The Mughal Rule in India!

In the past half century, there is a definite shift in the focus of the study of history.

It is recognized that the history of a nation is not only the study of the dynamics of dynasties represented by individual rulers (i.e., the political aspect) but the study of social and economic aspects of different segments rural and urban, religious groups of the Hindus and the Muslims, customs and traditions, living standard and style of the agricultural and mercantile occupations, and artisans and craftsmen of different professions as a whole.

Coming to Mughal Rule in India, R.C. Mgguumdar, H. Raychowdary and K.K. Datta are of the view, that the sources for studying it are indeed meagre, but valuable information can be gleaned from the account of contemporary European travelers and records of the European factories and incidental references available in contemporary historical works in Persian as well as vernacular literature of the period.

Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, British Library | Visual ...

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In order to understand the social and economic aspects of Mughal in India, Moreland was the first to arrive at a demographic calculation with the help of Ain-i-Akbari and concluded that the population of northern India was 30 to 40 million people at the end of the 16th century.

He also concludes that the population of entire India was 100 million at the end of AD 1600. Kingsley Davis is of the view that the population of India was 125 million. Shireeen Moosvi estimates the population of India in the 17th century to be between 140 and 150 million. Ashok V. Desai also tried to estimate the population of India by 1,600 by using the method or concept of total and per capita land revenue but his efforts were questioned by Alan Heston and Shireen Moosvi.

It is now agreed upon that the population at the end of Akbar’s reign could be 100 million and the whole of India 145 million. Out of this population, Irfan Habib by using the method of pattern of consumption of agricultural produce comes to the conclusion that the urban population could be over 15 per cent of the total population and the rest of the population belongs to the rural setup. We come to know from Nizamuddin Ahmed’s Tabaquat-i-Akhari that in Akbar’s empire there existed 120 big towns and 32,000 townships.


Contemporary European travelers also record the population of various big towns like Agra, Delhi, Lahore, Surat, Patna, Dacca and Masulipatnam, where the estimated population is given the maximum of 5, 00,000 in Delhi and Agra, Lahore as 4, 00,000, and 2, 00,000 in the towns of Surat, Patna, Dacca and Masulipatnam. Another interesting aspect to be noted was that the rate of the growth of the population was 0.2 in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The compo­sition of the population was pluralistic but not homogenic. While the majority of the peoples were Hindus, considerable number were Muslims, who were divided as Sunnis and Shias, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Christians also lived side by side. Each religious denomination had its cultural identity represented by its own social customs and traditions, having their own cukural symbols.

The Hindus observed important festivals like Holi, Basant Panchami, Dushehra, Diwali, Shivaratri and Sankranti. The Muslims observed important festivals like Id-ul-Juha, Id-ul-Fitr, Shab-l-bharat, Muharram and Milad-un-nabi. In addition to the above, Navroj was also celebrated by the aristocratic group.

The Buddhists, Jains and Christians celebrated their respective religious festivals. Hunting, animal fighting, pigeon honing, chess, mujra, and mushaira were pastimes. Sati, child-sacrifice, child marriage, jauhar and Purdah were common among the Hindus. Akbar attempted to ban sati. Both the Hindus and Muslims spent a lot of money on omaments.


Consumption of opium and liquor was common to both the communities. The Mughal emperors introduced new games like playing cards and modified some games. Religious festivals and fairs were conducted with gaity and pomp. We can trace the origin of many modern fairs to the Mughal period. Society of the Mughal period looked like a feudal organism with the sovereign at its apex followed by the nobility consisting of Mansabdars, Jagirdars and Zamindars, Ulemas followed by middle and lower classes. The most glaring aspect of the society was the wide gulf between the ruling group and the commoners and rural and urban, in standard of life and living pattern.

The ruling group and the elite led a luxurious life living in huge palaces, enjoying the best of everything available, wearing jewels and, riding on horses. The urban pattern of life was different from the rural pattern. The rural masses led a very simple life living in mud houses with bare necessities for sustenance. Satish Chandra observes “although the life of the peasant was hard, he had enough to eat and to meet his simple requirements. In urban areas also, the largest social group consisting of artisans, servants and slaves, soldiers and petty shop keepers were poor”.

1. Ulemas:

As the majority of the population had strong belief and faith in religion in this period, the religious heads occupied a high place in social ladder. The Ulema or Muslim theologian naturally wanted the sovereign to follow Islamic code in the administrative measures and treat the non-Muslims as ordained by Shariat.

During this age, as the Mughal sovereigns believed in autocracy, they never bothered to give importance to the position of Ulemas. The Mughal rulers’ attitude towards religion varied according to the personal perception of the sovereigns. As such Ulemas did have high place in the minds of the ordinary folk but their role in state appears to be minimal.

2. Nobility:

Satish Chandra is of the view that socially and economically, the Mughal nobility formed a privileged group of the ruling class. Though, theoret­ically the doors of nobility were open to anyone and everyone, in practice only persons of aristocratic birth, Indians or foreigners were given preference. The majority of the Mughal nobles were recruited from the homeland of the Mughals in the beginning and in due course, even the Afghans who were opposed to the Mughals were also recruited along with the Indian Muslims and the Hindus from the time of Akbar.

The largest groups among the Hindus in the service of the Mughals were the Rajputs and even among the Rajputs Kachwahas were in predominant strength. The Rajput’s who were recruited as nobles were either hereditary ‘rajas’ or belonged to the aristocrat families related to the rajas. This does not mean that, the entire nobility consisted of aristocratic families or rajas.

It included the commoners in good number also. The nobility received considerable stability under Jehangir and Shahjahan. The Mansabdars, Jagirdars and Zamindars constimte the nobility or the ruling class. Thus, the nobility of the Mughal age was the creation of the sovereign and as such they were the main source of strength to the ruler. At the time of initiation into nobility, the newly recruited Khan has to take an oath of loyalty to the sovereign.

In spite of their usefulness as loyal and obedient in the service of the ruler, there is a view that the prevalence of the hereditary privileges among the large section of the nobility hampered the growth of absolutism in the Mughal Empire. We also notice a number of examples where the nobles were dismissed, executed, punished, fired and banished. The Mughal state was beneficiary of the nobility to a certain extent but the rapid growth of the numbers of nobility in the 17th century, the resultant tensions among different groups and individual nobles led to a serious crisis of the functioning of the institution of nobility, which killed the vitality of the Mughal state.

Satish Chandra is of the view, “The nobility of the Mughals, although it suffered from a number of internal weaknesses was on a broad view, a remarkable institution which wielded into a homogenous and harmonious whole. They were men belonging to different regions and tribes, speaking different languages and professing different religions and with different cultural traditions but the Mughals succeeded in inducing the nobles with a sense of common purpose and loyalty to the reigning dynasty and in imparting to them a distinctive cultural outlook, and in creating traditions of high efficiency and Endeavour in administration. It was thus, a definite factor in securing for a century and half a remarkable degree of unity and good government in the country”.

3. The Zamindars:

The term Zamindars is derived from two Persian words; Zamin or land and Dar or holder. We come across Zamindars in every part of the region ruled by the Mughal sovereigns. They played a significant role in the agrarian structure as intermediaries of the Mughal age. Nurul Hassan divided them into three categories of primary, secondary and autonomous chiefs. The primary Zamindars are those who had proprietary rights over the land. The secondary Zamindars are those who held the intermediary rights and helped the state in collecting land revenue.

The autonomous chiefs are those Zamindars who exercised autonomous rights in their territories and paid a fixed amount to the Mughal state. Thus, the Zamindars besides their principal fiscal claim also collected number of petty perquisites from the peasantry. The Zamindars also had their own militia to help them in proper collection of revenue and subju­gation of the peasants. The Zamindars lived a luxurious life in forts. Abul Fazal in his Ain-i-Akbari records that the total strength of military force of the Zamindars was forty-four lakhs.

4. Peasantry:

Peasantry constitutes the major chunk of the population. The peasantry was directly involved in the agricultural operations and as such it was the primary agricultural group in the society. The peasantry was not a homog­enous entity as it consisted of different strata based on economic and social status. The tax collected from the peasantry constitutes the major source of income that sustained the state apparatus of the Mughals. We are already aware that the peasants had to part with a large part of the produce or the income of the produce as cash to the state as land tax.

It is now agreed upon that the peasant had certain rights over the land he cultivated, except the right of free alienation of the land. The peasant was not disturbed as long as he paid the tax to the state exchequer through the intermediary appointed for that purpose.

Big peasants with large resources acted as heads of villages (Maqaddam or Patel) and enjoyed a larger share in the produce of other peasants. Rich peasants are referred to as Khud kasht or self cultivated and the poor peasants as ‘riza riaya’ or small peasants. In each region these peasants both small and big were referred by different names. Below the category of the peasants, there existed innumerable number of menial workers or agricultural labourers and the contemporary literature described them as Chamars, Belaharas, Thoris and Dhanuks, etc. It can be justifiably suggested that this group was exploited by the peasants, Zamindars and the state. We come across various references to the migration of these labourers as well as small peasants to free themselves from exploitation.

5. Artisans:

The Mughal age in India witnessed high level of craft production. Resultantly, we come across artisans engaged in non-agricultural production, particularly of textile, silk, wool, indigo sugar, and oil which come under the category of agro-based products; minerals, mining and metals, wood-based crafts and miscellaneous crafts like stone cutting, paper and pottery. There existed different forms of production from independent artisan level to the ‘karkhanas’ supported and run by the state. Further, the organization of production varied in different crafts and industries as per the needs and require­ments of the craft.

The artisans living in rural areas of villages produced articles of daily use for the residents of the villages. The most important artisans of the village were blacksmiths, carpenters, potters and shoemakers. They manufac­tured the basic tools like agricultural implements to satisfy the needs of the villagers for their sustenance. Further, the growth of long distance trade increased the number of artisans and their prosperity.

Besides the villages craftsmen dependent on Jajmani system, there came into existence a number of independent craftsmen engaged in production for trade, either long distance or medium distance. We also notice a marked change from subsistence-oriented economy to money economy. Tapan Roy Choudari rightly observes, “By the 17th century, if not much earlier, exchange had made significant inroads into the subsistence-oriented system of manufacture by collectively maintained artisans. Payments in cash and kind for additional work, or entirely on a piece work basis, coexisted with the more widespread practice of allocating fixed shares of the rural produce or land to the artisan families”.

Another change to be noticed is the marked mobility of the rural artisan to urban markets with the increase in demand for their finished goods. Production for the market had become a common practice by the independent artisan and there emerged specialist craftsmen in all crafts. Interestingly a Dutch traveler, Pelesaert, who visited India in 1623, refers to a hundred specialized categories of artisans working in different crafts. A significant feature of these times was the local­ization of manufacture. In the area of textile manufacturing, we notice the highest level of specialization. Another feature of significance was the impact of merchant capital on profitable crafts like textile weaving.

We come to know that one Kasi Veeranna, the biggest merchant who had under his control all the ports from Madras to Armagoan except Pulicat. The weaver settlements of this region were known as the “Veeranna villages”. We do not have any reference to artisan guilds during this period like those of early and medieval periods. Besides independent artisans manufacturing goods for long and medium distance trade, ‘karkhanas’ maintained by the royalty and the nobility produced specialized goods for the consumption and use of the affluent social groups.

These karkhanas enabled specialist artisans to cater to the requirements of the royal and the noble house­holds. We notice that the process of production underwent a marked change in the Mughal age. Tapan Roy Choudari aptly remarks “The organization of manufacture in Mughal India did not remain unchanged. A lot was happening, but on a limited scale and the sum total of new developments did not amount to a break with the past. Continuity was the dominant characteristic. Yet the changes in organization were more basic than those in techniques”.

6. Slaves:

The institution of slavery was in vogue in the Mughal period as in that of the Delhi Sultanate. Bengal was known for slave markets. During this period, a feature to be noticed is the lack of opportunities for the slaves to improve their position and status. Though numerous domestic and personal slaves were employed by the royalty and the nobility, free employees appear to have outnumbered the slaves. As in the past, in this age too, the slaves served the emperor as harem guards.

We do not have evidence for slaves in the service of military guards of any emperor during this age. Often slaves served as maid servants in the harem of the royalty as well as nobility. Domestic slavery appears to be limited to the Mughal royal household and nobility. Slave eunuches also played a crucial role in the affairs of royal kith and kin and nobles. These slaves acted as guards, servants and often as business agents for high-born women in the harem. There appears to have developed discrete sexual relationship between the master and women slaves and men slaves and women of harem.

7. Position of Women:

In the Mughal age, the position of the women was not very different from that of the previous ages. Women had a second rate place. It is because the society was feudal and hierarchically arranged social order was in vogue. Though women are said to be the queens of the house, only the voice of the head of the family prevailed in many cases. In the Hindu community ‘sati sahagamana’ practice, child marriage and child sacrifices were very common.

In Muslim community there existed the practice of polygamy and divorce by uttering Talaq thrice as per Shariat. Women of the stature of Nurjahan rarely existed. J.F Richards is of the view that the wives, concubines and female relatives of the master were ranked by seniority, blood ties and favour in a strictly prescribed hierarchy. The Muslim rulers and nobles maintained their harems with a number of wives and concubines and the prevailing view appears to treat women as object of pleasure. We may conclude by suggesting that the Mughal India was feudalistic and pluralistic in nature in the sphere of social relations.