Q. Discuss the forest dwellers and its interaction with outside in Mughal India.

Q. Discuss the forest dwellers and its interaction with outside in Mughal India. [10 Marks]


  • Beyond settled villages:
    • There was more to rural India than sedentary agriculture. Apart from the intensively cultivated provinces in northern and north-western India, huge swathes of forests – dense forest (jangal) or scrubland (kharbandi) – existed all over eastern India, central India, northern India (including the Terai on the Indo-Nepal border), Jharkhand, and in peninsular India down the Western Ghats and the Deccan plateau.©
    • All-India average of the forest cover for this period, with the help of informed conjectures based on contemporary sources suggest an average of 40 per cent.
    • Forest dwellers were termed jangli in contemporary texts. Being jangli, however, did not mean an absence of “civilisation”. Rather, the term described those whose livelihood came from the gathering of forest produce, hunting and shifting agriculture. These activities were largely season specific.
      • Among the Bhils, for example, spring was reserved for collecting forest produce, summer for fishing, the monsoon months for cultivation, and autumn and winter for hunting.
      • Such a sequence presumed and perpetuated mobility, which was a distinctive feature of tribes inhabiting these forests.
    • For the state, the forest was a subversive place – a place of refuge (mawas) for troublemakers. Babur says that jungles provided a good defence “behind which the people of the pargana become stubbornly rebellious and pay no taxes”.
  • Inroads into forests:
    • External forces entered the forest in different ways. For instance, the state required elephants for the army. So the peshkash levied from forest people often included a supply of elephants.
    • In the Mughal political ideology, the hunt symbolised the overwhelming concern of the state to ensure justice to all its subjects, rich and poor.
      • Painting of Shah Jahan hunting nilgais ( from the Badshah Nama) which shows connection between the hunt and ideal justice.
      • Regular hunting expeditions, so court historians tell us, enabled the emperor to travel across the extensive territories of his empire and personally attend to the grievances of its inhabitants.
    • The hunt was a subject frequently painted by court artists. The painter resorted to the device of inserting a small scene somewhere in the picture that functioned as a symbol of a harmonious reign.
    • The spread of commercial agriculture was an important external factor that impinged on the lives of those who lived in the forests.
      • There are references of clearance of forest for agriculture. For e.g. in a sixteenth-century Bengali poem, Chandimangala, composed by Mukundaram Chakrabarti.
      • Abu’l Fazl describes the economic transactions between the hill tribes and the plains in the suba of Awadh.
      • Forest products –like honey, beeswax and gum lac – were in great demand. Some, such as gum lac, became major items of overseas export from India in the seventeenth century.
      • Elephants were also captured and sold.
      • Trade involved an exchange of commodities through barter as well. Some tribes, like the Lohanis in the Punjab, were engaged in overland trade, between India and Afghanistan, and in the town-country trade in the Punjab itself.
    • Social factors too wrought changes in the lives of forest dwellers.
      • Like the “big men” of the village community, tribes also had their chieftains. Many tribal chiefs had become zamindars, some even became kings. For this they required to build up an army. They recruited people from their lineage groups or demanded that their fraternity provide military service.
      • Tribes in the Sind region had armies comprising 6,000 cavalry and 7,000 infantry.
      • In Assam, the Ahom kings had their paiks, people who were obliged to render military service in exchange for land. The capture of wild elephants was declared a royal monopoly by the Ahom kings.
    • Though the transition from a tribal to a monarchical system had started much earlier, the process seems to have become fully developed only by the sixteenth century. This can be seen from the Ain’s observations on the existence of tribal kingdoms in the north-east.
    • War was a common occurrence. For instance, the Koch kings fought and subjugated a number of neighbouring tribes in a long sequence of wars through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
    • New cultural influences also began to penetrate into forested zones. Some historians have indeed suggested that sufi saints (pirs) played a major role in the slow acceptance of Islam among agricultural communities emerging in newly colonised places. (A painting shows a peasant and a hunter listening to a sufi singer).©

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