Bernier’s observations about the urban centers in 17th century Mughal India provide a detailed perspective on the social and economic fabric of the time.
Urban Population Comparable to Western Europe: The fact that around 15% of the population lived in towns, similar to the average urban population in Western Europe, suggests a significant degree of urbanization in Mughal India. This indicates that, like Europe, urban centers played a crucial role in the socio-economic landscape of the region.
Camp Towns: Bernier’s description of Mughal cities as ‘camp towns’ refers to their reliance on the imperial court. These towns flourished with the prosperity of the court and declined when the court’s influence waned. This dependence highlights the central role of the Mughal court in urban life and economy.
Diverse Types of Towns: The existence of various types of towns – manufacturing, trading, port, sacred, and pilgrimage towns – underlines the economic diversity and specialization within urban centers. This diversity is a sign of the prosperity of merchant communities and professional classes, indicating a complex and thriving urban economy.
Merchant Communities and Leadership: The trading groups, known as Mahajans in Western India, and their leaders, the Sheths or Nagarsheths, illustrate the structured organization of the merchant community. This structure suggests a sophisticated commercial system with established leadership and hierarchy within the trade sector.
Diverse Urban Groups: The presence of various professional classes such as physicians (Hakims), teachers (Mullahs and Pandits), lawyers (Wakils), and artists, points to a multifaceted urban society. Not all depended on imperial patronage; many served in bazaars or were employed by other patrons, indicating a diversified economy where different professions could thrive independently.
Economic Prosperity and International Trade: Bernier’s observation about the flow of precious metals into India in exchange for manufactured goods reflects a thriving international trade. The existence of a prosperous merchant community engaged in long-distance trading highlights India’s significant role in the global trade network during this period.
In summary, Bernier’s account paints a picture of vibrant, diverse, and economically prosperous urban centers in Mughal India, with a level of urbanization and complexity comparable to contemporary Western Europe.