SOCIETY: Composition of rural society, ruling classes, town dwellers, women, religious classes, caste and slavery under the Sultanate

Social Life Under The Delhi Sultanat

(1) The Ruling Classes

(a) The Nobility

  • The most important class which emerged in northern India during the 13th century was the ruling class consisting of the nobles.

Category of nobles:

  • Generally, the nobles have been divided into three categories, the Khans being the highest category, followed by Maliks and Amirs. However, this categorisation was never very clear.
  • People holding junior posts in and around the court, such as sarjandar (commander of the king’s personal forces), saqi-i-khas (in-charge of water and other drinks etc.), as also those holding the posts of sipahsalar, sar-i-khail (junior commanders of military forces) were called amirs. Later, the word amir began to be used in a loose sense to signify a person of wealth and influence in the government.
  • The most important categories remained the Maliks, and the Khans. All the top posts in the government were held by persons belonging to these categories. In the lists of nobles given by Minhaj Siraj and Barani, only Maliks are mentioned. The category of Khan was the result of Mongol influence among whom the Qa-an (Khan) was the commander of 10,000 troops. In the Delhi Sultanat, the word ‘Khan’ was only used to give a special status. Thus, Balban was given the title of Ulugh Khan.
  • The nobles were also dignified by being given other titles, such as Khwaja Jahan, Imad-ul-Mulk, Nizam-ul-Mulk, etc. They were also awarded various privileges (maratib), such as robes of different kinds, sword and dagger, flags, drums, etc. These were greatly valued because they often signified status, and closeness to the Sultan. Horses and elephants with costly trappings were also awarded to them on special occasions. (

Number of Nobles:

  • We do not have any precise idea of the number of nobles in office at any one time. Minhaj Siraj gives a list of 32 Maliks under Iltutmish which included 8 princes who were displaced Central Asian rulers. Perhaps, the term Turkan-i-Chahalgani, or the corps of forty Turks used by Barani is a reflection of the number of top nobles.
  • For Balban’s reign, Barani gives a list of 36 Maliks excluding qazis. The number of top nobles rose to 48 under Alauddin Khalji, out of which 7 were relations, including sons. From this, we may conclude that till the Sultanat suddenly expanded after the death of Alauddin Khalji, the number of top nobles or Maliks in the country was quite small. (

Factional fighting:

  • Even among this small group of nobles, there was bitter factional fighting. In this struggle, mutual relationships, ethnicity etc. played a role. The Turks considered themselves superior to all others such as Tajiks, Khaljis, Afghans, Hindustanis etc.
  • The Turks ousted the Tajiks after the death of Iltutmish, and established a virtual Turkish monopoly over high offices. This was broken with the rise of the Khaljis. Under the Khaljis and the Tughlaqs, Indian Muslims forged ahead, largely on the basis of personal efficiency. However, foreign blood, or descent from a well-known foreign family continued to have considerable social value and esteem, as the Moorish traveller, Ibn Battutah, testifies.

Social origin:

  • We do not have much knowledge about the social origin of the high grandees. During the early phase, there was considerable social mobility among the nobles, and people from a wide social background, who had the capacity to attract and maintain a military following (jamiat) or who caught the eye of the Sultan, could, with luck, rise to the position of a Malik. Many of the nobles had, in fact, started their career as slaves, and slowly climbed the social ladder.
  • This open character of the nobility continued to a large extent during the 13th century on account of the rapid rise and fall of dynasties, resulting in large scale displacement of nobles belonging to the previous regimes. Thus, in the 13th century we hardly hear of families whose members continued to hold the position of high grandees for more than one generation.
  • During the 14th century, with the rise of the Khaljis, and then of the Tughlaqs who ruled for almost a hundred years, the social character of the nobility broadened, and it became more stabilized. With the breaking of the Turkish monopoly of high offices, the zone of recruitment to the nobility broadened. Many Khaljis, Afghans and Hindustanis were admitted to the nobility. No attempt was made to exclude the Turks.
  • However, even when a noble lost his power and position, the tradition of former dignity and social honour were handed over to his descendants who believed that their restoration to former power was only a question of time and opportunity.
  • Along with the clergy, these sections constituted what were called ashraf or the respected sections. According to contemporary thinking, the state had a special responsibility towards these sections, not only in matters of employment, but for giving pensions to the widows, even providing funds for the marriage of their unmarried daughters.
  • There was a broad division among the ahl-i-saif or men of the sword, and the ahl-i-qalam or the literati. The latter were chosen for judicial and clerical posts. The ulema also fell in this category. As long as administration was tantamount to a military exercise for realising land-revenue from recalcitrant chiefs, muqaddams and peasants, the literati had to be kept away from administration, although it was urged that the wazir should come from the class of the literati.
  • In general, the nobles looked down on the literati, and considered them unfit for administrative or political matters. Thus, Alauddin Khalji not only rejected the advice of Qazi Mughis to try and arrange a compromise with the Mongols, but ridiculed him for offering advice on military and political matters although he was a nawisanda (clerk). (

Social stratification:

  • The emergence of a class of ashraf from whom the nobility was expected to be recruited gave it a measure of social stability, but also heightened stratification in Muslim society. The counterpart of the ashraf were the ajlaf or kam-asl, i.e. the lower, inferior classes consisting of citizens, and professionals such as weavers, peasants, and labourers. Not only marriage between the two sections, the ashraf and the ajlaf, was unthinkable, even social intercourses between the two was at a discount. While such social gradations had existed among the Muslims in West and Central Asia, they became even more rigid and pronounced after their coming to India which had a tradition of stratification on the basis of heredity, i.e. caste.
  • Arising from this deep social division was the belief that only persons belonging to the ‘respectable’ classes had the right to occupy high offices in the state. Hence, there was widespread resentment among the upper classes when Muhammad Tughlaq appointed to high offices, apparently on the basis of their efficiency, Hindus and Muslims belonging to the ‘inferior’ classes or castes, such as barbers, cooks, gardeners, shop keepers (bazaris) etc. The experiment failed for a variety of reasons.(
  • Firuz Tughlaq earned high praise and approval when he chose as nobles only those whose ancestors had been in the service of the king or belonged to the ‘respected’ classes. That the prejudice was not against ‘Hindustanis’ as such but against the so-called inferior classes, whether Hindustani Muslim, is borne out by the fact that Firuz’s wazir, Khan-i-Jahan, who was a converted brahman, was acceptable to all sections of the Muslims. This was in stark contrast to the Baraduis or Parwaris, wrongly considered to be low-caste converts, who had come to the top for a brief time after the death of Alauddin Khalji, and have been sharply denounced by Barani.

Salary to nobles:

  • Barani says that during the time of Balban when, apparently, the nobles did not have much ready cash in their hands, whenever they wanted to hold a majlis or a convivial party, their agents would rush to the houses of the Sahs and Multanis to borrow money, so that all the money from their iqta went to them as repayment, and gold and silver was to be found in the houses of the merchants alone. This situation seems to have changed with the coming of Alauddin Khalji and the growth of a new centralised system of land revenue administration which began with him, and continued under the Tughlaqs. In the new system of revenue administration, there was an emphasis on payment of land-revenue in cash. This applied not only to khalisa territories income from which went to the central treasury, but even in areas assigned as iqta. Thus, when Ibn Battutah was appointed a judge and given a salary of 5,000 dinars, it was paid for by assigning him 21/2 villages, the annual income of which came to that sum. We now also hear of nobles being assigned large salaries.
  • Salaries were even higher under Firuz Tughlaq.This implied unprecedented centralization of the rural surplus in the hands of the central elite. The high emoluments not only implied great affluence for the nobles, but possibility of hoarding of wealth. When Malik Shahin, who was naib amir-i-majlis of Sultan Firuz, died, he left behind 50 lakh tankas besides jewels, ornaments and costly robes. Imad-ul-Mulk Bashir-i-Sultani, who had been the Sultan’s slave, left behind 13 crores tankas of which the Sultan confiscated 9 crores. However, these appear to be exceptions rather than the rule. Apart from being an insurance against uncertainty, the growth of such hoards was also an index of a slow growth of a money economy in the country.

Attitude towards trade:

  • The growth of a money economy seems to have led to a change in the attitude towards trade and traders. Ibn Battutah alludes to the ships owned by the sultan of Delhi. On one occasion, the sultan, Muhammad bin Tughlaq, placed three ships at the disposal of Shihabuddin Kazruni, a friend and associate, who had a flourishing overseas trade, and was called a “king of merchants.”
  • Almost for the first time, traders began to be involved in the tasks of administration. Thus, Muhammad Tughlaq gave Shihabuddin the city of Khambayat in charge. Sultan had even promised him the post of the Wazir, but he was murdered at the instance of the Wazir, Khan-i-Jahan, while on his way to Delhi.
  • Abul Hasan Ibadi of Iraq, who lived in Delhi, used to trade with the money of Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq, and to buy weapons and goods for him in Iraq and Khurasan.
  • On balance, it appears that the major investments of the nobles were not in trade but in orchards, the numbers of which grew sharply under Firuz with the growing prosperity of the nobles. However, further development in the direction of productive investments by the nobles had to await the re-centralization of the empire under Akbar.(

Literacy of nobles:

  • Nobles were not illiterate: even slaves purchased by merchants in the slave market of Samarqand and Bokhara were educated before being resold. Although many of the slaves were newly converted, they had imbibed the Islamic religious and cultural norms prevalent in Central Asia, Khurasan etc. Nonetheless, they could hardly have imbibed the cultural graces of an old and well-established nobility. Nor could they be expected to be knowledgeable patrons of culture, though it was considered a mark of prestige to patronize poets and writers, sometimes even to give them extravagant rewards. This began to change with the rise of Amir Khusrau and his companion, Amir Hasan Sijzi, towards the end of the 13th century. Gradually, a new Indo-Muslim culture developed, and many nobles and sufis actively contributed to it. Thus, Zia Nakkshabi (d. 1350) wrote on many subjects including poetry, and had a number of Sanskrit works translated into Persian.
  • Thus, from being merely rude warriors, the nobles began slowly to emerge as patrons of culture as well.(

(b) The Chiefs—Emergence of “Zamindars”

  • Although the Rajputs had lost state power almost all over north India, with the exception of Rajasthan and adjacent areas, and in the remoter hill regions of the Himalayas, Bundelkhand, etc., Rajput rajas continued to dominate large tracts of the countryside even in the centrally administered areas of Punjab, the doab, Bihar Gujarat, etc. They were called rai, rana, rawat, etc. However, the term ‘chief’ has been applied to them. They had their own armed forces, and generally lived in the countryside in their fortresses. They were important in the political, social and economic life of the countryside.
  • Although the contemporary sources invariably portray them as enemies against whom constant jihad was not only legitimate but necessary, a relationship of permanent hostility was not feasible for the Turkish rulers, or for them. For the Turkish rulers, it was convenient to allow them to rule the areas under their control as long as they paid a stipulated sum of money regularly as tribute, and generally behaved in a loyal manner.
  • We have evidence of a growing political relationship between the Turkish rulers and the Hindu chiefs. Thus, Hindu rais from a hundred kos used to come and witness the splendour of Balban’s court. After Balban’s victory over Tughril in Bengal, he was welcomed in Awadh by many, including the rais of the area. Later, when Firuz Tughlaq invaded Bengal, he was joined by the rais of eastern U.P., the most important of them being Udai Singh, the Rai of Gorakhpur and Champaran. In another instance, when Malik Chhajju, a nephew of Balban and governor of Kara rebelled against Jalaluddin Khalji, he was joined by the local rais, and rawats and payaks of the area . Malik Chajju was defeated, but from this time onwards, Hindu chiefs seem to have been in attendance of the Sultan at his court.(
  • Despite these growing political linkages during the Sultanat rule, the position of the chiefs was one of considerable uncertainty. It was a part of the policy of the sultans of Delhi to overthrow the Hindu chiefs whenever they could, or at any rate, to try and reduce their powers and privileges by extending the imperial system of revenue administration to the territories dominated by the chiefs. While such a process did not, in all probability, reduce the actual burden on the cultivators, it meant a reduction of the perquisites of the chiefs, and possibly other intermediaries.
  • By the beginning of the 14th century, we find increasing references to the zamindars. This term, which does not exist outside India, was used increasingly to designate the hereditary intermediaries. Amir Khusrau was amongst the first to use it. In course of time, the term began to be applied to the khuts and muqaddams and chaudhris, and even to those former chiefs who had been forced or pressurized to pay not a fixed lump sum, but a sum fixed on the basis of land-revenue assessment.
  • Under the Mughals, and word “zamindar” began to be used for all hereditary owners of land or those who had a hereditary share in the land revenue. Even chiefs were included in this category. Generally affluence of the privileged rural sections can be contrasted to the poverty of the rest.

(2) Adjuncts to the Ruling Class: Judicial, Junior Administrative Officers, and the Ulema

  • The ruling classes, especially the nobility, could hardly have functioned without the help of a group of lower functionaries, in addition to the large number of servants, slaves and other retainers they employed.
  • These functionaries can be broadly divided into two:
  1. judicial and religious functionaries
  2. revenue and administrative functionaries

Judicial and religious functionaries:

  • It consisted of qazis and muftis who were appointed in every city where there was a sizable population of Muslims. They dispensed civil justice where Muslims were concerned, leaving the Hindus to deal their own cases on the basis of customary law, and the Dharmashastras. They also dealt with criminal justice. At their head was the Chief Qazi.
  • In the capital and perhaps in other cities there was a Dad Bak who was responsible for checking arbitrary exaction of taxes, and supervising and controlling the amirs who were responsible for surveying and keeping a record of properties of Muslims for purposes of taxation.
  • There was the muhtasib who worked under the kotwal and was responsible for seeing that the Muslims did not openly violated the sharia, or disregard compulsory obligations such as observation of roza, namaz etc. He was also responsible for checking weights and measures. 
  • All these posts were paid, and their numbers grew as the size of the Muslim population in the country increased.
  • There were also Imams, muazzins etc. who were appointed in various mosques, and reciters of the Holy Quran who were appointed to mausoleums, or were called to various religious functions. In addition, there were religious divines who were appointed as teachers in various schools (maqtab), colleges (madrasa) etc. All these sections broadly constituted the theological class or ulema. The ulema were highly respected. As a general rule, they had undergone a course of training in Muslim Law, logic and theology, including some knowledge of Arabic.
  • In addition to these official classes, there was a large group of Muslim scholars, pious men etc. who received support from the state through stipends, grant of revenue-free lands etc.
  • In general,this large and amorphous group of people formed what in modern times would be called the lower middle and middle classes, though some of the ulema rose to the position of chief qazis etc., and became more a part of the ruling class.
  • Very often, poets, scholars, historians, doctors and lower functionaries in the government—the amils (revenue collectors), muharrirs (accountants) etc. came from the same social class. We can also call this class the literati, or the educated, literate class. As we know, in a country which was predominantly illiterate, people who were educated and could also speak in the name of religion, had enormous prestige.(
  • Nevertheless, the ulema, as a class, did not enjoy a high reputation among the discerning sections. Bughra Khan, the son of Balban, warned his son, Kaiqubad, against the latter day theologians whom he described as “greedy rogues whose highest duty was this world and not the next.” Amir Khusrau considered the qazis who accepted judicial offices to be corrupt and ignorant, and unfit to occupy any responsible positions in the kingdom. They were arrogant and vain, and were generally considered timeservers who were prepared to sacrifice their principles and beliefs to please those in powers. In general, the Sultans did not allow them to have any say in political affairs, confining them to deciding judicial cases, religious matters and education. Nonetheless, the ulema did play a positive role in acting as a bridge between the ruling classes and the ordinary Muslims, and imbuing the Muslims with a sense of unity.
  • Simultaneously, it must be noted that many of the ulemas were foreigners who had taken refuge in India on account of the Mongols, or were attracted to India by its prosperity. They had little understanding of India, and they and a section of theologians in India accentuated social tensions and bitterness between the ordinary Hindus and Muslims by constantly harping on elements of religious conflict, ignoring the sense of social amity that generally prevailed among the people.

Revenue and administrative functionaries:

  • A large number of clerks and officials were needed to man the growing machinery of administration at the centre, and in the various provincial and district towns following the new system of revenue administration introduced by Alauddin Khalji. The power of these officials, possibilities of corruption and oppression on their part, and the harsh corrective steps taken by Alauddin against them have been described by Barani. A large number of them may have been converted into Indian Muslims, or members of the ulema class.
  • If we exclude the muqaddams and the patwaris who were Hindus, and who lived in the villages, most of these lower officials must have been Muslims. However, Hindus seem to have entered into this class under Muhammad bin Tughlaq. This would explain the selection by him of a small number among them to high positions. Thus, we have the emergence of a class of Persian knowing Hindus by this time.

(3) The Trading & Financial Classes

  • India had an old tradition of trade and a well developed class of traders and financers since ancient times. Thus, laws relating to contract, loans, sale and purchase are set out by the Dharmashastras. The emergence of the Vaishyas as a separate trading community, and their being included in the category of the dvija (twice born or the privileged sections) is an index of their position in the social and economic life of the country.
  • It is, however, necessary to make a distinction between the leading merchants or nagar streshtins from the ordinary shop-keepers (banik), and transporters (banjaras). The former, according to the Panchantantra, a 5th century fable, were considered socially close to the ruler, and mingled freely with his family members. The leading merchants not only dealt with wholesale and long distance trade, which included foreign trade, but also dealt with finance and money-changing. Long distance trade was financed, insured against risk, and money transported from place to place through the system of hundis.(A hundi is a financial instrument that developed in Medieval India for use in trade and credit transactions. Hundis are used as a form of remittance instrument to transfer money from place to place, as a form of credit instrument or IOU to borrow money and as a bill of exchange in trade transactions. An IOU (abbreviated from the phrase “I owe you”) is usually an informal document acknowledging debt.)
  • The establishment of a strong centralized empire in north India; the establishment of a sound currency system, mainly based on the silver tanka; the growing security of roads; growth of towns, and opening up of India to the Islamic world were important factors which led to the growth and expansion of India’s overland trade to West and Central Asia, as well as overseas trade, mainly from Gujarat. This is testified to by the frequent reference to the Multanis as traders and financers.(
  • Throughout the medieval times, Multan was a very important trading centre, being linked directly across the Bolan Pass to Qandhar, Herat and Bokhara which was the junction of the “silk road”, extending eastward across Central Asia to China, and westward across Iran to Constantinople and Lebanon. Multan was also linked via the river Indus to the western sea ports. The bulk of the Multanis were Hindus. As per Barani’s accounts Multanis and the Sahs of Delhi had become so rich by lending money to the nobles that gold and silver was to be found in their houses alone. Barani testifies to the wealth and prosperity of the Multanis and the Sahs in other ways also. He says that Jalaudin Khalji bluntly refused to take stern action against the Hindus who even at the  capital, Delhi, had full religious freedom, and the wealthy ones among them, obviously the Multani traders and merchants, were leading a life of ease and pleasure, with no fear about the safety of their life and property.
  • Another section of traders to whom Barani refers to are the dallals or brokers. The brokers were commission agents who charged a fee for bringing buyers and sellers together. Their emergence is an index of the growth of trade at Delhi. Buyers of different commodities, especially textiles, used to throng to Delhi following the control of the market by Alauddin. Barani refers to brokers especially in the context of Alauddin’s effort to control the sale of horses. He uses strong words about these dallals many of whom, specially the horse traders, were Muslims. They formed a rich and powerful group which, on occasions, could even defy the Sultan, and disregard his orders.The Muslim traders at Delhi were generally foreigners—Iraqis, Iranians, Khurasanis, etc. although we hear of a few Muslim Multanis. Thus, the father and grand-father of Hisamuddin, whom Alauddin had appointed a qazi, had been leading merchants of Multan. According to Ibn Battutah, in India all the foreign traders were called Khurasanis.
  • Afghans were another group of Muslim trader. They specialized in caravan trade, and trade in horses.
  • Gujarat had a well established tradition of trade, and of trading communities, both India and foreign. An Egyptian, Shihabuddin Kazruni, who owned many ships, lived at Khambayat. The Jains, the Marwaris, the Gujarati banias and the Bohras were also active. It was from one of these traders that Malik Kafur was procured for Alauddin.

(4) Standard of Living

Sultan and nobles

  • Contemporary chroniclers give a lot of space in describing the extravagant life style of the Sultans—their palaces, their furnishings, the lavish expense on the upkeep of the large number of women and relatives in their harems, their costly cloths and jewellery, expenses on the royal stables, and their extravagant gifts to nobles, poets, the learned and the saintly etc. Such a life style had become customary, and was also supposed to impress the subjects and the courtiers.
  • There was growing affluence of the nobles from the time of the rise of the Tughlaqs. However, even during the reign of Balban, his cousin, Malik Kishli Khan, on one occasion gave in gift all his horses and 10,000 tankas to poets and minstrels. Fakhruddin, the kotwal of Delhi under Balban, used to give financial grants to 12,000 readers of Quran, and give dowries to 1000 poor girls each year. He never wore the same dress twice, or slept in the same bed twice. Balban’s diwan-i-arz, Imad-ul-Mulk, was famous for the lavish repast, consisting of fifty to sixty trays of food which were served to his officials and clerks every day.
  • Mir Maqbul, a noble of Muhammad Tughlaq, used to spend three and a half lakh tankas on his personal expenses. Khan-i-Jahan, the wazir of Firuz, had 20,000 women in his harem.
  • The life style of nobles did lead to the setting up of specialized industries in different parts of the country, catering to the demand created by them. Most of the nobles did not hoard their riches. Nor did the nobles invest their wealth in productive enterprises, except in gardens during the reign of Muhammad Tughlaq, more specially under Firuz.


  • Some of the famous hakims seem to have been financially well off. The position of the poets etc. depended upon the nature of the patronage they received. Thus, the father of Amir Khusrau had a stipend of 1200 tankas a year from Balban when he was a noble. Ahmad Chap, Balban’s ariz, once gave 10,000 tankas, 100 horses and 320 dresses for the royal musicians to sing at his house. In general, these sections led a life of comfort, but not affluence.
  • For general population in the towns, standard of living was largely determined by prices and wages. We have little idea of prices before Alauddin Khalji. By his market control measures, Alauddin ensured the supply of cheap food stuffs. Thus, Barani tells us that wheat was sold at 71/2 jital per man, barley at 4 jitals, and good quality rice at 5 jitals. However, while the cost of subsistence was low, wages were also low.(
  • After the death of Alauddin, the price control system collapsed, and prices rose rapidly, with wages rising four times. By analyzing the prices mentioned by Ibn Battutah, it seems that prices rose a little over one-and-a-half times. Wages may have risen in the same proportion. Prices and wages were higher still during the early years of Firuz’s reign. During his reign, according to Afif, without any effort on the Sultan’s part, the prices declined almost to the level of Alauddin’s reign. However, wages still remained high.
  • The causes of the fluctuation of the prices of food grains—whether they were linked to good harvest and expansion of cultivation, or was part of a world-wide shortage of silver is still, is still a matter of debate.

(5) Towns and Town Life: Artisans

  • There was a revival of towns in north India from the 10th century. This process was considerably accelerated from the 13th century as a result of Turkish centralization, and the growth of a new city-based ruling class with a high standard of living.
  • Apart from Delhi, which Ibn Battutah calls the largest city in the eastern part of the Islamic world, Daultabad (Deogiri) equalled Delhi in size. Other cities which rose to prominence in north India during the period were Multan, Lahore, Kara (near modern Allahabad), Lakhnauti and Khambayat.
  • The economic life of the town was dominated by the nobles and their retinues, traders and shopkeepers, as we have noted. The largest section in the cities consisted of the servants and slaves, artisans, soldiers, and a miscellaneous group consisting of peddlers, musicians, performers (nat), self-employed people and beggars.
  • It seems that the cities performed the function of a large social churner whereby people of diverse backgrounds and ethnic origins, slaves, artisans, and others came to live together.
  • The entry to the city was carefully regulated by the kotwal, who was not only responsible for the maintenance of law and order, but regulated the markets, and houses of ill -fame (gambling, prostitution, etc). According to tradition, people following a particular profession lived in a particular area (mohalla) which was locked at night for the sake of safety.
  • There was a definite pattern in the lay-out of the towns: there was a separate quarter for the king and the nobles, while scavengers, leather-workers, beggars etc. were allotted quarters at the outskirts of the towns, but within the town-wall. Delhi had a large mass of beggars who thronged the houses of the nobles for charity, or resorted to mausoleums, shrines of sufi saints etc. Like the ordinary population, they carried arms, and could sometimes create problems of law and order.
  • The city was a centre of many crafts; weaving, painting on cloth, embroidery, etc. The royal karkhanas employed many artisans in preparing costly items, such as cloth embroidered with gold and silver thread, silk etc. But most of the artisans worked at home, and were organised in guilds along caste lines. However, not all the specialized crafts, such as weaving, were located in the towns. In south India and Gujarat, there were many villages and small towns which specialized in particular types of textile production. Thus, unlike medieval Europe, we should not divide crafts in India into water-tight compartments between towns and the countryside. The craft link between the towns and the countryside was also a factor which facilitated the movement of artisans from the  countryside to the towns. (

(6) Slaves:

  • Another large section in the town consisted of slaves and domestic servants. Slavery had existed in India as well as in West Asia and Europe for a long time. The position of different types of slaves—one born in the household, one purchased, one acquired and one inherited is discussed in the Hindu Shastras.
  • Slavery had been adopted by the Arabs and later, by the Turks also. The most usual method of acquiring a slave was capture in war. Even the Mahabharata considered it normal to enslave a prisoner of war.
  • The Turks practiced this on a large scale in their wars, in and outside India. Slave markets for men and women existed in West Asia as well as in India. The Turkish, Caucasian, Greek and Indian slaves were valued and were sought after. A small number of slaves were also imported from Africa, mainly Abyssinian.
  • Slaves were generally bought for domestic service, for company, or for their special skills. Skilled slaves or comely boys, and handsome girls sometimes fetched a high price. Skilled slaves were valued and some of them rose to high offices as in the case of the slaves of Qutbuddin Aibak.
  • Slave raiding was widely practised in West and Central Asia, the ghazis being specially used to capture and then convert slaves from Central Asia. The early Turkish rulers, such as Qutbuddin Aibak, continued this practice in India. Thus, when he invaded Gujarat in 1195, he captured and enslaved 20,000 persons, and another 50,000 during his raid of Kalinjar. However, we do not hear of any such large scale enslavement during the campaigns of Balban and Alauddin Khalji, although slaves were still considered a part of the booty. More often captured prisoners of war were slaughtered, only a few chosen ones being brought back as slaves. But during campaigns of “pacification” in the country-side, large number of men, women and children were enslaved, and sold in the slave market at Delhi. (
  • The sale and purchase of slaves was such a routine matter that Barani mentions the price of slave-girls and handsome boys along with cattle. However, unlike Central Asia where captured Turkish slaves were used for military purposes, the slaves sold in the market in Delhi were used mainly for domestic service.
  • Generally, slaves were not used or trained for being craftsmen, though maid-servants were often used for spinning, and we hear of even sufi saints living on the earnings of their slaves. A departure from this practice was made by Firuz Tughlaq. He instructed the bigger nobles to capture slaves whenever they were at war, and to pick out and send the best among them for the service of the Sultan. Even the various subordinate chiefs were asked to follow this practice. In this way, 180,000 slaves were collected. While some of them were trained for religious studies, 12,000 among them were trained as artisans, and dispersed into various paragans. This suggests an acute shortage of trained artisans in the towns. The slaves also formed a corp of armed guards. However, the effort to create a corp of Janissaris on the Turkish model failed. The corp of slaves tried to act as king maker at the death of Firuz and was defeated and dispersed.
  • Although domestic slavery continued under the Mughals, the slaves did not play any important role in manufacturing, or in the military. However, there is little doubt that the practice of slavery was not only inhuman, it lowered the status of free labour, and depressed wages.

(7) Women, Caste and Customs:


  • There were hardly any changes in the structure of the Hindu society during the period. The Smriti writers of the time continued to assign a high place to the brahmanas, while strongly denouncing the unworthy members of the order.
  • According to one school of thinking, the brahmanas were permitted to engage in agriculture not only in times of distress, but also in normal times since officiating at sacrifices, etc. did not furnish means of subsistence in the Kali Age.
  • The Smriti texts continue to emphasize that punishing the wicked and cherishing the good was the duty of the kshatriyas, and that the right to wield weapons for the purpose of protecting the people likewise belonged to them alone.
  • The duties and occupations of shudras and their disabilities were more or less repeated. While the highest duty of the shudra was the service of the other castes, he was allowed to engage in all occupation, except to deal in liquor and meat.
  • The ban on the study and recitation of the Vedas by shudras was repeated, but not on hearing the recitation of the Puranas. Some writers go as far as to say that not only eating a shudra’s food but also living in the same house with him, sitting in the same cot and receiving religious instructions from a learned shudra were to be avoided. This may be regarded as an extreme view. However, the severest restrictions were placed on mingling with the chandalas and other ‘outcastes’.


  • There was little change in the position of women in the Hindu society. The old rules enjoining early marriage for girls, and the wife’s obligation of service and devotion to the husband, continued. Annulment of the marriage was allowed in special circumstances, such as desertion, loathsome disease, etc. Widow remarriage is included among the practices prohibited in the Kali Age. But this apparently applied to the three upper castes only.
  • Regarding the practice of sati, some writers approve it emphatically, while others allow it with some conditions. A number of travellers mention its prevalence in different regions of the country. Ibn Battutah mentions with horror the scene of a woman burning herself in the funeral pyre of her husband with great beating of drums. According to him, permission from the Sultan had to be taken for the performance of sati.(
  • Regarding property, the commentators uphold the widow’s right to the property of a sonless husband, provided the property was not joint, i.e. had been divided. The widow was not merely the guardian of this property, but had the full right to dispose of it. Thus, it would appear that the property rights of women improved in the Hindu law.
  • During this period, the practice of keeping women in seclusion and asking them to veil their faces in the presence of outsiders, that is, the practice of purdah became widespread among the upper class women. The practice of secluding women from the vulgar gaze was practised among the upper class Hindus, and was also in vogue in ancient Iran, Greece, etc. The Arabs and the Turks adopted this custom and brought it to India with them. Due to their example, it became widespread in India, particularly in north India. The growth of purdah has been attributed to the fear of the Hindu women being captured by the invaders. In an age of violence, women were liable to be treated as prizes of war. Perhaps, the most important factor for the growth of purdah was social—it became a symbol of the higher classes in society, and all those who wanted to be considered respectable tried to copy it. Also, religious justification was found for it. Whatever the reason, it affected women adversely, and made them even more dependent on men.

Social intercourse between Hindus and Muslims

  • During the Sultanat period, the Muslim society remained divided into ethnic and racial groups, with the deep economic disparities within it. The Turks, Iranians, Afghans and Indian Muslims rarely married with each other. In fact, these sections developed some of the caste exclusiveness of the Hindus. Converts from lower sections of the Hindus were also discriminated against.
  • The Hindu and Muslim upper classes did not have much social intercourse between them during this period, partly due to the superiority complexes of the latter and partly due to the religious restrictions of inter-marriage and inter-dining between them. The Hindu upper castes applied to the Muslims the restrictions they applied to the shudras.
  • But caste restrictions did not close social intercourse between the Muslims and the upper caste Hindus and the shudras. At various times, Hindu soldiers were enrolled in Muslim armies. Most of the nobles had Hindus as their personal managers. The local machinery of administration remained almost entirely in the hand of the Hindus. Thus, occasions for mutual intercourse were manifold.(
  • Conflict of interests as well as differences in social and cultural ideas, practices and beliefs did, however, create tensions, and slowed down the processes of mutual understanding and cultural assimilation.

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