How ‘Rich’ was Mughal India?

November 19, 2020 Authored by: Saumya Dey

Those Pious, Grateful Liberals

It has been a while that I have been noticing a trend on social media. Every now and then, I see some pious liberal on Facebook or Twitter thanking the Mughals for making India ‘rich’. As the liberals imagine, Babur and his descendants made our country a veritable land of milk and honey. How tenable is this imagination though? And how right are our liberals in thanking the Mughals in retrospect?

We cannot deny that there was a lot of wealth in Mughal India, as is indicated by the grandeur of Mughal architecture. It sure cost a lot to construct the Red Forts at Agra and Delhi, the Taj Mahal, and the many tombs of the Mughal rulers and nobility. The Mughal dynasty and nobility possessed and flaunted a measure of wealth that inspired legends in contemporary Europe – Europeans talked about the ‘Great Mogul’s’ riches with awe. Indeed, in the English language we still sometimes refer to billionaire industrialists and bankers as ‘Moguls’. The sight of untold amounts of wealth reminds us of the Mughals even today. There is no doubt that the Mughal rulers and nobility lived it up.

However, was Mughal India truly and genuinely ‘rich’? Was there, in other words, general prosperity and economic wellbeing in Mughal India? By any means, just the ruler and the ruling class being wealthy does not make a country ‘rich’.  One finds so many instances of Arab, African, or South American dictators amassing vast treasures and living lavishly. But these tyrants ruled desperately poor countries. So, I propose, we ought not to be blinded by the glittering affluence of the Mughal royalty and nobility and hastily term Mughal India ‘rich’. Let us first consider the living standards of the broad masses living in the Mughal realms. Only then, I believe, we shall be in a proper position to decide as to whether Mughal India was ‘rich’ or not.

The ‘Great Divergence’ and Impoverished Artisans

Mughal rule in India coincided with the onset of what many economic historians term the ‘Great Divergence’. What is meant by this is that living standards in Mughal ruled India began to noticeably fall behind those in Northwestern Europe. To put it in plainer language, as Mughal rule was first established and then consolidated over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, most Indians seem to have beenquite worse off than the inhabitants of the relatively prosperous parts of Europe. This is indicated by some wage data provided in a research paper authored by Bishnupriya Gupta and Debin Ma. We see that average silver wages for unskilled workers amounted to 3.4 grams per day in southern Englandfrom 1550 to 1599. The comparable figure for India in the same period is only 0.7 grams. One must note that this is exactly the time when the Mughal Empire was striking roots in India. According to Gupta and Ma, the silver wage data “unambiguously” suggests that “the Great Divergence was already well established in the sixteenth century.”[1] India, the two contend, now more resembled “the backward parts of Europe.”[2] Again, the variance between silver wages in England and India remained considerable in the first half of the seventeenth century, when Mughal ‘glory’ was at its apogee. From the year 1600 to 1649, unskilled workers in the south of England earned 4.1 grams of silver wages per day on an average. Their Indian counterparts received only 1.1 grams of the same in this period.[3]

Though I am unable to furnish wage data for skilled workers in Mughal India, it does not look like that they fared a lot better than their unskilled coevals. Going by anecdotal evidence, a lot of them appear to have provided their labor to the ruling class under coercion. In this sense, their situation seems comparable to that of the ‘dependent’ or ‘servile’ peasantry of feudal Europe. It was a common practice for the Mughal monarchs and nobility to have ateliers in their palaces and maintain a number of artisans. The French traveler Francois Bernier writes that “nothing but sheer necessity or blows from a cudgel” made them go on.[4] As about the independent artisans, Bernier’s account suggests that they were quite inadequately compensated for what they made. For example, Bernier writes that the Mughal nobility were likely to “pay for a work of art considerably under its value and according to their own caprice….” An artisan, it seems, could not protest this treatment. If he did, he could suffer physical violence. According to Bernier, the Mughal ‘omrah’ [nobility] did not hesitate to “punish an importunate artist…with the korrah (sic.)”, or the whip.[5] I assume, Bernier must mean “importunate” in demanding a fair price. I must also add that, having been personal physician to prince Dara Shikoh, Bernier must have had the opportunity to observe the ways of the Mughal nobility up close. Due to the princely patronage he enjoyed, he very possibly had access to Emperor Shahjahan’s court. It is, thus, very unlikely that our Frenchman is fibbing or making things up here.

Thus, poorly treated and paid by the rulers and nobility, artisans in Mughal India appear to have generally lived in poverty. As Bernier observes, they could aspire to nothing more than “satisfying the cravings of hunger” and dressing in the “coarsest raiment.”[6] Upward mobility in this section of the population, it seems, was not common. Bernier’s verdict on the lot of the artisans is that they “could never hope to attain to any distinction” or purchase “either office or land….”[7]

Agriculture in Mughal India

How did the great bulk of the Indian population, the peasantry, fare under Mughal rule? Not very well, as we see. A rich mine of information on agriculture, rural relations of production, and the peasantry in the Mughal Empire is Irfan Habib’s The Agrarian System of Mughal India. Currently Professor Emeritus at the Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University, this very detailed monograph by him throws considerable light on the sad plight of the peasantry in the Mughal Empire, its terrible oppression, and the ills that plagued the Mughal agrarian administration. Let me, by the way, point out to the reader that this is the same Irfan Habib who had charged at the Kerala Governor, Arif Mohammad Khan, at the Indian History Congress last year when he had spoken in support of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) during his speech. Prior to committing that act so richly becoming of his age and dignity, Prof. Irfan Habib had also, for years, used every possible ruse and casuistry to prevent the construction of a temple on the so called ‘disputed site’ at Ayodhya. Hence, I believe, when a man such as this concedes that agriculture and the peasantry in Mughal India were beset with a few problems, it must really have been so.

Irfan Habib writes that there was extensive trade in agricultural produce in the Mughal Empire.The nomadic banjaras, for example,transported foodgrains in bulk over long distances.[8]These were then sold in marts in different corners of the Empire. This trade in foodgrains was also aided by the abolition of the many varieties of transit dues under Mughal rule.[9] But did the peasantry benefit from this marketization of agricultural produce? No, not quite. There was, it seems, a considerable gap between the “price obtaining in the secondary market and that paid to the peasants.” As it seems, the latter price was much lower. This “margin” was probably caused by the peasants’ “indebtedness, the various cesses, the malpractices in the market and the imposition of monopolies….”[10] The Mughal era Indian peasant, thus, does not appear to have been particularly prosperous, despite all the commercialization of agricultural produce that took place then. Therefore, we see that, while agricultural produce moved in the direction of the urban centers and was marketized, the opposite did not happen to a commensurate degree. Urban manufactures did not find a market in the rural areas, very likely because the peasants were in no position to purchase them. Habib writes that

“the more prosperous zamindars must have sought superior quality cloth, jewelry and weapons fashioned in the towns. But whether the peasants also contributed to such demand to any considerable extent may well be doubted. On the whole, the trade was heavily in one direction – from villages to towns.”[11]

Discussing the living conditions of the general populace, Habib is remarkably candid. He quotes the Dutch traveler Palsaert who visited India in the reign of Jahangir. We see that Palsaert was particularly struck by the misery of the common masses. They, he observed, suffer from a poverty

“great and miserable…[and their life] can be depicted or accurately described only as the home of stark want and the dwelling place of bitter woe.”[12]

Habib discusses the diet and clothing of the rural masses in the light of this remark. He admits that the peasants subsisted only on the coarsest grains.[13] Sometimes, as a matter of fact, they could not afford even these. The peasants of Sind, for instance, writes Habib, survived on the seeds of a wild grass (called dair) “for quite a long period each year.”[14]Just as the diet, the clothing of the rural people was extremely rudimentary, presumably on account of their wretched poverty. Vast numbers of rural men and women, it seems, could afford to cover only the middle of their bodies with a small piece of cloth. Habib mentions this Englishman who lived in India in Jahangir’s reign and observed that their forms would be naked but for “their privities (sic.).”[15] Equally rudimentary and rude were the dwellings of the rural folks. These were fashioned out of bamboo, reeds, or mud.[16]

Famines and periods of scarcity, one gathers from Habib’s account, were rather frequent in the Mughal realms. The “territories around Agra, Bayana and Delhi”, for example, were ravaged by a famine from 1554 to 56. Agra itself, the then capital of the Empire, was left “desolated with only some houses remaining.”[17] “Severe scarcity” was the lot of Gujarat “some time (sic.) during the 1560s.”[18] An “acute famine” broke out around Sirhind “in or about 1572-73.”[19] Again, in 1574-75, there was a “serious famine” in Gujarat.[20]Another great famine affected Gujarat and “most of the Dakhin” from 1630 to 1632.[21] In 1636-37, “famine and scarcity” prevailed in Punjab.[22]Then, a “prolonged period of scarcity” commenced in the North, very likely due to the depredations caused by the war of succession between Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb.[23] It lasted into the first “four or five years” of Aurangzeb’s reign.[24] In 1671, an “acute famine ravaged the territory extending from the west of Banaras to Rajmahal.”[25]

The land revenue levied in the Mughal Empire was very steep. Habib writes that, as per the instructions in the “revenue literature” of Aurangzeb’s reign, as also “the orders passed in certain cases”, the land revenue had to “everywhere amount to half the produce”. It appears that this extraordinarily high revenue demand was motivated “by a formal regard for the Shariat (Muslim law), which prescribes this as the maximum for kharaj(land tax).”[26] Though “strength giving”, or taqavi, loans were advanced to the peasants to encourage cultivation[27], this very debilitating revenue demand must have generated some rural misery. In comparison, the revenue demand in ancient India was a lot more humane. For instance, the customary royal share of the produce in the Gupta Empire, termed bhaga, was “usually fixed at the rate of one-sixth”.[28]

Why was the revenue demand so high under Mughal rule? This was because it was levied by two sets of people, both invested in exploiting the peasantry to the maximum – the jagirdars and the imperial authorities. All jagirdarsin the Mughal Empire were also mansab, or military rank, holders and were required to maintain a certain number of troopers from the revenues of their land assignments, or jagirs. The tendency of the jagirdars was to “set the revenue demand so high as to secure the greatest military strength of the empire.”[29] It seems that they sought to extract the maximum from the peasants so as to have the financial resources to equip their troopers as best as possible. On the other hand, the imperial authorities’ revenue assessments approximated the surplus produce, “leaving the peasant just the barest minimum needed for subsistence.”[30] Habib candidly admits that “It was this appropriation of the surplus produce that created the great wealth of the Mughal ruling class.”[31] To make matters worse, since the jagirdars were periodically transferred and did not hold a land assignment for more than three or four years, they never followed “a far-sighted policy of agricultural development.”[32] The jagirdar would, thus, resort to “any act of oppression that conferred an immediate benefit upon him.”[33] Frequently, we are told by Habib, “peasants were compelled to sell their women, children and cattle in order to meet the revenue demand.”[34] Another desperate measure that the peasants resorted to was flight – sometimes, they simply abandoned their lands and ran away, unable to bear the revenue burden. This phenomenon was “growing in momentum with the passage of years.”[35] Equally commonly, peasants turned rebellious and defiant, refusing to pay the exorbitant revenue. There were even specific terms used in Mughal administration to describe the villages which “went into rebellion or refused to pay taxes” – these were called mawasor zor talab.[36]

Overall, it ought to be apparent by now, the agrarian economy of the Mughal realms was not really in a flourishing state. As Bernier had observed, the ground was “seldom tilled otherwise than by compulsion.”[37] And this was because a peasant in the Mughal Empire could not

“avoid asking himself this question: ‘Why should I toil for a tyrant who may come to-morrow (sic.) and lay his rapacious hands upon all I possess and value, without leaving me, if such should be his humour, the means to drag on my miserable existence?’”[38]

Commodity Consumption in Mughal India

In the middle of the seventeenth century, when the Mughal Empire presented a glittering façade to the world, a significant development was afoot in Northwestern Europe. Commodity consumption was undergoing a spurt in that part of the world and diffusing through the social body. In simpler language, we see the beginnings over there of what we today term ‘consumerism’. In the Netherlands, for example, ever larger numbers of people were buying pocket watches, better quality furniture, chinaware, and paintings. This was on account of a concomitant rise in household incomes. These phenomena have been documented and examined in detail by Jan de Vries in a very interesting monograph titled The Industrious Revolution.[39]

Do we see anything similar happening in contemporary Mughal ruled India? Like in the Netherlands, was commodity consumption turning into a broad-based phenomenon in our country back then? No, not at all. Kenneth Pomeranz, for example, points out that “there was a significant increase in luxury consumption in Mughal India”[40], but there was no emergent ““fashion system” with broad participation from many classes….”[41] In simple language, he is saying that commodity consumption in the Mughal Empire was heavily skewed – the purchase of high-end goods was rising, but one does not notice a diversity of classes making their own distinct consumption choices. Pomeranz is thus unsure if one can“speak of rising popular consumption in India as comparable to that in” contemporary China, Japan, and Western Europe.[42] And this was because the broad masses were just too impoverished for that. Disparities in the Mughal Empire, as revealed by the estimates of Pomeranz, were simply monstrous. He writes that in the year 1647 only “445 families received 61.5 percent of all revenues, which were about 50 percent of gross agricultural output….”[43] No doubt, Europeans in India could not help but notice “its extremes of wealth and poverty.”[44]


I shall keep this part very brief and precise – overall, it seems very erroneous to term Mughal India ‘rich’. In terms of living standards, India was already falling behind the better off parts of Europe. Mughal rule was characterized by the ruthless exploitation of the primary producers, namely, the artisans and the peasants. And there is scant evidence of ‘popular consumption’ in Mughal ruled India. Commodity consumption in the Mughal Empire was skewed in favor of the luxuries due to the poverty of the common masses. No, Mughal India was not ‘rich’, only the Mughal royalty and nobility were.


[1] ‘Europe in an Asian Mirror: The Great Divergence’ in Stephen Broadberry and Kevin H. O’Rourke (eds.) The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe. 1770-1870 (CUP, 2010), p.268

[2] Ibid., pp.268-269.

[3] Ibid., p.268.

[4]Travels in the Mughal Empire. AD 1656-1668P.228, translated on the basis of Irving Brock’s version and annotated by Archibald Constable (1891), second edition revised by Vincent A. Smith (OUP, 1916), p.229.

[5] Ibid., p.228.

[6] Ibid., p.229.

[7] Ibid., p.228.

[8]The Agrarian System of Mughal India (New Delhi: OUP, 1999), second revised edition, p.69.

[9] Ibid., p.72.

[10] Ibid., p.88.

[11] Ibid., pp.89-90.

[12] Ibid., p.103.

[13] Ibid., p.88.

[14] Ibid., p.104.

[15] Ibid., p.108.

[16] Ibid., pp.109-110.

[17] Ibid., p.114.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p.115.

[22] Ibid., p.117.

[23] Ibid., p.118.

[24] Ibid., p.119.

[25] Ibid., p.119.

[26] Ibid., p.235.

[27] Ibid., p.295.

[28] See D.K. Ganguly, The Imperial Guptas and Their Times (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1987), p.148.

[29]The Agrarian System of Mughal India., p.367.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., p.368.

[34] Ibid., p.370.

[35] Ibid., p.377.

[36] Ibid., p.379.

[37]Travels in the Mughal Empire, p.226.

[38] Ibid., p.227.

[39]The Industrious Revolution. Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present (CUP, 2008).

[40] See The Great Divergence. China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000), p.132.

[41] Ibid., p.133.

[42] Ibid., p.147.

[43] Ibid., p.146.

[44] Ibid., p.147.

Centre For Indic studies