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.

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)

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.

A Mughal archive: the Inayat Jung Collection, NAI, New Delhi

Nandini chatterjee

The National Archives of India, New Delhi

I worked in the National Archives of India, New Delhi, 8-18 January, 2020. Besides dreadful pollution, which made wearing a medical grade mask essential when out and about, the city was also being rocked by protests by students, women and other activists, protesting against the Government of India’s newly passed laws proposing a National Population Register, National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act. Women and children had gathered in  Shaheen Bagh, in a Muslim-majority locality, holding continuous peaceful protests 24/7 in an unprecedented political and cultural development. A great deal of debates in the media and public discourse was about the meaning of words – in religion, poetry and politics – creating a surreal situation where prime-time TV included discussions of the revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem, Hum Dekhenge (We shall see), and the meaning of the Islamic credo, La Ilaha il-Allah (There is no God but God).

The Islamic creed inscribed in a 13th-century mosque in the Qutb complex, Delhi

My work also consisted of looking through multi-lingual material, but of a much more prosaic sort. My aim was to form an idea about one of the two largest surviving collections of documents directly produced by Mughal state institutions – the Inayat Jung collection. The background story, as provided S.R. Tirmizi, ex-director of NAI, is that these documents were retrieved and stored by an official in the Hyderabad state, and later acquired by Prof. Nurul Hasan for the National Archives of India. The collection consists of 160,000 individual documents, all related to the administration of the provinces of Bijapur and Golconda. 

On random sampling, I found that all documents have a small purple Inayat Jung stamp. They are in boxes which have an average of 400 documents each. Every document is enclosed in an individual file, which has a short summary of the document on it, as well as the file number. There are 408 boxes in total, of which the greatest number is from emperor Muhammad Shah’s reign (1719-1748 CE). 

A complete catalogue does not exist. There is an overview article by the archivist-historian Zakir Hussain, which I was able to read and copy. The archivists also revealed to me that they had managed to calendar around 50,000 of the documents, covering the entire reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. They had done so, by typing out the short summary on the cover of the individual files. This very useful work was soon to be published, but was not available at the current time. 

The numbering system has been revised; currently, the numbering is thus: 

The first part of the numbers is the serial order of the emperor eg. Aurangzeb = 1/ then regnal year/then month number (eg., Muharram =1)/serial number of document in that year/month. 

Whichever values cannot be verified have been left as 00. 

Box 1 

This box contains what I was alerted to as a ‘pre-Aurangzeb’ bundle, said to be 1656 onwards. These files are numbered 00/1/- 

00/1-2 (Old number: I/2/28) 

Series: Madad-i-ma’ash (These are interpretive categorisations introduced by the archivist.) 

17 Shawwal 30 Julus-i Shahjahan i.e. 1066 AH/29 July 1656 AD 

Contents: Copy of Farman granting village Kasara of pargana Sanganmner to Khwaja Muhammad Sadiq as Madad-i ma’ash. The revenue income of the said village was Rs 172/- in 1064 AH/1653-54 AD (bearing seal of Abd al-Khalil Khan Mufti Shara’ Muhammad dated 1110 AH 

Actual document: Small A5 sized document with purple seal of IJ, written on both sides. The document starts with an extended word which is probably نقل. 


فرمان الاشان قبل از جلوس از قرار بتا () ذی قعده سنه ۳۰ آنکه در این ایام سعدت انجام نشان علیشان 

عنران از مکمل لطف شرف صدور می یابد که موضع کاساده معموله پرگنه سنگمنر که حاصل آن 

در سال هزار هشت و چهارم از هجریت  مقدسه مبلغ یکصد هفتاد و در روپیه 

 Ends with the date. And then there are two notes to the effect that the nishan was written. A third note says:  

یکموضع در و بیشت 

There is a seal of a qazi visible, which bears the date 1110; which would still put the document at the end of the seventeenth century. 

 Further down the line, I found several bi-lingual documents:

Box 100 VIII 4/151-450  


Series: Diwani 

Date: 10 Zulqada 20 Julus of Muhammad Shah 

Contents: Siyaha of Mahsul-Mahal-i Nargadi Balda Hyderabad under the supervision of Zulqadr Khan Rs. 3/15/9 from Muslims viz: Khudai 

(Bears seals of Zulqadr Khan, Dakhniram and Jaskarandas) 

Also in Marathi 

 Document: Two sided A5 but most writing in front. Very little text – a top cluser, then two lines, the another line and a cluster with details, then two Persian seals of an official who mentions the emperor. 2.5 lines of Marathi (in Modi) on the left margin. Some Modi used in the clusters that offer particulars. 

 Only very brief notes on reverse. 

Several documents appear to be part of a short series, such that the same transaction, involving the same protagonists and the same officials is repeated over several years.

I have requested digital copying of some of these documents, and look forward to returning to read more.

Overall, I feel that this collection complicates my increasing suspicion that the centralised Mughal archives may have never existed; document storage being the function of significant landed families and their households. This collection, however, points to processes of documentation and record-storage by Mughal government agencies, at least at the provincial level, and has pushed me to think harder about how and why people create and kept records in Mughal South Asia.





Summer School ‘Working in an Indian Archive,’ Hyderabad, August 19-30, 2019

By Elizabeth Thelen

A sign for the Summer School on the MANUU campus

During the last two weeks of August, 30 young scholars from around the world gathered on the campus of Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU) in Hyderabad for a summer school on reading Indo-Persian documents. I was fortunate to be one of the participants in this intensive programme, which was organized by Prof. Dr. Eva Orthmann of the University of Göttingen and Prof. Chandar Shekhar of Delhi University in collaboration with the Persian Department at MANUU and Dr. Zareena Parveen, the director of the Telangana State Archives.

The first several days of instruction focused on the technical skills for decoding documents and an introduction to several common genres of document. Ali Langroudi of the University of Göttingen taught the principles of the Nastaliq and Shikasta scripts and reviewed forms of words commonly found in the archival documents, while Prof. Orthmann introduced us to reading seals and tughras and to the genre of farmans. Prof. Najaf Haider of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi joined us for a day to focus on documents relating to financial and economic history. We read several types of records with him including a farman promulgating a revenue grant and an excerpt from an administrative manual on the process of minting coins.

A demonstration of how to distinguish letters in Shikaste writing

We then applied the training from the first four days and continued to develop our reading skills during three days at the Telangana State Archives. The director, Dr. Zareena Parveen, took us on a tour of the archives, showing us how the documents are stored and the conservation processes. We also visited the archive’s display room, which has a sampling of the types of documents held by the archive on display. The archive has the largest collection of Mughal records from the reigns of the emperors Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb available in India, as well as the records of the Nizam period of rule in Hyderabad and post-Independence records. During our classes in the archives, we examined and read a number of Mughal administrative documents relating to the functioning of the mansabdar system. Written for an internal audience of administrators, these documents are often written in a shikasta hand that is particularly difficult to decode until you know the common formulae and structures of the documents. Drawing on her three decades of experience in the archives, Dr. Parveen showed us how to decipher salary calculations and orders to increase or decrease mansab ranks.

Prof. Chandar Shekhar addressing the participants alongside Dr. Zareena Parveen and Prof. Eva Orthmann

In the second week, we were joined by Prof. Chandar Shekar, who led us in the reading and translating of a variety of document types. He guided our reading of additional documents in the Telangana State Archives, including charitable grants. We also read eighteenth-century roznamcha reports. Along the way, he shared insights into the interrelations between different types of documents and administrative practices. We also took a trip to the Bargah of Hazrat Pathar Wali Sahib, which is home to the Haadi-e-Deccan Library and Research Institute. Over the last 170 years, the sajjada nashins of the bargah have developed and maintained a library including rare Urdu publications and over 600 Persian and Arabic manuscripts.

Alongside our classes, the programme included an evening lecture series, during which participants shared their research. I spoke about my research on the use of Persian documents in Rajasthan, while Dr. Stanislaw Jaskowski discussed polish reporting on the 1638 battle in Qandahar between the Safavids and Mughals, Guiseppe Cappello shared insights from his work on the Gulzar-i-Hal, Pia Malik introduced her research on sufism in the Deccan, and Anurag Advani talked about madness in the Mughal period.

Though I had worked with Persian documents before, I came away with increased fluency in decoding and reading shikasta documents, an understanding of document types I had not encountered previously, and an overview of the collections of the Telangana State Archives.

Archival Research in the Rajasthani Zone, February – March 2019

By Elizabeth Thelen

During February and early March, I travelled in Rajasthan and visited four archives and research institutes. I pursued several strands of inquiry during this trip. First was continuing the matter of manuals we had investigated in London in December. During the London trip, I had found fairly limited materials relating to Rajasthan – partially due to Rajasthani materials not being separated from Hindi materials either geographically or linguistically in most of the British Library’s catalogues. So the question remained of what sorts of manuals, if any, were being produced in Rajasthan in either Rajasthani or Persian. The other matter was to continue the overview of documents and genres begun in our workshop to develop a better understanding of the use of Persian in Rajasthan, including its chronology, geography, and social boundaries of use, along with identifying collections for more in-depth study.

Entrance to the Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner

I began my fieldwork in Bikaner at the Rajasthan State Archives, following up on ideas and leads from our workshop held jointly with the archives on February 6-8. While at the Archives, I surveyed the collections of personal papers held in the ‘non-archival’ section. In the Guide to the Archives published in 1992, 32 collections are listed. However, as that guide itself acknowledges, only some of those collections were donated to the archive, while others may have been microfilmed, and yet others remained in the possession of a private individual or organization. the list of collections does not indicate the status for each of the collections. I confirmed the presence of 15 of these collections at the archive and consulted the handlists available for 11 of them to gain an overview of their contents. The collections cover a wide range of material: newspaper clippings, the records of local organizations and individuals involved in the independence struggle, the records of a school in Bikaner, the notes of authors and historians, and family and business records. I took a closer look at the contents of three of the collections that are of particular interest to Lawforms research because of their inclusion of both Rajasthani and Persian documents from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Entrance to the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, Jodhpur

From Bikaner, I travelled to Jodhpur to visit the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute and the Maharaja ManSingh Research Centre. The Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute is a government institute holding several hundred thousand manuscripts, mostly in Rajasthani and Sanskrit. The largest part of the collection consists of literary manuscripts, but there are also a good number of historical texts and texts on various sorts of technical knowledge. Sifting through the catalogues, I located a number of texts on mathematics that proved to deal with topics of revenue collection and even a couple Rajasthani texts titled ‘Dastur Amal.’ Several miscellanies also turned out to include transcriptions of a variety of documents, which are interesting both in terms of their contents and what they may show about practices of archiving.

The Maharaja Man Singh Pustak Prakash Research Centre is overseen by the Mehrangarh Fort Trust and is located inside the fort. Its collections include records pertaining to the Jodhpur royal family (all of the records of Jodhpur state affairs were transferred to the Rajasthan State Archives) and the royal family’s manuscript library. Among this collection, I found several short nineteenth-century texts on legal principles and the Centre’s director, Dr. Mahendra Singh Tanwar, alerted me to the presence of a small collection of Persian and Urdu documents.

At the MAAPRI, Tonk with the director, Dr. Saulat Ali Khan, and calligrapher Jameel Ahmed

The fourth institute I visited was the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Arabic and Persian Research Institute in Tonk. This institute is a parallel institute to the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, but contains Arabic, Persian and Urdu manuscripts. A large fraction of its collection comes from the erstwhile Tonk State, but there are also sizable collections from Alwar and Bharatpur among others. At the institute I consulted 13 ‘Dastur al-Amal’ manuscripts, of which a particularly interesting subset that give explicit directions on how to write various types of documents and collect revenue come from Alwar State in the nineteenth century. In addition to these texts, I consulted a number of insha collections containing samples of various sorts of letters and documents, and several collections of Persian and Urdu documents from the state of Tonk. Though they are currently not readily accessible to researchers, the institute has begun a program of scanning the records from Tonk’s courts that are in its collection, which should open up an exciting new set of archives for understanding the legal history of Rajasthan.

Seminar and Workshop in Bikaner, February 6-8, 2019

By Elizabeth Thelen and Dominic Vendell

On the 6th, 7th and 8th of February, we convened a seminar/workshop program jointly with the Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner on the theme of ‘Documents and Archives.’ The aim of the program was to share an overview of types of sources and ongoing research on the seminar day with invited participants and interested members of the public and then over the course of a two-day workshop to read and discuss a series of different varieties of documents in Persian and Rajasthani from the Rajasthan State Archives collections.

Dr Mahendra Khadgawat addresses the seminar

Over the course of the first day a series of talks highlighted the diversity of sources and ongoing research in the Rajasthan State Archive’s collections. After the archive director Dr Mahendra Khadgawat introduced the archives and particularly the ongoing digitisation program, Dominic gave an overview of the Lawforms Project and our aims during the seminar/workshop program. Prof Ramya Sreenivasan discussed the nature of the zenana tahrir records and their significance for understanding the history of royal households and Mr Salauddin Qamar introduced the genres of imperial Persian documents. Dr Sumbul Halim Khan gave an overview of the structure, content and creation of Vakil reports which informed the ruler of local events and sometimes included coded messages, while Elizabeth presented on the nature and research possibilities of the bahi records of Marwar. Mr Muhammad Shahnawaz discussed nirakh hundawan records and their insights into the use of notes of exchange (hundis).  Several other presentations highlighted the range of sources in the Rajasthan State Archives and ongoing research, especially on gender history and economic history, including those of Ms Meera Malhan, Dr S.D. Mishra, Dr Ambika Dhaka and Dr Mahendra Panehaniya. Given the vast scope of records in the archive – including the range of languages and usage, scripts and handwriting styles, formats and genres – the seminar program demonstrated the value of bringing scholars together to grasp the scope of the records and the complexity of their relationships to each other across time and location.

Ms Meera Malhan presents her paper as Prof. Ramya Sreenivasan looks on

The seminar also featured public history and outreach aspects. The audience included students from local colleges who connected with the presenters about their research and pathways to becoming historians during the program breaks. The day concluded with a visit to the archives and a tour of ongoing renovations to create and update several display halls within the archives complex. This museum section covers themes including the Indian independence movement in Rajasthan and Rajput states in the Mughal period and highlights the types of records in the archive’s collections. The new museum has been designed in consultation with the architect Dr Shikha Jain who had presented the plans and scope of the work earlier in the day, including the logistics of displaying different types of documents.

Mr Salauddin Qamar clarifies a point in a Persian document

On the second day we dove into the reading of Persian documents. Our sessions were facilitated by Mr Salauddin Qamar and Mr Jameel Ahmad from the Arabic Persian Research Institute in Tonk and Mr Shujauddin, a retired Rajasthan State Archives employee. All three had been involved in Dr Khadgawat’s project to publish the Mughal farmans held by the Rajasthan State Archives, so were very familiar with the sorts of documents we were covering. During the course of the day, we read and discussed farmans, a nishan, an arzdasht, a royal khat, a manshur, a vakil report, and a page of akhbarat. Our discussions ranged from the reading and meaning of a particular word to the relative authority of different levels of documents in giving orders. We compared the formulas used in different documents and noted how the conventions in several genres, including khats and arzdashts, to put the date and the addressee’s name on the envelope which has sometimes been lost or separated from the document, creates methodological challenges for the researcher.

Workshop participants discuss the documents

On the final day, we turned our attention to Rajasthani documents in the state archives. These are far more numerous and diverse than the Persian documents, so we were able to cover only a subset of the genres and series. Our readings were led by Mr Poonamchand Joiya, a retired research officer from the archives, with additional facilitation and presentations from Dr Sumbul Halim Khan of Aligarh Muslim University, Dr Mahendra Singh Tanwar of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, and Mr Rameshwar Bairwa, Mr Puranmal Koli and Mr Sohanlal Damor from the branch offices of the Rajasthan State Archives. Our readings and discussions covered a tamrapatra, an arzdasht, a royal khat, a toji from the patar khana, an arsattha, a hazir asami, and entries from registers including a sanad parwana bahi, a kagad bahi and a haqiqat bahi. These documents came from various states in Rajasthan: Mewar, Marwar, Jaipur, Kota and Bikaner. They covered a variety of functions, including letters, petitions, orders, and tax collection. Particularly useful moments included a close analysis and exposition of the accounting conventions used in taqsim documents and other revenue-related documents by several participants and Dr Tanwar’s explanation of sanad parwana bahi entries via an examination of state management of water resources. We also discussed the processes by which registers were created and their relationship to documents that were issued by the various states.

Thematic and methodological discussions throughout the workshop emerged around topics including the classification of documents whether through self-nomination or the creation of archival series at a later point; the materiality of documents including the significance of paper quality and paper decoration; the identification of shared features between Persian and Rajasthani documents such as structure and vocabulary; and the translation of various customary titles and honorifics as well as occupational and collective categories featured in documentation.

A judicial enquiry – glimpses from Waqai‘ Ajmer

Guest post by Prof. Chander Shekhar

Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri Center for Indian Culture (ICCR),Embassy of India, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

During my work at the Telengana Government Oriental Manuscripts library (old Asafia library)in Hyderabad, I came across this interesting report of a legal dispute within the waqai‘ Ajmer (official newsletters from the administrative division of Ajmer), from emperor Aurangzeb’s period of rule. The specific report is dated the month of Jamādi al-ākhir, twenty-first sāl-i julūs (1676 CE). 

In this, it is reported that a parvāna(sub-imperial order) was issued under the the seal  of siyādat panāh Iftekhar Khan, seeking a full inquiry by the Aqzī al-Quzzāt (اقضی القضاه; unusual term, possibly seniormost judge) in the matter of an appeal by a resident of the city of Ajmer called Ganga Ram. Ganga Ram complained  that his son-in law Bhagwan, a bronze vessel worker, had been whipped badly and killed by a certain Muhammad Alam son of Muhammad Arif Amin in Dindwana qasba (town) for not obeying his undue orders to make bronze vessels. Bhagwan’s wife, the daughter of Ganga Ram, who wanted to burn herself with her murdered husband was stopped from burning and kept forcibly in Muhammad Alam’s house. According to the above, office of siyādat panāh Iftekhar Khan has sought the immediate presence of Muhammad Alam along with the daughter of the plaintiff. Decision will be taken after the matter becomes clear after due inquiry.

Fragments and archives: conversations in UvA, Charlottesville

Fahad Bishara, in conversation with Nandini Chatterjee

In October 2018, I visited the beautiful University of Virginia at Charlottesville, to discuss the project and its activities with one of the key team members, the upcoming star of legal history, Prof. Fahad Bishara. HIs first book, A Sea of Debt, is deservedly making waves! Notes from our conversations were written up by Fahad, in his inimitable style.


How do we take scattered and disconnected pieces of paper and make broader claims from them? Over the course of our discussion this morning, we discussed two broad but inter-related themes that could structure our thinking moving forward: first, the idea of legal consciousness, and second reflections on the fragment and the archive. In thinking about legal consciousness (over coffee at Grit Café, as one does) we were primarily interested in a framework that would allow us to take bits of paper and use them to “move up the chain” of nested legal genres, rather than down the chain (in the vein of Hallaq and Messick) – or, more accurately, to use those pieces of paper to shed light on the very shape of the nesting itself. We thought about how the approach of starting with manuals and moving down to workaday forms of writing felt restrictive, in that it presumed the existence of a coherent silo of nested texts – which is of course not untrue, but doesn’t allow for the possibility of a more variegated juridical landscape in which legal discourses, texts, and practices bleed into one another, and forms of legal consciousness that can accommodate for that bleeding rather than forms that restrict themselves to strictly defined constellations of texts.

            A necessary component of this inclination, we thought, was a meditation on how to read these scattered/disconnected papers (“fragments”) within the context of the collections we find them in (“the archive”) so as to get a more textured sense of how they relate to other types of writings. A critical caveat, though, is that one has to account for the ways in which these archives are curated and re-curated multiple times over the course of their lifetimes so as to push us towards particular narratives, and thus simultaneously opening up and restricting the possibilities of what we might say about them. We also have to account for the ways in which we, as scholars, assemble our archives for the purpose of thinking about a set of issues – and, by extension, creating a coherent narrative out of the jumbled mess of paper that we encounter more generally (Fahad’s writing on “the dhow’s archive” is one example of this). We asked ourselves how we might relate this to the subaltern history project of “rejecting the narrative,” in which they use episodes to write microhistories that aim to challenge the nation (but perhaps never do).

            Finally, we ended by reflecting on notions of public and private in the documentation. How do the archives we encounter hold up the stories that people tell about themselves through fragments (as opposed to kings, for instance, who leave much fuller accounts of themselves)? And how are these documents themselves straddling both the realms of the public and private? “Public” bureaucratic documents can sometimes house “private” information in ways that surprise us (notarial records are particularly good examples of this) and even what we might assume to be undeniably “private” records – for example, letters – are sometimes created for expressively public purposes.

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