Characteristics of the Mughal polity

ByZoya Ansari

Designation: She has a good deal of teaching experience and possesses a keen historical sense


February 18, 2023

Zoya Ansari describes the
significant attributes of the Mughal times

Characteristics of the Mughal polity was extremely diverse yet it was also very tolerant and was quite receptive to public sentiments. Moreover, it was celebrated for its cultural finesse and fundamental courtesy and respectful manners were in vogue. The social milieu of the empire was very vast and in fact became all pervasive with the passage of time. It may be kept in view that Mughal Empire was the first of its kind to rule over the entire subcontinent and were able to carve out a social code that was sustainable and had left indelible marks on social pattern of current life in all areas they held their sway. Under the Mughal societal structure generosity was the order of the day and was underpinned by hospitality and all visitors were served with soft drinks accompanied by nicely and richly wrapped betel and betel-nut. The guests were very respectfully received and civilly escorted out at the time of departure.

Mughals were efficient rulers and their effective governance particularly among the urban areas encouraged trade. The pivot of urban administration was the administrator of city. In addition to his executive and judicial powers, it was his duty to prevent and detect crime, to perform many of the functions now assigned to the municipal boards, to regulate prices and in general, to be responsible for the peace and prosperity of the city. Following the centuries old tradition Muslim Mughal Empire remained essentially an urban affair. Mughals scarcely disturbed the old organization of the villages continued to settle most disputes with the state impinging very little on village life, except for the collection of land revenue and even this was very often done on a village basis rather than through individuals, with the age-old arrangements being preserved.

The incidence of land revenue was substantially higher under the Mughals than in British India but the administration was more flexible, both in theory and in practice, in its assessment and collection. Apart from the remission of land revenue when crops failed, there was reduction in government demand even when bumper crops caused prices to fall. The state also advanced loans to the cultivators and occasionally provided seed as well as implements for digging wells. Loans advanced to the cultivators for seeds, implements, bullocks, or digging of wells that facilitated agricultural produce.
Mughal Empire contained many similarities between social customs followed by both Muslims and Hindus particularly in marriages. Both the communities betrothed their children between the ages of six and eight but the marriage was generally not solemnized before they had attained the age of puberty. In both communities polygamy was common particularly in the wealthier classes whereas divorce was generally avoided even in these classes.

The field of commerce and trade was usually handled by the traditional Hindu merchant classes, whose business acumen was proverbial. Mughals greatly appreciated their skills and valued their contribution. Their caste guilds added to the skills in trade and commerce that they had learned through the centuries. Hindus preferred settling their disputes through their panchayats and the Mughals hardly interfered with them. Mughals were very sensitive to the business affairs and always swiftly tried to redress their complaints though sometimes the despotic form of government created much heart-burning and acrimony.

Following the path laid down by Sher Shah Suri of fixing responsibility of governance, Akbar decreed that the Kotwal was to either recover stolen goods or be held responsible for their loss. That this was not only a pious hope is borne out by the testimony of several foreign travelers who state that the Kotwal was personally liable to make good the value of any stolen property which he was unable to recover. The kotwals often found pretexts to evade the ultimate responsibility but in general they took elaborate measures to prevent thefts. The office lingered on till the British times with the difference that its responsibilities were confined to policing and the magisterial part of his job was assigned to separate magistracy.

Muslims certainly enjoyed advantages in higher administrative posts and in the army but the Mughal Empire let the Hindu merchants maintain the monopoly in trade and finance that they had had during the sultanate. Few Muslims were engaged in handicraft industries and even when a Muslim merchant did have a large business, he employed Hindu bookkeepers and agents. Following the centuries old tradition Muslim Mughal Empire remained essentially an urban affair with the state impinging very little on village life, except for the collection of land revenue and even this was very often done on a village basis rather than through individuals and special care was taken to preserve the age-old arrangements being preserved.

Mughal lifestyle included observing purdah that was very strictly observed. Marriage negotiations were undertaken by the professional broker or the friends of either party. The marriage ceremonies were more or less the same as they are at present and the character of the average marriage in the subcontinent has not witnessed any fundamental change. The emphasis on the obligations of a son towards his father and the wife’s duty to her husband was in practice as religiously followed. The social cohesion was quite intense and despite family disputes in the ruling family common people largely adhered to family unity.
The people were very superstitious and these sentiments played a prominent part in their daily lives to the point that had the potential of disturbing social equilibrium. Charms were used not merely to ensnare a restive husband but also to secure such other ends as the birth of a son or the cure of a disease. The fear of the evil eye was ever present and the young child was considered particularly susceptible. People gave tremendous weight to all sorts of omens and devoted considerable time and effort to following good omens. Even strictly religious rulers like Aurangzeb preferred to wait outside his capital after being victorious in a war of succession as the official astrologer forbade him to enter till an auspicious moment. Astrologers were much in demand, even at the Mughal court and hardly anything moved without obtaining their approval.

The top echelons of the Mughal hierarchy lived in great houses decorated with rich hangings and carpets wearing the finest cotton or silk, decorated with gold, and carrying beautiful scimitars. There was a considerable element of ostentatious display involved in this, however, for their domestic arrangements did not match the outward splendor of their dress and equipment. The courtly manners and the elaborate etiquette of the Muslim upper classes impressed foreign visitors and these manners infiltrated the middle classes. The rural population usually followed the traditional forms of behavior and lived and acted simply.
The favorite indoor game of the Mughals was dice and various domestic games were also in practice. More emphasis was placed on outdoor sports such as Polo and hunting was a favorite pastime. Watching elephant fights, hunting, excursions, and picnics, were also very popular and people thronged to many open areas prepared for holding such ventures. People visited the shrines of holy men in droves and most of the Mughal ruling class also were found in these places. Many Mughal rulers entertained holy figures and valued their company. TW

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