The subcontinent during the Mughal rule was a vast landscape with clusters of villages here and there. It was variously reported that the countryside was sparsely populated.
Forests encased even the imperial cities of Delhi and Agra and wild animals roamed their environs. In areas where rivers flowed, greenery was in abundance yet many areas were arid. There was not much cross-country traffic in the Mughal Empire and even along the regular trade, military or pilgrim routes, the quality of roads varied and on many cases there were no trace of any road.
Mughal India could, however, boast of one of the finest roads in the medieval world, the renowned Agra- Lahore highway. Under the Mughals, work to restore the highway was quite consistent as it was the Mughal lifeline to Kabul and it was Babur himself who started the repair work.
Babur ordered that at every 9th kuroh (about 29 kilometres) a tower was to be erected on the highway where 6 post-horses were to be kept fastened and arrangement was to be made for the payment of postmaster and grooms and for horse-corn. Sher Shah Suri during his short reign did much to improve it as on both sides of the highway he planted fruit trees that also gave much shade so that in the hot wind travellers might go along under the trees and if they should stop by the way they might rest.
The next major improvement came under Jahangir who planted avenue trees from Bengal to the Indus and ordered that from Agra to Lahore a pillar should be placed at every kos as sign of a kos, and every three kos a well may be dug so that wayfarers might travel in ease and contentment.
This arrangement was later known as kos-minars and some of them are still found and preserved. Except for the Agra-Lahore highway there were few good roads and most of the overland travel was over rough tracks, which often disappeared altogether in forests and ravines. During the monsoon, rains wrought havoc even on the best of roads, turning them into watercourses.
In the absence of roads it was cumbersome to engage in trade but it did not matter much to the common people who travelled on foot. For the affluent, the commonest mode of transport was the luxury ox-cart driven by well-groomed white oxen highly valued in the times and was fit even for the emperor to travel in. It was noticed that Carriages and manner of travelling in India was more commodious than anything that has been invented in Europe. Carts were dismantled for taking across rivers or while crossing difficult terrain. Carriage oxen of good breed were expensive costing as much as 600 rupees for a cart with two oxen but considered well worth it. Travellers could also hire carts, at the rate of one rupee a day and a cart would normally seat four, or sleep two. Horse-drawn carriages were also known but were rare and mostly used by the royalty.
Jahangir sometimes favoured a European style coach-and-four, the replica of a carriage presented to him by Roe, though usually the emperor and the grandees travelled in palanquins or in howdahs mounted on elephants. The palanquin was a covered divan carried on poles by men, in which the traveller lounged on cushions. Palanquins would normally cover about twenty to thirty miles a day, and travelling in them was comfortable. Palanquin bearers were professionals, not ordinary coolies, and were nimble enough to hold the couch steady while travelling over rough tracts. They were paid at the same rate as the traveler’s armed escorts something like four rupees a month. Those who could not afford carts or palanquins rode buffaloes, oxen, horses, ponies, mules, donkeys and camels. Most people simply walked, usually travelling at night, to avoid the heat of the sun.
A major impediment to overland travel in India was the near total absence of bridges over major rivers. Pontoon bridges were maintained at major riverside cities when the state of the river permitted it, and small streams sometimes had bridges over them. Armies crossed rivers at fords or on temporary boat-bridges, usually taking several days to cross and suffering many casualties in accidents. Ferries plied at river crossings but the poor often swam across on inflated goat skins tied to their stomachs, pushing their children ahead of them in clay pots. Navigable rivers were few and river transport was largely non-existent. Only in Bengal were boats used extensively for travelling particularly during the monsoons.
Travel across the countryside was hazardous but on the whole, travel in Mughal Empire was more or less as perilous as in medieval Europe infested by bandits. People usually travelled in groups and under guard, sometimes in caravans of two or three hundred carts. When attacked, the caravan would form a circle and fight to save itself from harm. Thieves could sometimes be bought off and bandits had their own code of conduct, and usually avoided harming men of religion and seldom molested women. The danger on the road was not from brigands alone. Travellers, especially traders, were oppressed by local authorities with all sorts of illegal exactions. Prominent persons usually carried dastaks (passports), which cleared their passage through the hands of local officials.
Caravanserais in towns and along the highways provided much needed comfort to travelers, usually at the end of each day’s journey. Building serais as a charitable act was a custom among the people and some of the best serais — such as the massive Begum Ki Serai of Jahanara in Delhi — were built by private charity. However, most of the serais were built and maintained by the state and served an administrative purpose as well, as junctions of the royal communication and intelligence grid. Soldiers were not allowed to billet in serais, and the periods of stay for different categories of travellers were regulated, to prevent people from turning serais into residences, though foreign traders were permitted to stay for longer periods by paying a monthly rent.
Serais were essentially fortified enclosures where the traveller could camp in safety but the nature of the structure and the conveniences available in it varied from place to place. Usually serais were built around a central courtyard with arcaded chambers all round, but sometimes they were merely enclosures of walls or hedges, within which fifty or sixty thatched huts were arranged. Serais provided only bare accommodation and travellers had to bring their own bedding and in most places had to cook their own food. Villages were established all round the serais and in the middle of every serai was a well.
The serai gates were closed at sundown and the official in charge would call out that everyone must look after his belongings and picket his horses. In the morning, before the gates were opened, travellers were asked to check their belongings and if anything was found missing, gates were opened only after it was found. The towns and villages were built of mud but villagers were usually hospitable towards travellers. Where there were no resting places, people camped in the open, often under trees. Sometimes particular trees attained a reputation of their own as resting places, like the banyan trees.
This article originally appeared in The Weekender and has been reproduced with permission