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.

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