Towns and cities in India had developed firstly, on religious and pilgrimage centres like Banaras, Puri, Allahabad, etc. Secondly, they emerged around the seats of government like Delhi, Kanauj, Patna, Mysore etc. And, thirdly commercial towns emerged as trade centres like Lahore, Surat, Mirzapur etc. on the trade routes to different markets within the country and into the foreign markets.
After the Mohammedans conquered India, they did not disturb either the village or the urban centres. Rather they established their military cantonments to control the existing villages and cities.
These military cantonments emerged, during the medieval period, as gadhis and shahar (towns) which replaced the ancient seats of governments. One should not be misled by the fact that Delhi or Lahore were seats of governments even before the Mohammedans.
If we go through these cities, we find that the Mohammedans generally did not occupy the palaces of Indian princes. Rather they built their cantonments and palaces on the peripheries or these ancient seats of governments or on the ruins of temple places.
Change in the place of seats of government decayed the original urban centres but further expansion of Mohammedan seats of government’s submerged the ancient towns. In that way the cities like Delhi appear to have a continuity.
In this way, new towns also emerged around their cantonments and seats of governments. Since these administrative as well as military pivots were the main targets of the succeeding invaders, the urban centres were better fortified than the villages.
The villages in the neighbourhood of these urban centres could find a place of refuse in the times of invasions. Therefore, there were walled cities and towns in the eighteenth century India.
India was also famous for its manufactured goods and those goods had a vast market. (It was the good demand of those goods and margin of profit being higher which attracted the Europeans towards India). It was because of the developed status of handicrafts.
It were, however, the urban centres which were not only congenial for the growth of handicrafts but also could have a demand for their products. They manufactured luxury goods or artistic wares, such as muslins in Dacca, shawls in Kashmir, koftgari in Agra.
These goods had a great demand in the country as well as in foreign markets. Their mainstay was the considerable patronage extended to them by the local chieftains or rulers and their courts. The urban industries were well organized into guilds which concerned themselves with the welfare of their members and the quality of their work.
Each independent craftsman was not a big capitalist: he generally worked to order and worked on raw materials supplied by his customer. This flourishing trade in manufactured goods kept the cities prosperous and they were a place of civilized living on the dawn of the eighteenth century.
After the British obtained a firman in 1713 granting them exemption from trade duties, the industrial sector was hard hit. Their miseries further increased after the native rulers were liquidated and the Company Government systematically started running the Indian handicrafts in the interest of their metropolitan industries. The urban centres had, therefore, become a “dead place” by the close of that century.
A poet, Nazir, describes the graphic picture of Agra of the eighteenth century:
“Joblessness could show only one thing—poverty
On the hovals of the poor there are no roofs
Poverty covers the hovals
Everyone in Agra these days is ruined
No one knows how he will live further
Although they know thousands of arts and crafts
Dust settles in bazar while shopkeepers sit in their empty shops
As though thieves lined up in prison”.
New towns also had started emerging on and around the European trade-factories on the coasts. They brought a phenomenal change in their urban centres especially after they grabbed political power.
It led to increase the mobility of rural people towards the European town-centres for employment and other professions created by the establishments in trade-factors and new administrative pivots. (By 1901 there was an increase of 7.3 per cent in the urban population compared to an increase of only 2.4 per cent in the total population).
Though the percentage of the immigrants from distant parts of the country was small, it did attract them. Madras contained about 4 lacs people but all of them came from the adjoining areas. About one-third of the population in Calcutta was local and the rest two-third had come from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the country.
Similar was the case in the Bombay Presidency town. The character of the urban population had, therefore, started taking the shape of cosmopolitan cities. It did bring about a change in the sanskritised society of India in the new urban centres, but the continuity remained the touchstone of the social life in the rural areas.
Therefore, it can be said that the society of the eighteenth century had the signs of decadence on the surface. The continued political instability and consequent insecurity confronted the people with greater problems and brought about further decadence.
V.P.S. Raghuvanshi has summarised this situation in the following words:
“Civilized life cannot flourish amid conditions of insecurity and oppression. In the 18th century, the break-up of the Mughal monarchy released forces of political disintegration and anarchical conditions which destroyed the creative and co-operative spirit of man. They caused deterioration in every phase of national life. The regions which suffered most from the savages of the soldiery became the scenes of uprooted humanity and epidemics. The period glorified war, bred anarchy and held civilization in terror.”
All this decadence was, however, caused by the decline of political authority. The Indian society had the potentiality of revival “under the auspices of peace and liberty”. Instead the society had been subjected to more tyrannical rule of foreign commercial houses. They did not consider India as their own country but a colony to sub serve their interests.
This sad state of affairs, continued unabated for a long time and a dark curtain was drawn over the life and spirit of the society. In its place, a new society—modern, as it is called— emerged regulated more by law than by religion as was the case before the eighteenth century.