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Make History Fun Again: When India was the manufacturing capital of the world

Textiles of dazzling variety were the backbone of Indian manufacturing, the "most exquisitely wrought brocades, finest linens, silk stuffs interwoven with gold and silver…", as well as carpets, shawls and so on. Woodwork, leather and metalwork were other major crafts.


Updated: January 11, 2019 11:51:40 am
india manufacturing capital Shawl makers in Kashmir, 1867 (Source: plate 2 of William Simpson’s ‘India: Ancient and Modern’/Wikimedia Commons)

(This is part of the series Make History Fun Again, where the writers introduce historical facts, events and personalities in a fun way for parents to start a conversation with their kids.)

By Archana Garodia Gupta and Shruti Garodia

Medieval India was world famous for exquisite goods of all sorts. In fact, Mughal India produced about 25 per cent of global industrial output! Newly rich Europeans could not get enough of fine Indian cloth to make into rich ball-gowns.

Unlike in Europe, Indian manufacturing was not restricted only to certain ‘market’ towns and cities, but was spread throughout the length and breadth of rural India -entire villages and tribes were known for their different specialisations. People wanted shawls from Kashmir and Lahore, carpets woven in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, and fine cotton cloth from Patan, Burhanpur and especially Dhaka (Bangladesh).

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carpet india lahore mughal empire Carpet in India, 17th century AD.(Source: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)

Other than merchants who got these products made on order by the artisans themselves, Mughal royals and nobles provided a lot of work for craftsmen, what with the construction of royal buildings, their lavish furnishings, luxury items and so on.

Royal opulence

Mughal emperors had their own royal karkhanas (workshops) for every conceivable product, dedicated factories churning out the finest quality goods, funded by the royal treasury, meant purely for royal use.

Also Read: Food in British India: Blissful breakfasts and decadent dinners

These karkhanas were a bit like small factories of today, with a professional hierarchy of employees. Each workshop was managed by the karkhanadar. The ustaad, the master-craftsman trained and supervised workers under his eagle eye. Below him were his shagirds, the junior artisan workers who hoped to rise to become ustaads themselves one day! The artisans were invariably male, as women did not “go out to work” if they could help it.

Eyewitness tales

There are some interesting European descriptions of royal karkhanas in Delhi. “Large halls are seen in many places, called Karkhanas…in one hall embroiderers are busily employed, supervised by a master. In another you see goldsmiths, in a third, painters, in a fourth, varnishers in lacquer-work, in a fifth, joiners, turners, tailors and shoemakers, in a sixth, manufacturers of silk, brocade and those fine muslins for turbans, girdles and drawers, so delicately fine as to frequently wear out in one night…

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man robe india A man’s robe with poppies (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Instagram)

“The artisans go every morning to their respective karkhanas, where they remain the whole day; and in the evening return to their homes. In this quiet manner their time glides away; no one aspiring after any improvement in the condition of life where he happens to be born…The embroiderer brings up his son to as an embroiderer, the son of a goldsmith becomes a goldsmith, and city physician educates his son for a physician…no one marries outside his own trade and professions, and this custom is observed as rigidly by Mahometans as by the Gentiles (Hindus).”

Also Read: Nose jobs from ancient India

Royal Mughal karkhanas became the byword for the finest quality, even though the goods were not sold or marketed. They provided a huge source of employment for artisans (but at poor pay, though the quality was always expected to be the highest). For example, Akbar apparently employed thousands of tailors just for his household!

Eventually, some master craftsmen in other regions started setting up their own private karkhanas, with their own artisans, to sell their own products. Many became large and prosperous. For example, in Kashmir, there were entrepreneurial shawl-makers who had workshops with up to 300 looms!

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Textiles of dazzling variety were the backbone of Indian manufacturing, the “most exquisitely wrought brocades, finest linens, silk stuffs interwoven with gold and silver…”, as well as carpets, shawls and so on. Woodwork, leather and metalwork were other major crafts.

ancient india jewels mughals Bracelet in North India in the Mughal period (Source: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)

The more things change…

Interestingly, there was hardly ever any push to improve efficiency and technology to save labour. Indian craftsmen were able to produce extremely high quality work with very simple, basic tools and no one was trying to automate things.

In fact, due to India’s large population, there was often an active resistance to labour-saving devices! For example, the Dutch introduced a technique in the Coromandel, which increased the production of iron nails by four times, but local authorities banned it as they were worried about the unemployment it would cause!

It is intriguing that so many of these threads still run through Indian society today. Certain areas are still known for their specialties, karkhana-style workshops still run today. Artisans are still often employed on per-piece basis, and there is still often resistance to technology that may cause unemployment. It shows us that the more things change in India, the more they stay the same.

(For more fun journeys through India’s history, check out the newly released two-volume set, The History of India for Children Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, published by Hachette India, which is now available online and in bookstores across the country.)

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First published on: 10-01-2019 at 04:51:01 pm

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