The Persianate Papertrail of a Maharashtrian Brahman Family Firm

By Dominic Vendell

During the nine-odd months that I spent in Pune, Maharashtra for my Ph.D. fieldwork, I periodically visited the Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal (BISM), a fantastic archival and research institution with a collection of 2,000 or so rumals focused on the papers of local landed families and service households with social, professional, and political connections across the Indian subcontinent. As a historian of early modern India with a broad interest in the legal, administrative, and political cultures of the eighteenth-century Maratha Empire, I devoted my efforts at BISM to the archival collection of the Vaidyas, a Brahman family of merchant-diplomats whose operations extended from the Konkan coast to Wai, Pune, Nagpur, Varanasi, and Cuttack.

Many of the Vaidya family papers consist of a type of balance-sheet known as tale-bandor shilak-band, which were primarily used tocalculate a balance (Marathi shilak; Persian silak) by tabulating revenues and expenditures. The secretary of BISM, Dr. S.M. Bhave, was generous enough to allow me to photograph the shilak-bandof Baburao Viswanath Vaidya, a merchant-moneylender who served as the Peshwa’s envoy at Nagpur in the late eighteenth century.

Shilak-band of Baburao Viswanath Vaidya, July-August 1762

These particular shilak-bands (see photo) are examples of the kind of double-entry book-keeping that predominated throughout the Indian Ocean commercial zone. In this case, its purpose was to double-check the sums outlaid by Vaidya’s various lending agents – first in the left-hand debtor column (jamai) and again in the right-hand creditor (name) column. Though the Vaidya papers are handwritten in the Modi script of medieval and early modern Marathi, their idiomatic forms, genres, and conventions, like the majority of Marathi documentation from the Bahmani, Deccan Sultanate, and Maratha periods, betray the unmistakable influence of Persian. Recently, I have become more interested in the ways in which Persianate legal instruments were employed to execute transactions in commercial, administrative, and political fields of practice from roughly the late fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries.

Kharid-khat (here written as kharedi-khat) of Narayan Baburao Vaidya, January 16, 1802

Within family firms like the Vaidya’s, the kharid-khat(Persian kharid-i khat), or deed of purchase was an important instrument used by buyers to protect their property from competing claims to ownership made after the date of purchase. Baburao Viswanath Vaidya’s son Narayanrao obtained one such deed (see photo) from Mahadaji Trimbak and Krishnaji Trimbak Datar when he purchased their home just south of a Bhikardas Maruti temple in Narsi Peth (perhaps today’s Sadashiv Peth) in the heart of Pune city. The document’s concluding section, which contains the sellers’ promise to restrain their kinsmen from making any claim to the property, is followed by the names of witnesses (saksha) to the sale. Examining similar procedures of attestation and verification – both verbal and written – across different genres of Persian- and Marathi-language legal documentation may be a fruitful avenue for research. In this vein, I will be presenting a paper on a karār-nāmā from the Vaidya collection at the Transactions and Documentation in the Persianate World workshop, taking place this month at the University of Exeter.

As a postdoctoral research associate with the Forms of Law in Early Modern Persianate World, 17th-19thCenturies project, I plan to continue investigating the social, legal, and political lives of documents at the interface of Marathi and Persian. Starting this fall, I will begin undertaking regular trips to state and private archives in India, concentrating on collections holding Marathi, Persian, and bilingual Marathi-Persian materials. Thematically, I am especially interested in how scribal officials used forms of legal documentation within the process of diplomatic negotiation (Marathi jab-sal, Persian jawab-suwal) linking both Maratha and non-Maratha governments. Secondly, I will examine how ordinary individuals in village- and district-level contexts negotiated the authority of legal documents through verbal and written modes of testimony, oath taking, witnessing, and attestation. Along the way, I hope to some glimpses of the materials I discover and initial thoughts on how they might illuminate one of the many connected worlds of Persianate legal forms.


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