Why one of the wealthiest empires in history disintegrated in 17 years
On June 17, 1631, the 38-year old chief consort of Shah Jahan, head of the Mughal Empire, was giving birth to their 14th child in the central Indian city of Burhanpur.
It had been a long and extremely difficult labor– more than 30 hours in total. But the consort persisted and gave birth to a healthy baby girl. The consort herself, unfortunately, succumbed to uncontrollable postpartum bleeding, and she passed away that same day.
Her name was Mumtaz Mahal. And her husband the Emperor was so bereaved that, after a year-long period of mourning, he commissioned a palatial mausoleum to house her tomb.
We know this tomb today as the Taj Mahal. And Shah Jahan spared no expense on its grandeur. According to the scrupulously kept financial records of the time, the cost of the Taj Mahal totaled precisely 41,828,426.47 silver Rupees. Based on the today’s gold and silver prices, that works out to be more than $3 billion in today’s money.
Now, I’m sure Shah Jahan loved his wife very much. But that’s a lot of money to spend on a tomb… especially when the money comes from the public treasury.
But this sort of profligate spending was pretty typical of the Mughal Emperors at the time.
The Mughal Empire had only been founded roughly 100 years before, in 1526. And it rose to prominence under the reign of Akbar the Great during the late 1500s.
Akbar tripled the size and wealth of the Mughal Empire until it included virtually all of India, Pakistan, and parts of Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Akbar also ensured that economic freedom reigned. He cut taxes. The coinage was stable. Infrastructure was highly advanced. People were free to engage in commerce and trade.
Akbar also held government bureaucracy to a minimum, and even kept his personal household spending quite low.
He famously ruled with a staff of just four ministers, and he set an example of routinely hiring people based purely on their talent, irrespective of someone’s religion, nationality, or class.
As a result, the Mughal Empire became a financial powerhouse, responsible for roughly 22% of global GDP. (This is approximately the same as the US is today.)