Agriculture, Trade and Technological Development during Mughal Rule in India!

The Mughal state took conscious interest in the promotion of agriculture, trade and commerce along with technological innovations as the prosperity of the state depended entirely on the taxes collected and deposited in treasury by bureaucracy.

We have very meagre information of the economic conditions of India under Babur and Humayun, though Babur’s Memoirs and Humayun Nama have references to the economic situation.

We have ample evidence provided by Ain-i-Akbari and other documents of the period as well as of the European travelers’ accounts to have a good knowledge of the economy of the Mughal state till the end of the great Mughals and the lesser Mughals.


The view held by V.A. Smith and Moreland was that ordinary labourer was happier in those days than today. Ain-i-Akbari gives a list of the cost of food stuff like rice, wheat, barley, vegetables, sugar, and sheep and cow. The cost was cheap and the wages too were meagre but as their availability was much in vogue, people could purchase and be satisfied.

1. Agriculture:

Agriculture was the main occupation of the vast majority of the population of India. Throughout the ages, agriculture was the main productive activity as the soil was fertile in most parts of India and people were known for their hard working nature and knowledge of agricultural operations of AD 1595 and Chahar Gulshan of 1739-40 provide with figures of measured and unmeasured land under cultivation in all villages.

Agricultural Production during the Sultanate and Mughal Period

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Historians are of the view that the cultivated area doubled between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 20th century due to the factors of clearance of forests in Bihar, Awadh and parts of Bengal and by the spread of canal network in the Punjab and Sindh. As India was a vast country with different ecological set-up, fertility and nature of the soil also varied. So, the means and methods of cultivation varied from region to region.


Generally, the plough was of wood and iron plough-share. The plough happens either to be of light weight or heavy weight depending on the nature of the soil. Generally, tillage was carried on by hamessing a pair of oxen to the plough. The peasant increased the fertility of the soil by using the droppings of the goat and the sheep. They knew the practice of rotation of crops. Sowing of the seeds was done by hand.

The crop was cut by the use of a semicircular sickle. Agriculture in India was mostly dependent on monsoon. Besides rain water, the peasants depended on wells, lakes, tanks and reservoirs and canals for irrigation purposes. India produced a large variety of agricultural products. Rice and wheat were the two major food crops throughout the country.

Barley was grown extensively in the central plains. Jowar and Bajra were also grown extensively. Maize was grown in Rajasthan and Maharashtra in large tracts. Pulses like gram, Jowar, moong, moth, urd and khesari were also in great use. Besides food crops, cash crops called in Persian records as Jimsi Kamil or Nimsi Ala or superior grade crops like sugar-cane, cotton, indigo and opium were also cultivated in large scale to supply to the markets.

Cultivation of tobacco also began in India during the 16th century and it was introduced into India by the Portuguese. The cultivation of coffee was known from the 17th century. The beverage tea does not figure in the records of this period; oil was extracted from rapeseed, castor, and linseed which were grown extensively. The cultivation of other oil seeds was relatively less. Sericulture was undertaken in the provinces of Bengal, Assam, Kashmir and Western Coast. Horticulture was patronized by the rulers as well as nobles. Pineapple was brought to India by the Portuguese from Latin America.


Papaya, cashew nuts, Leechi and Guava were known to them. Potato and tomato were introduced in the 17th century and thereafter. Cattle played a significant role in agricultural operations and production. The contemporary European travelers refer to a large number of cattle in Indian fields. Butter or ghee was consumed daily even by ordinary people as a part of the regular diet. Oxen were used for transporting goods as pack animals or for bullock carts.

It is no exaggeration to surest that there was abundance of agricultural products which enabled even the common people to fill their belly satisfactorily. Besides agricultural production, non-agricultural production of textiles, indigo, sugar, oil and various crafts received new heights. Abul Fazl provides a list of important centres of production of cotton textiles like Gujarat, Rajasthan, UP, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, Masulipatnam and the Coromandal Coast.

According to Hameeda Naqui, forty-nine varieties of clothes were produced in five major production centres of the Mughal Empire. The European accounts mention more than one hundred varieties. Woodcraft and metal craft also received patronage from the royalty, nobility and the commoners. We can justifiably say that the salt produced in India at that time was sufficient to meet the needs of the domestic sector and saltpetre was exported on a large scale.

More than substantial quantity of iron and steel was produced and the shipbuilding industry was highly developed. Royal Karkhanas produced luxury items needed by the royalty and the nobility. The Mughal age witnessed a change in the process of production of non-agricultural goods.

In this age, thus, we notice abundance of commodity production in different regions of the country. As the volume of production was very much higher than the local demand and consumption, the surplus of production was turned to trade and commerce.The relative political stability and increased surplus production gave a fillip to trading activities. During this age, the volume of trade increased manifold. The entry of foreigners too increased both the inland and foreign trade.

2. Trade and Commerce:

Inland trade is organized at local, regional and inter-regional levels. At the local level or village, much of the surplus was sold to banjaras or traditional grain merchants. Tavernier, a contemporary French traveller records that every village sold the surplus goods and to enable the merchants to carry on trade and each village had a Saraf or moneychanger. There existed periodic markets besides local markets. Banarsidas states that in the middle of the 17th century, Jaunpur had 52 paraganas, markets and wholesale markets or mandis each.

We can postulate that there existed a network of small and big markets which were linked to bigger commercial centres in a region. Ahmedabad, Surat, Dhaka, Agra, Delhi, Lahore, Multan, Ajmer, Thatta, Burhanpur, Masulipatnam, Bijapur, Hyderabad, Calicut and Cochin were big trading centres of all commodities. There were special markets located at Delhi, Agra, Dhaka and Lahore for specific commodities. Owing to the growth of trade, a new class of sarfs and brokers emerged in these cities besides merchants. Burhanpur and Ahmedabad were famous for cotton ‘mandis’, Cambay was famous for gems, and Surat was famous for indigo market.

Among the inter-regional centres, in the east Hugli, in the west Surat and Ahmedabad, in the north Agra and in the south coastal areas Masulipatnam and Malbar regions were very important markets. This inter-regional trade was carried out by coast to save time. The trade through eastern and western coasts was prominent. Piracy was rampant in the west coast. During the Mughal period too, India had a flourishing trade with a large number of foreign countries. The arrival of European traders increased foreign trade manifold. In those days, imports were very little and there were export of considerable Indian goods like textiles, indigo, spices and saltpetre.

In the category of textiles, the main varieties of cotton fabrics were Baftas, Samanis, calico, Khairabadi and Dariabadi, Aruberty, and Qaimkhani and muslin were exported. Chintz or printed cotton textiles were the most favored export. Carpets from Gujarat, Jaunpur and Bengal were also bought. Among exports, silk cloth from Gujarat and Bengal occupies a prominent place. Saltpetre was exported by the Dutch from the Coromondal coast in the 17th century. Later the English also joined in this export business of saltpetre. The export of indigo was started by the Portuguese in the last quarter of the 16th century and the Dutch and English joined the race in exporting indigo in the 17th century.

The other items of export were opium, ginger, and turmeric. Among imports, silver was the main item followed by copper, lead and mercury. Silk and porcelain were imported from China. Quality wine, carpets and perfumes were imported from Persia.

The state purchased horses of central Asia for military purposes. Musk was bought from Nepal and Bhutan. Boray was imported from Tibet and Nepal and in mm iron and food grains were supplied to these neighbouring hilly regions. This type of trade and commerce could take place because of the network of routes and a developed transport system.The Mughal state created an elaborate network of trade routes linking all the commercial centres of the empire by the beginning of the 17th century. All the important routes had ‘sarais’ at short intervals to enable the travellers to take rest and then to proceed further.

The important land trade routes were:

(1) Agra-Delhi-Kabul;

(2) Agra-Burhanpur-Surat;

(3) Surat-Ahmedabad-Agra; and

(4) Agra-Patna-Bengal.

Quite interestingly, the river route from Bengal ran almost parallel to the land route. Coming to the routes to foreign trade, indig­enous and foreign merchants used both the overland and overseas routes. Oxen played a major role in land transport. On high mountains, besides human labour, mules and hill ponies were used to carry heavy loads. Many rivers provided a network of river routes. Contemporary records testify to the fact of hundreds of boats plying between Agra and Bengal.

The Mughal state made it a policy to promote trading activities by removing hurdles of vexatious duties and taxes imposed on merchants. We come across a number of royal decrees abolishing taxes and customs on certain items. Almost all the European trading companies obtained royal orders for carrying merchandise without paying transit duties. While the state showed liberal attitude towards merchants who carried on trade, the officials at various levels looked for an opportunity to fleece the merchants. Sometimes, the nobles and officials also indulged in trading activity as it was not legally banned.

As a result, we notice coercion of those in power over the other merchants. We come across a number of petitions and requests by foreign companies, merchants and individuals complaining against the high-handed attitude of the bureaucracy.

In spite of the above hurdles, trade began to grow, attracting merchants from many countries. In consequence to the growth of trade and commerce, besides merchant community operating in different parts of India with different names there were specialized groups of brokers, ‘sarafs’ and moneylenders. During this period the system of bills of exchange and money lending was highly developed.

The interest rates were generally quite high. Rules and regulations for trading and commercial activities were made by well-organized merchant guilds. During the Mughal period, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English and the French merchant companies established their trading centres and by the time the Mughal rule was at its end, the British East India Company emerged victorious and cultivated designs to establish a political power structure in India.

3. Technological Developments:

The Mughal age did not witness any breathtaking discoveries in the fields of different branches of science. One of the renowned scientists of Akbar’s time was Mir Fatullah Shirazi and he is credited with the invention of mechanical devices and the introduction of a true solar calendar (Illahi) exposed to the European learning; the impact of the European learning did not penetrate into the areas of Indian sciences.

In the sphere of agricultural technology we do not notice any radical change with regard to the tools of agricultural operations like the plough, ploughshare and sickle, but as one significant development to be recorded is the introduction of some new crops, plants and fruits. P.K. Code is of the view that grafting became a common practice in India after AD 1550.

As a result, new varieties of mango, Alfanso, Our Lady and Joani Perriera developed in India. Of all the Mughal emperors, Shahjahan appears to have built two canals – Nahr Faiz and Shah Nahr. During his period, in the sphere of textile technology, carpet weaving and production of silk and silk fabrics became popular.

In 1770s, the Italian silk filatures were introduced into India. In the sphere of military technology, the fire arms – guns, canons, matchlocks, handguns and pistols were used commonly. In boat or ship manufacturing, Indians started the use of iron nails and clamps in the 16th century.

In the beginning of the 16th century, Varthema records the use of iron nails in Indian ships at Calicut. The Mughal paintings and the works of art prove the use of iron nails. In ship building activity, iron anchors were begun to be used from the 17th century. From the second half of the 17th century, the use of chain pumps to draw the water from the ship became common.

We notice the European or the British impact on metallurgy, glass technology and printing press. Time reckoning devices like sand-glass were in use. Babur Namah and Abul Fazl’s works refer to such time-reckoning device. Two new discoveries of chemical sector – preparation of rose scent and the use of saltpetre for water cooling deserves to be credited to the Mughal period. Indian response to the exposure of European science does not appear to be uniformly the same and we appear to have gained less from the European exposure.