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Mughal Decline

Part II Paper 26, Week 1. I was supervised by Leigh Denault at Churchill.

Was Mughal decline inevitable? Discuss the view that Indian society and economy was ‘divided but buoyant’ in the eighteenth century.

Traditionally the great Mughal Empire which, at its height, covered over four million square kilometres of land was thought to have fallen into irreversible decline in the eighteenth century. Early histories, such as that by Sir Jadunath Sarkar, pointed to the breakdown of centralised administration, claiming the result was a descent into political chaos and confusion. This in turn was said to have created economic and social problems as individuals vied for power. In more recent years however this view has been strongly challenged. The increasing focus on regional studies has led to a reassessment of the buoyancy of the pre-colonial economy, and stability of social structures. Commercialisation is no longer seen as an innovation of the Europeans, with evidence of a move towards private ownership in many areas. Primarily what has been proven is that there is no easy summary that can be applied to the whole of the India; the eighteenth century experience was far from uniform.

At the very beginning of the eighteenth century the Mughal Empire was widely understood to be as strong – if not stronger – than it had ever been. Huge swathes of land were under Mughal control covering most of present day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Early signs of change became evident however following the death of Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal Emperor, in 1707. Bahadur Shah, Aurangzeb’s successor, not only was forced to fight off rival claims to the throne from his brothers Azum Shah and Muhammad Kam Baksh, he also inherited the task of trying to stamp out elite factionalism and overcoming hostility from the provinces over his father’s strict enforcement of Sharia law. Upon Bahadur Shah’s death in 1712 another bitter succession struggle broke out between his sons. The short and unpopular reign of Jahandar Shah was brought to an end in battle with Farrukhisyar in 1713, who then began his own reign, dominated by his advisers such as the self serving Syed brothers. This tumultuous overview provides insight into the sudden instability within the official administration. Without strong leadership from the centre it is unsurprising that local figures of authority should try and consolidate their own power.

This certainly seemed to be the case in some areas of the empire. Om Prakash highlights the example of Murshid Quli Khan in Bengal. Maintaining the level of revenue collection expected by the central Mughal administration, Khan proved himself capable and was made Subedar in 1716, giving him and Bengal effective autonomy . This kind of arrangement, whilst a sign of weakening central control, could be said to support the idea that Indian society and economy was ‘divided but buoyant’. Clearly, sufficient revenue was still being raised in Bengal and the official recognition of Khan from the centre suggests that this division was not overly problematic.

Perhaps this is a misleadingly optimistic view however. In other parts of India the situation was not so favourable. Muzaffar Alam describes how in northern India the Mughal forces struggled to defend territory from local competitors. In 1708 for example the governor of Awadh resigned, citing his insufficient authority to deal with the threat from ‘recalcitrant’ zamindars (officials employed to collect taxes from peasants) as a significant part of his reasoning. In 1709 Daruban Singh and his clansmen invaded and held Ghazipur, defeating the Mughal forces sent to remove him. This hints at the extent of the threat such individuals could cause. They often had charge of large private armies and cavalries; the Gaur Rajput rebels of Sarkar Khairbad had control over no less than 25 fortresses for example. Aside from being unable to defend territory from rebels Mughal forces were also faced with fighting between rival factions. In 1715 for example the zamindars of Samanpur and Pargana Bhagwant fought and killed the zamindar of the ri’aya of Bahramganj. In such conditions it is difficult to believe social and economic ‘buoyancy’ could have been maintained.

Traditional accounts of this period of Indian history have assumed that the impact of the late seventeenth-century economic crisis was hugely damaging. Faced with internal succession disputes and unfeasibly high taxation demands from the new local elites, it was believed that the Indian economy was failing and therefore in desperate need of European commercialism, such as that imposed by the British from the late eighteenth century. Work by the likes of Alam and Bayly has gone a long way to disproving this assumption. The scope of the so called ‘crisis’ is now questioned, and its affects are thought to have been, in many instances, negligible. In the early eighteenth century, far from being a stagnating economy, India actually possessed upwards of a quarter of the world’s total manufacturing capacity and was a major player in the world economy. Accountancy skills, formerly thought to be introduced to India by Europeans in this period, had in fact been flourishing since the sixteenth century, particularly in western India. In more social terms there is increasing evidence that the caste system was not as restrictive as has previously been believed, and that there was in fact a relatively high level of worker mobility.

The ‘modernity’ of the economy of eighteenth century India can be seen in the high level of market dependence, even amongst the peasantry. Trade was an incredibly important part of the economy, and not just with the Europeans. Large amounts of trade were also done with other parts of Asia and, of course, internally for the domestic market. Washbrook quotes for example that in a single salt season between 70,000 and 120,000 bullocks laden with goods were expected to visit each of the eight major salt trading centres along the southeast coast of India. Prakash and Chaudry maintain that economy of Bengal was prosperous throughout the first half of the eighteenth century and that, in fact, it is only in light of increasing interference from the European trading companies, the British East India Trading Company in particular, that real problems emerged. Sivakumar and Sivakumar argue for instance that real earnings from agricultural work in Chingleput were three times higher in 1795 than 1796 after the land settlement.

A case study demonstrating this model of the Indian economy can be seen in Prasannan Parthasarathi’s work on the cloth industry in South India. In the early eighteenth century cloth was already a massive business interest; in Awadh trade with the Europeans actually only represented a very small percentage of the entire cloth trade. Weavers held a lot of power within the workforce, dictating whom they worked for, for example. This situation rested on custom, the ability to negate contracts for work by weavers giving back the advance payment for instance, but also on newer trade developments. Merchants competed in the marketplace to sell cloth to the Europeans at a profit. Oppression of the weavers then was not something that had always been there as was once believed. Instead it was a situation which was created by ever tighter controls on manufacture from the British. The policy of direct advances – cutting out the merchant middlemen – from the 1760s was unpopular because up to 2/3 of the advance was paid in yarn. In addition the clause whereby a contract could be annulled by repaying this advance was soon eroded. In this way the weavers, a group of independent workers, were reduced to dependency on the Company because of its growing monopoly. This suggests that, were it not for outside forces, the Indian economy could have indeed been ‘divided but buoyant’.

The main obstacle to this interpretation comes, as does its main support, from regional studies. Contemporary Dean Mahomet devotes page after page of his travel journal to describing the differences between the regions he passes through on his journey. The Mughal Empire stretched over millions of square kilometres and, so, it stands to reason that the regional experience was not uniform. Some areas were prosperous, revenue collection in Bengal rose from around £2million in 1765-6 to £3.33million in 1770-1, the fact it was paid in full suggesting its inhabitants were well off enough to do so, even after a transfer of authority away from the central Mughal courts. Other areas struggled, for example those with unscrupulous individuals in charge and a heavy reliance on the jajmani system (whereby families of different castes were expected to perform certain services for each other.) In some areas European intervention might be welcomed, in others it would be vehemently resisted. The point is that it is hard to generalise when considering such a massive expanse of land, populated by such a wide variety of peoples.

This might seem to suggest that Mughal decline was inevitable in that the Empire had been too centralised, too determined to enforce top-down policies such as Sharia law, even in areas where it would inevitably be resented such as the Sikh majority Punjab. This has long been seen as the secret of British success in obtaining power in India. By working with local elites and seeming to be sympathetic to regional conditions, the British could gain support from the ground roots. Stein points to the practice of ‘military fiscalism’ that grew in the eighteenth century. Standing armies were maintained by the Company to protect their interests which, at the same time, provided employment in the army, or in providing supplies for it. Although, again, the success of this policy was often linked with local circumstances.

For a long time study into this area has been swamped by expectations formed from the big overarching theories of history. Washbrook suggests that because India’s story had not terminated in the creation of a modern industrial society, historians were disinclined to look at the eighteenth century Indian economy through a capitalist or commercial lens. Such developments were assumed to be European impositions, although we now have evidence for the development of an industrialist class structure before the Raj for example. Some regions such as Mysore were already controlling production in the early eighteenth century, and monopolies on goods controlled by local elites were actually fairly common.

In societal terms again there is no coherent general overview. Many areas had maintained their own character throughout the period of Mughal rule. The jajmani system had never been widespread in Bengal for example, and was close to dying out in Maharashtra and Gujerat by the eighteenth century. In many areas there was continuity, for example by the 1770s artisans in Banaras were being supported by the patronage of the new great merchant families, taking over the role traditionally held by the Mughal nobility. In this way Mughal culture and societal expectations were being preserved.

In conclusion Mughal decline was not necessarily inevitable. Had there been more competent successors to follow Aurangzeb perhaps the decentralisation of power could have been curbed. Even if it had not, greater co-operation between the rising local elites and the central power could have helped to maintain Mughal cultural dominance at the very least. What was most likely inevitable was continued regional diversity, which is what we see throughout the eighteenth century. This supports the suggestion that the Indian economy and Indian society were, to a certain extent, always ‘divided’. Whether or not it was ‘buoyant’ is a more difficult issue. In some areas economic prosperity continued, such as the south Indian cloth industry, throughout much of the eighteenth century. Yet other areas struggled; for example the older port towns which were losing out to the new European centres of trade. Above all the question should be considered in a regional context, rather than in the terms of overarching historiographical theories which have framed the study of Indian history for so long.


  • Alavi, Seema. The Eighteenth Century in India, Oxford in India Readings. Debates in Indian History and Society. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002. 
  • Barrow, Ian J., and Douglas E Haynes. “The Colonial Transition: South Asia, 1780-1840.” Modern Asian Studies 38, no. 3 (2004): 469-78. 
  • Fisher, Michael H. “Review: British and Indian Interactions before the British Raj in India, 1730s-1857.” The Journal of British Studies 36, no. 3 (1997): 363-70. 
  • Parthasarathi, Prasannan. The Transition to a Colonial Economy: Weavers, Merchants and Kings in South India, 1720-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 
  • Travers, Robert. “The Eighteenth Century in Indian Hisory.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 40, no. 3 (2007): 492-508. 
  • Washbrook, D. A. “Progress and Problems: South Asian Economic and Social History C.1720-1860.” Modern Asian Studies 22, no. 1 (1988): 57-96. 
  • Maohomet, Dean. The Travels of Dean Mahomet: An Eighteenth-Century Journey through India. Edited by Michael H. Fisher. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 
  • Jodhaa Akbar. Dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2008.


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