Medieval India

Learning Goals:

New social and political groups: The study of the thousand years from 700 to 1750 is a big challenge for historians. This is because of the scale and variety of developments that took place during this period.

Some instances of these are as follows:

Castes and sub-castes

Castes: Rajputs were a group of people who became popular during this time. The name Rajput is derived from ‘Rajputra’ which means ‘son of the ruler’. The term was applied more generally to a group of warriors during the period between the eighth century and the fourteenth century. These groups of warriors claimed the Kshatriya status. The term ‘Kshatriya’ included, apart from rulers and chieftains, the soldiers and commanders who served in the armies of different monarchs all over the subcontinent. Qualities attributed to Rajputs by their poets were extreme valour and a great sense of loyalty.

Other groups which used the opportunities of the period for becoming politically relevant were Jats, Marathas, Sikhs, Ahoms and Kayasthas (a caste of scribes and secretaries).

Sub-castes: This period was marked by the migration of forest- dwellers due to a change in their habitat. This change in habitat was due to the clearing of forests and extension of agriculture at different paces in different areas. Those who did not migrate started tilling the land and became peasants. These new peasant groups slowly began to be influenced by the regional markets, chieftains, priests, monasteries and temples. They became a part of large, complex societies and hence had to pay taxes and also offer the goods and services to the local lords. Resultantly huge differences emerged among the peasants, socially and economically. Some of them had big productive land holdings, cattle and also did some artisanal work during the lean season of agriculture. These differences in the society led to the grouping of the people into jatis or sub-castes which were ranked based on their backgrounds and occupations. The ranks kept changing at different areas and time periods based on the power, influence and resources controlled by the members of the jati.

Functioning of jatis: The conduct of the members of jatis was managed by the rules and regulations framed by the jati. These regulations were enforced by the jati panchayat which was an assembly of elders. Jatis were also required to follow the rules of their villages which were governed by chieftains. Together, the jatis were only a small unit of a state.

Region and empire

Large states like those governed by the Cholas, Tughluqs and Mughals encompassed many regions. For example; the Delhi Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban was the ruler of a vast empire that stretched from Bengal in the east to Ghazni in Afghanistan in the west and included all of south India also. He was a great conqueror and people of many regions. According to a prashashti; in praise of Balban; Gauda, Andhra, Kerala, Karnataka and Maharashtra apparently fled before his armies. However, this appears to be an exaggeration.

By 700; many regions possessed their distinct geographical dimensions, languages and culture. They were associated with specific ruling dynasties which had considerable conflicts amongst them. Occasionally; dynasties like the Tughlaqs, Mughals, Cholas and Khaljis were able to build an empire that was pan-regional i.e. spanning different diverse regions. All these empires were not equally stable or successful. The decline of the Mughal Empire led to the re-emergence of regional states. But the character of the regions was altered by the years of pan-regional, imperial rule. Regions of most of the sub-continent were left with the legacies of big and small states that had ruled over them. This was apparent from the emergence of many distinct and shared traditions in the spheres of governance, management of the economy, and elite cultures and language.

The character of the different regions, through the thousand years felt the impact of pan-regional forces of integration. But these regions did not lose their distinctiveness.

Language and region

In 1318, the great poet Amir Khusrau noted that there was a different language in every region of the subcontinent. Languages like Lahori, Kashmiri, Sindhi, Dwarsamudri, Awadhi, etc. existed in different regions. But the language Sanskrit did not belong to any region. It was an old language and a language not known to the common man, it was known only to the Brahamanas. Some of the languages that he mentioned exist even today in those specific regions whereas some of the languages have got a different name today.

Old and new religions

Major developments in religious traditions took place in these thousand years i.e. between 700 and 1750. The belief people had in the divine was sometimes deeply personal, but more often it was collective in nature. This collective belief in religion was influenced by the social and economic organization of local communities. Hence, as the social worlds of these groups altered, their beliefs also changed.


Many major changes took place during this period in what we call Hinduism today. These changes include;

Another major development during this period was the emergence of the idea of bhakti- of a loving, personal deity that devotees could reach without the aid of priests or elaborate rituals.

Emergence of new religions

Islam: The teachings of the holy Quran were brought by the merchants and migrants in the seventh century. Quran is regarded as the holy book of Muslims and they accept the sovereignty of one God Allah. Many rulers patronized Islam and the ulama.

Different interpretations of Islam

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