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Peasants, Zamindars And The State | Class 12 History Notes

The chapter introduces students to the Mughal empire and the Agrarian society, it defines agrarian history through major chronicles like ' Ain-I Akbari'. The chapter also describes the rules of zamindari and the conditions of women in the agrarian society. We also highlight the land revenue systems: the economic mainstay in the Mughal empire.


Agrarian Society & the Mughal Empire

What are the Sources to Understand the Agrarian Society and the Mughal Empire?

The chronicles and the documents from the Mughal Court are major sources for Agrarian History.

Ain-i-Akbari is one of the important chronicles from the Mughal Court. This was authored by Abu’l Fazal.

This text recorded the arrangements made by the state to ensure cultivation, revenue collection by the agencies and the state.

This was done to regulate the relationship between the state and the zamindars.

Detailed revenue records from Gujrat, Rajasthan & Maharashtra from the 17th & 18th centuries were of great help.

The extensive records of the East India Company provide us with useful descriptions of agrarian relations in eastern India.

These resources record instances & conflicts between peasants, zamindars & the state.

Different terms used to describe Peasants

  • Riya or Muzarian ( Indo Persian sources)

  • The term Kissan or Asami were also used.

  • Khuda- kashta: They were the residents of the village in which they held their land.

  • Pasi-kashta: They were the non-resident cultivators, belonging to some other village. When revenue was in a distant village, more peasants moved to other villages.

  • Sometimes they were forced by economic distress after a famine.

Property & Land

The average peasant of north India possesses more than a pair of bullocks and two ploughs; most possessed even less.

In Gujrat, peasants were rich as they possessed about 6 acres of land. In Bengal, 5 acres were the upper limit of an average peasant farm.


Factors responsible for the constant expansion of agriculture:

  • Land Abundance

  • Labour

  • Mobility of peasants

Rice, wheat, and millets were the most often farmed crops because the major goal of agriculture is to feed people.

Monsoons have always been the backbone of the economy, and they continue to be so today. Some crops required more water than others, necessitating the use of an irrigation system. During Shah Jahan's reign, new canals were built and existing ones were renovated, such as Shahnahar in Punjab.


Through agriculture labour was intensive; peasants did not use technologies that often harnessed cattle energy

  • A wooden plough was used which was light and easily assembled with an iron tip.

  • A drill, pulled by a pair of giant oxen, was used to plant seeds, but broadcasting of seed was the most prevalent method.

  • Hoeing and weeding were done simultaneously using a narrow iron blade with a small wooden handle.


  • The agriculture was organised into two major seasonal cycles: The Kharif and Rabi

  • Most of the regions produced a minimum of two crops a year. Rainfall or irrigation assured a continuous supply of water.

  • The Mughal province of Agra produced 39 varieties of crops and Delhi produced 43 over the two seasons. Bengal produced 50 varieties of rice alone.

  • The Mughal state encouraged the cultivation of cash crops like cotton, oilseeds and sugarcane to increase revenue.

  • During the 17th century, several new crops were introduced like Maize via Africa & Spain. It was listed as one of the major crops of western India.

  • Vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes and chillies were introduced from the New World at this time, as were fruits like the pineapple and the papaya.

The Village Community

Caste and the Rural Milieu

There were certain caste groups that were assigned menial tasks and thus related to poverty. These comprised a larger section of the village population.

The resources were constrained by their position in the caste hierarchy.

In Muslim community menials like halalkhoran, those who cut meat were housed outside the boundaries of the village

Similarly, the mallahzadas (sons of boatmen) in Bihar were comparable to slaves.

The correlation between caste, poverty and social status at the lower strata of society were not so marked at intermediate levels. In Marwar, Rajputs are mentioned as peasants, sharing the same space with Jats, who were accorded a lower status in the caste hierarchy.

The Gauravas who cultivated land in Uttar Pradesh sought Rajput status in the seventeenth century. Castes such as the Ahirs, Gujars and Malis rose in the hierarchy because of the profitability of cattle rearing and horticulture.

In the eastern regions, intermediate pastoral and fishing castes like the Sadgops and Kaivartas acquired the status of peasants.

Powers and Functioning of Panchayats and Headman

As it represents diverse castes and communities, the local panchayats in the assembly of elders is an Oligarchy.

The Mandal or Muqaddam is in charge of it. The zamindar had to ratify the choice of the headman, which was made by consensus of the village elders.

Its main task is to create a village account with the assistance of an accountant (patwari).

Individual donations to a single financial pool provided the panchayat with funds. This cash was utilised to cover the expenditures of entertaining revenue officials who came to the village on a regular basis.

The most crucial task was to guarantee that caste boundaries were respected. All of the marriages took place in the Mandal's presence.

There were also severe penalties for misconduct, such as an exile from the community.

The petitions were presented to panchayats in western India, protesting about exorbitant levies imposed on the ‘superior' caste.

Village panchayats were seen as a unique appeals court that would ensure justice.

Jati Panchayat

  • Each sub-caste of jati in the village has its own Jati Panchayat.

  • These hold considerable power in rural society.

  • In Rajasthan jati panchayats arbitrated civil disputes between members of different castes.

  • They mediated in contested claims on land, decided whether marriages were performed according to the norms laid down by a particular caste group, and determined who had ritual precedence in village functions.

  • Except in matters of criminal justice, the state respected the decisions of Jati panchayats.

Life of Village Artisans

  • 25% of the total households were artisans.

  • Cultivators and their families would also participate in craft production – such as dyeing, textile printing, baking and firing of pottery, making and repairing agricultural implements.

  • There were people in the village like potters, blacksmiths, carpenters etc that provided specialised services in return they were compensated by the villagers by giving them the share of their harvest or an allotment of land.

  • Zamindars in Bengal remunerated blacksmiths, carpenters, even goldsmiths for their work by paying them “a small daily allowance and diet money”.

  • This later came to be described as the Jajmani system, though the term was not in vogue in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Why were villages called “Little republics”?

In the nineteenth century, some British authorities viewed the village as a "small republic" made up of brotherly partners who pooled their resources and labour. This, however, was hardly an indication of rural equality.

Individual ownership of assets existed, as did profound disparities based on caste and gender. A small handful of powerful persons ruled the community, exploited the weaker portions, and possessed the capacity to administer justice.

Women in Agrarian society under Mughals

Women and men were required to work in the fields in equal numbers during the Mughal period. Men tilled and ploughed, while women were responsible for sowing, threshing, and winnowing, among other tasks.

Menstruating women were not permitted on the farm, nor were they permitted to touch the plough or the potter's wheel, nor were they permitted to access the betel groves.

Among the numerous components of production that required female labour were spinning yarn, sifting and kneading clay for pottery, and needlework. They were seen as a valuable resource since they were the child-bearers in a labour-dependent society.

There was a high mortality rate among women owing to malnutrition.

In the peasant and artisan communities, this resulted in the formation of new social traditions.

Bride price was paid to the bride's family instead of dowry in many rural cultures. Women who had been divorced or widowed were both allowed to remarry.

As a result, male members of the family and community held women under rigorous control.

If they suspected women of cheating, they could subject them to harsh punishments.

Wives protested their husbands' adultery by submitting petitions to the village panchayat.

Women had the right to inherit property as well. Women in Bengal Muslim inherited zamindari, which they could sell or mortgage.

Forest society and Tribes

An average of 40 per cent of the Mughal empire was covered with forests. Forest dwellers were termed jangli in contemporary texts. Being jangli, however, did not mean an absence of “civilisation”.

Rather, the term described those whose livelihood came from the gathering of forest produce, hunting and shifting agriculture.

Activities were season-specific, spring was reserved for collecting forest produce, summer for fishing, the monsoon months for cultivation, and autumn and winter for hunting.

This presumed and perpetuated mobility, which was a distinctive feature of tribes inhabiting these forests.

The forest was a place for rebels and troublemakers. Babur says that jungles provided a good defence “behind which the people of the pargana become stubborn, rebellious and pay no taxes”.

Pargana was an administrative subdivision of a Mughal province.

Elephants were required for the Army, they were captured from the forest and sold.

In the Mughal political ideology, the hunt symbolised the overwhelming concern of the state to ensure justice to all its subjects, rich and poor.

Rulers went for the regular hunting expedition which enabled the emperor to travel across the extensive territories of his empire.

The spread of commercial agriculture was an important external factor that impinged on the lives of those who lived in the forest. Forest products were in great demand like honey, beeswax, gum lac.

Social factors too wrought changes in the lives of forest dwellers. Like the “big men” of the village community, tribes also had their chieftains. Many tribal chiefs had become zamindars, some even became kings.

They recruited people from their lineage groups or demanded that their fraternity provide military service. Tribes in the Sind region had armies comprising 6,000 cavalries and 7,000 infantry

In Assam, the Ahom kings had their paiks, people who were obliged to render military service in exchange for land. The capture of wild elephants was declared a royal monopoly by the Ahom kings.

Role of Zamindari in Rural Society

Zamindars were landed proprietors who also enjoyed certain social and economic privileges by virtue of their superior status in rural society. Caste was one factor that accounted for the elevated status of zamindars; another factor was that they performed certain services (khidmat) for the state.

They held extensive personal lands termed milkiyat, meaning property.

Milky lands were cultivated for the private use of zamindars, often with the help of hired or servile labour. The zamindars could sell, bequeath or mortgage these lands at will.

Zamindar could often collect revenue on behalf of the state. They also had control over the military resources. Most zamindars had fortresses (qilachas) as well as an armed contingent comprising units of cavalry, artillery and infantry.

According to Abul Fazal, his account indicates that many of the zamindars were from the upper caste, brahmana or Rajput.

The dispossession of weaker people by a powerful military chieftain was quite often a way of expanding a zamindari. It is, however, unlikely that the state would have allowed such a show of aggression by a zamindar unless he had been confirmed by an imperial order (sand).

Zamindars spearheaded the colonisation of agricultural land and helped in settling cultivators by providing them with the means of cultivation, including cash loans.

The buying and selling of zamindars accelerated the process of monetisation in the countryside. In addition, zamindars sold the produce from their milkiyat lands.

There is evidence to show that zamindars often established markets (haats) to which peasants also came to sell their produce.

Although there can be little doubt that zamindars were an exploitative class, their relationship with the peasantry had an element of reciprocity, paternalism and patronage.

There are two aspects that reinforce this view;

  • First, the bhakti saints, who eloquently condemned caste-based and other forms of oppression, did not portray the zamindars (or, interestingly, the moneylender) as exploiters or oppressors of the peasantry.

  • Second, in a large number of agrarian uprisings which erupted in north India in the seventeenth century, zamindars often received the support of the peasantry in their struggle against the state.

Land Revenue System

Land revenue was the economic mainstay of the Mughal Empire.

This was vital for the state to create an administrative system to ensure agricultural production and to fix and collect revenue from across the empire.

This system included the office (Daftar) of the diwan who was responsible for supervising the fiscal system of the empire. Thus revenue officials and record keepers penetrated the agricultural domain and became a decisive agent in shaping agrarian relations.

The land revenues system consisted of two stages:

  • Assessment

  • Actual collection

The Jama was the amount assessed, as opposed to Hasil, the amount collected.

Akbar decreed that while he should strive to make cultivators pay in cash, the option of payment in kind was also to be kept open. While fixing revenue, the attempt of the state was to maximise its claims.

Both cultivated and non-cultivated land were measured in each province. The Ain compiled the aggregates of such lands during Akbar’s rule.

In 1665, Aurangzeb expressly instructed his revenue officials to prepare annual records of the number of cultivators in each village.

The Flow of Silver Coin

The Mughal Empire was among the large territorial empires in Asia among the Ming (China), Safavid (Iran) and Ottoman (Turkey).

The political stability achieved by all these empires helped create vibrant networks of overland trade from China to the Mediterranean Sea.

Voyages of discovery and the opening up of the New World resulted in a massive expansion of Asia’s trade with Europe.

An expanding trade brought huge amounts of silver bullion into Asia to pay for goods procured from India, and a large part of that bullion gravitated towards India. This was good for India as it did not have natural resources of silver.

As a result, the period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries was also marked by remarkable stability in the availability of metal currency, particularly the silver rupee in India.

This facilitated an unprecedented expansion of minting and circulation of silver coins. Italian traveller Giovanni Careri, who passed through India c. 1690, provides a graphic account about the way silver travelled across the globe to reach India.

It also gives us an idea of the phenomenal amounts of cash and commodity transactions in seventeenth-century India

The Ain-i Akbari of Abu’l Fazl Allami2

The culmination of the large historical administrative project of classification undertaken by Abu’l Fazl at the order of Emperor Akbar.

  • It was completed in 1598, after having gone through five revisions.

  • The Ain was part of a larger project of history writing commissioned by Akbar. This history, known as the Akbar Nama, comprised three books.

  • The first two provided a historical narrative.

  • The Ain-i Akbari, the third book, was organised as a compendium of imperial regulations and a gazetteer of the empire.

  • The Ain gives detailed accounts of the organisation of the court, administration and army, the sources of revenue and the physical layout of the provinces of Akbar’s empire and the literary, cultural and religious traditions of the people.

  • A description of the various departments of Akbar’s government and elaborate descriptions of the various provinces (subas) of the empire were there.

  • The Ain gives us intricate quantitative information of those provinces.

The Ain is made up of five books.

  • Manzilabadi (Imperial households)

  • Sipah-abadi (military and civil administration)

  • Mulk-abadi ( Fiscal policies)

The third section has detailed statistical information, which includes the geographic, topographic and economic profile of all subas and their administrative and fiscal divisions (sarkars, Parganas and mahals), total measured area, and assessed revenue (jama ).

After setting out details at the suba level, the Ain goes on to give a detailed picture of the sarkars below the suba.

This it does in the form of tables, which have eight columns giving the following information:

  • parganat/mahal

  • qila (forts)

  • arazi and zamin-i paimuda (measured area)

  • naqdi, revenue assessed in cash

  • suyurghal, grants of revenue in charity

  • zamindars

  • columns 7 and 8 contain details of the castes of these zamindars, and their troops including their horsemen (sawar), foot-soldiers (piyada) and elephants (fil ).

  • The mulk-abadi gives a fascinating, detailed and highly complex view of agrarian society in northern India.

The fourth and fifth books (daftars) deal with the religious, literary and cultural traditions of the people of India and also contain a collection of Akbar’s “auspicious sayings”.

Limitation on Ain-i-Akbari

What are the limitations on Ain-i-Akbari?

The document was altered five times by the author, demonstrating Abu'l Fazl's caution and desire for authenticity.

Oral testimonies were verified and cross-checked before being included in the chronicle as "facts.".

Because of this, all numerical data was transcribed as words in the quantitative sections.

In-depth historians of the Ain point out that it has some flaws. Numerous totalling mistakes have been found.

aides to Abu al-Fazel blame simple transcription or arithmetic errors. These are usually insignificant errors that have no effect on the quantitative accuracy of the manuals as a whole. The Ain also has the drawback of having distorted quantitative data.

The methods used to collect data weren't uniform across provinces. Unlike many other subas where detailed information on zamindar caste composition has been compiled, Bengal and Orissa do not have this information.

There are some important characteristics, such as prices and wages, that are not as thoroughly documented in the subas' fiscal data, despite its exceptional depth.

Price and wage data in the Ain are comprehensive, but they are based on locations in or near Agra, the imperial capital, and thus are only of limited use to the rest of the kingdom.


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