Mughals actually came to an extremely diverse land containing various regions, each with its own ecology and complex sociocultural conditions. Moreover, the diversification was equally applicable to the economic and political conditions and histories of various regions making the whole area into a huge riddle. Never had all the distinct regions of the subcontinent been united under a single language, religion, economy or ruler. Simultaneously though along with local variations, most of the region shared some overarching environmental factors, like extreme rainy and dry seasons as well as cultural features, notably some of the beliefs and social order based upon the faith followed by the majority of people inhabiting it. One factor however stood out and that was the dominant presence of minority of Muslims in most regions of the subcontinent.
Distinct physical environments defined each region. Perennial seasonally swollen rivers, mountain ranges and other geological features created four macro-regions: the Ganges-Jumna River basin of Hindustan and Bengal; the Indus River basin running from the Punjab south to Sind; the Deccan upland plateau; and the peninsular south with both highlands and coastal plains. Their climates ranged from deserts to fertile plains to dense jungles. Each macro-region also contained ecological micro-regions: each district contained significantly different soil and water conditions. Each macro-region also had particular patterns of rainfall and riverine irrigation and a specific mix of wet and dry agriculture, with profound socio-cultural, economic and political consequences. Nonetheless, some broad characteristics occurred everywhere though with variations.
With the advent of the Mughals, a substantial minority of people living in the region were Muslims: some were immigrants and their descendants but most were converts. Many families had accepted Islam through the influence of charismatic Sufis. Often, these Sufis had heterodox Islamic concepts and customs that incorporated many of the converting community’s pre-Islamic beliefs and practices, especially domestic customs about birth, marriage and other rituals and women’s roles. The largest concentrations of Muslims lived in the widely separated regions of India’s north-west and eastern Bengal but its presence was well known and acknowledged in the entire subcontinent.
Since the early thirteenth century, Turkish and Afghan migrants ruled substantial parts of the subcontinent in shape of the Delhi sultanate across the Gangetic plain. When Babur arrived, a Lodi Afghan sultan ruled in Delhi while other Muslim dynasties ruled in the Deccan. Although Babur would project himself as the model Muslim ruler during some campaigns in north India, many Indo-Afghan Muslims regarded him as alien and fought against him. Babur’s descendants would each negotiate the extent and expression of their roles as Islamic sovereigns. Mughals actually took over from a Muslim dynasty but then proceeded ahead to dominate the entire subcontinent.
Another important factor that faced the Mughals was linguistic in nature as the region also contained great diversity, with three major language families, dozens of separate regionally based languages and thousands of distinct dialects. Most north Indians spoke one of the dozen languages derived from Sanskrit. Most south Indians spoke one of the four major languages of the separate Dravidian family. Additionally, especially in the Deccan and the north-east, many forest-dwelling groups had their own languages, unconnected to either Sanskrit or a Dravidian language. But from well before Babur’s invasion, Persian had begun to dominate at Muslim courts, especially in the Deccan sultanates that had cultural, diplomatic and economic links across the Indian Ocean with Iran.
Gradually, the Mughal dynasty would shift from the Turki of Babur to Persian and adopt many accompanying Iranian administrative and cultural practices. Then, as the Mughal Empire expanded, its imperial Persianate culture and administrative forms became fashionable for other rulers, including Rajputs. Thus, from Babur onward, the Mughal Empire would interact with the distinct traditions in each region, as well as with the region’s overarching trans-regional patterns.
One factor that the Mughals confronted on their arrival was the agricultural sector that was the bone of financial wherewithal of their rule. Throughout the history of the subcontinent, including during the entire Mughal period, the vast majority of its people survived on agriculturally based economy. When Mughals arrived, they found that settled farmers held customary occupancy rights to plant and harvest although not full property landownership. Other local people or institutions also held their own separate rights to that same land. Most prominently, one or more levels of zamindars held rights to collect the revenue, retain a portion and convey the rest to the state’s agents.
According to the prevalent practice, many zamindars based their claims on having originally settled or conquered the region. The amount of revenue retained by zamindars depended on whether the land was directly managed by them or not, as well as on their power relative to the cultivators and the state. Village headmen, servants, accountants and local religious institutions also often had customary rights to a share of the produce. All these rights could be inherited, exchanged, or sold, with varying degrees of documentation required by various states.
In Babur’s time, most regions had much unused but potentially arable land. The land itself had limited economic value although farmers often had invested in considerable labour to bring it under active cultivation. Control over people was more valuable than control over land. Resultantly, the revenue demands by zamindars or the state could not be so high as to drive farmers to emigrate and resettle new lands. Moneylenders and merchants made loans and purchased produce for sale in regional markets. Overall, zamindars, peasants, moneylenders and imperial administrators engaged in multi-sided cooperation and subtle or open contestation over agricultural resources. Each had his own interests in maximising income while minimising the economic and cultural costs of defending those interests.
Mughals, trying to establish their regime quickly, often officially recognised those landholders who would at least pay some tribute, letting them assess and collect revenues from the cultivators. Like many other rulers of that age, the Mughal dynasty would favour settled agriculturalists as their main revenue base but settled agriculture was not strongly separated from other ways of life. At times of drought or excessive revenue demand, farmers sometimes took shelter to the forests, while periods of rain or promises of revenue relief could attract former forest-dwellers to settled agriculture. Further, some individuals, families, or whole communities customarily migrated. During the harvest season, male and female agricultural labourers often followed the shifting wave of ripening crops intra- or inter-regionally. During the fallow season, many village men joined mobile armies or formed their own bands, seeking plunder.
The Mughal state would never fully control this vast seasonal military labour market that was supported by itinerant artisans and entertainers provided services to villages. Women and men hand-manufactured cloth and other products for sale which they, or brokers, carried to nearby market towns that were centres of regional commerce, concentrated artisan manufacture, inter-regional trade and governance.
During his rule in Kabul, Babur had taxed the traditional trade route known as the Silk Route particularly, imported horses, vital for cavalry but constantly needing replacement due to uncongenial equine conditions, while exporting slaves and valuable man-made and natural products. Mughals kept on this tradition and also ventured to create new avenues of raising revenues. In the process they brought the subcontinent into the sector of trade and commerce that had global connections. TW