Economy, Religion and Society during the Delhi Sultanate


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Prelims: History of India

Mains: Indian Culture - Salient aspects of Art Forms, Literature and Architecture from ancient to modern times.

Economy during Delhi Sultanate

Since the economy in the Indian subcontinent was predominantly agricultural, the primary source of income for the state was land revenue.

  • The taxation principles followed by the Delhi Sultan were, to some extent, based on the Hanafi School of Muslim Law. 

Revenue Administration

The state held large tracts of land [khalisa], which was tilled by farmers maintained by the centre and from where all the revenue came to the central treasury through the agency of officials called amils. 

  • Hukm-i-misahat:  This is a policy of actual measurement of land introduced by Alauddin Khilji in which land was measured and revenue demand determined on its anticipated yield.
  • The regions that refused to pay land tax or kharaj were known as mawas.
  • Iqta: The iqta was a revenue assignment that the muqti held at the pleasure of the Sultan. 
    • This system combines the two functions of revenue collection and distribution without immediately endangering the unity of the political structure.
  • Khalisa: The territory whose revenues were directly collected for the Sultan's own treasury was designated khalifa.
  • Kharaj (land tax): It was essentially a share in the produce of the land and not a rent on the land.
  • Revenue officers: Ummal, Mutasarrif, Mushrif, Muhassilan, Navisindagan.
  •  Agrarian measures of Alauddin Khilji: 
    • Increase the revenue collection by enhancing the demand.
    • Introduced direct collection. 
    • Cutting down the leakages to the intermediaries. 
    • Revenue collectors were ordered to demand the revenue with such rigour that the peasants should be forced to sell their produce immediately at the side of the fields. 
    • Peasants should pay tax in kind and not in cash.
  • Agrarian measures of Mohammad Tughlaq: 
    • He became the first Sultan to attempt to formulate an agricultural policy for promoting agriculture. 
    • Introduced the practice of giving agricultural loans named Sondhar.
    • A new ministry designated diwan-i amir-i Kohi was established to promote agriculture. 
    • Firuz Tughlaq (1351-88) abandoned these projects, abolished agrarian cesses, and forbade levying of ghari and charai. 
    • But he is reported to have imposed a separate tax – jizya – distinct from kharaj on the peasants. He also introduced an irrigation tax (haqq-i sharb) in Haryana, where he dug up canals. 


Currency System of Delhi Sultanate

The period before the foundation of the Delhi Sultanate was marked by the scarcity of coinage, particularly of pure silver. 

  • Except for an increased number of coins stamped, no changes were introduced initially. 
  • The coins continued to bear the image of goddess Lakshmi or bull-and-horseman, etc. Only the name of the new ruler in a corrupt form got inscribed over it in Nagari script. These coins were called Dehliwal.
  • Iltutmish (1210-36) is credited for standardising the coinage of the Delhi Sultanate. 
    • He introduced gold and silver tankas and a copper jital.
    • The Sultanate mints generally uttered coins in three metals: gold, silver (dominated till the reign of Alauddin Khilji)  and billon (copper mixed with a very small quantity of silver). 
    • Barani mentions dangs and dirams in use at the capital Delhi. 
  • Token Currency of Muhammad Tughlaq
    • The Sultan introduced a coin of copper and brass alloy and reckoned it at the value of a silver tanka. This coin, for the first time, carried an inscription in Persian. 
    • This new currency was a token currency whose face value was much higher than its intrinsic value (the value of the metal it was made of)
    • Later, due to failure, all the token currency was brought to the treasury and exchanged with pure currency.


Trade during Delhi Sultanate

  • The inland trade developed at two levels:
    • Short-distance village-town trade in commodities of bulk (food grains)
    • Long-distance inter-town trade in high-value goods (luxury items): The long-distance inter-town trade also carried goods coming from other countries exit-points. 
  • Foreign Trade: During the Sultanate period, overland and overseas trade was flourishing. 
    • Seaborne Trade: Gujarat was connected with the Persian Gulf (Hormuz, Basra-ports) and the Red Sea (Aden, Mocha and Jedda).
      • Through these ports, commodities moved on to the Mediterranean Sea with linkages to Europe. 
      • Linkages in East: Port of Malacca, Bantam, and Achin in the Indonesian archipelago. 
      • The ports of Bengal had trading relations with China, Malacca and the Far East.
    • Overland Trade: Multan was the major trading centre for overland trade. India was connected to Central Asia, Afghanistan and Persia through the Multan-Quetta route.
  • Imports and Exports: The two principal items of import were horses (demand for cavalry) and precious metals, viz. gold and. silver, especially silver.
    • Brocade and silk were imported from Alexandria, Iraq and China. 
    • The Sultanate of India mainly exported grain and textiles. 
    • Some of the Persian Gulf regions depended on India for their food supply. Besides, slaves were exported to Central Asia, indigo to Persia, and numerous other commodities. Precious stones like agates were exported from Cambay.
  • Commercial Classes: Two types of merchants are mentioned in the sources of the Delhi Sultanate:
    • Karwanis or nayaks: merchants specialising in carrying grains. 
    • Multanis: long-distance trade was in the hands of these merchants.


Religion and Society during Delhi Sultanate

  • Rituals and Ceremonies: In both Hindu and Muslim families, ceremonies started with the child's birth.
    •  Among the Hindus, upanayana samskara (marks a child's entrance into the fold of education) and dvija ceremonies were performed. 
    • Among the Muslims, Bismillah Khani (sending the child to the maktab) and circumcision ceremonies were performed. 
    • Marriage:  
      • Among the Hindus, marriage within the sub-caste was allowed, but intermarriage with other varna was forbidden. 
      • As for the Muslims, there was complete freedom in choosing a wife or a husband. But importance was given to the 'status' (kafu) of the respective social groups. 
  • Caste: Caste was still the dominant category in marking social differences. The smriti texts continued to emphasise that punishing the wicked and upholding the Chatur-varna (four-fold caste) social order by the force of arms was the duty of the Kshatriya. 
    • Life of Shudras: The duty of the Shudra was still one of service to the higher castes. 
      • The ban on the Shudras reciting the Vedas still held good, though they were now allowed to listen to the recitation of the Puranas. 
      • They are banned from sharing their food and participating in the ritual feasts of the upper castes.

Position of Women

There was almost no change in the lifestyle of the upper-caste Hindu women during this period. Women are subordinate to men in every walk of life - as daughters, wives and even after their husband's death (under her eldest son's care). 

  • Birth of a daughter was considered a symbol of dishonour for the father. 
  • Their primary duty was to produce progeny, especially the male child. 
  • Early marriages of girls were prevalent.
  • Education: Women of poor classes did not have a chance for education, but the higher strata women seem to have received education and training. For example, Raziya shows that the Muslim aristocracy also imparted education to their daughters. 
  • Prevalence of social evils: Ibn Battuta mentions the ‘Sati’ practice. He mentions, however, that prior permission for one wanting to be a sati had to be taken from the Sultan. Among the Rajputs, the practice of Jauhar was also prevalent. 
  • Property rights: The commentators uphold the widow's right to the property of a son-less husband, provided the property was not commonly held. The widow was not merely the guardian of this property but had the full right to dispose of it.
  • Custom of purdah: Both Hindu and Muslim aristocracy guarded their women by keeping them hidden within the walled space of the antahpura (inner sanctum) and the harem. In contrast, the poor (Muslim) women used a burqa to cover their bodies.


Slaves and Servants

The master-slave relation formed a category by which the authority in the Sultanate society expressed itself. Most noblemen referred to themselves as the slave of the Sultan. 

  • The slaves in India can be graded into two groups: 
    • Those who were bought in an open slave market: existed in West Asia and India.  
    • Those who were first prisoners of war and then made slaves. 
    • Slaves were generally bought for domestic service for their special skills. For example, Feroz Shah Tughlaq had a special penchant for slaves; he employed them in handicrafts and bodyguards.
    • A special type of male slaves who were castrated in childhood were trained to be the guards of the harem. These were known as Khwaja Sara (eunuchs). 
    • Women slaves were generally graded into two groups:
      • for domestic service
      • for entertainment and pleasure.
    • Keeping slaves became a special mark of prosperity, and nobles vied with each other over the possession of a comely boy or a girl slave.
  • Religion Aristocracy: The Sultanate administration accorded a special place to the ulema. 
  • Those among them who were associated with the administration of justice and religious law were known as 'dastarbahdan' since they were distinguished by a special cap. 
  • Ulema helped the ruler in theological matters. They had to undertake special training and follow a definite course of study which consisted of Islamic theory, law, logic, Arabic and religious texts such as tafsir, Radis, Quran, etc. 
  • These men, along with a few others, formed the elite intellectual group known as abl qalam. 
  • The needs of the centralised state and an autocratic emperor determined their social roles. These men provide moral support to imperial rule. 

Delhi between 12th to 15th Century


Previous Year Questions:



Q) Consider the following statements:

(1) In the revenue administration of Delhi Sultanate, the in-charge of revenue collection was known as ‘Amil’.

(2) The Iqta system of Sultans of Delhi was an ancient indigenous institution.

(3) The office of ‘Mir Bakshi’ came into existence during the reign of Khalji Sultans of Delhi.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

(a) 1 only

(b) 1 and 2 only

(c) 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs):


Q) Who was the founder of Hanafi School of Muslim Law?

The founder of this school was Imam Abu Hanifa. In India, most Muslims follow the Hanafi school. They followed a simple methodology. They did not rely much on the prophet’s hadiths until they were proven to be true beyond a reasonable doubt. They relied very much on Qiyas. They even extended Ijma and gave preference to Isthiasan. 

Q) Who were Sarrafs during Mauryan rule?

Sarrafs were another mercantile group whose economic role was no less important than the brokers. The sarrafs tested the metallic purity of the coins (indigenous and foreign) and established the exchange ratio. They also issued bills of exchange or letters of credit, acting as "bankers".