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.



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.

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.

Paper empires – or stitched empires?

Work-in-progress discussions with contributors to a collected volume of essays

Thoughtful but happy – our work in progress meeting

Nandini Chatterjee

Today, 6 November 2020, we had a catch-up-cum-work-in-progress meeting with the members of the Colonialism Inside Out team and some eminent external collaborators – Debjani Bhattacharyya, Paul Halliday, and Bhavani Raman. The aim of the meeting, inevitably on Zoom, of course, was to report on progress made towards producing nine papers on paperwork in colonial Sri Lanka, India and the Indian Ocean. Participants joined in from the USA, UK, Netherlands and Sri Lanka, requiring considerable flexibility and generosity on the part of many participants.


Over the course of the presentations and the following discussions, we swung from sea to land, talking of many empires –  Mughal, Dutch, French, English, and grappled with themes ranging from land registration to deregistered wives, from the legal drafting hobbies of sea captains to sketches of futuristic land prospecting. With nine papers to discuss, the natural limitations on human beings’ ability to tolerate Zoom for extended periods, our programme was tight. Elizabeth Thelen was a magnificently firm chair, and the Chat function allowed us to go wild with ideas as they cropped up. There is indeed something to say for the altered form of conferencing in these pandemic days!

The collected volume of essays, is going to be about the papery underbelly of colonial empires in South Asia, with especial attention to documentation in non-European languages – Bengali, Persian, Rajasthani, Sinhala and Tamil. What excites us about this is the possibility of opening up and using archives that tend to be neglected, but, which, when used, can make empires look very different. For example, when thinking of empire and documentations, do people usually think of a ship captain practising the drafting of legal documents – for fun, perhaps (Fahad Bishara’s paper)? Or drawings of a future coastal landscape which did not yet exist, but to which people already wanted to lay claims (Debjani Bhttacharyya’s paper)? There is simply a different vision, not only of abstract quantities such as legal cultures, but substantive entities, such as locales, persons, things that our empires appear to be populated with.

What was really helpful with this discussion is to identify the common ideas that linked our papers – entanglement being one of them; the others being manuals and models, registration (that led to an explosion!), codification, fiscal legality, networks of records and information,  archival process, public and private in law-making. There were ways in which certain kinds of empirical overloading were successfully balanced – for example Bente and Nadeera’s paper reminding us of the incursion of documents into the interstices of family life; Fahad and Debjani’s paper reminding us that not everything was about registering legal and other facts, they were sometimes about claiming legal futures. Generously engaging throughout the discussion, Paul kept asking is to think about the physical and temporal ‘containers’ that moved the documents, brought them together, stitched them together but did not necessarily merge them. It looks like the archival turn is going to be our driver here as we tell these stories.

Towards the end, we began to discuss what our most effective contribution to the literature on empires might be. Here, interestingly we started a move back from the process to the form – with Bhavani recommending attention to forms (well, we love that in this project) and conventions, Debjani glossing that to mean the epistemic virtues that certain ways of writing committed people to. We also agonised a bit about vocabulary and how to avoid falling into obvious analytical patterns that equate multi-lingualism with a pre-colonial/colonial or indigenous/European binary, and end up looking for separate genealogies as explanatory modes. Paul suggested a wider way out – proposing that we think about time – or temporalities – and writing in law being a way of attempting to determine what was and what might be.

And now we look forward to January, when advanced versions of these papers will be presented at a two-day conference co-organised by Colonialism Inside Out and Lawforms, and hosted by the Centre for Imperial and Global History, University of Exeter.

Please find below a list of the papers and presenters involved in the discussions today.

  • Debjani Bhattacharyya, Sketching to Own: East India Company’s Encounter with Amphibious Spaces
  • Fahad Bishara, The Sailing Scribes: Legal Thinking and Praxis Across the Twentieth-Century Indian Ocean
  • Leonard Hodges and Nandini Chatterjee, The Power of Parwanas: Indo-Persian grants and the making of empire in eighteenth-century Southern India
  • Bente M. Leede and Nadeera Rupesinghe, From the inside out: School Thombo Registration in Dutch Sri Lanka
  • Dries Lyna & Luc Bulten, Bureaucratic Legacies: Palm Leaf Deeds and Land Grants in Colonial Sri Lanka, 1680-1795
  • Bhavani Raman, The Paperwork of Security: Unfree Mobility and the Pass System in the British Empire
  • Alicia Schrikker and Byapti Sur, Village bureaucracy, colonial ambitions and cultures of legality in eighteenth century Jaffna and Bengal
  • Elizabeth Thelen, A New Language of Rule: Alwar’s Administrative Experiment, c. 1838-58
  • Dominic Vendell, A True Copy? Persian Reproduction and Legal Validation in Early Colonial Maharashtra
  • Paul Halliday – commentator

Time in Indo-Persian documents

Recently, we have been thinking quite a bit about time. The most immediate reason was the end of British Summer time on 25th October. In this age of online meetings, this led to a flurry of exchanges with colleagues located in various parts of the world about the ‘real’ time when we wanted to meet up in video conferences. Proposing GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), which had seemed like a safe, if somewhat Anglocentric strategy, led to increased confusion as colleagues based in Europe pointed out that GMT was not the same as UK time. (Technically, only winter time in the UK is GMT; summer time in UK is GMT+1; we ‘spring forward’, i.e. move clock ahead by an hour in spring, and ‘fall back’ i.e. set clocks back an hour in fall.)

The effect of all of this was to make us feel more open-minded towards what used to seem like the endless complications with dates and eras in our documents! 

Mughals and other Indo-Islamic rulers were famous for being deeply concerned with time – calendars were an assertion of sovereignty as much as a practical tool for ensuring the timely supply of resources. Jahangir’s famous portrait as ‘Time Lord’ (Dr Who fans, the Mughals got in here first, sorry) is a striking record of this concern. However, the familiarity of ordinary officials and subjects with certain ways of recording time meant that conquests of territories often led to the addition, rather than complete replacement of calendars in use. As a result, a huge variety of calendars are used in our Indo-Persian documents. Incidentally, many of these calendars, and the difficulties of intercalation, are discussed by Abul Fazl in a long section in the Ain-i Akbari. A variety of resources are required in order to convert these to the Gregorian calendar. 

The calendar that is easiest to convert to Gregorian  is the Islamic lunar calendar – the Hijri-Qamri calendar. Calculation begins from the day of the Prophet’s flight to Medina in 622 CE. There are 12 lunar (rather than solar) months, which requires a complex formula to convert to the solar. For our project website and database, we have used the converter on the Iran Chamber Society website. 

 In some documents, especially those concerned with revenue administration, we see the Fasli, or Ilahi calendar, which is a solar calendar, instituted by the Mughal emperor Akbar. Adding 590/1 to the Fasli year gives us the Gregorian year. The Fasli calendar was extended to the south of the country with the gradual annexation of Deccan Sultanates by the Mughals; it was continued in use by the Hyderabad state. Incidentally, the traditional Bengali calendar is the Fasli calendar.

Many Mughal documents combine the Islamic months with a regnal or ‘julus’ year. Converting this to a Gregorian year requires, firstly, identifying the emperor whose reign is referred to. This is possible when the document bears the imperial seal, or the seal of an imperial Mughal official who declares allegiance to a named emperor. Regnal years begin in the Islamic month of coronation of the named emperor – actual or assumed; for example, emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir’s regnal year is taken to begin in the month of Ramzan 1658 CE, although he was crowned twice. In an updated version of this blog post, we are going to offer a Mughal Julus-Gregorian converter.

 Mughal documents also frequently use the old Indic/Hindu calendar Vikram Samvat. Attributed to the mythic king Vikramaditya of Ujjain, years from the solar Samvat calendar are converted to the Gregorian by subtracting 57. The complication with the Samvat calendar is that it uses lunar months, and different parts of the country begin the year at different months.

One calendar that occurs only in combination with others is the Turkish duodenary calendar, which is a twelve-year cycle, each year named after a specific animal or bird. This calendar is usually seen in use in documents that are land grants, or tax contracts.

 Among the several distinct calendar used by the Persian and Marathi documents from the south and southwestern parts of India is the Shuhur calendar. Named after the Arabic word for “month,” it was customary for each digit of a Suhur year to be written using Arabic words. While its exact origins are unclear, they appear to be linked to the introduction of Islamic Sultanate rule to the Deccan in the fourteenth century. It is converted by adding 599 or 600, depending on the month. Additionally, the Maratha founder Chhatrapati Shivaji Bhonsle promulgated his own regnal year, known as Rajyabhishek, with his coronation in 1674. Although there are research manuals called jantris that offer tables of conversion between Shuhur and other southern Indian calendars (Brishaspati, Saka, and Rajyabhishek) and Gregorian calendars, for the benefit of fellow researchers, we are developing a calculation tool, which we shall upload here. 

 Happy days!

A court case mentioned in the collection of letters in British Library manuscript Add Mss 16859

Prof. Chander Shekhar

Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri Centre for Indian Culture, Tashkent

This is a case mentioned in the collection of letters in the British Library manuscript Add Mss 16859 (India office collection). The collection has letters of Sayyed Muzaffar Hussain, Khan-e Jahan Barha, a noble during Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s reign, who held the post of subehdar or provincial governor at Gwalior.There are also letters from Jalal Hisari, and Balkrishan Brahman. At the end of the manuscript, there is a copy of Gwalior Nama of Jalal Hisari.

In one letter, Jalal Hisari speaks of the following case. The case, involving a Hindu family, was about the seizure and forceful possession of inheritance by relatives of the claimants. The dispute was referred to the highest, that is, the royal court of justice as it could not be solved due to non-cooperation of the baqallan (literally, grocers, implying Hindu merchants or banias) of the town of Maham (now in district Rohtak, Haryana, India). Towards end of the letter, it is mentioned that some other disputes were also sent to the said court.

This manuscript has been used by historians of the Mughal Empire in their research, including Professor Irfan Habib himself. However, there has been no detailed independent work on it. The collection included interesting letters from all three personalities. Of these, Jalal Hisari’s letters are most important in view of his tolerant and open-minded worldview. For example, he recommends a number of his city friends from Hisar, most of them Hindus, for various official positions, giving full justification why they should be employed. Similarly, he sees every act and deed as pre-destined and quotes the stories from the Hindu epic Ramayana and about the cowherd-god Krishna. In addition, he frequently uses chaste Hindwi words, like amavasya (new moon), kastori-e- merq (musk of deer) etc.

Balakrishan Brahman, an associate of Jalal Hisari also speaks of his penmanship and reasons why he aspires to be a munshi (secretary, expert in Persian writing). He regales us with his regard for this profession and eulogizes his masters who trained him in the art of penmanship.

I am currently undertaking research to write an article in Persian about this manuscript.

اللہ تعالی و تقدس ذات البرکات ملازمان سیادت و اقبال متبت عدالت و اجلال منزلت متعالی و عواد(؟) منفعت محبان ملاذی مخلصان استظھاری را مشمول فیوضات نامتناھی و مورد عنایات حضرت اعلی داشتہ کامیاب مراتب بلند و مدارج ارجمند داراد و بعد اظھار مراسم آرزومندی مشھود خمیر عطوفت پذیر می گرداند کہ صحیفہ شریفہ کہ حسب الحکم مبرم قضا توام سمت اصدار یافتہ بود بوصول بھجت شمول آن مسرورھا و مبتھج گردید قلمی گشتہ کہ صورت بقال متوطن قصبہ پرگنہ مھم[1] بدرگاہ شفقت پناہ آمدہ استغاثہ نمود کہ مبلغی بابت متروکہ کولی چند مستغیث ھر بنس عموی رافع بیوجھی متصرف شدہ مزار پدر رافع بہ ادعای حسابی بدرگای معلّی رسیدہ حسب الحکم با گرزبرداری حاصل نمودہ ھر چہ بود بعلت ساختگی متصدیان آن جا احقاق حق نشد و معاملہ ملتوی ماند پس از اینکہ ھربنس مذکور فوت کرد و دیبی چند و رام چند پسرزادھایی متوفی مال و معاملہ مترکہ را بتصرف در آوردہ اند  حکم چھان مطاع عالم مطیع بشرف صدور پیوست کہ بندہ درگاہ مطابق قانون شرع شتیف احقاق حق نماید کہ نظر بر سابق معاملہ معطل نماید و حق بمرکز قرار گیرد و جمیع این مراتب موجب برقراری این ذرّۂ احقر گردید عطوفت پناہ ہا اینکہ رافع رسیدن پدر خود بجناب خلافت عظیمی و آوردن گزبرداری و ملتوی ماندن معاملہ بعلت ساختگی متصدیان این جا اظھار نمودہ شاید در عمل سابق بودہ باشد و الا از آن باز کہ بندہ درگای بخدمات این چکلہ معین گشتہ اصلا صورت مذکورہ را ندیدہ و حرفی ازین قضیہ نشنیدہ وضع راستی و درستی این نیازمند در خدمت شریف نیکو روشن است کہ نظر بر مرضیٔ باریافتگان بارگاہ عدالت پناہ و اشارہ آن معالی دستگاہ در قطع معاملات و فیصل قضایا اصلا مدابنہ و مساھلہ ندارد بھر حال درین وقت کہ حکم معالی و مقدس بقدغن شرف نفاذ یافتہ و دیبی چند و رام چند مدعا الیھم را طلبداشتہ باتفاق ارباب شرع شریف استفسار نمود ظاھر کردند کہ مزار پدر رافع حصۂ حسابی خود را متصرف شدہ بقلم ھندی فارغ خطی نوشتہ دادہ چون این معاملہ کہنہ کبک است و تشخّص آن درینجا از ممر حلہ سازی جماعہ بقالان قصبہ کھم کہ اصلا تن در راستی نمی دھند و بھیچگونہ قضیہ کوتاہ نمی کنند متعذر بود لہذا طرفین را در حضور روانہ گردانیدہ یقین کہ در دارالعدالیہ العالیہ رجوع شدہ معاملہ خود فیصل خوھند داد اینکہ در باب تاراچند و چتر بھوج بقالان قصبہ پرگنہ ھانسی کہ بانندا نامی جات[2] گماشتۂ تھاکر بینی بھاری کلّۂ ستردن سرکار والا متعلق عہدۂ رفعت مآب اقبال محمد بلوچ دعوی بیست روپیہ نقد و دیانتی داس ریباری کلّہ مذکورہ معاملہ را روانہ شتری دارد نگارش نمودہ بودند۔ درین باب اقبال محمد مذکور برنگاشتہ بود چون مشارالیہ در جواب نوشتہ کہ بوجودی کہ رافعان از روی ثبوت نمی توانند رسانید مقرر ساختہ ام کہ طرفین بہ خدمت بندگان نوّاب والا حساب فاضلخان جیو حاضر شدہ قضیہ را مشخّص سازند چنانچہ خط مذکور بجنس فرستادہ آمدہ و بقالان را نیز روانہ حضور گردانیدہ بعد رجوع گردیدن طرفین مطابق عدالت احقاق خواھند فرمود۔ زیادہ چہ تصدیع دھد

[1] A township situated  close to Rohtak, Haryana. During short period of Babur’s reign, a mosque was built here which had an inscription too. (EIM, 1945, p.49, Some inscriptions of Babur)

[2] Jat

When and where did the Persianate end?

Nandini Chatterjee

With Fahad Bishara, Ghulam Nadri, Huntington Lyman StebbinsElizabeth Thelen and Dominic Vendell

The worldwide pandemic has affected all of us in the Lawforms project in different ways. But it has not stopped us from keeping those really interesting conversations going. In the Lawforms team, with members physically situated across multiple continents, planning, discussing and collaborative reading over video link has been established practice for at least two years. But as video-conferencing has become so much more run-of-the-mill, we are now able to get together with other collaborators for ‘mini-workshops’ with much less fuss than we had ever imagined. I will not go into details about the obvious invasiveness of this phenomenon, and the mental and physical exhaustion this has entailed for many of us (that one is for another post). This blog is a report on two exhilarating conversations we recently had with team members and external collaborators about the geographical and temporal limits of the ‘Persianate’ world. When and where did the Persianate end?

First of all, the context for this rather ambitious discussion! We are really happy to report that we are in the last phases of preparation for our first collective publication, which is going to be a specially themed issue of the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient. We have titled it ‘Transactions and Documentation in the Persianate World’; it is a truly wide-ranging set of essays dealing with business writing, commercial record keeping, contracting, surveying and certification. Inspired by Geertz’s concept of the bazaar, and led by our team member and the brilliant economic-legal historian Fahad Bishara, we look at domains of transactions that extend from mariners’ debts to blood-money payments to political deals.

There will be more posts about the special issue, but about our two meetings this August: these were inspired by a growing awareness, led by the Iran-specialist Huntington ‘Lyman’ Stebbins, one of our generous external collaborators, that in our collection we have a clutch of essays that could/should be grouped under the descriptive rubric of ‘late Persianate’, which would also allow us the possibility of analytically exploring how one identifies the stages of a trans-regional, complex historical formation such as the Persianate. And the bigger question of periodization – how exactly do we know when one broad type of human social formation has ended, and another has begun?

This question – about temporality – was supplemented by another one that has been quietly bubbling away within the Lawforms team from the start. But it took a reviewer’s comment, of all people, to Lyman, the Iran-specialist, for us to consider – what is the value of the descriptor ‘Persianate’, as opposed to ‘Indian Ocean Worlds’? The answer is obvious for some of the more land-locked contexts dealt with in some of the papers, but if Lyman was writing about a series of port cities (including Bushire and Bombay), consulates and merchants, then was the cultural-bureaucratic fact of Persian-language documentation of his episodes more important, or the sociological-geographical facts of ultra-marine connections? As Nile Green has beautifully put it, these spatial terms are not there to represent a given reality, they are there to serve analytical purposes. So which served us better?

On day 1, Dominic Vendell, Elizabeth Thelen, Lyman and I tackled the temporal question of late Persianate, and its ultimate demise. We began by noting that it used to be believed, at least among South Asianists, that the end came with the English East India Company government’s removal of Persian as the language of its courts in India in 1837. Mana Kia in her recent book has told the story from both ends (the Iranian and Indian) and has offered a more longue-durée sociological-political explanation: that the political disruptions of the late eighteenth century in this part of Eurasia snapped the possibilities of mobility for people who tended to be the bearers of the Persianate, leading to a gradual implausibility of the kind of ‘Persianate selves’ that she saw in (mainly) the poets who moved between what is now Iran and India. But Kia, together with Nile Green, Farzin Vejdani and others have also pushed the ‘end’ of the Persianate well into the twentieth century, demonstrating that technological developments such as steam travel and print created new networks of Indo-Iranian connections – a robust late Persianate. And Lyman – referring to Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi’s work – reminded us of the irony that it was these very networks that provided intellectual grist to the mill of nativist Iranian nationalism: ancient Zoroastrian texts discovered in Gujarat feeding the story of a glorious, uninterrupted and uncontaminated Iranian nationhood continuing from antiquity.

But in our collection, the ‘late Persianate’ has many other valences beyond the creation or sustenance of Persian-speaking/reading social networks or continued trans-regional written communication in Persian. Working robustly against the grain of their area specialisms, Dominic Vendell and Elizabeth Thelen are looking at the Maratha Empire and the Rajput states as Persianate terrain. These regimes sometimes adopted self-reflexive indigenist (anti-Persianate) cultural policies (as with the Maratha Empire in the late seventeenth century); they legitimized themselves and adjudicated disputes with a variable combination of local custom and Hindu royalty (as with most Rajput states); they were Hindu kingships using a great deal of Persian language documentation and/or Persian-derived vocabulary, forms and styles in Marathi- or Rajasthani-language diplomatic, judicial and revenue writing. Was this a case of the end of the Persianate or the reinvention of the Persianate?

Then again, Lyman’s work pushed us to think about the notoriously capacious nationality laws of Iran, created during the modernizing regime of the Pahlavis in the mid-twentieth century. As many Iranian emigrés keep discovering to their distress, there is no escape from being an Iranian citizen; an aggressively inclusive jus sanguinis principle, designed to include the dispersed potential citizenery from around the Persianate world, today serves to capture those that wish to escape the jurisdiction of the Islamic Republic of Iran. What was striking about this is the way in which nationality and the nation-state, which is generally seen as the prime cause of shattering cosmopolitan worlds, and certainly the Persian cosmopolis, is here serving to create an extra-territorial Persianate – just not a very nice one for those who would rather escape it. And in this connection we wondered whether the concepts of the familial connection and identification – nisbat – were lending themselves to the kind of genealogy-to-race transmogrification that happened in Malaysia with the concept of ‘bangsa’.

Chastened by these thoughts, we then moved on, in day two, to discussing the possibilities of the Indian Ocean Worlds, together with Fahad Bishara and Ghulam Nadri. With such an outstanding group we were able to actually discuss the Indian Ocean as it should be – with due focus on its Indian, Iranian and Gulf-to-East Africa sections. Indeed, as we noted, there were three papers in our collection that could be seen as forming an Indian Ocean cluster – Ghulam, Lyman and Fahad together creating for us a littoral circuit from Surat to Bushire to Bahrain to Muscat.

Here we agreed that while the ‘new’ Indian Ocean historiography has moved purposefully away from Braudelian geo-sociologcal analysis (the classic being K.N. Chaudhri), and emphasized the trans-regional, nation-state disrupting possibilities of that aquatic field, empirically and historiographically they have ignored the Persianate world. It is as if the two fields are talking past each other – although both the Persianate and the Indian Ocean World are supposed to be about trans-regionalism and cosmopolitan formations. The Persianate remains an old-world place of princes, horsemen and poets wheras the Indian Ocean World seems peopled and propelled by trade.

But in our collection, we demonstrate that people did not just write poetry, chronicles, hagiographies and manners literature in Persian; they used it to document deals and to dispute them. So, as Lyman suggested, one of the things we were trying to do was to expand the sociological content of the Persianate – we are dealing with kings and saints and some bad poets, but we are actually venturing into the marketplace, on land and on sea. And, as Fahad enthused, if the Persianate folk would just look at more of such material, the history and historiography of the Indian Ocean World itself could be transformed!

But was that really so? Clearly, as Fahad’s own work showed in his book as well as his article in our upcoming collection, merchants and mariners in Bahrain, Muscat and Zanzibar wrote their deeds in Arabic, not Persian. It was really striking how Persiante Bushire seemed in Lyman’s story, and how Arabic Bahrain appeared, right across the Gulf. So something was happening in the Gulf – although there were clearly multi-lingual merchant families spread out on both sides and jurisdictions stretching across.

Ghulam here told us about a brilliant tri-lingual petition he had found in the archives in Bombay (in Gujarati, Persian and Arabic). It was addressed by merchants to the Governor of Bombay (in the 1820s) complaining about an Arab merchant engaged to do trade on their behalf at Jeddah, who had failed to keep his part of the deal. If Gujarati represented the merchants’ own language; Persian, the official language of the East India Company’s courts in India; then the local administration at the Mokah EIC Factory and later at Jeddah clearly needed the Arabic. Again, as we moved westwards and southwards from the Gulf – Arabic seemed to take over.

From: Lawrence Porter, Society in the Persian Gulf: Before and After Oil (2017)

Since this was simply one instance of interacting with a specific bureaucratic regime (and we are not even sure which one), we remain unsatisfied. Fahad alerted us that in fact he was aware of Persian documents and deeds in the collections of merchant families not just in Bahrain, but also in Kuwait, Basra, Mohammerah, etc.  So, the current plan is for us to learn much more about the Gulf – led by Ghulam, Lyman and Fahad.

Analytically, however, we felt that the productive answer, as with the temporal question, may lie in not insisting on laying down lines in water, but in identifying the precise circuits and contexts in which Persian, Arabic (and Gujarati) made best sense. We are going to try to do more of this, and we want to keep this thought foremost in our minds while doing this: the Persianate (and the Indian Ocean World) is ultimately about the people who made/make it up.

Collaboration with Leiden/Nijmegen project on the ‘Hidden History of Colonialism’

Nandini Chatterjee

Right at the start of the lockdowns imposed by our various countries due to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, we had a conference in Leiden cancelled. We have been particularly looking forward to this, because we had planned with meet with members of another research team on the sidelines, to discuss potential collaboration.

That research team consists of the members of the NWO-funded Colonialism Inside Out project, led by Alicia Schrikker (Leiden University) and Dries Lyna (Radboud University). 

Colonialism Zoomed In!

In keeping with the emerging research culture of this pandemic-afflicted world, we managed to meet instead on Zoom, on 20 March. This was a most productive and enjoyable session, which, as readers can see, brought smiles to our faces. We had already collected abstracts of potential papers that members of both teams could write; Dries Lyna had used these to generate a word cloud to identify the common materials, ideas and concepts that we were dealing with. 

It became obvious during the meeting that we were dealing with colonialism in South Asia and the Indian Ocean in a way that was both familiar and unfamiliar. We are interested in bureaucracies, in the everyday, in indigenous subjects and agents, but we wanted to tell the story of writing and recording, of law, using materials that are often swept under the all-encompassing myth of uniform European colonialisms. It helps that we are dealing with many empires – Mughal, French, British, Dutch, among others – and many languages – Dutch, French, English, Arabic, Persian, Sinhala, Tamil, Bengali. We share an interest in the hidden archive, and a commitment to the material history of records. 

Fahad Bishara, with his penchant for neatly turned phrases, suggested that what we are working on are ‘Paper Empires’, and that is the working title with which we are now working to produce a collection of essays in the coming months. 

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