Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars

Book Cover

Book Title

Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion 1770-1870. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992


Bayly, C.A.


This book assesses the fate of towns, merchants, and service people from 1770-1870, where the old political order was replaced by a British colonial administration. Comparing traditions of the writing of history in other parts of what Bayly calls the “colonial world”, a coherent explanation of the change in relations between groups such as the rural gentry is largely missing from Indian history. Thus, the book attempts to illustrate the importance of the groups shifting between state and peasantry in the period assessed.

By looking at groups of urban, mercantile and service people, trends in terms of trade, consumption, commercialization of cash crops, are given a new perspective by examining them in relation to the political order. Further, by contextualizing the relationships in a time characterized by the rise of British commerce and rule, the book gives a new perspective to the interactions between the new colonial power and the intermediate classes, and also gives an explanation for the socio-political climate of pre-colonial India.

Examining systems of landlordism, patronage, and communities of merchants, the book explains the vitality of the major trade routes and the growth and development of cities such as Agra. Looking at large trends but also focusing in on the merchant family as an entity with a conservative business practice ideology, Bayly’s study decodes the seemingly complex concept of social forces at this time.

By showing how the period before institutionalized European dominance was a time for growth and change in Asian society, the book relates this to the Mughal polity and its transition to a commercialization of power- the political decentralization led to an increased ability for groups such as the merchant class and a service gentry to emerge.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book covers the prior historiography on the topic and offers a new perspective in examining Indian history from1770-1870, and limits its scope to a singular part of the Indian subcontinent- thus allowing for specificity. By giving light to power and its relationship to influences, the work draws attention to the growth and transformation of patronage. The acquisition and maintenance of land resources are related to communities- the emergence of pioneer peasant warriors, such as the Jats or Marathas, gives a context to shifting relations around the region.

By covering a wide array of topics, Bayly allows us to have insights into commercialization that emerged at the time, by assessing corporations, merchants, and political stability and instability; all contributing to a bigger picture and a new narrative on the period. Further, the examination of religious trends and the growth of artisan production give an explanation to mass consumption and the organization of society.

With analysis of a large pool of documents, such as revenue records, magistrates’ reports, and pension agency files of Mughal descendants, the book is able to draw from many sources to give a vivid portrayal.

By giving light to complexity without reducing it to simplistic assumptions about the relationships of state and class, the work gives a good account, giving itself a foundation to examine the broad interactions between the heritage of indigenous rule and its transformation into a colonial system.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Bayly sets out rather clearly that the book’s argument is structured in three levels. One set of chapters is dedicated to arguing that power decentralization in the eighteenth century gave a big impetus to the rise of a “homogenous merchant class” and “rooted service gentry”. By examining this in relation to the British government, we can see how institutions persisted over time, in the form of societal forces. Secondly, the book looks at the social history of towns, and how unity was problematized by different forms of communal alliances, later made manifest by the rise of nationalism and religious communalism. Third, the book argues that the commercial middle class had a base in religion and credit that was made possible by prior foundations. The economic organization is therefore inseparable from other social forces and phenomena.

By critiquing the “dark ages” stereotype of the period, Bayly puts forth that such existing scholarship rests on a priori assumptions about decline and weakness of the state. Refuting this, the book gives the period covered a broad and well- structured examination.

Annotated by Sandeep Singh