Posts Tagged ‘mughal empire’

Having set out, at some length, the received wisdom on a variety of
issues concerning the study of the Mughal state, let us consider how
recent western writings part company with it. A major issue is clearly
chronology, or proposition no. 1, as we have set it out above. It is
certainly worth considering that the pre-Akbar period may have had a
greater significance than usually given to it. It. could be argued, for

example, following the lead of Iqtidar Husain Siddiqui and more recently
Mohibbul Hasan, that the period of Lodi rule, running into the reign of
Babur, already showed signs of a new dynamic where the state-building
process was concerned; In the case of Douglas Streusand The Formation of the Mughal Empire, the title .. itself gives a clue to his views on the matter. For him the ’formation
of the Mughal empire’ took place under Akbar, and the earlier period can
be dealt with quite summarily (Babur and Humayun merit only a few
paragraphs, pp. 36-37). Again, for Stephen Blake, the pre-Shahjahanabad
history of Delhi (including Humayun’s use of the centre for his court) can
equally be given short shrift, and the significance of the fact that the site
was repeatedly used, with intervals, is thus lost sight of. In so doing, both
writers implicitly suggest that the real history of the Mughal state began
with Akbar.

Why were the reigns of Babur and Humayun, as indeed of the Afghan
Sher Shah (who though not Mughal, dynastically speaking, does form a
part of the epoch considered to be ’Mughal’ in north Indian history) so
unimportant? As articulated by Iqtidar Alam Khan in a brief, but rather
well-known, article, the principal reason for this lay in the realm of state
structure and the internal balance of power. He argued, against an earlier
interpretation by R.P. Tripathi, that just as the Afghan states in northern
India had contained an inbuilt tendency to fragmentation, so too the
Timurid polity discouraged centralisation on account of its ’Mongol characteristics’.
These characteristics manifested themselves above all in terms
of the relations between the Timurid royalty and the nobility, which was
governed by customary laws derived from Chinggis Khan (yasa-yi Chingezi or türa-yi Chingezil. According to these traditions, it is argued, sovereignty was a shared attribute of the lineage, rather than exclusively held by a
single ruler. Succession therefore led inevitably to appanage formation,
which thus prevented the emergence of a strong ruler. Equally, the absence of
a substantive bureaucratic tradition among the Timurids is also seen as
setting sharp limits to the possibilities of centralisation. This, then, is the
background as to why Humayun faced challenges from his nobility and
siblings (especially Mirza Kamran) in 1538-41 and 1545-53. In turn, only
Akbar, rejecting Mongol traditions and embracing more ’the traditions and
practice evolved under Turkish rulers of the thirteenth and fourteenth
century’, managed ’the transformation of the Mughal Empire into a highly
sophisticated despotism’. 

Such an argument, which is accepted in substance (with some minor
modifications) by Streusand, could in fact be reconsidered from various
perspectives. First, even though Timur’s empire fragmented after his
death, there now appears to be a consensus that he did manage a significant
transition from the relatively loose structure of the Chaghatay
Khanate to a far more centralised and autocratic structure. This he did
because in part he claimed to combine Chinggis Khanid tradition with
divine sanction; thus, he declared as early as 1361 that what underpinned
his rule was ’the Celestial Decree and Chinggis Khanid law’ (yarli~h-i
dsamdni wa türa-yi Chingïzkhänï
), and the former could presumably be
used to overrule the latter at times.’ Second, as Streusand too points out,
the bureaucratic tradition was by no means absent among Timur and the
Timurids, who made extensive use of bureaucrats steeped in Persian culture
(including, not least of all, their chroniclers); But most serious of all is the
neglect of a major struggle that was fought out between the 1560s and the
mid-1580s, which could be used to test this theory of a significant transition
between Humayun and Akbar. Here, I refer to Akbar’s relations with his
half-brother Mirza Muhammad Hakim (1554-85), which receive but cursory
attention from Streusand, as they have from earlier writers.

Mirza Hakim was born relatively late in Humayun’s life, his mother
being Mah Chuchak Begam. Through most of his life, he remained associated
with a particular region of what had been Humayun’s domain,
namely the area around Kabul. This fact itself is not devoid of significance;
Mirza Kamran had operated in much the same area, and as such it remained
poorly incorporated into Mughal territories. Now, unfortunately, we have
few sources that portray his struggle with Akbar from his perspective.
From the viewpoint of Akbar’s court, he was an embarrassment that had to
be explained away or glossed over. On two occasions, once in the late
1560s and again in the early 1580s, the latter strategy was not possible:
these were moments when he came to be allied with rebels within Akbar’s
domains, who had the khutba read in Mirza Hakim’s name in the course of

rebellions. On both occasions, Akbar had to move against him, but although
defeated, he was never set aside. Implicitly, then, Mirza Hakim’s hereditary
right to rule over Kabul was not challenged, and he appears to have
had a relatively free hand in organising revenue-assignments in the region, as well as in conducting negotiations with the Abulkhairi Uzbek state of
Mavarannahr, with the Safavids (who treated him as a sovereign ruler) and
with another Timurid potentate, Mirza Sulaiman. The latter, also a neglected
figure of the same epoch, was the ruler of Badakhshan, as well as
Mirza Hakim’s father-in-law; he eventually lost his territories to the
Uzbeks and become a mansabdar with the rank of 5,000 under Akbar,
dying in Lahore in 1589.

Now, even though Akbar’s chroniclers (and especially Abu’l Fazl) go to
some lengths to portray Mirza Hakim as an unruly subordinate of Akbar, it
is evident that his position was more complex. First, we may note that he is
never treated, even retrospectively, as a Mughal amir; his biography is thus
absent from Shahnawaz Khan’s Ma’asir ul-Umard, unlike that of Mirza
Sulaiman. There is also no clear evidence that he ever held a mansab; on
the contrary, several prominent mansabdars are described as men who had
come over to Akbar’s service after his half-brother’s death. In more senses
than one, therefore, Mirza Hakim represented an alternative power centre,
and an alternative focus of authority and patronage to Akbar; and
even if the challenge from him did not wholly mature, we cannot dismiss it
out of hand. The very fact that Abu’l Fazl himself reports a discussion in
Akbar’s court in the early 1580s. of a proposal to assassinate Mirza Hakim,
and thus end the threat from him once and for all, is highly suggestive. It
is therefore rather surprising that while devoting some attention to the
abortive challenge posed to Akbar by the other Mirzas, Streusand wholly ignores the significance of
Mirza Hakim’s challenge. In particular, given his claims to posing Mughal
history in a wider context, it would have been of interest to examine more
closely the perception of Akbar in western and central Asia vis-a-vis his
brother, through an examination of such texts as the celebrated Uzbek
chronicle of Tanish al-Bukhari, ’Abdullah Näma (or Sharaf Ninw-yi Shähl), as well as the diplomatic correspondence with the Safavids.

The issue of appanaging is, of course, only one dimension of the problem
of ’centralisation’. What were the major institutional novelties, which
permit us to assert that the Mughal state of Akbar, unlike that under his
predecessors, showed an ’extreme systematisation of administration’ (as
argued by Athar Ali, for example)? This would require us to consider in
some detail the extent to which the jagir as instituted by Akbar diverged in
reality from the wajh assignment under the Lodi Sultans, or the tuylil as
used by Babur and Humayun. We would also have to re-examine the
significance of the idea of the mansab, which older writers like Moreland
have seen as rooted in the earlier Mongol practice of numerical ranking (an
idea that is currently out of favour). In other words, rather than accept as

a postulate that Akbar’s institutions were created sui generis, we might
speak of an evolving tool-box of contemporary statecraft, from which a set
of institutions were improvised and partly innovated. This would enable
us, to start with, to place less of the burden of historical explanation on the
ruler’s ’genius’.

This, however, is not where Streusand’s interests lie. Rather, having
accepted as a postulate the notion of a sharp discontinuity in the nature of
the state between Akbar and his predecessors, his main thrust is two-fold.
First, he wishes to examine (in Chapter 3 of his book) whether Akbar’s
conquests and successful attempts at centralisation were the result of the
introduction of firearms-that is, the so-called ’Gunpowder Empires’
hypothesis of Marshall Hodgson. Second, having provided us in the
following chapter with a fairly conventional political history, dealing with
the years from 1556 to about 1570, Streusand devotes space to ’the definitive
reforms’ of Akbar, which dated to the years 1572-1580, when ’Akbar’s
empire became recognizably Mughal’ (p. 108). This requires a description
of mansabdari and a discussion of the mahzar of 1579, leading to the
development of the idea of an ’Akbari constitution’, to be inferred largely
from court-ritual, and Abu’l Fazl’s writings on sovereignty. On the basis of
an examination of court-ritual, Streusand attempts to demonstrate a rather
obvious point about the ’syncretic’ nature of the ideololgy under Akbar,
and his use of ’Hindu’ elements derived from earlier polities. All the while,
he stresses that his intention is not to bring to light new documentation, but
rather to read standard primary materials (such as Abu’l Fazl’s Akbar
, ’Abd al-Qadir al-Badaoni’s Muntakhäb ut-Tawdrikh, or Nizam al-Din
Ahmad’s Tabaqdt-i Akbari), as well as the secondary literature afresh.

 Concerning the ’Gunpowder Empires’ question, Streusand’s conclusions
do not wholly support Hodgson; he argues from brief descriptions of
Akbar’s sieges of Chitor, Ranthambor and Kalinjar that artillery played no
great role in his success in siege warfare. However, his later assertion
(p. 67) that ’firearms contributed to centralization, the distinguishing
characteristic of the gunpowder empires, in a more complex way’, winds up
confusing the issue. By his own admission, the Mughals at the second
battle of Panipat in 1556 ’apparently had no guns’ (p. 53); and guns are
seen as irrelevant in one of the only two other battles examined, Tukaroi
(1575), and Haldighati (1576). To argue, as Streusand does at one point,
that the ’narrow margin of victory’ in some of these battles ’shows that the
Mughals needed the combination of artillery and mounted archers to win
easy victories’ (p. 56) is a specious form of reasoning; what he in fact
needed to demonstrate were instances where firearms did indeed make a
great deal of difference. This he does not do, even in the case of Haldighati,
which in his own words ’meant nothing’ as an engagement anyway. At the
end of a thirty-page discussion, we are hence none the wiser on the

On the issue of the reforms of the 1570s and the ’Akbari constitution’,
Streusand concludes that the official ideology under Akbar did include
significant ’Hindu’ elements in it, and that this was because the Mughal state was hybrid-Islamic at the centre, but Hindu at the periphery: thus,
’an Ottoman Sultan would have found the central bureaucracy familiar; a
Chola Rajah would have understood the limited imperial role in the
provinces’. The conclusion therefore is that ’the Mughal government [w]as an imperial centre supported by a shifting structure of segments’.

It is only natural, in view of this, that towards his concluding paragraphs, as well as earlier in his book, Streusand pays obeisance to Burton Stein’s
’segmentary state’ formulation, arguing that it may not be wholly inappropriate
in the Mughal context (albeit with some modifications).  In
effect, the substance of his conclusion appears to be that despite having
undergone a process of centralisation, the Mughal state as a structure
remained, at the time of Akbar’s death, less centralised than say the
Ottoman state. This was, he argues, largely the result of the fact that in the.
years following the ’great revolt’ of 1580-82 in the eastern part of the
realm, ’Akbar compromised the principles of centralized government
which he and his closest advisers shared’ (p. 178). The result, in his view,
was the resort to the jagir system, and Streusand maintains that the failure
of centralising forces is clearly manifested in the execution in 1581 of
Khwaja Shah Mansur Shirazi, who had been appointed wazir in 1578, on
false accusations of rebellion (and loyalty to Mirza Hakim!) (pp. 166-70).


If we compare his monograph to the Aligarh paradigm outlined above,

then, Streusand appears to depart from it in certain respects. The extent of
Mughal power and the extractive nature of the post-Akbar state do not
come through as clearly in his work as in those other writings. Further, an
attempt is made to bring in ideological elements, as well as court-ritual, in
what is clearly the result of the influence of Chicago-based ’anthropological
history’. Again, the zabt
system, which Athar Ali has described as ’the characteristic institution of
Mughal revenue administration’, gets little space in his analysis, as indeed
do matters economic in general. The economic significance of the incorporation
of Gujarat, Bengal and Sind into the Mughal domains between
1570 and 1595, for example, is scarcely touched upon, and the focus
remains very much on imperial court and centre. This disregard for the
relationship between central state and region, and indeed for spatial
analysis in general, .. [other] formulations, discussed at
greater length below.

 –  Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “The Mughal state−−Structure or process? Reflections on recent western historiography.” Indian Economic Social History Review 29(3), 1992. pp. 297-303 

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Let us begin though by sketching very broadly the received wisdom and the
current state of the historiography on the Mughals. It is often stated that
modem studies of the Mughals are dominated by the ’Aligarh school’, a
statement that might itself be open to controversy. Is there an ’Aligarh
school’ in medieval Indian history? If so, what are the main propositions it
has put forward? A consideration of Medieval India-A Miscellany, an
occasional publication from the Centre for Advanced Study, Department
of History, Aligarh Muslim University, may leave the reader in doubt.’’ The Miscellany is precisely that, an eclectic collection of points of view; if

one thing dominates these essays, it is a basic reliance on Persian source
material, although even here there are some exceptions. And reliance on
sources in a particular language is scarcely enough to define a ’school’.

The ’Aligarh school’ may then partially be a misnomer (just like other
similar labels, such as the so-called ’Cambridge school’ of Indian history).
But what is normally meant when the term is used is something quite
precise, denoting an adherence to a particular set of propositions in relation
to the Mughal state and its interaction with the society of the time.
These propositions cannot be associated with all those who have contributed
to the Miscellany or who have been associated with Aligarh;
rather, the key writings are those of Irfan Habib, Athar Ali, Noman
Ahmad Siddiqi, Iqtidar Alam Khan, Shireen Moosvi, and–despite his
lack of formal attachment to Aligarh-Tapan Raychaudhuri. The writings
of K.A. Nizami or S.A.A. Rizvi cannot be seen as belonging to the same
approach as the above writers, nor can those of S. Nurul Hasan. In the
case of Satish Chandra, we must distinguish between his earlier writings
(which are of a piece with the views of Habib, Athar Ali et al.), and more
recent musings by him on the eighteenth century.

Having made this clear, let us examine the core propositions of the so-called
‘Aligarh school’. They, in my understanding, are as follows. 

1) On chronology: The main focus is on the period from Akbar to
Aurangzeb, which is to say 1556 to 1707. This is the period dealt with
for example in the major text produced by the ’school’; Irfan Habib’s
The Agrarian System of Mughal India [1556-1707} (Bombay, 1963). . Even within this period, the main focus is on the reigns of Akbar and
Aurangzeb themselves. This also means giving overwhelming importance to certain texts, of which the ’most favoured status’ is extended to the
A’in-i Akbari, of Abu’l Fazl, produced in the reign of Akbar. It is
argued moreover that the key Mughal institutions were put in place by
Akbar, and remained there under Jahangir and Shahjahan, only to
come under challenge during the reign of Aurangzeb. We note that

both the early period of Mughal rule (including both Babur’s and
Humayun’s reigns), and the post-Aurangzeb era, are given short shrift.’

2) The nature of power: The empire in the years under examination is
portrayed as a highly centralised and bureaucratised ’absolutism’. Such
however was apparently not the case under Babur and Humayun, nor
under Aurangzeb’s successors. Manifestations of this precocious
centralisation are in the Mughal revenue-system, mansabdari, the
coinage system, and the high degree of control exercised over society in
general, on which more below. 

3) Extractive character: The Mughal state is thought to have had a massive
impact on producers, extracting their surplus almost wholly. In
Raychaudhuri’s portrayal in The Cambridge Economic History of India,
the Mughal state was ’an insatiable Leviathan (with) … unlimited
appetite for resources’, which had the peasantry ’reduced to bare subsistence’.

4) Spendthrift elite: This extractive character implied in turn massive
concentration of resources in the hands of the elite. However, the
surplus extracted, it is argued, was used unproductively for conspicuous
consumption, including of imports. One of the reasons why technology
remained static was this elite attitude, which was lacking in scientific
curiosity and technological application.’ 

5) Irrelevance of ideology: ’Ideology’, usually read as ’religion’, may be
seen as largely irrelevant for purposes of historical analysis. The main
contradictions and tensions are to be viewed as structural, and flow
from the clash of interests rather than ideological perspectives. Even the
reasons for the curious elite ideology mentioned above (proposition 4) are not investigated, but treated as given. Part of the reason for this
appears to be the need to use certain selected texts quite literally, rather
than consider the possibility that they might be ideologically motivated.
The notion of the ’normative’ text thus does not feature in these
writings for the most part. 

6) Sterility of trade: This proposition appears to flow largely from (4).
Imports are seen as largely required to service elite consumption. Since
this position bears a close resemblance to the one espoused by eighteenthcentury
physiocratic literature, it is natural that the ’Aligarh school’
opposes its writings to those of ’bullionist’ historians, who it portrays as
praising trade because it brought precious metals into the economy. However, even for the ’Aligarh school’ trade may not be wholly irrelevant
in one specific sense. This is in terms of the potentially destabilising
effects of the bullion inflow through inflation in the seventeenth century,
the so-called ’Price Revolution’. 

7) Eighteenth-century decline: This proposition has, more than any other,
attracted attention, although not even all of the ’Aligarh school’ (as we
have defined it) have the same opinion on the question. Tapan Raychaudhuri,
for example, apparently does not subscribe to the view of
a decline in the economy in the eighteenth century, in his contributions
to the two volumes of the Cambridge Economic History of
.  Most fervently attached to the proposition are Athar Ali and
Irfan Habib, with the latter having first articulated his position in the
closing chapter of his Agrarian System. He argued there that the
system, whose very nature promoted short-term exploitation
of the peasantry, combined with other factors such as inflation to
provoke a ’crisis’, manifested in widespread peasant rebellions against
the Mughal state. This crisis came to a head already in the last years of
Aurangzeb’s reign, and continued through much of the eighteenth
century, leading to the generalised ’subversion of peasant agriculture’.
The eighteenth century was in his view a period when ’the gates were
opened to reckless rapine, anarchy and foreign conquest’.


Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “The Mughal state−−Structure or process? Reflections on recent western historiography.” Indian Economic Social History Review 29(3), 1992. pp. 293-296

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Nomadic horsepower and agrarian expansion.

Some of the major political
developments of Asian societies for our period can simply be traced to their common ecological
frontier between the arid and semi-arid nomadic horse-breeding areas and the wetter grain-
and rice-producing centres. What really strikes the careful observer when focusing on
Central Eurasia is the contiguous belt of relatively dry deserts and steppes that extends from
northern Africa to northern China. Although desert and steppe are different ecological
zones, supporting different nomadic economies, this so-called Arid Zone roughly indicates the
natural habitat of nomadic-pastoralism in general, and nomadic horse-breeding in
particular, and, as such, also denotes the natural range of operation of nomadic armies.

It shows, for example, that Central
Eurasia and Iran are the most liable to repeated horse-based
nomadic incursions. What it does not show, however, is that the Middle Eastern
deserts cannot support as many horses as Central Eurasia or northern Iran, an ecological fact
that determined the natural, thirteenth-century boundary between Mamluk and Mongolian power.  For similar reasons, the Carpathians
marked the far western European frontier of
nomadic armies. From the ecological point of view the
sharpest frontier between the predominantly nomadic Arid Zone and surrounding
sedentary economies occurs in China where the Great Wall neatly demarcates the transition
from steppes to sown. On the Indian subcontinent, the two semi-arid extensions flow into
the open jungle and scrub of the far east and deep south and make the transition far more
gradual, but at the same time, far more intrusive. These eastern and southern extensions
of the Arid Zone never occasioned the building of a defensive system like the Chinese
one, but instead, facilitated the creation of India’s ‘longue-dure’ road axis of northern
(uttarapatha) and southern highways (dakshinapatha). As a result, through these inner
frontiers-cum-limites , the humid but very productive South and East in India are more closely
linked to (semi-)nomadic Central Eurasia than is the humid and equally productive South in

Finally taking a look at the other end
of the Arid Zone, the transition between
Europe and Central Eurasia was in ecological and historical terms the least rigid, the
more so since the deciduous forests of Eastern Europe did not yet support the rich economic
and demographic centres so characteristic of the Indian subcontinent. Thus in India the
encounter between agrarian prosperity and nomadic dynamism is comparable to China but it
is also much less restricted to some external border as it is almost omnipresent (with the
exception of the coastal regions of the Southwest and in Orissa).

The ecological circumstances of the
Arid Zone can explain much of the degree of havoc the nomads of Central Eurasia produced
in its surrounding sedentary societies: at its greatest in the arid Middle East, Iran and
Russia, at its least in the more distant parts of Europe and Southeast Asia.  Perhaps, the most interesting middle
position is taken up by India and China. Beyond a very dynamic nomadic
frontier, both cover the world’s two richest medieval sedentary economies. Even more than
in the case of the Middle East, the post-nomadic Mughal and Manchu conquerors of these
regions were probably the most sensitive to ongoing forces of assimilation – the
same for indianization as for sinification – and in response were perhaps the most keen in
maintaining as well as reinventing their nomadic outlook and organization. They knew
perfectly well that only such a post-nomadic stance would enable them to get both cultural
and material access to the Central Eurasian supply-lines of nomadic warriors and

Eurasian horse-economies

The warhorse was the one essential
element of warfare that both the Indian and Chinese states could not produce in sufficient
numbers for their own need. What they lacked most were extensive grazing facilities,
especially in India’s east, south and southwest and in China’s southeast; those areas that
had experienced a medieval agricultural breakthrough on the basis of more intensive paddy
cultivation. In addition, like most of the hot and humid parts of Monsoon Asia, these areas
possessed a hostile disease and reproduction environment for the horse. Insufficient
grazing was not compensated by sufficient quantities of alternative and equally nutritious
fodder crops such as oats in Europe or barley in the Middle East, both of which integrated
horse-breeding more tightly with the agrarian economy and stimulated the breeding of
relatively high quality warhorses such as the European destrier, a mixture of indigenous with
Spanish and Arabian stock.

From the Mamluk experience, Masson Smith, Jr concludes
that although nomads can produce more horses, sedentary people can produce better
ones. In the Indian and Chinese cases,
indigenous horses of adequate quality were bred in
the drier areas of northern and central India, and northern and western China – but the
quality of the Indian and Chinese breeds remained critically dependent on regular
crossbreeding with Central Eurasian horses.  In terms of quantities, Turkish and Mongolian warhorses
tended to dominate the market but in southern India there was, especially during the
Bahmani sultanate and Vijayanagara (1300–1500), also an important influx of more
expensive Arabian and Iranian horses from overseas sources.

In this period, Ming China also
imported horses by sea – mainly from Southeast Asia but also from Bengal and further
west – but the quantities were far from sufficient to make a real impact on the total demand
for good warhorses.  Moreover, longer-distance overseas transport meant higher death
tolls and prices for horses; this was a problem even for India, and more so for China.
Anyway, during both Mughal and Manchu times the over- seas importation of horses declined
significantly.  The most important difficulty facing
sedentary horse breeders in India and China was the competition with other agrarian
activities that supported large populations. In India, for example, the busy agrarian
seasons allowed little time for haymaking. In northern Song China, a region of low economic
productivity and high population density, peasants tended to chip away at the fringes of
the government’s grasslands.

In the mid-Ming period many of the pastures earmarked for
horses were converted into manors and other private estates involving a shift from
pasturage to stable-breeding, which was accompanied by an increased burden of expenses for fodder
– rice- or millet-straw, black- or yellow-beans and other low-quality substitute forage
– which caused the quality of horses to deteriorate.  In general, the state authorities
proved reluctant to stimulate private production as they, for obvious reasons of security,
preferred to keep a close eye on both the production and the imports of warhorses. For this reason,
the Song and Ming, for example, tended to prefer a policy of self-sufficiency by
attempting to produce as many indigenous horses as possible. This policy usually failed, mainly
because limited space and bad climate prevented the production of a sufficient quality and
quantity of warhorses. During the Ming period, despite territorial control that encompassed
the most northern parts of China, the policy of private stock-farming that at first provided
the foundation of the dynasty’s horse supply was transformed in about a century into a
monetary tax used to buy horses from the Mongols. Thus, following the conclusions of Paul J.
Smith, ultimately any dynasty that did not possess substantial tracts of steppe land was
forced to buy horses from the pastoralists who did.

In and along the semi-arid extensions
of northern and central India, private, nomadic and semi-nomadic horse breeders often
had more favourable breeding conditions; these included better grazing facilities and
more contact with the breeding centres of Central Eurasia, Iran and the Middle East.
These mostly Afghan or west-Indian breeders supplied the studs of the political courts,
sometimes as revenue or tribute paid in kind but mostly through trade at market prices.
Although the Indian governments shared the horse anxieties of their Chinese counterparts,
horse-breeding remained closely associated with nomadic and semi-nomadic free grazing and,
nonetheless, remained a more durable and far more integrated part of the Indian agrarian
economy than in the case of China.

It should be noted, though, that
compared to any other part of the world, India and China not only imported but also
required far more warhorses – about 25–50,000 a year – as both regions encountered a far
more immediate nomadic threat. In both cases, there is no doubt whatsoever that the most,
and the best, warhorses came from abroad. Even more than breeding, however, the
interregional trade in warhorses involved enormous security risks for the settled political
authorities. For example, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb warned his purchasing officers in Kabul
to take care that the horse-traders imported their horses without riders. He knew
perfectly well that India had a tradition of large and small Afghan horse-traders leading armed
caravans eastwards and southwards across India, carving out principalities of their own,
or as in the case of the Lodi Afghans, perhaps even creating a true

In India, horse-traders could easily
turn into warlords and warlords easily turn into sultans. This is
also shown by the fact that many of the Delhi sultans started their careers as so-called
wardens of the marches ( marzban), i.e. as governors of the north-western border districts, which
not only had easy access to the horse-markets of the northwest but also experienced a
marked improvement of the horse-stock thanks to the recurrent Mongol incursions of the
thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. For the same reason, the Indian capital of Delhi
itself, in this case not unlike the Chinese capital of Beijing, developed as a kind of
frontier town that remained strategically close to these marches. For the sultans in Delhi, as for the
later Mughal emperors, the outside borders of the empire were relatively porous. What
they really controlled was not a well-defined external border but, at best, the main urban
centres, the agrarian heartlands surrounding and the main routes connecting these centres.
All this accounts for the specific Indian pattern of the horse trade: only at times of
relatively tight imperial control, horses were bought at border towns by imperial officers but,
in general, there always remained a vigorous private market, or actually a string of markets
which, following India’s two semi-arid extensions, stretched from the far northwest deep
into the east and south of the subcontinent, where the seasonable supplies of mostly
Afghan and, in the south also, Portuguese horse-traders could meet the combined imperial,
regional and local demand.

With respect to the horse trade the
Indian case appears to be somewhat similar to the Russian one. For Muscovy the Nogai –
a purely nomadic confederacy extending east from the Volga to the Irtush River in
Siberia – were an important source of warhorses; Muscovy being the main source of income for the
Nogai. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Nogai horse trade appears to have
been strictly controlled by the Russian authorities and took place at a designated site
near Moscow or in several Russian towns along the Volga. At this time, the Nogai traders
brought as many as 30–40,000 horses to the capital annually.  Hence, compared to the Indian
situation, the Nogai trade appears to be more centrally supervised, based on a more
direct, tribute-like, exchange between nomadic breeders and the government. By
contrast, in India we see well-functioning market-forces dominated by specialized
transfrontiersmen acting as intermediaries between nomadic supply and sedentary demand. It should
be no surprise that these wealthy intermediaries turned out to be far more threatening
to the political establishment than the Nogais, giving rise to that enduring Indian rivalry
between Afghans and Mughals.

Returning to the Chinese situation, the
contrasts are indeed striking. As indicated already with regard to breeding,
Chinese governments always attempted to confine the trade in horses to the place where they were
most needed, the western and northern frontiers. This trade mainly involved Chinese tea for
Mongolian horses. But the Chinese transported the tea from the interior to the borders
instead of having the barbarians bring their horses to the interior
(mainly Szechwan and Shensi). In this way, the government not only
anticipated tremendous security risks but also
avoided the expenses of lodging and feeding the barbarians on their trip through the interior.
After purchase, the horses were sent directly to the frontier garrisons. Under the Song,
horses from as far as Tibet were transported along a belt of relay posts that ran parallel
to the border. At the northern frontier, imported mares were transported to the royal pastures
or, in Ming times, to the non-governmental studs near Beijing and, sometimes, as far
south as Nanking. For reasons of security, the Manchus, who almost entirely depended on
imports, declined to procure their warhorses from the Zunghars, their main Mongol rivals, and
instead preferred to purchase their horses from the smaller Mongolian tribes
immediately beyond the Great Wall. The biggest security problem of the trade was only solved at
the second half of the eighteenth century when, following the conquest of modern-day
Sinkiang and Mongolia, these tribes were incorporated into the empire.

What is really striking in the Chinese
case, however, is not only the degree of supervision and command mobilization
through endless government bureaux, agencies and offices but also the rigid
demarcation between nomadic supply and sedentary demand along a relatively well protected
border. Most of the breeding and trade of warhorses was concentrated at the very edge of
empire, girdling the perimeter of the realm. As a consequence, in China there was much less of
a chance that horse-traders would turn into mounted warlords, infiltrate the empire
and take power in Beijing from inside.

In sum, comparing the various
horse-economies, we first encountered the Central Eurasian, Iranian and Middle Eastern
situation where states were faced with a practice of internal, mostly nomadic
horse-breeding. Although it made the states of this so-called Saharasia extremely dynamic and
powerful, it also made them extremely unstable as it remained very difficult to keep the
military power of the horse-breeding tribes at bay.  This situation contrasts sharply with
that of western and central Europe, where horse-breeding is equally internal but also much more
integrated into the sedentary world that allows neither much agency nor political clout
to breeders and traders. Again different, we came across Russia, India and China, all of
which imported huge numbers of warhorses from Central Eurasia and, in the case of
India, to a lesser extent, from Iran and the Middle East. Despite this resemblance, the
differences stand out more clearly. China confined its horse-economy entirely to the frontier,
Russia closely supervised supplies into the interior, and India, finally, allowed a great
deal of leeway to commercial intermediaries.”

– Jos Gommans, “Warhorse and post-nomadic empire in Asia, c . 1000–1800.* Journal of Global History, London School of Economics and Political Science. (2007) 2, pp. 1–21. 

Top, left: Portrait of a Stallion. Opaque watercolor, silver, and gold on paper, mid-19th century. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum Collection, 38.17

Top, right: Reza Shah Jahngir, Noble on horseback. Miniature painting, mid-17th century.

Above: Wild Horses. After Chokha [Deogarh, North India]. Opaque pigments on paper, 1810-1820. Source

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