Agriculture Production In Mughal India

Agriculture Production In Mughal India

India has a very large land area with diverse climatic zones. Throughout its history, agriculture has been its predominant productive activity. During the Mughal period, large tracts of land were under the plough. Contemporary Indian and foreign writers praise the fertility of Indian soil.

A wide range of food crops, fruits, vegetables and crop were grown in India. However, we would take a stock only of the main crop grown during this period. We will also discuss the methods of cultivation as also the implements used for cultivation and irrigation technology. While focusing on the area under Mughal control, we will also include the areas lying outside it.


In the absence of relevant data, it is difficult to find out the exact area under the plough. Nevertheless, the available data helps us to have an idea about the cultivable land during Mughal period.

Abul Fazl in his Ain-i Akbari provides area figures for all the Mughal provinces in North India except Bengal, Thatta and Kashmir. In the case of most of the provinces, like Delhi, Agra, Awadh, Lahore, Multan, Allahabad and Ajmer, separate figures are provided for each pargana (with a few exceptions).

The figures of the A’in-i Akbari belong to the year c. 1595. The area figures for the 17th century for various regions are available in an accountancy manual of A.D. 1686. The same figures have been reproduced in a historical work Chahar Gulshan (1739-40). This manual provides measured area figures for each province; total number of villages in each province and a break-up of measured and unmeasured villages.

As stated earlier, the A’in provides area figures in most cases for each pargana but it is difficult to say to what extent the pargana was actually measured. The set of figures available from Aurangzeb’s reign provide a better picture. These show that almost fifty per cent of the villages were not measured till A.D. 1686.

The figures for Aurangzeb’s reign show that the measured area increased compared to the Ain (1595). But it is difficult to say that the total increase in the measured area was due to extension of cultivation. This may as well have been due to the inclusion of some of the earlier unmeasured area under measurement.

There is a debate among historians as to what these measurement figures actually represent. The questions raised are: whether these figures are for the area actually
under crop, or cultivable land or the total measured area?

  1. W.H. Moreland was of the view that these figures represent the total cropped area.
  2. Irfan Habib holds that it would have included cultivable area which was not sown and also area under habitation, lakes, tanks, parts of forests, etc.
  3. Shireen Moosvi agrees with Irfan Habib and has calculated this cultivable waste as ten per cent of the measured area. But she feels that even after deducting this ten per cent, the remaining area cannot be taken as net cropped area because large tracts of cultivated areas were not measured. She also thinks that many a times the land under kharif and rabi crops was measured separately and, after adding the two, it was recorded as measured area. In such a situation, measurement figures of Mughal period alone are not of much help to ascertain the extent of cultivation.

Irfan Habib and Shireen Moosvi have taken the help of other available data such as detailed figures of some areas available in some revenue papers, jama figures and dastur rates. These have been compared with the figures of actually cultivated area in the beginning of 20th century.

According to their estimates the cultivated area between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 20th century almost doubled. The increase in Bihar, Awadh, and parts of Bengal is ascribed to the clearance of forest. In Punjab and Sind the spread of canal network also contributed to the extension in cultivation.


The Indian peasant used a variety of implements and techniques for cultivation, depending on the nature of soil and need of the crops. Similarly, irrigation was done through various means in different regions.

1. Means and Methods of Cultivation

Tillage was performed by harnessing a pair of oxen to.the plough. The latter was made of wood with an iron ploughshare. Unlike in Europe, neither horse nor bullock-drawn wheeled plough nor mould board were ever used in India, Regional variations, in a sprawling country like India, in the size and weight of ploughs must be expected from a light plough that could be carried by the tiller upon his shoulders, to the heavy one meant for harder soil. Again, for soft soil, the iron ploughshare or coulter could have been dispensed with, more so as the price of iron was high. Many contemporary European travellers noted with surprise that Indian plough just turned the soil and that deep digging was not done, it seems that this suited to Indian conditions because deep digging would result in the loss of moisture in the soil. Moreover, it was only the upper layer which was more fertile.

A separate devise was used for breaking the clods or lumps of earth. This was done with the help of wooden boards called patella in parts of north India. Like plough this flat board was also harnessed to a pair of oxen. Generally a man would stand on the board to provide weight. The patella was dragged on the field by oxen.

The sowing of seeds was generally done through scattering by hand. In 16th century Barbosa also refers to the use of a sort of seed drill in the coastal region for sowing

Efforts were made to increase the fertility of the soil through artificial means. In South India flocks of goat and sheep were widely used. Generally flocks of these cattle were made to spend a few nights in the agricultural field for their droppings were considered good manure. It was assumed that if a flock of 1000 spend five or six nights in one kani of land (1.32 acres) it was enough to keep land fertile for 6 to 7 years. The same practice was commonly used in Northern India also. Fish manure also seems to have been used in coastal areas.

Rotation of crops was used for the optimum utilisation of land throughout the year. It was also considered good to maintain the productivity of the soil. Peasants through the experience of generations had acquired some knowledge of using rotation of crops for the good of the soil. They would decide which crop to be replaced by another in a particular field for a better yield.

A semi circular sickle was used for cutting the crop.

The harvested crop was spread on the ground for threshing. Our sources refer to two methods: in the first method the crop was beaten with sticks; in the second method the animals were made to move on the spread out crop. The weight and movement of the animals treaded the grain.

The threshed out matter was put in open baskets and the contents were thrown outside the basket at a controlled speed. The chaff got scattered by the wind and the grain fell on the ground.

2. Means of Irrigation

Indian agriculture was heavily dependent on rains for irrigation needs. The major criterion for selecting the crops for sowing was availability of rain water in a particular region. Apart from rain water, a number of devices were used for artificial irrigation.

Well-irrigation was the most common method employed throughout the length and breadth of the country. A number of methods were used to lift water from wells depending on the watertable and technology available.

In the Northern plains both masonry and non-masonry wells were dug. The non-masonry wells were not durable and some digging was required every year.

The masonry wells were durable and were suitable for fixing better water lifting devices. The masonry wells had raised walls and enclosures or platforms. Both bricks and stones were used to construct wells. These wells were usually set inside with terracotta rings. These are also known as ring wells.

A number of devices were used for lifting water from the wells.

  1. The most simple method was to draw water with rope and bucket by hand without any mechanical aid. Due to its limited capacity this device could not have been used for irrigating large fields.
  2. The second method was the employment of pulleys over the wells. The same rope and bucket was used over the pulley to lift the water. With the help of pulley larger amounts of water could be drawn with less effort than our first method. Both the above devices were used for the supply of water in domestic use or for irrigating small plots.
  3. In the third method the rope-pulley was used with the addition of the employment of a pair of oxen. The use of animal power in this method helped in irrigating larger areas.
  4. The fourth device worked on a lever principle. In this method a long rope is lashed to the fork of an upright beam or trunk of a tree to put it in a swinging position. The bucket was fastened to rope tied on one end of the pole. The pole’s other end carried a weight heavier than filled bucket. One person is required to operate it.
  5. The fifth method required the use of a wheel. In its earlier form the pots were attached to rims of the wheels which was to rotate with the help of animal power. It was used to lift water from shallow surface and was of no use for wells.
  6. The use of wheel for lifting water from well was also made. In this form a garland of pots was used with 3 wheels, a gear mechanism and animal power. With the help of this device regular supply of large amounts of water could be ensured for irrigating large fields. This was also helpful for lifting water from deep wells. The complex machine and animal power would have made the device expensive. It therefore would have been accessible to the peasants with substantial means.

Lakes, tanks and reservoirs of water were also used uniformly in all parts of the country. In South India, this was the most prevalent method used for irrigation. Here the dams were made over the rivers. Construction of such reservoirs was beyond individual means. It was therefore the responsibility of state, local chiefs and temple management to create such facilities. The massive Madag lake built by Vijaynagar rulers is a marvel of civil engineering of the time. It was built on the Tungabhadra with three earth embankments to bridge the gaps in the hills. When full, this lake was 10-15 miles long. Each of the three embankments had sluices built of huge slabs of hewn stones.

Rajasthan is another region where large reservoirs for storing water abound. The Dhebar lake in Mewar, according to the A’in-i Akbari, has a circumference of 36 miles. The Udaisagar is said to have a circumference of 12 miles; Rajsamand and Jaisamand were other important lakes built in Mewar in the 17th century. Similar reservoirs created with the help of dams in Marwar and Amber regions were Balsan and Mansagar respectively.

Almost every cluster of villages had smaller reservoirs and lakes where rain water was stored. Our sources inform us that in the 1650s, Mughal administration proposed to advance Rs. 40,000 to 50,000 to the cultivators in Khandesh and Berar for erecting dams for irrigation. It is interesting to note that a wide network of such small dams in Khandesh is still in use, and they cover the basins of the five major rivers in this region, viz., Mosam, Girna, Ken, Panjbra, and Shivan.

In Northern plains, canals figure prominently as a means of irrigation. We know about canals constructed by Sultan Firoz Tughluq during 14th century. The trend seems to have continued under the Mughals. The Nahr Faiz built during Shah Jahan’s reign was around 150 miles in length. It carried the water from the Yamuna to a large area. Another canal, around 100 miles long, was cut from the river Ravi near Lahore. Remains of a number of canals are available in the whole Indus delta. Irfan Habib is of the opinion that the main deficiency of Mughal canals was that they did not often run above the surrounding plain, and so the water that could be obtained from them for irrigation was limited to what could be lifted from them. The network of canals in the region kept on increasing. Canals are not reported from south India.


India with extensive land area, different types of soils and varying climatic conditions, could boast of a large variety of agricultural products. We will discuss agricultural produce under three heads-food crops, cash crops and fruits, vegetables and spices.

1) Food Crops

The majority of seasonal crops in North India were grown in two major crop seasons kharif (autumn) and rabi (spring). In some areas the peasants tended to grow even three crops by producing some short-term crops in between. Rice was the main kharif crop and wheat was rabi.

In South India, these distinct crop-seasons with different crops were absent. Here, on wet lands one paddy (rice) crop was in the fields from June/July to December/January and another from January/February to Apri/May. In North Arcot, dry crops (kumbu, red gram, horse gram, castor) were sown from May to September/October and harvested from August to December/January on the wet lands, in August/September the ragi and cholam and in February/March the paddy crop, were harvested.

Rice and wheat were the two major food crops throughout the country. The regions with high rainfall (40″ to 50″) accounted for the bulk of rice production. The whole of Northeast, Eastern India (Bihar, Bengal, Orissa with parts of Eastern U.P.), southern coast of Gujarat and South India, were rice producing areas. As indicated above, in South India there were two main seasons of rice cultivation kuddapah-kar and samba-peshanam. They were named after the variety of rice cultivated during the summer and winter seasons.

Rice cultivation is also reported from irrigated areas of Punjab and Deccan. Every region had its own variety of coarse to ordinary to fine quality of rice. Regions of Bengal and Bihar produced the finest quality of rice.

Like rice, wheat also had specific regions. Punjab, Sind, Western Uttar Pradesh and other regions with little rainfall produced wheat. References to its production in Bihar, Gujarat, Deccan and even some parts of Bengal are also available.

Apart from these two major crops, barley was grown extensively in the Central plains. The Ain-i Akbari refers to barley production in Allahabad, Awadh, Agra, Ajmer, Delhi, Lahore and Multan, etc.

Millet is reported with some exceptions mainly from wheat producing zones. Jowar and bajra were the two main millet.

Pulses are reported from different regions. Important ones are gram, arhar, moong, moth, urd and khisari (the latter was grown extensively in Bihar and the regions of present Madhya Pradesh). However, Abul Fazl says that its consumption was. injurious to health. The same is confirmed by modern researches.

It was believed for long that maize (makai or makka) was not known in India during 17th century. Some recent works establish beyond doubt that it was grown definitely in Rajasthan and Maharashtra and possibly other regions also during the second half of the 17th century.

2) Cash Crops

Crops grown mainly for the market are commonly termed as cash cops. These are referred in Persian records as jinsi kamil or jinsi ala (superior grade crops). Unlike seasonal food crops, these occupied the fields almost the whole year. The major cash crops in 16th-17th centuries were sugarcane, cotton, indigo and opium.

All these crops were known in India from historical times. However, in the 17th century their demand increased due to enhanced manufacturing and commercial activities. During this period, a large foreign market also opened for these commodities. The Indian peasant, quick to follow the market demand, increased the cultivation of these crops.

Sugarcane was the most widely grown cash crop of the period. The Ain-i Akbari records it in most of the dastur circles of Agra, Awadh, Lahore, Multan and Allahabad. Sugar from Bengal was considered to be the best in quality. Multan, Malwa, Sind, Khandesh, Berar and region of South India all testify to the presence of sugarcane in the 17th century.

Another cash crop grown throughout the country was cotton. The region with large scale cultivation were parts of the present day Maharashtra, Gujarat and Bengal. Contemporary sources refer to its cultivation in Ajmer, Allahabad, Awadh, Bihar, Multan, Thatta (Sind), Lahore and Delhi.

Indigo was another cash crop widely cultivated under the Mughals. The plant yielded a blue dye (neel) which was much in demand in India and European markets. Its presence is recorded in the dastur circles of Awadh, Allahabad, Ajmer, Delhi, Agra, Lahore, Multan and Sind. Its cultivation is referred in Gujarat, Bihar, Bengal, Malwa and Coromandal in South India and Deccan.

The varieties high in demand were those of Bayana and Sarkhej. Bayana, a place near Agra, was considered as producing the best quality of indigo and fetched high price. Sarkhej, near Ahmedabad, was considered second in quality and also fetched a high price. Other notable places for quality indigo were regions around Khurja and Aligarh (in U.P.), Sehwan (in Sind) and Telingana (in Deccan).

Cultivation of opium is reported from a number of places in India. The Mughal provinces of Bihar and Malwa seem to have produced good opium. It was also cultivated in Awadh, Bihar, Delhi, Agra, Multan, Lahore, Bengal, Gujarat, Marwar, and Mewar in Rajasthan.

Cultivation of tobacco seems to have spread in India in a short time. The A’in-i Akbari does not mention it as a crop in any of the dastur circles or other regions. It seems to have been introduced in India during the 16th century by the Portuguese. Its cultivation was noticed in almost all parts of the country (specially in Surat and Bihar).

Cultivation of coffee seems to have started during the second half of the 17th century while tea does not figure during the period of our study as a common beverage.

San or sunn-hemp, a fibre yielding plant, was cultivated in all the core provinces of the Mughal empire (Awadh, Allahabad, Agra, Lahore, Ajmer, etc.).

Sericulture (rearing of silkworms on mulberry plant) was carried on in Bengal, Assam, Kashmir and western coast. However, Bengal was the main region of production.

The plants whose seeds were used for extracting oil come under the category of food as well as cash crops. The main oil yielding crops listed are rapeseed, castor, linseed. Rapeseed is reported in all provinces from Allahabad to Multan as also in Bengal. Cultivation of oilseed plants was relatively less widespread.

3) Fruits, Vegetables and Spices

Horticulture seems to have reached new heights during the Mughal period. The Mughal Emperors and the nobles planted lavish orchards. Almost every noble of consequence had his gardens on the outskirts of the towns where they resided. Orchards and groves were laid down with careful planning.

A number of fruits available today were introduced in India during 16th and 17th centuries. Pineapple (anannas) is one such fruit which was brought from Latin America and introduced in India by the Portuguese. In a short period of time it became popular and was extensively cultivated all over the country.

Papaya and cashew-nuts were also introduced through the same agency, but their spread was a bit slow. Leechi and guava seem to have been introduced later. Cherries were brought from Kabul and grown in Kashmir through grafting. The practice of grafting was in order to improve the quality of a number of fruits. Quality of oranges and other types of citrus fruits, apricots, mangoes and a host of other fruits was greatly improved through grafting. Coconut was grown not only along the coastal region but also inland.

Seeds of different variety of melons and grapes were brought from Kabul and successfully grown in the gardens of Emperors and nobles. Ordinary melons were grown everywhere on riverbeds by the peasants.

A large variety of vegetables were grown all over the country. The Ain-i Akbarl provides a long list of vegetables in use at that time. Potato and Tomato seem to have been introduced in the 17th century and after.

For centuries India was known for its spices. The Southern coast of India witnessed large scale spice export to various regions in Asia and Europe. Pepper, clove, cardamom were plentiful. Ginger and Turmeric were grown extensively. The Dutch and English purchased large quantities for export. Saffron grown in Kashmir was celebrated for its colour and flavour. Pan (betel leaf) was produced in many areas. The Maghi Pan of Bihar and various other varieties from Bengal were famous. Betel-nut was also produced in coastal regions.

Large forest tracts supplied a number of commercially important products. Lignum used for medicinal purpose and lakh were exported in large quantities.

4. Productivity and Yields

Shireen Moosvi has worked out the productivity of crops and per bigha yields for Mughal India. The Ain-i Akbari provides schedules of crop yield and revenue rates for zabti provinces (Lahore, Multan, Agla, Allahabad, Awadh and Delhi). For each crop yields are provided separately for high, middling and low categories. An average yield can be worked out on the basis of these. However, Abul Fazl does not inform us what was the basis of the three categories. It seems that the low yields are those of non-irrigated land while the rest two are for irrigated fields.

Shireen Moosvi has worked out the agricultural productivity on the basis of various data available from the 16th century records. According to her estimates the yields (average of high, middling and low yields) for some major crops were as follows:


Shireen Moosvi has also compared the yields of the Ain-i Akbari with yields around the close of the 19th century. She finds that on the whole there is no major change in the productivity of food crops between the two periods. However, in case of cash crops a definite increase in the productivity in the 19th century can be noticed.


The cattle played a very important role in agricultural production. They were employed in important agricultural activities like ploughing and irrigation, and their dung was used for manuring. Besides, dairy products contributed substantially to the agriculture related production. The peasants in general along with some specialised castes were involved in the rearing of cattle.

Large scale involvement of cattle in agricultural operations suggests the presence of large cattle population. With high land-man ratio, grazing fields would have been available in abundance. Contemporary European travelers refer to large numbers of cattle in Indian fields. lrfan Habib suggests that the per capita cattle population in Mughal India compares favourably with modern statistics. Abundance of butter or ghee is said to be the diet of the common people; this also suggests a large cattle population. Oxen were used for transporting goods as pack-animals or for bullock carts. The banjaras (migrant trading community) are said to have maintained flocks of a few hundred to thousand animals. Flocks of thousands of sheep and goats were also reared.


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