The 18th Century Debate: Change or Continuity?

18th century marked a very important period in Indian History, as the interpretation facilitated unity in division of thoughts. The period in question is the time when the Mughals declined and the British took over the administrative power.
As seamless as it sounds, it wasn’t the case. The historiography of the first half of 18th century highlighted the Mughal decline as well as the continuity that was seen by the other scholars who contributed to its historiography. For a long time, it was considered an era of darkness characterized by political disintegration, economic decline, warfare and disorder. However in the past four decades, a series of new region-centric studies have emerged, emphasizing the vibrant aspects of the century with different lenses. These studies together have brewed enough evidence to suggest that the first half of the 18th century was not a century of absolute and all-encompassing darkness, but rather saw the politico-economic decline of a few regions while many other regions flourished culturally, socially and economically.

As far as the latter half of the century is concerned, focusing on the establishment of colonial rule, there is a mixed evidence of continued growth and decline in various regions, until the flow of bullion is gradually reversed in the direction towards the end of the century. Even then, there is evidence that some regions continued to experience growth due to trade with other Asian or South East Asian regions.

The picture that thus emerges is holistic in its depth and width and elaborates the many aspects of growth, dismissing the idea that the century was wholly ‘dark’. The essay seeks to present the older historiography of ‘decline’ and contrast it with the newer historiography of ‘regionalism’ which is substantiated by historians with the help of examples and evidence from regional studies.

The Theory of ‘Decline’:
During the British rule, the period under question was scrutinized by colonial historians like James Mill. He portrayed the 18th century as a ‘dark’ century which was rescued by the establishment of colonial rule. Later, Nationalists scholars continued this trend, arguing that without this ‘dark’ age, colonialism would have been impossible and adding further that the situation declined further after its advent. In the early years of the 20th century, studies focused primarily on imperial political decline, which was attributed to the administrative and religious policies of the Mughal emperors. While some scholars like Jadunath Sarkar, who wrote five volumes titled ‘Fall of the Mughal Empire’ studied Aurangzeb’s religious policies, his later Deccan campaigns, and traced the decline in Mughal economy, institutions and society to Aurangzeb’s faulty policies. He also studied the peasant rebellions that destroyed Mughal political stability as a Hindu reaction to Aurangzeb’s Muslim orthodoxy. Sarkar blamed Aurangzeb’s discriminatory religious policies for the rise of “Hindu” groups such as the Sikhs and the Marathas in reaction. British administrative scholars, such as William Irvine too saw this imperial decline as caused by the deteriorating character of its emperors and viewed it in terms of its ruling elite only.

The historians from Aligarh School, furthered the arguments. Satish Chandra and Irfan Habib proposed an unprecedented structural and materialist analysis of the decline of the Mughal Empire, singling out the structural weakness of the centralized revenue collection system of the empire as the reason for its fiscal crisis. Satish Chandra’s argument was that the fiscal crisis was caused by the incapability of the imperial officers to collect revenue smoothly, worsened by the inability of the state to meet the mansabdar’s demand for jagirs. He later attributed the relative decline of jagirs to the flawed functioning of the jagirdari system itself which had led to a ‘jagirdari crisis’. In the 1980’s he further argued that the jagirs had become unfertile and the intensification of the difference between jama (estimated revenue) and haasil (actual yields) had affected revenue income. Habib’s work was popularized in the 1960’s and according to him, the state’s oppression had created resistance from the peasants suffering from exploitation leading to peasant rebellions and an agrarian crisis. The jagirdars extracted from their jagirs as much as they could within the few years they were allotted before transfer and further increased the deterioration of the peasantry. The subsequent revolts were also supported by zamindars who resented the extraction of surplus from their villages by the state, although his link between the jagirdari crisis and zamindari resentment is exaggerated. It was the decline or shortage of jagirs rather than high revenue demand that Athar Ali attributed imperial collapse to. However, J.F Richard’s study counters this argument by proposing that there was no lack of jagirs since the Deccan had plenty of them, but that most of the allotted jagirs were infertile since the fertile ones were added to the state’s khalisa.
All the theories mentioned here, of the colonialists of the Marxist historians, take for granted the assumption that the 18th century was characterized by decline. Even post 1950’s analysis, the political decline of the Mughal State is unquestioningly connected to the economic decline of the empire. But can this very decline be substantiated with examples from the period? While the equation of political decentralization and decline fall short of examples, all these were clubbed together for a narrative of the 18th century debate characteristically being that of decline.

The New Historiography:
The newer historiography was a break from the previous state-centric viewpoint. The ideas which conceptualized some thirty forty years ago, is taking grounds which has questioned the earlier interpretations of the 18th century debate. It has thus, sought to view it in his own terms rather than in the shadow of the predecessor or successor empires. This school of thought shifted the focus from agrarian system and the machinery of revenue attractions to the social and cultural relations. Under its aegis the historiography which emerged was of regional studies that questioned the extent of Mughal centralization itself. While the view of the Mughal state as highly centralized due to its attitude, in actuality there were huge informal arrangements in its functioning. For Barnett, the empire was made up of blocks glued together by the emperor and even at the decline of the state, the blocks glued together by the emperor and even at the decline of the state, the blocks merely came apart without deterioration.
Sanjay Subramanian and Muzaffar Alam compare the empire to ‘patchwork quilt’ rather that a ‘wall to wall carpet’. The 18th century according to these historians need not be viewed from the point of view of the Mughals only. Delhi and Agra might have witnessed a decline, but provinces such as Bengal, Awadh, Punjkab etc were witnessing dynamic changes and economic reorientation. Thus these historians focus on the concept of ‘decentralization’ and ‘regionalization’ rather than ‘collapse’ or ‘decline’ as the key words for the century: The Mughal Empire was ‘disaggregated’ rather than ‘monolithic’.
The traditional views have been challenged by Cambridge School that saw the arrival of colonialism as a long-drawn historical process. C.A Bayly initiated the revisionist approach to the analysis of Mughal polity, he emphasizes that ‘the key note of the Mughal rule had been size and centralization’. He sees the decline of the Mughal empire in a positive light, where the ‘Corporate groups’ or ‘Social classes’ played their role through the commercialization and decentralization of the Mughal polity in extending agriculture and intensifying commerce and later shifting their allegiance to the British for beneficial power. Bayly’s continuity thesis assesses the performance of the regional elites, forming the 18th century transition states.
Sanjay Subramaniam has suggested a global approach by speculating the increased connectivity of the local and the supra-local, through travel, commerce, conflict and intellectual/cultural exchange, as a critical and widespread feature of early modernity. He suggested the term ‘portfolio Capitalist’ for the groups that were simultaneously involved in both commerce and politics like traders, bankers and merchants.
Was it change or continuity? As we conclude, we can clearly see that the 18th century polity, economy and society are characterized by trends that reflect both change and continuity. The debate becomes more intense and pertinent for the second half of the 18th century, which saw the beginnings of British colonial expansion in northern India and its impact on the local society and economy.
Continuity and change in the field of music, architecture, economic systems and culture is also debatable. The artists shifted to other regional and culture is also debatable. The artists shifted to other regional centers as the Mughal Empire became insufficient to support their patronage; this change was juxtaposed with an element of continuity as the patron-client relationship remained same.

Old Fort

‘Jumna’s dark and limpid waters laved Yudhishtir’s palace walls; And to hail him Dharmaraja, monarchs thronged his royal halls.’

The Mughals were a dynasty which had inherited a lot of aesthetics from the Sultanate rule, but also had a lot to give to India. Emperor Babur laid out several gardens and mosques during his short rule. When Humayun had come to power, he founded a modest city called Dinpanah. On the banks of Yamuna, with the remaining stones and bricks from the fort city of Siri, the walls and gateways of the city were laid out. But was it Humayun’s city in actuality?
Sher Shah Suri succeeded Humayun, plundered and razed the settlement, and made a new city over the city called Shergarh. His palace fortress which is now commonly known as Purana Qila, is a complex which consists of a mosque and the tower from which Humayun had fell down. An octagonal fort, it is indeed an important landmark in tracing the history of Delhi.
The Qila-i-Kuhna Mosque was built in 1542 by Sher Shah himself. It offers an interesting glimpse into how mosque architecture in Delhi evolved from the earlier Lodhi period to that of the Mughals. This single aisled mosque contain only one dome left out of three earlier. The exquisite facade of the mosque is decorated with bands of Quranic verses carved in sandstone along with inlay works. The SherMandal, on the other hand is an octagonal, three-storeyed red sand stone building built by Sher Shah again in 1541 as a recreational structure. When Humayun succeeded him in 1555 A.D., he used this place as a library. Here Humayun met his death by accidentally falling down the inconveniently steep stairs in 24th January, 1556. It is said 20th January, the emperor appeared on the roof of his library. Toward evening, he started down the stairs, but on the second step hear the muezzin’s call to prayer and stopped. The steps were slippery, and, the emperor’s foot caught in his robe, causing him to drop his staff and fall upon his head. For the next three days he lay near death, and on the fourth he passed away. He was fifty-one years old and had ruled India twice: the first time from 1530 to 1540 and the second from 1555 until his death on January, 1556. The rubble and dressed stones 20 meter high walls of the fort pierced by three massive gates: the Badā Darwazā, the Talāqi Darwazā (forbidden gate), the Humayun Darwazā or South Gate. All these monumental darwazās are built in 1533-34 under Humayun.
The baoli or step well lies between the Masjid and Sher Mandal. It is an interesting example of medieval water management. The hammām or Persian bath lies to the west of SherMandal, as an important aspect of medieval life, recently unearthed in 1931. Several other monuments also lie around the complex, like Khairul Manazīl, mosque built by Maham Anga in 1561 A.D., Akbar’s foster-mother, and which was later used as a madrasa. It is now stands opposite the Purana Qila, south east to Sher Shah Gate. Though the walls, mehrāb, dome and Qura’nicverses are on the verge of extinction, produces an elegant background of its magnificence.
Believed to be one of the oldest settlements in Delhi having finding a mention in the Mahabharata as Indraprastha built by the Pandavas, Old Fort is in itself a city within a city. Join us and explore as to what makes this area worthy of a visit.

Haveli Trail: Old Delhi

The beauty of the Old Havelis in Chandni Chowk lie in the crumbling state as they are in, today who have stood the test of time. Walking past the Old city of Shahjahanabad, the almost broken and haunted looking havelis have a certain magnet which has the power to attract you towards them. Take out some time, to admire the elaborate arcades, colossal doors, which take you back to a long by-gone era.
Situated in Chhota Bazaar, opposite old St.Stephen’s College building, Seth Ram Lal Khemka Haveli was once a place where wealth and power concentrated. It was built in 1850, the mansion has been a witness to the plunder during sepoy mutiny and the revolt of 1857. The present owners, Baglas, inherited the mansion in around 1905. The mansion is built using two types of brickworks from colonial era and the thinner ones, being the Lakhori bricks.
This 19th century mansion welcomes you with an open-air aourtyar with stairways leading towards the large rooms. The effort of the present family can be seen in keeping the old charm alive of the mansion.
How to get there: Ten minutes walk from Kashmere Gate metro station
A textile from the Mughal era, one of the wealthiest people in Delhi, Lala Chunnamal’s haveli was built in 1848. The positioning of the haveli, is interesting as it is situated in the Walled city of Shahjahanabad, the commercial hub of the city, but as you enter the quiet lanes, you forget the hustle and the chaos around you. Although a neglected haveli, it still sparks the erstwhile opulence and an unrestricted entrance welcome you whole heartedly. The mansion consists of 128 rooms which still consists of the chandeliers, antique wall hangings, family pictures on the wall with wooden chimneys. Currently, the 10th generation is staying as well as has the ownership of the mansion
How to get there: Five minutes walk from Chawri Bazaar metro station via Nai Sarak Marg
A mansion near the canal, as you walk through Daryaganj road, is a mansion which was owned by the forefathers of Pervez Musharraf,the ex-President of Pakistan. The mansion is said to be spread over 24,800 sq.ft the structure is dilapidated even though it was once a seat of muslim culture and traditions.
How to get there: Ten minutes walk from Chawri Bazaar
The traffic at Lal Kuan might let you walk past through the quaint place which was once a haveli of Begum zeenat Mahal, the favourite wife of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Towards the west of Hauz Qazi, the mansion dates back to 1846, when it was ordered by the empress herself. After her death, the Mahal was not taken care by anyone, till it was sold to the Indian Government by the Maharaja of Patiala. It stands in complete disarray and houses the famous school for Muslim girls, which happened with encroachments over the years.
How to get there: Ten minutes walk from Chawri Bazaar metro station via NaiSarakMarg
Bhagirath Palace, one of the biggest markets for electrical, was also a mansion for someone. While we still use the place for our shopping, much less is known about the mansion. The mansion was constructed in 1`8th century for a French mercenary Walter Reinhart. His wife’s name was Begum Samru. Pondering over the architecture you might see that it reflects quite a lot of both, the Greek and Roman architecture, with Corinthian columns.
How to get there: Ten minutes walk from Chandni Chowk metro station

Retelling the History of the Lesser Known: Nicholson’s Cemetry

Taking the exit towards gate number 4, leads you to a place with a big iron gate, supposedly being a protected area by the government, which is a cemetery meant only for British officials. The cemetery was later called as Nicholson’s cemetery, just a few steps ahead on your right from the metro station. An active burial ground, the cemetery is named after one of the most celebrated British heroes of 1857, Brigadier General John Nicholson. Walk inside from the Iron gate, leads to the small dingy rooms where the caretakers and his family lives. A path which leads to the left is Nicholson’s cemetery. But why is Nicholson a hero of the revolt of 1857?
John Nicholson was the man who breached the defenses of rebels who were controlling the walled city of Shahjahanabad in process lost his life. A great swordsman and a military commander who enjoyed the loyalty of his troops, he was definitely a much celebrated man during the revolt. Shot while attacking the Lahore Gate, he was carried back to the British camp and remained in agony which resulted in a slow death. After his death there was a religious cult which developed around him which considered him an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. It was believed that the soldiers who served under Nicholson had given up fighting once their commander had died. As a part of their memory with Nicholson they picked up flowers from his grave and returned back to their homelands.
The marble slab of cenotaph was looted from Mehtab Bagh, literally the Mughal Garden in Delhi. The thorny bushy entrance to the cemetery is a living example of how some celebrated British officials who also had a religious cult around them, are fading away with time. The inscription right in front of the cemetery not quite discernible but engraved with the alphabets which reads: “In ever loving Memory of Arthur Thomas William”.

The whole Kashmere Gate area is sloped in history, right from when the British had come, settled, tillt he bloody revolt of 1857, and subsequently towns coming up in other parts of North, notably the Civil Lines area. Layered in history, most of the tombs and cenotaphs belong to British origin subjects who left their cold island nation to serve the Jewel of the Crown colony.
Right outside the cemetery is a whole new world of a different century, fast paced life, and a bustling city is what you will experience. Right across the street is the famous Bus Terminal, the ever honking cars rushing through each other, and the sounds of metro trains gushing through each other.
While many commuters must be seeing the cemetery when they are travelling from Kashmere Gate, not many know about the relevance of Nicholson in our historical legacy! A dry leaves laiden path leads to many graves, which are still not known by people.

The Mecca of Mughlai Khana: Matia Mahal

Haji Karimuddin established the famous restaurant Karim’s is now a mecca for any grumbling tummy in Delhi. But did you know the street on which it falls is called as Matia Mahal? Sounds interesting?
The moment you hear about Matia Mahal, tummy starts rumbling for delicious chicken stew, flavourful Nahari for breakfast. When you actually visit the street, except the smell of delicious food throughout the long street, bearded mullahs, kaftan clad beggars, fat goats and veiled women roam around the street. The chaos of Matia Mahal is what makes up the charm of the place, but once you come dine for a night, you will be in absolute awe of it.
Welcome to the Dill of Walled City, a city where you would find delicious food after 11 stretching till post midnight, the charm of Matia Mahal is the crowd puller of food that it serves for hungry tummies like ours.
Matia Mahal bazaar is towards the principal entrance to Jama Masjid. The place was named after an actual Mahal which once existed in the area. A popular belief around the Mahal was, when the Red Fort was under construction, Matia Mahal was the temporary residence of Emperor Shahjahan. The Mahal was also known as Azizabaadi Haveli, named later after Begum Azizabad, wife of a Mughal Prince. Under Bahadur Shah II, his grandson had inherited the palace. The busy streets of Matia Mahal might not lead you towards the haveli, as the traces of Haveli been diminishing with the over growth of populations.
The darkest days for Matia Mahal recorded in history can be the Mutiny of 1857, when it was seized along with several other royal residences. As the British loosened the control over the walled city, the spaces were repopulated by locals, when it soon became a cluster of houses with its old new charm intact, with grim guest houses, claiming to give class apart services.

An absolute treat for non vegetarians, Matia Mahal serves fen and rusks, the classic breads and delicious sewai. A walk through the Urdu Bazaar, which is lined with Urdu books, grim guest houses, some of the book stalls having in-house calligraphy an absolute delight to watch, you can check out some Urdu authors who’s works are not available anywhere else, but in Urdu bazaar. Happy Browsing! The bazaar is lined with delicious eateries selling buffalo kebabs, keema Kaleji, ishtu and korma, which faces the magnificent Mughal mosque.
A kaleidoscopic view throughout: congested roads, boys on bikes, paving their way forward, kebabs on skewers and delicious smells of chicken, mutton tikkas.
Straight ahead the main road is Chitli Qabar chowk, which has a florish shop right in the centre. Famous for the old dilapidated yet charming to look at houses, they scream of lost heritage in the process of urbanization and trying to meet the needs of overpopulation every day. It is these narrow alleys who are keeping the culture and heritage intact!

An interface of the past with the present: ITO

The main intersection between the Old city and the new city can be ITO. As crowded as you can think it to be, during peak hours, traffic jams at ITO are normal. The high rise buildings of Delhi Police Headquarters see a flow of people, grimly looking at each other, and exchanging expressions of despair of walking back to a tough life of office. The essence of Nukkad ka khana is intact on the streets of ITO, where you have rickety stalls, dogs going around the dust bin baskets, clearing their food agenda for today, lafange boys sitting at chai stalls and enjoying, well just enjoying!
Chola Bhatura stalls with Rs.20 for a plate, is worth the grease that they sell. The stall has been there since 1978, run by a guy from Faridkot, he is paunching bellies of hungry Delhiites since its inception.
The city’s unemployed, spreading the news of current vacancies in bright colored leaflets, and others while rushing with time entering their offices. This is what makes up for the life around ITO.
Taking a glance of the main areas around ITO, all I can recall is there was Jamait Ulaima, an Ismalic center for learning, unrecognizable from far, but a modern structure with a medieval style dome, were they trying to imitate the royal architecture of Shahjahanabad?
One of the most quiet places in ITO, the best part about it is they let you go right up till the dome. Inside there is a beautiful pool, palm trees and lamp posts which remind you of the works of Audrey Hepburn dancing on My Fair lady. Can you even imagine a place right in the midst of a busy street of ITO?
The place is a crossroads between the modern and medieval. While on one side is a Mughal glamour of Khooni Darwaza, Dilli Gate and Red Fort, the other side houses the British razzle-dazzle, India Gate and the Presidents House.
A glance through the whole street of intermix reflects a blend of old and new. Right from a street named after Delhi’s Last Mughal ruler to Delhi’s first Deputy Mayor which is Ram Charan Agarwal Chowk. ITO is also the place which is now the hub of various important offices, from the Passport office to the secretariat offices, all Bureaucratic honchos are drawn towards this part of the city. Tucked away in one corner is the Doll Museum. This is no other ordinary Museum this is an international Museum, which is a haven for children. Annabelle and the concept of dolls has much been spooked by the Hollywood for us, but this is a place which will bring back your childhood memories of how you used to play with dolls. Right at the heart of Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, The museum has successfully taken over the Nehru House, which houses around 6000 dolls from 85 countries. Not only the models are on display but they also speak a lot about the heritage from which they come. It is a sight to see the cultural traditions of 85 different countries displayed on one place.

The precincts of A Mughal magnificence: Around Humayun’s Tomb area

The garden right in front of the entrance of Humayun’s tomb has a story to tell, a story which is overshadowed by one of the most beautiful place of Delhi. The nocturnal tunes of the birds singing, sitting in the tree lined corridors, while the boys indulge in some cricket sessions, while some love birds take some time off to exchange love with each other.
The pathway has a soul, which is trampled every time people walk through it. A time off from the city life, the pathway gives us an opportunity to engage with the deeper feelings and thoughts, which remain dormant for the most parts of our lives. The city life tends to take a toll on your routine, when each day, each minute you miss a beat, the beat of nature. Just like how Humayun as a person was. A considerate attached father who would not raise his voice over his favourite sons, a well learned man, who was deeply involved in books that it was easy to trick him. A man who exuberated the legacy that he was coming from, as well as spreading the wings of the Mughal empire far and wide.
If we could use the garden area as a metaphor to understand the emperor, it would have been a perfect one. Not very interested in how cleverly sultans would take over empires. That is why he must have lost the empire to the hands of the Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri. With the help of his able commanders he was quick to take over from the Surs, and re-establish the Mughal empire with much prominence and authority.
As the sun begins to set, and the sky is clear blend, of blue, red and orange, the long pathway is bathed in the glow of the twilight hour which resembles the fallen leaves.

Stepping into a dream lane: Gali Chooriwalan at Chawri Bazaar

Out of all the narrow lanes of Old Delhi, there is an extraordinary gully which offers sights of exquisite Havelis. Old dilapidated houses which might be once prominent are now in ruins. But ruins also have their own attraction, isn’t it?
The turn towards a street called Chooriwalan in Chawri Bazar, will transport you to a more sublime street, which is away from the hustle of Old Delhi. The old buildings built of Lakhori bricks, is well preserved with elaborate mansions flanked on both sides of the street. The street is part of Chawri Bazaar once popularly known for its dancing girls and courtesans in the 19th century, frequented by nobility and rich alike. After the advent of British as the tawaif culture faded out, subsequently prostitutes came to occupy the upper floors of the market. This eventually led to the area becoming hub of criminality and thus the Delhi Municipal Committee evict them from the area altogether.,[4] the street is named after a Marathi word chawri, which means meeting place. The street got this name mainly because here a ‘sabha’ or meeting would take place in front of a noble’s house and he would try settling the disputes before it would reach the emperor. A second reason is probably that a gathering used to get organized when a respected dancer performed and showed the finer nuances of her skill. The whole ambience of the street, however, got changed after the 1857 war when British destroyed many huge mansions of the nobles.
The bazaar is now a hub of largest wholesale market for hardware with hardware shops lined all across the street. The street called Chooriwalan, was believed to be the street which would be lined with beautiful shops selling bangles. Going right till the ends of Matia Mahal Bazaar, the street is lined with stenches and sights which are typical of the Walled city. You may take a brief walk for a shorter distance on the street, but the walk itself will evoke a sense of pleasure looking at the dilapidated mansions.
The old style doors and windows, with jaalis are a treat to the eyes. They keep reminding how we have still not come out of the magnificence of the era. Overhanging balconies with elaborately carved brackets are beauties beyond words.
For a usual passerby, the sun rays falling over the whole street, making it glitter might be a usual thing, but for someone like us, who don’t get to appreciate heritage in how they are, it is an illuminated object of Museum.
Throughout the day, people residing in the vicinity walk through the streets, uninterested of the beauty that the street holds. At night the street lamps dimly light up the street, giving it an old world charm which cannot be missed!

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