The Mughal Empire Society and Administration -Medieval India Part 15

Mughal Society

  • The population of India is estimated to have been around 15 crores in the 16th century and 20 crores in the 18th
  • Large areas of land were under forest cover and the area under cultivation would have been much less. As agriculture was the prime occupation of the society the village community was the chief institution of social organisation.
  • Though the nature, composition and governance of village differed from place to place there were certain similarities in the village administration.
  • The Muqaddam, privileged headman of the village, formed the Panch (Panchayat), an administrative organ of the village. The Panch was responsible for collection and maintenance of accounts at the village level.
  • The Panch allotted the unoccupied lands of the village to artisans, menials and servants for their service to the village.
  • The middle class consisted of small Mansabdars, petty shopkeepers, hakims (doctors), musicians, artists, petty officials of Mughal administration.
  • There was a salaried class, and received grants called Madad-i-Mash from the Mughal emperor, local rulers and zamindars. This section often became part of the rural gentry and a link between the village and the town. Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Lahore, Ahmadabad, Dacca and Multan were important cities of the empire which could be ranked along with contemporary European cities like London and Paris.
  • The inequality in the standard of life amongst the privileged and the underprivileged classes was clear. Among the lower strata of society, the men wore just a langota and the women a sari.
  • Footwear was not common. The poor lived in houses made of mud and their diet consisted of wheat chapatis with pulses and vegetables. On the contrary the Mughal privileged class consisting of zamindars and nobles led an ostentatious life.
  • The nobles were Mansabdars who received jagirs or land grants as payment according to their ranks.
  • The jagirdars were exploitative and oppressive in nature. The nobles maintained a large train of servants, large stables of horses, elephants, etc. The nobles lived in fine houses containing gardens with fruit trees and running water. They wore the finest of clothing.
  • The Zamindars, members of dominant clans and castes with armed retainers, were a dominant class with privilege over lands of the peasants.
  • Abul Fazal in his Ain-i-Akbari enlists the castes that were entitled to be zamindars. While mostly upper caste Hindus and Rajputs were zamindars, in certain localities Muslim zamindars existed. The zamindars had the right to evict the peasants, in default of payment of rent.
  • In Mughal social structure, the nobles came mostly from Central Asia and Iran. Afghans, Indian Muslims (shaikhzadas), Rajputs and Marathas also obtained the status of nobility.
  • It is estimated that during the reign of Akbar over 15% of the nobility consisted of Rajputs. Raja Man Singh, Raja Todar Mal and Raja Birbal were Rajput nobles of repute during Akbar.
  • The Rajputs appointed Kayasths and Khatris for various positions in government administration. Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb employed Marathas in their nobility. For example, Shaji, father of Shivaji, served Shah Jahan for some time.
  • There were continuous migrations from Central Asia as there were better career prospects in India.
  • These migrations led to the enrichment of culture through assimilation of diversity. Though the nobility was divided on ethnic lines they formed a composite class promoting a syncretic culture by patronising painters, musicians and singers of both Persian and Indian origin.
  • The caste system was a dominant institution in the society. Castes at lower levels were subject to much repression.
  • Despite the popular Bhakti movement raising the banner of revolt against discrimination, the deprived and disadvantaged classes, who were landless peasants, were subject to forced labour.
  • The Hindu women had only limited right of inheritance. Widow remarriage was not permitted among upper caste women.
  • Along with household activities the women were involved in spinning yarn and helped in agricultural operations.
  • Mughal administration discouraged the practise of sati that was prevalent among communities of the higher caste.
  • Muslim brides were entitled to receive mehr (money mandatorily paid by the groom) at the time of marriage, and also had the right to inherit property, though it was not equal to the share of the male members of the family.


  • The Mughal economy was a forest-based agricultural economy. The forests provided the raw materials for the craftsmen.
  • Timber went to carpenters, wood carvers and shipwrights, lacquerware makers; wild silk to reelers and weavers; charcoal to iron miners and metal smiths. Hence the relationship between manufacturing and the forest was very close.
  • Different classes of the rural population were involved in agriculture. Agriculture was the chief activity in the economy.
  • Landless agricultural labourers without right to property formed almost a quarter of the population. Zamindars and village headmen possessed large tracts of land in which they employed labourers and paid them in cash and kind. Well irrigation was the dominant mode of irrigation.
  • The Ain-i-Akbari lists the various crops cultivated during the Rabi and Kharif seasons. Tobacco and maize were introduced in the seventeenth century.
  • Chilli and groundnut came later. Pineapple was introduced in the sixteenth century. Grafted varieties of mango came to be developed by the Portuguese.
  • Potato, tomato and guava came later. Indigo was another important commercial crop during the Mughal period. Sericulture underwent spectacular growth in Bengal to the extent that it became the chief supplier of silk to world trade.
  • As the farmers were compelled to pay land tax they had to sell the surplus in the market. The land tax was a share of the actual produce and was a major source of revenue for the Mughal ruling class.
  • The administration determined the productivity of the land and assessed the tax based on the total measurement.
  • Akbar promulgated the Zabt System (introduced by Todal Mal): money revenue rates were now fixed on each unit of area according to the crops cultivated. The schedules containing these rates for different localities applicable year after year were called dasturs.
  • The urban economy was based on craft industry. Cotton textile industry employed large numbers of people as cotton carders, spinners, dyers, printers and washers. Iron, copper, diamond mining and gun making were other chief occupations.
  • Kharkhanas were workshops where expensive craft products were produced. The royal kharkhanas manufactured articles for the use of the royal family and nobility.
  • The excess production of the artisans was diverted to the merchants and traders for local and distant markets.

Trade and Commerce

  • The political integration of the country with efficient maintenance of law and order ensured brisk trade and commerce.
  • The surplus was carried to different parts of the country through rivers, and through the roads on ox and camel drawn carts.
  • Banjaras were specialised traders who carried goods in a large bulk over long distances. Bengal was the chief exporting centre of rice, sugar, muslin, silk and food grains.
  • The Coromandel coast was reputed for its textile production. Kashmiri shawls and carpets were distributed from Lahore which was an important centre of handicraft production.
  • The movement of goods was facilitated by letters of credit called hundi. The network of sarais enabled the traders and merchants to travel to various places.
  • The traders came from all religious communities: Hindus, Muslims and Jains. The Bohra Muslims of Gujarat, Marwaris of Rajasthan, Chettiars on Coromandel coast, and Muslims of Malabar were prominent trading communities.
  • Europeans controlled trade with the West Asia and European countries, and restricted the involvement of Indian traders.
  • Moreover, the Mughal empire, despite its vast resources and a huge army, was not a naval power.
  • They did not realise that they were living in an era of expanding maritime trade.
  • Europeans imported spices, indigo, Bengal silk, muslin, calico and chintz. In return, India obtained large quantities of silver and gold. Mughal silver coinage fuelled the demand for silver.


  • The Mughal period witnessed a continuing assertion of all the basic elements in puranic traditions.
  • Though it was difficult to speak of Hinduism as a single body of doctrine, in view of the countless faiths and innumerable customs and practices, having developed in mutual interaction and expressed in a large part in the same language (Sanskrit), the different sects of Hinduism yet shared the same idiom and the same or similar deities.
  • The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were the centuries of Vaishnavism. Tulsidas (Ramcharitmanas) a great proponent of Rama cult in his popular verses of devotion portrayed Rama as a god incarnate.
  • The expression of bhakti was deeply emotional as the object of bhakti (devotion) was Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu.
  • The Bhakti movement made great strides during this period. Poets and saints emerged from various parts of the country.
  • They were critical of rituals, and criticised the caste system. Rather than using Sanskrit for expressing their devotion, they employed the language of the common people.
  • The radical ideas, and the easy but catchy language often set to music made them popular among the masses.
  • Some of the major religious figures like Vallabhacharya and his son Vitthalnath propagated a religion of grace; and Surdas, an adherent to this sect, wrote Sur-Saravali in the local language.
  • Eknath and Tukaram were Bhakti poets from Maharashtra. The Dasakuta movement, a bhakti movement in Karnataka, popularised by Vyasaraya, turned out to be a lower class movement.
  • The most important figure of the Bhakti movement was Kabir. Said to be a weaver, Kabir propounded absolute monotheism, condemned image worship and rituals, and the caste system.
  • His popular poetry written in a simple language was spread orally across large parts of north India.
  • An interesting aspect of the Bhakti poets was that they came from lower castes practising craft and service occupations.
  • Kabir was a weaver, Ravidas, a worker in hides, Sain, was a barber, and Dadu, a cotton carder.
  • The Satnami sect in Haryana credited its origin to Kabir and his teachings.
  • While Sanskrit and Persian were the languages of administration and intellectual activity, the vernacular languages demonstrated their literary vitality.


  • Sikhism originated as a popular monotheistic movement, and evolved into one of the recognised religions of the world.
  • Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhs, contained the sayings of Muslim saint Shaikh Farid and of Bhakti poets such as Namdev, Kabir, Sain and Ravidas.
  • Guru Nanak believed in one God who was formless and omnipresent.
  • He condemned image worship and religious rituals. He stressed ethical conduct, kindness to all human beings and condemned caste system.


  • India was a fertile soil for the prevalence of Sufism or Muslim mysticism that had its origin in Iran.
  • It was accepted by the orthodox theologians as long as it fulfilled the obligations of the Sufism played a key role in creating religious harmony.


  • Along with the European traders came the Christian missionaries like Roberto De Nobili, Francis Xavier.
  • The early missionaries were Catholics. The first Lutheran missionaries under Danish patronage arrived in 1706 at Tranquebar and Ziegenbalg translated the New Testament of the Bible into Tamil in 1714, and soon the Old Testament as well.
  • This was the earliest translation of the Bible in any Indian language.

Science and Technology

  • The Madrasas continued to be concerned principally with Muslim theology and its vast literature.
  • In great learning centres like Varanasi, astrology was taught and there was no institution in India, as noted by the French traveller Bernier, to the standards of colleges and universities in Europe.
  • This made the imparting of scientific subjects almost impossible. Attention was, however, given to mathematics and astronomy.
  • Akbar’s court poet Faizi translated Bhaskaracharya’s famous work on mathematics, Despite the presence of Europeans, there was no influence of them on the Indian society during the Mughal period.
  • The method of water-lift based on pin-drum gearing known as Persian wheel had been introduced during Babur’s time.
  • A complicated system of water lift by a series of gear-wheels had been installed in Fatehpur Sikri. Akbar was also credited with popularizing the device of cooling water using saltpetre.
  • He is also the first known person in the world to have devised the ‘ship’s camel’, a barge on which the ship is built to make it easier for the ship to be carried to the sea. Some mechanical devices like the screw for tightening, manually driven belt-drill for cutting diamonds were in use.
  • Agricultural tools continued to be the same, made entirely of wood. In metallurgy, the inability to produce cast iron remained an obvious drawback.
  • As Irfan Habib observed, ‘India’s backwardness in technology was obvious when the matchlock remained the most common weapon in Indian armies.
  • In Europe the flintlock had long come into use. Indians continued to use the expensive bronze cannon, long after these had become obsolete in Europe. This was because of India’s inability to make cast iron even in the seventeenth century.’

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