04 October 2009

Postal Systems in Mughal Period - Under the reign of Akbar

MEDIEVAL INDIA (1030 – 1757 AD)
Part 9

JALALUDDIN MOHAMMED AKBAR: (reign period 1556-1605)

Under the reign of Akbar, Mughal supremacy extended over most of the Indian subcontinent. Shrewd conciliatory policies turned a loose military confederation of Muslim nobles into a multi-racial bureaucratic empire integrating Muslims and Hindus. Akbar annexed all of northern and parts of central India, through continual warfare. At his death in 1605, the empire extended from Afghanistan to the Bay of Bengal and southward to Gujarat and the north Deccan.

Akbar reformed and strengthened his central administration along the lines of the ‘Sarkar administration’ devised by Sher Shah Suri that was later adopted by Babur as well. He developed a bureaucracy and a system of autonomy for the imperial provinces. To make it easier for governance, Akbar divided the empire into provinces and subdivided them into districts.

The bureaucracy of ranked officials was called the Mansabdars system. These Mansabdars were responsible for the administrative functions of the empire, in particular tax collection. They were paid in cash rather than the traditional grants of land. This allowed for flexibility in the location and type of assignments given. The system was so successful that the British adopted it in large parts much later. Albeit, the Mansabdar system was originated by his predecessor Babur, it was given shape by Akbar.

Under the aegis of Akbar, the Mansabdars constituted the second tier of military governance, subordinate only to the Omrahs, who commanded the armies in the emperor's name. Though usually aristocrats, Mansabdars did not form a feudal aristocracy. About 70 percent of them towards the end of Akbar's reign were of foreign origin, i.e Central Asia and Persian heritage. The remaining 30 percent were almost equally Muslims and Hindus, Rajputs forming the chunk of the Hindus.

There were 33 grades of Mansabdars, graded primarily according to the military officers under the command of each Mansabdar, ranging from 10 to 5,000 in a complicated system. These Mansabdars received a salary, for maintenance of the men under their command.Mansabdars had a dual role in the Mughal administration, that of essentially military commanders but with the additional responsibility of civil postings.

As Mansabdars formed the framework of administration, Akbar ingeniously worked out effective strategies to ensure their loyalty and subordination, to negate the risk of rebellion or local power hegemonies. These measures included induction of primarily Afghan Pashtuns who had no base in India, frequent transfers, the flexibility of revoking the appointment, cash pay-outs and the diversion of revenue collection directly to the treasury. Such checks ensured that neither they had the time nor the opportunity to harness financial resources for raising private armies, or even build up regional connections that could be used against the monarch.

The Mansabdar system assumes importance in the light of the fact that the Dak Chawkis were chiefly controlled by the provincial governments. Dak Chawkis were thus visible throughout the empire, even as Gujarat and parts of Deccan were annexed. A network of 2,000 miles of post roads linked the far-flung areas of his territory.

The system of Dawk-Chawki was established, to procure and transmit secret news and messages along the different dawk routes.

The Chief Darogah or Postmaster networked and administered the news-gathering and postal communications, serving the dual needs of espionage and administration. A Darogah supervised operations at the Dawk Chawki and a Nazir took charge at every pargana level. The Darogah-i-Dawk Chawki at the headquarters of a province or pargana, exercised complete sway over his domain.

The practice of Sher Shah Suri was adhered to, with 2 horses and a set of footmen stationed at the Dak Chawkis at a distance of every 5 kos. The footmen often traversed up to fifty kos in twenty-four hours. Special messengers operated in a similar relay service using post-horses, while carriages drawn by fast stallions were used in times of emergency. It has been noted by Ferishta, that there were 4000 such mail runners on a permanent pay, some of whom rendered exceptional service by even traveling 700 kos in 10 days to transmit urgent messages using post-horses.

The harkara was the lowest rank in the postal administration. In addition to carrying mails, the harkara also made reports to the governor of the province. Letters were carried within a gilded box, carried on the head.Chiefly routine correspondence and express letters were conveyed, to and from the court. The important types of mail carried were (1) Farmans (Royal orders), (2) Shuqque (a letter written directly to any other person by the emperor), (3) Nishan (a letter from a prince or any other royal person), (4) Hasb-ul-hukum (a letter written by a minister, conveying the orders of the Emperor), (5) Sanad (a letter of appointment), (6) Parwanah (an administrative order to a subordinate official), and (7) Dastak (a short official permit).

The Communication system of Akbar was streamlined along lines of prudence which dictated that every measure necessitated a counter-measure. Thus provisions were made to ensure that every news was counter-checked for precision.The postal system was demarcated as (a) the regular postal service and (b) the much acclaimed ‘news-gathering’/Akhbaar Navis system devised by Akbar. The regular postal service was primarily served by mail runners and horse-couriers for urgent transmissions. The Akhbaar Navis or news-gathering system, on the other hand, consisted of the Wagai Navis (News Writers), Sawani Nigar (News Reporters cum Intelligence agent),and Khufia Navis (Secret Agents and Writers)

The Wagai Navis were like the present-day regional news correspondents serving a news agency, reporting both the local news and the district-level happenings. Herein too, Akbar employed the smart strategy of ensuring that these provincial news reporters were not in cahoots with the locals or district officials, to give a warped picture to the emperor, just as in the Mansabdar bureaucratic system.

The Sawani Nigars, primarily entrusted with the task of supervising the postal arrangements, thus doubled up as the emperor’s closet informants, operating much like the sting operators of today, often being amply rewarded for ‘exclusive news’.Over and beyond the above two, were the Sawani Nigars on a regular pay-check, spread all through the subas, functioning independently of the above two. Their operations were covert and underground, under direct surveillance and instructions of the royal court.

The Wagai Navis had his network of grassroots level stringers, in each district and pargana, who kept him posted with all current news of the region on a daily basis. He even had his men posted at offices of the subedar, diwan, faujdar, court of justice, and the Kotwaal’s chabutraa.

A Wagai Navis made his own summary, as in filing news report, and dispatched the same to the Chief Darogah, and the subedar of that province. This was then forwarded to the Darogah-i-Dak-Chawki. However, the reports of the Sawani Nigar were sent directly to the royal court without knowledge of the district or regional officials. Often, they accompanied the military forces outside the country, for communicating updates to the military commanders on site. All such Akhbaar Navis or news-letters were received un-opened by the Mir Bakshi, who ensured that the same were sorted for priority and read before the emperor each evening at 9 pm in the royal court. The Wagai Navis usually send his reports weekly, and the Sawani Nigar, bi-weekly. In some places, like Gujarat, the treasury cash statement drawn by the Diwan also accompanied the dispatches of the provincial governor / subedar.

Pigeon post was in random use, as also camels in desert areas. The pigeon carriers were housed in the royal palace, where they were trained to carry news over the far-flung territories.Extension of the relay postal system in the Deccan started with the conquest of Imad Shahi kingdom of Berar. This region was suitably organized into three subas (districts, comprising of several villages). The system of news conveyance and Khufia Navis underway at the time of military pursuits, continued even after conquest, to evolve as a well-organised postal service in northern Deccan.

The entire series is part of an ongoing research project and can be accessed as a work in progress. Readers are requested to comment, share any resources, materials (maps, covers, books) or information that they feel is pertinent to the research. The same will be duly acknowledged as desired by the reader, collector or dealer.

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