addiction to alcohol, and later opium, and “his apparently half-hearted battle to moderate his consumption.”77 Jahangir was also fascinated by the opium addiction of his friend Inayat Khan and had his portrait painted as he was dying. Jahangir wrote: “Since he was an opium addict and also extremely fond of drinking wine whenever he had the chance, his mind was gradually destroyed.”78


The vices of the Mughals were not limited to drugs; there was also the vice of hunting, as well as more complicated problems involving animals. There are conflicting strains in the Mughal attitude toward animals. On the one hand, they had a great fascination with and love of animals; the Sufi saints, in particular, were often depicted in the company of tame lions or bears; a tame lion accompanies Akbar’s confessor, Shaikh Salim Chishti, in one painting. On the other hand, Muslims often sacrificed animals, including cows, at the end of pilgrimages, and this was a recurrent source of conflict, for many Hindus were, by this time, deeply offended by the sacrifice of cows.79

Babur showed no compassion for dogs when he vomited and suspected that someone was trying to poison him: “I never vomited after meals, not even when drinking. A cloud of suspicion came over my mind. I ordered the cook to be held while the vomit was given to a dog that was watched.” But he also tortured the cook and had him skinned alive, ordered the taster to be hacked to pieces, and had a woman suspected of complicity thrown under an elephant’s feet.80 So at least the dog was not singled out for mistreatment (and may not even have died; indeed, compared with the cook and taster, the dog got off easy). Akbar, on the other hand, was fond of dogs. He imported them from many countries and admired their courage in attacking all sorts of animals,jm even tigers. In contradiction of the teachings of Islam, he regarded neither pigs nor dogs as unclean and kept them in the harem; he also insisted that dogs had ten virtues, any one of which, in a man, would make him a saint. At Akbar’s table, some of his friends and courtiers would put dogs on the tablecloth, and some of them went so far as to let the dogs put their tongues into their (the courtiers’) mouths, to the horror of Abu’l Fazl.81 An album published during Akbar’s reign shows a Kanphata yogi (a devotee of Shiva) and his dog, with a text that says, “Your dog is better than anything in the world of fidelity.”82

One story about Akbar and dogs is also a great story about Akbar’s religious tolerance. It was told by an Englishman named Thomas Coryat, who traveled to India between 1612 and 1617:

Ecbar Shaugh [Akbar the Shah] . . . never denyed [his mother] any thing but this, that shee demanded of him, that our Bible might be hanged about an asses necke and beaten about the town of Agra, for that the Portugals [Portuguese] tyed [the Qu’ran] about the necke of a dogge and beat the same dogge about the towne of Ormuz. But hee denyed her request, saying that, if it were ill in the Portugals to doe so to the Alcoran, being it became not a King to requite ill with ill, for that the contempt of any religion was the contempt of God.83

Akbar grants, implicitly, that the dogs insulted the Qu’ran, but he differs from his mother (as he rarely did) in refusing to take revenge, thus short-circuiting the karmic chain of religious intolerance.


Dogs’ talent for hunting was important to Akbar, who was famous for his own skill, courage, and enthusiasm for the sport. Many pages of the Ain-i-Akbari are devoted to hunting tigers and leopards and catching elephants. Yet even there Abu’l Fazl feels it necessary to justify hunting by an argument that it is not merely, as it might appear, a source of pleasurejn but a way of finding out, while traveling incognito, about the condition of the people and the army, taxation, the running of households, and so forth.84Moreover, on two separate occasions Akbar himself made vows to limit, if not to give up, hunting, the repeated attempts to give it up being a telltale sign that he, at least, regarded it as an addiction. He made the first vow when his wife was pregnant with his first son, Jahangir, and the embryo seemed to be dying; it happened on a Friday, and Akbar vowed never to hunt with cheetahs on Friday, a vow that he (and Jahangir, in response) kept all his life. This closed off one loophole that he had left in an earlier, limited move toward noninjury, in advising any adherent to his “Divine Faith” (Din-i-ilahi) “not to kill any living creature with his own hand” and not to flay anything: “The only exceptions are in battle and the chase.”85

On the second occasion, Akbar apparently underwent a conversion experience not unlike that of Ashoka (whom Akbar resembles in other ways too, as we have seen): When Akbar was hunting on April 22, 1578, he looked at the great pile of all the animals that had been killed and suddenly decided to put a stop to it.86 After that he became a halfhearted vegetarian (also like Ashoka), as we learn from the section of the Ain-i-Akbari that records the sayings of Akbar: “Were it not for the thought of the difficulty of sustenance, I would prohibit men from eating meat. The reason why I do not altogether abandon it myself is, that many others might willingly forgo it likewise and be thus cast into despondency.” Abu’l Fazl attributes to Akbar a connection between vegetarianism and what a Hindu would have called noncruelty, a connection that Hindus also made: “The compassionate heart of His Majesty finds no pleasure in cruelties. . . . He is ever sparing of the lives of his subjects. . . . His Majesty abstains much from flesh, so that whole months pass away without his touching any animal food.”87

Abu’l Fazl explicitly attributes much of Akbar’s qualified vegetarianism to his affinity with Hinduism, rather disapprovingly (which is a good indication that it is probably true):

Beef was interdicted, and to touch beef was considered defiling. The reason of this was that, from his youth, His Majesty had been in company with Hindu libertines, and had thus learned to look upon a cow . . . as something holy. Besides, the emperor was subject to the influence of the numerous Hindu princesses of the harem, who had gained so great an ascendancy over him as to make him forswear beef, garlic, onions, and the wearing of a beard.88

But since Jainism was also powerful in India at this time, and the Jainas were always more vigorous in their vegetarianism than the Hindus, and since Akbar had been favorably impressed by the Jaina monks in his court and had issued land grants to them as well as to the Hindus, Akbar’s change of heart may owe as much to Jainism as to Hinduism.

Jahangir too underwent two conversion experiences about hunting. He had been, if anything, even more obsessed by hunting than Babur and Akbar were, as addicted to hunting as he was to alcohol and opium, and allergic to moderation of any kind. Then, when he took the throne in 1605, he issued a proclamation that no animals should be slaughtered for food, nor any meat eaten, on Thursday (the day of his accession) or Sunday (Akbar’s birthday). But he broke this vow by shooting tigers, first in 1610, because (he said) he could not resist his overpowering “liking for tiger-hunting,” and again on several other occasions, as late as 1616.89

Then, in 1618, when he was fifty, Jahangir made a second vow, to give up shooting “with gun and bullet” and not to injure any living thing with his own hand. His memoir suggests that Jahangir was displacing long-festering feelings of remorse for the murder of Abu’l Fazl, his father’s right-hand man. Yet Jahangir rescinded this vow too in 1622, when his own son (the future Shah Jahan) openly turned on him in rebellion, as he himself had turned against Akbar. Instead of taking measures to kill his son, Jahangir started once again to kill animals, another displacement. Since Jahangir did not share his father’s great enthusiasm for the Hindus (though he generally continued his father’s policies toward them), it is, again, likely that Jainism, which Jahangir had earlier treated with intolerance but later had encouraged with a number of land grants, rather than Hinduism influenced him positively in this instance.90


Inevitably, there was resistance. The Hindus demolished some mosques and converted them into temples, in the early thirteenth century, after 1540, and again during the reigns of Akbar, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb.91

The Mughals did not have control of all India; there were major pockets of resistance, including the Punjab under the Sikh gurus, Vijayanagar, the kingdoms in the far south, and, most famously, the Maharashtrians under the command of Shivaji. Even before Shivaji, the Maharashtrians had been a thorn in the Mughal side. In Ahmednagar (the center of power in Maharashtra), the leader of the opposition to the Mughals after 1600 was Malik Ambar, an Abyssinian who had been sold in Baghdad as a slave but became a brilliant military commander and administrator in the Ahmednagar sultanate, dealing equitably with both Hindus and Muslims. He trained mobile Maharashtrian cavalry units and won many victories against Jahangir, until his death in 1626. The most effective cavalry in India belonged to Maharashtra and Mysore, both of which had ready access to the west coast ports and to trade, primarily in horses, from the gulf states.92

In 1647, when he was just seventeen years old, Shivaji founded the Maharashtrian kingdom, an unexpected revival of Hindu kingship in the teeth of a powerful Muslim supremacy. When Shivaji captured Bijapur, his men took the treasure, horses, and elephants and enlisted to their side most of the Bijapuri troops, some of whom were Maharashtrians, while some of Shivaji’s men were Muslims. In this, as in so much of medieval Indian history, allies and enemies were formed on political and military grounds more often than on religious ones, even for Shivaji, who in later centuries became the hero of Hindu militantism against Muslims. The scourge of Aurangzeb, Shivaji made lavish donations to Brahmins but (according to the Muslim chronicler Khafi Khan) made a point of not desecrating mosques or seizing women. A Maharashtrian Brahmin constructed a Kshatriya genealogy for him that linked him with earlier Rajputs. There are also many legends connecting Shivaji with the Maharashtrian saints Tukaram (1568-1650) and Ramdas (1608-1681). Shivaji died of dysentery in 1680.93

In 1688, Aurangzeb captured Shivaji’s successor, Shambhaji, and had him tortured and dismembered limb by limb. Shambhaji’s brother Rajaram took over until his death, when his senior widow, Tarabai, assumed control in the name of her son, Shambhaji II. In 1714, Shivaji’s grandson Shahu appointed as his chief minister a Brahmin who was such a poor horseman that he required a man on each side to hold him in the saddle.94 The Maharashtrian resistance did not last long after that.


It is hard to generalize about interreligious relations under all the Mughals; they were so different, Akbar the best (and Dara, though he never got to rule), Aurangzeb the worst, Shah Jahan a mixed bag (he destroyed many Hindu temples, but Mughal officials during his reign participated in Jagannath festivals). 95 But if we do try to generalize, we can say that throughout the Mughal period, official conversions of Hindus to Islam were rare;96 non-Muslims were not obliged to convert to Islam on entering the Mughal ruling class, and the Mughals generally regarded Islam as their own cultural heritage and did not encourage conversion to Islam among the general population.97 There is no evidence of massive coercive conversion. Surprisingly little was written about conversion in contemporary sources on either side, suggesting that few regarded it as a major issue. Jahangir did not approve of mass conversions; he punished one Mughal official for converting the son of a defeated Hindu raja.98 There is evidence of fewer than two hundred conversions under Aurangzeb.

Yet evidently many Hindus did convert, or the Muslim population of India would not have grown as it did. Some Hindus converted for money, some as punishment, some for marriage, some because they believed in it. The sons of a rebellious Rajput were spared on condition of accepting Islam; some refused and chose death instead. One prince converted because he got a tremendous raise in pay by doing so.99 The Hindu wives of Muslim rulers sometimes converted and even built mosques.100 A Brahmin who had been appointed to help a theologian of Akbar’s court translate the Atharva Veda from Sanskrit into Persian ended up converting to Islam. A ruler of Kashmir converted through association with his Muslim minister.101

On the other hand, so many Muslims converted to Hinduism that Shah Jahan established a department to deal with it and forbade any proselytizingjo by Hindus,102 and so many conversions took place as the result of intermarriage that Akbar (Akbar!) forbade Hindu women to marry their Muslim lovers; he had the women forcibly removed from their husbands and returned to their birth families. Under Jahangir, twenty-three Muslims in Varanasi fell in love with Hindu women and converted to Hinduism. Under Shah Jahan, Muslim girls in Kashmir married Hindu boys and became Hindu. Muslim women married to Hindu men, and Muslim husbands of Hindu women, sometimes reconverted to Islam. In the fifteenth century the Brahmins thought that there was already a need for conversions back to Hinduism;103 they overhauled ancient ceremonies designed to reinstate Hindus who had fallen from caste (usually as a result of some ritual impurity) and evolved ceremonies for reconversion, called purification (shuddhi), usually involving both the payment of money and a ritual.

One Portuguese Augustinian friar, Sebastião Manrique, noted the Mughal policy of honoring Hindu law in Bengal between 1629 and 1640, during the reign of Shah Jahan:jp


Disguising himself as a Muslim merchant, apparently in order to avoid the hostility that a Christian missionary might expect, Manrique rode on horseback through the monsoon rains and took shelter in the cowshed of a Hindu village. One of his Bengali Muslim attendants caught, killed, and cooked a pair of peacocks; when Manrique learned of this, he feared the wrath of the Hindu villagers and buried the bones and feathers. But the villagers found a few feathers and, armed with bows and arrows, pursued Manrique’s company (and their Hindu guide) to the nearby town, where the villagers filed a formal complaint with the Muslim administrator [shiqdar] whom the Mughals had put in charge of law and order there. “Evidently aware that to Hindus the peacock was a sacred bird,” the administrator threw Manrique et cie in jail and, after twenty-four miserable hours, brought them to trial.

The administrator learned who had killed the peacocks and asked him how, being a Bengali and a Muslim, he had dared to kill a living thing in a Hindu district. Manrique answered for his servant, arguing that a Muslim had no need to respect the “ridiculous precepts” of the Hindus; that God nowhere prohibited the killing of such animals but had created them for man’s use; and that killing the peacocks did not violate the precepts of the Qur’an. The administrator, however, pointed out that when Akbar had conquered Bengal sixty-four years earlier, he had promised that he and his successors would let Bengalis live under their own customs; the administrator sent the man back to jail, awaiting a sentence that might require whipping and the amputation of his right hand. Manrique bribed the administrator’s wife with a piece of Chinese silk taffeta, embroidered with white, pink, and yellow flowers. She persuaded her husband to forgo the amputation and merely subject the man to a whipping.104

Though there is significant blurring of the line between the injunction against killing any living thing or only against killing sacred things (peacocks perhaps being sacred to Skanda/Murugan, whose vehicle they are), the main point of this story stands out clearly in either case. Though the Christian was, by his own confession, prepared to mock Hindu sensibilities and to resort to concealment and bribery (which succeeded, in part) to evade them, his expectation that a Muslim judge might share his chauvinism was not justified; like Akbar, whom he invoked, the Muslim administrator respected Hindu law and did not privilege Muslims before the law.


In the realm of religious texts, both bhakti and Sufism transfused popular literature so thoroughly that it is often hard to tell which tradition is the source of a particular mystical folk song.105 Much of the poetry written by Muslims, with Muslim names, in Hindi, Bengali (Bangla), Gujarati, Punjabi, and Marathi begins with the Islamic invocation of Allah but goes on to express Hindu content or makes use of Hindu forms, Hindu imagery, Hindu terminology. In return, the sixteenth-century Bangla text entitled The Ocean of the Nectar of Bhakti, by the theologian Rupagoswamin, tells the life of Krishna in a form modeled on a Sufi romance.106 The heroes of the Persian epic the Shah Nama and the Sanskrit Mahabharata interact in the Tarikh-i-Farishta, composed under the Mughals. Hindu-Muslim sects flourished, especially in Bengal, and new Hindu sects emerged, headed by charismatic leaders. Muslims allowed Hindus to perform sacrifices in the ruins of old temples, and many Muslim pilgrims attended the Hindu shrines in Kangra and Mathura.107

Syncretismjq remained at the heart of Sufism, which in the course of time produced Muslim disciples who had Hindu disciples who had Muslim disciples, and so on, some of whom called God Allah, some Rama or Hari (Vishnu).108 In Sufi centers, low-caste Hindus, including Pariahs, shared meals with other Hindus as well as with Muslims.109 A similar synthesis took place in the seventeenth century in “Dakani” poetry composed in Urdu, which blended Islamic and Hindu genres as well as male and female voices, introducing, from the Hindu lyric tradition and the Arabic storytelling tradition, a female narrator.110 Popular religion often mixed Hindu and Sufi practices together inextricably, to the annoyance of reformers.111 Many people were Hindu by culture, Muslim by religion, or the reverse. Mughal emperors patronized yoga establishments. Hindus worshiped Sufi Pirs.112


The enrichment of Hinduism by Islam, and Islam by Hinduism, was greatly facilitated by the production of translations, which inspired new, original genres in both cultures. By the time of the Mughals, Indian literature was flourishing in North India in a number of languages: Sanskrit, Persian (the official court language), Arabic, the Turkic languages, and many regional languages, including Sindi, Punjabi, Pashto, and Hindi.113 In public spheres in South India too, particularly but not only in the Telugu-speaking world, language boundaries were porous both geographically and linguistically, and multiple literary cultures were loosely connected.114 Urdu (“camp”), a hybrid dialect that Akbar developed in the military encampments, was widely used; it was written in Perso-Arabic script, with much Sanskrit-Hindi syntax and vocabulary.115 Developed further under Shah Jahan, Urdu became the primary fusion language.

The Mughals extended their patronage to many Hindu scholars and commissioned the translation of many Hindu works from Sanskrit into Arabic and Persian. Already by the eighth century, the collection of animal fables called the Panchatantra had been translated into Arabic (known as The Mirror for Princes [Kalila wa Dimna]), and another version into Persian (entitled The Lights of Canopus [Anvari Suhaili]). Akbar had Abu’l Fazl translate it into Persian again and also had both the Mahabharata and theRamayana translated into Persian.116 There were Persian translations of theHarivamsha, gorgeously illustrated.117 Jahangir had an abridged translation made of the Yoga-vasishtha, and Dara Shikoh himself later translated it again, more fully. Dara also provided the first Persian translation of the Upanishads, which became known in Europe (through a French translation of Dara’s Persian) and introduced the British Orientalist William Jones to Indian literature. Thanks to Akbar and Dara, Sanskrit became an important literary language in the Muslim world.118 The Turkish and Afghan courts of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries sponsored a rich and interactive mixture of vernacular and classical or cosmopolitan languages and fostered the growth of regional literature, music, and art.119 The erotic literature of the Turks and Persians easily assimilated translations of the Kama-sutra into Persian, often with wonderful illustrations; the Persian was then translated into European languages.


As the Mughals were superb plunderers, so were they superb builders. Their architecture was strongly influenced by Hindu architecture,120 and in return, Mughal architecture had a vivid impact on many Hindu monuments,121 inspiring, as in literature, unprecedented Hindu forms.

Babur, who scorned most things Indian, disdained the Indian builders: “A stone mosque was built, but it was not well made. They built it in the Indian fashion.”122 But Akbar, who admired most things Indian, admired its architecture, too; the eclectic architecture of Fatehpur Sikri combined Persian with Hindu and Jaina forms. Akbar employed nearly fifteen hundred stonecutters at Agra.123 He gave Man Singh permission to erect a number of temples in Vrindaban, built of red sandstone, the material usually reserved for Mughal official architecture; these Hindu temples also had many Mughal architectural features.124 Since there were no Rama temples in Ayodhya until the sixteenth or seventeenth century, there is some irony in the strong possibility that Babur, whose mosque was to become such a cause célèbre, may have sponsored the first Rama temples in Ayodhya, built when he built the ill-fated Babri Mosque.125

In painting too a fusion of Hindu and Muslim forms led to innovations in both cultures. Many paintings on Hindu themes are signed with the names of Muslim artists, and many Hindu miniature paintings were modeled on Persian originals126 or incorporated composite figures and other fantastic themes from Persian miniatures.127 Though Indian painters already knew how to illuminate manuscripts with miniatures, the Persians made it a court practice and introduced new techniques and refinements.

As always, the common people of India picked up the tab.128 The great Mughal monuments were also monuments to Mughal “extravagance and oppression.” Though there were no more crop seizures, there was still crippling taxation on peasants and artisans, and the plight of the cultivator was worse than ever, with increased exploitation from above.129 As there was no free temple, there was certainly no free mosque.

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