In this article we will discuss about the condition of agriculture in India during the medieval age.
As at present, even during the medieval times India was predominantly an agricultural country. The people produced sufficient to meet their requirements and were self-sufficient, except during famines, or other natural calamities.
Usually in normal times the peasants produced much more than were actually needed by the people, leaving sufficient scope for export of food-grains. Though there are no contemporary references regarding the system of cultivation, it must have resembled the present one.
In addition to the food crops the people cultivated medicinal herbs, spices and fragrant wood, which had a good foreign market. The chief crops at that time were oilseeds, pulses, wheat, barley, millet, peas, rice, sugarcane and cotton etc.
The practice of storing or stocking the surplus grains was in vogue. The grain was usually stored in grain-pits or khattees, where it could be preserved for sufficiently long time. Fruits of numerous varieties were produced in different parts of the country.
The Sultans of Delhi and other rulers took special pains to improve the quality of the Indian fruits. They paid special attention to gardening, which indirectly led to the improvement of the quality of fruits. Firoz Tughalaq is particularly credited with having laid down 1200 gardens in the neighbourhood of Delhi, eighty on the Salora embankment and forty-four in Chitor.
The most popular fruit of that time was mango, although melons were also quite popular. Amongst other fruits grapes, dates, pomegranates, plantains, peaches, oranges, apples, grape-fruit, figs, lemons, etc. were found in abundance. The coconuts were found in the coastal areas.
Village was the basic unit of economic organisation. The chief feature of the Indian village community was a “harmonious coordination of the specialized functions of its various component groups of workers.” Each member of the village community performed a function which was determined by his birth and upbringing.
The villages were not only economically self-sufficient but also fed a number of rural industries viz., making of ropes and baskets and manufacture of sugar, scents, oils etc. Certain craftsmen like weavers, leather-workers, dyers, wood-workers etc. were also found in each village.
Usually every village possessed a small market where necessities of life were sold by petty shopkeepers. Every village also had its own blacksmiths who were conversant with the process of smelting iron-ore and manufactured various agricultural implements, arms and other items of common use in the Indian homes.
Industries on large scale existed only in certain selected areas which were either located at places where the raw materials were found or were situated at the mouth of certain navigable rivers through which the raw materials could be supplied. There were very few industrial centres at other places.
In view of the special navigation facilities available in Bengal and Gujarat, most of the industrial centres were located there. They also served as the collection centres of the surplus of finished products from inland centres, and exported them abroad.
The entire trade and commerce as these centres were monopolized by a handful of rich people, who made huge fortunes by their trade with the foreign countries. This naturally led to the emergence of certain cities and big towns, which served as centres of distribution for the agricultural and industrial products.
The state took a large share of the produce from land in the shape of land-tax and various other duties. Out of the remainder the peasant distributed fixed share to the various classes of domestic and other labours. A certain share was also earmarked for the priest and the domestic animals. As a result the peasant was left with sufficient stock to meet his day to day needs.
The peasant usually worked hard and unceasingly. His wife and other members, of the family also shared the burden with him. In return for all this he could merely get a square meal every day. Prof. K.M. Ashraf says, “There are very few and very vague references to the life of the peasants, but it can be asserted with confidence that their lot was very miserable and they lived constantly in a state of semi-starvation”.
The famines were quite frequent and the state made no provision for relief to the affected peasants. Even the remission in revenue was negligible. The condition was no better under the Mughals.
The sufferings of peasants and people knew no bounds “because the Mughal State then made no systematic and prolonged efforts to provide relief and affected no substantial remission in revenue collection. The little that they did was insufficient to alleviate the acute miseries of the myriads of the people who died of starvation and the pestilence that closely followed it.”