Deciphering registration notes from the early modern western Deccan

By Dominic Vendell

As we have been encoding Persian legal documents from South Asia for online publication, I have become accustomed to spending long hours staring at scribbles. But I have also been thinking more about clerical notes scribbled on the margins or versos of documents. Such notes were intended for a specialised audience of clerical officials – an audience in the know, as it were – so they are often difficult to decipher, and usually ignored by historians in search of the ‘evidence’ that a document might provide. But if we examine notes more systematically, what can they tell us about how documents were produced and managed, and the chain of writing sustained by the life cycle of a document?

Take one example: a farman issued in March 1625 by Ibrahim Adil Shah II to the landlords (desai) of the district Gadag in today’s Karnataka, and currently held in the Bharat Itihas Sanshodhak Mandal in Pune. The order commands that an assignment on the land revenues from the village of Koradkota should be transferred from two soldiers who could not provide their own horses to a different, freshly recruited soldier. What makes this entirely routine document so fascinating are the notes written on the verso, just below the date of receipt and various seals of district officials. From left to right, the notes read:

सबत दप्तर सुद – “Entered in the register”

बार मश्रीफ – “Registered by the accountant (mushrif)”

सुरू – “Started”

رجوع – “Accepted”

बार दप्तर खास – “Registered by the cash-keeper (khas)”

बार सरदप्तर – “Registered by the head of the registers (sar-daptar)”

Many of the notes are in Marathi in the Modi script, which is not surprising in light of what we know of the Adil Shahi Sultanate’s promotion of scribes proficient in the regional language. But one is in Persian, and several in this series, which is published in issues 17 and 18 of BISM’s Traimasik journal, feature notes in Kannada. Most enticing of all is that these multilingual notices were written by several different hands.   

The presence of multiple handwritten notes on an official document offers a tantalizing glimpse into the bureaucratic procedure surrounding the production and registration of a document, as the historian Maria Rustow has shown in her exploration of Fatimid state documentation. Because the notes are formulaic in content, and appear in regular order, we can surmise that the officials followed a relatively fixed procedure as they were registering orders that they received from the sultan’s court. The particular duties of some officials are clearer than others – the mushrif was a kind of financial auditor – but regardless, it is clear that they worked together to “encode” documents into a durable record. But what about the notices consisting of a single word, such as rujuʿ, whose connection to officialdom is no longer clear to the modern historian? Could this rujuʿ be the mark of the guard or watchman (nigawan), who may not have been just another Marathi scribe? Further research into documents in the early modern Deccan might allow us to reconstruct not just the composition of local government, but how government was made operational through forms of writing.

Another approach to clerical notes is to consider the recurring terminology that they use to signal the registration process. The Arabic term thabt (Per. sabt), which appears in Marathi in the first notice above, was very commonly used in registration notes in Safavid and Qajar legal documents. But we also find it on a farman issued by the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II for a grant of tax-exempt village revenue to Jesuit missionaries, suggesting the ways in which bureaucratic procedure travelled across regimes in the Persianate world. Yet because registration was part of the way in which a state apparatus reproduced its territorial reach and authority, procedure was not the same in all places. The notices that appeared on the versos of Mughal orders were worded very differently from those in the Deccan, and tended to be arranged around the edges of the paper.

Besides varying across different social, cultural, and political contexts, registration practice in the western Deccan changed over time, with Maratha governments often opting to apply the simple registration notice bar. Many examples of these notices are visible on the versos of royal orders (adnyapatra) digitised by the Rajwade Sanshodhan Mandal in Dhule. At the same time, the Peshwa’s government at Pune from the first quarter of the eighteenth century onwards kept more regular and extensive registers (rozkird) of the myriad administrative transactions that made governance of distant regions possible. G.C. Vad’s compilation of many of these registers for publication has enabled numerous works of social and legal history on topics ranging from crime and punishment to forced labour to issues of gender and sexuality; however, the registers themselves – the core of the so-called Peshwa’s daftar – remain under-studied. Further research on this connection between registers and registration on the one hand and the formation of archives on the other in early modern South Asia and the broader Persianate world promises to tell us much about the power of documents in their own time and ours.

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