The mansabdari system introduced by Akbar was a unique feature of the administrative system of the Mughal Empire. The term mansab (i.e. office, position or rank) in the Mughal administration indicated the rank of its holder (mansabdar) in the official hierarchy. The mansabdari system was of Central Asian origin. According to one view Babur brought it to North India.
But the credit of giving it an institutional framework goes to Akbar who made it the basis of Mughal military organization and civil administration. The mansabdars formed the ruling group in the Mughal Empire. Almost the whole nobility, the bureaucracy as well as the military hierarchy, held mansabs.
Consequently, the numerical strength of the mansabdars and their composition during different periods materially influenced not only politics and administration but also the economy of the empire.
Since the mansabdars of the Mughal empire received their pay either in cash (naqd) or in the form of assignments of areas of land (jagir) from which they were entitled to collect the land revenue and all other taxes sanctioned by the emperor, the mansabdari system was also an integral part of the agrarian and the jagirdari system.
The mansabdars belonged both to the civil and military departments. They were transferred from the civil side to the military department and vice versa. The Mughal mansab was dual, represented by two members, one designated zat (personal rank) and the other sawar (cavalry rank). The chief use of zat was to place the holders in an appropriate position in the official hierarchy.
In the early years of Akbar's reign the mansabs (ranks) ranged from command of 10 to 5,000 troops. Subsequently the highest mansabs were raised from 10,000 to 12,000; but there was no fixed number of mansabdars.
From the reign of Akbar to Aurangzeb their number kept on increasing. In or about 1595 the total numbers of mansabdars during the reign of Akbar was 1803; but towards the close of Aurangzeb's rein their number rose to 14,449.
In theory all mansabdars were appointed by the emperor, who also granted promotions on the basis of gallantry in military service and merit. The mansabdars holding ranks below 500 zat were called mansabdars, those more than 500 but below 2,500 amirs and those holding ranks of 2,500 and above were called amir-i-umda or amir-i-azam or omrahs. The mansabdars who received pay in cash were known as naqdi and those paid through assignments of jagirs were called jagirdars.
The jagirs were by nature transferable and no mansabdar was allowed to retain the same jagir for a long period. The watan-jagirs were the only exception to the general system of jagir transfers. The watan-jagirs were normally granted to those zamindars who were already in possession of their watans (homelands) before the expansion of the Mughal empire.
The mansab was not hereditary and it automatically lapsed after the death or dismissal of the mansabdar. The son of a mansabdar, if he was granted a mansab, had to begin afresh. Another important feature of the mansabdari system was the law of escheat (zabti), according to which when a mansabdar died all his property was confiscated by the emperor. This measure had been introduced so that the mansabdars did not exploit the people in a high-handed manner.