Despite political convulsions and instability in the 18th century, the society in general retained most of its traditional features with some changes thrown in by new environments.

Social and Economic Conditions in 18th Century

Social Stratification

  • At the apex of the social order was the emperor closely followed by the nobility which despite hard times led a life of luxury and extravagance with great weakness for wine, women and music.
  • At the lowest rung of the ladder was the preponderant majority of the poor agriculturist and artisan in the village.
  • In the middle came the ‘small and frugal’ middle class comprising small merchants, shopkeepers, lower cadre of employees, town artisans etc.
  • Paucity of contemporary evidence and disparities in incomes and prices in different regions of the country makes any comparison of standard of living a difficult exercise.
  • The institution of caste stands out a striking feature of Hindu society of the time. Caste rules prevailed in matters of marriage, dress, diet and even professions.
    • However, economic pressures and administrative innovations introduced by the East India Company compelled some to look beyond their ancestral professions.
  • There was, of course, no uniformity of culture and social patterns all over the country. Nor did all Hindus and all Muslims form two distinct societies. People were divided by religion, region, tribe, language, and caste.
  • Moreover, the social life and culture of the upper classes, who formed a tiny minority of the total population, was in many respects different from the life and culture of the lower classes.

Place of Women in Society

  • Women were given a place of respect in home and society but not of equality as we understand the term today Hindu society being mainly patriarchal (except in the Malabar and some backward areas), the will of the male head of the family usually prevailed.
  • Though examples can be cited of Hindu and Muslim women having played significant roles in polities, administration and scholastic fields, the common woman was denied right place in society.
  • Purdah system was common among both the Hindu and Muslim women though women of poor families out on work for livelihood could not observe it.
  • Child marriages were common among both girls and boys though consummation usually took place after they attained the age of maturity. Dowry system was prevalent among the upper classes.
  • Polygamy was common among ruling princes, big zamindars and men of better means though the common man contented himself with one wife. Polygamy in shocking proportions prevailed among the kulin families in Uttar Pradesh and Bengal.
  • Remarriage of widows was generally looked down upon though it prevailed in some places. Surprisingly the Peshwas imposed a tax called patdam on remarriage of widows.
  • The evil practice of Sati (of Hindu widows burning themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands) mostly prevailed in Bengal, Central India and Rajputana among some upper castes. The Peshwas discouraged sati in their dominion with limited success.


  • Another social evil was the prevalence of slavery. Broadly speaking, slaves could be classed into two categories—the domestic slaves and the serfs tied to the land.
  • In the latter category the serfs were transferred with the sale of land to new masters. European travellers and administrators have testified to the widespread prevalence of slavery in India.
  • Economic distress, famines, natural calamities, extreme poverty compelled some to sell their children for a price. The Rajputs, Khatris and Kayasthas usually kept slave women for domestic work.
  • However, slaves in India were treated better than their counterparts in America and Europe. Slaves were usually treated as hereditary servants of the family than as menials; they were allowed to marry among themselves and the main offsprings of such marriages were considered free citizens.
  • Slavery and slave trade touched new dimensions with the coming of Europeans in India particularly the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English.
    • There is mention of a court-house at Calcutta in 1752 which regularly purchased and registered slaves charging a registration fee of Rs. 4 for each entry.
    • The European companies purchased slaves at a price ranging between
      • Rs. 5 to Rs. 15 for a girl of 10 years,
      • Rs. 12 to Rs. 20 for a boy of 16 and
      • Rs. 15 to Rs. 20 for a full grown adult slave from the markets of Bengal, Assam and Bihar, and carried them to European and American markets for sale.
  • There are reports of Europeans at Surat, Madras and Calcutta purchasing Abyssinian slaves and employing them for domestic work.
  • Traffic in slaves was abolished by a proclamation issued in 1789. However, rural slavery shorn of many of its classical crudities continues in India even today.


  • The love of learning has always exercised a powerful influence on both the Hindu and the Muslim mind. However, the idea of Indian education was culture and not literacy. Vocational education according to one’s vama or family tradition assured specialization.
    • Both Hindu and Muslim systems of education linked learning and religion.
  • Centres of higher education in Sanskrit literature were called chatuspathis or Tols in Bengal and Bihar. Nadia, Kasi (Benares),Tirhut (Mithila) and Utkala (Orissa) were reputed centres for Sanskrit education.
    • The French traveller Bernier described ‘Kasi as the Athens of India’, and aspirants for higher Sanskrit education flocked to its numerous institutions.
  • Institutions for learning of higher education in Persian and Arabic were called Madrasahs. Persian being the court language was learnt both by the Muslims and the Hindus.
    • Azimabad (Patna) was a reputed centre of Persian education in eastern India.
    • Those interested in the study of Koran and Muslim theology had to acquire proficiency in Arabic.
  • Elementary education was fairly widespread. The Hindu elementary schools were called pathshalas and Muslim elementary schools were popularly known as maktabs. These school, were not unusually attached to temples and mosques.
  • The students were given instruction in the three R’s of reading, writing and arithmetic. Moral instruction with emphasis on truth and honesty, obedience to parents and faith in one’s religion, found a place in the school curriculum.
  • Though education was mainly popular with the higher castes, there were cases of children of lower castes attending schools. Female education received scant attention.

Arts and Literature

  • In the fields of arts and literature the absence of patronage at Delhi led to flight of talent to newly-established state capitals like Hyderabad, Lucknow, Murshidabad, Jaipur etc.
  • Asaf-ud-Daula built the Great Imambara (a building for celebration of Muharram festival) at Lucknow in 1784; the absence of any pillars or support makes it architecturally interesting.
  • Swai Jai Singh (1686-1743) built the famous pink city of Jaipur and five astronomical observatories in India including one at Jaipur, another at New Delhi and a third at Benares.
  • At Amritsar Maharaja Ranjit Singh renovated the Sikh shrine decorating the lower half with marble and the entire upper portion was inlaid with copper surmounted with a thin plate of gold and gave it its modem name of the Golden Temple.
  • The palace of Suraj Mai at Dig (the capital of Bharatpur) state was planned to rival in munificence the imperial palaces at Agra; work on its construction was begun in 1725 but the construction was left unfinished.
  • Vernacular languages like Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, Panjabi, Marathi, Telugu and Tamil greatly developed. It was during the 18th century that the Christian missionaries set up printing presses in India and brought out vernacular editions of the Bible.
    • Ziegenbelg, a Danish missionary composed a Tamil grammar and published a Tamil version of the Bible. Even a Tamil dictionary was compiled by these missionaries.
    • In Bengal, the Baptist missionaries (Carey, Ward and Marshman) set up a printing press at Serampur and published a Bengali version of the Bible.

Economic Conditions

  • In the beginning of the 18th century the basic unit of Indian economy was still the self-sufficient and self-governing village community which produced almost all for its local needs. Its only link with the state was the payment of land revenue.
  • While rulers and dynasties changed ceaselessly, the village communities carried on as usual. It was this ‘unchangeableness of Asiatic societies’ that attracted the attention of European observers and drew the cryptic remark that “they lasted when nothing else seemed to last”.
    • These village communities though factors in economic and social stability were also responsible for economic stagnation.
  • Town handicrafts in India had reached a high level of development and attracted world-wide markets.
    • The cotton products of Dacca, Ahmedabad and Masulipatam,
    • the silk fabrics of Murshidabad, Agra, Lahore and Gujarat,
    • the fine woollen shawls and carpets of Kashmir, Lahore and Agra,
    • the gold and silver jewellery, metal work, metal utensils, arms, shields found markets both in India and abroad.
  • The large-scale domestic and foreign trade brought into existence the merchant-capitalist and the development of the banking system.
    • The emergence of Jagat Seths, Nagar Seths in northern India and the Chetties in the south with their elaborate banking houses and extensive use of hundies and other banking practices gave great fillip to trade and commerce.
  • These developments in the Indian economy in the 17th and 18th centuries gave some indications that some pre-conditions for a rapid growth of capitalism did exist.
    • However, certain constraints like the existence of feudal classes (who wasted on lavish display the surplus they appropriated from the peasantry) the law of escheat (by which the property of the deceased noble was taken away by the state), the absence of correct saving habits and the use of such savings for productive purposes and, above all, the absence of politcal stability and a forward-looking state – all ill-boded for economic development on modem lines.
  • The presence of European trading companies in the 18th century with deep politico-economic interests added to the prevailing confusion and economic stagnation.’


  • Even though the Indian villages were largely self-sufficient and imported little from outside and the means of communication were backward, extensive trade within the country and between India and other countries of Asia and Europe was earned on under the Mughals.
  • India imported − pearls, raw silk, wool, dates, dried fruits, and rose water from the Persian Gulf region; coffee, gold, drugs, and honey from Arabia; tea, sugar, porcelain, and silk from China;
  • India’s most important article of export was cotton textiles, which were famous all over the world for their excellence and were in demand everywhere. India also exported raw silk and silk fabrics, hardware, indigo, saltpetre, opium, rice, wheat, sugar, pepper and other spices, precious stones, and drugs.
  • Constant warfare and disruption of law and order, in many areas during the 18th century, banned the country’s internal trade and disrupted its foreign trade to some extent and in some directions.
  • The decline of internal and foreign trade also hit the industries hard in some parts of the country. Nevertheless, some industries in other parts of the country gained as a result of expansion in trade with Europe due to the activities of the European trading companies.

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