Of Gold, Gems, Gifts and Tributes: A Summary of important Economic Information in Amarnath’s Zafarnama-i-Ranjit Singh

Guest post by Khizar Jawad


 “That particular day in the year 1800, the city of Lahore seemed livelier than usual. It was not just the regular merriment of the bazaars, or the street performers; there was decided joyousness in the air. Cannons that had fallen to disuse were being repaired. The ironsmiths and carpenters in the city had no time to rest. Someone had injected new vigour into the city and it was felt by one and all. The city was ready to witness its days of glory now that Ranjit Singh was their new ruler”.

This extract is from Zafarnama -i- Ranjit Singh, composed by Diwan Amarnath (born 1822 CE), which is a rather unique documentation on the rule of Ranjit Singh from 1800-1837. The book was written in Persian and later edited by Sitaram Kohli in 1928. In all, there are forty-one chapters. I am the first scholar to translate this work into Urdu. 

            The text begins with a disclaimer by the author who was the key noble and the pay master in the court and wrote this account on the Maharajah’s wish. He specifically mentions that his work is not a chronological documentation. He adds that Munshi Sohan Lal’s work has already covered the history of Punjab in an impartial, matter of fact style. He admits that the book is deeply subjective, yet calls it an honest attempt to provide a different perspective on the Maharaja’s administration. The author’s conundrum to balance his bias and historical objectivity is always on the forefront. While evaluating the source, we are repeatedly reminded that the language is ornate, there is very generous use of metaphors, and it contains blatant favouritisms. In fact, at several places the accounts begin to resemble a hagiography. However, I would argue, it is also a remarkable asset for understanding key economic activities of Ranjit Singh’s Khalsa regime up to 1837. 

            Between 1801 to 1837 the Khalsa kingdom under went under massive economic reforms. Geo-political boundaries shifted and population became increasingly multicultural.  Naturally, new economic policies had to consider all the variables and influxes. The Zafarnama was indeed a courtly account written in praise of the ruler, but it is important to remember that it is free from any Eurocentric bias, and it is a distinctive style of presenting historical narratives. 

            Amarnath clearly mentions that Maharajah Ranjit Singh favoured the diwani system. This involved attacking nearby kingdoms but often not directly annexing them. Instead, he collected regular tributes and maintained figurative supremacy over them. This system of indirect rule was his first step for accumulating resources for his treasury. The text provides all the details of financial transactions he made with other rulers and even mentions the ways the king spent the money. All his early investments were towards improving the army. 

            By 1808, Maharajah Ranjit Singh realized his ongoing system of accounting needed a massive overhaul. He had started making important changes in the revenue office, and in 1809 he appointed Diwan Bhavani Das as his chief accountant. It was under him that the position of accountant became extremely powerful, and the king enabled him to make major financial decisions. Some of the decisions included costs involved in wars, details of gifts and tributes (Amarnath lauds the king’s proclivity for maintaining records of even the smallest of transactions, and mentions a case where he didn’t let a gift of Rs.10 go unaccounted). 

            There is no definite indication of Ranjit Singh’s welfare policies but the Zafarnama mentions several instances of famine relief. He also talks of outbreaks of smallpox and cholera, where the king sent aid to help the people. 

            Huge chunks of the book are dedicated to detailed description of luxury commodities. During the wedding of Ranjit Singh’s son Khadak Singh and later, at the birth of his grandson Nau Nihal Singh, we find comprehensive descriptions of indulgence and splurging. One has to bear in mind, that Amarnath tends to go overboard while describing these items. Despite the exaggeration, he mentions specific items that clearly shows a larger global trading network. From Italian basil wine to Ferghana valley horses, luxury trade clearly played a major role in shaping the economy of the kingdom.

            From 1817-1820 there are numerous administrative appointments and attempts to formulate new commercial laws. One of the drawbacks of Zafarnama is lack of a chronological arrangement, so, these chapters discuss attacks on Multan, Kashmir and Peshawar simultaneously and the expenses involved in these attacks. Amarnath even provides details of artillery expense, costs involved in maintaining elephants and other military expenditures. This information is unfortunately enmeshed with details of tributes and gifts; as a result, it becomes difficult to comprehend specific details about the financial laws. 

            Acquiring precious gemstones and gold was another cornerstone of Ranjit Singh’s economy. Amarnath insists that the king is aware of how gemstones provide economic stability even if the currency was devalued. Naturally, his acquiring the Kohinoor diamond from Shah Shuja forms a significant part of the book. There are several other mentions where the king shows preference for precious metals and stones over money, and considers them as essential building blocks of the royal treasury. 

            Several passages also document his gift exchanges with the British and with some rulers from the Middle East. We are continuously reminded of the money he is pouring into the army, and his attempts to emulate European army. He even included two Europeans (Ventura and Allard) in his army to strengthen it. 

            This work has been guided by Dr. Nandini Chatterjee and facilitated by the ERC-funded project, Forms of Law, which is based in the College of Humanities, University of Exeter, United Kingdom. It was undertaken during my stay in the UK from 16 July to 31 August, 2019. 

My next plan is to elaborate on all the economic dimensions that I have briefly outlined above and to produce an academic article for a peer-reviewed journal. I will also plan to produce an English translation of Zafarnama, which would greatly help future international scholars to work on the subject. Finally, I will initiate work on cataloguing and translating the enormous collection of Persian records generated by the Khalsa regime, which are currently held at the Punjab State Archives, Lahore. In doing so, I hope to contribute important research data and findings to the Lawforms project, which is studying forms of documentation in the Persian-writing world.

Work with Forms of Law in the Persian World Project

Guest post by Mr Khizar Jawad


This year, August 2017-August 2018, had been incalculably prolific, firstly, to work on one hundred thousand Persian documents of Khalsa Darbar record of Sikh rule in Punjab, 1799-1849, placed at the Punjab Archives Lahore and, secondly, to work with Dr Nandini Chatterjee in UK as part of her Law Forms project to explore the Darbar Record and related English, Hindi, Urdu, Shahmukhi, and Gurumukhi documents. Khalsa Darbar Record is about the economic management of Sikh era 1801-1849, and was catalogued in English by Prof Sita Ram Kohli and two volumes were published in 1919 and 1927 respectively. I, first scholar after Sita Ram, have consulted this material and exploited the new dimensions regarding the economic history of Sikh era. Primarily, the record is consisted with the following subject matter, 1) daftar fauj, relating to army 2) mal,relating to the general revenues, 3) toshakhana,relating to royal wardrobe and Maharajas’ Privy Purse and 4) jagirat, relating to thejagirsaccounts. 

Receipt written by Ratan Singh ‘Kamidan’ or commander for funds received; courtesy Punjab State Archives, Lahore

جون سے اگست، 2018 کے مہینے برطانیہ میں لاء فارمز منصوبے کی ناظم ڈاکٹرنندنی کے ساتھ منصوبے سے منسلک سرگرمیوں میں گزرے۔ ان میں سب سے اہم سرگرمی، خالصہ دربار ریکارڈ اور دیگر فارسی مسودات کا لفظی ترجمہ کرنے کے بعد ان قلمی نسخوں سےحاصل شدہ مواد سے متعلق کتب اور مقالات کا تجزیہ کرنا رہی۔اس سلسلے کی تمام نشستوں میں، منصوبے کے پوسٹ ڈاکٹر یٹ عالم جناب ڈو مینیک وینڈل اور عملے کے رکن مہر بود خانی زادے نے ماہرانہ علمی معاونت کی۔ مسودات کے گرو پروفیسر چندر شیکھر نے علیحدہ نشست میں فارسی اعداد کی مختلف اقسام کو سمجھایا۔

Work in the Punjab State Archives, Lahore

 مورخہ 13 اور 14 جولائی، 2018 کو مرکیور ساؤتھ گیٹ ہوٹل، Exeterمیں منعقدہ ورکشاپ بعنوان”فارسی دنیا میں لین دین اور دستاویزات” میرے لئے حیرت انگیز طور پر معلوماتی اس لئے تھی کیونکہ عالمی شہرت یافتہ علماء نے فارسی اور اس سے متعلقہ علاقائی زبانوں میں قانونی اور کاروباری طریقوں پر سیر بحث مقالات پیش کئے۔ان علماء نے انفرادی ملاقاتوں میں”19ویں صدی کے پنجاب میں سکھ سلطنت کا اقتصادی قانون بزریعہ فارسی مواد” کے موضوع پر میری نہایت موثر راہنمائی فرمائی۔

سکھ سلطنت پر زیادہ مواد فارسی جاری شکستہ میں ہے اور اس کا ایک بڑا حصہ سرکار انگلسیہ اور سرکار خالصہ کے مابین خط وکتابت اور معاہدوں پر مشتمل ہے جسے سمجھنے کے لیے انتہائی محنت، مہارت اور وسیع معلومات کی ضرورت ہوتی ہے۔ چنانچہ اس حوالے سے برٹش لائبریری لندن میں موجود کثیر التعداد بنیادی اور ثانوی انگریزی مواد حاصل کرنے کے ساتھ ہی اس کا تفصیلی مطالعہ کرنے کا موقع ملا اور یوں اس مہم میں سب سے زیادہ وقت بیتانے کی حقدار برٹش لائبریری ٹھہر ی۔ آ خری دنوں میں دربار مہاراجہ رنجیت سنگھ کے پندرہ نادر فارسی مسودات کا بڑی تگ ودو کے بعد ملنا، برٹش لائبریری کی طرف سے کسی تحفہ سے کم نہ تھا۔

I have no hesitation to dedicate this trip and these lines to Dr Nandini Chatterjee for pointing out the research gaps in my work and effectively suggesting which are now the theoretical bases of my research work and surely will come out, after the completion, as significant exertion to contribute in.  

Fieldwork in Punjab, Pakistan, March 2018

Towards the end of March 2018, a wonderful opportunity arose for me to visit Lahore, and to begin my survey of relevant manuscript and print collections in Pakistan, specifically in the Punjab region, which is spreads across Pakistan and India. The opportunity was provided by a Persian manuscript reading workshop, hosted by the Lahore Institute of Management Sciences (LUMS), and co-funded by the Forms of Law project and LUMS. The workshop was a wonderfully productive experience in itself, and to find out more about it, click here.

Catalogues of manuscripts in Persian and other languages held in the Punjab University Library, Lahore are available online. One of the conference participants (and the editor of the catalogue, Dr. Muhammad Iqbal Mujaddidi) also presented me with a copy of the Catalogue of Arabic, Persian and Urdu manuscripts in the PUL and certain entries, especially those related to the Wazir Khan mosque, looked particularly promising.

A visit to the PUL, guided by Prof. Ghulam Moeenuddin (Muin Nizami) of LUMS, led me to even more unexpected treasures. Dr Nur Sobers-Khan, Dr Anjum Tahira and Mr Khizar Jawad, all avid Persian manuscript lovers, also joined me on this trip.

Iranian Studies section, Punjab University

Oriental_Studies section

Punjab University Library Sanskrit, Hindi & Tamil MSS

We were welcomed by Mr Hamid Ali, senior librarian and a Persian scholar himself, who led us to a room with 22 late Mughal (Aurangzeb and later) farmāns, which he very generously allowed me to photograph. He also offered to email me scanned copies of 11 further parvānas (orders issued by sub-imperial nobles) from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. As for the Wazir Khan documents, which were currently being studied by Dr Mujaddidi at home, Mr Hamid Ali offered to photograph them for me at a future date. During the course of conversations, I was alerted to the significance of the family of religious scholars at Kaithal, to whom many of the documents on display in PUL pertain; I collected a local history book about them.

This visit was also an occasion to catch a glimpse the Nagri and Gurmukhi-script manuscripts at the PUL – we saw a Tamil palm-leaf manuscript, a Braj ‘Carita’ and a Sanskrit and Gurmukhi-script manuscript.

From the Punjab University Library, Mr Khizar Jawad took me to the Punjab State Archives (PSA), housed in the historic ‘Anarkali’ tomb.

Punjab State Archives “Anarkali”

We were kindly welcomed by the Director, Mr Abbas Chughtati, who explained to us that the Persian records of the PSA consisted of i) around 80 late Mughal farmāns and parvānas ii) Persian records of the Sikh Khalsa state of Ranjit Singh iii) Persian records of the British Residency (from the early 19th century onwards, and overlapping with the time-period of the Khalsa state and iv) Persian records of the various princely states in the Punjab. Specific permissions are required to undertake proper research using this material, but it was very useful to form a sense of the extent of the collection.

I also enjoyed a wonderful visit to the Lahore Museum, where I was introduced by Ms Sumaira Samad, ex-director. Ms Iffat Azeem, manuscripts in charge, welcomed me very warmly, explained the nature of the documentary collection to me, allowed me to consult the accession register, and permitted me to look through the c. 150 digitised documents – many of which proved to be very useful, and from the late Mughal period. There were also several from the 19th and 20th centuries, that is, from the Sikh and British periods of rule in the Punjab. There are two other sets of Persian or Persian-related documents in the Lahore Museum, which I could not access straight away, these were the earlier Mughal documents (part of the Islamic gallery) and the Khalsa documents (on display in the general gallery). The Khalsa documents are clearly an important set to study, not only because of the limited incursion of Gurmukhi, but also because of the continuity and change in traditions of administrative writing in the highly Persianised Khalsa regime. While at the museum, we were also given a tour of what must be the best exhibition of the Sikh Khalsa court that I have ever seen; it was forcefully brought to my attention how much Lahore had been the capital of the Sikh empire. The Lahore Museum also has an enormous coin collection ranging back to 5th century B.C., and including rare ‘zodiac’ coins issued by the Mughal emperor Jahangir, of which there is an excellent catalogue prepared by a British colonial numismatist.

I was fortunate to also be able to have a conversation with a young scholar at historic Government College University, Lahore, Dr Zahra Shah, who revealed her own interest in the Wazir Khan mosque. Dr Shah described an incipient project on the Wazir Khan mosque and Persianate urban culture of Lahore, which sounded very exciting, and I hope that collaborative possibilities arise in future. I was also honoured to be able to meet the Vice-Chancellor of GC, the head of history, and other colleagues.

Finally, drawn by many strings, Mr Khizar Jawad and I arrived at the home-turned-museum of the Faqir family, the erstwhiles chief ministers of Ranjit Singh, and later administrators for the British. Mr Faqir Saifuddin offered us tea and a rich history of the family and its role in Ranjit Singh’s regime, which he refused to call the Khalsa Durbar (given the enormous role of Muslims), preferring Punjab Durbar instead. Mr Saifuddin offered us anecdotes that illustrated the syncretic nature of Ranjit Singh’s empire, and walked us through the archives in the building which held records evidencing some of these anecdotes, for example the list of grants made to various religious institutions. He also invited us to step beyond academia, and work towards producing a documentary that would tell a more acccessible story of the family and the region, and of Persian writing in that connection. This might well be something to work on!

Overall, impression from Lahore was of density of Persian-language archives, and of the continuity of Persian language use well into the twentieth century, which replicates and complements the understanding gained in Bangladesh. I have invited my wonderful friend and scholar Mr Khizar Jawad to come to London in the summer of 2018, so that we can work together of materials from Persianate Punjab, opening up another major area within the scope of the project.


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