On the 8th of November, 1589, one of the largest funeral processions ever to leave the Walled City of Lahore headed for the River Ravi outside Mori Gate. The cremation of Raja Todar Mal was taking place and almost every dignitary in the court of Emperor Akbar was there.

The proceedings were supervised by Raja Bhagwan Das, the head of Lahore’s revenue department, and the fire was lighted by Todar Mal’s son Kalyan Das, who would rise to become the Finance Minister in Akbar’s ‘darbar’. The death of this ‘jewel’ among the ‘Nau Ratans’ of Akbar had been preceded by the death of Raja Birbal, and suddenly, it seems, the ‘kitchen cabinet’ or ‘Nau Ratans’ was diminishing, much to the emperor’s dismay. Raja Todar Mal’s eldest son Dhari had earlier been killed in battle fighting for the Mughals in Sindh.

We know of the ‘haveli’ of Todar Mal in Chunian, and my dear friend travel writer Salman Rashid has written an excellent piece on the now dilapidated ‘baradari of Todar Mal’. Inside the Walled City just where did this famous Revenue Minister of Akbar live? Two places have been mentioned, one being in Chuna Mandi and the other near the mosque of Wazir Khan. My guess is that as Chuna Mandi existed in the pre-Akbar Lahore with scores of impressive ‘havelis’, that location seems more likely. The area where today stands the mosque was in the process of being included inside the expanded city and was essentially open space, or in Mughal documents a ‘rahra maidan’.

Raja Todar Mal took over from the famous eunuch, Khawaja Malik Itimad Khan, in 1560. The reason given for this change by the emperor was that the Mughals were not extracting enough revenue for the court and his military campaigns. Raja Todar Mal explained to the emperor that the Khawaja’s strategy of centralised revenue collection had reached its optimum and further forceful tactics will see a decline in collections. The emperor appointed him to overhaul the system and show higher returns.

Raja Todar Mal went about his task in a very methodical manner. First, he introduced standard weights and measures. Based on these standards he carried out a thorough land survey and put into place the principles of a settlement system by first demarcating revenue districts. Once the basics had been put in place he personally appointed revenue officers, with the ‘patwaris’ at the lowest rung. This system of ‘patwar-khanas’ is still used in the sub-continent, though recent computerisation, based on GIS, in both the Indian and Pakistani Punjab have taken the land marking system to an electronic format. The system remains the same.

The new system of revenue was known as ‘zabt’ and the system of taxation was called ‘dahshala’. This system carefully surveyed crop yields and prices over a ten-year period (1570-1580), and on the average, catering for market price ups and downs and yield fluctuations based on weather conditions, fixed on each crop a cash tax. Each province was divided into revenue circles with their own rates of revenue and a schedule of individual crops.

In 1582, Akbar bestowed on Raja Todar Mal the title of ‘Diwan-e-Ashraf’ and his systematic land reforms of 1582 was called the ‘Band-o-bast Nizam’. This system was to prove to be the basis of all subsequent land taxation systems, including the one introduced by the British.

It would be in order to mention that before Raja Todar Mal, the revenue system in place was the one introduced by Sher Shah Suri. In this the cultivated area was measured and a fixed tax imposed based on the area’s crop and optimum known productivity. This, naturally, led to extreme tension between the ruler and the Punjab peasantry when conditions were abnormal. From such situations grew a very potent peasant uprising led by men like Dullah Bhatti and his father. These uprisings were ruthlessly crushed and it was in such a time that thinking men like Raja Todar Mal emerged to advise Emperor Akbar to change to a decentralised ten-year running average system of annual assessment. The former system had also resulted in corruption among local officials.

The new system, amazingly, had a much more humane side to it, for it provided remission to peasants when the harvest failed because of floods or drought. To encourage the use of fallow or uncultivated land, exceptional concessions and low rates of revenue were provided. The standard rate of taxation was a third of the average. It was a one-time tax with no other levies of any sort. Suddenly revenue collections rose sharply.

But the master stroke of Raja Todar Mal was to get the emperor, much against opposition of influential court and military leaders, to agree to let ‘zamindars’ and peasants have hereditary rights. The ‘zamindar’ was tasked with providing peasants with loans, seeds and implements. Against this he had the hereditary right to collect taxes, keep a small amount and hand over the State’s share. Peasants, in return, could not be thrown off land as long as they paid their taxes. It was a win-win situation that brought peace and a lot of money with it.

But built within this ‘new’ agricultural system, one that changed the Punjab forever, was a check and balance mechanism. Revenue officials were provided only three-fourths of their salary. The remaining was given once the assessed revenue was realised. A famous saying of Raja Todar Mal, probably still relevant, goes: “Trust the poor peasant and he will deliver. Trust the powerful and they will never deliver. Leverage is essential to grease any system.”

The system put in place by Raja Todar Mal faced a massive test after his death when a terrible four-year famine hit Punjab from 1596 to 1598, as it did major parts of the Mughal Empire. To fend off mass starvation in Lahore and its environs, Akbar appointed a ‘Famine Officer’ by the name of Sheikh Fareed Bukhari. Three separate kitchens were set up, one each for Hindus, Muslims and ‘Jogis’, a polite name for ‘untouchables’ as caste-based people term still in use, though the word ‘Dalit’ provides surface comfort.

The task was to feed 80,000 starving people who had converged on Lahore. There was a catch which the emperor imposed, and that being that only those who worked free to rebuild Lahore’s city and fort in burnt bricks would get food. Through Todar Mal’s new system the emperor imposed a special ‘famine tax’ at the rate of “ten seers of wheat for every ‘biga’ for as long as the drought lasted”. The tax was fully paid and the system functioned amazingly efficiently. Lahore and its fort got its first bricked walls, mass starvation was avoided and the emperor managed to collect handsome revenue.

Sadly, the famine did produce a lot of misery as bodies lay all over the city every morning. Abdul Hamid Lahori’s ‘Badshahnama’ comments: “Given half a chance men devoured each other”. It was in those days that the term ‘Mooyan de Mandi’ came about, a reference to dead bodies being thrown in heaps every morning on the banks of the Ravi at Mahmood Booti, north of the Walled City. Farmers still report finding human bones when they dig deep in their fields.

To the north was ‘mooyan de mandi’ and to the south outside Mori Gate was the place where Raja Todar Mal was cremated, as was almost 1,000 years ago the great Rajput Punjabi ruler Maharajadhiraja Sri Jayapala Deva, who committed ‘jauhar’ after being defeated by the Afghan invader Mahmud. In my view this is ‘the immortals cremation ground’.

Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2016

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