• During 16th and 17th centuries about 85% of population of India lived in its villages. Both peasants and landed elites were involved in agricultural production and claimed rights to a share of produce. At same time agencies from outside entered into rural world. Most important among these was Mughal state, which derived bulk of its income from agricultural production.
Peasants & Agriculture Production
• The basic unit of agricultural society was village, inhabited by peasants who performed manifold seasonal tasks that made up agricultural production throughout year. Several kinds of areas such as large tracts of dry land or hilly regions were not cultivable in same way as more fertile expanses of land.
Looking for Sources
• The major source for agrarian history of 16th and early 17 th centuries are chronicles and documents from Mughal court. One of most important chronicles was Ain-i Akbari.
• Any revolt or assertion of autonomous power against Mughal state was, in eyes of author of Ain, predestined to fail.
• The extensive records of East India Company provide us with useful descriptions of agrarian relations in eastern India. All these sources record instances of conflicts between peasants, zamindars & state.
• It recorded arrangements made by state to ensure cultivation, to enable collection of revenue by agencies of state and to regulate relationship between state and rural magnates, zamindars.
Peasants and their Lands
• The term which Indo-Persian sources of Mughal period most frequently used to denote a peasant was raiyat or muzarian. Sources of 17th century refer to two kinds of peasants – ‘khud-kashta’ and ‘pahikashta’.
1. Khud-Kashta were residents of village in which they held their lands.
2. Pahi-Kashta were non-resident cultivators who belonged to some other village, but cultivated lands elsewhere on a contractual basis.
• Cultivation was based on principle of individual ownership. Peasant lands were bought and sold in same way as lands of other property owners.
Irrigation and Technology
• Factors that accounted for constant expansion of Agriculture:
1. The abundance of land
2. Available labour
3. The mobility of peasants.
• Monsoons remained backbone of Indian agriculture, as they are even today.
• Irrigation projects received state support as well.
• In northern India state undertook digging of new canals and repaired old ones like shahnahr in Punjab during Shah Jahan’s reign.
An Abundance of Crops
• Agriculture was organised around two major seasonal cycles, kharif & rabi.
• According to Ain, Mughal provinces of Agra produced 39 varieties of crops and Delhi produced 43 over two seasons. Bengal produced 50 varieties of rice alone.
• However, focus on cultivation of basic staples did not mean that agriculture in medieval India was only for subsistence.
• Cash Crops for Generating Revenue:
1. The Mughal state encouraged peasants to cultivate such crops as they brought in more revenue. Crops such as cotton and sugarcane were jins-i kamil par excellence.
2. Cotton was grown over a great swathe of territory spread over central India and Deccan plateau, whereas Bengal was famous for its sugar. Such cash crops would include various sorts of oilseeds and lentils.
• This shows how subsistence and commercial production were closely intertwined in an average peasant’s holding. During 17th century several new crops from different parts of world reached Indian.
The Village Community
• There were three constituents of this community – cultivators, panchayat, and village headman (muqaddam or mandal).
Caste and Rural Milieu
• Deep inequities on basis of caste and other castelike distinctions meant that cultivators were a highly heterogeneous group. Among those who tilled land, there was a sizeable number who worked as menials or agricultural labourers.
• In Muslim communities menials like halalkhoran (scavengers) were housed outside boundaries of village; similarly, mallahzadas (literally, sons of boatmen) in Bihar were comparable to slaves. There was a direct correlation between caste, poverty & social status at lower strata of society.
Panchayats and headmen
• The village panchayat was an assembly of elders, generally important people of village with hereditary rights over their property.
• An oligarchy, panchayat represented various castes and communities in village, though village menial-cum-agricultural worker was unlikely to be represented there.
• The decisions made by these panchayats were binding on members. The panchayat was headed by a headman called muqaddam or mandal.
• The headman was chosen through consensus of village elders, and that this choice had to be ratified by zamindar.
• Headmen held office as long as they enjoyed confidence of village elders, failing which they could be dismissed by them. Function of Panchayat
• To supervise preparation of village accounts, assisted by accountant or patwari of panchayat.
• One important function of panchayat was to ensure that caste boundaries among various communities inhabiting village were upheld. In eastern India all marriages were held in presence of mandal.
• Panchayats had authority to levy fines and inflict more serious forms of punishment like expulsion from community. Fund for Panchayat
• The panchayat derived its funds from contributions made by individuals to a common financial pool. These funds were used for defraying costs of entertaining revenue officials who visited village from time to time.
• Expenses for community welfare activities such as tiding over natural calamities, were met from these funds.
• Often these funds were deployed in construction of a bund or digging a canal which peasants generally could not afford to do on their own. Jati Panchayat
• In addition to village panchayat each caste or jati in village had its own jati panchayat.
• In Rajasthan jati panchayats arbitrated civil disputes between members of different castes.
• They mediated in contested claims on land, decided whether marriages were performed according to norms laid down by a particular caste group, determined who had ritual precedence in village functions, and so on.
• In most cases, except in matters of criminal justice, state respected decisions of jati panchayats.
• In eyes of petitioners right to basic minimum for survival was sanctioned by custom. They regarded village panchayat as court of appeal that would ensure that state carried out its moral obligations and guaranteed justice.
• The decision of panchayat in conflicts between ‘lower-caste’ peasants and state officials or local zamindar could vary from case to case.
• According to records of 18th-century zamindars in Bengal who remunerated blacksmiths, carpenters, even goldsmiths for their work by paying them ‘a small daily allowance and diet money’. This later came to be described as jajmani system, though term was not in vogue in 16 th and 17th centuries.
Women in Agrarian Society
• Women and men had to work shoulder to shoulder in fields. Men tilled and ploughed, while women sowed, weeded, threshed & winnowed harvest.
• Nonetheless biases related to women’s biological functions did continue.
• Menstruating women, for instance, were not allowed to touch plough or potter’s wheel in western India, or enter groves where betel-leaves (paan) were grown in Bengal.
• Artisanal tasks such as spinning yarn, sifting & kneading clay for pottery, and embroidery were among many aspects of production dependent on female labour.
• Women were considered an important resource in agrarian society because they were child bearers in a society dependent on labour.
Issues faced by Women
• At same time, high mortality rates among women owing to malnutrition, frequent pregnancies, death during childbirth – often meant a shortage of wives.
• This led to emergence of social customs in peasant and artisan communities that were distinct from those prevalent among elite groups.
• Marriages in many rural communities required payment of bride-price rather than dowry to bride’s family.
• Remarriage was considered legitimate both among divorced and widowed women.
Status of Women
• According to established social norms, household was headed by a male. Thus, women were kept under strict control by male members of family and community.
• They could inflict draconian punishments if they suspected infidelity on part of women.
• Documents from Western India – Rajasthan, Gujarat & Maharashtra – record petitions sent by women to village panchayat, seeking redress and justice.
• Wives protested against infidelity of their husbands or neglect of wife and children by male head of household, grihasthi.
• While male infidelity was not always punished, state & ‘superior’ caste groups did intervene when it came to ensuring that family was adequately provided for.
• Amongst landed gentry, women had right to inherit property. Instances from Punjab show that women, including widows, actively participated in rural land market as sellers of property inherited by them.
• Hindu and Muslim women inherited zamindaris which they were free to sell or mortgage.
• Women zamindars were known in eighteenthcentury Bengal. In fact, one of biggest and most famous of eighteenth-century zamindaris, that of Rajshahi, had a woman at helm.
Forest and Tribes
• Forest dwellers were termed jangli in contemporary texts. The term described those whose livelihood came from gathering of forest produce, hunting & shifting agriculture.
• These activities were largely season specific. Among Bhils spring was reserved for collecting forest produce, summer for fishing, monsoon months for cultivation, and autumn and winter for hunting.
• For state, forest was a subversive place – a place of refuge (mawas) for troublemakers.
• Babur says that jungles provided a good defence ‘behind which people of pargana become stubbornly rebellious and pay no taxes’.
Inroads into Forests
• In Mughal political ideology, hunt symbolised overwhelming concern of state to relate to all its subjects, rich & poor. The hunt was a subject frequently painted by court artists.
• The spread of commercial agriculture was an important external factor that impinged on lives of those who lived in forests.
• Forest products – like honey, beeswax & gum lac – were in great demand. Some, such as gum lac, became major items of overseas export from India in 17th century.
• Elephants were captured and sold. Trade involved an exchange of commodities through barter.
• Some tribes, like Lohanis in Punjab, were engaged in overland trade, between India and Afghanistan, and in town-country trade in Punjab itself.
Changes in Lives of Forest Dwellers
• Many tribal chiefs had become zamindars, some even became kings.
• In Assam, 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 Ahom kings.
• Though transition from a tribal to a monarchical system had started much earlier, process seems to have become fully developed only by sixteenth century.
• The Koch kings fought and subjugated a number of neighbouring tribes in a long sequence of wars through 16th and 17th centuries.
• New cultural influences began to penetrate into forested zones.
• The zamindars who were landed proprietors who enjoyed certain social and economic privileges by virtue of their superior status in rural society.
• Caste was one factor that accounted for elevated status of zamindars; another factor was that they performed certain services (khidmat) for state.
• The zamindars held extensive personal lands termed milkiyat, meaning property.
• Milkiyat lands were cultivated for private use of zamindars, often with help of hired or servile labour.
• Zamindars derived their power from fact that they could often collect revenue on behalf of state, a service for which they were compensated financially.
• Most zamindars had fortresses (qilachas) as well as an armed contingent comprising units of cavalry, artillery & infantry.
• Abu’l Fazl’s account indicates that an ‘upper-caste’, Brahmana-Rajput combine had already established firm control over rural society.
• It reflects a fairly large representation from so-called intermediate castes, as we saw earlier, as well as a liberal sprinkling of Muslim zamindaris.
Consolidation of Clan
• A combination of factors allowed consolidation of clan- or lineage-based zamindaris. For example, Rajputs & Jats adopted these strategies to consolidate their control over vast swathes of territory in northern India. Likewise, peasant-pastoralists (like Sadgops) carved out powerful zamindaris in areas of central and southwestern Bengal
• The buying and selling of zamindaris accelerated process of monetisation in countryside. In addition, zamindars sold produce from their milkiyat lands. Although there can be little doubt that zamindars were an exploitative class, their relationship with peasantry had an element of reciprocity, paternalism and patronage. Two aspects reinforce this view:
1. First, bhakti saints, who eloquently condemned caste-based and other forms of oppression, did not portray zamindars as exploiters or oppressors of peasantry.
2. Second, in a large number of agrarian uprisings which erupted in north India in seventeenth century, zamindars often received support of peasantry in their struggle against state.
Land Revenue System
• Revenue from land was economic mainstay of Mughal Empire. It was therefore vital for state to create an administrative apparatus to ensure control over agricultural production, and to fix and collect revenue from across length and breadth of rapidly expanding empire. This apparatus included office (daftar) of diwan who was responsible for supervising fiscal system of empire.
• The land revenue arrangements consisted of two stages: first, assessment and then actual collection.
• The jama was amount assessed, as opposed to hasil, amount collected.
• In 1665, Aurangzeb expressly instructed his revenue officials to prepare annual records of number of cultivators in each village.
The flow of silver
• The Mughal Empire consolidated powers and resources from empires of Ming (China), Safavid (Iran) and Ottoman (Turkey) during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
• The political stability achieved by all these empires helped create vibrant networks of overland trade from China to Mediterranean Sea.
• Voyages of discovery and opening up of New World resulted in a massive expansion of Asia’s (particularly India’s) trade with Europe. This resulted in a greater geographical diversity of India’s overseas trade as well as an expansion in commodity composition of this trade.
• An expanding trade brought in huge amounts of silver bullion into Asia to pay for goods procured from India, and a large part of that bullion gravitated towards India.
• This was good for India as it did not have natural resources of silver. As a result, period between 16th and 18th centuries was marked by a remarkable stability in availability of metal currency, particularly silver rupya in India.
• The testimony of an Italian traveller, Giovanni Careri, who passed through India c. 1690, provides a graphic account about way silver travelled across globe to reach India.
The Ain-i-Akbari of Abu’l Fazl Allami
• The Ain-i Akbari was culmination of a large historical, administrative project of classification undertaken by Abu’l Fazl at order of Emperor Akbar.
• It was completed in 1598, forty-second regnal year of emperor, after having gone through five revisions.
• The Ain was part of a larger project of history writing commissioned by Akbar. This history, called Akbar Nama, comprised three books. The first two provided a historical narrative.
• The Ain-i Akbari, third book, was organised as a compendium of imperial regulations and a gazetteer of empire. The Ain gives detailed accounts of organisation of court, administration and army, sources of revenue and physical layout of provinces of Akbar’s empire and literary, cultural & religious traditions of people.
• Along with a description of various departments of Akbar’s government and elaborate descriptions of various provinces (subas) of empire, Ain gives us intricate quantitative information of those provinces.
• The Ain is made up of five books (daftars), of which first three books describe administration. The first book, known as manzil-abadi, concerns imperial household and its maintenance.
• The second book, sipah-abadi, covers military and civil administration and establishment of servants. This book includes notices and short biographical sketches of imperial officials (mansabdars), learned men, poets & artists.
• The third book, mulk-abadi, is one which deals with fiscal side of empire and provides rich quantitative information on revenue rates, followed by ‘Account of Twelve Provinces’. The mulkabadi gives a fascinating, detailed & highly complex view of agrarian society in northern India.
• This section has detailed statistical information, which includes geographic, topographic and economic profile of all subas and their administrative and fiscal divisions (sarkars, parganas & mahals), total measured area, and assessed revenue (jama).
• After setting out details at suba level, Ain goes on to give a detailed picture of sarkars below suba. This it does in form of tables, which have eight columns giving following information: (1) parganat/mahal; (2) qila (forts); (3) arazi and zamin-i paimuda (measured area); (4) naqdi, revenue assessed in cash; (5) suyurghal, grants of revenue in charity; (6) zamindars; columns 7 and 8 contain details of castes of these zamindars, and their troops including their horsemen (sawar), footsoldiers (piyada) and elephants (fil).
• The fourth and fifth books (daftars) deal with religious, literary & cultural traditions of people of India and contain a collection of Akbar’s ‘auspicious sayings’.
• Although Ain was officially sponsored to record detailed information to facilitate Emperor Akbar govern his empire, it was much more than a reproduction of official papers.
• That manuscript was revised five times by author would suggest a high degree of caution on part of Abu’l Fazl and a search for authenticity.
• Numerous errors in totalling have been detected. These are usually minor and do not detract from overall quantitative veracity of manuals. Another limitation of Ain is somewhat skewed nature of quantitative data. Data were not collected uniformly from all provinces.
• Further, while fiscal data from subas is remarkable for its richness, some equally vital parameters such as prices and wages from these same areas are not as well documented. The detailed list of prices and wages that Ain does provide is mainly derived from data pertaining to areas in or around imperial capital of Agra, and is therefore of limited relevance for rest of country.
Timeline: Land Marks in History of Mughal Empire
1526 – Babur defeats Ibrahim Lodi, Delhi sultan, at Panipat, becomes first Mughal emperor 1530-40 – First phase of Humayun’s reign 1540-55 – Humayun defeated by Sher Shah, in exile at safavid court 1555-56 – Humayun regains lost territories 1556-
1605 – Reign of Akbar 1605-27 – Reign of Jahangir 1628-58 – Reign of Shan Jahan 1658-
1707 – Reign of Aurangzeb
1739 – Nadir Shah invades India and sacks Delhi
1761 – Ahmad Shah Abdali defeats Marathas in third battle of Panipat
1765 – The diwani of Bengal transferred to East India company
1857 – Last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah II, deposed by British and exiled to Rangoon (Present day Yangon, Myanmar)