Categories Medieval India



  • One view was that the Turks wrought such damage to the economic life and the social and cultural fabric that it could only be repaired after a long time and, to some extent, only under the Mughals. In other words, the entire period of Sultanat rule was painted in dark colours, so much so that it was argued that there was a decline of population in northern India during the period.
  • A second opinion was that since Indian society had hardly changed over the millenia, the negative aspects of Turkish rule were soon overcome, and that after some time the Turkish rulers emphasised justice and protection of the people rather than conquest. Hence, the even tenor of life was continued as far as the mass of the people were concerned, the effect of Turkish rule being felt mainly by the former ruling section—the Rajputs, and their close associates and beneficiaries Brahmanas.(
  • In recent times, a new view of Indian history has emerged which emphasises change rather than continuity. Thus, it traces the various phases of social development from the time of the Vedic Age. It is argued that along with periods of growth, decline and stagnation, there have been important structural changes in Indian society during its long history.
  • The period following the decline of the Gupta empire in north India is seen as one during which towns and long distance trade declined, gold coins virtually disappeared and even the silver currency was debased. At the local level, the power of the landed elites increased not only on the economic and social life, but over the administrative processes of the state. The word “feudal” has been used for this system, even though some of the characteristic features of European feudalism, the manor system and vassalage, were absent.
  • The establishment of Turkish rule in north India led to far-reaching changes in society and economic life. The new Turkish regime released social forces which created an economic organisation which brought changes to the one that had existed before and it led to the expansion of towns, and to important alterations in agrarian relationships.

Economic Life Under The Delhi Sultanat

(1)  Agricultural Production

  • There were hardly any elements of change in the rural economy during the Sultanat period. Ibn Battutah, who travelled all over India, has left a detailed account of the food-grains and various other crops, fruits and flowers produced in the country. Most of them are familiar to us, with rice and sugarcane being produced in the east and south, and wheat, oil-seeds etc, in the north. Cotton was grown widely, as also barley, sesame and other inferior crops.
  • Ibn Battutah says that the soil was so fertile that it produced two crops a year—the familiar rabi (winter) and kharif (monsoon) crops. Rice was sown three times a year.
  • Some of the crops were the basis of village industries, such as oil-processing, making jaggery, indigo, spinning and weaving etc.(
  • Potato, maize, red chillies and tobacco which were introduced during the 16th century are, of course, missing.
  • During the 14th century, under Muhammad bin Tughlaq and Firuz Tughlaq, there was a marked development of gardens. Firuz Tughlaq is said to have built 1200 gardens in the neighbourhood and suburbs of Delhi, 80 on the Salora embankment, and 44 in Chittor. These gardens led to the improvement of fruits, especially grapes. Thus, wine, apparently grape -wine, used to come to Delhi from Meerut and Aligarh.(
  • Dholpur, Gwaliyar and Jodhpur were the other places where improved methods of fruit cultivation and gardening were adopted. Special attention was paid to the improvement of pomegranates at Jodhpur. Sikandar Lodi declared that Persia could not produce pomegranates which were better than the Jodhpur variety in flavour.
  • However, the fruits produced in these orchards were meant mainly for the towns, and for the tables of the wealthy. They may, however, have produced some employment, and added to the avenues of trade.
  • Regarding implements,there was no change in them till the 19th century.
  • We have no idea of the productivity of the soil. It may have been higher because of more extensive manuring by cattle which were plentiful, as testified to by the fact that charai based on the number of animals was an important agricultural tax. Also, banjaras had thousands of oxen for their journeys.
  • The peasants had more land per head because of a much smaller population. Forests were also much more extensive. However, on account of social constraints, we hear of landless labourers and menials in the villages.
  • Most of the land was rain fed, though digging of wells and making of bunds (embankments) for storing water for irrigation were considered holy acts, and the state took an active part in building and preserving them.
  • An extensive system of canals was set up for the first time by Firuz during the second half of the 14th century. He cut two canals from the Jamuna, and one each from the Sutlej and the Ghaggar. But these mainly benefited the areas around Hissar in modern Haryana. Other smaller canals in Sindh and the Punjab are also mentioned.(

Rural Society:

  • The contemporary sources are almost silent on the subject of rural society. This deficiency can be made up, to some extent, by taking recourse to information available in Sanskrit, Apabhramsh and some of the south Indian languages. Although the information on village life available in these sources deal with the period from the 9th—10th centuries onwards, they provide us a background, and enable us to understand better the changes and continuities in village life under the Delhi Sultanat.(
  • From the writings of the 12th century Jain writer, Hemachandra, we can divide the village folk into four categories:(i) the produce-sharing peasants or share-croppers for whom the words karshak or ardhikas (receivers of a half share) are used; (ii) plough-shares and field labourers for whom various words such as halavakaka, kinasa and even karshak are used. These two sections constituted the lowest, most dependent peasantry. It seems that the word karshak, literally meaning the tiller of the soil, was a generic word for the lower peasantry which formed the largest group in the villages.(iii) Free peasants, but for whom the word owner-proprietor may be more appropriate. In later times, they were called malik-i-zamin (owners of the land) or khud-kasht (owner cultivators). They were entitled to inherit the land they claimed by descent. They also owned their huts or houses, and had the use of the village commons. They were often organised on a caste basis. Lastly (iv)The villages artisans: the cobbler, the rope-maker, the watchman, etc. Some of the village artisans, such as the cobbler and field-labourers belonged to the svapach (untouchable) category. The word low or adhama is generally applied to them.
  • The commentators on Dharma Shastras, and other writers are agreed about the harrowing poverty and wretched life of the mass of the toiling peasantry. The Padma Purana describes the miserable life of the karshaks and that they were so much oppressed by the rulers of the time as to be unable to even support their families.
  • The poverty of the peasants and field-labourers is contrasted with the luxurious life of the landed aristocracy, the samantas.
  • Village society was highly unequal. The growth of a cash nexus which became more rapid under the Sultanat increased the disparities further. While the agrarian policies of the Sultans were meant to ensure a steady income for the ruler and the officials who administered the state, their policies also had an impact on the rural society and economy. This is an aspect which we have to infer because the medieval chroniclers were hardly concerned about it.

The Revenue System:

  • We have little idea about the agrarian policies and practices before the arrival of the Turks in north India. The cultivators were required to pay a large number of cesses which were subsumed under the broad categories of bhaga (land revenue), bhog (cesses), and kar (extra cesses). However, it is difficult to calculate the share of the produce they comprised, individually or collectively, nor how much of it went to the ruler, and how much to his subordinates. The traditional share of the produce payable by the peasants, according to the Dharamashastras, was one-sixth, but we hear of kings in south India demanding one-third, or two thirds of the produce. A Chola king who had authorised his feudatories to collect half of the produce.
  • There was hardly any change in the structure of rural society during the 13th century. The early Turkish rulers depended on the Hindu chiefs to pay the land-revenue, leaving it to them to collect it from the peasants according to the existing practices.
  • The general approach of the Turkish ruling class is indicated by Barani who wrote almost a hundred years later. According to him, Balban advised his son, Bughra Khan, not to charge so much land-revenue (kharaj) as to reduce the peasant to a state of poverty, nor so little that they become rebellious on account of excess of wealth. In general, it was designed not to interfere with the existing village set up.
  • The 14th century saw a number of new developments. Alauddin Khalji raised the land-revenue demand to half in the upper Doab region upto Aligarh, and in some areas of Rajasthan and Malwa. This area was made khalisa, i.e. the land-revenue collected there went directly to the Imperial treasury. The land-revenue demand was based on the measurement of the area cultivated by each cultivator. Further, except in the area around Delhi, the cultivators were encouraged to pay land-revenue in cash. Alauddin tried to ensure that the cultivators sold their grains to the banjaras while the crops were still standing in the field, i.e. without transporting them to their own stores so as to be sold later when more favourable prices might prevail. However, this had to be modified in practice because we are told that many of the cultivators themselves brought their grains for sale in the local mandi. These could only have been the rich cultivators.
  • Alauddin’s agrarian measures amounted to a massive intervention in village affairs. Thus, he tried to operate against the privileged sections in the villages—the khuts, muqaddams, and chaudhuris and, to some extent, the rich peasants who had surplus food-grains to sell. The khuts and muqaddams were suspected of passing their burden on to the weaker sections, and not paying the ghari and charai taxes.(
  • The attempt to take away all the inherited privileges of the khuts and muqaddams, or of the upper sections of the landed nobility and to appoint an army of amils, most of whom proved to be corrupt, to supervise revenue collection was not liable to succeed. Alauddin’s revenue measures collapsed with his death.The restoration of the privileges of the khuts and muqaddams implies that the state no longer tried to assess the land-revenue on the basis of the holdings, i.e. area cultivated by each individual, but assessed it as a lump sum, leaving the assessment of individuals to the khuts and muqaddams. This was also a recognition of the economic and social power wielded by the khuts and muqaddams in the country-side.
  • Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq took the definite step of replacing the system of measurement by sharing in the khalisa areas. This was considered a step towards providing relief to the cultivators because while under measurement the risk of cultivation of crops had to be largely borne by the cultivator, under sharing both the profit or loss were shared by the cultivator and the state. Ghiyasuddin took another important step. In the territories held by the holders of iqtas, i.e. outside the khalisa areas, he ordered that the revenue demand should not be raised on the basis of guess or computation, but “by degrees and gradually because the weight of sudden enhancement would ruin the country and bar the way to prosperity.” Perhaps, the traditional demand in the area outside the khalisa areas remained one -third as before.
  • Muhammad Tughlaq tried to revive Alauddin’s system and to extend it all over the empire. His measures led to a serious peasant uprising in the doab. The reason for this, it seems, was that in assessing the land-revenue on individuals, not the actual yield but the artificially fixed standard yield was applied to the area under measurement. Further, when converting the produce into cash, not the actual prices but official standard prices were applied. There was also harshness in levying the tax on cattle and houses. Thus, the actual incidence of land-revenue demand rose considerably, to half or even more. Like Alauddin Khalji’s agrarian reforms, Muhammad Tughlaq’s measures were also designed to curtail the privileges of the more affluent sections in village society, especially the khuts and muqaddams. But his measures also hurt the average cultivator. This may explain why there was a serious uprising against his measures in the doab.
  • Muhammad Tughlaq then tried to reverse direction. In the doab which was the directly administered area (khalisa), he tried to improve cultivation by changing the cropping pattern, replacing inferior crops by superior crops. The main inducement for this was granting loans (sondhar) for digging wells, etc. This policy could only have succeeded with the co-operation of the richer cultivators, and the khuts and muqaddams who had the largest land-holdings, as well as the means. However, it failed because the officials appointed for the purpose had no knowledge of local conditions, and were only interested in enriching themselves.(
  • Firuz met with greater success by providing water to the peasants of Haryana by his canal system, levying an extra charge of 10 per cent, and leaving it to the peasants to cultivate what they wanted.
  • All in all, it would appear that the land-revenue under the Sultans, especially during the 14th century, remained heavy, hovering in the neighbourhood of half, and that there was a definite effort to reduce the power and privileges of the old intermediaries, the Rais, Rawats etc., with the khuts and muqaddams forging ahead. This was the first time that such a high magnitude of land-revenue was assessed and collected from a large and highly fertile area for several decades. Both the administrative methods adopted, and the centralisation of such large, liquid resources in the hands of the ruling class had important consequences, both for rural life and for the urban manufacturers, trade and commerce.
  • Firuz Tughlaq’s rule is generally considered a period of rural prosperity. Barani and Afif tells that as result of the Sultan’s orders, the provinces became cultivated, and tillage extended widely so that not a single village in the doab remained uncultivated. The canal system extended tillage in Haryana.
  • Rural society continued to be unequal, with imperial policies siphoning off a large share of the rural surplus. However, there was some limited success to the efforts to improve the rural economy even though the benefit of these was reaped largely by the privileged sections in rural society.

(2) Non-Agricultural Production

  • We do not have any detailed account of the economic resources of the country during the Sultanat period, and it has to be supplemented by the account provided by Abul Fazl in the Ain-i-Akbari, written towards the end of the 16th century. Briefly, the most important manufactures pertained to textiles, metallurgy, building activities, mining and other ancillary activities, such as leather-work, paper-making, toy-making, etc. (


  • Textile production was the biggest industry of India and goes back to ancient times. It included the manufacture of cotton cloth, woollen cloth and silk. Cotton cloth itself could be divided into two categories—the coarse (kamin) and the fine (mahin).
  • The coarse cloth, which was also called pat, was worn by the poor and the faqirs. It was often manufactured in households in the villages, but was also produced in some regions, such as Awadh, from which it was imported into Delhi.
  • Cotton cloth of a little superior quality was called calico (kirpas), and was widely used.
  • Cloth of fine variety included muslin which was produced at Sylhet and Dacca in Bengal, and Deogir in the Deccan. This was so fine and expensive as to be used only by the nobles and the very rich.
  • Gujarat also produced many variety of fine cotton-stuff. Barbossa tells us that Cambay (Khambayat) was the centre for the manufacture of all kinds of finer and coarse cotton cloth, besides other cheap varieties of velvets, satins, tafettas or thick carpets.
  • Various varieties of cloth was both painted, and printed by using blocks of wood. Thus, the 14th century Sufi Hindi poet, Mulla Daud, talks of printed (khand chaap) cloth.
  • Apart from the manufacture of cloth, other miscellaneous goods such as carpets, prayer carpets, coverlets, bedding, bed-strings, etc. were also manufactured in other parts of Gujarat.
  • The production of cloth improved during the period because of the introduction of the spinning-wheel (charkha). The spinning wheel is attested to in Iran in the 12th century by some well-known poets. Its earliest reference in India is in the middle of the 14th century. Thus, it apparently came to India with the Turks, and came into general use by the middle of the 14th century. The spinning-wheel in its simplest form increased the spinner’s efficiency some six-fold, in comparison with a spinner working with a hand spindle.
  • Another device introduce during the period was the bow of the cotton-carder (naddaf, dhunia) which speeded up the process of separating cotton from seeds.
  • Silk was imported from Bengal where silk worms were reared. However, a greater supply of silk yarn, including raw silk, was imported from Iran and Afghanistan. There was much use of silk cloth, and of  cotton and silk mixed at Delhi and its neighbourhood. The silk of Cambay (Khambayat) was among the costly items of cloth controlled by Alauddin Khalji.
  • The patolas of Gujarat with many fancy designs were highly valued. Gujarat was also famous for its gold and silver embroidery, generally on silk cloth. (
  • Wool was procured from the mountainous tracts, though sheep were also reared in the plains. The finer qualities of woollen cloth and furs were largely imported from outside, and were almost exclusively worn by the nobles. However, the shawl industry of Kashmir was well established. Muhammad Tughlaq sent Kashmir shawls as a present to the Chinese emperor.
  • Carpet weaving also developed under the patronage of the Sultans, with many Iranian and Central Asian designs being incorporated.
  • Dyeing industry: Indigo and other vegetables dyes were responsible for the bright colours of which both men and women were fond. The dyeing industry went hand in hand with calico-painting. The tie and dye method was of old standing in Rajasthan, though we do not know when hand-printing using wooden blocks was introduced.
  • We do not know much about the organisation of the textile industry which gave employment to a large number of people. Then as later, spinning was considered to be women’s work, and was carried out in the homes. Even slave-girls were used for this purpose. Weaving was also a house-hold industry, carried out in towns or in some of the villages. The weaving material was purchased by the weavers themselves, or supplied to them by merchants.
  • The luxury items were, however, generally produced in the royal workshops or karkhanas. In Muhammad Tughlaq’s karkhanas, there were 4000 silk workers who wove and embroidered different types of robes and garments. Firuz Tughlaq had recruited and trained a large number of slaves to work in his karkhanas, and in the parganas.


  • India had an old tradition of metal-work as testified to by the iron-pillar of Mehrauli (Delhi), which has stood the ravages of time and weather over centuries. Many idols of copper or mixed-metals also testified to the skill of the Indian metal-workers. Indian damascened swords and daggers were also famous all over the world. Vessels of bronze and copper, including inlay work, produced in the Deccan had a steady demand in West Asia.
  • The high quality of the Sultanat coinage is also an evidence of the skill of the Indian metal workers. The gold and silver-smiths of India were known for the fine pieces of jewellery produced by them for which there was an insatiable demand from both women and men.

Building Industry:

  • The building industry was a major means of employment. There had been a spurt of temple building activity in north India from the 10th century, as witnessed by the temples at Khajuraho in Bundelkhand, at Dilwara in Rajasthan and other places in Orissa and Gujarat.
  • The Turkish sultans, too, were great builders. They introduced a new style of arch, the dome and the vault, and a new mortar, the lime mortar for cementing. They built cities, forts and palaces, the remains of many of which are still visible.(
  • There was a great spurt in brick making, and more and more people began to live in brick and stone houses, though the poor continued to live in mud houses, with thatched roofs.
  • As stone cutters, the Indian craftsmen were unrivalled. Amir Khusrau proclaimed that the mason and stonecutters of Delhi were superior to their fellow craftsmen in the whole Muslim world. Timur had taken masons and stone-cutters of Delhi to build his capital, Samarqand.
  • Barani tells that Alauddin Khalji employed 70,000 craftsmen for the construction of his buildings. Both Muhammad Tughlaq and Firuz were great builders. Firuz not only established a number of new towns, but had many old buildings, including mausoleums repaired.
  • Enamelled tiles were introduced in India during the period.
  • Hindu Rajas and chiefs also patronised building-artisans, and a number of new towns, such a Jodhpur in Rajasthan, were built during the period. Wood work of excellent quality was carried out throughout the country, with doors, seats, bed-stands for domestic use being made.

Other Crafts including Paper-making:

  • Another crafts which was widespread in India was leather-working, based on the large cattle wealth in the country. This was largely organised on a caste basis. Superior quality saddles were produced for a large number of horses in the stables, or gifted to nobles. Gujarat produced exquisite mats of red and blue leather, decorated with birds and beasts, or inlaid work.
  • A new industry which arose during the period was paper-making. Although known to China in 100 A.D.,knowledge about paper technology reached Samarqand and Baghdad only in the 8th century. The Arabs introduced a new technology, using rags and ropes instead of the mulberry trees and the bark of trees.There is no evidence of its use in India before the 13th century, and the earliest paper manuscript in India available to us is from Gujarat dated 1223-24. Paper making meant a great increase in the availability of books.(
  • Other crafts included salt-making, quarrying for stone and marbles, and extraction of iron and copper ore.
  • There was also diamond mining in Panna and in south India, as also diving for pearls from the sea. Ivory working was another important craft.

(3) Trade:

(a) Domestic Trade

  • During the Sultanat period, as during the earlier period, India remained the manufacturing workshop for the Asian world and adjacent areas of East Africa, with brisk and well -established domestic trade. India’s position was based on highly productive agriculture, skilled craftsmen, strong manufacturing traditions, and a highly specialised and experienced class of traders and financers.
  • The growth of towns and a money nexus in north India following the Turkish centralisation which led to improved communications, a sound currency system based on the silver tanka and the copper dirham, and the reactivation of Indian trade, especially over-land trade with Central and West Asia.
  • Domestic trade may be divided into local trade between the villages, and with the mandis and district towns; and long distance trade between metropolitan towns and regions. Trade between district and metropolitan towns fell between the two.(
  • Local trade involved the sale of crops for the payment of land revenue and to feed the towns which were growing in size and number. The sale of crops was primarily the responsibility of the village bania who also provided the peasants with such necessities as salt and spices, and raw iron for use by the village blacksmith. Sometimes, the rich cultivators themselves took their surplus produce to the local mandis—a practice which Alauddin Khalji tried to encourage to prevent hoarding at the village level. The mandis were supplemented by local fairs where animals were also sold, animals being a necessity for field operations, local transport, milk etc. These played a vital role in the economic life of the country. However, local trade did not generate enough wealth to make the traders engaged in it wealthy enough to lead a life of ease and plenty. Thus, the much reviled village bania probably did not have a standard of living higher than that of a rich peasant.
  • At the other end of the spectrum were the rich traders and financers, the sahs, modis and sarrafs. Their trading activities were geared both to the movement of bulk commodities within the country, as well as to cater to the demand for luxury goods required by the nobility living in the big cities. The bulk commodities included food-grains, oil, ghee, pulses, etc. with some regions having a surplus and some others a deficit. Thus, rice and sugar which were surplus in Bengal and Bihar were carried by ships to Malabar and Gujarat. Wheat which was surplus in modern east U.P. (Awadh, Kara/Allahabad) was transported to the Delhi region. But transport of bulk commodities overland was expensive, and was carried on mainly by the banjaras, who moved with their families along with thousands of bullocks. Perhaps, the operations of the banjaras were financed by the rich merchants, the sahs and the modis. Expensive but bulky commodities, like fine quality textiles, were carried on the backs of horses or in bullock carts. The movement of these good was in caravans or tandas, protected by hired soldiers because roads were unsafe on account of both wild animals and dacoits.
  • The building of the road from Delhi to Deogir by Muhammad bin Tughlaq illustrates the manner in which road communication were sought to be improved. Thus, trees were planted on both sides of the road, and a halting station (sarai) was built every two miles (karoh) where food and drink was available. In Bengal, an embankment was made so that a part of the road to Lakhnauti which had remained under water during rains could become passable.(
  • Regarding the commodities transported in long distance trade, apart from the bulk commodities, textiles were the main item.
  • Horses, both foreign and domestic, were also an important item of import. Indigo, spices, ungents, drugs, leather-goods were other important items. Shawls and carpets from Kashmir were in demand at Delhi. So were dry fruits. Wine was imported from abroad, and also produced at Meerut and Aligarh in the Gangetic doab.
  • Regarding the financing of long distance trade, the hundi system must have continued. The modis and sarrafs were the main means of operating and financing the hundi system. Although there was no system of banking as such, the village bania at the village level, and the modis and sarrafs at the national level were the main means of providing finance for agricultural operations and trade. The interest charged on loans was 10 per cent per annum for big loans, and 20 per cent on small or petty sums.

(b) Foreign Trade

  • India had an old tradition of trade with West Asia and extending through it to the Mediterranean world, as also to Central Asia, South-East Asia and China both by over-seas and over-land routes.(
  • The overland routes lay through the Bolan pass to Herat, and through the Khyber pass to Bokhara and Samarqand, and also by the Kashmir routes to Yarkand and Khotan for onward transmission to China. These trade routes were sometimes disrupted due to the outpouring of nomadic hordes from Central Asia, such as the Hun eruption during the 6th-7th centuries, and the Mongol onslaught during the 13th century.
  • The rise and fall of empires also effected the safety of these trade routes. However, the traders proved to be extremely hardy and skillful in overcoming these obstacles. Also, the nomads quickly realised the value of permitting trade to flow, and tax it to their benefit. Thus, the Mongols not only permitted trade but, when not at war, themselves traded in camels and horses, arms, falcons, furs and musk. Although Balban had difficulties in getting horses from Central Asia on account of the Mongols, this must have been temporary because Alauddin Khalji had no such difficulty. With the establishment of the Mongol empires, and the security of roads, trade with China and West Asia became easier than ever before. The effect of the destruction of flourishing cities such as Samarqand and Bokhara by the Mongols should not, therefore, be overestimated. With the gradual assimilation of the Mongols to Islam, conditions for trade improved further during the 14th century.
  • However, overland trade concentrated on commodities which were light in weight but high in value because of the high cost of transportation. Horses were the most important commodity imported overland into India. There was a steady demand for Arabi, Iraqi  and Central Asian horses in India for the needs of the army, the cavalary being the principal instrument of warfare. They were also valued for purposes of show and status. Hence, the careful regulation of sale and purchase of horses was a priority for the state.(
  • The other commodities imported into India included camels, furs, white slaves, velvet, dry fruits and wines. Tea and silk were imported from China, though silk was also imported from Persia, the mulberry tree and silk cocoons having been introduced there during the 13th and 14th century by the Mongols.
  • The exports from India included cotton textiles, food stuffs such as rice, sugar and spices. There was a continuous export of slaves from India for whom the demand in the Islamic world was quite considerable.
  • The principal centre for overland trade from India was Multan. Lahore had been ruined by the Mongols in 1241, and was not able to regain itself till the reign of Muhammad Tughlaq. Multan was also the entry point of all foreigners, including traders who were all called Khurasanis. In wealth they appear to be inferior to the Multanis.(
  • However, the foreign merchants,especially the Arabs, were more active in Gujarat and Malabar in overseas trades. Indians, both Hindus (Agrawal and Maheshwari) and Jains and Bohras were also active in this trade, with colonies of Indian traders living in West and South-East Asia.
  • Bengal also carried on trade with China and countries of South-East Asia, exporting textiles, and importing silks, spices etc. Ma Huan, who came to Bengal in the early part of the fifteenth century, mentions that “wealthy individuals who built ships and go to foreign countries to trade are quite numerous.”


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