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Bernier’s account of India

Bernier’s account of India

  • François Bernier was a French physician, traveler, political philosopher and historian. He was in India for twelve years, from 1656 to 1668.
  • He was closely associated with the Mughal court, as a physician to Prince Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan, after Dara Shikoh’s demise, was attached to the court of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
  • He wrote Travels in the Mughal Empire, which is mainly about the reigns of Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb. It is based on his own extensive journeys and observations, and on information from eminent Mughal courtiers.
  • Bernier traveled to several parts of the country, and wrote accounts of what he saw, frequently comparing what he saw in India with the situation in Europe.
  • He dedicated his major writing to Louis XIV, the king of France, and many of his other works were written in the form of letters to influential officials and ministers.
  • Science and technology in India:
    • Bernier, a French physician, who came to India during the second half of the seventeenth century, claims to have been in the company of a Mughal Noble Agha Danishmand Khan for five or six years, to whom he used to explain the new discoveries of Harvey and Pecquet concerning circulation of the blood.
    • He was interested in scientific matters, such as astronomy, geography and anatomy.
    • Bernier held a very poor opinion of the Indian’s knowledge of anatomy. Indian hakims and vaids did not show any interest in Harvey’s discovery.
    • As Bernier lamented, there were no academies (except madrasas for religious study) where such subjects could be taken up for study. Thus, interest in western science and philosophy was individual, and died with the individual.
  • Jagirdars-peasant relation:
    • It is best reflected in Bernier‘s account who visited India in the mid-17th century.
    • He writes that, because of the frequent transfers of jagirs the jagirdar, governors and revenue contractors were not bothered about the deplorable state of peasantry. They therefore were interested in exploiting the peasantry to the maximum even at the cost of their desertion and fields lying unattended.

His major observations:

  • The question of landownership: crown ownership of land
    • He said one of the fundamental differences between Mughal India and Europe was the lack of private property in land and crown ownership of land as being harmful for both the state and its people.
    • He thought that in the Mughal Empire the emperor owned all the land and distributed it among his nobles, and nobles to the peasants. He thought this had disastrous consequences for the economy and society.
    • Owing to crown ownership of land, landholders could not pass on their land to their children. So they were averse to any long-term investment in the sustenance and expansion of production.
    • Bernier described Indian society as consisting of undifferentiated masses of impoverished people, subjugated by a small minority of a very rich and powerful ruling class.
    • Between the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich, there was no social group or class worth the name. Bernier confidently asserted: “There is no middle state in India.”
    • Bernier saw the Mughal Empire– its king was the king of “beggars and barbarians”; its cities and towns were ruined and contaminated with “ill air”; and its fields, “overspread with bushes” and full of “pestilential marshes”.
    • And, all this was because of one reason: crown ownership of land. Curiously, none of the Mughal official documents suggest that the state was the sole owner of land.
    • Evaluation of this observation:
      • None of the Mughal official documents suggest that the state was the sole owner of land.
      • Land revenue described as “remunerations of sovereignty”, a claim made by the ruler on his subjects for the protection he provided rather than as rent on land that he owned.
        • It is possible that European travelers regarded such claims as rent because land revenue demands were often very high.
        • However, this was actually not a rent or even a land tax, but a tax on the crop.
      • Bernier’s descriptions influenced Western theorists from the eighteenth century onward.
        • The French philosopher Montesquieu, for instance, used this account to develop the idea of oriental despotism, according to which rulers in Asia (the Orient or the East) enjoyed absolute authority over their subjects, who were kept in conditions of subjugation and poverty, arguing that all land belonged to the king and that private property was non-existent.
        • According to this observation, everybody, except the emperor and his nobles, barely managed to survive.
        • This idea was further developed as the concept of the Asiatic mode of production by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century.
          • He argued that in India (and other Asian countries), before colonialism, surplus was appropriated by the state.
          • This led to the emergence of a society that was composed of a large number of autonomous and (internally) egalitarian village communities.
          • The imperial court presided over these village communities, respecting their autonomy as long as the flow of surplus was unimpeded.
          • This was regarded as a stagnant system.
      • In reality, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rural society was characterised by considerable social and economic differentiation.
        • At one end of the spectrum were the big zamindars, who enjoyed superior rights in land and, at the other, the “untouchable” landless labourers.
        • In between was the big peasant, who used hired labour and engaged in commodity production, and the smaller peasant who could barely produce for his subsistence.
  • A more complex social reality: No care for artisans
    • Bernier felt that artisans had no incentive to improve the quality of their manufactures, since profits were appropriated by the state. Manufactures were, consequently, everywhere in decline.
    • However, he conceded that vast quantities of the world’s precious metals flowed into India, as manufactures were exported in exchange for gold and silver.
    • He also noticed the existence of a prosperous merchant community, engaged in long-distance exchange.
  • Mughal Cities: Camp towns
    • Bernier described Mughal cities as “camp towns”. He believed that these cities came into existence and grown when the imperial court moved in and rapidly declined when it moved out.
    • Bernier estimated the total strength of Shah Jahan’s great camp around 3-4 lakh.
    • Evaluation:
      • In fact, during the seventeenth century about 15 per cent of the population lived in towns. This was, higher than the proportion of urban population in Western Europe in the same period.
      • There were all kinds of towns: manufacturing towns, trading towns, port-towns, sacred centres, pilgrimage towns, etc. Their existence is an index of the prosperity of merchant communities and professional classes.
      • Merchants often had strong community or kin ties, and were organised into their own caste-cum occupational bodies. In western India these groups were called mahajans, and their chief, the sheth or nagarsheth.
      • Urban groups included professional classes such as physicians (hakim or vaid), teachers (pundit or mulla), lawyers (wakil), painters, architects, musicians, calligraphers, etc.
  • Sati and women Labourers:
    • European travelers and writers often highlighted the treatment of women as a crucial marker of difference between Western and Eastern societies.
    • Bernier chose the practice of sati for detailed description. He noted that while some women seemed to embrace death cheerfully, others were forced to die.
    • Evaluation:
      • In reality, women’s lives revolved around much else besides the practice of sati.
      • Women labour was crucial in both agricultural and non-agricultural production.
      • Women from merchant families participated in commercial activities, sometimes even taking mercantile disputes to the court of law.
      • Therefore, it seems unlikely that women were confined to the private spaces of their homes.
  • Other observations:
    • Travels of Francois Bernier gives vivid description of Agra and Delhi, revenue resources of the Mughal Empire, etc.
    • According to Bernier, the greater part of Aurangzeb’s nobility consisted of Persians.
    • As per Bernier, the luxurious life-style of the Mughal nobles resulted in their impoverishment.
    • Bernier has left an eyewitness account of Imperial karkhanas at Delhi.
    • Merchant’s clothing:
      • Bernier, comments that rich merchants had a tendency to look indignant for “lest that they should be used as filled sponges.”
  • Bernier’s Travels in the Mughal Empire is marked by detailed observations, critical insights and reflection.
  • He constantly compared Mughal India with contemporary Europe, generally emphasising the superiority of the latter.
  • His representation of India works on the model of binary opposition, where India is presented as the inverse of Europe.
  • He also ordered the perceived differences hierarchically, so that India appeared to be inferior to the Western world. This assessment was not always accurate.

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