By Elizabeth Thelen
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.
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.
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.