Indian Society & Economy in Early Medieval Period Notes for UPSC Exam

In medieval India, society was divided based on both caste and class. The ruling elite, known as the Kshatriyas, held political power and wealth. The Vaishyas dominated economic activities and trade, while the Brahmins occupied positions of intellectual and religious authority. On the lower end of the social scale were the Dalits and Shudras, who faced various forms of exploitation and discrimination.


  • During this period, the rise of a wealthy merchant class led to the formation of new social structures influenced by economic status.
  • The richest merchants gained political influence and social prestige by acquiring titles and land.
  • The Shreshtis or bania, a newly affluent merchant class, played a crucial role in shaping the social and economic dynamics of medieval India.

Social Differentiation

  • In medieval Indian society, social stratification was determined by both caste and class. The governing elite consisted of the Kshatriyas, who held political power and wealth.
  • The Vaishyas played a dominant role in the economy and trade, while the Brahmins occupied positions of intellectual and religious authority.
  • At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the Dalits and Shudras, facing various forms of exploitation and discrimination.
  • The creation of a prosperous merchant elite during this period led to the emergence of new social structures based on economic status.
  • The wealthiest merchants acquired political influence and social prestige by purchasing titles and land. The Shreshtis or bania, a novel class of affluent merchants, played a crucial role in the social and economic progress of medieval India.

Status Of Women

  • In medieval India, social classification was significantly shaped by gender, with women experiencing various forms of social and cultural discrimination, often considered inferior to men.
  • Upper-caste women faced restrictions confined to the home, expected to serve their husbands and male relatives in a subservient manner.
  • The practice of sati, where a widow self-immolated on her husband’s funeral pyre, was prevalent during this era and viewed as an honorable act of devotion.
  • Women from lower castes were particularly vulnerable to exploitation and prejudice, manifesting in various ways.
  • The devadasi system, involving the consecration of women to temples as religious prostitutes, was prevalent in several regions of medieval India.
  • Religion played a pivotal role in shaping social classification in medieval India, with Hinduism being the predominant faith.
  • The caste system, considered natural and divinely ordained, entrenched social hierarchy.
  • Brahmins were revered as custodians of sacred knowledge, crucial for preserving Hindu religious and cultural heritage.
  • Islam also left a profound impact, notably during the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire, initially marginalizing Muslims but later witnessing their ascent to economic and political power, influencing the cultural fabric of medieval India.

Ruling Classes

  • In medieval India, the ruling classes comprised nobility and zamindars, wielding substantial wealth and influence.
  • The nobles held key roles in the Mughal government, while zamindars, locally known as Rana, Rawat, or Raut, collected revenue from peasants on vast estates.
  • Despite their opulent lifestyles and access to exclusive amenities, the nobility and zamindars were bound by societal rules.
  • Their interdependent relationship, marked by tension and conflict, saw nobles relying on zamindars for wealth, and zamindars depending on nobles for political influence and protection.

Nature of Social Stratification

  • The medieval era witnessed significant societal changes in India, encompassing the dynamic caste system, gender norms, and religious influences.
  • Economic shifts, marked by the emergence of a prosperous merchant elite, challenged existing social orders, fostering new hierarchies based on economic status.
  • The role of women evolved, with some gaining greater agency while others faced ongoing societal biases.
  • Religion, especially Hinduism and Islam, played a defining role in shaping social classifications during this period in medieval India.


In the medieval era, individuals engaged in diverse vocational crafts and livelihood practices, including agriculture, trade, commerce, and artisan crafts. These pursuits underwent transformations over time. The government imposed taxes on the populace, determined by their produce and resources, as a means to maintain authority.


  • In the era of the Delhi Sultanate, the fertile Ganga-Yamuna doab was characterized by grasslands and forests.
  • Rulers of that time initiated agricultural expansion by cultivating previously untouched areas and clearing grasslands and forests.
  • By the Mughal period, agriculture had evolved into the primary practice and a key source of state revenue.
  • The majority of output during the medieval period was attributed to agricultural production, and agricultural income played a pivotal role in state revenue.
  • Rulers of this period emphasized the policy of extending agriculture to areas that were previously uncultivated.
  • Tribal, underdeveloped, and remote regions were introduced to agriculture, involving the clearance of forests and conversion of wastelands into arable land. The expansion of agriculture continued significantly from the Sultanate to the Mughal era.
  • Despite widespread agricultural practices in almost every part of the empire during the Mughal period, there remained vast surplus land beyond the actual needs of the Mughal agricultural population.
  • The extent of cultivation notably increased during Aurangzeb’s reign, with forest clearance contributing to expansion in Bihar, Awadh, and parts of Bengal, while the growth of the canal network was attributed to the expansion in Punjab and Sind.

Crop Patterns

Medieval Indian peasants cultivated a diverse range of crops, including food crops, cash crops, vegetables, and spices.

They were well-versed in advanced cultivation techniques of the time, employing methods like double cropping, three-crop harvesting, crop rotation, the use of manures, and various irrigation devices.

  • Main Food Crops – The primary food crops included rice, wheat, barley, millet (such as jowar and bajra), and various pulses like gram, arhar, moong, moth, urd, khisari, and others.
  • Cash Crops – Cash crops like sugarcane, cotton, indigo (utilized for extracting blue dye), opium, silk, and others were prevalent in medieval India. Sugarcane, particularly, became a widespread and high-quality cash crop during the Mughal period, with Bengal being a major producer.
  • Fruits and Vegetables – Fruit and vegetable cultivation experienced significant growth during the medieval period. Some Delhi sultans actively promoted the cultivation of fruit crops. Firuz Shah Tughlaq, for instance, established 1200 orchards near Delhi, and Mughal emperors and nobles also created luxurious orchards.
  • Spices – Medieval Indian peasants produced important spices such as pepper, clove, cardamom, turmeric, saffron, betel-leaf, and more. By the Mughal period, the southern coast of India became a major exporter of various spices to different regions in Asia and Europe.

Land Patterns

  • Land revenue reforms during the medieval period were spearheaded by Alauddin Khilji, Sher Shah Suri, and Akbar, each contributing to the evolution of various assessment methods.
  • One fundamental approach was the batai, or crop-sharing system, where a fixed portion of the produce was designated as the state’s share.
  • Another method, known as Kankut, incorporated measurements as a crucial element.
  • After determining the land’s extent, revenue calculations were based on the anticipated productivity of the land.
  • Sher Shah added a classification system, categorizing land into good, middling, and bad, with the state claiming one-third of the produce.
  • The Zabt system, akin to Kankut, represented the third method. It involved determining rates based on crop type and productivity.
  • Given that this system served as the primary revenue source for the state, the government actively promoted the expansion of agricultural lands to augment revenue generation.

Trade And Commerce

  • In the medieval period, India possessed a highly sophisticated trade and commerce system, encompassing both internal and external dimensions.
  • External mainland trade occurred with regions such as Central Asia, China, Afghanistan, and Persia.
  • Overseas trade routes connected India to the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the South China Sea, and the Red Sea.
  • Several mercantile communities, including the Bohras, Khatris, Karwanis, Sarrafs, and Dalals, played pivotal roles in medieval society.
  • Bills of exchange, known as hundis, were a prevalent form of payment, utilizing paper documents for the secure and efficient transfer of large sums of money at specified times and locations.
  • By the Mughal era, the proliferation of local markets near almost every locality facilitated the growth of inland trade.
  • These local markets were interconnected with larger commercial markets based on their geographical proximity.
  • Major commercial hubs during the Mughal period included Delhi, Agra, Patna, Bijapur, Lahore, Cochin, Hyderabad, Calicut, and others, handling both inland and external trade products.
  • India’s trade relations extended globally, with exports during the Sultanate period comprising textiles, slaves, spices, precious stones, and indigo, while imports included gold, silver, horses, silk, and brocade.
  • In the Mughal era, India exported textiles, spices, sugar, and opium, while importing gold, silver, silk, wine, perfumes, carpets, and porcelain, among other commodities.

Inland Trade

  • During the Mughal era, inland trade experienced significant growth, with regular markets in towns facilitating the buying and selling of goods.
  • Periodic markets, known as Hats or Penths, held on specific days of the week, were also integral to local trade, offering commodities like food grain, salt, wooden and iron equipment, and coarse cotton textiles.
  • These local markets were interconnected with larger commercial centers in their respective regions, serving as hubs for products from various regions. Prominent trading centers during the Mughal period included Delhi, Agra, Lahore, Multan, Bijapur, Hyderabad, Calicut, Cochin, Patna, and others.
  • Luxury commodities were extensively traded across borders, as evident from historical records.

Foreign Trade

  • In terms of foreign trade, India maintained trade relations with countries such as China, Arabia, and Egypt during the early medieval period.
  • The maritime trade route between the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea was of significant importance.
  • India imported items like silk, porcelain ware, camphor, cloves, and sandalwood, while exporting aromatics, spices, cotton cloth, ivory, and precious and semi-precious stones.
  • During the Sultanate period, India traded with Central Asia, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea.
  • Exports included food grains, textiles, slaves, indigo, precious stones, while imports comprised precious metals, horses, brocade and silk fabrics, among others.
  • In the Mughal period, foreign trade expanded with the involvement of European trading companies.
  • India maintained trade ties with Central Asia, Persia, and Europe, exporting textiles, saltpetre, sugar, opium, and spices, while importing silver, silk, porcelain, wine, carpets, perfume, glass, watches, and horses.


  • During the Medieval Period, silver and copper coins were prevalent for cash transactions, with the primary coinage being the pure silver tanka during the Sultanate.
  • Copper coins, known as jital and dang, were also in circulation, with their value subject to metal price fluctuations.
  • Under Sher Shah, the purity of metals in coinage, including gold, silver, and copper, was established.
  • The silver rupaya became the standard coin, weighing 178 grains. Akbar’s successors continued this pattern with minor variations.
  • The copper dam during the Mughals weighed 323 grains, and its value relative to the silver rupee fluctuated based on metal availability.
  • During Akbar’s reign, one silver rupee equaled 40 copper dams, while the gold coin, or ashrafi, weighed 169 grains.
  • The coins were minted at royal mints across the kingdom, with the number of mints increasing over time.
  • In addition to agricultural production, Medieval society was supported by various vocational crafts, including metalwork, pottery, textiles, dye-making, shipbuilding, woodwork, sugar-making, arm, and armor manufacturing, and paper-making.
  • Craft production was present in villages, qasbas, and imperial Karkhanas. Artisans in rural areas crafted goods for daily use, while town artisans produced items for markets, each having specialised craftsmen.
  • Imperial workshops, known as Karkhanas, were dedicated to producing expensive and luxurious goods for the household and court.
  • These royal workshops exclusively employed highly skilled craftsmen.

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