The Ganga River & State Formation in Mughal India


A Review of The Political Economy of the Ganga River: Highway of State Formation in Mughal India, c. 1600-1800, by Murari Kumar Jha.

Murari Jha’s dissertation focuses on the river Ganga (and its plains) as a historical roadmap and uses it as a lens to offer views on various historical processes. From a viewpoint of theorisation and methodology, it brings together the Braudelian concept of longue durée with certain problems which historians of South Asia have been engaged with in recent times, most importantly the decline of the Mughal Empire in 18th century, the growth of colonialism and the mercantile underpinning of it, and the various ‘nexuses’ involved in both these processes. It draws heavily on the geopolitical construct of Ganga as the source of legitimacy, kingship, economic drive and political conquests and employs the historical geography of the region as a backdrop to various socio-political and economic investigations.

The thesis is structured in seven chapters with an introductory section at the beginning and a summary conclusion at the end. A glossary of Indian and Indo-Anglian words is given at the beginning and a list of appendices, maps and tables at the end, together with a bibliography. Each chapter has its own introduction and conclusion sections as well.

The introductory section launches the inquiry by providing an insight into the political and historical geography of the Ganga and asking the question, “If the Ganga has been such a vital artery in the political life of South Asian empires, how can we explain the silence about this in the historiography?” (p.3). It then frames Ganga into a longue durée perspective and outlines the specific contents of chapters – Chapter 1, discusses how “the River came to constitute a common, almost civilizational reference point for the Subcontinent” (p.4). Chapters 2 and 3 investigate how “this specific connectivity had far-reaching implications for the historical processes in the Ganga plain and even for the Indian subcontinent as a whole” (p. 4), with Chapter 2 dealing mainly with the pre-Mughal period. Chapter 3 discusses the “human geography of navigation and communication networks through towns,” and shows, “how the Mughal authorities were able to use the logistical facilities of river and roads to control and exploit the region” (p.10). Chapter 4 focuses on production centres of Bihar, with an emphasis on how climatic zones along the river resulted in engagement with alternative occupations. Chapter 5 takes a closer look at the expanding global markets for the region’s primary products: saltpetre, opium, and textiles. It argues that, “as a result of Mughal consolidation, the Ganga plain underwent significant commercial expansion, attracting various Indian merchants as well as the European Companies. Export of commodities brought large amounts of bullion into the region starting in the seventeenth century. The increased wealth engendered a fresh cycle of conquest and state-formation, which undermined the Mughal political economy along the Ganga from around the early eighteenth century,” (p.10). Chapter 6 investigates the nexuses that brought about this change. Chapter 7 demonstrates a process of regional centralization, the local peasant economy of agricultural expansion, resource mobilization, and cash-nexus as dominated by the zamindars. Each chapter has imaginative names which encapsulate the principle foci of investigation – ‘Ganga-myth’ (Chapter 1), ‘Ganga-global’ (Chapter 5) and ‘Ganga-local (Chapter 6) are examples of this approach.

Befitting for a longue durée approach, Jha draws from a wide array of historical sources. Archival data, both in English and Dutch and printed and published texts feature heavily as primary sources. Trailblazing historians of the history of pre-Modern India, such as Satish Chandra, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Muzaffar Alam, Irfan Habib, Om Prakash, Karen Leonard and Chris Bayly feature a good deal. Also worthy of mention is Jha’s focus on specific topical studies within the geopolitical remit of his study – a lot of information is gathered from travelogues, case studies and research papers that developed into wider research themes which concern the areas of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal.

Jha largely creates the geopolitical backdrop for his inquiry in Chapter 1 where he outlines the emergence of the River Ganga as a focal point for an ‘imagined community’ over several centuries through the myths, rituals, and pilgrimages associated with the river which exerted a civilizational ‘pull’ for people of the Indian Subcontinent. In Chapter 2 he demonstrates the impact of environment on history of the Ganga plains. He describes how the region of Bihar emerged as a crucial player in historical processes such as state formation because of its situation between the two environmental zones characterising the Ganga plains. In the following chapter – divided into three sections – he traces the emergence of the Ganga as a trade and information ‘superhighway.’ Section I deals with the Ganga River Systems and its constituent navigation networks, and their role in the political economy of the region. Of particular importance here is the city of Patna, and Jha posits its historical significance within the ambit of the estuarine trade opportunities that the navigation networks of the Ganga presented. Section II covers roads where we find discussions pertaining to ancient, medieval and pre-modern road systems like the Great Northern Road or the Grand Trunk Road and their feeder road-networks. Jha discusses how the movement of people and trade and generation of revenue along these road networks prompted the need for controlling them which in turn acted as a seed for state formation. Section III deals with settlements in the Ganga plains, where the historical importance of towns like Patna, Munger, Bhagalpur, Rajmahal located between the dry and the fertile ecological zones is discussed.

Chapter 4 is devoted to the commercial economy of the Ganga plain. This chapter is divided into two sections – section I deals with the labour market which centers on the population of the Ganga plain with its constituent categories like urban, peasant and service-oriented. Information here is glossed from the records of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Section II covers the production of commodities, both agrarian and non-agrarian. Opium and saltpetre is representative of these categories and Jha subjects data gathered on these to “synthesize information about producers and products,” (p.143-55). A lot of information is drawn from British and Dutch archival sources. Jha demonstrates how these commodities linked Bihar with the long-distance markets within the Ganga plains and what the historical impact of the dynamics of these emergent trade networks was. Chapter 5 takes the analysis further to examine a similar trade dynamic when commodities produced in the eastern Ganga plain were exported outside the region for wider consumption.   Here again, opium and saltpetre are treated as representative commodities with textiles opted as a further adjunct to the analysis. Arguing on the basis of archival data, Jha outlines how the eastern Ganga plain assumed, “a distinct political and economic orientation in the course of the eighteenth century,”(p.196). In Chapter 6, Jha examines the specifics of trade and economic history of the region by treating the city of Patna as his principle focus of inquiry. Here themes on the emerging nexuses predominate; the cash nexus between the European Companies and Asian merchants who were vital forces behind the economic and political transformations of the Ganga plain being dominant among them. Jha discusses how Indian merchants, bankers, and zamindars shared a common trade and economic interest with the Europeans companies and what was the outcome of these engagements in terms of flow of bullion and issuance of coins in the region. Chapter 7 brings us to the end of the chronological spectrum Jha investigates. It analyses how the emergent nexuses led to the fragmentation of Mughal authority in the Eastern Ganga plains and what role agricultural expansion and monetization played in the political dynamics that evolved between regional authorities and foreign mercantile interests, leading to the Diwani Raj of the British East India Company. Here Jha suggests the role of geopolitics of the Ganga River played in outlining how these processes unfolded.

Discursively, Jha’s thesis sits at the crossroads of some approaches and debates South Asian History has witnessed in recent past. It draws on the so-called Marxist approach on taking in themes pertaining to economic history such as trade, monetization, commodity production, and agrarian systems but it also includes elements of an ethno-anthropological inquiry when it talks of communities involved in trade and commerce of the region and the effects they had in creating the political economy, particularly of the Eastern Ganga plains. Most importantly, it recognizes the Ganga as a geopolitical entity worth historicizing and thereby brings historical geography and ethnohistory into its remit.

The understanding of the pre-Modern period in South Asian History is vexed with the problematic or long 18th century. Howthe Mughal Empire fragmented, what role the economic agencies played in it, how colonialism emerged as the dominant political force – such are the questions many historians have grappled with. Jha’s dissertation brings yet another element of analysis in the picture – that of viewing the Ganga in a longue durée perspective and to investigate the role of environment and ecology in these processes. Drawing considerably from studies of Subrahmanyam, Leonard and Bayly, Jha’s approach posits the study of the political economy of the Ganga plains into the ambit of ‘global history’.

Shailendra Bhandare
Ashmolean Museum / St Cross College / Oriental Studies
University of Oxford

Primary Sources:

  • Nationaal Archief, The Hague – select volumes of Archives of the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC)
  • Proceedings and papers from Oriental and India Office Collections, the British Library – Bengal Public Consultations, Bengal Revenue Consultations, Bengal Board of Revenue Proceedings, Patna Factory Records,
  • Dagh-Register gehouden in ’t Casteel Batavia, 31 Vols, 1624 –1682. Edited by J. E. Heeres, and others. The Hague/Batavia, 1887–1931.
  • Generale Missiven van Gouverneurs-Generaal en Raden aan Heren XVII der Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie – volumes 1 to 13, various editors, 1960-2007
  • The Dutch Factories in India: A collection of Dutch East India Company documents pertaining to India. Vol. 1, 1617–1623. Edited by Om Prakash. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1984, and Vol.2, 1624–1627. Edited by Om Prakash. New Delhi: Manohar, 2007.

Dissertation Information:
University of Leiden. 2013. 324 pp.Primary Advisors: Prof. Dr. J.L. Blussé van Oud-Alblas andProf. Dr. J.J.L. Gommans.

Image: Cover art by Author.

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