Team Research week in London: Joint Report December 3-7, 2018

Nandini Chatterjee; Elizabeth Thelen; Dominic Vendell

Nandini Chatterjee reports:

In this week, Elizabeth Thelen, Dominic Vendell and I worked together in London – mainly at the British Library and the Royal Asiatic Society’s library – with the aim of surveying and analysing Indo-Persianate manuals across multiple genres. The idea was to work towards a project workshop on manuals that we are planning to hold in 2020, and thus we were aiming to actively think about which kinds of texts may have served to regularise and standardise the various forms of documents that we have been studying. Given the scope and aims of the project, we also decided to work collaboratively and comparatively, checking for textual genres that may have been shared across language boundaries – specifically, Persian, Marathi and Rajasthani.

In order to step into the vast field of Indo-Persian manuals, we used the very comprehensive list of ‘Administrative and accountancy manuals, statistical tables, etc.’ offered as appendix to Irfan Habib’s Agrarian System of Mughal India, edn. 3, pp. 470-71. I knew from my prior research of certain well-known inshā’texts, that, although conceived of as models of exemplary prose writing, including diplomatic correspondence, at least from the seventeenth century, many Indo-Persian inshā’writers included sections on legal deeds. Here is an example of a model deed of sale from the Inshā’-yi Harkaran, composed in Harkaran Das Kamboh of Multan. It was among the first Persian texts to be translated by the British in India, for its obvious functional value.

A model sale-deed from the Insha-yi Harkaran, ed. and translated F. Balfour

Elizabeth Thelen reports:

One question for me going into this research week in London was whether the British Library collections held much Rajasthani material beyond poetry and Jain scriptures. My initial catalogue searches had turned up little material. A conversation with the North Indian languages curator confirmed my suspicion that while there may well be Rajasthani printed books and additional Rajasthani manuscripts beyond the small number listed in Blumhardt’s catalogue of Gujarati and Rajasthani manuscripts, these additional works are catalogued together with Hindi materials because for much of the period of cataloguing, Rajasthani was not considered separate from Hindi. Finding such works will take a careful combing of the catalogues of Hindi materials, a task which was beyond the scope of this week.

 However, I did come across works in Hindi and Urdu (Hindustani) as well as India Office Records from the nineteenth century that provide context for our central research aims around legal documents, manuals and archives. Such materials include didactic tales about a king’s justice, script charts, a list of the sorts of bahīs (registers) used by merchants, copies of hundis (bills of exchange), and discussions of how Francis Wilder, appointed as Superintendent to manage the affairs of Ajmer in 1818 established revenue collection and law courts in Ajmer.

The Royal Asiatic Society was a more obvious stop in my quest for Rajasthani materials. It is home to the Tod Collection, 170 manuscripts, mostly collected by Lt.  Col. James Tod, an East India Company servant who was the Political Agent based in Udaipur from 1818-1822 and wrote The Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan. Several manuscripts within the collection relate to administration and law, including two composite volumes of transcribed documents and inscriptions (RAS Tod 145; RAS Tod 170); a text offering a listing of administrative positions (RAS Tod 126); and a manual of letter-writing (RAS Tod 98). Although the latter is largely Sanskrit, the terminology in some sections suggests a borrowing from Persian.

I also consulted a composite Persian manuscript at the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS Persian 173). I first was drawn to this text when I noticed that Irfan Habib lists it in the bibliography of The Agrarian System of Mughal India 1556-1707alongside dastūr al-ʿamals. He notes that it contains a revenue table with detailed statistics for the subaof Ajmer. The manuscript does contain these revenue tables, with details of the collection from the various parganas and mahals of subaAjmer. But the bulk of the manuscript contains transcriptions of ʿarzdashts and various letters from the period 1067-1069 AH (1656-1659 CE), during the War of Succession between Aurangzeb and his brothers (which Habib also notes under his heading of ‘Epistolary Collections’). Most of the correspondence involves Mirza Raja Jai Singh, the ruler of Amber and an important Mughal noble, writing to members of the imperial family, including Aurangzeb, Dara Shikoh, and Muhammad Akbar. The manuscript also contains a brief facetious dictionary and some short selections of anecdotes. Although the exact provenance of this text is unclear, the central presence of content connected to places and people in Rajasthan suggests that it may have been copied or acquired in Rajasthan.

Dominic Vendell reports:

At the outset of our research week in London, I was uncertain about the existence of any materials resembling manuals or formularies in the Marathi Manuscripts section of the British Library. While browsing through Blumhardt’s catalogues, however, I noticed an entry for a “Mahratta Grammar” holding “specimens of letters and commercial correspondence.” This manuscript (shelfmark:‌ Mss Marathi D11)upon examination disclosed fascinating examples of receipts (rasīd), bonds (daskat), agreements (karār-nāmā), memoranda (yādī), and personal and diplomatic correspondence. Mainly written in English and Marathi in the Modi script, it includes a lexicon of administrative terms in English, Marathi, and Persian with some words clearly drawn from Tamil, and many of the examples appear to have been produced in and around the court of the raja of Thanjavur. What do we know about the authorship of this “Mahratta Grammar”? Preliminary research suggests that the East India Company servant James Michael, prior to teaching at Haileybury from roughly 1832 until his death in 1837, hired a Brahman in Thanjavur in 1830 to compose the manuscript, which in turn became a source for his nephew James Ballantyne’s A Grammar of the Mahratta Language(1839). 

            Though an extraordinary artifact with a particular location in the history of EIC linguistic pedagogy, the eclectic contents of the 1830 Marathi grammar also anticipate the later nineteenth-century production of lekhanapaddhatī(also known as lekhapaddhatī), which may be roughly translated as “system of writing.”My survey of the BL’s printed Marathi collection turned up several titles, such as Samsārachopaḍī(1863), Vāchanamālā(1867), and Moḍī Vāchanasārā(1877), containing rules of composition and examples of Modi documentation and correspondence. Perhaps most intriguingly, several examples in the lekhanapaddhatīsection of the Samsārachopaḍī, written by Vishnu Vasudev Godbole and published by Krishna Shastri Gurjar, are identical to those given by Munshi Ganpatrao Satarkar in his Hemādrīkṛta Lekhanakalpataru(1853). Satarkar’s text (for a much richer discussion, see Prachi Deshpande’s 2015 article in Āpale Vaṅmāya Vṛitta) nostalgically claims origins in the bygone 13thcentury Yadava kingdom, yet at the same time, its circulation, copying and re-publication suggests how the art of formal Modi writing, despite having a diminished role in law, politics, and administration, continued to hold popular interest.

            Another avenue of investigation led me to the Persian genre of inshā’, and particularly to the works of the Bahmani minister Mahmud Gawan (1411-82). His Riyāz̤ al-Inshā’collects his correspondence with widely scattered scholars, Sufis, and litterateurs, but it is his manual on inshā’, the Manāẓir al-Inshā’(shelfmark: Mss Add 22706), that may hold more clues for understanding standards of formal writing in the early modern Deccan. In the section of the Manāẓiron the divisions (aqsām), foundations (arkān), and conditions (sharā’iṭ) of epistolary composition, Gawan builds a typology of written objects based on the statuses of senders and recipients. For example, if the sender is of a higher station than the recipient, and also happens to be a pādshāh, then the written object ought to be called a manshūr-nāma, a fatḥ-nāma, or a farmān; however, if the sender is a minister or a noble, then it ought to be called a mis̤āl. As with the lekhanapaddhatītexts, social status shapes rules of composition. But Gawan also suggests that the rules for certain written objects, particularly those of confederation (ahd-nāma), congratulation (tahni’at-nāma), and condolence(taʿziyat-nāma), are more flexible. In future research, I hope to consider this admission of flexibility in the case of the ahd-nāmain particular alongside the proliferation of diplomatic documentation in the eighteenth century as well as to compare Gawan’s prescriptions with actual documents, such as Adil Shahi farmāns that my colleague Nandini collected at BISM.  

A judicial enquiry – glimpses from Waqai‘ Ajmer

Guest post by Prof. Chander Shekhar

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

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

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

Fragments and archives: conversations in UvA, Charlottesville

Fahad Bishara, in conversation with Nandini Chatterjee

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


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

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

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

A workshop on Persian documents, royal decrees and the Naya Hukm-nāma (the New Ordinance) by Javed Akhtar

Guest post by Fouzia Farooq Ahmed

Naya Hukm-nāma by Fouzia Farooq Ahmed

Attending the July 2018 conference on Forms of Law in the Early Modern Persianate World, 17th-19th centuries was a unique opportunity for me to delve into the politics behind the form and production of the Persianate official documents. Scholars presenting their research works on less-explored aspects of Persianate documents in a posh Book of Exeter themed hotel where walls, carpets and chandelier in the central lobby celebrated the famous document inspired me to physically recreate medieval farmāns.

My motive behind recreating farmānswas to understand the mindset of those who were producing such documents during the medieval period. Needless to say, for medieval official documents, form seems to be dictated by the purpose of the documents and agenda of its producers. My earliest understanding was simple; that the more politically significant a document, the more ornate and decorated it should be. Complexity of the content should also correlate with the purpose and consumers. The more localized a document is the plainer it should appear.  For instance, the local revenue records in various regional languages that were presented in the conference were generally intonate, organized and legible, making clear statements of authentic financial interactions. I juxtapose these documents with beautifully calligraphed royal farmāns (imperial decrees). My hypothesis about the politics behind form of documents proved wrong when I started looking at the inconsistencies in the appearance of the farmāns.

First, there is a stylistic difference between the farmāns produced in Persian, Indian and Ottoman empires. Broadly speaking, the farmāns from Qajar Persia are very elegant, gold painted and look like calligraphic masterpieces, the Mughal farmāns with two royal seals imprinted on the top, written with simple ink on paper from Akbar to Shah Alam’s period are very plain yet graceful and Ottoman farmāns with illuminated tughras are neither as simple as the Mughal farmāns nor are very decorated like the Qajar farmāns

There are inconsistencies in how the farmāns look within each of these cultures as well. For instance, some Persian farmāns are plain and some Mughal ones are decorated with gold. I am still unsure why certain farmāns were kept very simple while others were embellished. I would like to observe that farmāns might have had sub-categories according to their purposes and this might explain why certain farmāns appeared in a certain format. 

After the conference I attended a lecture in SOAS, London by the famous Urdu writer and poet Javed Akhtar. It was a rare privilege to listen to Javed Akhtar reciting his famous satirical poem “Naya Hukm-nāma” or the new ordinance. This poem is a parody of the content of royal farmāns. It has six parts of which the first three parts explain the ambition of the powerful to control all, the remaining three parts elaborate how this control is beyond human agency. The tone of the new ordinance is callous, the demands are idiosyncratic and the issuer of the new ordinance seems to be an eccentric megalomaniac.  This poem was the most suitable content for my artwork.

I have painted the Naya Hukm-nāma in two farmān formats. The first format is a 3×2 feet on canvas artwork in paint medium.  This artwork has two parts. The central colorful core and the golden margins (hāshiya). The title of the poem is the title of my painting i.e. Naya Hukm-nāma.  The colorful core of the painting has gilded words including sach, sachchāī  (truth), barabarī, musāwāt (equality),  izhār (expression), āzādī (freedom), haq(right), ʿadl (justice) and khūdī (self- respect), the civic values that have become impracticable ideals in non-representational governments. These boldly inscribed clichés look imposed and artificial in an otherwise harmonious document.  These clichés are regular rhetoric of every regime. Contrary to the title of the Naya Hukm-nāma (new ordinance) there is nothing new in the apparent hukm-nāma. The newness of the ordinance is written in the margins (hāshiyas) in an almost invisible and hardly legible hand writing.  The hāshiyas contain first three parts of the hukm-nāma. The painting also has a golden stamp of Sarkar (the one with authority) on the bottom of the document.  

The second farmān is gold on paper with simple calligraphy in acrylic paint with a royal seal on the top. 

Naya Hukm-Nāma 2 by Fouzia Farooq Ahmed

Javed Akhtar reciting naya hukm-nāma

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.  

Discussions with the Director, Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner

In June 2018, Dr Mahendra Khadgawat, Director, Rajasthan State Archives, visited London in order to hold a series of meetings with myself, Prof. Christoph Werner (Co-I) and staff in the South Asia section of the British Library. This was a highly productive visit, during which we discussed the possibilities of future collaboration, both for research, and for digitisation efforts relevant to the project.

The Rajasthan State Archives has a magnificent collections of Persian documents, derived from the Rajput dynasties that once acted as nobles-cum-officials (mansabdars) for the Mughal Empire. These include gorgeous imperial decrees (farmans) with beautiful floral borders; among which are urgent communication between emperor Shah Jahan and Raja Jai Singh during the battle of succession that led to Emperor Alamgir’s coronation in 1658. The Rajasthan State Archives has been pursuing a unique publication programme, whereby high quality images of selected Persian documents are published, together with their Devanagri transcription and Hindi translation. It is also digitising the mass of its documents, both Persian and Rajasthani, which is accessible via the archives online portal. Besides being a wonderful tool for researchers, it is also a highly democratic programme, ensuring access by the average Indian citizens to title deeds that establish their rights.

Dr Khadgawat also offered a very comprehensive presentation of the RSA’s enormous digitisation programme to the British Library’s South Asia team. This was organised, on behalf of the British Library, by Dr Nur Sobers-Khan, and led to very interesting discussions about future collaborative possibilities.

Dr. Khadgawat has kindly written a formal report on his visit, which is attached below.

RSA Director Report on London visit

The Forms of Law project is planning an intensive reading and research workshop in Bikaner in December 2018.

The Persianate Papertrail of a Maharashtrian Brahman Family Firm

By Dominic Vendell

During the nine-odd months that I spent in Pune, Maharashtra for my Ph.D. fieldwork, I periodically visited the Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal (BISM), a fantastic archival and research institution with a collection of 2,000 or so rumals focused on the papers of local landed families and service households with social, professional, and political connections across the Indian subcontinent. As a historian of early modern India with a broad interest in the legal, administrative, and political cultures of the eighteenth-century Maratha Empire, I devoted my efforts at BISM to the archival collection of the Vaidyas, a Brahman family of merchant-diplomats whose operations extended from the Konkan coast to Wai, Pune, Nagpur, Varanasi, and Cuttack.

Many of the Vaidya family papers consist of a type of balance-sheet known as tale-bandor shilak-band, which were primarily used tocalculate a balance (Marathi shilak; Persian silak) by tabulating revenues and expenditures. The secretary of BISM, Dr. S.M. Bhave, was generous enough to allow me to photograph the shilak-bandof Baburao Viswanath Vaidya, a merchant-moneylender who served as the Peshwa’s envoy at Nagpur in the late eighteenth century.

Shilak-band of Baburao Viswanath Vaidya, July-August 1762

These particular shilak-bands (see photo) are examples of the kind of double-entry book-keeping that predominated throughout the Indian Ocean commercial zone. In this case, its purpose was to double-check the sums outlaid by Vaidya’s various lending agents – first in the left-hand debtor column (jamai) and again in the right-hand creditor (name) column. Though the Vaidya papers are handwritten in the Modi script of medieval and early modern Marathi, their idiomatic forms, genres, and conventions, like the majority of Marathi documentation from the Bahmani, Deccan Sultanate, and Maratha periods, betray the unmistakable influence of Persian. Recently, I have become more interested in the ways in which Persianate legal instruments were employed to execute transactions in commercial, administrative, and political fields of practice from roughly the late fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries.

Kharid-khat (here written as kharedi-khat) of Narayan Baburao Vaidya, January 16, 1802

Within family firms like the Vaidya’s, the kharid-khat (Persian kharid-i khat), or deed of purchase was an important instrument used by buyers to protect their property from competing claims to ownership made after the date of purchase. Baburao Viswanath Vaidya’s son Narayanrao obtained one such deed (see photo) from Mahadaji Trimbak and Krishnaji Trimbak Datar when he purchased their home just south of a Bhikardas Maruti temple in Narsi Peth (perhaps today’s Sadashiv Peth) in the heart of Pune city. The document’s concluding section, which contains the sellers’ promise to restrain their kinsmen from making any claim to the property, is followed by the names of witnesses (saksha) to the sale. Examining similar procedures of attestation and verification – both verbal and written – across different genres of Persian- and Marathi-language legal documentation may be a fruitful avenue for research. In this vein, I will be presenting a paper on a karār-nāmā from the Vaidya collection at the Transactions and Documentation in the Persianate World workshop, taking place this month at the University of Exeter.

As a postdoctoral research associate with the Forms of Law in Early Modern Persianate World, 17th-19thCenturies project, I plan to continue investigating the social, legal, and political lives of documents at the interface of Marathi and Persian. Starting this fall, I will begin undertaking regular trips to state and private archives in India, concentrating on collections holding Marathi, Persian, and bilingual Marathi-Persian materials. Thematically, I am especially interested in how scribal officials used forms of legal documentation within the process of diplomatic negotiation (Marathi jab-sal, Persian jawab-suwal) linking both Maratha and non-Maratha governments. Secondly, I will examine how ordinary individuals in village- and district-level contexts negotiated the authority of legal documents through verbal and written modes of testimony, oath taking, witnessing, and attestation. Along the way, I hope to some glimpses of the materials I discover and initial thoughts on how they might illuminate one of the many connected worlds of Persianate legal forms.

Exploring Perso-Marathi connections

Guest post by Dr Prachi Deshpande

This February 2018, I spent a very productive and insightful couple of weeks in the UK, working with Dr. Nandini Chatterjee as part of her Lawforms Project. I am a historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Maharashtra, and my broad interests are in Marathi language practices. I am especially interested in Marathi scribal culture and the broad gamut of Marathi documentary forms and conventions written in the cursive Modi script first under the Maratha states, and then under the British colonial state as well. Persian is very much present in all of these materials – as vocabulary, as template for a wide variety of documentary templates, and of course as script and language in actual bilingual documents too. Medieval Marathi has been dubbed Perso-Marathi with good reason.

My response to this Persian presence was rather like that of an ostrich. That is, until I began participating in this project and thinking more seriously about the different ways in which Persian and Marathi interact in the medieval and early modern archive. The broad-brush consensus appears to be that it was Sultanat, and later Mughal documentary forms and conventions that influenced several bureaucratic practices in Marathi. Within this broad picture, however, it is worth peering more closely at the ways in which certain Persianate legal or epistolary forms were adapted in Marathi, or indeed what the precise trajectory of influence might have been at different moments over the early modern and even colonial eras.

I was able to articulate some of these inchoate ideas more clearly during this trip, where I worked closely with Nandini on reading some Modi documents from the multilingual archive of a central Indian landed family.

Marathi/Modi accounts of a zamindar family in central India (courtesy Mr. Amit Chaudhuri)

We also read some bilingual documents together – an Adilshahi farman, for example. Reading together what appears to be the same text in two scripts and languages, but which coheres and departs in particular ways with respect to vocabulary or the nature of information provided, was very useful in helping me think about how to map these linguistic interactions across different documentary genres. Thanks to Nandini, I am also more aware of the materiality of the document itself – the placement of the seal, the writing, the paper and the arrangement of the scripts – and it has been a valuable learning experience to think about legal, epistolary or accounting materials in this way. Following this train of thought, I will present a paper at the ‘transactions’ workshop as part of the Lawforms project in July 2018, on the Marathi form of the kaulnama, an ubiquitous legal form drawing on the Mughal qaulnama, that was widely used as a form of reassurance from the state about hereditary rights or as grants of land tenure. My aim is to think about them in a sort of constellation of Persianate documentary forms that proliferated in Marathi – such as ināmpatra, sanad, ajnapatra. 

During my work at the British Library in February, I also consulted a series of Marathi manuscripts in the Modi script. Many of these are Marathi translations of well-known Persian histories of Bijapur or the Mughals. What is interesting is that many of them were commissioned and collected by early colonial officials – it is worth exploring further the ways in which the colonial presence may have newly mediated the relationship between Persian and Marathi during these early decades in western India.

A Persian-Bengali dictionary: Politics of purity in lexicographical space 

Guest post by Mr. A.B.M. Shamsuddoza


During my recent trip to Kolkata*, I came across a lexicographical work titled Parsik Abhidhan (Persian Dictionary) at the rare section of the National Library of India. It is a Persian-Bengali bilingual dictionary compiled by Jaygopal Tarkalanker (1775-1846). The dictionary was published in 1838, immediately after the abolition of Persian as court language in British India. In James Long’s A Descriptive Catalogue of Bengali Works (1855) this dictionary is enlisted along with two other Persian-Bengali lexicons published in the same year from Calcutta: A Persian and Bengali Vocabulary by Lakshmi Narayan and Paraseabhidhan by Nilkomal Mustaphi. [1] Jaygopal’s Parsik Abhidhan is one of the earliest specimens of Persian-Bengali bilingual dictionary.

Jaygopal was a renowned Sanskrit scholar. He was associated with three famous orientalists of his time: HT Colebrooke, William Carey and JC Marshman. In 1824, he was appointed as a lecturer in vernacular literature at Sanskrit College and worked there until his retirement in 1845.

In Parsik Abhidhan, Jaygopal collected more than 2,500 Persian words. At the beginning, Tarkalanker explains his effort to collate Persian words used in Bengali language to replace them with Bengali equivalents so that “the purity of Bengali language could be preserved, and the language could be salvaged from the humiliation inflicted by 900 years of Muslim rule in India.”

Jaygopal defines purity as cleansing the Bengali language altogether of Persian words. He suggested “স্বদেশীয় সাধুভাষা” (native chaste language/high Bengali dialect) as the true alternative. But what he chose as the native tongue was largely derived from Sanskrit words instead of everyday Bengali words. In this deliberate Sanskritisation effort, he coined equivalents of commonly used Persian words in Bengali language following Sanskrit morphology. A few examples from his dictionary are given below:

রসিদ > স্বহস্তচিহ্নিতপত্র

সবুজ> দুর্ব্বাদলবর্ণ

বকসী> ভান্ডারাধ্যক্ষবিশেষ

মজুর > জীবিকার্থ কায়িকশ্রমকারি

মোজা > বস্ত্রাদিনির্মিত পাদাবরক

বরফ> শিলীভূতহিম

রুমাল> মুখমার্জনবসন

If we situate Jaygopal’s work in its historical context we will see that except the work of Manuel da Assumpção almost all the lexicons produced up to the first half of nineteenth century borrowed heavily from Sanskrit in their attempts to standardise Bengali vocabulary. The standardisation process was largely informed by the notion that Sanskrit being the sacred language of Hindus was the purest of all extant languages. The orientalists’ effort to trace Bengali’s origin in Sanskrit also bolstered this notion. For example, in the first edition of William Carey’s A Grammar of the Bengalee Language (1801) he stated:

“The language in which the classical books of Hindoos are written is principally derived from the Sangskrito [viz. Sanskrit]. This is called pure Bengalee [viz. Bengali].”

Built up over its main Prakrit structure Bengali largely borrowed from Persian language in respect of phonology, vocabulary, morphology and syntax during the course of history of well over 600 years. Even going through the normal philological process of changes in loan words, many Persian words in Bengali lost more or less their own phonology to adapt to the phonology of the borrower language. But Jaygopal considered this amalgamation process as corruption of the language and hence attempted to purify Bengali language by reversing its natural course.

Further research into the Persian-Bengali dictionaries produced during the same period will help understand the anxiety about the standardisation of Bengali language in colonial Bengal and the politics of purity associated with it.


  1. Long, J. A Descriptive Catalogue of Bengali Works. Calcutta: Sanders, Cones & Co., 1855.

*I am grateful to Dr Nandini Chatterjee for providing me the wonderful opportunity to explore the archives and libraries in Kolkata.

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.


Fieldwork in Bengali zone Part II Mar18

In March, I was back in Bengal in just over a month, this time in its western part, centred around the colonial city of Calcutta (now Kolkata). I was fortunate to once again be supported in my research by Mr ABM Shamsuddoza Sajen, who had worked together with me in Bangladesh. We joined and split forces according to our respective skill-set and interests – Sajen concentrating of Bengali and print materials, I concentrating on Persian manuscripts and documents.

We began our efforts to discover the story of Persian in Kolkata with a visit to the Nakhoda masjid, said to be established by Kucchi merchants in the early twentieth century. Reading the Persian inscriptions in the mosque, however, pointed to a much earlier date – at least the mid-19thcentury. If nothing else, this beautiful mosque hinted at stories of a multi-lingual Kolkata de-centred from the assumed Anglocentrism.

Nakhoda mosque

We started our survey of libraries and archives with the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad – that institutional legacy of language activism that we often incorrectly fold into a unilinear story of the Bengal (Hindu) Renaissance, opening with Ishwarchandra Sharma, and continuing through Bankim to Tagore.  As Sajen explained to me, Abdul Karim Sahitya Bisharad, one of the most active language activists of the twentieth century, had catalogued the entire collection. Later, however, the manuscripts deemed to be “Musalman puthis” (based on content, rather than language) were moved to Dhaka University. The scholar Ahmad Sharif wrote the Puthi Parichay as an introduction to this enormous multi-volume catalogue, and also published several other books on medieval Bengal. Incidentally, it appears that Ahmad Sharif’s collected works in 10 volumes from Adabi publishers, and books by Sajanikanta Das and Bomkesh Mustafi (available on may offer a road map through the world of Persianate Bengali. In this connection, in order to grasp the pathos of Bengali language for the majority of its speakers, these articles and books must be basic reading:

Abdul Karim, “What is the language of Bengali Muslims?”

Gautam Bhadra, “Baṃla puthi talika nirmaṇ o atmasattar rajniti, munshi Abdul Karim sahityabisharad,” in Gautam Bhadra (ed.) Munshi Abdul Karim sahityabisharad o atmasattar rajniti(Dhaka: Saṃhati Prakashan), pp. 11–. 80

Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Romantic Archive: Literature and the Politics of Identity in Bengal,” Critical Inquiry, 30: 3 (2004), 654-82

Salimullah Khan, “Abdul Karim’s discoveries,” Daily Star

The beauty of the Sahitya Parishad is that it is open on weekends (closed Thursday), so we were able to use the weekend to find out about their collection. It turned out that they have 1600+ Bengali puthis – of which there are 5 catalogues, which catalogues up to 1500 – I bought the latter 4.

The first volume, in two parts is on internet archive.

 Amulya Charan Bidyavushan(ed.) Bangla Prachin Punthir Bibaran, vol3 no.1. Bangiya Sahitya Parishat, 1330 BS

Taraprasanna Bhattacharya, Bangla Prachin Punthir Bibaran, vol3 no.3. Bangiya Sahitya Parishat, 1339 BS

A visit to the manuscripts rooms showed us that the manuscripts were collected by specific individuals, for example, around 200 by Ishwarchandra (Vidyasagar). Unfortunately, the catalogues do not respect the integrity of such collections, so the only way to discover what kind of materials a particular scholar had been interested in would be to work in the manuscripts rooms, for which permission may be difficult to procure.

It is not clear whether there are any Persian MSS.

There is a printed catalogue of all books, which runs into 500 pages, with many interesting books – maybe up to 100,000. These books include B165 – Assam Burunji 4 vols. This is a history book, there are copies in the Rare Book section of the National Library.

These are a great number of Bengali epistolaries – Patra Kaumudis – which are clearly relevant and to be collected.

While at the Sahitya Parishat, we were given a very interesting tour of the folk art gallery by the curator, Ms. Debishree Kundu; we reciprocated by reading some part of two Husain Shahi inscriptions in their collection, once a hadith and the other a Persian inscription recording the establishment of a jami‘ mosque.

The Asiatic Society at the corner of Park Street was an obvious place to visit. Here the Persia manuscripts were well catalogued by the intrepid Russian Orientalist Vladimir Ivanow (on whom Farhad Daftary has a great book). There are two collections of Persian manuscripts – one with the shelfmark PSC, which includes parts of Tipu’s library; the other the Curzon collection (collected by Denison Ross with government funding).

The collections include some interesting inshas, and a majmu‘a (collection) of (copies of) sanads associated with zamindārs under Tipu’s regime.

There is also a catalogue of Persian books, from which Sajen listed some interesting books.

The Victorial Memorial Hall is a wonderful place to work in, principally because of its current director, Dr. Jayanta Sengupta, and his team. As it happens, I have a dual connection to the VMH; my colleague Dr Andrew Rudd (English) and I are leading a collaboration between the University of Exeter and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, aimed at a digital exhibition of “Company paintings” based on the collections in the RAMM and at VMH. This is is a wonderful project in itself, about which I will write separately; it has has led me towards an interest in Mughal and late-Mughal  art, and specifically in artists’ signatures.

Victoria Memorial Hall

There is a fully typed list of Persian manuscripts (around 136 in total), most of which have been digitized and can be consulted for research.

The collection includes some very interesting MSS related to Tipu, among which is the Treatise on the art of artillery (C210), dated to AH1197 (f. 104b), of which the digitized copy begins on folio 38. The text includes a section on accountancy, including the cryptic accountancy or siyaq numbers (ff. 51-53), on military protocol including when Muslims can/cannot fight (ff. 53b-69), with illustrations, on types of forts and maps (ff. 70-71) and detailed rules for rules for the army and various posts therein.

There is also a Victoria Memorial Document Collection, which includes a small number of miscellaneous documents in Bangla, Persian (including a sanad of Aurangzeb’s period given to Rai Mahasai of Bansberia), and documents in Persia, English and Modi from Pudokottai. Clearly these were donated by the various zamindari families to the VMH some time in the early 20th century, and would offer useful, if fragmentary glimpses into a range of private collections.

National Library

The Persian printed books collection developed out of several sources, which includes the Buhar collection and the Hidayat Hussain collection.

There is no separate catalogue for the Persian printed books; they have to be searched on the NL’s online catalogue. Browsing the shelves yielded a copy of the Hyderabadi administrator Bashiruddin Ahmad’s Farāmin-i Salātin (1926), which includes a very large number of letter forms. Searching the catalogue by this author name revealed that he published other books of ‘Persianate’ interest, such as the Vagiyat-i mamlikat-i Bijapur (Agra, 1915).

The Persian manuscript collection consists of several distinct collections, including the Jadunath Sarkar collection and the Buhar collection.

I found the manuscript of Ruqa‘āt-i Nawāzish Khan within the Jadunath Sarkar collection. I have been looking for this for a long time, for it was written by a minor mansabdār  associated with a family of zamindārs in Malwa, on whom I am completing a monograph. The MSS is unfortunately in a bad condition, not possible to copy; I have hand-copied some parts of it.

The West Bengal State Archives on Bhavani Dutta Lane is clearly the biggest repository for the kind of material that I am looking for.

West Bengal State Archives

There is a catalogue, Guide to the Records of the State Archives of West Bengal (Calcutta, 1977), Part I 1758-1858, which revealed that there are thousands of Persian records in this institution, contained within the Khalsa records (the Murshidabad Nawabi’s treasury records, later moved to Calcutta); the Bazi Zamin records (pertaining to tax-free lands and titles to them) and various categories of records collected as well as issued by the East India Company during its political and financial takeover in Bengal until the transition to Crown rule. The excellent archivists in the relevant reading room also told me that there were even more thousands of Persian records, tucked away in the files of revenue proceedings. This is clearly a treasure house, which I will tackle in the coming years.

During future visits, besides the institutions discussed above, Sajen and I planned to look at the Ashutosh collection, which occupies an entire room in the National Library, with a catalogue in the Rare Books Room. The Bangiya Sahitya Sangshad also has significant manuscript collections. Another angle worth investigating to understand the collections of the Calcutta Madrasa (now mostly in Dhaka) is via the book Tārikh-i Aliya, which offers an institutional history of the Calcutta Madrasa, later Aliya Madrasa). We clearly also need to undertake broader study into the history of Bengali language and script use, about which I wrote a light-hearted guest blog elsewhere some weeks ago.

Books to read include:

R.D. Banerjee, History of Bengali Script

Suniti Kumar Chatterji

Also, while we remained in Kolkata this time, Chandernagore could clearly offer an interesting Franco-Persian angle; Sajen spotted a book in the Biswa Bangla book store on Park Street, published by the L’institut de Chandernagore. The book has a facsimile of a farmān.

There is clearly a great deal more to do, if the idea of “Persianate Bengal” is to be pursued with seriousness. While that would spill beyond the immediate scope of the project, such a sub-project could cross-fertilise it immensely.  There is clearly a Ph.D. in there.

Fieldwork in Bengali zone Part I Jan-Feb18

In January-February 2018, I had the good fortune of being invited to participate in an interesting performance within the Dhaka Art Summit, a beautiful gathering of artists and performers. The event that I was part of was a ‘Retrial’ of a famous legal case of the early 20th century, that of a missing heir who apparently returned from the dead. The protracted trial and associated political-social drama, inspired a major Bengali movie and an important micro-history. This performance, directed by Zuleikha Chaudhuri, was aimed at being a questioning of the legal process itself, its capacity for delivering justice, especially to the vulnerable individual who cannot produce adequate documentation. I was called upon to perform as well as criticise the role of James Hamilton Lindsay, the colonial district magistrate, who tried to squash the claim of the returned heir by use of violence.

This was a beautiful way to visit Bangladesh for the first time. The survey proved to be rich with results in a variety of ways, most importantly through the forming of relationships with scholars and scholarly institutions in Bangladesh.

I found an intellectual home in the ICSBA, a premier institute for the study of Bengal art in all its forms, created through the enthusiasm of Professor Enamul Haque, erstwhile director of the National Museum of Bangladesh. I was invited to present a paper here, which I did, and to which I received very kind feedback from the assembled scholars, including the eminent scholar of Person-Arabic inscriptions in Bengal, Muhammad Yusuf Siddiq. These conversations confirmed what had been a suspicion for some time, that I must consider inscriptions within the range of material artefacts encompassed by the concept of legal documents.

I was given access to study the Persian manuscript collection at Dhaka University library, and here I found a collection marked by a significant number of locally composed and/or locally scribed, many in the 19th century, signalling a very prolonged life of Persian in Bengal. I found an interesting manuscript, a set of summary translations of Sadr Diwani Adalat court judgments related to Hindu and Muslim law, apparently to facilitate local understanding. Persian clearly made more sense to people in Bengal, or at least to lawyers in Bengal than either English or Bengali.

The National Museum of Bangladesh is a wonderful institution for a number of reasons (I really admired the breast-feeding booth, clearly signposted). Room 33, which displays manuscripts showed me the full range of manuscript culture in Bengal, which ranged from a manuscript of Alaol’s Bengali-language Padmabati, to Persian-language kabin-namas. I requested digital copies of some of these materials.

I was also able to make a trip to Chittagong University, where I found significant collections, both at the Museum and the University library. Both yielded a small number of documents, but this was supplemented by a range of manuscripts, which I am still processing.

The biggest discovery for me, however, was the understanding of the intense interplay of languages and scripts in the Bengali zone. Even today, Arabic is frequently written in Bengali script in Bangladesh, as on this bus, which says “Fi aman Allah” (In the protection of God) and on this auto-rickshaw (CNG, in Bangladesh lingo) which says “La ilaha il-Allah Muhammad al-rasul Allah.” (There is no God but God, Muhammad is hisProphet.)

But there is nothing new about this play with scripts; the medieval Bengali tradition is famously ‘dobhashi’ – a loosely applied term that usually means one language written in another script and/or a language with a highly mixed vocabulary.

I learnt, especially from a thrilling meeting with Prof. Anisuzzaman, eminent historian and translator of the constitution of Bangladesh, that this inter-lacing of languages extends from medieval Bengali “puthi” literature into the realm of legal documents. I am now following Prof. Anisuzzaman’s lead into the Persian-Bangla document collections in the India Office collections and the BNF, Paris.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the generosity and contribution of Mr Muhammad Sajjadur Rahman and Mr Shamsuddoza Sajen, without whose friendship and support I could never have achieved any of this.

Fieldwork in Marathi zone, Dec17-Jan18

I went to Pune in Dec-Jan 2017-18 in order to conduct a preliminary survey of the material available. I returned with an embarrassment of riches, and with an heightened understanding of the long-term and multi-layered presence of Persian in the Marathi-writing zone of the India subcontinent.

I was fortunate to have been able to begin my trip with support from the wonderful scholars of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune. Besides becoming aware of their own excellent if small collection of Persian manuscripts (which include a number of interesting insha), I was also able to establish contact with the activist-scholars of the Bharat Itihas Samsodhak Mandal, who carry on the excellent intellectual activism of V.K. Rajwade and G.H. Khare. The Mandal’s director Dr Bhave, was kind enough to allow me to undertake research in the Mandal’s archives, about which it is worth saying a few words.

Bharat Itihas Samsodhak Mandal

The Mandal’s collection consists primarily of what we may call ‘family papers’ of various military, landed and literary elites of the Marathi-writing zone. These papers are in a mixture of languages – predominantly Marathi written in Modi script, but also Persian because of the imbrication of such elites within the regimes of the Deccan Sultanates, most importantly the AdilShahis. There are around 2000 rumals, or bundles, with several dozens of individual documents in them.

Since the 1950s, there has been an effort to separate the Persian documents from this collection. A large selection was thus published in 6 volumes by G.H. Share, in his Persian sources of Indian history series (which I purchased). In recent times, the outstanding historian, G.B. Mehendale, has published a selection of 40 or so Adilshahi farmans (which, too, I purchased). Many more documents exist – and scholars kindly shared around 1000 such documents with me. There is, however, no simple way of knowing which family a document relates to, because it appears that the integrity of the collections have been seriously damaged by repeated reorganisation of the rumals. This was also confirmed by Dr Mehendale himself, as part of an exhilarating conversation.

The other aspect that impressed itself on me was the necessity of studying the evolving diplomatics of documents from the Marathi-writing region – from the Nizamshahi bi-lingual farmans right up to the Peshwai documentation, perhaps even into the British colonial period. We cannot legitimately separate the Persian and the Marathi era, even when language and script use changes, much of the vocabulary, styles and conventions continue. With this idea in view, I purchased several of the Mandal’s publications of the documents from the Maratha empire.

Maratha history museum at Deccan College

I also encountered several very interesting documents at Deccan College, Pune. I was supplied with digital copies of 6 such documents (which I do not have permission to publish). But I also became aware that the Deccan College holds the famous Parasnis daftar and several other such family archives. Although it is repeatedly asserted that these are all in Marathi; a proper survey through the rumals would be needed to establish their linguistic spread.

Shaniwada palace of the Peshwas

Finally, while I was in Pune, there were unfortunate riots provoked by right-wing opposition to Dalit celebration of the final Peshwa-British battle, during which the Shaniwada palace was burnt. This celebration began almost a century ago, and is a valuable reminder about the exclusiveness of the Maratha, especially the Brahmin-led Peshwa empire, whose artefacts this project is bound to study.

On scripting Bengali

A couple of months ago, I wrote a guest blog post for কথকতা, a really interesting blog edited by my friend Mr. Mohammad Sajjadur Rahman. It took a lot of prodding on Sajjad’s part to get me to write in Bengali, in the course of which, I made some very useful technical discoveries about typing in non-cursive Indic scripts, such as Bengali. I will write a separate blog post about this soon.

I am very proud of my first little ‘thoughtful’ post written in Bengali, so here is a link to it.

Here is also an English version of it. Here is also an opportunity for me to than Sajjad for his encouragement in writing critical, if not academic pieces in Bengali, and to Mr ABM Shamsuddoza (Sajen) for teaching me much that is in the piece below.

Bengali in many forms, or, the play of scripts

Bengali is considered to be one of the New Indo-Aryan languages that emerged from Sanskrit. Despite the technical accuracy of that proposition, Bengali vocabulary abounds in Arabic and Persian words. Such mixed-vocabulary languages used in medieval Bengali literary compositions, is known as ‘dobhashi’ language, and since such language was used in the pre-print age, it is also referred to as ‘puthi Bangla’ or manuscript Bengali. Although both Hindu and Muslim authors of the pre-modern age used such language, after the linguistic reforms of the 19th century, such language (and register) came to be referred to as Musulmani Bangla. Possibly the pro-peasant social reformer and linguist, Rev. James Long, had something to do with the coining of this term. In any case, much has been said by experts on this topic, and I have nothing to add to it. What I wish to attract attention to in this little piece, is Bengali’s flexible use of alternative scripts,  and the use of Bengali script to write other languages.

Historically, di-graphia exists in other South Asian languages, most famously in the language that eventually separated into Hindi and Urdu. But in that case, the separation is complete, or at least is perceived as complete: written in the Arabic script, the language is called Urdu, written in Nagri script, it is Hindi. In Bengali, the play between scripts continued for much longer, and, I would argue, extends until the present day.

Let us take an example from the streets of present-day Dhaka. On vehicles and store-fronts, one frequently encounters substantial chunks of Arabic text, written in Bengali script. This can be the kalima: ‘La ilaha il-Allah Muhammad al-rasul Allah,’ as seen on the rear of this auto-rickshaw or ‘CNG.’ It can also be autonomous Arabic sentences or fragments, such as ‘Fi aman Allah’ (in God’s protection), as seen on the front of this bus.

In both cases, the phenomenon described extends beyond the adoption of key words from a high status or sacred language (in this case Arabic), within the local or host language (Bengali). Both examples are entirely Arabic, grammatically and on the basis of vocabulary; but written in Bengali script. Clearly, in both these examples, the Arabic sentence or phrase serves invocatory purposes, and as such, is adopted phonetically and semantically by Bengalis who use it, but who do not necessarily have or need technical grammatical understanding of it. As such, it makes full sense to transliterate it in Bengali script, but it is still striking that Bengalis choose to do so, overriding the sacred quality ascribed to the Arabic script across the Islamic world.

I am not sure when exactly Bengalis developed such a passionate attachment to their script. The significant debates preceding the language war of 1971, for example the refusal to keep the language but relinquish the script, as proposed by the Pakistani side, are illustrative of that attachment. However, the examples of transliteration and preference for Bengali script that I offered from present-day Dhaka may not entirely be explicable with references to the 1970s. As it happens, I came across a document from the 1780s, where we see a linguistically similar phenomenon (another language written in Bengali script). This time, however, the purpose was entirely non-religious; it was written by the infamous Sikh merchant Omichand (Amir Chand), who played a well-known role in the conspiracy to remove Nawab Siraj al-dawla from the throne of Bengal. Amir Chand was a banker and litigated frequently in the Mayor’s court of Calcutta, pursuing defaulting British debtors. Perhaps in the course of one of these cases in the 1730s and 40s, Amir Chand wrote the letter below, and signed it in a highly cursive Nagri script.

This letter, despite being written in Bengali script, remained illegible to me until recently, that is until I realized that  the language of this letter may have been some thing other than Bengali. Indeed, the letter ends by stating great injustice has happened to him – ‘bahut be-insafi hua.’ The entire letter, in fact, is in Hindi, but it is written in Bengali script.

The opposite was also true – Bengali was also written in other scripts. Of this, the phenomenon of Sylheti Nagri is perhaps best known; but Bengali was also written in Arabic-derived scripts. We have one such example from Gharibullah’s translation to Bengali of the Persian story series: Qissa-yi Amir Hamza (Stories of Amir Hamza). Gharibullah was perhaps from Hughli, and wrote in the second half of the eighteenth century, the manuscript that was preserved in Jessore, and commented upon in the 1920s was in Arabic script. Moreover, the book was printed in the nineteenth century in two scripts; Arabic and Bengali.

So, what are the implications of this graphic variation and flexibility? While this is something that would require far more research, I think it represents Bengal’s continued cosmopolitanism (in the Sheldon Pollock sense, but refusing his specific arguments) and resistance to the disciplines of linguistic standardization that print-culture and national education has been trying to impose on populations throughout the world since the nineteenth century.

While the post itself ended here, I am beginning to reflect on the history of constriction of the scope of Bengali language and script; when and how did our vision of Bengali language forget the possibilities outlined above? Who were/are the agents of that process?

The twists and turns of Modi (script)

This week and the next, I have the good fortune of having Dr Prachi Deshpande here in the UK. I think she is one of the smartest historians of early modern India, with an interest in the histories of language and script use, and an expertise in the archaic Marathi script of Modi.

Together, we are looking at the bunches of Persian documents (mainly Adilshahi farmans) that I collected from Pune in December, peering at the margins, where summaries and signatures in Modi crop up. We are also looking through the the archive of a family of landlords from Dhar, who were kind enough to share their heritage with me. Although these documents are in Persian and/or Hindi/Rangri; the Nagri-script part of these documents demonstrate clear evidence of incursion of Modi as well as Gujarati letter forms.

Let’s see what else we can find!