History Optional Paper-1 Solution – 2005: Q.6

Q.6 Give your opinion on the urban development in India during the Mughal times. [2005, 60m]


Urbanisation has been seen by scholars both in terms of the physical growth of a town as well as a particular way of life.

The town, in contrast to a village, is now, by consensus, seem to posses two basic features: dense concentration of population within a defined and also limited space, and a predominantly non-cultivating character of this population. A town thus has a definite man-space ratio and an essentially heterogeneous occupational pattern.

For the emergence of towns, in medieval India, several explanations have been put forward. The causative factors inherent in these explanations postulate the Life-Style emergence of mainly four types of urban centres :

  1. administrative
  2. religious
  3. military/strategic
  4. market

The administrative towns obviously functioned primarily as seats of governance. For the Mughal Empire, towns like Delhi and Lahore, come under this category.

The religious centres were pre-eminent pilgrim attractions, e.g. Varanasi and Mathura.

The military or strategic towns developed essentially as military cantonment, and, in due course of time attracted civilian population also. The towns like Attock and Asirgarh fit this description.

Finally, there were urban centres as the focus of largescale commercial activities or were predominantly production centres. Sometimes both these activities together characterised an urban centre. We have, for the Mughal Empire, towns like Patna and Ahmedabad falling under this category.

Here two things should be noted. An average town in the Mughal Empire was in fact an extension of the village in the sense of social unities and attitudes. This rural-urban continuum is thus a notable feature of urbanisation during the Mughal period. Moreover, given the diversity of urban economies in the Mughal Empire, the stereo type of an Indian town would be a misnomer.

Thus, the other important thing to note is that the character of two apparently similar cities (at least functionally) would often be different. The emergence of an urban centre, therefore, was dependent on a variety of factors relating to its geographical location and historical situation.

Urban Landscape

Some common features of Mughal towns:

Physical Configuration

Most of the towns had some sort of a fortification wall with one or more gates. The main population of the city lived within these walls. With the expansion of towns at times the cities outgrew their walls. The example of a typical Mughal town can be found in the description of Agra by John Jourdain at the beginning of the 17th century: “The city is 12 courses long by the river side, which is above 16 miles; and at the narrowest place it is three miles broad. It is walled, but the suburbs are joined to the walls”.

Generally, the nobles or princes would build their mansions or gardens outside the gates of the town. Thus, in many cities like Delhi, Agra, Patna, Ahmedabad and Allahabad these settlements developed as suburbs.

In planned towns markets were properly laid. In others, shops could be found on both sides of the main roads with shopkeepers living behind these shops or on the first floor of the shops. Most of the towns could boast of a number of markets. Many of these markets specialised in a particular commodity. Names of various areas suggest their speciality for example in Agra-Loha Gali (iron objects), cheenitole (sugar mart), ghalla mandi (grain market), dal mandi, sabunkatra (soap market) nil para (indigo market) in Delhi. Jauhari bazar (jewellery), sabzi mandi (vegetable mart), churiwala (bangles), etc. Paharganj was a wholesale market for grain.

The residential areas of towns called mohalla were often identified by the professional groups that resided there. A few names like mahalla kunjrah, mochiwara (shoemakers), mahalla zargaran (goldsmiths) kucha rangrezan (dyers) are notable instances. Such caste or professional names for different wards of the Mughal towns can be found in almost all the towns. In some cases these mohallas or wards were known by the names of influential men who resided there.

Another important feature of the town was the presence of sarais which were halting places for merchants or travellers. Even the smallest towns had one. The larger towns like, Delhi, Agra, Patna, Lahore or Ahmedabad had sarais by the dozens. Generally, nobles, royal ladies, big merchants or the state itself took up the job of constructing these sarais. The travellers were provided with amenities including storage space to stock merchandise. These were managed by the families of bhatiyaras who specialised as keepers of sarais. The foreigners visiting the towns were supposed to inform the city administration about their arrival and departure.

On the whole, most of the towns lacked any detailed town planning. Except the major street, other, lanes and bylanes were congested and muddy. The city had its own administrative machinery and regulations to run the day-to-day administration.

Composition of Population (Urban Classes)

The urban population was not a homogeneous one. In our sources we come across various categories of people residing in towns. These can be classified into four broad groups :

  1. Nobles and their retainers, officials of the state and troops;
  2. Persons engaged in mercantile activities (merchants, sarrafs, brokers, etc.);
  3. People involved with religious establishments, musicians, painters, poets, physicians, etc., and
  4. Artisans, menials and workmen of sundry sorts.

The composition of different categories of people in different towns depended on the nature of towns, i.e., administrative centres, or commercial centres. In case of imperial headquarters, perhaps the biggest group was that of the retainers and troops of the king and nobles. Bernier (1658) estimated the total strength of Shah Jahan’s great camp around 3-4 lakh. The situation in other administrative headquarters was also the same. The provincial governors, high nobles and other administrative officers all had their contingents, official hangers-on, servants, slaves and their families.

As most of the big town were commercial centres of importance, the mercantile community of the towns was quite important. At Ahmedabad it was estimated that there were around 84 castes and subcastes of Hindu merchants alone. In 1640 there were 600 brokers in Patna. Our sources mention that in big towns all the roads were lined with shops for miles. The number of grocers in Patna, a moderate town, was around 200. In a comparatively smaller town Jodhpur more than 600 shops were owned by Mahajans.

Another important group in town comprised of people associated with the professions of medicine, learning, literature, art and music. Generally, the religious and charitable grants were given in the vicinity of towns. Besides, a large number of poets, musicians, physicians also made their abode in towns because here money could be earned or patronage of the king and nobles was available.

Artisans, workmen and labourers formed one of the biggest groups in towns having large commercial activities. The people working as artisans in various crafts may be divided in many groups :

  1. The individual artisans working at their own places and selling their wares;,
  2. Artisans working in the karkhanas of the kings and nobles, and in largescale building construction undertaken by the kings and nobles. There was a large workforce of semi-skilled and unskilled workmen who would assist artisans or work in such largescale enterprises as shipbuilding, diamond-mining, saltpeter and saltmaking. A number of workmen were employed as domestic help and daily wage labourers.

Urban Demography

The Tabqat-i Akbari (c 1593) says that during Akbar’s period there were around 120 big cities and 3200 qasbas (small towns). In the 17th century, with the increasing trade and commerce this number would have grown further. In the absence of records, it is not possible to find out the population of different urban centres. Irfan Habib estimates that around 15 per cent of the total population in Mughal India lived in towns.

As for the size of the individual towns is concerned, scattered references are provided by some European travelers. Sometimes an estimate is provided while at other places the size of Indian towns is compared with European towns. But these figures are available for only a few towns.

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