Economy of Medieval India

Agricultural Production

Agricultural production constituted the bulk of production during medieval period. The income from agriculture was the main source of state revenue.

(i) Extent of Cultivation

Extent of cultivation may be understood in terms of actual area under the plough in relation to the total available cultivable land. It is to be noted that there was a favourable ratio of land to man i.e., availability of land in surplus than the actual land cultivated by peasants. In such a situation an increase in production was sought through expansion of agriculture i.e., bringing newer areas under cultivation.

We are informed, for instance, by the contemporary sources that large tracts of land in even such fertile regions as the Ganga-Yamuna Doab were covered by forests and grasslands during the Sultanate period. Land continued to exist in a favourable ratio to man during the Mughal period as well.

The rulers of this era, therefore, harped on the policy of expansion of agriculture to such areas which were hitherto not under cultivation. Agriculture was introduced to tribal, backward, and outlying areas. Forests were cleared and agricultural wastelands were converted into cultivable lands. Extent of agriculture expanded in good proportions from the Sultanate to Mughal period. By the Mughal period, agriculture was practiced in almost all parts of the empire, yet land still existed in huge surplus than the actual requirement of the Mughal agricultural population. The extent of cultivation significantly increased during the reign of Aurangzeb in comparison to the Akbar’s reign. The expansion of cultivation in Bihar, Awadh and parts of Bengal is ascribed to clearance of forest, whereas in Punjab and Sind, to the spread of canal network.

(ii) Crop Pattern

The medieval Indian peasants produced a variety of food crops, cash crops, vegetables and spices. They were familiar with various advanced techniques of crop cultivation of their times viz., double cropping, three crops harvesting, crop rotation, use of manures and range of devices for irrigation etc.

a. Food crops: The principal food crops produced were rice, wheat, barley, mil-let (jowar,’bajra) and a variety of pulses such as gram, arhar, moong, moth, urd, khisari etc.

b. Cash crops: Sugarcane, cotton, indigo (used to extract blue dye), opium, silk etc. were some of the prominent cash crops of medieval India. Making of wine from sugarcane became widespread by the fourteenth century. During the Mughal period, sugarcane was the most widely grown cash crop with Bengal producing the finest quality.

During the Mughal period, Bayana (near Agra) and Sarkhej (near Ahmedabad) produced the best quality Indigo. Sericulture (rearing of silk worms on mulberry plant), which was practised on a modest scale till the Sultanate period, became widespread during the Mughal period. Bengal emerged as the main region of silk production. The Mughal provinces of Bihar and Malwa produced the finest quality of opium. Tobacco cultivation was introduced in India by the Portuguese during the sixteenth century and it became widespread in the subsequent period. Surat and Bihar emerged as major tobacco producing centres. Similarly, from the seventeenth century, cultivation of coffee began on a large scale.

c. Fruits and Vegetables: Fruit crop cultivation developed rapidly during the medieval period. Some of the Delhi sultans actively promoted growing of fruit crops. Firuz Shah Tughlaq, for instance, laid down 1200 orchards in the vicinity of Delhi. Mughal emperors and their nobles also planted lavish orchards.

During the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a number of fruits were introduced in India through outside agencies. The Portuguese for instance, introduced pineapple, papaya and cashew nut; etc. Cherry was brought from Kabul. Leechi and guava were also introduced during this period. A wide range of vegetables were also produced by the medieval Indian peasants. Abul FazI, in his Ain-i-Akbari, gives a list of vegetables which were, in use at that time. Potato, Chilies and tomato were introduced during the late medieval period.

d. Spices: Pepper, clove, cardamom, turmeric, saffron, betel-leaf, etc. were some of the important spices produced by the medieval Indian peasants. By the Mughal period, the southern coast of India began exporting in large quantities different kinds of spices to various regions in Asia and Europe.

(iii) Means and Methods of Irrigation

The Indian agriculture has always depended on various sources of water both natural and artificial, for its irrigational requirements, viz – rain, wells, river, tanks, canals, lakes, etc.

Dams, lakes and water reservoirs were some of the important means of irrigation. In south India, the state, local chiefs and temple managements constructed a number of dams over rivers for this purpose. The Madag lake, for instance, was built by the Vijaynagar rulers on the Tungbhadra river to meet the irrigational need of the adjoining territories. Lakes and water reservoirs such as the Dhebar, Udaisagar, Rajasamand and Jaisamand (all in Mewar); Balsan (Marwar) and Mansagar (Amber) etc. served as important sources of irrigation in medieval Rajasthan.

Wells, as a common source of irrigation, were uniformly spread in different parts of the country. A number of artificial devices were used to lift water from wells. Pulleys were employed over wells for this purpose. Another device worked on the lever principle. In this method, fork of an upright beam was kept in a swinging position with its one end tied with a long rope and the other carried a weight heavier than the filled bucket. The Persian wheel which began to be used in India from the Sultanate period, however, was the most advanced water lifting device of this period. In this method, a garland of pots was attached to the rim of a wheel, a gear mechanism was also attached to it, and with the help of animal power this wheel was made to rotate.

The Delhi Sultans, in particular, promoted canal irrigation. Ghiyassuddin Tughlaq (A.D 1320–1325) built a number of canals for this purpose. However, Firuz Shah Tughlaq laid the largest network of canals. Four such canals are frequently mentioned in contemporary sources. These were – (i) from Sutlej to Ghaggar, (ii) Opening from the Nandavi and Simur hills to Arasani, (iii) from Ghaggar, reaching upto the village to Hiransi Khera, and (iv) excavated from Yamuna and extended upto Firuzabad. The tradition of Delhi Sultans to construct canals was continued by the Mughal emperors as well. The Nahr Faiz, for instance, built during Shahjahan’s reign carried water from Yamuna and irrigated a large area.

Land Revenue Assessment and Magnitude of the Land Revenue Demand

The medieval state derived the largest share of its income from land revenue. An elaborate mechanism of land revenue administration gradually developed due to efforts of medieval rulers like Alauddin Khalji, Sher Shah Suri and Akbar. In its developed form, the land revenue administration involved well formulated policies. These were: (i) actual measurement of cultivable land for the purpose of assessment of land revenue (ii) classification of land on the basis of the fertility of soil (iii) fixation of rate of the land revenue demand (iv) establishment of elaborate mechanism for its collection, and (v) working out modalities for assessment and collection of land revenue in cash.

During the medieval period different methods of revenue assessment and collection were used. The most simple and basic method was crop sharing or batai. Three types of crop sharing was in practice. These were – first, division of crop at threshing floor after the grain was obtained; second, Khet-batai, i.e. division of field when the crop was standing; and third, the Langbatai in which the crop was cut and stacked in heaps without separating grain. The share of the state was decided in this form. The state fixed a certain ratio of produce as state’s share. In this method out of the total produce the state share was collected by designated official. Here the measurement of land had no bearing on revenue collection. The actual produce was the main focus of attention.

In the second method known as Kankut the measurement was important. In this method land was first measured. After measurement the productivity of land was estimated to fix the revenue demand per unit of measured area. Sher Shah improved the method of assessment. For estimating the productivity sample cutting from three types of land i.e. good, middling and bad lands was taken and an average yield was obtained. The State demand was fixed at 1/3rd of the average yield.

Revenue demand per bigha for every crop was declared and was known as rai of Sher Shah. During initial years of Akbar these rates were adopted for the whole empire. Here the state demand was expressed in kind but could be collected/paid in cash after applying prevalent prices on them.

This Third method was called Zabt since the assessment was done on the basis of measurement. After the measurement, the cultivable land was classified, on the basis of the fertility of land, into three categories- good, middling and bad. Land was further classified into four categories viz -polaj, parati, chachar and banjar, on the basis of continuity of cultivation. The Polaj land was one in which two crops were raised every year; Parati land, however, had to be left fallow (uncultivated) for some time, after raising two crops to recover its fertility; the Chachar was an unfertile tract of land which was brought under cultivation once in every three or four years; and the Banjar land which was unfit for cultivation and therefore rarely brought under plough. Based on yields the share of the state was decided. Under Akbar the method was further refined. All the territories were divided into the revenue circles or dasturs. For each dastur circle per bigha revenue rates for different crops in cash based on productivity and prices was worked out.

The problem of compiling fresh rates every year for different localities was overcome through adoption of Ain-i-Dahsala or ten years revenue rates According to this the average of the rates of last ten years was taken as cash revenue rate for a particular crop. However, these were changed at irregular intervals and not updated every year. In the beginning it was implemented in the provinces of Agra, AIlahabad, Awadh, Delhi, Lahore and Malwa. Later it was extended to some other regions.

However at no point of time all the land in a particular region was measured. That would suggest that even in measured territories some territories remained unmeasured. In such a situation even in the zabti regions other methods of assessment and collection were followed in almost all parts of the country.

The land revenue constituted the bulk of the state’s income. The state, therefore, constantly tried to expand the territory under cultivation to maximize its revenue returns. All efforts of the State were also focussed in ensuring maximum realization of revenue from the cultivators.

The Mughal land revenue administration was organised at the pargana level. The task of surveying of land and collection of revenue was entrusted to different officials. Amin was the head of the surveying party whereas the amil was incharge of revenue collections. The amin was assisted by the qanungo who was repository of all revenue records. The chaudhari assisted the amil in this work of revenue collection. At the village level, the records were maintained by the patwari and collections were made by the muqaddam or village headman. There were other officials such as potadar or treasurer and karkun or clerk. The records were maintained both in Persian and languages of the region.

Patta and Qabuliat

Each cultivator was given a document by the state called patta (title deed) which gave all the details of the various categories of land held by the cultivator and rate of land revenue payable by him on different crops. A deed agreement called Qabuliat, according to which the cultivator made a promise to pay a particular amount of land revenue to the state, was taken from the cultivator. In addition to the land revenue, the cultivators were also required to pay certain additional cesses, in order to meet the cost of assessment and collection of revenues.