Laborers and draft animals played underexamined roles in building and operating the waterworks of Mughal gardens and landscapes. This article analyzes four sources of evidence about water-related work: Mughal paintings; historical texts on the political economy of Mughal waterworks; historical sources assessed in relation to modern estimates of human and animal energy needed to build and operate the waterworks; and historical sources considered in relation to the work of natural waters shaping land and society in material and cultural terms. Taken together, these four lines of inquiry provide a unified framework for research on Mughal waterworks and livelihoods.
Mughal gardens have renowned water channels, pools, fountains, and irrigated plantings. These waterworks required enormous amounts of labor to build, operate, and maintain. Previous research has addressed their jointly aesthetic, functional, and spiritual qualities, but limited attention has been given to the labor involved. This article presents a conceptual framework and methods for assessing water-related work in Mughal gardens and landscapes.
Considering recent research on Mughal riverfront gardens in Agra, from the Taj Mahal and Mahtab Bagh to Agra Fort and gardens upstream (Fig. 1), Ebba Koch has assembled a rich array of historical maps, texts, and field research to reconstruct the history of those gardens, including the work of building craftsmen (Koch, 2006, pp. 90–7). Others have studied water-lifting structures, distribution systems, and irrigation requirements (Wescoat, 2000a). Sinha and Ruggles (2004) have contrasted those elevated Mughal riverfront gardens with the immersive ghats at Mathura upstream, which relied on gravity flow of the Yamuna River. In a study approaching the topic considered here, Irfan Habib (1996, p. 133) analyzed Mughal data on the hundreds of animals, gardeners, and equipment employed in four of the major gardens of Agra. Each contribution sheds light on material, political, and spiritual aspects of Mughal era waterworks but stops short of considering: who did the water lifting; how much physical energy did they expend; how were workers sustained? Consequently, few Mughal garden histories have explored the lives of workers and animals who built, operated, and maintained the waterworks and who depended upon them for their livelihoods.
The wider field of water architecture in South Asia and the Middle East has likewise explored important aesthetic, productive, and symbolic aspects of water systems (e.g., Blair and Bloom, 2009; Hegewald 2002; Jain-Neubauer, 2016; Ray and Maddipati, 2019; Ruggles, 2000; 2008; Sadaf, 2012). However, they too have given limited attention to water-related labor and livelihoods. Although it is no longer possible to know who constructed and operated the waterworks, it is possible to study images of that work, compile historical sources on the types of workers involved, estimate how much energy they expended and what food was needed, and reflect upon larger hydroclimatic processes affecting their livelihoods.
These topics have relevance for understanding the social and environmental history of Mughal gardens and landscapes and their relevance to the expanding field of cultural landscape heritage conservation. Workers continue to build, operate, and maintain waterworks for irrigated gardens and landscapes, even though their livelihoods are rarely highlighted as something to be conserved, valued and sustained. Instead, Mughal water heritage conservation has concentrated on the important goals of protecting extant historical structures, using scarce water resources efficiently, interpreting water symbolism, and understanding water experience (e.g., Wescoat, 2021). Research on water livelihoods complements these established fields of heritage conservation.
2 Conceptual Framework
This approach begins by exploring concepts of water-related work in gardens and landscapes, including the work of natural waters in shaping these places. After introducing the concept of work, this framework introduces four bodies of evidence that help reconstruct water-related work: 1) paintings in illustrated historical manuscripts; 2) texts on Mughal political economy; 3) analysis of water-lifting and food energy requirements; and 4) hydroclimatic processes and their meaning. Much like Mughal garden history more generally, this approach involves interdisciplinary sources and methods, in part because limited documentation of Timurid horticultural science has survived (see Habib, 1996; Roth, 2018; Subtelny, 1997). Taken together, these four lines of inquiry offer a rich cultural perspective on water-related work and livelihoods in the Mughal era.
Water-related work encompasses tasks of accessing, carrying, conveying, diverting, irrigating, lifting, and maintaining water systems. It includes floating and boating, which employ the natural work of water for human purposes. These activities involve the design, construction, and maintenance of channels, bridges-of-boats, bunds, fountains, moats, tanks, water-lifting devices, and wells, among others. They require physical work where force (human and animal) is applied to objects (water and waterworks) over some distance (e.g., the depth of a well or length of a water channel). Physical work by humans and animals requires food energy and wages to purchase food.
A related area of work involves social forces that shape the material and spiritual lives of water workers. These workers play vital roles in sustaining human settlements and their cultural modes of hospitality, purification, and economic productivity. Societies shape the lifeways of water work, including beliefs and practices of water in daily life and the social status accorded to water work. Beliefs are influenced in turn by constructive and destructive powers of larger-scale natural water processes – from weather to soil moisture, river flows, floods, droughts, and aquifer recharge – all of which convey water from one phase, place, or use to another. Collectively, these physical, socio-cultural, and environmental processes comprise what is meant by water-related work.
Four types of historical evidence and analysis shed light on these aspects of water-related work in the Mughal context (Fig. 2). Paintings in illustrated historical manuscripts present compelling images of men, women, and draft animals working in rivers, gardens, and irrigated fields – albeit often as incidental subjects. Administrative texts like the Āʾīn-i Akbarī offer fascinating details about types of water work, draft animal diets, and human wages within the larger agrarian system, but few correlations between those topics. Modern research on physical and physiological aspects of water-lifting by humans and animals using technologies in the Mughal era help bridge the gap. It sheds additional light on the gendered division of water labor, estimating how many calories were burned and how much food was required to sustain workers of different ages and genders (cf. Moosvi, 2011). Water-lifting from wells required an extraordinary expenditure of physical energy, compared to daily food energy needed and the purchasing power of Mughal wages. The final section turns to the work of natural waters, from hydroclimatic processes of floods, rainfall, river flows, and storms doing much of the work to transport water from one location, phase, and type of use to another. Natural waters also contribute to cultural work and development in the Indo-Islamic context, as the Quran and other sacred texts make clear in verses on waters “sent down” for the sustenance and gratitude of all living creatures and warnings related to impending storms and floods. Considered together, these four sources of evidence offer a rich perspective on the material and cultural nature of water-related work and livelihoods in Mughal gardens and landscapes.
3 Water and Work in Mughal Painting
Mughal paintings offer vivid representations of water in imperial and, to some extent, ordinary social life (e.g., Verma, 2012). Although sometimes deceptively realistic – paintings included anachronistic scenes, landscapes, painterly conventions, and stock figures inspired by European art – they present detailed imagery of waterscapes and water work that can be compared with historical texts (Natif, 2018, pp. 152–204). The three historical manuscripts considered here provide a small but representative sample: 1) a copy of the Bāburnāma memoirs of the first Mughal ruler Babur (d. 936/1530) in the National Museum of India, New Delhi, (Verma, 2016); 2) a copy of the Akbarnāma biography of the third Mughal ruler Akbar (d. 1014/1605) in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, (Verma, 2019); and 3) a copy of the Pādshāhnāma biography of the fifth Mughal ruler Shah Jahan (d. 1076/1666) in the Royal Trust Collection, London, (Beech and Koch, 1996). Examining the paintings in these three nearly complete historical manuscripts of the first, third, and fifth Mughal rulers offers historical and thematic insights into the representation of water work in Mughal painting.
The Bāburnāma memoirs of the first Mughal ruler comprise images of the king directing small teams of workers to build local garden waterworks. Bāburnāma paintings were produced posthumously to illustrate his memoirs around 1003/1595, decades after the actual events, and had been imagined from the text rather than through direct observation. Nevertheless, the conditions portrayed had some continuities. Subsequent rulers visited Babur’s early gardens in Kabul province (Parodi, 2021). In one illustration, Babur directs masons lining a pool with cut stones while the men concentrate on their work (Fig. 3). Further details reveal two men mixing lime mortar in the lower-left corner, which others carry to the masons constructing the pool. In another version of the same scene, a water skin carrier (bihishtī) serves the masons by transporting water to mix lime mortar as others straighten a small stream channel.
One of the most famous garden paintings portrays Babur laying out the Bāgh-i Wafā or Garden of Fidelity, near Jalalabad along the Kabul River. The double folio depicts strong well-dressed men laying out garden plots with a string (Fig. 4). Additional workers hold digging tools, a gridded garden plan, and royal accoutrements. The central figure in red gestures with his shovel toward water cascading from the garden channel into a square pool. These workers look to the ruler for direction and approval. A subsequent version of this scene shows gardeners cultivating and irrigating plots with their shovels. Another version features a muscular draft animal turning a geared Persian wheel (charkh, rahaṭ), lifting water to the fourfold garden. In each case, small teams of robust men and animals work in Babur’s garden, energetically without alluding to stress or strain. The waterworks are modest in scale but symbolically charged, as their “ten-by-ten gaz [yard]” pools may have been used for ablutions, territorial control, and pleasure. These images in Babur’s memoirs established the symbolic significance of water gardens for Mughal dynastic identity.
The Akbarnāma chronicles the reign of Babur’s grandson Akbar, the third Mughal ruler. Even though its paintings had been produced during the same period as the Bāburnāma, they were nearly contemporary with the events depicted. In place of gardens, they featured large urban infrastructure projects, namely bridges-of-boats, moats, reservoirs, and wells associated with the citadels of Agra, Fathpur Sikri, and Lahore. Fathpur Sikri paintings depicted larger numbers and various types of male and female workers all engaged in architectural projects (Fig. 5). Some half-clothed in the heat carried heavy headloads of earth and stone, while others mixed mortar for the masons. Laborers used hoe-like shovels as stonecutters hammered and chiseled. Meanwhile, a Persian wheel with its chain of pots stood ready to lift water from the shallow reservoir aquifer to elegant channels in the palace complex. Nearly everyone is engaged in physical work, leaving few observers.
The Akbarnāma described the king as fascinated with building crafts, sometimes joining in the work of his kār-khānas (workshops). A Portuguese Jesuit emissary to Akbar’s court wrote: “[Akbar] is so devoted to building that he sometimes quarries stone himself along with the other workmen” (Montserrat quoted in Habib, 1997, p. 129). His biographers and painters depicted him as physically larger but personally connected with the workers in these scenes.
The Pādshāhnāma records the reign of Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan in a manuscript illustrated a half-century later (Beech and Koch, 1997). A painting of Shah Jahan hunting shows royal figures in the foreground, along with gardeners and animals lifting and managing water in the agrarian background (Fig. 6a). The foreground, forested and teeming with animals, some drinking from a stream, seemingly offers an invitation for hunters to take them. The stream visually connects the foreground and background, creating a dual impression as both a source and outlet for the distant well. The irrigators in their fields are shown to be dependent on the power and authority of the royal hunter, who is separated from the physical work of the ruled, the latter portrayed as diminished in stature.
A closer inspection of the irrigated landscape stands in stark contrast with the dense forest in the hunting scene (Fig. 6b). The agrarian background depicts men and animals hard at work lifting water and filling channels to irrigate fields. One man drives a pair of animals pulling ropes with a pulley tied to a leather bucket in a well. The three figures lean forward, straining to raise the water bucket. Their efforts are distinguished from a man waiting for the bucket to reach the surface, later to be emptied into a small channel. Between these figures, a gardener squats near the water channel, directing its flow toward flowering plants lining the water’s edge. Further in the distance, another pair of animals lift water from a well to irrigate four fields, forming a quadripartite layout enclosed by a simple boundary. More generally, physical work and production were governed by the royal hunt.
Table 1 sets the examples discussed above within the broader context of the three historical manuscripts (published in Verma, 2016; 2019; Beech and Koch, 1996). It lists major types of water imagery, the number of images from each type, and the percentage of total water images represented.
3.1 Flowing Water (Ferries, Floods, Rain, and Rivers)
By far, the most frequent water images involved storms and precarious river crossings. Fording rivers occurred during military campaigns and adventurous exploration. Early scenes in the Bāburnāma featured steep mountain streams, enhanced by masonry pools and flowering trees. Rivers of the Indo-Gangetic plains, by contrast, swelled in massive flows defying Mughal control and challenging each effort to cross them on boats, bridges-of-boats, horseback, inflated skins, and rafts. In some paintings, strong men swam alongside rafts carrying Babur through a turbulent river teeming with aquatic creatures. Expressing gratitude for successful crossings and protection against floods was an important takeaway from the imagery.
A famous disaster depicted in the Akbarnāma involved Humayun’s near-drowning in the Ganges River near Chausa. After the event, he gratefully elevated the low-status carrier who saved him to a level that offended his nobles. Additional Akbarnāma paintings showed skilled boatmen rowing and steering across rivers and fishermen hauling in their catch with techniques that intrigued Akbar. The work of boating and fishing complemented water-lifting and irrigation.
In Shah Jahan’s time, the Mughals had gained experience and control over river crossings. Panoramic paintings of riverfront wedding processions and firework festivals replaced turbulent flood scenes. Prince Aurangzeb Alamgir wrote to his father Shah Jahan in 1062/1652: “… water had completely submerged the Mahtab Garden [in Agra],” but, “… in the near future, it will attain renewed freshness” (Begley and Desai, 1989, p. 177).
Religio-poetic paintings depicting monsoon storms as romantic night scenes with snake-like bolts of lightning that illuminated lovers on the balconies of palace pavilions had joyful associations with musical ragas of the rainy season (Rajamani, Pernau, and Schofield, 2018; Singh, 2017). Surprisingly, few Mughal paintings, vis-à-vis texts and inscriptions, conveyed the Quranic ethos of rains sent down to “land that was dead” (e.g., Q 36:34). They dealt more commonly with vulnerability to storms and floods (e.g., Q 2: 19–21).
3.2 Streams and Canals
It was a short step from Babur’s mountain streams to improved channels that supplied small pools and gardens. They served as territorial markers as well as aesthetic improvements (Wescoat, 1985). Workers cut channels, mixed mortars, and set stones while flowing waters did the rest of the work. Fewer paintings focused on the intermediate scale of irrigation canals. Mughal rulers renovated and constructed several large canals in the Indo-Gangetic plains, but they were rarely depicted in paintings. The Akbarnāma contained images of moats surrounding citadels, and the Pādshāhnāma had images of water channels flowing steadily across the landscape, but few depictions of the massive earthworks and labor needed were illustrated.
3.3 Water Lifting from Wells
Several Bāburnāma paintings revealed wells at the center of common village scenes. Although Babur drew attention to geared Persian wheels (another form of water collection), they were more often depicted in Akbarnāma paintings, like the ones at the new courtly center of Fathpur Sikri. Wells were common in Pādshāhnāma paintings, but mainly as small pen-and-ink drawings of figures and animals at work in distant agrarian landscapes.
Most rural communities relied upon wells, sometimes lined with masonry but more often earthen shafts requiring regular maintenance by well diggers (chāhkan) and well cleaners (ghota-khur). These have been discussed by the art historian Ahsan Jan Qaisar (1988, p. 21), who drew attention to paintings of water-related building technologies with lime mortars (chūnā) and plasters (gach) used for waterproofing wells and cisterns. Some paintings portrayed the gendered division of water labor. In these examples, women pulled ropes over pulleys to fill pots for domestic needs, but rarely was their strenuous labor conveyed (Fig. 7). In further examples, men irrigated fields with draft animals and women transplanted paddy (Moosvi, 2011). Some paintings showed simple water levers with counterweights (dhenklī) used for shallow lifts from surface water bodies and shallow wells. Deeper wells required more arduous work by animals pulling ropes tied to leather buckets (charas). Animals also turned geared Persian wheels (charkh, rahaṭ), lifting chains of terracotta water pitchers circling round and round in more mechanically efficient but still grueling shifts (Habib, 1997; Schiøler, 1973; Singh, 1985).
3.4 Water Storage in Reservoirs and Tanks
Paintings of water stored in tanks were most common in the Akbarnāma. The large reservoir impounded for Fathpur Sikri in the 970s–80s/1570s appeared in the foreground of several construction images. Its earthen dam (bund) created by human and animal power was not depicted. Once constructed, the reservoir facilitated the transport of construction materials and recharged wells supplying Persian wheels near its banks, lifting water to buildings and courtyards on the ridge. An early seventeenth-century traveler William Finch noted problems with these waterworks that reportedly contributed to the shift from Fathpur Sikri to Lahore in 993/1585 (quoted in Brand and Lowry, 1985, pp. 214–5).
3.5 Water Display and Experience in Baths, Channels, Fountains, and Garden Pools
Many Bāburnāma garden paintings depicted water flows that supplied a delightful series of channels, fountains, and pools. Some featured a single pool with a sprinkling fountain or a pair of water birds. More elaborate images in the Pādshāhnāma showed dynamic cascades of water over marble niches (chīnī khāna) and inclined planes (chādar). These rushing but simultaneously controlled waters had performative aesthetic roles, and while seemingly effortless they were supported by less commonly depicted labor-intensive water supplies. Even though Akbar’s water patronage focused more on citadels than garden waterworks, these too required substantial labor investments. Shah Jahan later constructed monumental gardens and waterworks that were not included within the Pādshāhnāma, suggesting they had less significance for dynastic representation than the formal architectural assemblies featured in the manuscript.
3.6 Water Maintenance and Discharge
Cleaning and drainage are practical aspects of water management that were rarely recorded in Mughal paintings. Polluted waters likewise remained hidden from view. The closest image of this subject was found on a double folio from another Akbarnama manuscript where the emperor supervised men desilting a tank near Nagaur Fort in Rajasthan. This work demonstrated civic leadership and good governance (Fig. 8ab). Here, strong male workers looked to Akbar for direction and approval while an array of less muscular and dependent citizens stretched out their hands in supplication.
3.7 Irrigated Fields without Workers
There are few images of cultivated fields in the three manuscripts considered, which is surprising because most Mughal wealth came from land revenue (Moosvi, 1987). Background landscapes were often depicted as open plains and rugged mountains, offering glimpses into the agricultural hinterlands. Although some of the above illustrations included irrigators, many displayed open fields.
3.8 Images of Water Workers
The water workers most frequently shown in early Mughal paintings were boatmen undertaking strategic and dangerous river crossings. The second most commonly depicted workers were gardeners constructing pools and cultivating small plots of land. The Pādshāhnāma depicted additional water workers, albeit often as tiny figures in the distance. Occasionally, a larger well-appointed water carrier (bihishtī) sprinkled the royal courtyard.
3.9 Summary of Water and Work in Mughal Paintings
Mughal paintings offer important insights into water-related work. They illustrate how small water improvements by masons and gardeners played an important symbolic role in early state formation, especially because large rivers posed major challenges for the regime. At a distance from the rivers, humans and animals drew buckets from wells, and draft animals turned geared Persian wheels for irrigation. Paintings rarely depicted water officials, though administrative texts mentioned titles like mīr-āb for those regulating larger irrigation systems.
4 The Political Economy of Water-related Work
Manuscripts portrayed several aspects of the political economy pertaining to water through various texts and images, particularly the Bāburnāma, which emphasized the territorial context of garden waterworks. In one instance, before a major battle, Babur took a vow: “in the place where the wine was poured out[,] a stepwell was dug, and I made an intention to have it finished in stone and a charitable building built next to it” (Babur, 1996, p. 374). However, instead of filling the garden pool with wine, he ordered it filled with lemonade (Babur, 1996, pp. 373–6; Gulbadan Begam, 1987, p. 98). He wrote with satisfaction that his baths and garden waterworks had adapted to Agra’s climate to the point where the city resembled Kabul (Koch 1997).
He remained perplexed by the ephemeral nature of water-related settlements in Hindustan, noting:
on the banks of some large rivers and riverbeds, due to the monsoon rains, there are gullies preventing passage … in Hindustan[,] there is little running water aside from great rivers … all the cities and provinces live from well or pond water, which is collected from the monsoon rains … if they have a mind to build a city, there is no necessity for digging irrigation canals or building dams. Their crops are all unirrigated. A group of people gets together, makes a pond or digs a wellBabur, 1996, p. 334
Villagers mobilized to build useful and defensive waterworks, and they dispersed when threatened by the Mughal army and its corvée system, sometimes even breaking a dam (bund) and retreating to islands in the flooded area for protection.
Babur contrasted two types of wells in the Punjab region of Hindustan. He criticized wells with draft animals pulling ropes up and down an inclined slope as the dirty ropes slid back into the well. He contrasted them with the ingenuity and productivity of geared Persian wheels driven by draft animals yoked to a pull-bar (Babur, 1996, p. 333; for a rich discussion of this technology, see Habib, 1997; Schiøler, 1973; Siddiqui, 1986; Singh, 1985; Wahi, 2014). Nevertheless, Babur’s early technological and environmental observations had limited impact because even the grand waterworks at the Taj Mahal complex, built a century later, employed teams of animals pulling ropes down an inclined earthen ramp to lift water from the Yamuna riverfront to the aqueduct above.
By the end of the sixteenth century, the Mughals had developed an elaborate agrarian regime based on both rainfed and irrigated agriculture. The encyclopedic Āʾīn-i Akbarī (Institutes of Akbar) compiled information about imperial weights, labor and revenue rates, measures, offices, and sciences related to this enterprise. Despite the absence of a separate section devoted to water, it contained many references to water within the broader political-economic context of the regime. The colonial economic historian W.H. Moreland (1929) drew heavily upon the Āʾīn-i Akbarī when characterizing the Mughal political economy as an “agrarian system” that exploited peasant cultivators. Irfan Habib (2014) later reframed the argument through a Marxist perspective on Mughal political economy and its jagir crisis, when land revenue grantees (jagirdars) ultimately demanded more than peasant cultivators could pay. Habib also argued that colonial exploitation was at least as oppressive as that of the Mughals. Historians have debated these arguments, marshaling evidence of relative prosperity during some periods and regions of the Mughal empire and offering different arguments for its eventual decline (e.g., Alam and Subramanyam, 1998; Richards, 1993). It is interesting to study the Āʾīn-i Akbarī for its attention to political-economic aspects of water work as well.
One section of the Āʾīn-i Akbarī lists categories of construction workers, including several types of water workers and their wages. It begins with the relatively high status and wages of skilled carpenters, lime workers, and stonemasons, among others (Abuʾl Fazl, 1989, vol. 1, pp. 235–6). Unskilled laborers comprised three classes of diggers (bēldārs), paid by the linear yard with declining rates based on the importance of the earthworks, e.g., from fortress walls at the higher end to moats and ditches at the lower end (Fig. 9). Most water labor drew low wages, but was not forced (bēgār) (Habib, 2014, p. 289 note). There also were three classes of well-diggers (chāh-kan). Wages for well cleaners (ghota-khur) depended upon the season of the year (cold weather brought higher wages). Water carriers (āb-kash) “… furnish[ed] housebuilders with water for mortar and quicklime” and were paid by the day (Abuʾl Fazl, 1989, vol. 1, p. 236).
Āʾīn 22 dealt with the ābdār khāna, or drinking water department, whose workers managed the acquisition and transport of water and ice for the elite (Abuʾl Fazl, 1989, vol. 1, pp. 57–8). Akbar drank water brought in sealed jars from the Ganges, which was deemed healthy in spiritual and physiological terms. Water for cooking came from the Yamuna or Chenab Rivers, while the ice was transported by boat from the mountains. Poorer classes drank water from locally dug wells and bodies of surface water (Crooke, 1989, pp. 92–4).
When considering gardens and irrigated fields, fascinating patterns emerge. Many field crops in northern India were rainfed, while gardens and orchards were irrigated by wells (Habib, 2014, p. 29). Unlined earthen wells were common in alluvial areas with shallow water tables and required repair each growing season. Masonry-lined wells served more prosperous settlements, while rock-cut wells and tanks were common in the Deccan volcanic region of central and western India. Floodplain inundation farming (sailābī) was practiced along major rivers and ephemeral streams in semi-arid areas of Punjab. Floodplain cultivators shifted dwelling locations and floor elevations in response to river channel changes. In larger irrigation systems, they maintained earthen dikes and channels to direct water toward the fields.
Sultanate and Mughal rulers built several large perennial canals serving as precedents for the later expansion of irrigated agriculture in the British colonial period (Siddiqui, 1986). Akbar ordered the renovation of Firoz Shah Tughluq’s (d. 790/1388) large west Yamuna canal (Habib, 1999, pp. 33–9 and notes). Shah Jahan ordered an extension of the same canal to his new capital of Shahjahanabad in Delhi. It supplied Princess Jahanara Begam’s grand Chandni Chowk canal through the center of the city, as well as her massive gardens north of the avenue. Untold numbers of beldars and draft animals labored on the canal works. Shahjahanabad Fort had a small analogue of the canal taking the form of an elegant white marble channel called the Nahr-i Bihisht (River of Paradise). It cooled each marble pavilion along the ramparts, culminating in an elegant lotus-foliated shallow marble pool cascading over a chīnī khāna into a garden water tank.
Another long-distance royal canal was excavated from the Ravi River to supply Shah Jahan’s monumental Shalamar garden and surrounding fields in the suburbs of Lahore. These canals were constructed by laborers and administered by officials (mīr-āb) who regulated water diversions and annual maintenance (Wahi, 2013). Several painted maps depicted large canals and their offtakes into adjacent fields (Gole, 1989, pp. 104–9), but few texts described on-farm water management.
The Āʾīn-i Akbarī did compile statistics on land classification, measurement, and revenue collection. Revenue tax rates varied by type of crops, soils, and whether lands were irrigated or rainfed, but they averaged about 50% of gross production (Habib, 2014; Moosvi, 1987). Some historians estimate that cultivators needed to retain at least 30% of gross production for food and basic necessities (Moosvi, 1987), leaving a slim margin of 20% for crop losses, debt payments, and other expenses. During periods of scarcity, some peasants sought military service to replace agricultural income, relocated to more favorable locations, or sought work in towns.
To grasp the broader economic context of water work, it should be noted that 82% of imperial revenues were allocated to officers maintaining their animals, postings, and troops (Moosvi, 1987, pp. 224–71). An additional 9% went to the royal military service, while at least 5% supported the large imperial household. In the imperial household account, the largest expenditures, 24%, went to gems and ornaments, followed by 19% for the harem. Smaller amounts of about 8% each went to alms, building construction, cash, hunting animals, kitchens, utensils, and wardrobes (Moosvi, 1987, p. 268). An estimated 3.6% of the household budget was allocated to books and paintings described earlier in this article.
Financing for imperial waterworks was limited to occasional canal and reservoir projects. Some harem members, merchants, nobles, and the royals financed charitable water supplies at caravanserais, mosques, step-wells, and urban squares. Land grant holders (jāgīrdārs and zamīndārs) who held longer-term tenures invested in local irrigation works, increasing the quality, quantity, reliability of production, and revenues, thereby improving their palaces and gardens in the process. For example, the Iranian noble ʿAli Mardan Khan (d. 1067/1657) commissioned a canal from the Tavi River to his land grant in Sodhra in Punjab (Wahi, 2014). Far more widespread in spatial and political-economic terms were the local village-financed wells, covering their construction and maintenance.
Official imperial histories cast this regime in ethico-religious terms. The following passage from the Āʾīn-i Akbarī (Abuʾl Fazl, 1989, vol. 1, p. 12) reflected the values associated with Mughal political economy:
Every man of sense and understanding knows that the best way of worshipping God consists in allaying the distress of the times, and in improving the condition of man. This depends, however, on the advancement of agriculture, on the order kept in the king’s household, on the readiness of the champions of the empire, and the discipline of the army. All this is again connected with the exercise of proper care on the part of the monarch, his love for the people, and with an intelligent management of the revenues and the public expenditure. It is only when cared for that the inhabitants of the towns and those of the rural districts, are able to satisfy their wants, and to enjoy prosperity. Hence it is incumbent on just kings, to care for the former, and to protect the latter class of men. If some say that to collect wealth, and to ask for more than is absolutely necessary, is looked upon as contemptible by people given to retirement and seclusion, whilst the opposite is the case with the inhabitants of the towns, who live in a dependent position, I would answer that it is after all only shortsighted men who make this assertion; for in reality both classes of men try to obtain that which they think necessary. Poor but abstemious people take a sufficient quantity of food and raiment, so as to keep up the strength necessary for the pursuit of their enquiries, and to protect them against the influence of the weather; whilst the other class think to have just sufficient when they fill their treasuries, gather armies, and reflect on other means of increasing their power.
The king’s ethico-religious role in this version of the “circle of justice” ideology was unquestioned (Darling, 2002). Ensuring peasant livelihoods and security was a common apology for the Mughal military and agrarian system. Abuʾl Fazl’s reference to the “… sufficient quantity of food and raiment [needed] to keep up the strength necessary …” is examined in greater detail in the next section of the article. It is important at this point to consider how a centuries-long debate about the political economy of irrigation had its origins in a late-seventeenth-century account of Mughal India.
After a decade of traveling in India, the French physician-philosopher Francois Bernier wrote a report titled “Concerning Hindustan” for Jean-Baptiste Colbert (d. 1683), finance minister to the French king Louis XIV (d. 1715) that had a lasting impact. Responding to a question about the benefits of private property versus absolute state ownership, Bernier (1891, pp. 29–30) wrote about Mughal India at that time:
… a tyranny often so excessive as to deprive the peasant and artisan of the necessaries of life, and leave them to die of misery and exhaustion … As the ground is seldom tilled otherwise than by compulsion, and as no person is found willing or able to repair the ditches and canals for the conveyance of water, it happens that the whole country is badly cultivated, and a great part rendered unproductive from the want of irrigation … The facts I have mentioned are sufficient to account for the decline of the Asiatic states. It is owing to this miserable [despotic] system of government that most towns of Hindoustan [sic] are made up of earth, mud, and other wretched materials….
Bernier’s account was calculated to indirectly caution the French regime about the dangers of despotism, for most cultivation in India involved floodplain farming, rainfed cropping, and well irrigation rather than large-scale canal irrigation. Nevertheless, two centuries later, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels applauded Bernier’s account as historical evidence for the theory that despotic Oriental states developed large-scale irrigation works through corvée labor to produce surplus agricultural wealth for the imperial treasury, which was detrimental to societal development. They argued that the so-called Asiatic Mode of Production was inherently unsustainable and cyclical over time. While Marx set these ideas aside, historian Karl Wittfogel (1957) revived the “hydraulic hypothesis” for Asiatic state formation in his Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. Later refuted by several generations of social scientists and historians of irrigation, Wittfogel succeeded in focusing attention on political-economic and social aspects of water control (Habib, 2014, p. 297; Wescoat, 2000b). Discussion of these broader theoretical debates lies beyond the scope of this article, but their emphasis on linkages between governance, labor, and water has relevance. The Mughal agrarian system invested little in water infrastructure and extracted revenues “… leaving the peasant just the barest minimum needed for subsistence” (Habib, 2014, p. 367). These minimum food and water needs have not been estimated in Mughal political-economic histories to date.
5 Energy and Food Requirements for Water Work
Previous sections have raised questions about the availability of food and water for workers and their animals. Some answers can be found in the Āʾīn-i Akbarī, providing quantitative estimates of food requirements for domesticated animals in the royal stables. For example:
Elephants – Āʾīn 34 specified the weight of feed provided for different types, genders, and sizes.
Horses – Āʾīn 51 described different types and quantities of feed (grain, oats, vetch, ghī, sugar, salt) for varying types and genders.
Camels – Āʾīn 62 listed the weight of grass required for the types and ages.
Mules – Āʾīn 70 indicated the feed for country-bred and foreign-bred animals.
Cattle had special relevance for water work. Āʾīn 67 reported that a male buffalo, “… when young, fights astonishingly, and will tear a lion to pieces. When this particular strength is gone, it reaches the second stage and is used for carrying water” (Abuʾl Fazl, 1989, vol. 1, p. 158). Male buffaloes were fed more grain and grass than females. Milk cows received ghī in proportion to their milk yield. Dogs, hawks, leopards, and other hunting animals – some trained to lure or drive prey to water tanks – had daily meat allowances. Animal nutrition data was proportionate to the burden, e.g., more was allotted for animals engaged in excavations, water-lifting, and other types of grueling water-related work.
In contrast, the Āʾīn-i Akbarī completely overlooked human food needs concerning nutrition and development, aside from brief discussions on alms for the poor, fasting, and feasts (e.g., Āʾīn 26). Instead, it listed wages for different occupations and average food prices for grains, meats, spices, vegetables, (Āʾīn 27) and fruits (Āʾīn 28).
Nonetheless, certain omissions can be estimated using modern methods of calculating human and animal food and water requirements for different types of work. In the Mughal context, most water used for building, domestic, and irrigation purposes was lifted from wells, requiring substantial energy expenditure to excavate and operate. Local drinking water was carried in pots, usually by women and girls (Fig. 7). Water is a heavy substance, weighing one kilogram per liter, and can be difficult to lift with simple rope-and-pulley or windlass devices (Fig. 10).
Modern studies estimate that a human being needs a minimum of five liters per capita per day (LPCD) of potable water; and 20 LPCD for basic cooking, drinking, and hygiene (WHO, 2017, p. 84). If a family of four needs 80 liters per day, then 80 kilograms of water must be lifted and carried each day. Women often transported water and soil when desilting waterworks in heavy headloads (Fig. 11). Household gardens, by comparison, required cubic meters of water weighing thousands of kilograms, which in Mughal times required draft animals.
Mughal sources did not quantify human and animal work in these terms, but undoubtedly, they had some understanding of capabilities, limits, and needs based on experience. Subsequent colonial officials during British rule began to quantify food requirements to estimate famine rations, jail diets, military provisions, and related imperial concerns (Arnold, 1994). Postcolonial research has shifted to address the effects of food insecurity and nutrition deficiencies on cognitive development, maternal health, and stunting (Aga Khan University et al., 2018), raising important questions about those aspects of life during earlier periods.
While it is not possible to study many of these issues from Mughal period evidence, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has developed manuals on food energy conversion, human and animal nutrition, and water lifting technologies for various kinds of work that can be applied to assess certain aspects of Mughal conditions (e.g., FAO, 2002; 2004; Fraenkel and Thake, 2006). Historians of technology have also analyzed the mechanics of ancient water-lifting devices (e.g., Oleson, 1984; Schiøler, 1973), including several used in Mughal times.
Linking these historical and modern studies can be accomplished by considering two main types of work: 1) mechanical work – when energy is transmitted by a force over some distance (e.g., to lift the weight of water from the depth of a well); and 2) thermodynamic work – when energy is transferred from one system to another (e.g., from food metabolism to mechanical work). The efficiencies of mechanical technologies and energy conversion processes also need to be considered. Lifting a water bucket from a well 1–5 meters deep might have a mechanical efficiency of only 5–15% (Fraenkel and Thake, 2006, pp. 158–62). The pulleys shown in Mughal paintings reduced the friction of rope against the stone at the top of a well – though rope abrasion is evident on many masonry wells in archaeological sites throughout India. Single pulleys do not reduce the weight lifted but rather transfer work from relatively weak arm muscles to stronger back and leg muscles. Some mechanical advantage is gained by having draft animals pull the rope down a slope rather than a level surface, as witnessed in Mughal gardens at Agra and other cities. Geared Persian wheels have a much greater mechanical advantage (see Schiøler, 1973 classification, pp. 11–5; efficiency calculations, pp. 21–2; and his review of Indian texts, pp. 84–9). They can lift water from ten meters deep with flow rates of 5–25 cubic meters per hour and 40–70% efficiency (Fraenkel and Thake, 2006, pp. 158–62). Even though scholars have debated whether rope-and-bucket (charas) or Persian wheel (charkh, rahaṭ) technologies lifted water from greater depths, it seems clear that both were employed in moderately deep dug wells in northern India (see Singh, 1985).
How much food energy do human beings need to lift buckets of water for household bathing, cooking, and drinking? Assuming that human physiology has not changed much since Mughal times, modern estimates of human energy requirements for tasks such as water-lifting can be used (FAO, 2002; 2004). Daily human energy expenditure is estimated as a multiple of the Basal Metabolism Rate (BMR), i.e., the energy expended while sleeping and resting, multiplied by a Physical Activity Ratio (PAR) for different types of work, averaged over the course of a day. The BMR ranges from 45–70% of daily energy use (FAO, 2004, p. 7). Food ingestion and digestion consume an additional 10% of daily energy use. Beyond these basal and digestive functions, PARs vary by age, gender, and weight for different types of work. For example, the estimated PARs for women’s household work of cleaning, cooking, and washing have moderate values of 2.1–2.3, meaning they more than double the rate of BMR energy expended during those activities. Agricultural labor has a higher PAR of 4.1, and carrying water has an even higher PAR of 4.4 (FAO, 2004, p. 36). However, these higher levels of activity are not continuous. Over the course of a day, healthy rural laborers have an estimated average of 2.2 PAR, which is the highest FAO (2004) category for rural energy expenditure.
What do these estimates mean in terms of the food needed to perform water work? Tables of caloric energy requirements vary for different PARs, ages, and body weights (FAO, 2004, pp. 41–6). For example, a young woman 18–30 years of age, with a weight of 50 kg, working at an average PAR of 2.20 requires 2,700 kcal of food energy per day. A young man of that age with a weight of 60 kg and PAR of 2.20 requires 3,500 kcal.
Peasants in Mughal India had limited food resources. Some consumed fewer valuable grains than the wheat they produced for rent and the market (Habib, 2014; Moosvi, 1987). Peasant cultivators probably consumed less protein but more calories than pastoralists. Consumption of essential micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) remains unknown without skeletal analysis. Considering macronutrients, a household of four cultivating a 0.2 ha paddy field with an average annual 20% loss of the crop would have to retain 60–90% of the harvest to meet their basic caloric requirements (Fraenkel and Thake, 2006, p. 172). Mughal revenue extraction for smallholders would have led to the loss of lean body mass in adults, lower birth weights, maternal mortality, and stunting of infants and children. Mughal accounts omitted these widespread conditions of chronic distress, although famines exacerbated by floods and droughts, and somewhat alleviated by royal policies, were sometimes recorded (Habib, 2014, pp. 112–22).
Rural households have relied on animals for water-lifting and irrigation because human beings cannot sustain the strenuous activity of water-lifting over long periods of time. During the course of an hour, for example, a 20-year-old male worker can sustain an energy expenditure of about 160 watts, while a 60-year-old male can expend about 110 watts per hour, and only for a few hours per day (Fraenkel and Thake, 2006). Draft animals are many times more powerful than humans. An ox can exert 300 to 500 watts, and a buffalo 600 to 1000 watts, against a Persian wheel pull-bar over a period of four hours (Fraenkel and Thake, 2006, p. 186). Paintings of wells make it clear that women lifted water in pots, while men carried it in leather skins, and animals lifted larger volumes in buckets to irrigate gardens and fields. The vital work of animals and plants in providing water and energy necessitates a reconsideration of human water work within a broader perspective on natural waters.
6 The Work of Natural Waters (Floods, Rain, and Rivers)
Natural hydroclimatic processes envelop workers and their gardens. In the Mughal period, most agricultural lands were rainfed (bārānī) or flood irrigated (sailābī), which meant natural processes did most of the physical work of watering gardens and fields. In modern climatological terms, large amounts of latent energy are released during rainfall and absorbed through evapotranspiration. These energy and heat fluxes are orders of magnitude greater than those involved in water-lifting by humans and animals, who depend upon them for food, water, and thermal comfort. Some of Babur’s first observations of India concerned its challenging climate and massive rivers. Mughal sources noted monsoon failures that contributed to famines, but not ordinary rainfall for local water use. Even in normal years, rains in the brief monsoon period had to support animals, humans, and vegetation for the remainder of the year, an achievement met by water storage and release from aquifers, tanks, and wells.
Gratitude, humility, and knowledge of weather and climate are warranted in regions of variable monsoon rainfall. Quranic verses inscribed on Mughal monuments, including the Taj Mahal, and embraced by society at large remind faithful Muslims of the rain “sent down” for the mercy and sustenance of all life (Q 2:22). Rain is a sign of Allah’s beneficence for those who understand, and all creatures express gratitude. “It is Allah Who sends forth the Winds, so that they raise up the Clouds, and We drive them to a land that is dead, and revive the earth therewith after its death: even so (will be) the Resurrection!” (Q 35:9). Monsoon revival of dry lands is a sign of the resurrection and paradisiacal gardens to come. Pious kings exercising just rule helped ensure reliable rainfall and disaster relief during its absence. Larger-scale climatic shifts had cultural as well as environmental implications (Ray, 2019).
River flows enabled mechanical work and floodplain farming (sailābī). Babur distinguished streams by their capacity to do work, e.g., a “one-mill stream” could turn one mill in the hilly environs of Samarqand and Kabul. In modern terms, streams release potential energy; and when dammed, store potential energy for later use. Cultivators knew how much land could be irrigated by different types of streams and wells. Floodplain farmers adjusted to fluctuating flows, sediment transport, and resultant soil conditions at a time when peasant mobility was less constrained. Preparation of floodplain soils and seed beds required close attention to flow conditions, as planting occurred soon after flood waters receded. Mughal records attributed crop losses as much to flooding as drought. Powerful groups settled on elevated riverfront terraces in proximity to water with a lower flood frequency. Mughal rulers built citadels on the high side of river crossings. Surprisingly, they built few flood protection works, a notable exception was Aurangzeb’s Alamgiri bund in Lahore during the 1070s/1660s (Bernier, 1891, pp. 383–4 and footnote). Far more extensive were the enhanced inundation canals modifying natural floodplain channels. Great inundation canals required large-scale labor mobilization by the state, while small ones could be undertaken through local communities. In each case, they converted rainfed to irrigated land for Mughal revenue purposes.
Mughal citadels in Lahore and Shahjahanabad faced issues of channel migration away from the city through fluvial processes beyond their capacity to control. River channel change and extreme events can be analyzed in physical terms, as functions of climate change, rainfall, runoff, sediment transport, and slopes, along with Indo-Islamic sources interpreting them in cultural ways. Floods, much like droughts, served as warnings (e.g., Q 2:19). Good rulers provided protection extending to flood disasters and related crop failures and diseases. Cultivators looked to higher powers as well as spiritual intercessors for protection from droughts, floods, and associated hazards. Some invoked the power of Khwaja Khidr as the patron saint of rivers and river crossings (Halman, 2013). Mughal rulers, such as Akbar, had Sanskrit epics and folklore translated and illustrated (e.g., the story of Raj Kunwar and the women at the well in Fig. 7). People continued listening with awe and rapture to malhar ragas celebrating the rainy season (Rajamani et al., 2018), and offered prayers at shrines in times of drought and distress.
Allegorical paintings conveyed the religio-cultural work of flowing streams as well as their larger landscapes (e.g., Natif, 2018, pp. 152–204). A Mughal copy of the Bustan (orchard, flower garden), written by the famous fourteenth-century Shirazi poet Sadi, contained a painting titled “A Sinner’s Plea to God” (Fig. 12). The sinner was a drunk who cried out (in)appropriately to Allah for pardon in a mosque. In the painting, only the flask next to the praying figure alludes to that part of the story. A spring emanates from the elevated ground beneath him as a motif of piety rather than disgrace. Kneeling below, a man performs his ablutions in flowing water, indicated by the scalloped river edge and surface waves, deemed inherently pure. Further downstream, two men engage in a lively discussion with books nearby, perhaps over a theological question. All of these spiritual acts occurred along the banks of a flowing river. In the distance, an ascetic wandered across open lands near a flock of animals. An enclosed garden next to the walled city completed this scene of worldly order associated with pious humility and flowing waters.
Considered together, these four approaches to water-related work enrich the history of Mughal landscapes, and each offers distinctive insights. Paintings illustrate the jointly hazardous and fructifying role of water in its diverse forms, with an emphasis on the former in Baburnama paintings and the latter in Padshahnama paintings. Mughal paintings offer limited, but by no means absent, attention to people and animals who did the work, rendering them with dignity in cases where they were included, especially in early Mughal paintings
Mughal political economy offers a more sober perspective on the hard work of water-lifting for crop production. Its main concern was revenue supporting imperial expansion and consumption, with variable benefits for peasants over space and time. In the primary sources considered here, the dietary needs of royal animals received more attention than the adequacy of wages and food for water workers. Diets of non-royal animals would have suffered accordingly. Modern analyses of energy expenditures for different kinds of water lifting devices, and the consequent food requirements for different kinds of water work, complement the findings from Mughal political-economic sources. Future research could assess the dietary value of wages paid for different types of work, from gardens to roads and cities.
As most cultivation involved rainfed and floodplain farming, human and animal work was shown to depend heavily upon those hydroclimatic forms of work, and its assessment would be another frontier for historical research. This study showed that hydroclimatic processes profoundly impact the cultural work of water in the form of signs, beneficent and cautionary, for those who have devotion, faith, and gratitude.
The four lines of inquiry, taken together, offer an integrative perspective of water-related work in the Mughal Empire. They compare idealized images of work in paintings with historical texts, records, and debates about water in the Mughal political economy. Analyses of energy expenditure, nutritional needs, and water technologies delve further into the lived realities of peasants and their animals. Hydroclimatic analysis resituates these social images and analyses within a world of environmental processes that has joint physical and cultural significance. The physical reminds us of the extraordinary work of nature, while the cultural underscores efforts to adjust, comprehend, and modify hydroclimatic changes. Focusing on any one approach risks a reductionist perspective on water, whether aesthetic, physical, political-economic, or spiritual. Together, they offer a rich perspective on the lives, livelihoods, and lifeworld of those who did the water work in Mughal gardens and landscapes.
At many points in the four lines of analysis, conditions recorded in Mughal times have parallels with those today. Certain historical water-lifting technologies are still in use, notwithstanding the extensive development of deep tubewells and large dams. Water labor is still undertaken by women, bēldārs, and bihishtīs, and for wages that hardly secure basic nutritional needs. Thus, as cultural heritage conservation turns with renewed interest to Mughal gardens and landscapes, it must consider water work and livelihoods within the scope of conservation as living heritage to be recognized, sustained, and valued.
About the Author
James Wescoat is Aga Khan Professor Emeritus of Landscape Architecture and Geography at MIT. His research focuses on water systems from the garden to river basin scales, comprising garden studies across Agra, Delhi, Kashmir, Lahore, and Nagaur, and research on water resources ranging from rural drinking water in Maharashtra to Indus River basin planning in Pakistan.
Aga Khan University, Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations & Coordination (Pakistan), Pakistan Medical Research Council, UK Aid Direct, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Pakistan National Nutrition Survey 2018–2019. Islamabad: Government of Pakistan.
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Aga Khan University, Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations & Coordination (Pakistan), Pakistan Medical Research Council, UK Aid Direct, United Nations Children’s Fund (. Pakistan National Nutrition Survey 2018–2019. UNICEF) Islamabad: Government of Pakistan.
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( Wescoat, James L. Jr. a). 2000 Waterworks and Landscape Design at the Mahtab Bagh. In The Moonlight Garden: New Discoveries at the Taj Mahal. Ed. . Elizabeth B. Moynihan Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution and University of Washington Press, pp. 59– 78.
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( Wescoat, J.L. Jr. b). “ 2000 Wittfogel East and West: Changing Perspectives on Water Development in South Asia and the US, 1670–2000.” In Cultural Encounters with the Environment: Enduring and Evolving Geographic Themes. Eds. . and A.B. Murphy D.L. Johnson Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 109– 132.
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I would like to thank the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture (AKPIA) at MIT and Harvard for the intellectual stimulation and generous support of my faculty and student colleagues. This study was prompted by a seminar question from AKPIA colleagues about the social history of Mughal gardens, which has received less attention than other aspects of garden history. Earlier versions were presented for the Professor M. Athar Ali Memorial Lecture at Aligarh Muslim University, Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore, Harvard University, Vanderbilt University, and University of Engineering and Technology-Lahore. I thank Dr Sharon Smith and anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and recommendations.