The population of India is estimated to have been around 15 crores in the 16th century and 20 crores in the 18th century. Large areas of land were under forest cover and the area under cultivation would have been much less. As agriculture was the prime occupation of the society the village community was the chief institution of social organisation. Though the nature, composition and governance of village differed from place to place there were certain similarities in the village administration. The Muqaddam, privileged headman of the village, formed the Panch (Panchayat), an administrative organ of the village. The Panch was responsible for collection and maintenance of accounts at the village level. The Panch allotted the unoccupied lands of the village to artisans, menials and servants for their service to the village.
The middle class consisted of small Mansabdars, petty shopkeepers, hakims (doctors), musicians, artists, petty officials of Mughal administration. There was a salaried class, and received grants called Madad-i-Mash from the Mughal emperor, local rulers and zamindars. This section often became part of the rural gentry and a link between the village and the town. Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Lahore, Ahmadabad, Dacca and Multan were important cities of the empire which could be ranked along with contemporary European cities like London and Paris.
The inequality in the standard of life amongst the privileged and the underprivileged classes was clear. Among the lower strata of society, the men wore just a langota and the women a sari. Footwear was not common. The poor lived in houses made of mud and their diet consisted of wheat chapatis with pulses and vegetables. On the contrary the Mughal privileged class consisting of zamindars and nobles led an ostentatious life. The nobles were Mansabdars who received jagirs or land grants as payment according to their ranks. The jagirdars were exploitative and oppressive in nature. The nobles maintained a large train of servants, large stables of horses, elephants, etc. The nobles lived in fine houses containing gardens with fruit trees and running water. They wore the finest of clothing.
The Zamindars, members of dominant clans and castes with armed retainers, were a dominant class with privilege over lands of the peasants. Abul Fazal in his Ain-i- Akbari enlists the castes that were entitled to be zamindars. While mostly upper caste Hindus and Rajputs were zamindars, in certain localities Muslim zamindars existed. The zamindars had the right to evict the peasants, in default of payment of rent.
In Mughal social structure, the nobles came mostly from Central Asia and Iran. Afghans, Indian Muslims (shaikhzadas), Rajputs and Marathas also obtained the status of nobility. It is estimated that during the reign of Akbar over 15% of the nobility consisted of Rajputs. Raja Man Singh, Raja Todar Mal and Raja Birbal were Rajput nobles of repute during Akbar. The Rajputs appointed Kayasths and Khatris for various positions in government administration. Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb employed Marathas in their nobility. For example, Shaji, father of Shivaji, served Shah Jahan for some time.
There were continuous migrations from Central Asia as there were better career prospects in India. These migrations led to the enrichment of culture through assimilation of diversity. Though the nobility was divided on ethnic lines they formed a composite class promoting a syncretic culture by patronising painters, musicians and singers of both Persian and Indian origin.
The caste system was a dominant institution in the society. Castes at lower levels were subject to much repression. Despite the popular Bhakti movement raising the banner of revolt against discrimination, the deprived and disadvantaged classes, who were landless peasants, were subject to forced labour.
The Hindu women had only limited right of inheritance. Widow remarriage was not permitted among upper caste women. Along with household activities the women were involved in spinning yarn and helped in agricultural operations. Mughal administration discouraged the practise of sati that was prevalent among communities of the higher caste. Muslim brides were entitled to receive mehr (money mandatorily paid by the groom) at the time of marriage, and also had the right to inherit property, though it was not equal to the share of the male members of the family.