Categories Medieval India



  • The social structure during the Sultanat period, which we have analyzed earlier, continued to operate under Mughal rule, showing signs of both continuity and change. The most important changes were the further strafication of rural society; growth of urbanization and of the class of artisans and master artisans, the growth of a composite ruling class accompanied with bureaucratization and commercialization; the growth of middle segments, and the further expansion and strengthening of the commercial classes.

(A) Population

  • While it is difficult to form a precise idea of the total population of the country in the absence of statistics, by utilizing the statistics of the cultivated area, yields, revenue rates and the jama or the estimated revenue demand from land, modern scholors have put the population of the country at the end of the 16th century between 140 and 150 million which slowly increased to 200 million by the end of the 18th century, thus giving a population growth rate of 0.14 per cent per annum.
  • Akbar is said to have ordered a detailed account of population, but its result have not come down to us. Even the Ain-i Akbari with all the variety of statistical information that it contains, offers no estimate of the number of people for the whole of Akbar’s Empire or any part of it.
  • Moreland made the first attempt to estimate the population with the help of the data of the Ain-i Akbari. He tried to determine the population of Northern India on the basis of the figures given in the Ain-i Akbari. According to him there were 30 to 40 million people at the end of the 16th century. For the Deccan and South India, Moreland took as the basis of his calculations the military strength of the Vijaynagar Empire and Deccan Sultanates.
  • Taking a rather arbitrary ratio of 1:30 between the soldiers and civilian population, he estimated the population of the reign at 30 millions. Allowing for other territories lying within the pre-1947 limits of India but not covered by his two basic assumptions, he put the population of Akbar’s Empire in 1600 at 60 millions, and of India as a whole at 100 millions. These estimates received wide acceptance.
  • However, Moreland has given inadequate weight to the areas outside the two regions. To make an appropriate allowance for these regions, Kingsley Davis raised Moreland’s estimate for the whole of India to 125 millions in his book ‘Population of India and Pakistan’ This modification, reasonable insofar as it goes, does not, of course, remove the more substantial objections to Moreland’s method indicated above.
  • In spite of the various objections to the estimates of Moreland, it still remains legitimate to use the extent of cultivation to make an estimate of population. Shireen Moosvi makes the following three assumptions:(i) The total cultivation in 1601 was 50 to 55 per cent of what it was during the first decade of the present century.(ii) The urban population was 15 per cent of the total and, thus, the rural population was 85 per cent of the total population.(iii) The average agricultural holding in 1601 was 107 per cent larger than in 1901. She gives the estimate of the population of India in the 17th century as between 140 and 150 millions.

(B) Rural Society

  • During the 16th and 17th centuries, about 85 per cent of India’s population lived in rural areas. Any study of the social system should, therefore, start with the villages. However, in contemporary historical sources, including the accounts of the large number of foreign travellers who visited India during the period, we have hardly any account of life in the rural areas. The deficiency has been made up to some extent by the large mass of documents dealing with land revenue and rural affairs pertaining to the various states of Rajasthan, Marathi records of the 18th century, and Mughal documents mainly dealing with the Deccan. Literary sources, too, provide some information on rural life and conditions.
  • A main feature of rural society in the country, excluding tribal areas, was its highly stratified nature. People were divided and grouped on the basis of their resident status, caste, and position as office holders. While there were considerable differences in their material status, material situation was not a primary factor in fixing their position in rural society.

(1) Resident Cultivators:

(a) Riyayatis (Privileged Section)

  • The largest section in the village consisted of cultivators, the large majority of whom claimed to be descendants of original settlers of the village. The word used in Sanskrit for old settlers was sthanik or resident, and the words thani or stalwahak for such settlers in Maharashtra were obviously derived from it. Other words, such as mirasi in Maharashtra, or gaonveti or gaveti in Rajasthan were also in use for these sections.
  • The resident cultivators were often divided into two: the riyayati and the raiyati, or the privileged and the ordinary.
  • The riyayati section consisted of the resident owner-cultivators, for whom the word mirasi was used in Maharashtra, and gharu-hala in parts of Rajasthan. The word used in Persian was khud-kasht. According to a late 18th century glossary, the word khud kasht is defined as one who, “having paid himself the money (for the purchase of) oxen etc, gets the cultivation done by the peasants (riaya)”. It sums up by saying, “if the owner of land (malik-i-zamin) cultivates his own land, he is called khud-kasht”.
  • Thus, resident status in the village, ownership of land, and cultivating the land with the help of family labour, supplemented by hired labour, were the characteristic features of the khud-kasht.
  • The khudkasht not only paid land revenue at a concessional rate, but were exempt, partially or wholly, from various imposts, such as tax on marriages.
  • Nor did a khud-kasht pay any house tax as long as he had only one habitation in the village.
  • The khud-kasht right was a valuable right, not only because it implied an economic advantage, but because it conferred a certain social status. The resident cultivators formed the governing body of the village community its bhadralok or respectable class.They had a number of other privileges, such as access to village pastures and forest lands, to the water reservoir and the fishes, and to the services of the village servants or officials.
  • Apart from the khud-kasht, the privileged section or riyayatis comprised in Rajasthan and perhaps in many parts of the country, of those belonging to the higher castes, Brahman, Rajput and Mahajan(bania), as also the local village officials, such as the patel or chaudhari, quanungo, patwari, etc. though many of these may have been drawn from the body of the khud-kasht.
  • The riyayatis had a separate dastur or tax regulation in various parts of the country. In Rajasthan, according to documents, these sections paid one-fourth of the produce, whereas the normal demand was from one-fourth to half. It should be noted however, that due to caste taboo, brahmans did not cultivate the land themselves, but had it ploughed through hired labour. Also,concessions in land-revenue was given on occasions to other sections also.

 Pahis(Pai-kasht) or Outsiders:

  • The khud-kasht or owner-cultivators are sometimes equated wrongly with the entire body of resident cultivators. They are also contrasted with the pahi or pai-kasht who came from neighbouring villages or parganas to cultivate surplus land, or to resettle a ruined village or to settle a new one. In many cases, the pahis were given pattas at concessional rates, the full rate being paid in the third or fifth year, or even later. Thus, we are told that village Mehrajpur in pargana Malarna (Eastern Rajasthan) which had been deserted in 1728 on account of failure of rains and the wells and ponds having dried up, was resettled when the former patel was asked to settle in the village and give an undertaking that he would bring the entire land of the village under plough. He was given a patta at the rate of one-third of the produce for three years. The pahi-kasht who came to the village were given pattas for paying one-third of the produce for the current year. Such concession could vary, both in terms of amount and duration, depending on circumstances.
  • When the pahis had no implements of their own, they were provided with ploughs, bullocks, seeds, manure and money either directly by the state, or by the village money-lender (bohra). They were also allowed to retain their fields as long as they continued to pay land-revenue.
  • The movement of peasants from village to village, either due to natural factors, such as famins, or manmade factors, such as war or local oppresion was not a new feature. It is referred to by the Hindi poet, Tulsidas, in the 16th century.
  • It was an old feature that peasants moved from their villages to improve their conditions, such as settling a new village, or expanding cultivation in an old village or resettling it. Thus, rural society’ was not as fixed and unchanging as we often picture it; though the structure itself hardly underwent any change. Thus, a new village was settled on the same structure as the old one. During periods of unrest, the number of pahis must have increased.
  • Sometimes the pahis were drawn from the section of dalits who came to new or ruined villages in the hope of acquiring ownership rights over the lands they had brought under the plough. Such a development was generally not possible in their own villages due to social taboos. But we do find instances in many areas, such as Kota, where peasants from the dalit sections were allowed to become owners of land.
  • It would not be correct to treat pahis as temporary or migrating workers because most of them settled in the village and could, in course of time which could extend to one or more generation, be absorbed in the body of resident cultivators.

(c) The Raiyatis(general section):

  • The general category of cultivators were called raiyatis or paltis in Rajasthan. The Persian word used for them was muzarian. The paltis generally belonged to middle castes – Jat, Gujar, Mali, Ahir, Meena etc.
  • They could be either owners (malik, dhani) of the lands they cultivated, or tenants.
  • The raiyati owner cultivators were assessed according to the raiyati dastur which itself was variable, according to the nature of the crop, the season, means of irrigation etc. However, as a norm, the land revenue levied on polaj land (land which was cultivated every year and never left fallow) on the ordinary peasant was normally one-half of the produce. Wheat and bajra was charged at two-fifth.
  • Land-revenue did not include other cesses (jihat).
  • Raiyati or palti tenants have been divided into two —
  • (1)state tenants who cultivated the cultivatable wasteland (banjar), or cultivated the land abandoned by a dhani or owner-cultivator. Such tenants usually had their own ploughs and oxen, and were given a patta which could be for one year, or a single harvest. The patta was generallay renewable.
  • (2)The second category of tenants were dhani tenants who tilled the personal lands of zamindars, bhomias, patels, holders of inam lands etc. Very often they were dependent on the mahajan, zamindar and the patel for bullocks, ploughs, seeds, etc. They either paid rent in addition to the land-revenue to the owner of the land or cultivated it on the basis of share-cropping. These cultivators had low social esteem, and sometimes the word palti applied to them was used in a derogatory sense.
  • The paltis also moved from village to village for better terms, or were offered concessional terms for settling a deserted or a new village. These paltis are sometimes indistinguishable from pahis.
  • Apart from the cultivators, there were landless persons who worked as labourers (majurs).

Service People:

  • In addition, there were the service people – the ironsmith, the carpenter, the rope-maker, the potter, the leather worker, barber, washermen, the village watchman, etc. In Maharashtra, these service sectors were twelve in number who were called balutedars, receiving a prescribed share (baluta) from the village produce.
  • There was another sections called alutedars, which were “neither essential nor universal in the Deccan villages, only some of them were occasionally found in the larger villages”. They were the village priests, tailor, water carrier, gardner, drum-beater, volcalist, musician, oil presser, betel nut seller, gold smith etc. These received a lower share of the produce or were given a strip of land for their remuneration.


  • The landless and the bulk of the service classes were designated kamin or low, and included a sizable section of dalits.
  • It is difficult to estimate the proportion of the three principal sections – the riyayati, the raiyati, and the service classes. In some estimates pertaining to eastern Rajasthan, the riyayati or privileged classes amounted to 13 percent; the service classes 11 percent and the remainder 76 percent. Even this does not give a true picture of the gross inequalities in village society.
  • According to a takhmina document about mauza Chandawar in Eastern Rajasthan in 1666, out of 86 cultivators, 9 cultivated on an average about 126 bighas each, 23 cultivators had 70 bighas of land each under actual cultivation, and the remaining 50 cultivated 30 bighas of land each.This picture is repeated in the case of ploughs. From this limited evidence, we may not be for wrong in concluding that while the large majority of the cultivators belonged to the middling status, in many of the bigger villages, there were 5 to 10 percent of the total, who were financially affluent. At the other end of the spectrum, there were 15 to 30 percent cultivators in many villages who did not have land or means of cultivation, and who could be classified poor. This does not include the landless and the poorer sections in the service classes.
  • We do not have sufficient information at present to decide whether poverty was growing, or the rich becoming richer. A general assumption is that whenever the control of the government, whether central or local, weakened, the richer sections in the villages transferred their burden on to the shoulders of the weaker sections.
  • What effect did this disparity have on the growth pattern of the village? We have evidence of both negative and positive aspects.                                                                              Negatively, the richer sections including the mahajans,lent oxen, ploughs, seeds, etc. to the weaker sections for cultivation, or lent money for payment of land revenue and realized their dues with interest at the time of harvest. They foreclosed the land in case of default. Similarly, in times of famine, the richer sections of the village lent money to the weaker sections, and used their resources to bring under their cultivation abandoned fields. The state hardly interfered, its main concern being to ensure that raiyati lands were not converted by the privileged sections into riyayati lands which paid land-revenue at a concessional rate.              At the positive level, it is the privileged sections, including the village zamindar, and the rich cultivators who played a leading role in providing money, implements and organization for expanding and improving cultivation, including introduction of higher quality crops, such as wheat and cash-crops (cotton, indigo, oil-seeds etc.) which meant additional investment, and new crops (such as tobacco, maize etc.). The superior crops needed more water, and were generally more labour intensive.
  • Thus, the processes of stratification and growth of income disparity, and of expansion and improvement of cultivation went on side by side. But these could be disrupted in case of a general breakdown of law and order or absence of an equitable approach towards levying and collection of land-revenue.

(2) Village Community

  • Although the word “village community” was popularized by British administrators, such as Baden-Powel, and picked up by nationalist leaders as a basis for Indian democracy, there is no equivalent for the word in Indian languages. The reason for this was that the “village” itself implified a local community, howsover divided by caste, office, economic status etc. As we have seen, the village panchayat was dominated by the resident cultivators, or a few persons drawn from that section. We have also seen that land was not held by the village community, but by individuals who were assessed separately.
  • However, the body of resident cultivators were sometimes held responsible for the payment of the assessed land – revenue. This was a devise to prevent the flight of peasants from the village as far as possible.
  • As the zamindars became stronger during the eighteenth century, following the growing weakness of centralized government, the role of the resident cultivators in regulating the internal affairs of the village also became weaker.

(C) Towns and Town Life

  • Towns and town-life are considered to be an index of the state of development and culture in a country.According to Abdul Fazl, “People that are attached to the world will collect in towns, without which there would be no progress.”City life was a special feature of Muslim civilization.
  • Towns are like electric transformers. They increase tension, accelerate the rythm of exchange and constantly recharge human life. Towns generate expansion and are themselves generated by it.
  • We had noted in an earlier volume the growth of towns and town-life in India during the Sultanat period. The process of the growth of towns became faster during the 16th and 17th centuries, and continued till the middle of the 18th century.
  • There is no agreement regarding the size of a town, though it is generally agreed that the size of a town depends on the population of a country.
  • The basic feature of a town is the existence of a market. The smallest towns in India, the qasba, has been defined as a village with a market, in other words, it had the characteristics of village life, viz. agricultural production, and a market. Generally speaking, a qasba was also a pargana headquarter.
  • There was a hirearchy of towns from the humble qasba to the district (sarkar) headquarter where the faujdar resided, to the provincial and imperial towns like Agra, Delhi, Lahore, etc.
  • In Akbar’s empire, there were 120 big cities and 3200 townships or rural towns (qasbas). These did not include the towns and townships in South India. In the 17th century, the largest city was Agra with an estimated population of 500,000 which rose to 600,000 when the Emperor was in the town. It still remained very large when the court shifted back to Delhi in the middle of the 17th Century. Delhi was now held to be as populous as Paris which was then the biggest town in Europe.
  • According to a traveller, Coryat, in the beginning of the 17th century, Lahore was bigger than Agra, and was “one of the largest cities of the whole universe”. Ahmadabad was estimated to be larger than London and its subarbs. Patna, we are told, had a population of 200,000. Other large towns included Dacca, Rajmahal, Thatta, Burhanpur, Masulipatam.
  • However, what mattered was not so much the size as the nature of the towns and the role they played in the social, economic and cultural life of the country.
  • According to a recent estimate, during the 17th Century there was a very high ratio of urban to the total population of the country, as much as 15 percent, a proportion which was not exceeded till the middle of the 20th century. Even if this figure of urbanization may be disputed, it is agreed that in Mughal India, the largest towns were “thriving centres of manufacuring and marketing, banking and enterpreneurial activities, intersections in a network of communications by land and water which crossed and re-crossed the sub-continent and extended far beyond, to South East Asia, to the Middle East, to Western Europe, and elsewhere.”
  • Four distinct types of urban centres can be identified. First, there were cities whose prime function was administrative where other roles, such as manufacturing or religion were of secondary importance. These were cities such as Agra, Delhi, Lahore, as well as many provincial capitals., Later, Poona, Faizabad, Haiderabad emerged as important centres of this type. Secondly, there were cities which had a predominantly commercial and manufacturing character to which may be attached some administrative functions. Cities such as Patna, and Ahmadabad fell in this category. Thirdly, there were the piligrim centres where some trade and craft activities also flourished, but which had a large floating population. Cities such as Banaras and Mathura, Kanchi and Tirumalai in South India fall in this category. Ajmer was both religious and administrative in character. Lastly, there were centres which flourished because of distinctive manufacturing technique or skill or local commodity. Bayana because of indigo,Patan in Gujarat for dyeing, Khairabad in Awadh for textiles fell in this category.
  • On account of the peace and law and order established by the Mughals in north and central India, and the consequent growth of commerce and manufacture, the period has been conceived of a “veritable golden age of urbanization”. Of course, the process was not the same in different parts of the empire -Western U.P. and Eastern Punjab were the most rapidly developing till the end of the 17th century, while eastern U.P. and Bihar and Bengal forged ahead in the first half of the 18th century, due to the strong rule of the Nawabs or local rulers. Poona, Hugli etc. also developed under Maratha rule.
  • Describing the lay-out of the new city of Shahjahanbad, Bernier says that the style of housing had to suit the climate conditions of India, being airy was very important, as also having terraces to sleep in the open at night during the hot weather. He says: “Very few of the houses are built entirely of brick or stone, and several are made only of clay and straw, yet they are airy and pleasant, most of them having courts and gardens being commodious inside and having good furniture. The thatched roof is supported by a layer of long handsome and strong canes, and the clay walls are covered with a fine white lime”. Intermixed with these houses, and the shops above whom the merchants lived, were an immense number of small ones, built of mud and thatched with straw, in which lived the common soldiers, the vast multitude of servants and camp followers.
  • It is wrong to think that all the streets were narrow, crooked and unpaved. In each town there were one or two principal roads, which formed chowks. The roads were generally paved. The city was divided into wards or mohallas in which people of one caste or profession generally lived, though we have mohallas at Delhi consisting of both Hindus and Muslims. The mohalla was locked up at night for security.
  • It has been argued that cities in India did not have a specific legal character of their own, like many towns in Europe, and hence had no civic life. This judgement needs, however, to be modified. The general administration of the city in India was in the hands of the kotwal who had his own staff for watch and ward. In special cases, he could ask the faujdar for help. Apart from regulating weights and measures, and keep track of prices, prohibit illegal cesses etc. he had a number of civic duties such as to appoint persons to look after the water courses, prohibit the selling of slaves, set the idle to some handicrafts and to organize people in reciprocal assistance in the mohallas, and appoint a guild-master for every guild of artificers. We know that in many cities there were heads of traders (malik-ut-tujjar or Nagar seths), sometimes on a caste or religious basis. Thus, there was a structure of local consultation and participation.
  • The kotwal was also to act as an intelligence agent, keeping track of the coming and going of peoples, births and deaths, census operations etc.
  • In general, the point to note is that the administrative structure of towns was such as to discharge in a satisfactory manner the effective purposes of town-life.

(D) Artisans and Master-Craftsmen

  • The number of workers in constructing royal buildings in medieval India was enormous. We are told that Alauddin Khalji engaged 70,000 workers for his buildings. Babur claimed that 680 workmen worked daily on his buildings at Agra, while 1491 men worked as stone-cutters in his buildings at Agra, Sikri, Bayana, Dholpur etc. Under Akbar, 3 – 4,000 artisans, labourers and other functionaries worked daily to construct the Agra fort. In addition, 8,000 labourers were employed to supply stone and lime. If Tavernier is to be believed, “twenty thousand men worked incessantly” to construct the Taj Mahal. If to this we add the workers needed for constructing the houses of the nobles, the artisans and labourers used in the building industry alone would be enormous.
  • In addition there were the artisans who were employed in the various manufactures, urban and rural. It is impossible to form any idea of the number of these artisans except to say that though generally organized on a caste basis, there was sufficient flexibility for the numbers in any craft being added to in case of growth of demand.
  • The major industry was, undoubtedly, the textile industry based on cotton but supplemented by silk or tussar mainly produced in Bengal, and often used to make cloth mixed with cotton and silk or painted.
  • Carpentry which included ship-building, and production of leather goods were other major industries, supplemented by metallurgy, paper making, glass making etc.
  • Indian craftsman was able to produce goods of very high quality with very simple tools. One cause of this was general indifference to labour saving devices on account of a limited domestic market, and fear of unemployment if such devices were introduced. Thus, in 1672, the Dutch in Coromandal had successfully introduced a technique which quadrupled production of iron nails and cannon balls. Local authorities banned the new technique lest it deprives many locksmiths of their livelihood.
  • Both early modern Europe and medieval China were far ahead of mid-eighteenth century India in such crucial fields of technology as the use of wind and water power, metallurgy, printing, nautical instruments, and basic tools and precision instruments.
  • This does not, of course, mean that no technological progress was made in Medival India. India was able to produce, mainly at Surat, ships as good as any sent from Europe to Asia, as also manufacture heavy guns. There also had been modifications in the technique of raw-silk reeling, indigo or saltpetre manufacture and the arts of dyeing and printing cloth at the instance of European companies. This showed that the Indian artisaus were not opposed to new technique as long as it did not threaten their livelihood, and augmented their income.
  • Unlike Europe, the concentration of manufacuring industries in the towns to the exclusion of the villages did not take place in India. The villages in India continued not only with traditional crafts like manufacture of sugar, oil, indigo, raw silk, etc., but also developed localized centres of production. Thus, in the coastal area from Madras to Armagaon, there were artisan villages which specialized in producing cloth for export. According to Orme, in Bengal, near the main road and large

towns, by the middle of the 18th century, there was hardly a village where every inhabitant was not

engaged in the manufacture of textiles. Such examples can also be cited for other regions, such as

Gujarat, Awadh, etc.

In the main, the artisans still worked on a domestic basis. Thus, in a weaving family, women and children

cleaned the cotton, and spun the thread, men worked over the loom. In general, the artisans owned

their tools of trade. It was only in the royal karkhanas that the craftsmen worked at one place under

supervision, and were provided with the tools and raw materials. This may have been copied by a few of

the richer, powerful nobles. It was only in some enterprises, such as large construction of public

buildings and public works such as tanks, diamond mining, ship-building etc. that workers were brought

together, and worked under some kind of superior supervision. We are told that in all 20,000 or 30,000

workers were employed in the diamond mining field, with 2000-3000 workers employed by one

contractor. But in most cases, these were ad-hoc organizations, the workers dispersing as soon as the

work in hand had been completed. In other words, there was hardly any stable organization for large

scale enterprises.

Artisans may be classified broadly into two categories. On the one hand were the rural artisans who

were only part time artisans, and often indistinguishable from cultivators. These included oil-pressers,

indigo and saltpetre workers, sugar manufacturers etc. Their work was seasonal and many of them

worked in manufacture for only five or six months in a year. However, as demand increased, they

sometimes let out their lands for others to cultivate. The same applied to cocoon producers, as demand

for silk grew. Weavers were part of the traditional system of supplying cloth to the villagers in return for

a share of the produce. Often they had a small family plot of land to fall upon and to keep them tied

down to the village. They sold their surplus produce in the market.

The second category were the professional artisans in towns and villagers. As trade and manufacture

grew, the merchants


gradually extended their control over the professional artisans through the dadni or putting out system.

They not only brought the artisans under control not only by giving them loans, but providing raw

materials, and even laying down the size, patterns etc. of the piece. Thus, in the Coromandal, Kasi

Viranna had brought under his control all the weaver settlements between Madras and Armgaon so that

they were called “Virenna’s villages”. In such cases, despite owning their own looms, the artisans tended

to become wage earners because the cost of the raw materials and their labour was prescribed by the

trader. Thus, in 1676, local merchants in Madras told representatives of the English East India Company

that they “had raised the wages of their weavers to get a better quality of cloth”. However, this was not

capitalist production in the real sense of the word. The Russian scholar, Chicherov, calls it

“deconcentrated capitalist manufacture”. He says: “It does not, however, lead to the overthrow of the

old mode of production, but rather tends to preserve and retain it…. This system presents everywhere

an obstacle to the real capitalist mode of production”.

An alternate path of development was the emergence of master craftsmen to the position of organisers

of production and merchants and financers. The growth of master-craftsmen, called ustads in Medieval

India, is a little studied subject. That this section had grown both economically and socially is indicated

by Abul Fazl placing these sections, whom he calls “artificiers”, in the second rank in society, side by side

with merchants, below nobles and warriors, but above the learned and the religious classes. The social

importance of the master-craftsmen is indicated by two available farmans of Akbar granting lands to

two master-craftsmen. In Bengal, there were affluent master-weavers employing their own capital who

sold freely on their own accounts. In mid-eighteenth century, we hear of a master printer of textiles in

Awadh who had as many as 500 apprentices. In Kashmir, in the shawl industry, there were mastercraftsmen who owned upto 300 looms. There were master-carpenters at Surat, and in Bengal and Bihar

who hired carpenters for ad hoc work. Thus, as Tapan Raychaudhury observes. “The emergence of

artisans as ‘capitalist-enterpreneurs’-Marx’s ‘truly revolutionary way’ in the transition from merchantile

to indudstrial capitalism – was thus not absent from the Indian scene.”



Women have certain common problems, such as their dependence on father, husband or son, and the

effects of the male dominated patriarchal family system which operated all over India, except in some

areas such as Kerala and many tribal areas. Within these limits, the lives of the upper class women and

working women were very different. The upper class women were generally educated, and lived a life of

luxury, though confined to the inmates of the haram, and sharing the husband with numerous w ives and

mistresses. Some of these women played an active part in politics, as ruler themselves. Such as Rani

Durgawati of Gondwana and Chand Bibi of Ahmadnagar or exercising political power through their

husbands, like Nur Jahan. There were others such as Jahanara, daughter of Shah Jahan, who was closely

associated in the political processes, both under Shah Jahan, and under aurangzeb after the death of

Shah Jahan. Many other women, such as the vegetable seller Zuhra during the reign of Muhammad

Shah, or his queen, Udham Bai, a former dancing girl, played a role in politics during the period of

Mughal decline.

However, more important than this was the role of women in giving moral and cultural tone to society

from behind the curtains. They influenced royal taste and patronage, and themselves extended

patronage to artists, singers etc. Some of them have many literary works to their credit. Thus, Jahanara

wrote under the pen-name “Makhfi” (concealed). Roshanara set up a literary atalier (bait-ul-ulum) at

Delhi to which Aurangzeb had banished her.

Many harmful social practices, such as child marriage, or forced marriages, denial of a share in parental

property etc. also continued in medieval times. Akbar tried to fix the age of marriage for boys and girls,

give freedom to girls to marry on their own and not under parental pressure. But these were largely

disregarded. Likewise, there was little impact on Mughal attempt to regulate sati because all the

important Rajput rajas continued to practise it. Thus, when Maharaja Man Singh Kachhwaha died at

Elichpur in the Deccan in 1614, four ranis committed sati along with him, and another five at Amber. Of

course, that large numbers of ranis, whose names and pedigrees are given in contemporary Rajasthani

sources, lived on as widows after the death of a ruler suggests that there was no


over-whelming pressure on them to commit sati. However, an unfortunate practice was that in order to

increase the sacred honour that accrued to a ruler from the women who commited sati , the number of

such women was increased by making many common law wives and maids who had been called to the

bed of the ruler and given a special status, and who generally belonged to the non-Rajput sections and

the lower castes, were made to commit sati. Thus, when Maharaja Anup Singh of Bikaner died in 1698,

apart from 2 ranis, 9 common law wives (kkawas, patar, khalsa) and 7 maids (sahelis) committed sati.

Divorce was generally not favoured by the Muslim nobles, though we have a few instances of it.

Regarding property, after escheat, the ruler distributed the property of a deceased noble according to

his likes among the sons. There are no references to a share of the property being given to daughters of

nobles. But such laws may have been enforced by the courts for other Muslims.

For women belonging to the common fold, life was hard. We see in paintings women working in building

activities, along with infants. Working women received wages which were lower than those given to

men. Thus, in Kota, according to official figures, women working in the fields received lower wages than

men. Women specialized in some vocations. Thus, spinning was widely practised by women of almost all

classes. In Bengal the fine thread from which the famous muslin of Dacca was woven was prepared by

women, often belonging to upper castes, who had nimble fingers and a keen eye-sight. We are told that

such women received the wages of a skilled worker, that is, upto Rs.3 per month. The chikan work for

which Awadh was famous was also a speciality of women. However, it is clear that all such women

worked under the tight control of a merchant, or a master craftsman.

Servants and Slaves

European traders and travellers who came to India during the sixteenth centuries remark on the number

of servants and retainers the rulers and members of the ruling classes employed, both for ostentation

and show, and for service in their large households. Moreland who dwells upon it in his India at the

Death of Akbar, says “much of the domestic service rendered was sheer waste”, and that its effect was

“to withdraw from useful


employment a large share of the energy and resources of the people, and to direct them towards

unprofitable expenditure”.

It may be noted that the service sector formed a large section in all feudal socie ties. Apart from work in

the fields in the villages, and manual labour and manufacture in the cities, the only employment

opportunity at a slightly higher level (excluding the armed forces) was service with the king and

members of the feudal nobility. The limited nature of employment opportunities in such societies is

shown by the existence of large numbers of beggars in the cities. The large class of clerics, monks,

wandering religious ministrals etc. was another class to which Morland’s remark could be applied.

It should not, however, be forgotten that service with the ruling class was an escape from rural drugery

for many, and their slightly higher living standards provided employment opportunities to the large class

of artisans. These sections also felt that they had a right to share in the ruling classes’ prosperity,

howsoever it was earned. In other words, standards applicable to modern societies cannot be

uncritically applied to pre-modern societies.

However, Moreland is right in stating that functions assigned to free men and slaves in service were, to a

large extent, interchangable. Slavery was an old institution in India, but by far and large, slaves were not

used for productive purposes in fields or manufacture. Firuz Tughlaq perhaps, was the only one who

used slaves for manufacture. The use of slaves for war purposes largely ended in India with the rise of

the Afghans. Akbar did use them in the army, calling them ‘chelas’, but for service purposes only.

Unlike the Sultanat period, we do not have many references to the price of slaves. Pyrard puts the price

of a slave-girl at the equivalent of about 50 rupees at Goa. The Portuguese employed slaves on a large

scale. The Portuguese Arakanese and Maghs made slave-raids into East. Bengal, and set up slave

markets at Chitagong, Sandwip, Hughi and Pipli. Goa was a busy market for slaves. Many of these slaves

were also sold in South-East Asia. Shaista Khan put an end to these raids in the time of Aurangzeb.

Slaves were obtained from various sources. There was a continuous import of slaves from East Africa

though on a small scale. The pilgrim-ships to Jeddah also indulged in slave trade.


Ships returning from the Red Sea, both European and Indian, would generally carry fifty slaves bought in

Mocha or Jeddah. Indian slaves were either hereditary and or captured from wars, or in raids in villages

allegedly for rebillion or non-payment of government dues. Many people sold their children for food in

times of famines which were frequent. Akbar banned the practice of enslaving prisoners of war, and

converting them to Islam. He also allowed people to re-purchase the children they had sold, and to

reconvert them. How effective these measures were is doubtful.

Although slaves in India were generally not mistreated, and it was considered an act of morality to free

slaves, slavery was debasing, and lowerd the status of free working men.

Standard of Living

Indigenous sources and accounts of foreign travellers who visited India during the 16th and 17th

centuries present a picture of a small group in the ruling class living a life of great ostentation and

luxury, contrasting it with the miserable condition of the masses – the peasants, the artisans and other

labouring classes. The sharp contrast between the standard of living of the ruling classes and the

peasants and the labouring classes was, of course, not peculiar to India, but existed in a greater or lesser

degree in all “civilized” countries of the world, including Europe, during that period.

We have little information about standard of life in the villages where the large majority of the people

lived. As we have seen, the Indian village was highly segmented both socially and economically, and

there was considerable inequality in distribution of land, though there was plenty of cultivable waste

land (banjar) available which could be brought under the plough if capital, labour and organisation were


The share of the produce paid by the different categories of peasants is not easy to compute. The

general Mughal formula was from one-third to half. However, the precise share depended on a number

of factors – nature of the soil, strength of the owner – cultivator, nature of the zamindar dominating the

area, custom etc. Caste also played a role. Thus, in some parts of Rajasthan and Orissa, upper castes -the Brahmans, the Kshatriyas or Rajputs paid land-revenue at a concessional rate — sometimes 25%

whereas the others paid 40%. Village officials, such as the


village chaudhris, muqaddams etc. were also sometimes assessed at a concessional rate. Such

concessions were extended under special circumstances, such as the resettlement of a deserted village,

to ordinary cultivators as well. But in their case, the concessions was a temporary measure, the landrevenue increasing till it reached the normal rate in the third or fifth year.

It would be unrealistic to postulate a uniform standard of living for all th e peasants and artisans in a

village. Nor was every village similar to another. Some of the bigger villages served as grain collecting

centres, or had a local market (mandi). A higher proportion of the richer section of the peasants

including grain-dealers (mahajans) and money-lenders must have lived in these villages which developed

into qasbas.

We have already noted the disparities in village society. In lean years or during famine, while the poor

were driven to starvation or migration to the towns, the rich and a section of the middle peasants found

it an opportunity to bring the poor peasants into debt, or to acquire their lands and agricultural


Babur had observed that in India “peasants and people of low standing go about naked”. He then goes

on to describe the decency-clout worn by the men and the ‘sari’ worn by the women. This is followed by

Abul Fazl, who says that the common people “for the most part went naked wearing only a cloth (lungi)

about the loins”. Ralph Fitch, who wrote under Akbar, says that “the people go naked save a little cloth

bound about their middle, (but)… In the winter, which is our May, the men wear quilted gowns of

cotton and quilted caps.”

The overwhelming impression is thus of scantiness of clothing. Though climatic factors and social

traditions cannot be discounted, scantiness of clothing was an index of poverty since the upper classes

and the privileged sections could be distinuished by the type and the quality of the clothese they wore.

In those days although cotton production and weaving were widespread in the country, cloth was more

expensive to wheat than at present.

Regarding women’s clothese, we have already referred to the sari which was generally made of cotton.

Moreland points out that women did not wear any blouses with their sari, and treats it as an illustration

of paucity of clothing. However, it may be pointed out that in many rural areas of eastern India, till

recent times, wearing of a blouse was not common. In Malabar, both


men and women, irrespective of their means, did not wear anything above their waists. In north western India, the blouse (choli or angiyd) was worn by ordinary women even in rural area. Thus, the

contemporary Hindi writer, Surdas, mentions the choli or angiya of various colours worn by the milkmaids of the Agra-Mathura region.

While the ordinary people wore no shoes, and went about with bare feet, wearing of shoes was

apparently considered a mark of respectability and was used by the richer section in the villages. The

shepards, masons, labourers and palki-bearers are depicted in contemporary paintings as wearing


Then as now, women, both rich and poor, wore jewellery profusely which has been described by

contemporary writers, both in Persian and regional languages, in considerable detail. It is also depicted

by many painters of the period. Foreign travellers also dwell on this as a strange phenomenon. Ralph

Fitch, writing of Patna, said “Here the women be so bedecked with silver and copper that it is strange to

see, they use no shoes by reason of the rings of silver and copper they wear on their toes”. In addition to

gold, silver and copper ornaments and those made in glass or ivory were used.

The housing of the poor in rural areas has not changed much since the Mughal times. The bulk of the

peasants lived in single room houses made of mud with thatched roofs. The houses of the working class

in the south were “nothing but huts covered with cajan leaves.” They were so low that a person could

not stand upright in them. The rooms would not generally have any windows on account of the hot

climate, the entrance being sufficient for light and air. Manrique found that the houses were kept very

clean with frequent plastering of the ground and the walls with mud mixed with cow-dung. But in

Gujarat the houses were roofed with tiles (khaprail) and often built of brick and lime. Houses in Bengal

and Orissa were made of bomboo or reed with thatched roofs.

Utensils made of bell-metal or copper were expensive and were generally not used by the poor. The

only iron used was the “small iron hearths” used by the common people for baking their bread.

It is clear from contemporary accounts that the articles in the diet of the common people in India

consisted chiefly of rice, millets and pulses. In Bengal, Orissa, Sindh, Kashmir and parts


of South India, rice being the major crop was the staple diet of the masses. Millet (juwar and bajra) held

the same position in western India (Rajasthan and Gujarat). A modern writer, Irfan Habib, says that

“generally speaking, it was the lowest varietieis, out of his produce, which the peasant was able to retain

for his own family.” Wheat was not apparently a part of the diet of the common people in the wheat

producing region of Agra-Delhi. Writing of Malwa, Terry says that “the ordinary sort of people” did not

eat wheat, but used the flour of “a coarser grain,” made up in round broad and thick cakes (chapatis)”

which were “wholesome and hearty”. Foodgrains were supplemented by herbs (saga), beans and other

vegetables which were produced in the villages and by fish in Bengal, Orissa and the coastal areas

including Sindh.

In the Delhi-Agra region, however, Palseart says of the workmen that “for their monotonous daily food

they have nothing but a little kitchery (khichri) made of the green pulse, mixed with rice… eaten with

butter in the evening, in the day time they munch a little parched pulse or other grain (sattu)”.

Then as now, some money was spent on fairs and festivals which were frequent. They provided

welcome relief to the villagers in their drab lives and an opportunity to buy products not produced in the

village. Money was also spent on birth and death ceremonies and marriages, and sometimes debts had

to be contracted for the purpose. Famine and epidemics were two of the scourages, in the lives of the

villagers. Famines were of frequent occurance, the severe ones being often accompanied by epidemics

which depopulated villages. Nevertheless, for many writers of the time in regional languages, village life

was an ideal and both joys and sorrow had to be faced with equanimity.

We are on somewhat firmer ground in assessing the standard of living of the workmen since their wages

have been given in the Ain, and also by many travellers. According to the Ain, an ordinary labourer got

about 2 dams a day or Rs.11/2 per month while a superior labourer could hope to get 3 to 4 dams a day

or Rs.21/4 to 3 per month. Carpenters got 3 to 7 dams and builders from 5 to 7 dams per day. Pietro

Delia Vella says that at Surat servants cost very little – Rs.3 a month. It has been computed that the basic

necessities of a person could be met by Rs.1 a month while Rs.2 a month was sufficient to feed a family

of five. Slaves were numerous and lived on nothing except their keep. Pelsaert


says that palanquin – bearers (porters) got Rs.4 a month for short journeys, but Rs.5 a month for

journeys of more than sixty days. Soldiers hired for protection got the same.

It is difficult to draw a comparison between the food available to the poor in medieval and modern

times. The peasant of Mughal times was more fortunate with ghee, while his modern descendant has

more salt and three entirely new articles of food, maize, potatoes and chillies. A modern Indian

economist, Ashok Desai, is of the opinion that in view of the larger average size of holding, higher

productivity of land and a more favourable land-man ratio, “The standards of food consumption were

substantially higher than now”.

By comparing prices and wages between Akbar’s time and the present, we may conclude that while a

wage-earner could have purchased more wheat than a modern worker, it was an item which hardly

figures in his diet. On the other hand, he could purchase more gram, barley, milk and ghee, as also goatmeat as compared to a modern workman. But few of the workmen (excluding Muslims) ate meat.

According to Ashok Desai, “the purchasing power of the wages was nearly the same in 1595 and 1961.

But the low paid worker of Akbar’s time was able to keep the standard of nutrition much higher than

now because of cheap meat, ghee and milk. Sugar and gur were expensive; even salt a little costlier for


The upper classes in India consisted of nobles, the autonomous rajas and chiefs, and the wealthy

merchants in towns. Their living standards have been discussed when dealing with them.

The Ruling Classes

The ruling classes in Medieval India may be broadly divided into two – the nobility which represented

royal power or central authority, and the class of local rulers or chiefs and landed elites or zamindars

who represented local power. However, no hard and fast distinction can be made between the two

because from the time of the Lodis, and increasingly from the time of Akbar, local chiefs and landed

elements began to be incorporated into the nobility and associated even more closely than before into

the local administrative system. Relations between the two sections were often marked by tension and

strife. Simultaneously, mutual cooperation was needed and was sought for local purposes, including the

task of expanding and improving cultivation while


the local rulers often sought legitimization from the centre. A common feature, between the two was

that both depended and drew their financial resources from the surplus labour of the peasant who

cultivated the land. Thus, in this context both were basically feudal in nature.

The Nobility

Unlike Europe, the nobility in India was not a legal category but indicated a class of people who were not

only involved in the tasks of government at the higher level but reflected a certain level of culture and

urbanity. Both the numbers and composition of the nobility underwent a change as the Mughal empire

was consolidated, and expanded to cover the entire country. Thus, between 1595 and 1656-57, while

the numbers of the high mansabdars remained more or less fixed at 25, the medium mansabdars

(500/1000 to 2500) more than doubled from 98 to 225. The composition of the nobility also changed.

The nobles who came to India at the time of Babur and Humayun, or came to India during the reign of

Akbar were mainly drawn from the homeland of the Mughals — Turan, and Khurasan, along with Uzbeks

and Tajiks. As we have seen, the Mughals never followed a narrow racialist policy. From the time of

Akbar, Shaikhzadas or Indian Muslims, and Rajputs representing the indigenous ruling class also began

to be inducted into the nobility. Babur tried to induct many of the leading Afghans into the nobility, but

the Afghans proved restless and untrustworthy. Heightened struggle with the Afghans under Humanyun,

and with Akbar in Bihar, Bengal and Orissa led to the virtual exclusion of the Afghans from higher posts

in the nobility. But the process began to be reversed under Jahangir, Khan-i-Jahan Lodi being a favourite.

In the time of Aurangzeb, many Afghans from the Deccan states entered the Mughal nobility.

The Iranis and Turanis, for whom the word Mughal was used, continued to be the largest group in the

nobility, forming as much as 40 per cent of the nobles holding ranks of 1000 zat and above even during

the last 25 years of Aurangzeb’s reign, between 1679 and 1707. However, less than a quarter of these,

i.e. less than 10 per cent of the total nobles holding a mansab of 1000 zat and, above had been born

outside India. Thus, Bernier’s statement that the Mughal nobles were “foreigners who enticed each

other to the court” hardly holds up to a critical scrutiny.


Bernier’s statement that the immigrants “are generally persons of low descent, some having been

originally slaves, and the majority being destitute of education” is even more off the mark. The Mughals

gave special favours to those of high descent, while a good literary education was considered vital for

future progress. It should also be kept in mind that the immigrants came to India with their families, and

made India their home. They also assimilated themselves into the prevailing Indo-Mughal court culture.

Thus, they were no longer foreigners in any real sense of the term. However, this did not mean that

social distinctions between the Iranis, Turanis and the Indians disappeared. Those, who could trace a

foreign ancestry considered themselves to be a privileged and superior group, and tended to marry

among themselves.

Although the position of the nobles was not hereditary, those whose ancestors had been in the service

of the king for more than a generation were called khanazads, or the house born ones. They felt a

special affinity with the ruling house, and claimed a privileged position in the grant of mansabs. Thus, in

the period between 1679 – 1707, the proportion of Khanazads i.e. descendants of mansabdars, excluding

sons-in-law, among those holding ranks of 1000 zat and above, was almost half. Even this did not satisfy

the old mansabdars since there was a lot of pending demand for mansabs among their wards. Despite

its limitations, the Mughal nobility was not a closed shop, but fairly open in its recrui tment policy. At the

same time, the Mughal nobility was highly hierarchical in nature, with the senior positions being virtually

reserved for the nobly born, including the Hindu rajas. Thus, in the period 1658 – 79, the number of

Iranis and Turani nobles holding ranks of 5000 and above was over 60 per cent while the leading Rajput

rajas formed another 11 per cent. Even then, there was a chance for people with an ordinary

background reaching the highest posts, as in the case of Rai Patr Das .under Akbar, and Rai Raghunath

under Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb.

The top heavy nature of the Mughal nobility is shown in other ways as well. Thus, it has been calculated

that in Shah Jahan’s reign, 73 members of the upper elite received 33,091 crore dams or 37.6 per cent of

the entire assessed income of the empire. The personal salaries they enjoyed put them on par with

autonomous rajas of a middle size kingdom. By all accounts, the life style of the high nobles was very

opulent. They had large multi-storied


mansions with gardens and running water, a large haram and a multitude of male and female retainers

and servants. A single house in the Deccan fit for a noble cost Rs.1,50,000. Rich carpets, costly curtains

and richly decorated inlay furniture consisting of bedsteads, mirrors, chairs and stools were considered

necessary. The roof was richly gilded, and the floor and the walls covered with fine plaster. A lot of

money was spent on the table. We are told that a hundred dishes used to be prepared for Abul Fazl

every day. A lot was spent on fruits, and imported wines. Ice which was an item of luxury was used all

the year round. Apart from China ware which was a luxury, gold and silver vessels were used widely.

Another costly item was the stables. Every noble had to maintain a sizeable number of beasts of burden

– elephants, camels, mules, and horses, as well as carts, palanquins etc. for transport. Tents were

another costly item of equipment

Both men and women were accustomed to use jewels for adorning different parts of their body. From

the time of Jahangir, men pierced their ears for putting pearls. Costly clothes, generally of cotton, plain

or painted, and silk, plain or stripped, brocades and costly shawls made in Kashmir were also used


It was also considered necessary for a leading noble to extend patronage to the arts. Thus, poets,

musicians, painters etc. sometimes received extravagent rewards. Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khana, son of

Bairam Khan, was reputed to give ass-loads of money to every poet who composed a panegyric in his

name. The extravagent gifts of many nobles to their retainers, and grants of lands and gifts to holy men

are also mentioned.

Thus, as Moreland stated, “spending not hoarding” was the dominant characteristic of the pattern of life

of the nobles. This was a common feature of the landed gentry the world over. However, prudent nobles

could save money. Contemporary chronicles give us the names of many nobles who left large sums of

money and valuables at their death. Thus, when Ali Mardan Khan died in 1657, Shah Jahan escheated his

property, amounting in cash and goods to one crore of rupees. Azam Khan Koka (4000/4000) governor

of Bengal, left 22 lakhs of rupees and 1,12,000 muhars. Muhammad Amin Khan, subedar of Gujarat who

died in 1682, left seventy lakhs of rupees and one lakh seventyfive thousand ashrafis and large number

of animals including ten chests of Chinaware of all kinds which were


escheated by Aurangzeb. The purpose of escheat basically was to recover from the nobles the money

most nobles took as advance from the state. After this had been done, the balance was distributed by

the monarch among the heirs of the noble according to his estimate of their worth. The sharai laws in

this matter were disregarded, because the Mughal rulers claimed to be the owners of all the property of

their nobles. Aurangzeb modified this rule in 1666. The property of only those nobles was escheated

who had dues towards the state. But the rulers reserved to themselves the right to distribute the

property left behind by the nobles according to his likes and dislikes.

Two aspects of the nobility need to be noted. As the empire was consolidated, the nobles began to be

subjected to even more detailed rules and regulations regarding their salaries and promotion, conduct

of business, rewards, even deportment. These were set out in regulations called dastur-ul-amal.

Normally, a mansabdar started with a small mansab and was promoted according to rules and

regulations (zabta) though the ruler could always depart from them. Thus, an element of bureaucracy

was introduced in the functioning of the nobility. The manner in which meticulous records were

maintained from the village level upwards re-inforced this.

Second, the Mughal nobles, including the monarchs and members of the royal family, were not allergic

to trade. Some of them supplemented their income by trade, and by investing their money with traders.

Abul Fazl advised the nobles “to indulge a little in commercial speculation and engage in remunerative

undertakings, reserving a portion in goods and wares, and somewhat invested in the speculation of

others.” Disregarding the Islamic injunction on taking of interest, Abul Fazl exhorts the nobles that “a

share may be entrusted to borrowers of credit.” He ends by saying, “Let such a one be frank in his

commercial dealings, and give no place in his heart to self-reproach.”

It is difficult to estimate the extent of the commercial dealings of the Mughal nobles. It has been pointed

out that during the seventeenth century, members of the royal family, including kings, princes,

princesses and ladies of the haram engaged in commercial ventures. Thus, Jahangir, Nur Jahan, Prince

Khurram, and the Queen Mother owned ships which plied between Surat and the Red Sea ports. This

was continued under Shah Jahan and even under Aurangzeb.


Many nobles carried on trade in their own name, or in partnership with merchants. Thus, Mir Jumla had

a fleet of ships which sailed to Burma, Macassar and Maldives, Persia, Arabia etc. Other prominent

nobles, such as Asaf Khan, Safi Khan etc. also owned ships. The English factor at Surat wrote in 1614,

“great and small are merchants.” Some nobles tried to misuse their official positions for profit. Thus, as

governor of Lahore, Wazir Khan got a commission on everything that was bought and sold at Lahore. As

Governor of Bengal, Mir Jumla and later Shaista Khan tried to monopolise trade in all important

commodities. Thus, Shaista Khan extended from time to time his monopoly over saltpere, bees wax and

even fodder. Prince Azim-ush-Shan tried to force merchants to uy at prices dictated by him in the name

of sauda-i-khas, but had to modify it after a sharp reproof from Aurangzeb. However, even the chief

Qazi of Aurangzeb, Qazi Abdul Wahab, had substantial commercial undertakings which be tried to

conceal from Aurangzeb.

It would appear that as trade and commerce expanded following the Mughal peace, and growth of

foreign trade to which the foreign companies contributed, the Mughal nobility, members of the royal

family, and even judicial and ecclesiasted officials become more commerce minded. A modern author,

Tapan Raychandhuri, considers the involvement of these elements in commerce to be of “dubious

value”. Although the trade by the nobles was only a fraction of the total trade in the country, it did imply

diverting a part of the resources siphoned off from agriculture into domestic and foreign trade. The

nobles also gave patronage to skilled manufactures, and the trade they created. Tavernier says, “on

arrival for embarking at Surat, you find plenty of money. For it is the principal trade of the nobles of

India to place their money on vessels on speculation for Hormuz, Basra and Mocha, and even for

Bantam, Achin and Philippines.” Thus, even Mir Jumla lent money to the English.

The greed of the nobles for money led to a good deal of corruption. No action would be carried out

without giving or receiving presents. Nobles at the court who had access to the Emperor, sometimes

sold their good offices to the highest bidder. Thus, Qabil Khan, the mir munshi of Aurangzeb, amassed

12 lakhs in cash and valuables during his two and a half years of service. It was for this reason that the

Mughal nobles, and clerks in the administration, had earned a bad reputation for bribery


and corruption. However, the nobles also built mosques, hospices, sarais, covered markets (katara),

khanqahs and dug water-tanks in the places where they settled down. They also bought land to build

orchards. Not all of these were for profit, but were considered meritorious acts. Thus, the upkeep of

mosques, sarais, hospices, etc. was sometimes met from the income of the markets and orchards.

The urge of the nobles for money made them more grasping in their dealings with the peasants.

According to Shaikh Farid Bhakhari, who wrote a biography of Mughal nobles in the early years of Shah

Jahan’s reign, Jahangir’s mir bakhshi and favourite, Farid Bukhari, expected fifty percent more revenue

from the amils from his jagir, and if for that reason the peasants migrated, he would surrender that jagir

and obtain another in its place. How general this was is difficult to say. Imperial policy laid great

emphasisa on the expansion and improvement of cultivation and there was a machinery for checking

the oppression of the jagirdars. Official policy and private approaches did not always match.

The French traveller, Bernier, tells us how the peasantry, on account of the demands of the rapacious

lords, were driven to despair at “so excecrable a tyranny” and had to flee to the neighbouring Rajas.

Bernier traces this to absence of private property in land on the part of the nobles, or the jagir system of

transferability. He argued that the “Timariots” or jagirdars had no interest in the improvement of land

because of its transferability. We do have some instances of nobles who founded villages. But neither

the French landed gentry whom Bernier defends nor the Rajput nobility as a class appear to have taken

much interest in the improvement of cultivation. Bernier’s argument that the jagir system was inimical

to expansion and improvement of cultivation is not borne out by the evidence at our disposal.

Rural Gentry or Zamindars

There was a great deal of discussion during the early part of British rule regarding the nature and

position of the zamindars, and whether they were owners of the land or merely collectors of landrevenue. Recent research has shown that the word zamindar which began to be used from the 14th

century, and came in general use during the 17th century, covered a wide range of


rights and privileges in different parts of the country. Etymologically, a person who owned the land or

zamin he cultivated was a zaminidar. The word is still used in this sense in some parts of the country

such as Punjab. But in Mughal parlence, the word was used to designate one who was the owner (malik)

of the lands of a village or township (qasba), and also carries on cultivation. According to a modern

author, Irfan Habib, zamindari was therefore, “a right which belonged to a rural class other than, and

standing above, the peasantry.” This is the sense in which the word zamindar was generallay

understood, although the Mughals sometimes used the word for autonomous rajas and chiefs also in

order to emphasise their dependent status. While autonomous rajas paid a fixed sum in money and

goods as peshkash, and were left free to assess and collect land revenue from the peasants in their area

of control, the attempt of the state was to fix the land revenue directly with the peasants in the areas

under central control. Thus, there was a constant effort to convert autonomous chiefs into kharaj

collecting zamindars on the part of the state, and for the zamindars to shake off all imperial control.

The zamindars formed the apex of rural life. They had their own armed forces, and generally lived in

forts or garhis which was both a place of refuge and a status symbol. The combined forces of the

zamindars were considerable. According to the Ain, in Akbar’s reign they had 3,84,558 sawars, 42,77,057

foot-soldiers, 1,863 elephants, and 4,260 cannons. But the zamindars were dispersed and could never

field such large forces at any time or at one place. The figures perhaps also include the forces of the

subordinate rajas.

The zamindars generally had close connections on a caste, clan or tribal basis with the peasants settled

in their zamindaris. They had considerable local information also about the productivity of land. The

zamindars formed a very numerous and powerful class which was to be found all over the country under

different names such as deshmukh, patil, nayak, etc. Thus, it was not easy for any central authority to

ignore or alienate them.

It is difficult to say anything about the living standards of the zamindars. Compared to the nobles, their

income was limited. The smaller ones may have lived more or less like affluent peasants. However, the

living standards of the larger zamindars might have approached those of petty rajas or nobles. Most of


the zamindars apparently lived in the countryside and formed a kind of a loose, dispersed local gentry.

The zamindari right was both hereditary and saleable, and from the time of Akbar there are many

examples of zamindari being sold in whole or part. There was no restriction on caste or religion in the

sales, though in Maharashtra we have documents of the village community or patil agreeing to the sale.

Zamindari could also be divided like any property.

The zamindari right implied both financial income and social prestige. The actual income of a zamindar

from his zamindari was generally sought to be concealed, and local officials were always asked to

ascertain and control it. Generally, the zamindars had the right to a share of the produce which was paid

in cash and kind. Thus, in Awadh, the zamindari right implied a claim to take 10 sers of the crop for eac h

bigha and one copper coin (dam) from the same area. The zamindar could also levy other cesses, such as

impost on forest and water produce, tax on marriages and births, house-tax etc. The charges of the

zamindars varied from area to area, being called biswi (1/20), or do-biswi (1/ 10), or satarhi (1/17), or

chauthai (1/4). The attempt of the Mughal government was to fix the dues of the zamindars and

consolidate them in the land revenue. In such cases, the dues of the zamindars were assessed at 10 per

cent and called malikana. Malikana could be paid either in cash, or by grant of revenue-free land called

nankar. But it would have been difficult to prevent the zamindars from making illegal exactions from the

peasants including forced labour (begar) for transportation etc.

Sometimes, zamindars were allowed to collect land revenue from a tract beyond their own zamindari.

This was generallay called a talluqa. For this area, the zamindar was only a tax-collector, and was paid

remuneration by way of nankar or revenue-free land.

The attempt of the Mughal government to convert the zamindars who were traditionally considered the

enemies of a strong central government into agents of the government in the rural areas was a step

which had far reaching implications, but also one which bristled with difficulties. The zamindars had

caste / clan or historical associations with the peasants, and had considerable knowledge about land and

its productivity. The government wanted to utilize this knowledge to maximize their land revenue

collections. Simultaneously, it tried to squeeze the


zamindars by establishing direct contact with the cultivators, especially the owner-cultivators, or the

malik-i-zamin. Since the zamindars were themselves an exploiting class, the state, to some extent, set

limit on their extortions. But where the zamindars joined with the cultivators to resist the rapacity of the

state, a position of confrontation was created.

It would not be correct to look upon the zamindars merely as those who fought for control over

land,and exploited the cultivators in the area they dominated. Many of the zamindars had close caste

and kinship ties with the land-owning cultivating castes in their zamindari. These zamindars not only set

social standard, but also provided capital and organisation for settling new villages, or extending and

improving cultivation. However, success in this field depended in large measure upon the help and

cooperation of the khud-kasht cultivators who dominated the village community, owned the physical

resources, and could provide manpower.

While the zamindars formed a numerous and powerful class, not all the villages were under the control

of zamindars. Thus, the revenue records of the period divided villages, even within a pargana, into

raiyati or non-zamindari and talluqa i.e. zamindari. In collecting the land-revenue from their talluqa, the

zamindars had to follow the government rules. Nor could they expel a peasant from his land. In fact, in a

situation where land was surplus, the zamindars had every reason for the cultivators to stay, and to

cultivate as much land as possible. The peasants were not serfs, and were free to stay or to leave

according to their wish, but local officials were asked to use every effort, including where necessary

force, to prevent them from leaving.

The Middle Strata

There has been a lot of discussion whether during the medieval period, India had a middle class or not.

The Frenchman, Bernier, said that in India there was no “middle state”, a person was either extremely

rich, or lived miserably. It is, however, not possible to agree with this statement. The word “middle

class” means traders and shop keepers. India had a large class of rich traders and merchants, some of

them being amongst the richest merchants of the world at that time. These merchants also had their

own rights based on tradition, and right of protection of life and property. But they did not have the

right to administer any


of the towns. Such rights had been acquired in Europe by the merchants in special circumstances. Also,

these rights tended to be abridged whenever strong territorial states grow up, as in France and Britain.

If by middle class, however, we mean a class of people who did not receive a share in feudal property,

but were paid for their professional services, we find a large class of professional and service groups in

the towns which may be considered a part of the urban intelligentsia. The Mughal administrative system

was such that it needed an army of accountants and clerks, for the state, as also for nobles and even

merchants. Rich artisans could also live much above the standards of the poor.

Contemporary evidence suggests that certain categories of revenue officials formed a very prosperous

group. Thus, amils and karkuns supplemented their income by defalcating land revenue through false

account books, and by corruption and brikery. Since many of them were drawn from the khatri and

bania castes, or were Jains, they undertook side business, such as cultivation, usury, speculation in

commodities, horticulture, revenue farming, management of rent yielding properties in the towns etc.

We have instances of karoris (treasurers) depositing cash collected by them with mahajans for long

periods on interest. These sections were rich enough to buy good houses in towns. Some of them even

led a life rivalling that of a high noble. In Aurangzeb’s time, Abdus Samad Khan, atnin and faujdar of

Jahanabad, established a small town in the name of his son. The property included orchards, a sarai, and

Turkish hamams.

An idea of the wealth accumulated by these sections is provided by the fact that in 1725, the political

authorities at Ahmadabad were able to extort Rs.5,73,000/- from eight officials residing there. In

general, revenue officials had a poor reputation, and had on occasions to suffer prison and other

indignities to make them disgorge their ill -gotton gains.

Among the professionals, medical practitioners (tabib) catered not only to nobles, but to wide sections,

including petty officials, merchants and traders, smaller mansabdars and urban professionals and rich

artisans. While some of the tabibs were attached to rulers and high nobles, and received mansabs, many

of them conducted private practice. Thus, the Italian, Manucci, tells us that when his service with Dara

in the artillery department ended, he set up a


private practice at Lahore, and that he soon earned a name so that people came from places distant

from Lahore to visit him as patients.

Musicians, calligraphists and teachers also belonged to the section of professionals. Writers, historians,

and theologians were often drawn from the same urban middle class intelligentsia though sometimes

they received a rent-free land, thus bringing them nearer to the feudal classes.

Thus, the ‘middle strata’ had different interests and was drawn from various religious and caste groups.

The Commercial Classes

The commercial classes in India were large in numbers, widely spread out and highly professional. Some

specialised in long distance inter-regional trade, and some in local, retail trade. The former were called

seth, bohra or modi, while the latter were called beoparis or banik. In addition to retailing goods, the

baniks had their own agents in the villages and townships, with whose help they purchased foodgrains

and cash-crops. The words bania (baniya) or baqqal (foodgrain merchant) were sometimes used for

them. The bania also acted as a money-lender in rural areas, and hence generally had a poor reputation

for being grasping and extortionate. However, they did discharge a positive role in the economy by

enabling food-grains to be transported from villages and mandis to towns, and to different regions in

the country, and providing rural capital.

The trading community in India did not belong to one caste or religion. The Gujarati merchants included

Hindus, Jains and Muslims who were mostly Bohras. In Rajasthan, Oswals/ Maheshwaris and Agrawals

began to be called Marwaris. Overland trade to Central Asia was in the hands of Multanis, Afghans and

Khatris. Traders in Bengal were called gandha-banik, though these seem to have been largely displaced

later by Afghan and Muslim traders. The Marwaris spread out to Maharashtra and Bengal during the

18th century. The Chettiyars on the Coromandal coast and the Muslim merchants of Malabar, both

Indian (Chuliyas, Mapillahas) and Arab, formed the most important trading communities of South India.

The trading community in India, especially in the port towns, included some of the richest merchants

who are comparable in wealth and power to the merchant princes of Europe. The Portuguese merchant,

Godinho, stated in 1663 that the Surat


merchants were “very rich”, some of them worth more than 50 or 60 lakhs of rupees. They had fifty

ships trading with various overseas countries. Virji Vohra who dominated the Surat trade for several

decades owned a large fleet of ships. He was reputed to be one of the wealthiest men of his time. He

bought opium and cotton from local merchants exchanged these for pepper in Malabar and South east

Asia, and supplied them to English and Dutch traders. His capital at one time was reputed to be 80 lakhs

of rupees. Other Gujarati merchants, who could each buy up an entire ship’s cargo or supply the entire

annual investment of the European companies are repeatedly mentioned in the sources. Abdul Ghafur

Bohra left 85 lakhs rupees in cash and goods, and a fleet of 17 sea-going ships at the time of his death in

1718. Similarly, Malay Chetti of the Coromandal coast, Kashi Viranna and Sunca Rama Chetti were

reputed to be extremely wealthy, and had extensive commercial dealings in India and abroad. There

were many wealthy merchants at Agra, Delhi, Balasore (Qrissa), and Bengal also. Some of these

merchants, especially those living in the coastal towns, lived in an ostentatious manner, and aped the

manner of the nobles.

Regarding the living style of the merchants, there seemed to have been a considerable variation, based

on circumstances. Bernier says that the merchants tried to look poor because they were afraid of being

used like “fill’ sponges”, i.e. squeezed of their wealth. Nobles did sometimes abuse their position,

specially during times of uncertainty, as happened at Jaunpur at the time of Akbar’s death. According to

the Jain merchant. Banarsidas, Princes sometimes extorted forced loans. But, on the whole, such cases

appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Thus, the author of the book Mirat-i-Ahmadi, dealing

with Gujarat, tells us that there were two suburbs of Ahmadabad which he call its “two golden wings”.

These were inhabited by wealthy Hindus who were “millionaire bankers.”

European travellers mention the commodious and well-built houses in which the wealthy merchants of

Agra and Delhi lived. The ordinary sorts lived in houses above their shops. But even these, according to

Bernier, were “tolerably commodious within”. In Delhi, some of the houses of merchants were double

storeyed and had beautiful terraced roofs. Nor did all of them try to conceal their riches. We are told

that at Agra, one Sabal Singh Sahu, was so “intoxicated with prosperity” that his court


“resembled that of princes”. However, social practices and traditions must also be kept in mind.

Tavernier speaks of the “extreme parsimony of shroffs and of all Indians in general,” and describes how

the baniyas “accustom their children at an early age to shun slothfulness” and to learn the arts of

acquiring wealth.

While merchants had to be prepared for some official harassment, the properties of the merchants,

were generally not in danger. The law of escheat applied to the nobles did not affect them. Emperors

from the time of Sher Shah passed many laws for protecting the property of the merchants. Jahangir’s

ordinances included a provision that, “if anyone, whether unbeliever or Musalman should die, his

property and effects should be left for his heirs, and no one should interfere with them”.

Despite complaints by some European travellers, safety on the road was generally satisfactory.

Banarsidas who frequently travelled between Agra, Jaipur and Patna during the latter years of Akbar and

under Jahangir, was robbed only once. Goods were also insured, and the low rates of insurance – from

1/2 to 1 percent from Surat or Ahmedabad to Thatta, Masulipatnam or Daman (but going upto 2 1/2%)

shows that the risk was not considered high.

Means of transport were cheap and adequate for their needs. The means of travel with sarais at the

distance of 5 kos on the principal highways was as good as in Europe at the time. Nevertheless, trade

and the traders continued to have a low social status. The influence of the merchants on political

processes is a matter of controversy. Merchants in India were not without influence in political quarters

where their own interests were concerned. Thus, each community of merchants had its leader or

nagarseth who could intercede with the local officials on their behalf. We do have instances of strikes

(hartal) by merchants in Ahmadabad and elsewhere to stress their points of view and to protest against

official harassment. At Bhaganagar (Hyderabad) when the French traveller, Thevenot, was there, Hindu

bankers shut up their offices in protest against an Amir’s exactions until the ruler ordered restitution of

the seized property. Traders are also known to have gone on hartal in protest against levying of jizyah. In

1668-69, the Surat baniyas went on strike against the forced conversion of a person to Islam.

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