Lawforms website launch

Dr Elizabeth Thelen

As the Lawforms project drew to a close in April, the project team launched the website Lawforms: Digitised Legal Documents from the Indo-Persian World. The site was designed to serve a wide range of teaching and research uses. While the edited and translated documents form the core of the site, there’s much more there – from maps and introductory essays to a glossary and the xml files for all the documents included on the site.

Homepage of the Lawforms website

There’s much to explore on the site. To give a sense of the contents in numerical terms:

  • 79 total documents, written between 1576 to 1897
  • Writing in 9 languages: Arabic, Bengali, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Persian, and Rajasthani. Because of the project’s research aims, the largest number of documents are primarily in Persian.
  • 84 places mentioned in the documents mapped, from streets to provinces, between Bengal and Zanzibar.
  • 269 people named in the documents, including artisans, cultivators, merchants, religious specialists, judges, officials, landlords, warriors, nobles, and rulers.
  • Examples of orders, private deeds, administrative papers, letters and judicial documents from 13 collections, featuring 22 common themes
  • And many resources to contextualize the documents and support further study including explanatory essays on document types, document features, social groups, and the history of the period; a timeline, maps and lesson plans; and a bibliography and extensive glossary.

The Lawforms website team held a launch party on 28 March to celebrate and publicize the creation of this resource. The first session, held online, was co-hosted by Prof. Nandini Chatterjee and Dr Elizabeth Thelen. They led a series of conversations with Digital Humanities experts and scholars of Persianate cultures, Indian Ocean worlds, Colonialism, and early modern British and European social history. These conversations explored the work that went into the website and what was learned from creating the website as well as highlighted the contributions of the site, its future uses, and the role of Digital Humanities in historical research and teaching.

Prof. Jane Whittle, Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Exeter, discussed the website in comparative perspective. As part of her research on gender and labour in early modern England, she has developed digital resources, including Court Depositions of Southwest England, 1500-1700. As Prof. Whittle pointed out, while both the Court Depositions and Lawforms website focus on legal records, these records are very different. The depositions consist of testimony and citations of laws whereas the documents on the Lawforms site are primarily orders and various types of contracts and deeds. Such contrasts can help us think about what constitutes a legal document in different places and periods of history. Furthermore, Prof. Whittle remarked on how legal documents can be used to teach diverse topics, including the nuts and bolts of political power and the working of business and fiscal processes, and to illustrate bits of everyday life. Lastly, she observed that the Lawforms documents are useful teaching materials whether or not the students in question can read the documents. Working with translated documents alongside images of the original text helps build awareness that history has to be worked out. This means not just having the language and/or paleographic skills to read the documents but also the institution and legal contexts that give the texts their meaning.

Lawforms site co-editor and postdoctoral research associate Dr Elizabeth Thelen shared what she had learned from her work on the website. She shared how her work on the site, such as developing schema, led to a deep familiarity with the forms of various types of legal documents, and productive discussions about what the different components of documents meant and how they functioned. These discussions were especially rich because the team members brought together different regional and linguistic expertise – and through this comparative lens, the regional variations of various forms became apparent, as well as the ways that various historical actors bent standard forms towards specific ends. She also discussed how envisioning Rajasthan – the region she has most closely researched – as part of the Persianate world enriches our understanding of that region’s early modern history.

Prof. Rachel Sturman, Associate Professor History and Asian Studies at Bowdoin College, brought her perspective as a historian of law, family and property in modern South Asia to the Lawforms site. The documents on the Lawforms site are more fragmentary series than the later colonial records and so throw up particular challenges for interpretation. Asked to comment on the Lawforms team’s editorial decision to use ‘women’ as a theme tag, Prof. Sturman observed that sometimes such blunt labels – that in the case of the website bring together queens and poor housewives in the same category – are valuable in order to show these social differences. She also spoke to the usefulness of bringing together sources from India and the Indian Ocean world that help us see beyond borders of the nation state or imperial formations. Looking at the details of how people lived in and across these spaces also helps move us beyond our spatial preconceptions productively.

Dr. Elizabeth Williamson, Research Fellow in Digital Humanities at the University of Exeter, is the technical director of the Lawforms website. As such, she led the technical development of the site and trained the Lawforms team of researchers in the use of Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) standards and xml. Developing the site involved a number of challenges, including language. Dr. Williamson remarked on the technical challenges of developing a site that displays both left-to-right and right-to-left scripts. An added challenge here was that the website features many languages which she doesn’t know – but good communication with the research team meant that this was less of an obstacle than one might imagine. The use of TEI standards promoted structural analysis of the documents, that also helps make them legible across language. One of the major contributions of the project to the field of Digital Humanities is the encoding schema that she created for these types of documents and the creation of a corpus of encoded texts that can be used in further research.

Sample of encoded text


Prof. Fahad Bishara, a professor of Indian Ocean history at the University of Virginia, is a co-investigator on the Lawforms project and contributed several documents to the website. Having worked on several other digital humanities projects in the past, he reflected on the extensive work these projects require. While the rewards may not be immediately obvious, digital humanities projects can help bring greater attention to less familiar sources, such as family collections and the holdings of smaller collections, and encourage students and researchers to engage with them. Digital Humanities tools can also be helpful when working with scrappy yet dense sets of records, bringing patterns to light. Reflecting on the implications of the Lawforms site for the study of Islamic law, he pointed out that the site offers insights into how people constructed legal documents and applied and experienced law, in contrast with the dominant focus has been on legal manuals and jurisprudence (fiqh).

Prof. Prashant Keshavmurthy, Associate Professor of Persian-Iranian Studies at McGill University, brought perspectives from his research and teaching of South Asian Persian poetry and epistolography. He remarked on the extent and frankness with which the legal texts discuss money, a topic often treated with disdain in literary treatises. The legal documents also provide an alternate view on regions and transregional connections and the range and use of Persian. Prof. Keshavmurthy suggested that in literary studies one can push against centre-periphery models of the Persian cosmopolis by paying attention to how people ordered and understood their worlds; legal documents could be studied in a similar way.

 Afterward, a smaller group gathered in Exeter’s Digital Humanities Lab for a presentation by Lizzy Williamson on the tools and technology underlying the site, followed by a reception.

Work experience with the Lawforms project

Guest post by a high school student on work placement

As part of my work experience in February 2022, I was able to enjoy two days behind the scenes of the Lawforms project. I knew very little about Islamic history during the period the research was concerned with, and even less about the legal culture of this early Indo-Persian world, so in reading over the documents and essays and products of five years of the researchers’ hard work, I was able both to acquire new understanding of legal institutions at the time, and flesh out the framework of knowledge I had of Mughal India. Even more valuable, however, was the glimpse of  what a research project truly entails, and how a researcher starts and fulfils the tasks needed on such a large project. I was lucky enough to speak to both Prof. Nandini Chatterjee, the director of the project, and Dr. Elizabeth Thelen, a post-doctoral research associate, and learn about the effort that goes into historical researching – into digging up and accessing primary sources, many of which exist only in private collections; into reading and collating notes on select secondary sources; into archival research, and honing language and transcription skills in order to translate the primary sources into idiomatic English. I’m aiming to pursue an academic career in History when I’m older, and the experience taught me in particular that the path towards completion of a historical project involves far more collaboration and interdisciplinary skill then I would have previously considered.

Film rolls containing photographs of old Persian documents

                                                                                                                                                                               I was also able to go to Exeter University’s Digital Humanities department, and received the opportunity to digitise some primary sources that had previously only existed on private, piecemeal film from the eighties. As a History A-Level student, it was fascinating to learn about the processes, such as text encoding, website creation, and digitisation, that lie behind and enable historical research. I had never given much thought before to the process that lies behind accessing sources online, but the Digital Humanities team showed me how it is their critical thinking and problem solving that makes it possible to, say, scan, upload and then access a 5m medieval tapestry, or create a 3D scan of a skull for archaeological purposes. The experience also highlighted the necessity of disciplines such as Digital Humanities in a world in which, increasingly, if it’s not digital, it’s forgotten. Digitisation is a way to democratize information, an answer to the physical archives which often contain carefully selected documents and data designed to preserve a certain impression of the past. Learning about the role Digital Humanities and the Lawforms project plays in this was truly intriguing.



A Lawforms Project Munshat?

Creating a model document for orders to reconfirm charitable land grants (madad-i maʿash)

By Elizabeth Thelen

As rapidly becomes clear when reading a pile of parvanas (or other Persian documents all of one type), stock vocabulary, phrases, and even whole sentences or more were repeatedly deployed in these documents. Understanding the uses and legal meaning of such formulas is one of the main pillars of investigation of the Lawforms Project. Nandini Chatterjee’s recent article on the interrelated documents of binding and releasing obligations known as tamassuks and farighkhattis offers an example of the insights gained from such an approach, including how such formulas moved across languages and what sort of legal meaning they held in different contexts, as do many of the other articles published in the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient as part of an open-access special issue, ‘The Persianate Bazaar,’ which was organised by the Lawforms team.

Lithographed cover page of the edition of Nigarnama-yi Munshi published by Nawal Kishore Press

The formulaic nature of many of the documents were captured in the writing manuals of the time, collections of actual or model documents written by master scribes and writers as samples of good style. Such epistolography manuals, known variously as inshaʾ or munshat, often focussed heavily on the epistolary arts, with samples of letters written between different sorts of correspondents – ranging from the petitions of a nobleman to the king to the letters between parent and child. Some also include guides to the forms of legal documents. Among the most well-known of these is the Insha-yi Harkaran, a seventeenth-century manual composed by the scribe Harkaran Das Kanbuh. In 1781, Francis Balfour edited and translated this text as a guide for East India Company servants learning Persian. However, a number of other such texts existed, and some were published in the nineteenth century, including the Nigarnama-yi Munshi.

Nevertheless, many of the various workaday documents used by Mughal officials rarely, if ever, get a mention in inshaʾ collections, nor are all possible uses and forms of a given document type modelled. Furthermore, these formularies focus on drafting originals, not on how to format and formulate copies. However, the sheer regularity of the expressions deployed in many of the documents not regularly covered in munshats make it possible to deduct a ‘document formula’ from them.

For instance, I recently read a series of copies of parvanas issued in the 1690s reconfirming hereditary claims to land grants.[1] These documents were strikingly similar, likely because they are all dealing with the same sort of issue, come from the same time period, with reference to the same region and were issued from the office of only two different individuals. Indeed, they appear to constitute a particular sub-type of the very broad document type of parvana, which simply refers to an order, typically issued by a sub-imperial official and often in relation to an imperial farman. Given their highly formulaic nature (which once recognised, makes reading the shikasta script much simpler!), I thought it might be interesting to generate a model document based on this series – in Persian and in a rather literal translation.

So, with credit to the scribes of Muhammad Mashuq and Muhammad Musa, regional sadrs (heads of religious affairs) of the Mughal Empire in the 1690s, who drafted the original documents, and to the anonymous scribes who copied these documents several years later, here is a model copy of a parvana that informs local officials that a charitable land-grant has been reconfirmed:


پروانه بمهر (فلان) صدر جزو از قرار بتاریخ (فلان) شهر (فلان) سنه (فلان) جلوس والا انکه

گماشتهای جاگیرداران و کروریان حال و استقبال پرگنه (فلان) سرکار (فلان) بدانند که بموجب فرمان عالیشان حضرت از قرار بتاریخ (فلان) سنه (فلان) موازی بیگه (فلان) زمین بگز آلهی از پرگنه مذکور در وجه مدد معاش (فلان) مقرر بود بعد (فوت او) صدور سابق اراضی مذبوره را بر (فلان) (ورثه متوفی مذبور) مسلم داشتند فرمان و تصحیحه صدور سابق بدست دارند و درینولا باقوال مردم عدول (و ثقات) بظهور پیوست که انها حی و قایم و بر اراضی مذبوره قابض و متصرف اند و از ممر دیگر وجه معشیت ندارند بنابران بنده درگاه نیز بتصدق فرق مبارک بندگانحضرت خلیفه الرحمن ظل اراضی مسطوره را حسب الضمن بحالداشته بتصحیحه رسانید می باید که زمین مذبوره را بدستور سابق از محلقدیم بشرط قبض و تصرف بآنها وا گذارند که حاصلات آنرا صرف مائتاج خود نموده بوظایق دعاگوئی دوام دولت قاهره اشتغال نمایند درین باب قدغن دانند

Copy of the parvana by the seal of so-and-so, sadr, written on the date such-and-such of the month such-and-such, year such-and-such of the glorious reign. This that the agents of the jagirdars and karoris now and future of pargana such-and-such in sarkar such-and-such should know that in accordance with the imperial farman of the lord [here a space is left to read in the posthumous title of the emperor, such as Firdaus Ashiani, e.g. Shah Jahan[2], which was written as elevated text] written on the date such-and-such month such-and-such year such-and-such, the quantity of such-and-such bighas of land by the gaz-i ilahi from the aforesaid pargana was fixed on account of the madad-i maʿash of so-and-so. After [his death, or some other narration of the events specific to a particular grant] the past ministers (sadur) entrusted the aforementioned land to so-and-so, etc., [heirs of the deceased, or some other explanation]. They [i.e. the heirs] have the previously issued farman and tasahiha to hand. And presently, by the testimony (aqval) of trustworthy and equitable men it was made clear that they are living and have possession of the aforesaid land. And they do not have a another means of livelihood. Regarding this, the servant of the court also had the aforesaid land inspected (tasahiha) as having good condition according to the contents (zimn) by the devotion of the glorious sect, the servants of the lord [who is] the lieutenant of the Merciful [God], the shadow [of God] [here a space is left to read the name of the current emperor, written as elevated text]. It must be that the aforesaid land, in accordance with ancient custom from the old mahal should be left to them on condition of possession so that the revenue of that [land] will meet their necessary expenses [and] they shall be occupied by the duty of praying for the perpetuity of the victorious reign. In this matter, they [i.e. the agents and officials] shall know it ordered.


This document has a number of features of document copies that are common across copies of various classes of documents from the period and immediately help the reader situate the document. First, it identifies itself as a copy with the word ‘copy (naql)’ and then identifies the type of document that is copied, in this case a parvana. This is followed by attribution of the official’s seal that occurs on the original, and the date of the original document. Most copies were sealed by a qazi, who also endorsed the veracity of the copy with the phrase ‘copy according to original (naql mutabiq be asal)’ or variations thereof. Although the date the copy was made was not recorded, an early bound can be estimated by the year given in the qazi’s seal (if legible), though one must remember that seals were sometimes kept in use for a decade or more after they were issued.

Religious scholars, perhaps much like the ones depicted in this painting, often received charitable grants from the Mughal emperor. “A Discourse Between Muslim Sages.” Opaque watercolour attributed to Govardhan, India, Mughal Empire, c. 1630. LACMA M.85.2.3. Public Domain Image from

Turning to the core content of the document, this sort of parvana was issued as part of the process of reconfirming an imperial madad-i maʿash grant, a charitable grant of land revenue commonly used in the Mughal Empire to support religious mendicants, scholars, etc. While the initial grant was typically made through an imperial farman, parvanas were issued to implement the grant and notify local officials about the rights of the grantholders. The form of the document above, which confirms that the heirs of the original grantee continue to hold these rights, constructs its own authority in relation to the original farman and to the fact that the claimants possessed this farman, as well as the tasahiha, or confirmation of the grant from the office of the sadr. This, plus testimony that they heirs occupied the land in question, was given as justification for the re-issuance of the grant. While imperial policies regarding the inheritance of madad-i maʿash grants changed over time, the smallest grants, under 30 bighas, were typically fully inheritable and a portion, typically half, of larger grants could be inherited. However, in practice the full grants were often inherited and from his 34th Regnal Year, Aurangzeb declared that all such grants were inheritable, regardless of size.

Although parvanas of this style did not feature prominently in Mughal-era munshats, they represent a well-known form to scholars today. Indeed, madad-i maʿash grants are some of the best documented rights from the Mughal Empire in contemporary archives and private collections, as the families and institutions that held such rights have preserved the farmans, parvanas, and other documents recording these grants. Known instances of the reconfirmation of madad-i maʿash grants, such as those published by B.N. Goswamy and J.S. Grewal, show similar but not identical formulations to the document above. This raises the possibility that within the shared legal forms and formulas, individual styles of writing these documents developed in particular offices in particular periods – something which becomes visible when we can examine multiple documents of a single type issued from a particular type, as in this instance.

Suggested Further Reading

Alam, Muzaffar, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. “The Making of a Munshi.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24, no. 2 (2004): 61–72. Reprinted in Writing the Mughal World: Studies on Culture and Politics, 2012.

Chatterjee, Nandini. “Translating Obligations: Tamassuk and Fārigh-Khaṭṭī in the Indo-Persian World.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 64, no. 5–6 (November 26, 2021): 541–82.

Goswamy, B. N, and J. S. Grewal. The Mughals and the Jogis of Jakhbar; Some Madad-i-Maʻāsh and Other Documents. Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1967.

Husain, Iqbal. “The Madad-i Maash Regulations in Mughal Empire.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 38 (1977): 302–11.

[1] Miscellaneous Persian Documents, Bundle 2, files 22-60, Jaipur Records, Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner.

[2] A list of these posthumous titles from Babur to Bahadur Shah I is available in B.N. Goswamy and J. S. Grewal, The Mughals and the Jogis of Jakhbar; Some Madad-i-Maʻāsh and Other Documents (Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1967), 198.

Book Award for Lawforms PI Prof. Nandini Chatterjee

Negotiating Mughal Law (Cambridge University Press, 2020)

Prof. Nandini Chatterjee, Principal Investigator of the Lawforms Project, recently received the Peter Gonville Stein Book Award from the American Society for Legal History for her book Negotiating Mughal Law: A Family of Landlords Across Three Empires. The award honours the “best book in legal history (written in English) outside the field of US legal history, published during the previous calendar year.”

The award committee described the book as:

a wonderful combination of philology, imagination, archive sleuthing, and sharp intelligence. Based on a painstakingly collected set of documents in a few languages from a society that lacked a centralized legal archive, it is a micro-history of a family of landlords in central India over several centuries. Chatterjee provides a rich narrative of law as put into practice in the daily lives of a wide range of people. Her attention to methodology is a model of the care and self-criticism that underlies the very best historical research, and for this reason the book is of great value beyond its specific geographical and temporal context.

Congratulations, Prof. Chatterjee!

Negotiating Mughal Law is an open access publication and available to read online for free on the Cambridge Core website.

See the official announcement and full list of honourees on the ASLH website.

Of Camels and Crime Prevention: state support for trade at an annual fair in 18th-century western India

Painting of a camel herder (raibari) from a manuscript of the Kitāb-i Tashrīḥ Al-Aqvām, composed by Lieut. Col. James Skinner, 1825. (Library of Congress, African and Middle East Division, Near East Section Persian Manuscript Collection.

Elizabeth Thelen

Reposted from the Economic and Social History seminar blog, University of Exeter

On the 24th of November 1778, Hindumal Singhvi, a career administrator for the kingdom of Marwar in western India, issued the following royal order to the officials of the magistracy (kotwali chauntara) in the city of Nagaur:

Since the watchman’s footmen are always sent to the Mundwa fair (mela), accordingly send [them] so that they shall protect [it]. At last year’s fair, three to four thefts occurred. On this account, take special care this time so that there shall be no theft. [This] is the order of the lord (Sri Hajur).

Marginal note: Instruct Nagaur’s merchants and traders: send shops to the fair immediately.[1]

This order, written in the local dialect of the Rajasthani language, was transcribed in an annual register of royal orders, judgements and instructions known as a sanad parwana bahi. Though most of the documents from this period are untraceable, these registers, which are extant for the kingdom of Marwar in a continuous series from 1764 to 1938, provide extensive insights into the functioning and policies of the state and, read against the grain, to Rajasthani society in this period. Each register runs to hundreds of folios, and most folios contain transcriptions of four or five documents each on the recto and verso. Among this flood of thousands of documents dispatched across the kingdom, the state issued approximately two to eight orders concerning arrangements for the fair in Mundwa to the regional officials in Nagaur each year throughout the 1770s – the decade of records I have recently been focused on. These orders, such as the one I’ve translated above, show a consistent pattern of state concern about the arrangements for the fair and support for trade.

To claim that early modern South Asian states supported trade in general, and annual fairs specifically, is not to make a particularly new claim, but it is a topic that deserves revisiting on several historiographical grounds. First, although fairs have been recognised as an important aspect of the South Asian economy, they have received surprisingly little detailed discussion, especially for the period prior to the nineteenth century. Second, and I believe related to the first point, much of what has been written on the history of annual fairs in Rajasthan and elsewhere in northern India has drawn primarily on colonial accounts. In contrast, in this blog I sketch out how the small number of orders I have read thus far regarding the Mundwa mela in the 1770s might help rethink the nature of such fairs and the specific aspects of state involvement in their organisation.

Historically, a mela, or fair, was an annual or biannual gathering that typically combined a religious festival or pilgrimage with trading. As distinct from the permanent daily and weekly markets (bazaars, mandis and haats) found in cities, towns, and villages, melas were an exceptional market in terms of size and scale, drawing merchants, customers and pilgrims from wider distances and in larger numbers, and lasting for long periods – often two to six weeks at a stretch. Although all sorts of goods were traded at melas, a key feature was often the livestock market, where horses, oxen and camels were bought and sold, including by state agents. The Mundwa mela was part of a larger ecosystem of annual fairs held across Rajasthan in the early modern period; some of these fairs, including the Pushkar Mela and the Balotra Mela, were attested to in early modern records and continue to be held annually, though there may be less serious live-stock trading nowadays, as mechanization has displaced draft animals. The annual mela in the village of Mundwa, located about 10 miles southwest of Nagaur, was a site of bustling commercial activity for about six weeks every winter in the second half of the eighteenth century. Merchants and traders hawked wares ranging from camels to sugarcane to vermillion powder (gulal). They brought their wares from around the wider region, travelling from places such as Jodhpur and Umarkot, though many came from the nearest city, Nagaur.

The document I open with addresses two overriding concerns of the state in regards to the Mundwa mela: reducing crime and increasing trade. As the order makes clear, the officials in the nearby city of Nagaur were responsible for the security arrangements of the fair. Unlike major pilgrimage festivals, such as the Kumbh Mela and Haridwar Mela, where the congregation of rival groups of warrior ascetics known as Gosains might spark fights and clashes, here theft was the main concern. This was a regular topic in official correspondence to urban officials anyway, and although we do not have statistics for the size of the crowd that gathered, even if we take the 1879 estimation of 30-40,000 people as a starting point, this suggests that the fair created a temporary urbanisation, greatly surpassing the usual size of the village. In order to tamp down crime, armed contingents of footmen were sent to the fair, including those of the watchmen, but also those from the armoury. What is surprising, however, in the order above is that sending a contingent of watchmen to the fair is framed as a response to only three to four thefts with a stated aim of eliminating all theft. This may have been a rhetorical move, in line with Maharaja Vijai Singh’s (r. 1752 – 1793) broader efforts to crack down on crime and vice in the 1770s. Or perhaps the mention of three to four thefts refers to stealing high-value items or large quantities, not petty crimes like pickpocketing.

To promote the fair and encourage merchants and vendors to attend, the state also offered financial incentives such as customs discounts of up to 25 percent to merchants bringing their wares from neighbouring regions and sent invitations encouraging their participation during this period. In addition to tax discounts, state officials oversaw the setup of stalls or shops at the fair and were instructed to let the officials in Nagaur know if not enough merchants came so that they could respond – presumably by ordering or encouraging merchants to bring their wares to the fair. It is clear from the orders sent to Nagaur officials, including the one above, that there was considerable state pressure on local merchants to participate in the fair.

A third strand of state involvement also emerges from the bahi records. State support of the fair went beyond the strictly commercial and also attended to the religious components of the fair. The documents copied in the state registers from the 1770s do not explicitly describe the religious aspect of the Mundwa mela, but various records read together indicate that this was an important part of the fair even though Mundwa was not a famous pilgrimage location. The Rajputana Gazetteer of 1879 states that the fair was instituted in the middle of the eighteenth century by Maharaja Bakht Singh (r.) in honour of the deity Krishna as Giridhar ji, the deity in his form as a youthful cowherd lifting a mountain to shelter the villagers and cattle from a rainstorm. Although I have yet to find any earlier texts referencing this origin account of the fair, a prominent Giridhar ji temple still stands in Mundwa on the banks of village tank and eighteenth-century records show that the temple received patronage from the royal court on various festivals dedicated to Krishna throughout the year.

State orders regarding arrangements of the fair specifically targeted the religious aspects, such as making sure there was water in the tank for ritual bathing. In 1776-7, after a poor monsoon, water levels in the village tank were low, as they were across the region. Prior to the fair, the inspector of Nagaur’s custom house raised concerns about the water level, which resulted in a decree that the people of Mundwa needed to use water from wells instead of from the tank in order to save the water in the tank for the fair, because the water was needed to support revenue (hasil), presumably in the context of ritual baths overseen by the pilgrimage priests (ghatiya) who attended the fair. This raises the possibility that Maharaja Vijai Singh was levying taxes on pilgrims, something which will need further investigation. After the fair, the state ordered the tank in Mundwa desilted and repaired at a cost of 1,000 to 1,200 rupees in order to improve its holding capacity when the rains returned, with the work to be partially paid for by revenue from the fair.

Returning to the question of why the state undertook such activities and interventions, if the fair did originate in the 1750s at the behest of Maharaja Bakht Singh, ongoing state support may have been needed to make it more established. The state certainly would have had a financial incentive to keep it going. In the 1770s, the mela provided an income of over 5,000 silver rupees, as shown by an order to investigate an accounting discrepancy. This made it a considerable source of revenue, though it is hard to fully contextualize this amount. Thus far, revenue statistics for fairs in Marwar in the eighteenth century are not available, but if we compare to the data compiled by B.L. Bhadani for three other fairs in Marwar the mid-seventeenth century, this amount is well in line with average returns from other fairs, though well below the high point of almost 26,000 rupees of revenue recorded for one fair in 1648. Perhaps more instructively, Bhadani also compares non-agrarian revenue to the total revenue in several districts of Marwar in the 1660s to 1690s, which suggests that such customs revenue, ranging from 2,000-25,000 rupees depending on the size and population of the district, made up on average between 6 and 16 percent of the total district revenue. By 1879, Lt. Col. Walter reported in the Rajputana Gazetteer that the fair was only bringing in 3,000 rupees of revenue but stated that in past years it had been as much as 10-15,000 rupees. However, given the century or more between each of these datapoints and the years of the fair under consideration and the fact that they have not taken fluctuations of the value of the rupee into account, these comparisons can provide only rough guides until further research is undertaken in the eighteenth-century revenue records of the region. An order indicates that in the 1770s, specific series of records of the income of the fair under the previous ruler, i.e. Bakht Singh, were available to consult, although such records may no longer be extant.

Beyond profit, the fair was also a way for the state to acquire needed supplies, including luxury goods like vermillion powder but also livestock, including cattle, camels, and horses. Although colonial accounts of the fair emphasize its importance as a cattle market, the state orders of the 1770s are far more focused on camels, which were used as draft animals in agrarian, transport, and military contexts. Such orders included instructing officials to replace an ill camel attached to the magistracy with one purchased from the Mundwa Mela, to purchase a camel for the head of guards, and excusing revenue duty (hasil) on the transport of two camels from the fair to Jodhpur. Not only was the fair a source of camels for Marwar’s officials, it also supplied other regional powers. When the representative of the Maratha Peshwa, Pandit Ayaram Mahapat Rao, purchased 500 camels at the fair, the state ordered the hasil taxation excused. During this period, the Marwar king was generally under treaty obligations to the Marathas. Thus, such an order might also be as much about diplomacy as about revenue. As the copies of state orders in the bahi records show, the state manner and reasons for involvement in the arrangements of local fairs like the Mundwa mela were both extensive and complex.

[1]Jodhpur Sanad Parwana Bahi 21 f 53a, Magsir sud 5 VS 1835. Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner. Own translation.

Primary Sources

Jodhpur Sanad Parwana Bahis nos. 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 21, Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner.

Further Reading

Bayly, C. A. Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Bhadani, B. L. Peasants, Artisans and Entrepreneurs: Economy of Marwar in the Seventeenth Century. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 1999.

Maclean, Kama. Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 1765-1954. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Sahai, Nandita Prasad. Politics of Patronage and Protest: The State, Society, and Artisans in Early Modern Rajasthan. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Sharma, G. D. “Vyaparis and Mahajans in Western Rajasthan during the Eighteenth Century.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 41 (1980): 377–85.

Yang, Anand A. Bazaar India: Markets, Society, and the Colonial State in Bihar. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

The Vigat Catalogues and Family Archives in Rajasthan

By Elizabeth Thelen

In Rajasthani, the term ‘vigat’ is used commonly to refer to an account, details, explanation or list. It finds broad use in seventeenth and eighteenth-century records. The vigat of metal utensils supplied to a royal household listed the number and value of each object sent; officials asked for vigatvar (detailed) descriptions of disputes before deciding who was in the right; stray lists of facts, such as the names of the chief forts of Marwar, were titled vigat and frequently included in miscellanies; the famous 17th-century diwan (chief minister) of Marwar, Muhnot Nainsi, composed a text bringing together economic, social and historical information about the kingdom’s districts known as Marwar ra Pargana ri Vigat.

Cover of Vigat No. 14 Karera Papers

Given this long history of the use of the term in and for a variety of historical sources, it is fitting that Dr Rajendra Joshi’s work on cataloguing the family collections of documents from various thikanadar (landlord) households in Rajasthan was known as the Vigat project. I learned of this project while attempting to survey the document catalogues and published documents available from across Rajasthan. However, because Joshi’s catalogues were produced for non-circulating research use and never officially published, copies are rare and even with following leads in Jaipur and tracking down some volumes in the SOAS library in London and in the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, I have not been able to find a full set of the 19 volumes of Vigat project catalogues that are listed on the inside cover of the extant volumes.

Joshi was a faculty member in the History Department at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. I first encountered his scholarship during the course of my PhD Research on Ajmer, as his book Unnisavin Shatabdi ka Ajmer (Ajmer in the Nineteenth Century) is a key study of that city in the colonial era. He was an active member of the Rajasthan Studies Group, an international group of humanities and social sciences scholars that held regular conferences to promote study of the region and he co-edited several volumes of these conference proceedings in the 1990s. In this work, he collaborated with the political scientists Lloyd Rudolph and Susan Hoeber Rudolph – who themselves also conducted extensive research on thikanadar families in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Rudolphs worked at the University of Chicago, and this connection likely explains how copies of some of Joshi’s Vigat catalogues ended up there.

Joshi’s Vigat project was conducted, as far as I can tell, in the 1980s and 1990s initially under the auspices of the University of Rajasthan’s ‘Project for Preservation, Listing, Cataloguing, Editing & Publishing Manuscripts’, which was supported by the Ministry of Culture & Education and later as the ‘Project for Descriptive Indexing & Cataloguing of Thikana Records,’ which was sponsored by the University Grants Commission and at times, the Indian Council of Social Science Research. The project can be seen as part of a larger arc of efforts to collect and catalogue family archives that intensified with institutional and government support in the decades after Indian independence. Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a variety of historians and organizations endeavoured to collect, collate and catalogue documents and manuscripts related to India’s history. From Sir Jadunath Sarkar’s transcriptions and publications of Mughal-era manuscripts and newsletters to the Indian Historical Records Commission’s surveys resulting in a national register of private records, these efforts sought in part to shore up the historical record of a new nation through the assembly of archives, the publication of edited and translated records, and the production of histories.

These efforts at cataloguing, collecting and copying – pursued by various scholars across India – drive home the fact that many of the surviving documents from pre-colonial India are held in household archives, not state repositories. Households holding records from that time include local landlords, merchant families, scribal families, and families of religious officials. What the Vigat project makes clear, by encompassing a broader time span than many of these efforts, is that household archives are also an important source for colonial-era history. Although there are far more voluminous state archives for this period, both in terms of records of the colonial state and records of the princely states, the Vigat project catalogues list many documents that aren’t encompassed by state collections, and offer insights into local politics and the running of local estates in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as correspondence and financial records.

The 14 vigat project catalogues I have seen contain entries for 3893 documents and 704 entries and/or pages from registers (bahis). While the documents range in date from 1545 to 1968 CE, by far and away the bulk of documents are from c. 1800 -1940; in line with what we might expect from this chronology, most of the documents are written in Rajasthani, Hindi, Urdu, or English, although some Persian and Marathi documents are present as well. The documents also cover a broad range of document types, including letters and correspondence, financial records dealing with revenue and moneylending, and grants and leases of land such as pattas. They cover records from seven different thikanas, mostly in eastern and southern Rajasthan: Kanota (near Jaipur), Banera (in Bhilwara), Mandawa (in Shekhawati), Ratlam (in modern-day Madhya Pradesh), Roopaheli (in Bhilwara), Karera (in Bhilwara), and Bedla (near Udaipur). One catalogue also covers records from the Manmal Bhandari family, who served in official posts, including Diwan, of Jodhpur Princely State.

Centre for Rajasthan Studies, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur

While the originals remained with the families, photocopies of a considerable number of the documents that Joshi catalogued continue to be stored in the University of Rajasthan’s Centre for Rajasthan Studies. Tucked away in a quiet section of the university campus, the centre has a large collection of books on Rajasthan’s history, culture and society, study space to consult the materials, and a small staff who support the work of the centre, including holding occasional seminars and other scholarly functions. When I visited in 2019, the Vigat project photocopied documents were not readily accessible, though plans were being put in place to store them in a more accessible fashion to facilitate research use. During my visit, the Centre’s staff helped me locate a great deal of the photocopies, many of which are filed according to the cataloguing system and some of which are of further uncatalogued documents (for a number of the collections, the catalogues themselves  indicate that the list is just a subset of a much larger collection). Some of the original documents also have made their way into archival repositories elsewhere, such as the Manmal Bhandari collection which is now held by the Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner, and a selection of records from Banera from a period prior to those catalogued as part of the Vigat project was published by K.S. Gupta and L.P. Mathur. In fact, K.S. Gupta also helped with cataloguing records from Banera for the Vigat project.

In our rush as historians to get to the ‘real thing’ and read the documents, we often treat catalogues as aids but not as important sources of data in and of themselves. Yet the metadata recorded in catalogues map broad trends in the nature of document collections and the patterns of document production, circulation and retention, although one must also always consider what metadata was generated and why, and how cataloguers may have made selections within broader sets of records. Catalogues such as those produced by the Vigat project, therefore, can be not only invaluable finding aids but also offer ways to understand specific documents as part of larger series and ways to contextualize other series of documents and small family collections in the wider ecosystem of documents and record-keeping.

Vigat Project Catalogues

  1. Lag Bag Papers – Kanota Collection (not traced)
  2. Kanota Collections: Indigenous Banking and Ijara Papers
  3. Kanota Collections: Jagir Papers
  4. Banera Papers (1805-1817)
  5. Mandawa Papers, Catalogue No. 1
  6. Mandawa Papers, Catalogue No. 2
  7. Mandawa Papers, Catalogue No. 3
  8. Raja Amar Singh Ratlam Collection
  9. Devi Singh Collection No. 1: Papers on Jat Agitation, Wills Report & Sikar Agitation (not traced)
  10. Banera Papers (1818 AD to 1857 AD) No. 2
  11. Devi Singh Collection No. 2 (not traced)
  12. Dooni Papers (not traced)
  13. Roopaheli Papers
  14. Karera Papers
  15. Family Papers of Man Mal Bhandari
  16. Bedla Papers (not traced)
  17. Bedla Papers (Patta Parwana Bahis)
  18. Bedla Papers (Patta Parwana Bahis)
  19. Bedla Papers (Devlok Bahis)

ECSAS conference July 2021 : Magic texts

Reported by Nandini Chatterjee

The European Association for South Asian Studies had postponed its annual conference of 2020. It was held online in July 2021. The Lawforms project organised a panel looking at texts whose meanings, effects and power extended far beyond their actual written content. We decided collectively, with generous scholars externally collaborating with the project, that such texts act as talismans: their compressed texts, symbols and graphics endow them with powers that were magical. Some of these texts were directly about magic while others conveyed forms of transcendence that were sometimes supernatural but in all cases extraordinary.

The panel was titled Talismanic Writing: Powerful Texts and was held over two sessions on 28 July. We had participants from the USA (where one of the Lawforms team members, Dominic Vendell, is also located), UK, Pakistan and India. Getting all of them together in one ‘room’ without the necessity of environment- and budget-destroying air travel was itself a bit of magic that the Covid-19 pandemic has gifted us!

We opened with a presentation by Fouzia Farooq, project associate fellow from Quaid-i Azam University, who spoke about an Urdu book of spells, titled Shama-i Shabistan-i Raza.

Shama Shabistan-i Raza (a book of Indo-Islamic charms)

Using this wonderful book, widely printed and circulated in 20th-century South Asia, she opened up a world of Indo-Islamic magic, associated with the Barelvi sect. Crucial to the inclusion of such practices and knowledge about them within the range of Islamic practices was the distinction the author of the text drew between white, or religiously sanctioned magic, and black or evil magic. A complex and detailed set of rules of comportment helped distinguish and demarcate the white from the black—rules that were strikingly similar to those recommended for good Mughal and Maratha scribes! (Bathing and praying before writing activities seems to be a common South Asian recommendation.) Fouzia explored the range of social and personal needs that led people to the many talismans, fals (bibliomancy) and spells described in the book—including the ability to control the outcome of cricket matches!

Fouzia’s paper and the discussion around it tied very nicely into Nandini Chatterjee’s paper on a curse appended to a deed of gift by a Hindu woman landlord who passed on certain villages to her nephews. For anyone who interferes with their title, she threatened, I shall seize their robes on the day of judgement! Here we speculated together whether the pattern of use of curses in legal deeds and other documents was directly co-related to uncertainty and temporality. The more unknown the agents are, the more long-term the aims, the greater the need to draw on supernatural powers and/or divine intervention to undergird them. This might also explain why we see far more numerous instances of curses, including the infamous gadhe-gal in stone inscriptions, than on paper deeds, the latter having a more immediate audience.

Dominic Vendell, until recently Lawforms Postdoctoral Research Associate, spoke about the ritualistic aspects of Maratha diplomacy, including the use of golden pots, sanctified water and bel leaves. All of these fed into inter-polity negotiations that included verbal as well as documentary exchanges. One the one hand, his paper pointed to the complexity and richness of the Maratha political structures of the eighteenth century, which many still hesitate to call an empire because of its multi-centred nature. It also resonated with the work done by historians of the New Diplomatic History network, which is doing stellar service to the history of diplomacy by releasing it from the overbearing Eurocentric narratives of post-Westphalian international dealings. Vendell’s work suggests diplomacy is always about negotiating much more than actual terms of treaties, including the cultural pitfalls, personal relations and transcendental claims such as oaths in god’s name.

Elizabeth Thelen, Lawforms Postdoctoral Research Associate, took us into the world of Sufi pirs and temple managers of Rajasthan, who turned out to be as savvy as they come in terms of self-branding and claiming authority. She showed us instances of legal documents in which Sufi pirs of Nagaur used seals modelled on the genealogical seals of the Mughal emperors. In the case of the Sufis, the genealogy was spiritual rather than filial, but the graphic model of a central circle with the name of the signatory, and surrounding petals with names of the ancestors was exactly the same. Not without reason has the Indo-Islamic Sufi shrine been called a dargah, the same word for the imperial court! But with her typical cross-sectarian expertise, Elizabeth also showed us the little signatory seals, bearing the name of the god Govinddevji himself, came to mark documents issued under the issue of the idol’s authority from the temple in Jaipur. This is an excellent instance of the Hindu idol’s being treated as a legal person, a tradition with enormous case-law from colonial courts and backed up with dharmashastric traditions.

Persian metrical inscription dated AH 1180=1766-67 AD from Hirapura gate, left side. States that under the instructions of Nawwab Ismail Khan, the nazim, who, in turn, had received orders from Asaf Jah (II) for the construction of a fort at Ellichpur, Khushkhabar Khan built this lofty edifice (i.e., the gate).

Muntazir Ali, epigraphist from the Archaeological Survey of India, joined us with a marvellous paper surveying the Islamic religious elements in inscriptions from various regions of South Asia. Among other things, he also discussed the process of creating such inscriptions and the roles of the poetry-selector, calligrapher and carver in the process. While clearly derived from standard high-status religious texts, passages were selected to communicate specific messages, especially those of power and awe to those outside mosques and of community and peace to those inside.

Arighna Gupta, PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, took us to a different kind of material, showing us the braiding of legal and literary authority in Nawabi and early colonial-era Bengal. Looking at epics such as Annadamangal and Bidya Sundar from the eighteenth century on the one hand and Pratapaditycharita and Krishnachandrarayasyacharita of the nineteenth century on the other, he discussed the long shadow of Mughal authority in legitimating kingship in Bengal. Moral successes and failures of kings were not only co-related by the authors to their dynastic outcomes, but also attributed to their relative success or failure in upholding Mughal authority, represented in some of the narratives through the issue of a Mughal farman.

Walter Hakala, University at Buffalo, SUNY, pointed us towards a different kind of transcendent claim of authority and community, where the script of a text itself communicated meanings. Presenting work from a project on Urdu inscriptions in southern and western India, which he has been carrying out with a team of students at the University of Buffalo, Walter speculated on the functions of writing spoken languages like Urdu in public settings. He argued that Urdu inscriptions in the Arabic script functioned by articulating political solidarities for Muslim elites and, especially in the 19th century, communicating messages to expanding populations of readers that included women and merchant communities.

Overall, this was a great get-together despite all our exhaustion with the now seriously greying magic of Zoom conferences! It was also a very timely opportunity for the Lawforms team to consider some parts of our material that are literally marginal and tangential to legal functions.

Privy Council Papers and Historical Narratives of the Ajmer Dargah

By Elizabeth Thelen

In the twentieth century, two cases regarding the management of the Dargah (shrine) of Sufi saint Mu’in al-Din Chishti were appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The first, Appeal No. 8 of 1936, Syed Altaf Hussain and Others vs. Diwan Syed Ale Rasul Ali Khan and Others, was about rights to pilgrim’s offerings at the shrine.  The second, Appeal No. 36 of 1945, Syed Asrar Ahmed vs. The Durgah Committee Ajmer, concerned the hereditary nature of the post of mutawalli (trustee) of the shrine endowment (waqf).

Main entrance to the Ajmer shrine

I first learned of the ‘Printed Papers’ of Appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council regarding these cases in 2015, when in the course of researching the history of patronage at the shrine pre-1800, I met with the Diwan of the Ajmer Dargah. He showed me the copies of the ‘Printed Papers’ that he held in his library and pointed out how the proceedings included translations of a small number of Mughal documents.

In my first encounter with these records, I, like other scholars researching the shrine’s medieval and early modern history, sought to mine the ‘Printed Papers’ for the traces of Mughal records they contained. Documents relating to the shrine, especially those from before 1818, are held privately if and where they survive, and are largely inaccessible to researchers. Thus, the earlier history of the shrine is written largely on the basis of copies of documents published in a small number of compilations between the 1920s and 1950s, as well as copies made in colonial administrative and legal records including the ‘Printed Papers.’

However, the ‘Printed Papers,’ also have much to tell us about how documents were translated and interpreted and in new contexts as documents from as early as the sixteenth century entered the twentieth-century courtroom. Recently, I have returned to the ‘Printed Papers’ of these two cases with broader questions about the formation of archives and the role of law in creating and authorizing certain historical narratives. This means looking at the marginalia, notes and presentation of each document as much as at the document itself. For example, in the ‘Printed Papers’ of Privy Council Appeal No. 36 of 1945, each evidence exhibit included is prefaced with a short statement detailing where and how the document was procured, including the officials who vouched for the accuracy of the copy and in the case of translations, the translator’s attestation that he had produced a true translation. For a number of the exhibits, in addition to the ‘local translation’ made by Kameshwar Prasad, who was the translator in Ajmer’s District Judge’s court in the 1940s, a ‘Bombay translation’ was also included. These dual translations, created at the request of the Judicial Commissioner in an earlier appeal, show differing translation strategies and raise questions about how legal translation shaped judgements.

In this case, the judgement of the Privy Council included a narrative of the history and significance of the shrine and the post of mutawalli that explicitly referenced a number of the documents included as evidence exhibits and even quotes from a couple that were key to the appellant’s case. Although the ‘Printed Papers’ were not widely available to readers in the 1940s (researchers today can access them in the British Library and the full text of 6 cases here), the Durgah Committee, who won the case, printed the Privy Council judgement in Urdu translation shortly after it was issued in 1946. This can be seen as an attempt to sway public opinion in their favour and also promoted the court’s analysis of the shrine’s history and documents as an authoritative interpretation. Thus, the process of compilation behind the ‘Printed Papers’ is also relevant to understanding the construction of popular histories of the shrine.

Red fort documents: Edward Colebrooke’s letter

Posted by Nandini Chatterjee

On behalf of Prof. Chander Shekhar

The Red Fort’s collection of Persian documents continues to tell us much about the colonial use of the Persian language and the evolution of letter-writing and legal drafting styles. The mammoth series, Calendar of Persian Correspondence, recently republished by Primus books with introductions and annotations by Professor Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, have alerted scholars to the continued used of Persian for diplomatic purposes. In a previous post, a letter to Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1808CE offers an example of such correspondence. 

In this post, we present an instance of routine administrative documents still being written in Persian in the early nineteenth century. The document is a kind of passport or safe-conduct, bearing the seal and signature of Sir Edward Colebrooke, Baronet. The letter enjoins safe passage for a consignment of lead, being taken from Delhi to Bahadur Garh, a suburb of Delhi, approximately 20 kms away on Rohtak road.

The seal on the following document may be read as:

Roshanud Daula Ziaul Mumalik Sir Edward Colebrooke Baronet Bahadur Jang Fidwi-yi Alhamd Akbar Badshah Ghazi. As Kathleen Prior, L. Brennan and R. Haines described in an article published in Modern Asian Studies in 2001, Edward Colebrooke was Resident at the Mughal court in Delhi before his dismissal from his position on various charges of corruption in 1829.  The case against Colebrooke rested, among other things, on the misuse of his seal by his Bengali secretary and agent, Ram Gopal Mukherjee.

The document presented here, although routine, offers a broader picture of the usage of Persian by Company officials in the early nineteenth century. The Persian seal with elaborate Mughal mobility-style epithets adds to similar other instances presented by the British Library. More specifically, Colebrooke’s seal shows the resumption of ceremonial obedience to the Mughal empire, which had been discontinued by Governor General Hastings after success in the third Anglo-Maratha war. In terms of style, this document is very similar to a standard Mughal dastak-i rahdari, a model of which is provided, for example in the Tarikh-i Shakir Khani. Perhaps the only difference is the use of the iswi or Christian (Gregorian) calendar, rather than the Hijri-Qamri.

Summary of contents: On behalf of the east India company officer, it has been conveyed to all the thanedars and other road keepers that they must allow the unhindered passage of the lead, sought by Khan Bahadur Jung (cousine of Nawwab of Jhajjar. The text is as follows:


تہانہ داران و گذربانان و چوکیداران و سایر(سایہ) داران و جمیع مستحفظان

طرق و شوارع متعلقہ ممالک محروسہ سرکار دولتمدار کمپنی انگریز بہادر بدانند

موازی چھار من سرب مطلوبہ خانصاحب مشفق بہادر جنگخان بہادر

از مقام دارالخلافت شاہجہان آباد بہ بہادرکدہ(گڈہ)

A passport or safe-conduct issued by Edward Colebrooke, Resident at Delhi, 1829

میرود باید کہ احدی در اثنای راہ بعلت اخذ وجہ

محصول سرکار بوجہ من الوجوہ مزاحم و متعرض نگردیدی

از حدود متعلقہ خود ھا بحفاظت و سلامت بگذارنند

درینباب تاکید دانستہ حسب المسطور بعمل آرند۔ فقط

مرقوم شانزدہم ماہ اپریل ۱۸۲۹ عیسوی


Red fort documents: discoveries by Prof. Chander Shekhar

Nandini Chatterjee on behalf of

Prof. Chander Shekhar,  Director. Lal Bahadur Shastri Centre for Indian Culture Embassy of India 

Prof. Chander Shekhar has opened up a previously unseen collection of Persian documents, currently stored at the Red Fort, Delhi, India.

Red fort, Delhi, India

These documents from the first part of the nineteenth century offer an enriching glimpse into the continued use of Persian under English East India Company rule. They also offer insights into the use of evolving forms of Persian correspondence between the reduced Mughal court, the Company authorities, and various regional states, including that of the Sikhs in the Punjab. 

The first document is a letter from Lord Minto to Raja Ranjit Singh dated 1808, regarding the the latter’s encroachment on the Sikh Chiefs under the protection of the British Government. The letter is written on expensive paper with gold stamp impressions. Incidentally, the intense use of Persian in the administration of the kingdom of Ranjit Singh has also been discussed in two other postsMahar by Mr Khizar Jawad, who has looked at materials in the Punjab State Archives, Lahore.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s throne, currently in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This letter is an effort to remove certain doubts about the Company’s protection to some Sikh chiefs, settled around Satluj river. This was clearly the topic of a running correspondence between Ranjeet Singh and East India Company. At the end of the letter, Lord Minto explains that the East India Company has no ulterior motive to keep these Sikh chiefs under their control, quite unlike the Marhattas who were forcibly taking tributes. The Company apparently wanted all Sikh chiefs to return to Ranjit Singh’s fold. This letter may have been a preamble to the treaty of Amritsar 1809 which drew the boundary between the Company’s territories and those of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Here is the document, and the text of the letter in Persian.

مہاراجہ صاحب مہربان شفیق دوستان استظہار مخلصان سلامت

بعد اشتیاق دریافت مواصلت موفور المسرت کہ متجاوز التحریر

و التقریراست منظور خاطر مہربانی مظاھرمصدر سوال و جواب

مطارجاییکہ از وقت درود شہامت و دعوالمرتبت

ابہت و متعالی منزلت متکف صاحب بہادر بدربار المشفق

بعمل آمدہ کیفیت آن بتفصیل از ارقام صاحب موصوف

بدریافت مخلص رسیدہ بعض مراتبیکہ در اثنای این گفتگوھا

روبظہور آورد موجب تحیر و تاسف خاطر الحال تاثیر شدہ

متقاضی باین گشت کہ مخلص بذریعہ قطعہ محبت نامہ کیفیت

مافی الضمیر و مکتبات خاطر خود را الحیطہ بیان آورد

مشفقا مقصور از تعنیاتی صاحب موصوف بدربار المشفق

ھمین بود کہ معزی الیہ از کماھی خطراتیکہ عاید شدن آن

بمرور ایام نسبت بملک آن مشفق متصور است بخدمت اطلاع دادہ

جھت آن دفاع آن طرح انداز مصلحت و موافقت ہر دو سرکارشوند

چنانچہ صاحب موصوف تفصیل این اجمال را تصریحانہ

در خدمت آن مشفق بمعرض اظہار در آوردہ اند و اگر چہ

در حقیقت تقریر چنین سر رشتہ موافقت خیالی از انتفاع

 این سرکار ھم نیست زیرا کہ گروہ خذلان پژوھیکہ

منیع زیان رسانی نسبت بممالک سرکار آن مشفق است

 از۔۔۔۔؟ این سرکار نیز متصور نکرد و صورت پیشقدمی

آن گروہ محطوظ و مصون بودن ملک آنمشفق آراست تعدی اینہا

بلا اعانت و امداد و اہالی این سرکار کہ بفضل الہی

نظر بر مراتب قدر و فرط استعداد و اقتدار خودہا

اسباب حفاظت و حراست ممالک محروسہ بجمیع وجوہ

حاصل دو اصلیب دارد امر محال است از انجا کہ بظاہر اسباب

صداقت این مقال بر وجہ احسن و روش مستحسن منقوش و مرتسم

(on border side reverse)

خاطر انمشفق گردیدہ بود

درینصورت باتفصیل دریافت اینمعنی کہ

انمشفق اقبال سوال مزبور را کہ کمال منفعت سرکار   

بل قیام سرکار انمشفق دران متضمن است منحصر و مشروط براین دانستہ بودند

کہ سرداران سکہان اینطرف رود ستلج کہ از متوسلان وزیردستان

محافظت این سرکار ھستند اہالی این سرکار روادار

دست درازی آنمشفق بر سر تعلقات آنہا شوند موجب

استعجاب خاطر الحال تاثر گردید معہذا آن گاہ اینہم بظہور پیوست

کہ آن مشفق باوجود مقبول و منطور داشتن اینمعنی کہ در مقدمہ

سرداران مربوط از مخلص استصواب و استصراح بعمل آید

خود مع فوج رود ستلج را عبور ساختہ در ممالک آنہا

در آمدہ بہ تسخیر قلعجات اقدام نمودہ بودند مشکلات استعحب؟؟

زیادہ از سابق لاحق خاطر مودت ذخایر گردید مشفقات

مدراج وفا پرستی و اعتدال پروری اہالی سرکار

انگریز بہادر بر انمشفق و جمیع روسا و سرداران ایندیار

بخوبی واضح و لایح است چنانچہ قوم مرہتہ در ایام تسلط خود

بممالک سمت شمال ہندوستان از سرداران سکہان

پیشکش و خراج مکگرفتند و دست اختیار بر سر انہا

دراز و آنہا را زیر اطاعت خودہا میداشتند

بعد از ان وقتیکہ اہالی این سرکار محض بجہت صیانت

ممالک محروسہ از آنست پیشقدمی و زیردستی قوم مزبور

مجبورا بارتکاب محاربہ پرداختہ بر ملک ہندوستان

مسلط شدند ایتلاف و انحداب قلوب سرداران سکہان

بذریعہ تمشیت سررشتہ فلاح و بہبود انہا پیشنہاد خواطر

داشتہ از اخذ زر پیشکش و خراج بل ۔۔۔ ہرگونہ مطالبہ و

مزاحمت اجتناب ورزیدہ سرداران مذکورین را بلا قید

و ز اجرای حکومت واجبی نسبت بآنہا ست وارد شدن

چہ جای امکان شد کہ اہالی موصوف روادار تحکم

سرکار دیگر بر سر سرداران سکہان مذکورین توانند گردید

از انجا کہ اینمعنی بررای زرین انمشفق نیکو ظاہر خواھد بود

درینصورت مختصر التقریر حاصل کہ انمشفق از تقدیم ارادہ نمودہ

 نسبت سرداران مزبور معطوف العنان خواہند گشت

مستصاحب بعضی روی مراتب؟؟ 

Sign in english

Documents and diplomacy: a conversation




Nandini Chatterjee, University of Exeter

Guido van Meersbergen, University of Warwick

Leonard Hodges, King’s College London

Callie Wilkinson, University of Warwick

Dominic Vendell, University of Exeter

This past Thursday, 25 March, as we await better opportunities to resume crossing borders – physical, disciplinary and otherwise – a group of scholars working on issues related to diplomacy in South Asia gathered to discuss the current and future state of diplomatic history. More than twenty years on from the earliest statements on New Diplomatic History, the field has expanded well beyond its post-Westphalian European statist limits to encompass new questions, frameworks and methodologies. Indeed, an indication of the changing valences of the category of diplomacy is its intersection with our different areas of thematic interest, ranging from Dutch and English India Company gift exchange to Mughal law to Maratha state-formation to French imperial sovereignty to the making of Company paramountcy.

Among the most influential paradigms for new diplomatic histories has been Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s framework of a connected history of early modern Eurasia. Diplomacy, after all, was not just a means of connecting different polities and political communities, but also a site for myriad forms of social, cultural, and economic exchange.  Yet the group recognized the continuing need for accounts of encounter and exchange that de-centre elite agents, sources, and narratives: the residential ambassador successfully settling a treaty of “permanent peace,” if you will. By adopting a more practice-oriented perspective, diplomatic history might shed light on the local networks of power and influence that embraced a plurality of go-betweens who navigated court, camp, and household.

Alongside the question of the sociology of diplomacy, the group considered how the field might push towards a more complex conception of diplomatic culture. If we think about the constellation of practices that figured into interactions for which we have the richest descriptions, we will come across highly elaborate norms and rituals. Among these the group was especially drawn to those related to bodily gesture, expression, and comportment. For example, physical intimacy was integral the kissing of the feet (in Persian, pa-bos) and the donning of the robe of honour (khilat); however, how did individuals strike the right balance between proximity and distance amidst anxieties about pollution, sacrilege, and disrespect? While there is much more research to be done on specific ritual acts, the group agreed that the body may be a fruitful site of inquiry for historians of diplomacy.

Draft farman requested by Nicholas Waite and William Norris

Finally, the group agreed that far more attention needs to be paid to the nitty-gritty of everyday diplomatic work. Gifts held symbolic value, but they were also valuable in monetary terms. Recipients of gifts often mounted took great pains to record the value and cost of gifts, leaving behind stacks of fascinating, but overlooked financial accounts. Likewise, treaties and correspondence were drafted, copied, translated, and registered, and sometimes it is only the draft or the copy that remains for the historian. The Lawforms project is particularly interested in pursuing the question of how diplomatic documentation was generated, managed, and stored, as part of its broader interest in the archival practices undergirding “paper empires.”

How can we make sense of the messiness of diplomatic archives? One potential avenue of inquiry may be to examine diplomatic writing as a reiterative process across languages, scripts, and genres of writing. Delegations of the East India Company to the Mughal court, including that of William Norris in 1699-1702, produced drafts of imperial farmans in the form of articles of agreement (see image above right). For further information about these documents, check out the upcoming critical edition of the Norris embassy diaries currently being prepared for the Hakluyt Society by Adam Clulow, Georgia O’Connor, Archisman Chaudhuri, and Guido van Meersbergen. 

With this exciting range of questions, the group looks forward to future opportunities to continue and expand the dialogue. Fortunately, Guido van Meersbergen, Lisa Hellman and Birgit Tremml-Werner are planning a fantastic venue for such conversations: a Global Diplomacy Network which will be launched at a virtual meeting on 18 May. If you are interested in attending the meeting or learning more about the network, please contact Birgit Tremml-Werner at


Opening up family collections: Discovery of three 18th-century legal documents from the Nawab family of Kamboh, near Meerut, north India

Nandini Chatterjee of behalf of Prof. Chander Shekhar

Prof. Chander Shekhar, currently Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri Centre for Indian Culture, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and senior advisor of the Lawforms project, has been opening up exciting new collections of materials despite the difficulties imposed by the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. During a visit to India in December-January 2020-21, Prof. Chander Shekhar found three Persian documents related to the illustrious Nawab family of Kamboh. This family had held position and titles in the area for several centuries, possibly even from pre-Mughal times. Sir Ziauddin Ahmad Kamboh, the first pro-Vice Chancellor and later Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, was an eminent member of this lineage.

Sale deeds from family collection of Nawabs of Meerut.

The three documents that we have to hand are all documents recording the sale of lands.

Document 1 records the sale of lands by Hisbullah, son of Shaikh Muhammad Baqir, son of Shaikh Muhammad Shakir Kamboh and by his parents and other female members of his family. These lands are said to have been in the possession of the family due to an imperial grant by the Mughal emperor Humayun (ruled 1530-1540; 155-56), referred to as Jannat Makani in the document. The document is dated to n the year 11 Zulqada 1132 (14 September 1720). The sale was for the sum of 168 rupees and 12 annas, which was an enormous amount in 1720. The boundaries of the land sold are said to be recorded in a separate tamassuk, which is a kind of documentary form that recorded monetary and other obligations. This feature, of limits of property being determined not just by survey and registration, but also through agreements with adjacent property holders, is also seen in Marathi documents from the early nineteenth century.

Document 2 is dated 25 Rajab 1124 (28 August 1712). It is records a sale of some gardens and lands by Muhammad Ghaus, son of Shaikh Muhammad Zuban, son of Shaikh Ruknuddin Kambo, resident of the town Marjha.

Document 3 is somewhat odd because the connection with the Nawabs of Kamboh is unclear. In this a qanungo or record keeper records selling several pieces of land in Mustafapur and other villages. It presents the details of the boundaries of each piece of land in a tabular format. A certain Todar Mal, no relation of emperor Akbar’s famous revenue minister, appears as a witness.

All these documents are in the form of an iqrar or legally binding declaration in Islamic law. They conform to Mughal sale deeds in their wording, their appearance, including the multiplicity of attestations and seals on the margins, including in different scripts (Document 3). Documents 2 and 3 are sealed by a qazi.

Images, transcription and translation of the documents will be provided on the Lawforms website, subject to permission from the owners of the documents.






Document case studies series: ‘Death in service: compensation for loss of life in late Mughal (eighteenth-century) India’

Qazi’s Seal

Nandini Chatterjee

Reposted from Economic and Social History seminar blog, University of Exeter

This post begins by looking at a legal document – one related to employment, or violent termination there of. In the case under study, the person employed had been killed in the course of his work, and the female members of his family sought compensation from his employer for this loss to their key manpower resources. By looking at the document in detail, I am going to open up some questions about legal norms and the extent to which they were shared, while also attempting to explore cultures of employment, especially the mutual expectations of landlords and retainers, in the period of imperial crisis towards the end of the Indo-Islamic Mughal empire in India. Some of the points below were clarified during discussion with the HERB group; many thanks for pushing me on my thinking!

In or around the year 1121 Hijri or 1709 CE, five Muslim women turned up at the court of the qāzī (Islamic judge) in a small town called Dhar in central India, which was then under the Indo-Islamic Mughal empire. The women’s names were Nanho, Nur Bibi, Taj Bibi, Chand Bibi and Hayati Bibi. Nanho was the widow of a man called Daulat Khan, the other women were his daughters. All these women were complaining against Daulat Khan’s employer, a Hindu landlord called Hira chaudhrī, about Daulat’s disappearance, possibly death, while on a dangerous mission. They narrated that Daulat had been sent to the neighbouring district of Amjhera by Hira chaudhrī to bring news of another servant who had failed to return. Now, Amjhera was the stronghold of a Rajput lineage wh{“type”:”block”,”srcClientIds”:[“50a896a1-ff23-4ccc-b6b3-799842681bdc”],”srcRootClientId”:””}o incumbent patriarch was called Jasrup, and Jasrup hated Hira chaudhrī. (Rajputs were a Hindu warrior group, frequently employed by the Mughals.) Daulat’s fate was similar to that of the previously desptached servant; he was cast into the Rajput noble’s private prison, where he perished after a few months. It appears that his employer, Hira chaudhrī, himself died soon afterwards. The women of Daulat’s family went up to Hira’s son, Bardman, and demanded that he bring Daulat back. Since Bardman was unable to, in their desperation they brought their plaint to the court of the city judge of Dhar, Muhammad Mustafa. The qāzī  had a riwāyat (another word for fatwā, legal opinion) brought from the muftī (juriconsult) of the larger neighbouring city and provincial capital of Ujjain. It was decided on the twin legal basis of sulḥ (resolution/truce)and legal opinion, that the women be awarded 50 rupees as compensation. Thereafter, they wrote out a deed saying that they had received the money in question and brought it into their possession, and thereby relinquished all further claims on Hira chaudhrī’s heirs of their own free will and while in full possession of their senses.

The document recording this legal declaration is not a judgement – no record series similar to the court registers or sijillāt of the Ottoman empire have been discovered for Mughal India. Instead, the document recorded a binding legal declaration or iqrār; which, when written down and sealed by the Islamic judge or qāżī, formed something very similar to a deed. Such documents are still ubiquitous all over South Asia even today, mostly rotting in attics in private homes.

The qāzī named in the document – Muhammad Mustafa – was the established local judge for around thirty years between 1690 and 1720. We see his seal on numerous documents associated with the local landlord lineage, on whom I have written a book, Negotiating Mughal Law. In this instance, Muhammad Mustafa sealed the document, and wrote a short note which simply recorded that the wife of Daulat Khan and his daughters had made an iqrār or a legally binding declaration. His seal bore the date 1121 Hijri or 1709 CE, and that is the date that I attribute to the document, although qāzīs’ seals were not always updated every year. Several people witnessed the document on its margins – there were three Muslims of unknown professions, who used even more backdated seals and wrote notes or had notes written for them in Persian; there was a note in Hindi (Nagri script) of Hamir Chand, who I know was one of the biggest landlords of Dhar, a scion of the lineage I had researched, and may have been Bardman’s relative; and there were ‘signs of the hand’ by the women, who were most likely illiterate.

So, what does this document show us?

Sociologically, it reveals the turbulent and highly militarized nature of the area. The murderous violence of the Rajput chief and his tendency to make people disappear may have been enabled by the rapid decline of Mughal power and attacks by new state-builders, the Marathas, in this period, but the area had always been turbulent. Existing literature already tells us that Rajput chiefs, especially the bigger ones, while signing up to work as imperial servants for the Mughals, remained practically autonomous rulers in their local strongholds. The Mughals formally enabled this by modifying their system of assigning ranks and fiefs in favour of certain privileged Rajput lineages.

Here, it is necessary to step back a minute to clarify matters for the non-specialist; historians of Mughal India can safely skip this paragraph. The Mughals were a Central Asian dynasty, descended from Chinggis Khan and Amir Timur, who invaded northern India and set up rule in 1526 CE. By the third generation, they had developed an inter-linked strategy of matrimony and recruitment to nobility; defeated chieftains, including Hindu Rajput ones, gave daughters as wives to the Mughal emperors and their sons, and were recruited into the nobility. The Mughals had ambitious bureaucratization and centralization aims – hence their regime has been called ‘patrimonial-bureaucratic’ – and  they treated their multi-ethnic and multi-religious nobility as rank-holding officials, graded by a decimal system, calling them mansabdārs (Persian, ‘rank-holders’). Each rank-holding officer was assigned the temporary right to collect taxes from certain designated areas, called jāgirs, in order to defray the costs of maintaining a specific number of equipped horsemen, which corresponded to their rank. To prevent entrenchment in any area, assignments were changed every few years.

The exception to this rule of circulating officers and changing jāgir assignments were those Rajput lineages that got to keep their own erstwhile kingdoms as their waṭan jāgirs (homeland jāgirs). The Rajput lineage of Amjhera was not very eminent, but they seem to have enjoyed a waṭan jāgir, because lineage histories show them entrenched in the same place since the sixteenth century. 

Existing literature focusses upward, on the mode of attaching such military lineages to the Mughal (and other regimes). There is considerably less clarity about the effect this had on the local area itself, and especially the effect it must have had of creating flashpoints of conflict with neighbouring martial landed lineages, and no-go zones for imperial functionaries such as the Islamic judge.

On the other hand, the document shows that whatever the politico-geographical fragmentation caused by the recruitment and entrenchment of such warrior lineages, retainers expected not only protection from their employers, but also the protection of imperial Mughal law. The bereft women did seek redress from their employer’s son first. But when he proved unhelpful or simply unable to help them, they turned to court.

The justice they expected was formally Islamic, but to a great extent pragmatic. Islamic law offers the right of proportionate retaliation for physical injury or death of a relative; these provisions, derived from the Quran, are called qiṣāṣ. It also recommends mercy, and the offers the alternative of forgiving the errant person with or without compensatory payment, which is called diya. These complementary legal provisions are still operational in several countries around the world that apply Islamic law, both Sunni and Shiʿa; for a really lively depiction of how mercy may work in law, and in relation to Indian migrant workers to Saudi Arabia, I recommend the Indian film Dor. Comparison with the American legal provision of civil claims for injury and death can help de-exoticise the Islamic legal provision of diya. Unlike the American legal system however, the basic principle in Islamic law is that the unlawful killing of a person did not constitute an assault on the state (the monarch or officers of state were in a different category); it was a loss inflicted on the dead or injured person’s family, and to be compensated through the principle of equivalence (an eye for an eye…). An Islamic regime might indeed punish those who unlawfully assaulted, injured and killed others, thereby causing disorder, and make specific rules for such, which are classified under ʿzīr (chastisement), but it was not mandatory in Islamic law. To deal with this ambiguity, the historian of Iran Arzoo Osanloo has referred to homicide in Islamic law as ‘crimtort’.

No Islamic legal provision, however, provided for the claim that the women successfully made, which was not against the killer himself, but against the employer of the person killed. In making such a claim, they seem to have been working with an idea of reasonable responsibility and liability of an employer for the safety of his retainers; something like a very precocious version of health and safety duties!

Legal choices and expectations: Cultural and social factors appeared to have had striking impact on the choices people exercised with relation to retaliation and compensation. In his ongoing work on legal cultures in nineteenth-century Iran, Farzin Vejdani is finding that a surprising number of women sought retaliation for the killing of their relatives, and even chose to execute the guilty party themselves. In contrast, records from (other parts of) late eighteenth-century India, when the incipient British judicial system was still using Islamic criminal law, shows overwhelming preference for monetary compensation. We also have records of people explaining their choice; people said that they did not see any benefit in killing other people’s relatives. 

Poverty, and the need for monetary compensation, especially on the death of an important bread-winner, must have complemented what might appear to be a pacific tendency. There is also the very real possibility that, people who turned up in court asking for compensation were the ones who did not have the wherewithal to avenge themselves directly; people like Daulat Khan’s widow and daughters, who seem to have lacked an adult male relative. They were likely to be aware about the limits of the state’s reach – if a Rajput noble was able to imprison and kill with impunity, and their employer was unable or unwilling to avenge them, the regime would be unlikely to deploy resources to avenge a poor man.

It is also worth noting that although South Asia in the late Mughal period was a highly violent place, the claim of Daulat Khan’s relatives arose from the fact of his unlawful and unexpected killing. While employed as a retainer and messenger, and possibly in possession of a stick or spear, Daulat Khan was noted in the document to be of the community of ‘momin safīd bāf’ which translates literally as ‘the spinner of white stuff, a believer’, which shows that he was from a community of weavers. Daulat Khan was not a professional soldier, and did not expect to be killed in confrontations. His imprisonment and killing, by action or inaction, was unlawful, and that is why his family felt legally entitled to compensation. But it is striking that these bereft and illiterate women knew enough of the provisions of Islamic to pursue their claims in court, and were pragmatic enough to know what kinds of claims were most likely to succeed. 

The value of a life was calculated in the process of this legal case, and the answer arrived at was a significant but not princely sum. We know from other documents in the same collection that a modest house in the same city cost 13 rupees; we also know from another document in the same collection that a tailor’s yearly earnings were 48 rupees. If that is so, then the family may have been offered his wages for a year. This would postpone immediate penury, perhaps, but no more.

Finally, to the archives that preserved this tantalizing document. Currently, this specific document is housed in the National Archives of India, in New Delhi, as part of its acquired Persian papers series, which are collections sold or gifted by various private families, mostly in the 1950s. As part of my research for my book, I established that the 80 or so documents pertaining to this collection in the National Archives were part of a larger collection pertaining to, and before the 1950s, preserved in, a landlord family in the city of Dhar – the family of Hamir Chand, who appears as witness. I was able to put 188 such documents, and for those interested, there is a list here.

Historians of Islamic law, who generally miss out on pre-modern India, have tended to focus on fatwā collections (collations of responsa from jurists), in association with registers of decision summaries (known as sijillāt). This documentary landscape, which to some extent has been generalized, is actually specific to some regimes – most consistently that of the Ottomans. In South Asia, for example, there are fatwā collections, but no registers or series of legal decisions has been discovered so far. Instead, what we have are household archives, of landed or merchant lineages or of religious corporations. Most records in these collections pertain to the entitlements of the lineage itself; but there are also stray documents, such as this one, which are somewhat eccentric. It is possible, of course, that Hamir Chand maintained a copy of this document because he was related to the employer Hira chaudhrī, but we have no direct evidence of that. So there is also the possibility that he kept document which he had witnessed, and since he did not keep many of such, perhaps he kept it because of potential interest to himself as an employer of retainers himself.


Nandini Chatterjee, Negotiating Mughal Law: A Family of Landlords across Three Indian Empires (Cambridge, 2020. Open access.

Colin Imber, Ebu’s-su’ud: The Islamic Legal Tradition (Edinburgh, 1997), Chapter 9 ‘Crimes and Torts: Offences against the Person’, pp. 236-68.

Dirk Kolff, Naukar, Rajput, and Sepoy: the ethnohistory of the military labour market in Hindustan, 1450-1850 (Cambridge, 1992)

Arzoo Osanloo, Forgiveness Work: Mercy, Law and Victims’ Rights in Iran (Princeton, 2020)

J. F. Richards, The Mughal Empire (Cambridge, 1995)

Nandita Prasad Sahai, Politics of Patronage and protest : the state, society, and artisans in early modern Rajasthan (New Delhi, 2006)

Radhika Singha, A Despotism of Law: Crime and Justice in Early Colonial India (New Delhi, 2000)


Women’s witness marks

The Dutch Zamindar and his Paper Zamindari: Studying the Pattas of Bengal

By Byapti Sur

It was an unusually bright sunny day instead of the grey skies and rain in the Netherlands when I walked into Het Nationaal Archief in The Hague and Johan van Langen in his function as advisor to the Shared Cultural Heritage Programme introduced me to the hitherto unresearched world of pattas in Bengal. I learnt that the original collection was in the West Bengal State Archives (WBSA) in Kolkata but I could work with digital copies of the pattas and my research would be funded by the Cultureel Erfgoed (Cultural Heritage) of Netherlands. Within a week, I enthusiastically scrolled through 10 bundles of these documents which were title deeds issued by the Dutch (and in intervals by English) zamindars for inhabitants of the three villages of Chinsurah, Baranagar and Bazaar Mirzapur between 1701 and 1825. I was amazed at how close it brought me to the lives of the villagers and their possessions and their administrative interactions with the katcheri of the zamindar. The archives contained not just pattas, but also deeds of sale, kabuliyats and a petition. By the time I returned to India, the pandemic had hit the country and lockdown happened and the WBSA closed. But that could not stop me from sharing my delightful findings with Alicia Schrikker of Leiden University who instantly suggested doing a comparative study of her research on the thombos in Jafna and the pattas in Bengal. I came to know only then that she had collaborated with her project Colonialism Inside Out with Nandini Chatterjee and Chatterjee’s project on Lawforms. The paper was presented during the workshop of 6 November with all the scholars presenting their papers as part of these two projects and external collaborators such as Debjani Bhattacharya, Paul Halliday and Bhavani Raman. An exciting discussion followed which made me aware of the fascinating presence of registers, manuals, pattas and other forms of paper governance in different parts of the world at different periods of time. I could easily see how my story of the Dutch pattas in Bengal was part of a larger story of the Mughal and colonial pattas in other parts of India and the world of paper empires in a broader context.

As I stare at my screen now while writing, I see a patta issued to a Boloram Poddar in mauza Chinsurah with an English description on the cover and Persian scribbled at the back and the text with details about the measurement of the land and the rent written in Dutch and Bengali dated to 12 June, 1707. There are many such pattas that were issued to many villagers. The multiple languages of the pattas are witness to the skills of the scribes who worked at the katcheri and drafted these documents. The pattas had the format of being granted by the zamindar to the recipient and this continued till the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However, by the beginning of the nineteenth century the pattas turned more or less into notarial documents and there was no mention of the zamindar anymore on it. Adorned with different seals that changed over the span of the two centuries, the pattas manifested the power of the various authorities which signed and issued them. As notarial documents in the nineteenth century, some pattas also bore stamps of 8 annas. In some pattas seals were drawn by hands and contained Bengali or Persian written in it as seen below in a patta from 1819 where the words ‘Olondaji mohor’ (Dutch seal) and ‘Olondaji stamp 8 annas’ (Dutch stamp 8 annas) are written by hand in Bengali.

A patta could be procured by both men and women, locals and Europeans and people of all religious and social backgrounds from the katcheri of the zamindar in exchange for money. The surnames of the patta-holders gave an insight into their professions which included the likes of Subarnabanik (gold-merchant), Sekra (smith), Sarnakar (gold-smith), Gondhobanik (perfume-merchant), Kayastha (scribe), Tanti (weaver), Darji (tailor), Kapuri (cloth-dealer), Goalini (milkmaid), Kasai (butcher), Dhoba (washerman), Muchi (cobbler), Napit (barber), Jele (fisherman), Mistri Kamar (iron-smith) and so on. A patta could also be issued to more than one person which meant that it was not uncommon to have claims of joint ownership. The villagers who were given the pattas were aware of the worth of it and the pattas became evidences of their ownership of land, along with their respective professional and caste identities. I did not fail to notice the fact that there were significant changes in the language used and the seals on the pattas throughout the two centuries but the pattas never ceased from being issued, not even when Bengal passed under English control between 1781-84 and 1795-1818.

Patta bearing a stamp of 8 annas in Dutch from 1819, WBSA, Guide to the Records, part I (1758-1858), Section F. Dutch pattas relating to Chinsurah, inv. nr. 8, patta nr. 3942.

Patta with hand-drawn seals and 8 annas stamp and Bengali written in it from 1819, WBSA, Guide to the Records, part I (1758-1858), Section F. Dutch pattas relating to Chinsurah, inv. nr. 8, patta nr. 3992.

It merits further research to understand how such pattas in Bengal varied from pattas granted at higher levels such as that of a Mughal patta being granted to a zamindar in central India in the seventeenth century on which Chatterjee has worked or pattas in other areas such as that of Rajasthan which has been the research interest of Elizabeth Thelen within the project of Lawforms. I hope to find my answers to these questions as well as look forward to new questions in the upcoming two-day conference in January on the ‘World of Paper Empires’ hosted by the University of Exeter. While I wait for the archives in Kolkata to open again so that I can finally hold these pattas in my hands, I am grateful to the National Archives in The Hague that made this research possible through the digital copies of the pattas. I am also glad that Schrikker and Chatterjee opened up an intriguing world of different archives across time and space for me to wonder how and why these pattas, that I study, came to be collected and preserved by the Dutch and the English authorities in Bengal in the nineteenth century.


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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