State of non- agricultural production and internal commerce during Mughal period

Sansar LochanHistory of IndiaLeave a Comment

The process of production and distribution of goods and commodities in India was based on the co-existence and inter-penetration of commercialized and subsistence sector. It also involved the interdependence among various castes and communities of people. This process was spread over a large geographical area requiring adequate capital and organizational authority. The demand for manufactured goods was always high in Mughal India. The state of agricultural and non-agricultural production was also equally enhanced. The state of non-agricultural production included a lot of commodities. One of them was ornaments which were by no means confined to the rich. Those who found gold ornaments beyond their means used silver, copper, ivory and sea-shell. The poorest went for belt-metal and tin. There was also the presence of production of consumer goods. A variety of manufactured foodstuffs were among the staples of the inter-regional trade. These included goods like ghee, salt, sugar etc. and the prices of the period suggest that these delicacies were not reserved only for rich.

According to recent research, there was the presence of a sizeable middle income group. The other varied range of occupation included weaver, tailor, barber, metalworkers, carpenter, mason, glassblower, stone-cutter, oil-presser, sweetmeat seller, palanquin bearer, painter, carpet-maker, paper manufacturer, Thatcher, lace-worker, sword-sharpener etc. The production of houses and the materials used in it also featured in the spectrum of non-agricultural production in Mughal India. The pattern present in the housing needs of rich- traders and middle- income groups was not uniform. As sources tell us, in Agra the lofty stone houses of the Hindu merchants had ‘ the appearance of old castles buried in forests ‘. In Delhi, the richer merchants lived like the nobles in imposing buildings within large enclosures. The rich in Surat built expensively with brick, lime and a great deal of timber brought from Daman by sea. The lower orders of the bureaucracy in Delhi had dwellings with the tolerable appearance. According to Bernier, these were rarely made entirely of stone and brick. The household materials even in well-to –do homes were limited in variety. Quilts, mats, carpets rather than furniture of wood or other materials, were mainly in demand. The materials used for palatial buildings also constituted non-agricultural production. The main items of expenditure were luxurious camps made of fine material and appropriately furnished fine clothes, jewelry, decorations of velvet and brocade for places as well as for camps, carpets, bedstead, mirrors, equipment for horses and elephants, weapons etc. An important fact regarding the expenditure incurred by the imperial govt. and its functionaries is that it created an enormous demand for construction work, road building, arms, equipment for horses and elephants, camp, equipment and means of transport. Charitable expenditure by the rich also went into the construction of caravanserais, mosque, almshouses and hospitals. However, required commodities were produced in the imperial karkhanas and the relative market demand was for wage labor and not manufactured goods.

This inter-regional flow of commodities both by land and the coast increased substantially during the Mughal period and thereby caused an expansion in the demand for manufactured goods. There was a widened market for intermediary products like yarn, gold thread, raw silk, metalwork for ships and packing materials. Among the staples of the trade were food products like butter, oil and sugar. The overseas demand for textiles, sugar and diamonds had an upward trend. This overseas trade created a corresponding demand for shipping. Foreign observers like Bernier note the variety excellence and profusion of the country’s manufacturing output. However, according to Moreland, this was a mal-observation; the travelers were misled by the concentration of the manufactures in a few towns and cities.


The country’s leading manufacture, cotton textiles was produced both for local consumption and distant markets. The variety of cotton fabrics are divided into a number of overlapping categories. They were produced as piece goods or readymade clothing; calico, a stout cloth, or muslin which was thinner and was dyed or patterned, the patterns being produced on the loom with colored yarns. Quality was judged by the fineness of the yarn and the no. of threads to the inch. Some were named after their place of origin e.g.− khairabadi etc. other distinguished according to the size, quality and colour patterns. Varieties like long cloth came from Northern Coromandel, muslin from Deccan and Bengal and fabrics of mixed cotton and silk from Gujarat. The export varieties came from the Indus plain, Gujarat, the Coromandel Coast and Bengal. The tapi or skirt, turbans were regularly exported to the southeast markets. The range of cotton textile products included the Coromandel sailcloth, cotton carpets, pillow cases, mattresses from Sind, embroidered quilts from Bengal etc. The weavers producing for the market procured yarn from independent spinners. Broach, Balasore, Kasimbazar etc. are mentioned as major sources of yarn supply.

The production and export of silk, especially from Bengal increased in the 17th century. Besides Gujarat, a small quantity was produced in Kashmir and Bengal and a few cities like Agra, Lahore, Fatehpur and probably Patna and Thattah. Gujarat initially was heavily dependent on China but later Bengal ousted China. In this period, the English also began to export Bengal raw silk to Europe. The finished products included carpets and velvet pavilions, satins and taffetas with bands of gold and silver, patolas decorated with patterns etc. Indian silk included the famous herb cloth: tasar and Assam wild silk almost muga. Sources do not give us much information regarding the production of wool. Bernier mentions shawls as the most important manufacture of Kashmir. According to Abu’l Fazl, Akbar’s attempts to produce Persian−type carpets in his own karkhanas were more successful. Other textile products of the period included sann−hemp found in all Mughal provinces and cordage from coir to meet the needs of local shipping. An important development in Textile manufacture in India was the emergence of particular processes: bleaching, dyeing, printing and painting of cloth as well as silk reeling.

Emergence of new centers of production

The emergence of new centers of production, significant expansion of trade and organizational changes increased productivity. There was the emergence of Bengal and the emergence of production of dyestuffs and sugar. Indigo and opium production also began. Many forest products also gained prominence like gum−lac, found in Assam, Bengal and Gujarat, beeswax and animal products like musk and rhinoceros horn. One of the weak areas of the economy was the production of minerals. According to Moreland this weakness was a result of inadequate juxtaposition of minerals and fuel resources. A limitation in technology was also a contributory factor. However, India was self sufficient in iron. Other products like salt petre were used for the manufacture of gunpowder and gained importance as items of exports. The traditional consumption pattern of the affluent created a demand for a wide range of comfort goods− household utensils, furniture, jewellery, perfumes, tailored cloth, writing material etc. Sections of the A’in talk about these products as consumed by the imperial households. However, only a fraction of these came from the imperial karkhanas. The rest were produced by independent artisans. Kashmir and Gujarat were famous for their woodwork, Lahore was renowned for her boots and shoes, Multan for leatherwork, perfumes for the Mughal nobility came from far flung areas and Patna contributed perfumed pottery. All these qualitative evidence suggest that the Mughals had a manufacturing sector marked by great variety and vigour and a large volume of aggregate output. The one heavy industry of the period was the manufacture of cannons and hand guns. In the 16th century, India produced the heaviest cannon of which the most famous was the Malik Maidan. Both matchlock and flintlock was also manufactured for the imperial arsenal. 

However the interaction of technology, the social system and the size and character of the market resulted in a limited variety of manufacturing organization in Mughal India. The elementary character of technology with its emphasis on cheap uncomplicated instruments and a low ratio of fixed to working capital implied a minimal concentration of labour and capital in individual units of production. Production of manufactured goods for the market was not an uncharacteristic activity even for the subsistence farmer. Things like the production of silk were undertaken by the same peasant castes. Salt and salt petre productions were also undertaken by castes like nunia and malangi. Thus, both the peasant manufacturer and the artisan bound to the village community responded to the market. The majority of these artisans became dependent on the system of advance from the buyers or the middlemen. In some cases the advance was paid in grain. This was the system of dadni and it emerged to end the inadequacy of the artisan’s capital for the requirements of an expanded and was expanding market. It gave the artisans necessary security and was also a way of binding up producers. Dadni was not equivalent to the putting out system. Where the raw materials were expensive the artisan’s dependence on the merchant buyer was greater. Migration of artisans was confined within limited areas−usually from the countryside to the emporia to the banlieue−or induced by extreme calamity.

Rural market

In Mughal India the bulk of the population lived in the villages and exchange accounted for a relatively small proportion of economic activity. Still the exchange of goods found at every level was impressive in its magnitude. The rural market was very much a feature of the intra−local trade of the period. Literary evidences from Bengal suggest that the good Raja or zamindar was expected to establish markets for the periodic hat. A distinction was made between the bazaars, which were mainly retail markets and the mandis or wholesale markets in the countryside. Epigraphic evidence from South India shows that goods like grains, vegetables, fruits, butter, salt, metal ware etc. were offered for sale. The intra-local trade of the town and cities was more complex and varied. According to Tavernier, most major towns had several markets one of which was the Chief or the Great Bazaar. The commodities on sale – both domestic and foreign were varied. As noted by foreign observers, a wide variety of foodstuffs including cooked food were sold in most urban bazaars. Bulk of the urban commerce was inter-local rather than intra-local. Most urban markets also acted as emporia and entrepôts where dealers from other places secured their supplies.

A major feature of the inter-local trade was the predominant one way flow of commodities from villages to towns. The individual village was part of circuit of exchange which encompassed several villages, with the peddlers, hats and mandis handling the distribution of commodities. The economic needs of the pre-colonial village in India were met mostly from its own produce distributed through customary arrangements rather than through exchange. Another feature of this trade was the extreme responsiveness of food supply to market demand. Different types of ‘producers’ goods were exchanged. Raw materials for textile manufacturing – cotton, wool, silk cocoons as well as dye stuff; came from countryside. Gujarat, Broach, Mahmudabad developed as centre’s for the production of yarn, whence other urban and presumably, some rural centers as well, were supplied. Wood for the furniture manufactured in the towns of Kashmir and Gujarat came from the forest areas. Some towns developed as markets for particular products procured through the inter-regional or even overseas trade. Belgaum and Goa, for instance, had a large trade in precious stones. The inter-regional trade in the period was not an exchange of highly priced luxury products. The exports from Bengal, of primary products as well as manufactured goods, were evidently in excess of the region’s imports. The coast of Coromandel, dealing both in its own produce and imported luxuries, had a brisk trade with the west coast and Gujarat, both along the coast and across the Deccan; its trade goods also travelled north via Burhanpur. Luxury textiles, including silk, various imported items and cotton were the main exports of highly commercialized Gujarat to other parts of India; in exchange she received food grains and intermediate products for her manufacturers. Along the coast, there was a brisk exchange of commodities over short as well as long distances. Malabar’s trade in pepper featured prominently in this exchange. The north Indian heartland was predominantly an importing area. Its major exports to other parts were food grains and indigo, besides items like salt and the luxury products of Kashmir which were parts of the region’s entrepôt trade. Punjab and Sind seem to have constituted a commercially integrated area with the Indus providing a lifetime for commerce.

The trade in food grains indicates the existence of surplus and deficit areas and contradicts theories which postulate a uniform pattern of self-sufficiency for the entire sub-continent. A major source of food grains for deficit areas was Bengal. Bengal rice was sent up the Ganges to Agra via Patna, to Coromandel and round the cape o Kerala and various port towns on the west coast, while Agra secured some supply of wheat as well from the eastern provinces – probably the product of Bihar. The export of sugar from Bengal – by sea to ‘all India’ and by river to Agra and beyond – was of great commercial importance. Sugar was also the chief product of Multan. The most important item of import into Bengal was salt from Rajputana. A quantity of rock-salt from the hills was also exported via Lahore.

The trade in cotton textiles was confined mainly to luxury and comfort goods, the inter-regional exchange of certain intermediate goods and raw material suggests a more basic pattern of interdependence. The Gujarat silk industry was entirely dependent on the import of raw silk from Bengal which largely supplanted the finer Chinese raw silk in course of the seventeenth century. The dye stuffs, indigo and chay roots, were produced only in certain regions, but were essential for the textile industry everywhere. The few minerals produced in India were necessarily localized and presumably distributed from these centers to other parts of the country. The data on the trade in diamond, especially from the Golconda mines, are also plentiful.

Miscellaneous items

A variety of miscellaneous items entered into the inter-regional trade of the period. Of these, Malabar’s trade in pepper and some other spices like ginger, cardamom, radix china and wild cinnamon appears to have been of some importance. Merchants from Bijapur and the Carnatic procured pepper at Cochin and Cananor. Spices as well as areca-nuts, coconuts and palm candy were regularly carried in Malabar ships or by Chetti merchants to Coromandel, the Konkan Coast and Gujarat. Prominent in the luxury trade of the period were the products of Kashmir – the celebrated crafts were palanquins, bedsteads, trunks, boxes etc. Gujarat received lac from Bengal for the manufacture of lacquer ware.

The Mughal revenue system in association with other relevant features of the imperial administration stimulated the trade in agricultural produce and manufactured goods probably on an unprecedented scale. As the cost of water transport was relatively low, a substantial part of the inter-regional trade in cheap bulk goods like food grains, salt and salt-petre was carried along the coast or the inland waterways. Even the cross-country trade in more expensive items used the water route. The main north Indian water route was of course the Ganges, linking Allahabad to Rajmahal via Benares and Patna. Beyond Rajmahal, the trade goods moved to and from places like Malda, Hugli and Dacca along the numerous tributaries and distributaries of the same river while to the west, the Jumna linked Allahabad to Agra and the distributaries of the Ganges helped maintain commercial links with remoter parts.

The overland route from Agra to Patna followed the course of the rivers, at some distance south of the waterway between Shikohabad and Chaparghata, closer to it between Allahabad and Benares. Between Benares and Patna, the route first moved south across the Son and then north again forming a triangle with the river as one side. Another route across riverine Bengal linked Balasore in Orissa via Midnapore, Kasimbazar, Rajmahal and Monghyr to Patna. In the north-west, the trade route from Agra linked up with the Central Asian highways of commerce at Kandahar via Delhi, Lahore and Kabul.

The flow of goods between Gujarat and north India was served by two main routes. The first linked Surat with Agra through western Rajasthan via Ajmer, Merta, Jodhpur, Ahmadabad, Cambay and Broach. The second, more easterly, route passed through Malwa and Khandesh: the major cities of this road included Gwalior, Sironj, Ujjain, Mandu and Burhanpur; beyond Thalner, it followed the course of the Tapti to Surat.

The trade links between the two coasts were also maintained along more than one route. One went from Surat south-eastwards to Aurangabad and then through Ashti and Golconda to Masulipatam. Other roads connected Golconda to Goa, the diamond mines and, through Gendikota, to Madras. The Dabul-Goa route went some distance into the interior of the country where it linked up with the Goa-Bijapur road. The Masulipatam-Paloacatta route hugged the coastline most of the way, passing through Nellore.

The evidence on the trade routes strongly suggests that there was an elaborate infrastructure to facilitate the growth of an integrated market covering extensive parts of Hindustan, Bengal, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Malwa and the Deccan, both east and west.

The pre-modern market in India discharged two distinct functions: it brought together commodities for the consumptions of the local buyers or for distribution among consumers in distant markets. The two functions were not mutually exclusive, could co-exist in the same geographical location, and be managed by the same organization and people. A second characteristic of Indian markets was the hierarchy of scales ranging from the rural hat to the emporia of international trade-like Surat or Agra. The Indian markets may be classified into four main types: 1.the emporia for long distance trade inland, overland or overseas;(2) small-scale bazaars where goods were gathered from places within a short radius primarily for purpose of local consumption and mandis or wholesale markets;(3)periodic fairs where ‘specialized traders met together to sell and replenish their stocks ‘ but consumers were not excluded;(4)the truly ‘isolated’ rural market where local surplus produce was exchanged among the producers-cum-consumers. The first category had several sub-types : the port towns geared mainly to international trade, the  great inland emporia ‘more sensitive to economic watersheds and catchment areas’ and the smaller urban centers which  collected goods from a spatially limited hinterland to be redistributed through neighbouring as well as distant markets. The concept of ‘primary nodal markets was applied to the major commercial emporia which acted as ‘intermediaries between producing and consuming markets widely scattered in space ‘ and their multilateral trade explained as ‘a secondary development of their purely bilateral trade’. The rich traders traded a wide range of commodities and covered many branches of the inter-regional trade. Their operations extended to most of Indian’s traditional markets. Some owned large fleets of ships. Virji, Vora and Kasi Virrana exercised monopoly powers over certain commodities.

The small traders included one curious element, the Banjaras. The line of demarcation between merchants and middlemen were not always clear. The function of the dalals or the brokers was a specialized one. The social base of the trading community was confined to a small group of castes− Baniyas, Bohras and Parsees in Gujarat, Hindu and Jain Marwaris in Rajasthan, Kshatris in Hindustan and the Punjab and Chettis and Komatis on the east coast. One important trading group to be found was the Armenians. Commodities were procured either through spot purchases or advance contract known as the system of dadni. The expanding commerce of Mughal India was serviced by a complex and elaborate structure of credit. The most characteristic credit institution in India was the hundi or bill of exchange promising payment after a specified period, usually two months or less. This business was mainly in the hands of the professional money-changers−the sarrafs or shroffs−who acquired a role as commercial bankers. A form of speculative investment highly popular in the 17th century was avog or bottomry in which money was lent at interest rates. The interest rates in the higher reaches of commerce were calculated on a monthly basis. The facilities for transport included pack−oxen and ox−drawn carts, as well as camels. There was also the presence of sarais which were facilities for the accommodation of travellers. The roads from Agra to Patna and Lahore to Multan were closer to the ideal of a sarai. The number of sarais was probably adequate for the requirements of inland trade and travel during this period.


Thus, the organization of trade at all levels was sophisticated and complex. Trade both Inland and Foreign, was not static in purely quantitative terms either. Price and volume were marked by an inward trend. In short the world of inland commerce, like its counterpart i manufactures, was complex, vigorous and even changing.


  1. The Cambridge Economic History of India (volume I: c.1200-1750) – edited by Tapan Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib.( mainly the articles non-agricultural production and inland trade).
  2. History of Medieval India– Satish Chandra.


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