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.