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How the Mughals changed India

November 26, 2018 11:47 IST

'It was the Mughals who first established standard units of measurement and maintained offices of meticulous record keepers and auditors, departing from the more haphazard methods of earlier regimes.'
'By the end of the 16th century, their revenue and judicial administrations exhibited an obsessive preoccupation with order, the efficient management of time, and a spirit of rational self-control -- all of them characteristics of early modernity,' point out Sheldon Pollock and Benjamin Ellman.

The Mughal emperor Akbar

IMAGE: The Mughal emperor Akbar. Portrait: Manohar circa the 16th century

Independence in 1947 brought cataclysmic partition to the country that the British ruled for more than a century as 'India', creating Pakistan in the west and, in 1971, Bangladesh in the east.

The entrance of India and the rest into the post-World War II world order at the same time led some observers, deceived by the apparent timelessness of their own nations, to think of India as a new one. (E M Forster wrote, with mock incredulity, in 1924: 'India a nation! What an apotheosis!... Waddling in at this hour of the world to take her seat!')

But the idea of India, some sort of idea, is far older.

Ancient Sanskrit geographies describe a 'Clime of the Bharatas' (Bharatavarsha) that, while shading into fantasy around the edges, marks off a familiar South Asian space.

Greeks as early as Herodotus spoke of an indike (chore), an 'Indian' place or land (referring to the lands east of the Indus river); the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang named it Indu; Arab traders and military adventurers some centuries later took to calling it Al-Hind (again referencing the Indus) and later Hindustan, the 'Place of the Indians'.

Recognisable Indian forms of political organisation and religious belief no doubt spread far from the South Asian landmass in the first millennium, creating the so-called Indianised states of Southeast Asia (including Thailand, Cambodia, and southern Vietnam) and carrying Buddhism as far west as Iran and into Central Asia, and, along with Hinduism, as far east as Java and Bali.

 

Mughal empire under Akbar (dark yellow)

IMAGE: The Mughal empire under Akbar (dark yellow). Photograph: Kind Courtesy, Wikimedia Commons

Yet the Indian subcontinent itself was subject to imperial processes, such as those of the Mauryas (322-187 BCE), the Kushans (circa 30-230), the Guptas (320-550), and the Mughal (1526-1857), that largely hewed to its geographical boundaries and, in some measure at least, imposed or sought to impose integrating structures of rule across a population dramatically varied in languages, customs, and beliefs.

If Indian cultural practices and products spread far and wide, with Sanskrit poetry being written by Cambodian princes in Angkor in the tenth century and Indo-Persian poetry circulating as far as Istanbul in the seventeenth, the generative core was known to be a geocultural space largely coterminous with today's South Asia.

Indeed, even though the phrase 'South Asia' is a recent coinage, the region itself possesses some sort of coherence -- an unfamiliar, prenational sort of coherence -- that is far older.

That said, there is by no means universal agreement about the precise boundaries of this early modern period for either of the two regions, let alone that those boundaries are the same for both.

The end point of the early modern is largely unproblematic, for around 1800 many processes were set in motion, especially in global commerce and industrialisation, that would constitute the sharpest break with the past in the historical record of both countries and set them on a path toward ever greater convergence with the modern West.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

In India, 1800 marks the start in earnest of British colonialism, which would gain momentum through the century: Thanjavur (Tanjore, in south India) was taken by Lord Wellesley in 1776; Varanasi in the north was ceded to the British in 1803; in the west, the Peshwas of Maharashtra were defeated in the course of the following decade (1817-1818).

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 led to the nation's formal incorporation into the British empire a year later, where it would remain until gaining independence in 1947.

What causes difficulty, then, is not the chronological end point of our study, which is well known, but the starting point we have chosen -- 'three or four centuries before 1800' -- and the conceptual coherence of the 'early modernity' that underlies that choice.

While many enduring features of the two regions long antedate even these older eras, it was during the early modern period that distinctive form was given to many patterns of polity, society, and culture that persisted until the coming of Western modernity.

That said, the early modern era more strictly conceived (circa 1500-1800) has historical salience in both spheres, as recent scholarship has been increasingly able to demonstrate.

It is characterised by important transformations that mark a new era while at the same time underscoring the durability of older civilisational features.

Babur, born Zahir ud-Din Muhammad, was the first Emperor of the Mughal dynasty in the Indian subcontinent

IMAGE: Babur founded the Mughal empire. Photograph: Kind Courtesy, Wikimedia Commons

In India, a similar political transformation occurred with the founding of the Mughal empire in 1526.

Although the Delhi sultans had nourished an ideal of limitless political space, it was the Mughals who -- like their Qing, Ottoman, Spanish, and Habsburg contemporaries -- actually achieved the characteristically early modern institution of a large-scale 'universal' empire.

Regarding statecraft, scientific surveys of a country's resources and products, together with an increased use of skilled bureaucrats were hallmarks of early modern States everywhere. And in India, it was the Mughals who first established standard units of measurement and maintained offices of meticulous record keepers and auditors, departing from the more haphazard methods of earlier regimes.

Meanwhile, professional Hindu banking and clerical castes became prominent in their sprawling bureaucratic machine.

By the end of the sixteenth century, their revenue and judicial administrations also exhibited an obsessive preoccupation with order, the efficient management of time, and a spirit of rational self-control -- all of them characteristics of early modernity.

Mughal India's early modern character, like China's, is also seen in its integration with an expanding global economy.

Within just fifty years of the empire's launching, the descendants of Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty, had conquered the wealthy and commercially vibrant coastal province of Gujarat, and soon Bengal as well.

Despite their roots in land-locked, semi-nomadic Inner Asia, the Mughals thereby joined a global network of maritime trafficking and commerce, with far-reaching consequences.

Expanded cash crops (tea, coffee, opium, sugar, tobacco) and new food crops (potatoes, maize, chilies, tomatoes, etc.) transformed India's patterns of production and consumption, while the diffusion of gunpowder and cannon technology helped the Mughals consolidate their power across the flat Indo-Gangetic plain.

Perhaps most important, by the early 1600s, Dutch and English trading companies had begun carrying vast quantities of New World silver to Mughal seaports in Gujarat and Bengal.

Because India possessed hardly any silver mines of her own, minting this imported metal into coinage significantly monetised the Mughal economy, which in turn enhanced merchant wealth, eroded social barriers, and intensified land use, since mobile cash helped marshal labor to transform dense tracts of jungle into arable fields for cultivating food crops.

The Mughals also created the context for new and dynamic circulation, innovation, and experimentation in many areas of society, including the intellectual and artistic spheres.

Mughal cultural life evinces a fascinating blend of Persian and more local styles. Emperor Akbar is famous for his commitment to translating Sanskrit classics into Persian. He and his son Jahangir organised philosophical and religious debates at court and were avidly interested in Indian thought.

The official political ethos of the day was 'peace for all' (sulh-i kull), a guarantee that people of different religious backgrounds would be protected by the State.

Excerpted from What China And India Once Were: The Pasts That May Shape The Global Future, edited by Sheldon Pollock and Benjamin Ellman, with the kind permission of the publishers, Penguin Random House India.

Sheldon Pollock and Benjamin Elman