History of Modern India by Bipan Chandra

Chapter 1 India in the Eighteenth Century

Decay of the Mughal Empire

The great Mughal empire, the envy of its contemporaries for almost two centuries, declined and disintegrated during the first half of the eighteenth century. The Mughal emperors lost their power and glory and their empire shrank to a few square miles around Delhi. In the end, in 1803, Delhi itself was occupied by the British army and the proud Mughal emperor was reduced to the status of a mere pensioner of a foreign power.

The unity and stability of the empire had been shaken up during the long and strong reign of Aurangzeb; yet in spite of his many harmful policies, the Mughal administration was still quite efficient and the Mughal army quite strong at the time of his death in 1707. Moreover, the Mughal dynasty still commanded respect in the country.

On Aurangzeb’s death his three sons fought among themselves for the throne. The 65-year-old Bahadur Shah emerged victorious. He was learned, dignified, and able. He followed a policy of compromise and conciliation, and there was evidence of the reversal of some of the narrow-minded policies and measures adopted by Aurangzeb. He adopted a more tolerant attitude towards the Hindu chiefs and rajas. There was no destruction of temples in his reign. In the beginning, he made an attempt to gain greater control over the Rajput states of Amber and Marwar (Jodhpur) by replacing Jai Singh with his younger brother Vijai Singh at Amber and by forcing Ajit Singh of Marwar to submit to Mughal authority. He also made an attempt to garrison the cities of Amber and Jodhpur. This attempt was, however, met with firm resistance. This may have made him recognise the folly of his actions for he soon arrived at a settlement with the two states, though the settlement was not magnanimous. Though their states were restored to the Rajas Jai Singh and Ajit Singh, their demand for high mansabs and the offices of subahdars of important provinces such as Malwa and Gujarat was not accepted. His policy towards the Maratha sardars (chiefs) was that of half-hearted conciliation. While he granted them the sardeshmukhi of the Deccan, he failed to grant them the chauth and to satisfy them fully. He also did not recognise Shahu as the rightful Maratha king. He thus let Tara Bai and Shahu fight for supremacy over the Maratha kingdom. The result was that Shahu and the Maratha sardars remained dissatisfied and the Deccan continued to be susceptible to disorder. There could be no restoration of peace and order so long as the Maratha sardars fought one another as well as against the Mughal authority.

Bahadur Shah had tried to conciliate the rebellious Sikhs by making peace with Guru Gobind Singh and giving him a high mansab (rank). But when, after the death of the Guru, the Sikhs once again raised the banner of revolt in the Punjab under the leadership of Banda Bahadur, the emperor decided to take strong measures and himself led a campaign against the rebels, who soon controlled practically the entire territory between the Sutlej and the Jamuna, reaching the close neighbourhood of Delhi. Even though he succeeded in capturing Lohgarh, a fort built by Guru Gobind Singh north-east of Ambala at the foothills of the Himalayas, and other important Sikh strongholds, the Sikhs could not be crushed and in 1712, they recovered the fort of Lohgarh.

Bahadur Shah conciliated Chatarsal, the Bundela chief, who remained a loyal feudatory, and the Jat chief Churaman, who joined him in the campaign against Banda Bahadur.

There was further deterioration in the field of administration in Bahadur Shah’s reign. The position of state finances worsened as a result of his reckless grants of jagirs and promotions. During his reign the remnants of the royal treasure amounting in 1707 to some 13 crores of rupees, were exhausted.

Bahadur Shah was groping towards a solution of the problems besetting the empire. Given time, he might have revived the imperial fortunes. Unfortunately, his death in 1712 plunged the Empire once again into civil war.

A new element entered Mughal politics in this and the succeeding wars of succession. While previously the contest for power had been between royal princes, and the nobles had merely aided the aspirants to the throne, now ambitious nobles became direct contenders for power and used princes as mere pawns to capture the seats of authority. In the civil war following Bahadur Shah’s death, one of his less able sons, Jahandar Shah, won because he was supported by Zulfiqar Khan, the most powerful noble of the time.

Jahandar Shah was a weak and degenerate prince who was wholly devoted to pleasure. He lacked good manners and dignity and decency. During his reign, the administration was virtually in the hands of the extremely capable and energetic Zulfiqar Khan, who had become his wazir. Zulfiqar Khan believed that it was necessary to establish friendly relations with the Rajput rajas and the Maratha sardars and to conciliate the Hindu chieftains in general in order to strengthen his own position at the Court and to save the empire. Therefore, he rapidly reversed the policies of Aurangzeb. The hated jizyah was abolished. Jai Singh of Amber was given the title of Mirza Raja Sawai and appointed governor of Malwa; Ajit Singh of Marwar was awarded the title of Maharaja and appointed governor of Gujarat. Zulfiqar Khan confirmed the earlier private arrangement that his deputy in the Deccan, Daud Khan Panni, had concluded with the Maratha King Shahu in 1711. By this arrangement, the Maratha ruler was granted the chauth and sardeshmukhi of the Deccan on the condition that these collections would be made by the Mughal officials and then handed over to the Maratha officials. Zulfiqar Khan also conciliated Churaman Jat and Chhatarsal Bundela. Only towards Banda and the Sikhs did he continue the old policy of suppression.

Zulfiqar Khan made an attempt to improve the finances of the empire by checking the reckless growth of jagirs and offices. He also tried to compel the mansabdars (nobles) to maintain their official quota of troops. An evil tendency encouraged by him was that of ijarah or revenue-farming. Instead of collecting land revenue at a fixed rate as under Todar Mai’s land revenue settlement, the government began to contract with revenue farmers and middlemen to pay the government a fixed amount of money while they were left free to collect whatever they could from the peasant. This led to increased oppression of the peasant.

Many jealous nobles secretly worked against Zulfiqar Khan. Worse still, the emperor too did not give him his trust and cooperation in full measure. The emperor’s ears were poisoned against Zulfiqar Khan by unscrupulous favourites. He was told that his wazir was becoming too powerful and ambitious and might even overthrow the emperor himself. The cowardly emperor dared not dismiss the powerful wazir, but he began to intrigue against him secretly. Nothing could have been more destructive of healthy administration.

Jahandar Shah’s inglorious reign came to an early end in January 1713 when he was defeated at Agra by Farrukh Siyar, his nephew. Farrukh Siyar owed his victory to the Saiyid brothers, Abdullah Khan and Husain Ali Khan Baraha, who were therefore given the offices of wazir and mir bakshi respectively. The two brothers soon acquired dominant control over the affairs of the state. Farrukh Siyar lacked the capacity to rule. He was cowardly, cruel, undependable and faithless. Moreover, he allowed himself to be influenced by worthless favourites and flatterers.

In spite of his weaknesses, Farrukh Siyar was not willing to give the Saiyid brothers a free hand but wanted to exercise personal authority. On the other hand, the Saiyid brothers were convinced that administration could be carried on properly, the decay of the empire checked, and their own position safeguarded only if they wielded real authority and the emperor merely reigned without ruling. Thus there ensued a prolonged struggle for power between the Emperor Farrukh Siyar and his wazir and mir bakshi. Year after year the ungrateful emperor intrigued to overthrow the two brothers; year after year, he failed. In the end, in 1719, the Saiyid brothers deposed him and killed him. In his place they raised to the throne in quick succession two young princes who died of consumption. The Saiyid brothers now made the 18-year-old Muhammad Shah the Emperor of India. The three successors of Farrukh Siyar were mere puppets in the hands of the Saiyids. Even their personal liberty to meet people and to move around was restricted. Thus, from 1713 until 1720, when they were overthrown, the Saiyid brothers wielded the administrative power of the state.

The Saiyid brothers adopted the policy of religious tolerance. They believed that India could be ruled harmoniously only by associating Hindu chiefs and nobles with the Muslim nobles in governing the country. Again, they sought to conciliate and use the Rajputs, the Marathas, and the Jats in their struggle against Farrukh Siyar and the rival nobles. They abolished the jizyah immediately after Farrukh Siyar’s accession to the throne. Similarly, the pilgrim tax was abolished from a number of places. They won over to their side Ajit Singh of Marwar, Jai Singh of Amber, and many other Rajput princes by giving them high positions of influence in the administration. They made an alliance with Churaman, the Jat chieftain. In the later years of their administration they reached an agreement with King Shahu by granting him the swarajya (of Shivaji) and the right to collect the chauth and sardeshmukhi of the six provinces of the Deccan. In return, Shahu agreed to support them in the Deccan with 15,000 mounted soldiers.

The Saiyid brothers made a vigorous effort to contain rebellions and to save the empire from administrative disintegration. They failed in these tasks mainly because they were faced with constant political rivalry, quarrels, and conspiracies at the court. This continued friction in the ruling circles disorganised and even paralysed administration at all levels. Lawlessness and disorder spread everywhere. The financial position of the state deteriorated rapidly as zamindars and rebellious elements refused to pay land revenue, officials misappropriated state revenues, and central income declined because of the spread of revenue farming. As a result, the salaries of the officials and soldiers could not be paid regularly and the soldiers became undisciplined and even mutinous.

Even though the Saiyid brothers had tried hard to conciliate and befriend all sections of the nobility, a powerful group of nobles headed by Nizam-ul-Mulk and his father’s cousin Muhammad Amin Khan began to conspire against them. These nobles were jealous of the growing power of the two brothers. The deposition and murder of Farrukh Siyar frightened many of them: if the emperor could be killed, what safety was there for mere nobles? Moreover, the murder of the emperor created a wave of public revulsion against the two brothers. They were looked down upon as traitors—persons who had not been ‘true to their salt’ (namak haram). Many of the nobles of Aurangzeb’s reign also disliked the Saiyid alliance with the Rajput and the Maratha chiefs and their liberal policy towards the Hindus. These nobles declared that the Saiyids were following anti-Mughal and anti-Islamic policies. They tried to arouse the fanatical sections of the Muslim nobility against the Saiyid brothers. The anti-Saiyid nobles were supported by Emperor Muhammad Shah who wanted to free himself from the control of the two brothers. In 1720, they succeeded in treacherously assassinating Husain Ali Khan, the younger of the two brothers. Abdullah Khan tried to fight back but was defeated near Agra. Thus ended the domination of the Mughal empire by the Saiyid brothers known in Indian history as ‘king makers’.

Muhammad Shah’s long reign of nearly 30 years (1719–48) was the last chance of saving the empire. There were no quick changes of imperial authority as in the period 1707–20. When his reign began Mughal prestige among the people was still an important political factor. The Mughal army and particularly the Mughal artillery was still a force to reckon with. Administration in northern India had deteriorated but not broken down yet. The Maratha sardars were still confined to the South, while the Rajput rajas continued to be loyal to the Mughal dynasty. A strong and farsighted ruler supported by a nobility conscious of its peril might still have saved the situation. But Muhammad Shah was not the man of the moment. He was weak-minded and frivolous and over fond of a life of ease and luxury. He neglected the affairs of state. Instead of giving full support to able wazirs such as Nizam-ul-Mulk, he fell under the evil influence of corrupt and worthless flatterers and intrigued against his own ministers. He even shared in the bribes taken by his favourite courtiers.

Disgusted with the fickle-mindedness and suspicious nature of the emperor and the constant quarrels at the court, Nizum-ul-Mulk, the most powerful noble of the time, decided to follow his own ambition. He had become the wazir in 1722 and made a vigorous attempt to reform the administration. He now decided to leave the emperor and his empire to their fate and to strike out on his own. He relinquished his office in October 1724 and marched south to found the state of Hyderabad in the Deccan. “His departure was symbolic of the flight of loyality and virtue from the empire.” The physical break-up of the Mughal empire had begun.

The other powerful and ambitious nobles also now began to utilise their energies for carving out semi-independent states. Hereditary nawabs owing nominal allegiance to the emperor at Delhi arose in many parts of the country, for example, in Bengal, Hyderabad, Avadh, and the Punjab. Everywhere petty zamindars, rajas and nawabs raised the banner of rebellion and independence. The Maratha sardars began their northern expansion and overran Malwa, Gujarat and Bundelkhand. Then, in 1738-39, Nadir Shah descended upon the plains of northern India, and the empire lay prostrate.

Nadir Shah had risen from shepherd boy to Shah (King) by saving Persia from sure decline and disintegration. In the beginning of the eighteenth century Persia, hitherto a powerful and far flung empire, was under the weak rule of the declining Safavi dynasty. It was threatened by internal rebellions and foreign attacks. In the east, the Abdali tribesmen revolted and occupied Herat, and the Ghalzai tribesmen detached the province of Qandahar. Similar revolts occurred in the north and west. In Shirvan, religious persecution of the Sunnis by fanatical Shias led to rebellion. Here, “Sunni mullahs were put to death, mosques were profaned and turned into stables, and religious works were destroyed.” In 1721, the Ghalzai chief of Qandahar, Mahmud, invaded Persia and occupied Isfahan, the capital. Russia under Peter the Great was determined to push southward. Peter began his invasion of Persia in July 1722 and soon forced Persia to sign away several of her provinces on the Caspian Sea, including the town of Baku. Turkey, deprived of most of her European possessions, also hoped to make good the loss at Persia’s cost. In the spring of 1723, Turkey declared war on Persia and rapidly pushed through Georgia and then penetrated south. In June 1724, Russia and Turkey signed a treaty dividing all northern and most of western Persia between them. At this stage, in 1726, Nadir emerged as a major supporter of Tahmsap and as his most brilliant commander. In 1729 he won back Herat after defeating the Abdalis and expelled the Ghalzais from Isfahan and central and southern Persia. After long and bitter warfare he compelled Turkey to give back all conquered territory. In 1735, he signed a treaty with Russia receiving back all seized territory. The following year, he deposed the last of the Safavi rulers and made himself the Shah. In the following years, he reconquered the province of Qandahar.

Nadir Shah was attracted to India by the fabulous wealth for which it was always famous. Continual campaigns had made Persia virtually bankrupt. Money was needed desperately to maintain his mercenary army. Spoils from India could be a solution. At the same time, the visible weakness of the Mughal empire made such spoliation possible. He entered Indian territory towards the end of 1738, without meeting any opposition. For years the defences of the north-west frontier had been neglected. The danger was not fully recognised till the enemy had occupied Lahore. Hurried preparations were then made for the defence of Delhi, but the faction-ridden nobles refused to unite even in sight of the enemy. They could not agree on a plan for defence or on the commander of the defending forces. Disunity, poor leadership, mutual jealousies and distrust could lead only to defeat. The two armies met at Karnal on 13 February 1739 and the invader inflicted a crushing defeat on the Mughal army. The Emperor Muhammad Shah was taken prisoner and Nadir Shah marched on to Delhi. A terrible massacre of the citizens of the imperial capital was ordered by Nadir Shah as a reprisal against the killing of some of his soldiers. The greedy invader took possession of the royal treasury and other royal property, levied tribute on the leading nobles, and plundered the rich of Delhi. His total plunder has been estimated at 70 crores of rupees. This enabled him to exempt his own kingdom from taxation for three years! He also carried away the famous Koh-i-nur diamond and the jewel-studded Peacock Throne of Shahjahan. He compelled Muhammad Shah to cede to him all the provinces of the empire west of the river Indus.

Nadir Shah’s invasion inflicted immense damage on the Mughal empire. It caused an irreparable loss of prestige and exposed the hidden weakness of the empire to the Maratha sardars and the foreign trading companies. The central administration was paralysed temporarily. The invasion ruined imperial finances and adversely affected the economic life of the country. The impoverished nobles began to rack-rent and oppress the peasantry even more in an effort to recover their lost fortunes. They also fought one another over rich jagirs and high offices more desperately than ever. The loss of Kabul and the areas to the west of the Indus once again opened the empire to the threat of invasions from the north-west. A vital line of defence had disappeared.

It is surprising indeed that the empire seemed to revive some of its strength after Nadir Shah’s departure, even though the area under its effective control shrank rapidly. But the revival was deceptive and superficial. After Muhammad Shah’s death in 1748, bitter struggles and even civil war broke out among unscrupulous and power hungry nobles. Furthermore, as a result of the weakening of the north-western defences, the empire was devastated by the repeated invasions of Ahmed Shah Abdali, one of Nadir Shah’s ablest generals, who had succeeded in establishing his authority over Afghanistan after his master’s death. Abdali repeatedly invaded and plundered northern India right down to Delhi and Mathura between 1748 and 1767. In 1761, he defeated the Marathas in the Third Battle of Panipat and thus gave a big blow to their ambition of controlling the Mughal emperor and thereby dominating the country. He did not, however, found a new Afghan kingdom in India. He and his successors could not even retain the Punjab which they soon lost to the Sikh chiefs.

As a result of the invasions of Nadir Shah and Abdali and the suicidal internal feuds of the Mughal nobility, the Mughal empire had by 1761 ceased to exist in practice as an all-India Empire. It remained merely as the Kingdom of Delhi. Delhi itself was a scene of ‘daily riot and tumult’. The descendants of the Grand Mughals no longer participated actively in the struggle for the Empire of India, but the various contenders for power found it politically useful to hide behind their name. This gave to the Mughal dynasty a long lease of life on the nominal throne of Delhi.

Shah Alam II, who ascended the throne in 1759, spent the initial years as an emperor wandering from place to place far away from his capital, for he lived in mortal fear of his own wazir. He was a man of some ability and ample courage. But the empire was by now beyond redemption. In 1764, he joined Mir Qasim of Bengal and Shuja-ud-Daula of Awadh in declaring war upon the English East India Company. Defeated by the British at the Battle of Buxar, he lived for several years at Allahabad as a pensioner of the East India Company. He left the British shelter in 1772 and returned to Delhi under the protective arm of the Marathas. The British occupied Delhi in 1803 and from that year until 1857, when the Mughal dynasty was finally extinguished, the Mughal emperors merely served as a political front for the English. In fact, the continuation of the Mughal monarchy after 1759, when it had ceased to be a military power, was due to the powerful hold that the Mughal dynasty had on the minds of the people of India as the symbol of the political unity of the country.

The most important consequence of the decline of the Mughal Empire was that this enabled the British to conquer India. None of the Indian powers rose to claim the heritage of the Grand Mughal’s, for they were strong enough to destroy the Empire but not strong enough to unite it or to create anything new in its place They could not create a new social order which could stand up to the new enemy from, the West. All of them represented the same moribund social system as headed by the Mughals and all of them suffered from the weaknesses which had destroyed the mighty Mughal Empire. On the other hand, the Europeans knocking at the gates of India had the benefit of coming from societies which had evolved a superior economic system and which were more advanced in science and technology. The tragedy of the decline of the Mughal Empire was that its mantle fell on a foreign power which dissolved, in its own interests, the centuries old socio-economic and political structure of the country and replaced it with a colonial structure.

Indian States and Society

With the gradual weakening and decline of the Mughal empire, local and regional political and economic forces began to arise and assert themselves and politics began to undergo major changes from the late seventeenth century onwards. During the eighteenth century, on the debris of the Mughal empire and its political system, rose a large number of independent and semi-independent powers such as the Bengal, Awadh, Hyderabad, Mysore and Maratha kingdoms. It is these powers which the British had to overcome in their attempt at supremacy in India.

Some of these states, such as Bengal, Awadh and Hyderabad, may be characterised as ‘succession states’. They arose as a result of the assertion of autonomy by governors of Mughal provinces with the decay of the central power. Others, such as the Maratha, Afghan, Jat and Punjab states were the product of rebellions by local chieftains, zamindars and peasants against Mughal authority. Not only did the politics in the two types of states or zones differ to some extent from each other, but there were differences among all of them because of local conditions. Yet, not surprisingly, the overall political and administrative framework was very similar in nearly all of them. There was, of course, also a third zone comprising of areas on the south-west and south-east coasts and of north-eastern India, where Mughal influence had not penetrated to any degree.

The rulers of all the eighteenth century states tried to legitimise their position by acknowledging the nominal supremacy of the Mughal emperor and by seeking his approval as his representatives. Moreover, nearly all of them adopted the methods and spirit of Mughal administration. The first group of states (succession states) inherited functioning Mughal administrative structures and institutions; others tried to adopt and adapt in varying degrees this structure and institutions, including the Mughal revenue system.

The rulers of these states established law and order and viable economic and administrative structures. They curbed, with varying degrees of success, the lower local officials and petty chiefs and zamindars who constantly fought with higher authorities for control over the surplus produce of the peasant, and who sometimes succeeded in establishing local centres of power and patronage. They also conciliated and accommodated these local chiefs and zamindars who desired peace and law and order. In general, there was in most of the states decentralisation of political authority, with chiefs, jagirdars and zamindars gaining in economic and political power. The politics of these states were invariably non-communal or secular, the motivations of their rulers being similar in economic and political terms. These rulers did not discriminate on religious grounds in public appointments, civil or military; nor did the rebels against their authority pay much attention to the religion of the rulers. There is, therefore, little warrant for the belief that the decline and break-up of the Mughal empire was followed by ‘anarchy’ or breakdown of law and order in different parts of India. In fact, whatever anarchy in administration and economy existed in the eighteenth century usually followed British wars of conquest and British intervention in the internal affairs of the Indian states.

None of these states, however, succeeded in arresting the economic crisis which had set in during the seventeenth century. All of them remained basically rent-extracting states. The zamindars and jagirdars, whose number and political strength constantly increased, continued to fight over the income from agriculture, while the condition of the peasantry continued to deteriorate. While these states prevented any breakdown of internal trade and even tried to promote foreign trade, they did nothing to modernise the basic industrial and commercial structure of their states. This largely explains their failure to consolidate themselves or to ward off external attack.

Hyderabad and The Carnatic

The state of Hyderabad was founded by Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah in 1724. He was one of the leading nobles of the post-Aurangzeb era. He played a leading role in the overthrow of the Saiyid brothers and was rewarded with the viceroyalty of the Deccan. From 1720 to 1722 he consolidated his hold over the Deccan by suppressing all opposition to his viceroyalty and organising the administration on efficient lines. From 1722 to 1724 he was the wazir of the empire. But he soon got disgusted with that office as the Emperor Muhammad Shah frustrated all his attempts at reforming the administration. So he decided to go back to the Deccan where he could safely maintain his supremacy. Here he laid the foundations of the Hyderabad State which he ruled with a strong hand. He never openly declared his independence from the central government but in practice he acted like an independent ruler. He waged wars, concluded peace, conferred titles, and gave jagirs and offices without reference to Delhi. He followed a tolerant policy towards the Hindus. For example, a Hindu, Puran Chand, was his Dewan. He consolidated his power by establishing an orderly administration in the Deccan on the basis of the jagirdari system on the Mughal pattern. He forced the big, turbulent zamindars to respect his authority and kept the powerful Marathas out of his dominions. He also made an attempt to rid the revenue system of its corruption. But after his death in 1748, Hyderabad fell a prey to the same disruptive forces as were operating at Delhi.

The Carnatic was one of the subahs of the Mughal Deccan and as such came under the Nizam of Hyderabad’s authority. But just as in practice the Nizam had become independent of Delhi, so also the Deputy Governor of the Carnatic, known as the Nawab of Carnatic, had freed himself of the control of the Viceroy of the Deccan and made his office hereditary. Thus Nawab Saadutullah Khan of Carnatic had made his nephew Dost Ali his successor without the approval of his superior, the Nizam. Later, after 1740, the affairs of the Carnatic deteriorated because of the repeated struggles for its nawabship and this, provided an opportunity to the European trading companies to directly interfere in Indian politics.


Taking advantage of the growing weakness of the central authority, two men of exceptional ability, Murshid Quli Khan and Alivardi Khan, made Bengal virtually independent. Even though Murshid Quli Khan was made Governor of Bengal as late as 1717, he had been its effective ruler since 1700, when he was appointed its Dewan. He soon freed himself from central control though he regularly sent a large tribute to the emperor. He established peace by freeing Bengal of internal and external danger. Bengal was now also relatively free of major uprisings by zamindars. The only three major uprisings during his rule were first by Sitaram Ray, Udai Narayan and Ghulam Muhammad, and then by Shujat Khan, and finally by Najat Khan. After defeating them, Murshid Quli Khan gave their zamindaris to his favourite, Ramjivan. Murshid Quli Khan died in 1727, and his son-in-law Shuja-ud-din ruled Bengal till 1739. In that year, Alivardi Khan deposed and killed Shuja-ud-din’s son, Sarfaraz Khan, and made himself the Nawab.

These three Nawabs gave Bengal a long period of peace and orderly administration and promoted its trade and industry. Murshid Quli Khan effected economies in the administration and reorganised the finances of Bengal by transferring large parts of jagir lands into khalisah lands by carrying out a fresh revenue settlement, and by introducing the system of revenue-farming. He recruited revenue farmers and officials from local zamindars and merchant-bankers. He also granted agricultural loans (taccavi) to the poor cultivators to relieve their distress as well as to enable them to pay land revenue in time. He was thus able to increase the resources of the Bengal government. But the system of revenue-farming led to increased economic pressure on the zamindars and peasants. Moreover, even though he demanded only the standard revenue and forbade illegal cesses, he collected the revenue from the zamindars and the peasants with utmost cruelty. Another result of his reforms was that many of the older zamindars were driven out and their place was taken by upstart revenue-farmers.

Murshid Quli Khan and the succeeding Nawabs gave equal opportunities for employment to Hindus and Muslims. They filled the highest civil posts and many of the military posts with Bengalis, mostly Hindus. In choosing revenue farmers Murshid Quli Khan gave preference to local zamindars and mahajans (money-lenders) who were mainly Hindus. He thus laid the foundations of a new landed aristocracy in Bengal.

All the three Nawabs recognised that the expansion of trade benefited the people and the government and, therefore, gave encouragement to all merchants, Indian and foreign. They provided for the safety of roads and rivers from thieves and robbers by establishing regular thanas and chowkies. They checked private trade by officials. They prevented abuses in the customs administration. At the same time they made it a point to maintain strict control over the foreign trading companies and their servants and prevented them from abusing their privileges. They compelled the servants of the English East India Company to obey the laws of the land and to pay the same customs duties as were being paid by other merchants. Alivardi Khan did not permit the English and the French to fortify their factories in Calcutta and Chandernagore. The Bengal Nawabs proved, however, to be short-sighted and negligent in one respect. They did not firmly put down the increasing tendency of the English East India Company after 1707 to use military force, or to threaten its use, to get its demands accepted. They had the power to deal with the Company’s threats, but they continued to believe that a mere trading company could not threaten their power. They failed to see that the English Company was no mere company of traders but was the representative of the most aggressive and expansionist colonialism of the time. Their ignorance of, and lack of contact with, the rest of the world was to cost the state dear. Otherwise, they would have known of the devastation caused by the Western trading companies in Africa, South-East Asia, and Latin America.

The Nawabs of Bengal neglected to build a strong army and paid a heavy price for it. For example, the army of Murshid Quli Khan consisted of only 2000 cavalry and 4000 infantry. Alivardi Khan was constantly troubled by the repeated invasions of the Marathas and, in the end, he had to cede a large part of Orissa to them. And when, in 1756–67, the English East India Company declared war on Siraj- ud-Daulah, the successor of Alivardi, the absence of a strong army contributed much to the victory of the foreigner. The Bengal Nawabs also failed to check the growing corruption among their officials. Even judicial officials, the qazis and muftis, were given to taking bribes. The foreign companies took full advantage of this weakness to undermine official rules and regulations and policies.


The founder of the autonomous kingdom of Awadh was Saadat Khan Burhan-ul-Mulk who was appointed Governor of Awadh in 1722. He was an extremely bold, energetic, iron-willed, and intelligent person. At the time of his appointment, many rebellious zamindars had raised their heads everywhere in the province. They refused to pay the land tax, organised their own private armies, erected forts, and defied the Imperial Government. For years Saadat Khan had to wage war upon them. He succeeded in suppressing lawlessness and disciplining the big zamindars and thus, increasing the financial resources of his government. He won over the chieftains and zamindars through various concessions. Moreover, most of the defeated zamindars were also not displaced. They were usually confirmed in their estates after they had submitted and agreed to pay their dues (land revenue) regularly.

Saadat Khan also carried out a fresh revenue settlement in 1723. He is said to have improved the lot of the peasant by levying equitable land revenue and by protecting him from oppression by the big zamindars.

Like the Bengal Nawabs, he too did not discriminate between Hindus and Muslims. Many of his commanders and high officials were Hindus; and he curbed refractory zamindars, chiefs, and nobles irrespective of their religion. His troops were well-paid, well-armed, and well-trained. His administration was efficient. He, too continued the jagir system. Before his death in 1739, he had become virtually independent and had made the province a hereditary possession. He was succeeded by his nephew Safdar Jang, who was simultaneously appointed the wazir of the empire in 1748 and granted in addition the province of Allahabad.

Safdar Jang gave a long period of peace to the people of Awadh and Allahabad before his death in 1754. He suppressed rebellious zamindars, won over others and made an alliance with the Maratha sardars so that his dominion was saved from their incursions. He was able to win the loyalty of Rajput chieftains shaikhzadas. He carried on warfare against the Rohelas and the Bangash Pathans. In his war against the Bangash Pathans in 1750–51, he secured Maratha military help by paying a daily allowance of Rs 25,000 and Jat support by paying Rs 15,000 a day. Later, he entered into an agreement with the Peshwa by which the Peshwa was to help the Mughal empire against Ahmad Shah Abdali and to protect it from such internal rebels as the Indian Pathans and the Rajput rajas. In return the Peshwa was to be paid Rs 50 lakhs, granted the chauth of the Punjab, Sindh, and several districts of northern India, and made the Governor of Ajmer and Agra. The agreement failed, however, as the Peshwa went over to Safdar Jang’s enemies at Delhi who promised him the governorship of Awadh and Allahabad.

Safdar Jang also organised an equitable system of justice. He too adopted a policy of impartiality in the employment of Hindus and Muslims. The highest post in his government was held by a Hindu, Maharaja Nawab Rai.

The prolonged period of peace and of economic prosperity of the nobles under the government of the Nawabs resulted in time in the growth of a distinct Lucknow culture around the Awadh court. Lucknow, for long an important city of Awadh, and the seat of the Awadh Nawabs after 1775, soon rivalled Delhi in its patronage of the arts and literature. It also developed as an important centre of handicrafts. Crafts and culture also percolated to towns under the patronage of local chieftains and zamindars.

Safdar Jang maintained a very high standard of personal morality. All his life he was devoted to his only wife. As a matter of fact all the founders of the three autonomous kingdoms of Hyderabad, Bengal and Awadh, namely Nizam-ul-Mulk, Murshid Quli Khan and Alivardi Khan, and Saadat Khan and Safdar Jang, were men of high personal morality. Nearly all of them led austere and simple lives. Their lives give lie to the belief that all the leading nobles of the eighteenth century led extravagant and luxurious lives. It was only in their public and political dealings that they resorted to fraud, intrigue and treachery.


Next to Hyderabad, the most important power that emerged in south India was Mysore under Haidar Ali. The kingdom of Mysore had preserved its precarious independence ever since the end of the Vijayanagar Empire and had been only nominally a part of the Mughal empire. Early in the eighteenth century two ministers Nanjaraj (the Sarvadhikari) and Devraj (the Dulwai) had seized power in Mysore reducing the king Chikka Krishna Raj to a mere puppet. Haidar Ali, born in 1721 in an obscure family, started his career as a petty officer in the Mysore army. Though uneducated, he possessed a keen intellect and was a man of great energy, daring and determination. He was also a brilliant commander and a shrewd diplomat.

Haidar Ali soon found his opportunity in the wars which involved Mysore for more than twenty years. Cleverly using the opportunities that came his way, he gradually rose in the Mysore army. He soon recognised the advantages of Western military training and applied it to the troops under his own command. He established a modern arsenal in Dindigal in 1755 with the help of French experts. In 1761 he overthrew Nanjaraj and established his authority over the Mysore state. He extended full control over the rebellious poligars (warrior chieftains and zamindars) and conquered the territories of Bidnur, Sunda, Sera, Canara and Malabar. A major reason for his occupation of Malabar was the desire to have access to the Indian Ocean. Though illiterate he was an efficient administrator. He was responsible for introducing the Mughal administrative and revenue system in his dominions. He took over Mysore when it was a weak and divided state and soon made it one of the leading Indian powers. He practised religious tolerance and his first Dewan and many other officials were Hindus.

Almost from the beginning of the establishment of his power, he was engaged in wars with the Maratha sardars, the Nizam, and the British. In 1769, he repeatedly defeated the British forces and reached the walls of Madras. He died in 1782 in the course of the second Anglo-Mysore War and was succeeded by his son Tipu.

Sultan Tipu, who ruled Mysore till his death at the hands of the British in 1799, was a man of complex character. He was, for one, an innovator. His desire to change with the times was symbolised in the introduction of a new calendar, a new system of coinage, and new scales of weights and measures. His personal library contained books on such diverse subjects as religion, history, military science, medicine, and mathematics. He showed a keen interest in the French Revolution. He planted a ‘Tree of Liberty’ at Srirangapatam and he became a member of a Jacobin Club. His organisational capacity is borne out by the fact that in those days of general indiscipline among Indian armies, his troops remained disciplined and loyal to him to the last. He tried to do away with the custom of giving jagirs, and thus increase state income. He also made an attempt to reduce the hereditary possessions of the poligars and to eliminate the intermediaries between the state and the cultivator. However, his land revenue was as high as that of other contemporary rulers—it ranged up to one third of the gross produce. But he checked the collection of illegal cesses, and he was liberal in granting remissions.

His infantry was armed with muskets and bayonets in the European fashion which were, however, manufactured in Mysore. He also made an effort to build a modern navy after 1796. For this purpose he established two dockyards, the models of the ships being supplied by the Sultan himself. In personal life he was free from vices and kept himself free from luxury. He was recklessly brave and, as a commander, brilliant. He was fond of saying that it was “better to live a day as a lion than a lifetime as a sheep”. He died fighting at the gates of Srirangapatam in pursuance of this belief. He was, however, hasty in action and unstable in nature.

As a statesman, he more than any other eighteenth-century Indian ruler, recognised to the full extent the threat that the English posed to South India as well as to other Indian powers. He stood forth as the steadfast foe of the rising English power. The English, in turn, looked upon him as their most dangerous enemy in India.

Though not free from contemporary economic backwardness, Mysore flourished economically under Haidar Ali and Tipu, especially when seen in contrast with its immediate past or with the rest of the country. When the British occupied Mysore after defeating and killing Tipu in 1799, they were surprised to find that the Mysore peasant was much more prosperous than the peasant in British- occupied Madras. Sir John Shore, Governor-General from 1793 to 1798, wrote later that “the peasantry of his dominions are protected and their labour encouraged and rewarded”. Another British observer wrote of Tipu’s Mysore as “well cultivated, populous with industrious inhabitants, cities newly founded and commerce extending”. Tipu also seems to have grasped the importance of modern trade and industry. In fact, alone among the Indian rulers, he understood the importance of economic strength as the foundation of military strength. He made some attempts to introduce modern industries in India by importing foreign workmen as experts and by extending state support to many industries. He sent emissaries to France, Turkey, Iran and Pegu Myanmar to develop foreign trade. He also traded with China. He even tried to set up a trading company on the pattern of European companies and thus sought to imitate their commercial practices. He tried to promote trade with Russia and Arabia by setting up state trading institutions in the port towns.

Some British historians have described Tipu as a religious fanatic. But this is not borne out by facts. Though he was orthodox in his religious views, he was in fact tolerant and enlightened in his approach toward other religions. He gave money for the construction of the image of goddess Sarda in the Shringeri Temple after the latter was looted by Maratha horsemen in 1791. He regularly gave gifts to this temple as well as several other temples. The famous temple of Sri Ranganath was situated barely a hundred yards from his palace. But while he treated the vast majority of his Hindu and Christian subjects with consideration and tolerance, he was harsh on those Hindus and Christians who might directly or indirectly aid the British against Mysore.


At the beginning of the eighteenth century Kerala was divided up among a large number of feudal chiefs and rajas. The four most important states were those of Calicut, under the Zamorin, Chirakkal, Cochin and Travancore. The kingdom of Travancore rose into prominence after 1729 under King Martanda Varma, one of the leading statesmen of the eighteenth century. He combined rare foresight and strong determination with courage and daring. He subdued the feudatories, conquered Quilon and Elayadam, and defeated the Dutch, thus ending their political power in Kerala. He organised a strong army on the Western model with the help of European officers and armed it with modern weapons. He also constructed a modern arsenal. Martanda Varma used his new army to expand northwards and the boundaries of Travancore soon extended from Kanyakumari to Cochin. He undertook many irrigation works, built roads and canals for communication, and gave active encouragement to foreign trade.

By 1763, all the petty principalities of Kerala had been absorbed or subordinated by the three big states of Cochin, Travancore and Calicut. Haidar Ali began his invasion of Kerala in 1766 and in the end annexed northern Kerala up to Cochin, including the territories of the Zamorin of Calicut.

The eighteenth century saw a remarkable revival in Malayalam literature. This was due in part to the rajas and chiefs of Kerala who were great patrons of literature. Trivandrum, the capital of Travancore, became in the second half of the eighteenth century, a famous centre of Sanskrit scholarship. Rama Varma, successor of Martanda Varma, was himself a poet, scholar, musician, renowned actor, and a man of great culture. He conversed fluently in English, took a keen interest in European affairs, and regularly read newspapers and journals published in London, Calcutta and Madras.

Areas Around Delhi

The Rajput States

The principal Rajput states took advantage of the growing weakness of Mughal power to virtually free themselves from central control while at the same time increasing their influence in the rest of the empire. In the reigns of Farrukh Siyar and Muhammad Shah, the rulers of Amber and Marwar were appointed governors of important Mughal provinces such as Agra, Gujarat, and Malwa.

The Rajputana states continued to be as divided as before. The bigger among them expanded at the cost of their weaker neighbours, Rajput and non-Rajput. Most of the larger Rajput states were constantly involved in petty quarrels and civil wars. The internal politics of these states were often characterised by the same type of corruption, intrigue, and treachery as prevailed at the Mughal court. Thus, Ajit Singh of Marwar was killed by his own son.

The most outstanding Rajput ruler of the eighteenth century was Raja Sawai Jai Singh of Amber (1681–1743). He was a distinguished statesman, law-maker, and reformer. But most of all he shone as a man of science in an age when Indians were oblivious of scientific progress. He founded the city of Jaipur and made it a great seat of science and art. Jaipur was built upon strictly scientific principles and according to a regular plan. Its broad streets are intersected at right angles.

Jai Singh was above everything a great astronomer. He erected observatories with accurate and advanced instruments, some of them of his own invention, at Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain, Varanasi, and Mathura. His astronomical observations were remarkably accurate. He drew up a set of tables, entitled Zij Muhammadshahi, to enable people to make astronomical observations. He had Euclid’s “Elements of Geometry” translated into Sanskrit as also several works on trignometry, and Napier’s work on the construction and use of logarithms.

Jai Singh was also a social reformer. He tried to enforce a law to reduce the lavish expenditure which the Rajputs had to incur on their daughters’ weddings. This had given rise to the evil practice of female infanticide. This remarkable prince ruled Jaipur for nearly 44 years from 1699 to 1743.

The Jats

The Jats, a caste of agriculturists, lived in the region around Delhi, Agra and Mathura. Jat peasants around Mathura revolted under the leadership of their Jat zamindars in 1669 and then again in 1688. These revolts were crushed but the area remained disturbed. After the death of Aurangzeb, they created disturbances all around Delhi. Though originally a peasant uprising, the Jat revolt, led by zamindars, soon became predatory. They took active part in the Court intrigues at Delhi, often changing sides to suit their own advantage. The Jat state of Bharatpur was set up by Churaman and Badan Singh. Jat power reached its highest glory under Suraj Mal, who ruled from 1756 to 1763 and who was an extremely able administrator and soldier and a very wise statesman. He extended his authority over a large area which extended from the Ganga in the east to the Chambal in the south, the Subah of Agra in the west to the Subah of Delhi in the north. His state included among others the districts of Agra, Mathura, Meerut and Aligarh. He tried to lay the foundations of an enduring state by adopting the Mughal revenue system. A contemporary historian has described him as follows:

Though he wore the dress of a farmer and could speak only his own Braj dialect, he was the Plato of the Jat tribe. In prudence and skill, and ability to manage the revenue and civil affairs he had no equal among the grandees of Hindustan except Asaf Jah Bahadur.

After his death in 1763, the Jat state declined and was split up among petty zamindars most of whom lived by plunder.

Bangash Pathans and Rohelas

Muhammad Khan Bangash, an Afghan adventurer, established his control over the territory around Farrukhabad, between what are now Aligarh and Kanpur, during the reigns of Farrukh Siyar and Muhammad Shah. Similarly, during the breakdown of administration following Nadir Shah’s invasion, Ali Muhammad Khan carved out a separate principality, known as Rohilkhand, at the foothills of the Himalayas between the Ganga in the south and the Kumaon hills in the north with its capital at first at Aolan in Bareilly and later at Rampur. The Rohelas clashed constantly with Awadh, Delhi and the Jats.

The Sikhs

Founded at the end of the fifteenth century by Guru Nanak, the Sikh religion spread among the Jat peasantry and other lower castes of the Punjab. The transformation of the Sikhs into a militant, fighting community was begun by Guru Hargobind (1606–45). It was, however, under the leadership of Guru Gobind Singh (1666–1708), the tenth and last Guru of the Sikhs, that they became a political and military force. From 1699 onwards, Guru Gobind Singh waged constant war against the armies of Aurangzeb and the hill rajas.

After Guru Gobind Singh’s death the institution of Guruship came to an end and the leadership of the Sikhs passed to his trusted disciple Banda Singh Bahadur. Banda Singh Bahadur rallied together the peasants and the lower castes of the Punjab from Delhi to Lahore and carried on a vigorous though unequal struggle against the Mughal army for eight years. He was captured in 1715 and put to death. There were several reasons for his failure. The Mughal centre was still strong. The upper classes and castes of Punjab joined forces against Banda Singh Bahadur for his championship of the lower castes and rural poor.

The invasions of Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali and the consequent dislocation of Punjab administration gave the Sikhs an opportunity to rise once again.. They soon began to fill the political vacuum. Between 1765 and 1800 they brought the Punjab and Jammu under their control. The Sikhs were organised into 12 misls or confederacies which operated in different parts of the province. These misls fully cooperated with one another. They were originally based on the principle of equality, with all members having an equal voice in deciding the affairs of a misl and in electing its chief and other officers. Gradually the democratic and plebian character of the misls disappeared and powerful feudal chiefs and zamindars dominated them.

The Punjab Under Ranjit Singh

At the end of the eighteenth century, Ranjit Singh, chief of the Sukerchakia Misl, rose to prominence. A strong and courageous soldier, an efficient administrator, and a skilful diplomat, he was a born leader of men. He captured Lahore in 1799 and Amritsar in 1802. He soon brought all Sikh chiefs west of the Sutlej under his control and established his own kingdom in the Punjab. Later, he conquered Kashmir, Peshawar, and Multan. The old Sikh chiefs were transformed into big zamindars and jagirdars. He did not make any changes in the system of land revenue promulgated earlier by the Mughals. The amount of land revenue was calculated on the basis of 50 per cent of the gross produce.

Ranjit Singh built up a powerful, disciplined, and well-equipped army along European lines with the help of European instructors. His new army was not confined to the Sikhs. He also recruited Gurkhas, Biharis, Oriyas, Pathans, Dogras, and Punjabi Muslims. He set up modern foundries to manufacture cannon at Lahore and employed Muslim gunners to man them. It is said that he possessed the second best army in Asia, the first being the army of the English East India Company.

Ranjit Singh had great capacity for choosing his ministers and officials. His court was studded with outstanding men. He was tolerant and liberal in religious matters. He patronised not only Sikh but also Muslim and Hindu holy men. Many of his important ministers and commanders were Muslims and Hindus. The most prominent and trusted of his ministers was Fakir Azizuddin, while his finance minister was Dewan Dina Nath. His was a state based on equal opportunities for all. Political power was not used for exclusive Sikh benefit. On the other hand, the Sikh peasant was as much oppressed by Sikh chiefs as was the Hindu or Muslim peasant. In fact, the structure of the Punjab as a state under Ranjit Singh was similar to the structure of the other Indian states of the eighteenth century.

When the British forbade Ranjit Singh in 1809 to cross the Sutlej and took the Sikh states east of the river under their protection, he kept quiet for he realised that his strength was no match for the British. Thus by his diplomatic realism and military strength he temporarily saved his kingdom from English encroachment. But he did not remove the foreign threat, he only left it for his successors. And so, after his death, when his kingdom was torn by an intense internal struggle for power, the English moved in and conquered it.

The Rise and Fall of The Maratha Power

The most important challenge to the decaying Mughal power came from the Maratha Kingdom which was the most powerful of the succession states. In fact, it alone possessed the strength to fill the political vacuum created by the disintegration of the Mughal Empire. Moreover, it produced a number of brilliant commanders and statesmen needed for the task. But the Maratha sardars lacked unity, and they lacked the outlook and programme which were necessary for founding an all-India empire. And so they failed to replace the Mughals. They did, however, succeed in waging continuous war against the Mughal empire, till they destroyed it.

Shahu, the grandson of Shivaji, had been a prisoner in the hands of Aurangzeb since 1689. Aurangzeb had treated him and his mother with great dignity, honour, and consideration, paying full attention to their religious, caste, and other needs, hoping perhaps to arrive at a political agreement with Shahu. Shahu was released in 1707 after Aurangzeb’s death. Very soon a civil war broke out between Shahu at Satara and his aunt Tara Bai at Kolhapur who had carried out an anti-Mughal struggle since 1700 in the name of her son Shivaji II after the death of her husband Raja Ram. Maratha sardars, each one of whom had a large following of soldiers loyal to himself alone, began to side with one or the other contender for power. They used this opportunity to increase their power and influence by bargaining with the two contenders for power. Several of them even intrigued with the Mughal viceroys of the Deccan. Arising from the conflict between Shahu and his rival at Kolhapur, a new system of Maratha government was evolved under the leadership of Balaji Vishwanath, the Peshwa of King Shahu. With this change began the second period—the period of Peshwa domination—in Maratha history in which the Maratha state was transformed into an empire.

Balaji Vishwanath, a brahmin, started life as a petty revenue official and then rose step by step. He rendered Shahu loyal and useful service in suppressing his enemies. He excelled in diplomacy and won over many of the big Maratha sardars to Shahu’s cause. In 1713, Shahu made him his Peshwa or the mukh pradhan (chief minister). Balaji Vishwanath gradually consolidated Shahu’s hold and his own over Maratha sardars and over most of Maharashtra except for the region south of Kolhapur where Raja Ram’s descendants ruled. The Peshwa concentrated power in his office and eclipsed the other ministers and sardars. In fact he and his son Baji Rao I made the Peshwa the functional head of the Maratha empire.

Balaji Vishwanath took full advantage of the internal conflicts of the Mughal officials to increase Maratha power. He had induced Zulfiqar Khan to grant the chauth and sardeshmukhi of the Deccan. In the end, he signed a pact with the Saiyid brothers. All the territories that had earlier formed Shivaji’s kingdom were restored to Shahu who was also assigned the chauth and sardeshmukhi of the six provinces of the Deccan. In return Shahu, who had already recognised, though nominally, Mughal suzerainty, agreed to place a body of 15,000 cavalry at the emperor’s service, to prevent rebellion and plundering in the Deccan, and to pay an annual tribute of 10 lakhs of rupees. He also walked barefoot and paid obeisance at the tomb of Aurangzeb at Khuldabad in 1714. In 1719, Balaji Vishwanath, at the head of a Maratha force, accompanied Saiyid Hussain Ali Khan to Delhi and helped the Saiyid brothers in overthrowing Farrukh Siyar. At Delhi he and the other Maratha sardars witnessed at first hand the weakness of the empire and were filled with the ambition of expansion in the north.

For the efficient collection of the chauth and sardeshmukhi of the Deccan, Balaji Vishwanath assigned separate areas to Maratha sardars who kept the greater part of the collection for their expenses. This system of assignment of the chauth and sardeshmukhi also enabled the Peshwa to increase his personal power through patronage. An increasing number of ambitious sardars began to flock round him. In the long run this was to be a major source of weakness to the Maratha Empire. Already the system of watans and saranjams (jagirs) had made the Maratha sardars strong, autonomous, and jealous of central power. They now began to establish their control in the distant lands of the Mughal empire where they gradually settled down as more or less autonomous chiefs. Thus the conquests of the Marathas outside their original kingdom were not made by a central army directly controlled by the Maratha king or the Peshwa but by sardars with their own private armies. During the process of conquest these sardars often clashed with one another. If the central authority tried to control them too strictly, they did not hesitate to join hands with enemies, be they the Nizam, the Mughals, or the English.

Balaji Vishwanath died in 1720. He was succeeded as Peshwa by his 20-year-old son Baji Rao I. In spite of his youth, Baji Rao was a bold and brilliant commander and an ambitious and clever statesman. He has been described as “the greatest exponent of guerrilla tactics after Shivaji”. Led by Baji Rao, the Marathas waged numerous campaigns against the Mughal Empire trying to compel the Mughal officials first to give them the right to collect the chauth of vast areas and then to cede these areas to the Maratha kingdom. By 1740, when Baji Rao died, the Marathas had won control over Malwa, Gujarat, and parts of Bundelkhand. The Maratha families of Gaekwad, Holkar, Sindhia, and Bhonsle came into prominence during this period.

All his life Baji Rao worked to contain Nizam-ul-Mulk’s power in the Deccan. The latter, on his part, constantly intrigued with the Raja of Kolhapur, the Maratha sardars and Mughal officials to weaken the Peshwa’s authority. Twice the two met on the field of battle and both times the Nizam was worsted and was compelled to grant the Marathas the chauth and sardeshmukhi of the Deccan provinces.

In 1733, Baji Rao started a long campaign against the Sidis of Janjira and in the end expelled them from the mainland. Simultaneously, a campaign against the Portuguese was started. In the end Salsette and Bassein were captured. But the Portuguese continued to hold their other possessions on the west coast.

Baji Rao died in April 1740. In the short period of 20 years he had changed the character of the Maratha state. From the kingdom of Maharashtra it had been transformed into an empire expanding in the north. He, however, failed to lay firm foundations of an empire. New territories were conquered and occupied but little attention was paid to their administration. The chief concern of the successful sardars was with the collection of revenues.

Baji Rao’s 18-year-old son Balaji Baji Rao (known more widely as Nana Saheb) was the Peshwa from 1740 to 1761. He was as able as his father though less energetic. King Shahu died in 1749 and by his will left the management of state affairs in the Peshwa’s hands. The office of the Peshwa had already become hereditary and the Peshwa was the de facto ruler of the state. Now he became the official head of the administration and, as a symbol of this fact, shifted the government to Poona, his headquarters.

Balaji Baji Rao followed in the footsteps of his father and further extended the empire in different directions taking Maratha power to its height. Maratha armies now overran the whole of India. Maratha control over Malwa, Gujarat and Bundelkhand was consolidated. Bengal was repeatedly invaded and, in 1751, the Bengal Nawab had to cede Orissa. In the South, the state of Mysore and other minor principalities were forced to pay tribute. In 1760, the Nizam of Hyderabad was defeated at Udgir and compelled to cede vast territories yielding an annual revenue of Rs 62 lakh. In the north, the Marathas soon became the power behind the Mughal throne. Marching through the Gangetic Doab and Rajputana they reached Delhi where, in 1752, they helped Imad-ul-Mulk to become the wazir. The new wazir soon became a puppet in their hands. From Delhi they turned to the Punjab and soon brought it under control after expelling the agent of Ahmad Shah Abdali. This brought them into conflict with the doughty warrior-king of Afghanistan, who once again marched into India to settle accounts with the Maratha power.

A major conflict for mastery over north India now began. Ahmad Shah Abdali soon formed an alliance with Najib-ud-Daulah of Rohilkhand and Shuja-ud-Daulah of Awadh, both of whom had suffered at the hands of the Maratha sardars. Recognising the great importance of the coming struggle, the Peshwa despatched a powerful army to the north under the nominal command of his minor son, the actual command being in the hands of his cousin Sadashiv Rao Bhau. An important arm of this force was a contingent of European-style infantry and artillery commanded by Ibrahim Khan Gardi. The Marathas now tried to find allies among the northern powers. But their earlier behaviour and political ambitions had antagonised all these powers. They had interfered in the internal affairs of the Rajputana states and levied huge fines and tributes upon them. They had made large territorial and monetary claims upon Awadh. Their actions in the Punjab had angered the Sikh chiefs. Similarly, the Jat chiefs, on whom they had also imposed heavy fines, did not trust them. They had, therefore, to fight their enemies all alone, except for the weak support of Imad-ul-Mulk. Moreover, the senior Maratha commanders constantly bickered with one another.

The two forces met at Panipat on 14 January 1761. The Maratha army was completely routed. The Peshwa’s son, Vishwas Rao, Sadashiv Rao Bhau and numerous other Maratha commanders perished on the battlefield as did nearly 28,000 soldiers. Those who fled were pursued by the Afghan cavalry and robbed and plundered by the Jats, Ahirs, and Gujars of the Panipat region.

The Peshwa, who was marching north to help his cousin, was stunned by the tragic news. Already seriously ill, his end was hastened and he died in June 1761.

The Maratha defeat at Panipat was a disaster for them. They lost the cream of their army and their political prestige suffered a big blow. Most of all, their defeat gave an opportunity to the English East India Company to consolidate its power in Bengal and south India. Nor did the Afghans benefit from their victory. They could not even hold the Punjab. In fact, the Third Battle of Panipat did not decide who was to rule India but rather who was not. The way was, therefore, cleared for the rise of the British power in India.

The 17-year-old Madhav Rao became the Peshwa in 1761. He was a talented soldier and statesman. Within the short period of 11 years, he restored the lost fortunes of the Maratha empire. He defeated the Nizam, compelled Haidar Ali of Mysore to pay tribute, and reasserted control over northern India by defeating the Rohelas and subjugating the Rajput states and Jat chiefs. In 1771, the Marathas brought back Emperor Shah Alam to Delhi, who now became their pensioner. Thus it appeared as if Maratha ascendancy in the north had been recovered.

Once again, however, a blow fell on the Marathas for Madhav Rao died of consumption in 1772. The Maratha empire was now in a state of confusion. At Poona, there was a struggle for power between Raghunath Rao, the younger brother of Balaji Baji Rao, and Narayan Rao, the younger brother of Madhav Rao. Narayan Rao was killed in 1773. He was succeeded by his posthumous son, Sawai Madhav Rao. Out of frustration, Raghunath Rao went over to the British and tried to capture power with their help. This resulted in the First Anglo-Maratha War.

The Peshwa’s power was now on the wane. At Poona there was constant intrigue between the supporters of Sawai Madhav Rao, headed by Nana Phadnis, and the partisans of Raghunath Rao. In the meantime, the big Maratha sardars had been carving out semi-independent states in the north, which could seldom cooperate. Gaekwad at Baroda, Bhonsle at Nagpur, Holkar at Indore and Sindhia at Gwalior were the most important. They had established regular administrations on the pattern of Mughal administration and possessed their separate armies. Their allegiance to the Peshwas became more and more nominal. Instead they joined opposing factions at Poona and intrigued with the enemies of the Maratha Empire.

Among the Maratha rulers in the North, Mahadji Sindhia was the most important. He organised a powerful European style army, consisting equally of Hindu and Muslim soldiers, with the help of French and Portuguese officers and gunners. He established his own ordnance factories near Agra. He established control over Emperor Shah Alam in 1784. From the emperor he secured the appointment of the Peshwa as the Emperor’s Deputy (Naib-i-Munaib) on the condition that Mahadji would act on behalf of the Peshwa. But he spent his energies intriguing against Nana Phadnis. He was also a bitter enemy of Holkar of Indore. He died in 1794. He and Nana Phadnis, who died in 1800, were the last of the great soldiers and statesmen who had raised the Maratha power to its height in the eighteenth century.

Sawai Madhav Rao died in 1795 and was succeeded by the utterly worthless Baji Rao II, son of Raghunath Rao. The British had by now decided to put an end to the Maratha challenge to their supremacy in India. The British divided the mutually warring Maratha sardars through clever diplomacy and then overpowered them in separate battles during the second Maratha War, 1803–05, and the Third Maratha War, 1816–19. While other Maratha states were permitted to remain as subsidiary states, the house of the Peshwas was extinguished.

Thus, the Maratha dream of controlling the Mughal empire and establishing their own empire over large parts of the country could not be realised. This was basically because the Maratha empire represented the same decadent social order as the Mughal empire did and suffered from the same underlying weaknesses. The Maratha chiefs were very similar to the later Mughal nobles, just as the saranjami system was similar to the Mughal system of jagirs. So long as there existed a strong central authority and the need for mutual cooperation against a common enemy, the Mughals, they remained united in a loose union. But at the first opportunity they tended to assert their autonomy. If anything, they were even less disciplined than the Mughal nobles. Nor did the Maratha sardars try to develop a new economy. They failed to encourage science and technology or to take much interest in trade and industry. Their revenue system was similar to that of the Mughals as also was their administration. Like the Mughals, the Maratha rulers were also mainly interested in raising revenue from the helpless peasantry. For example, they too collected nearly half of the agricultural produce as tax. Unlike the Mughals, they failed even to give sound administration to the people outside Maharashtra. They could not inspire the Indian people with any higher degree of loyalty than the Mughals had succeeded in doing. Their dominion, too, depended on force and force alone. The only way the Marathas could have stood up to the rising British power was to have transformed their state into a modern state. This they failed to do.

Social and Economic Conditions of The People

India of the eighteenth century failed to make progress economically, socially or culturally at an adequate pace. The increasing revenue demands of the state, the oppression of the officials, the greed and rapacity of the nobles, revenue-farmers and zamindars, the marches and counter-marches of the rival armies, and the depredations of the numerous adventurers roaming the land made the life of the people quite wretched.

India of those days was also a land of contrasts. Extreme poverty existed side by side with extreme riches and luxury. On the one hand, there were the rich and powerful nobles steeped in luxury and comfort, on the other, backward, oppressed and impoverished peasants living at the bare subsistence level and having to bear all sorts of injustices and inequities. Even so, the life of the Indian masses was by and large better at this time than it was after over hundred years of British rule at the end of the nineteenth century.

Indian agriculture during the eighteenth century was technically backward and stagnant. The techniques of production had remained stationary for centuries. The peasant tried to make up for technical backwardness by working very hard. He, in fact, performed miracles of production; moreover, he did not usually suffer from shortage of land. But, unfortunately, he seldom reaped the fruits of his labour. Even though it was his produce that supported the rest of the society, his own reward was miserably inadequate. The state, the zamindars, the jagirdars, and the revenue-farmers tried to extract the maximum amount from him. This was as true of the Mughal state as of the Maratha or Sikh chiefs or other successors of the Mughal state.

Even though Indian villages were largely self-sufficient and imported little from outside and the means of communication were backward, extensive trade within the country and between India and other countries of Asia and Europe was carried on under the Mughals. India imported pearls, raw silk, wool, dates, dried fruits, and rose water from the Persian Gulf; coffee, gold, drugs, and honey from Arabia; tea, sugar, porcelain, and silk from China; gold, musk and woollen cloth from Tibet; tin from Singapore; spices, perfumes, arrack, and sugar from the Indonesian islands; ivory, and drugs from Africa; and woollen cloth, metals such as copper, iron, and lead, and paper from Europe. India’s most important article of export was its cotton textiles which were famous all over the world for their excellence and were in demand everywhere. India also exported raw silk and silk fabrics, hardware, indigo, saltpetre, opium, rice, wheat, sugar, pepper and other spices, precious stones, and drugs.

Since India was on the whole self-sufficient in handicrafts and agricultural products, it did not import foreign goods on a large scale. On the other hand, its industrial and agricultural products had a steady market abroad. Consequently, it exported more than it imported and its trade was balanced by import of silver and gold. In fact, India was known as a sink of precious metals.

Historians differ on the state of internal and foreign trade during the pre-colonial period of the eighteenth century. According to the dominant view, constant warfare and disruption of law and order in many areas during the eighteenth century harmed the country’s internal trade. Many trading centres were looted by the contestants for power and by foreign invaders. Many of the trade routes were infested with organised bands of robbers, and traders and their caravans were regularly looted. Even the road between the two imperial cities, Delhi and Agra, was made unsafe by the marauders. Moreover, with the rise of autonomous provincial regimes and innumerable local chiefs, the number of custom houses or chowkies grew by leaps and bounds. Every petty or large ruler tried to increase his income by imposing heavy customs duties on goods entering or passing through his territories. All these factors had an injurious effect on long-distance trade. The impoverishment of the nobles, who were the largest consumers of luxury products in which trade was conducted, also injured internal trade. Other historians believe that the effect of political changes and warfare on internal trade has generally been exaggerated. The impact on foreign trade was also complex and differential. While sea trade expanded, overland trade through Afghanistan and Persia was disrupted.

Political factors which hurt trade also adversely affected urban industries. Many prosperous cities, centres of flourishing industry, were sacked and devastated. Delhi was plundered by Nadir Shah; Lahore, Delhi and Mathura by Ahmad Shah Abdali; Agra by the Jats; Surat and other cities of Gujarat and the Deccan by Maratha chiefs; Sarhind by the Sikhs, and so on. Similarly, in some areas artisans catering to the needs of the feudal class and the court suffered as the fortunes of their patrons declined, leading to the decline of cities like Agra and Delhi. The decline of internal and foreign trade also hit them hard in some parts of the country. Nevertheless, some industries in other parts of the country gained as a result of expansion in trade with Europe owing to the activities of the European trading companies. Moreover, the emergence of new courts and local nobility and zamindars led to the emergence of new cities such as Faizabad, Lucknow, Varanasi and Patna and the recovery, to some extent, of production by artisans.

Even so, India remained a land of extensive manufactures. Indian artisans still enjoyed fame all the world over for their skill. India was still a large-scale manufacturer of cotton and silk fabrics, sugar, jute, dye-stuffs, mineral and metallic products like arms, metalware, and saltpetre and oils. The important centres of the textile industry were Dacca and Murshidabad in Bengal; Patna in Bihar; Surat, Ahmedabad and Broach in Gujarat; Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh; Burhanpur in Maharashtra; Jaunpur, Varanasi, Lucknow and Agra in U.P.; Multan and Lahore in the Punjab; Masulipatam, Aurangabad, Chicacole and Vishakhapatnam in Andhra; Bangalore in Karnataka; and Coimbatore and Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Kashmir was a centre of woollen manufactures. Ship-building industry flourished in Maharashtra, Andhra and Bengal. Writing about the great skill of Indians in this respect, an English observer wrote: “in ship-building they probably taught the English far more than they learnt from them.” The European companies bought many Indian-made ships for their use.

In fact, at the dawn of the eighteenth century, India was one of the main centres of world trade and industry. Peter the Great of Russia was led to exclaim: “Bear in mind that the commerce of India is the commerce of the world and … he who can exclusively command it is the dictator of Europe.”

Once again, historians disagree whether there was overall economic decline as a result of the decay of the Mughal empire and the rise of a large number of autonomous states or whether trade and agricultural and handicraft production continued to grow in some parts of India while they were disrupted and declined in others, with overall trade and production not suffering any sharp decline. But, in fact, the question is not of some progress here and some decline there but of basic economic stagnation. While the Indian economy was quite resilient and there was a certain continuity in economic life, there was no greater effervescence or buoyancy in economic activities in the eighteenth century than what was there in the seventeenth century. On the other hand, there was a definitely declining trend. At the same time, it is true that there was less economic distress or decline in agricultural and handicraft production in the Indian states of the eighteenth century than what was to result from the impact of British colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Education was not completely neglected in eighteenth-century India. But it was on the whole defective. It was traditional and out of touch with the rapid developments in the West. The knowledge which it imparted was confined to literature, law, religion, philosophy and logic, and excluded the study of physical and natural sciences, technology and geography. Nor did it concern itself with a factual and rational study of society. In all fields original thought was discouraged and reliance placed on ancient learning.

The centres of higher education were spread all over the country and were usually financed by nawabs, rajas, and rich zamindars. Among the Hindus, higher education was based on Sanskrit learning and was mostly confined to brahmins. Persian education being based on the official language of the time was equally popular among both Hindus and Muslims.

Elementary education was quite widespread. Among the Hindus it was imparted through town and village schools while among the Muslims through the Maulvis in maktabs situated in mosques. In these schools the young students were taught reading, writing and arithmetic. Though elementary education was mostly confined to the higher castes like brahmins, Rajputs and vaishyas, many persons from the lower castes also often received it. Interestingly enough, the average literacy was not less than what it was under the British later. Warren Hastings even wrote in 1813 that Indians had in general “superior endowments in reading, writing and arithmetic than the common people of any nation in Europe.” Though the standard of primary education was inadequate by modern standards, it sufficed for the limited purposes of those days. A very pleasant aspect of education then was that the teachers enjoyed high prestige in the community. A bad feature of it was that girls were seldom given education, though some women of the higher classes were an exception.

Social and Cultural Life

Social life and culture in the eighteenth century were marked by stagnation and dependence on the past. Despite a certain broad cultural unity that had developed over the centuries, there was no uniformity of culture and social patterns all over the country. Nor did all Hindus and all Muslims form two distinct societies. People were divided by religion, region, tribe, language and caste. Moreover, the social life and culture of the upper classes, who formed a tiny minority of the total population, was in many respects different from the life and culture of the lower classes.

Caste was the central feature of the social life of the Hindus. Apart from the four varnas, Hindus were divided into numerous castes (jatis) which differed in their nature from place to place. The caste system rigidly divided people and permanently fixed their place in the social scale. The higher castes, headed by the brahmins, monopolised all social prestige and privileges. Caste rules were extremely rigid. Inter-caste marriages were forbidden. There were restrictions on inter-dining among members of different castes. In some cases persons belonging to the higher castes would not take food touched by persons of the lower castes. Castes often determined the choice of profession, though exceptions occurred on a large scale. For example, brahmins were involved in trade and government service and held zamindaris. Similarly, many shudras achieved worldly success and wealth and used them to seek higher ritual and caste ranking in society. Similarly, in many parts of the country, caste status had become quite fluid. Caste regulations were strictly enforced by caste councils and panchayats and caste chiefs through fines, penances (prayaschitya) and expulsion from the caste. Caste was a major divisive force and element of disintegration in eighteenth century India. It often split Hindus living in the same village or region into many social atoms. It was, of course, possible for a person to acquire a higher social status by the acquisition of high office or power, as did the Holkar family in the eighteenth century. Sometimes, though not often, an entire caste would succeed in raising itself in the caste hierarchy.

Muslims were no less divided by considerations of caste, race, tribe and status, even though their religion enjoined social equality on them. The Shia and Sunni nobles were sometimes at loggerheads on account of their religious differences. The Irani, Afghan, Turani and Hindustani Muslim nobles and officials often stood apart from one another. A large number of Hindus who had converted to Islam carried their caste into the new religion and observed its distinctions, though not as rigidly as before. Moreover, the sharif Muslims consisting of nobles, scholars, priests and army officers looked down upon the ajlaf Muslims or the lower-class Muslims in a manner similar to that adopted by the higher-caste Hindus towards the lower-caste Hindus.

The family system in eighteenth-century India was primarily patriarchal, that is, the family was dominated by the senior male member and inheritance was through the male line. In Kerala, however, the family among Nairs was matrilineal. Outside Kerala, women were subjected to nearly complete male control. They were expected to live as mothers and wives only, though in these roles they were shown a great deal of respect and honour. Even during war and anarchy women were seldom molested and were treated with respect. A European traveller Abbe J.A. Dubois commented at the beginning of the nineteenth century: “A Hindu woman can go anywhere alone, even in the most crowded places, and she need never fear the impertinent looks and jokes of idle loungers. … A house inhabited solely by women is a sanctuary which the most shameless libertine would not dream of violating.” But the women of the time possessed little individuality of their own. This does not mean that there were no exceptions to this rule. Ahilya Bai administered Indore with great success from 1766 to 1796. Many other Hindu and Muslim ladies played important roles in eighteenth-century politics. While women of the upper classes were not supposed to work outside their homes, peasant women usually worked in the fields and women of the poorer classes often worked outside their homes to supplement the family income. The purdah was common mostly among the higher classes in the north. It was not practised in the south.

Boys and girls were not permitted to mix with one another. All marriages were arranged by the heads of the families. Men were permitted to have more than one wife but, except the well-off, they normally had only one. On the other hand, a woman was expected to marry only once in her lifetime. The custom of early marriage prevailed all over the country. Sometimes children were married when they were only three or four years of age.

Among the upper classes, the evil customs of incurring heavy expenses on marriages and of giving dowry to the bride prevailed. The evil of dowry was especially widespread in Bengal and Rajputana. In Maharashtra it was curbed to some extent by energetic steps taken by the Peshwas.

Two great social evils of eighteenth-century India, apart from the caste system, were the custom of sati and the condition of the widows. Sati involved the rite of a Hindu widow burning herself along with the body of her dead husband. It was mostly prevalent in Rajputana, Bengal and other parts of northern India. In the south it was uncommon and the Marathas did not encourage it. Even in Rajputana and Bengal it was practised only by the families of rajas, chiefs, big zamindars and upper castes. Widows belonging to the higher classes and higher castes could not remarry, though in some regions and in some castes, for example, among non-brahmins in Maharashtra, the Jats and people of the hill-regions of the north, widow remarriage was quite common. The lot of the Hindu widow was usually pitiable. There were all sorts of restrictions on her clothing, diet, movements, etc. In general, she was expected to renounce all the pleasures of the world and to serve selflessly the members of her husband’s or her brother’s family, depending on where she spent the remaining years of her life. Sensitive Indians were often touched by the hard and harsh life of the widows. Raja Sawai Jai Singh of Amber and the Maratha General Prashuram Bhau tried to promote widow remarriage but failed.

Culturally, India showed some signs of exhaustion during the eighteenth century, but the eighteenth century was no Dark Age. Creativity of the people continued to find expression, cultural continuity with the preceding centuries was maintained and local traditions continued to evolve. At the same time, culture remained wholly traditionalist. Cultural activities of the time were mostly financed by the Royal Court, rulers and nobles, chiefs and zamindars whose impoverishment led to their gradual neglect. The most rapid decline occurred precisely in those branches of the arts which depended on the patronage of kings, princes and nobles. This was true most of all of Mughal architecture and painting. Many of the painters of the Mughal school migrated to provincial courts and flourished at Hyderabad, Lucknow, Kashmir and Patna. At the same time new schools of painting were born and achieved distinction. The paintings of the Kangra and Rajputana schools revealed new vitality and taste. In the field of architecture, the Imambara of Lucknow reveals proficiency in technique but a decadence in architectural taste. On the other hand, the city of Jaipur and its buildings are an example of continuing vigour. Music continued to develop and flourish in the eighteenth century both in the north and the south. Significant progress was made in this field in the reign of Muhammad Shah.

Poetry in nearly all the Indian languages tended to lose its touch with life and become decorative, artificial, mechanical and traditional. Its pessimism reflected the prevailing sense of despair and cynicism, while its content reflected the impoverishment of the spiritual life of its patrons, the feudal nobles and kings.

A noteworthy feature of the literary life of the eighteenth century was the spread of the Urdu language and the vigorous growth of Urdu poetry. Urdu gradually became the medium of social intercourse among the upper classes of northern India. While Urdu poetry shared the weaknesses of contemporary literature in other Indian languages, it produced brilliant poets like Mir, Sauda, Nazir and, in the nineteenth century, that great genius Mirza Ghalib. Hindi, too, was developing throughout the century.

Similarly, there was a revival of Malayalam literature, especially under the patronage of the Travancore rulers Martanda Varma and Rama Varma. One of the great poets of Kerala Kunchan Nambiar, who wrote popular poetry in the language of daily usage, lived at this time. Eighteenth-century Kerala also witnessed the full development of Kathakali literature, drama and dance. The Padmanabhapuram palace with its remarkable architecture and mural paintings was also constructed in the eighteenth century.

Tayaumanavar (1706–44) was one of the best exponents of sittar poetry in Tamil. In line with other sittar poets, he protested against the abuses of temple-rule and the caste system. Music, poetry and dance flourished undter the patronage of the Tanjore court in the first half of the eighteenth century. In Assam, literature developed under the patronage of the Ahom kings. Dayaram, one of the great lyricists of Gujarat, wrote during the second half of the eighteenth century. Heer Ranjha, the famous romantic epic in Punjabi, was composed at this time by Warris Shah. For Sindhi literature, the eighteenth century was a period of enormous achievement. Shah Abdul Latif composed his famous collection of poems, Risalo. Sachal and Sami were the other great Sindhi poets of this century.

The main weakness of Indian culture lay in the field of science. Throughout the eighteenth century, India remained far behind the West in science and technology. For the last 200 years western Europe had been undergoing a scientific and economic revolution that was leading to a spate of inventions and discoveries. The scientific outlook was gradually pervading the Western mind and revolutionising the philosophical, political and economic outlook of the Europeans and their institutions. On the other hand, the Indians, who had in earlier ages made vital contributions to the fields of mathematics and natural sciences, had been neglecting the sciences for several centuries. The Indian mind was still tied to tradition; both the nobles and the common people were superstitious to a high degree. The Indians remained almost wholly ignorant of the scientific, cultural, political and economic achievements of the West; they failed to respond to the European challenge. The eighteenth-century Indian rulers showed little interest in things Western except in their weapons of war and techniques of military training. Except Tipu, they were content with the ideological apparatus they had inherited from the Mughals and other sixteenth-and seventeenth-century rulers. There were, of course, some intellectual stirrings—no people or culture can be totally stagnant. Some changes and advances in technology were being made, but their pace was very slow and their scope severely limited, so that on the whole they were negligible compared to advances in western Europe. This weakness in the realm of science was to a large extent responsible for the total subjugation of India by the most advanced country of the time.

The struggle for power and wealth, economic decline, social backwardness and cultural stagnation had a deep and harmful impact on the morals of a section of the Indian people. The nobles, in particular, degenerated in their private and public life. The virtues of loyalty, gratitude and faithfulness to their pledged word tended to disappear in the single-minded pursuit of selfish aims. Many of the nobles fell prey to degrading vices and excessive luxury. Most of them took bribes when in office. Surprisingly enough, the common people were not debased to any marked extent. They continued to exhibit a high degree of personal integrity and morality. For example, the well-known British official John Malcolm remarked in 1821:

I do not know the example of any great population, in similar circumstances, preserving through such a period of changes and tyrannical rule, so much virtue and so many qualities as are to be found in a great proportion of the inhabitants of this country.

In particular, he praised “the absence of the common vices of theft, drunkenness, and violence.” Similarly, Cranford, another European writer, observed:

Their rules of morality are most benevolent: and hospitality and charity are not only strongly inculcated but I believe nowhere more universally practised than amongst Hindus.

Friendly relations between the Hindus and Muslims were a very healthy feature of life in eighteenth-century India. Even though the nobles and chiefs of the time fought one another incessantly, their fights and their alliances were seldom based on distinctions of religion. In other words, their politics were essentially secular. In fact, there was little communal bitterness or religious intolerance in the country. All people, high or low, respected one another’s religion and a spirit of tolerance, even harmony, prevailed. “The mutual relations of Hindus and Muslims were those of brothers among brothers.” This was particularly true of the common people in the villages and towns who fully shared one another’s joys and sorrows, irrespective of religious affiliations.

The Hindus and the Muslims cooperated in non-religious spheres such as social life and cultural affairs. The evolution of a composite Hindu-Muslim culture, or of common ways and attitudes, continued unimpeded. Hindu writers often wrote in Persian while Muslim writers wrote in Hindi, Bengali and other vernaculars, often dealing with subjects of Hindu social life and religion, such as Radha and Krishna, Sita and Ram, and Nal and Damyanti. The development of Urdu language and literature provided a new meeting ground between Hindus and Muslims.

Even in the religious sphere, the mutual influence and respect that had been developing in the last few centuries as a result of the spread of the Bhakti Movement among Hindus and Sufism among Muslims continued to grow. A large number of Hindus worshipped Muslim saints and many Muslims showed equal veneration for Hindu gods and saints. Many local cults and shrines had both Hindu and Muslim followers. Muslim rulers nobles and commoners joyfully joined in the Hindu festivals such as Holi, Diwali and Qurga Puja, just as Hindus participated in the Muharram processions and Hindu officials and zamindars presided at other Muslim festivals. The Marathas supported the shrine of Shaikh Muinuddin Chishti in Ajmer and the Raja of Tanjore supported the shrine of Shaikh Shahul Hamid of Nagore. We have already seen how Tipu gave financial support to the Shringeri Temple as also to other temples. It is noteworthy that Raja Rammohun Roy, the greatest Indian of the first half of the nineteenth century, was influenced in an equal measure by the Hindu and Islamic philosophical and religious systems.

It may also be noted that religious affiliation was not the main point of departure in cultural and social life. The ways of life of upper-class Hindus and Muslims converged much more than the ways of life of upper-class and lower-class Hindus or of upper-class and lower-class Muslims. Similarly, regions or areas provided points of departure. People of one region had far greater cultural synthesis, irrespective of religion, than people following the same religion spread over different regions. People living in the villages also tended to have a different pattern of social and cultural life than that of the town dwellers.

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