Of Camels and Crime Prevention: state support for trade at an annual fair in 18th-century western India

Painting of a camel herder (raibari) from a manuscript of the Kitāb-i Tashrīḥ Al-Aqvām, composed by Lieut. Col. James Skinner, 1825. (Library of Congress, African and Middle East Division, Near East Section Persian Manuscript Collection. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014658650/.)

Elizabeth Thelen

Reposted from the Economic and Social History seminar blog, University of Exeter

On the 24th of November 1778, Hindumal Singhvi, a career administrator for the kingdom of Marwar in western India, issued the following royal order to the officials of the magistracy (kotwali chauntara) in the city of Nagaur:

Since the watchman’s footmen are always sent to the Mundwa fair (mela), accordingly send [them] so that they shall protect [it]. At last year’s fair, three to four thefts occurred. On this account, take special care this time so that there shall be no theft. [This] is the order of the lord (Sri Hajur).

Marginal note: Instruct Nagaur’s merchants and traders: send shops to the fair immediately.[1]

This order, written in the local dialect of the Rajasthani language, was transcribed in an annual register of royal orders, judgements and instructions known as a sanad parwana bahi. Though most of the documents from this period are untraceable, these registers, which are extant for the kingdom of Marwar in a continuous series from 1764 to 1938, provide extensive insights into the functioning and policies of the state and, read against the grain, to Rajasthani society in this period. Each register runs to hundreds of folios, and most folios contain transcriptions of four or five documents each on the recto and verso. Among this flood of thousands of documents dispatched across the kingdom, the state issued approximately two to eight orders concerning arrangements for the fair in Mundwa to the regional officials in Nagaur each year throughout the 1770s – the decade of records I have recently been focused on. These orders, such as the one I’ve translated above, show a consistent pattern of state concern about the arrangements for the fair and support for trade.

To claim that early modern South Asian states supported trade in general, and annual fairs specifically, is not to make a particularly new claim, but it is a topic that deserves revisiting on several historiographical grounds. First, although fairs have been recognised as an important aspect of the South Asian economy, they have received surprisingly little detailed discussion, especially for the period prior to the nineteenth century. Second, and I believe related to the first point, much of what has been written on the history of annual fairs in Rajasthan and elsewhere in northern India has drawn primarily on colonial accounts. In contrast, in this blog I sketch out how the small number of orders I have read thus far regarding the Mundwa mela in the 1770s might help rethink the nature of such fairs and the specific aspects of state involvement in their organisation.

Historically, a mela, or fair, was an annual or biannual gathering that typically combined a religious festival or pilgrimage with trading. As distinct from the permanent daily and weekly markets (bazaars, mandis and haats) found in cities, towns, and villages, melas were an exceptional market in terms of size and scale, drawing merchants, customers and pilgrims from wider distances and in larger numbers, and lasting for long periods – often two to six weeks at a stretch. Although all sorts of goods were traded at melas, a key feature was often the livestock market, where horses, oxen and camels were bought and sold, including by state agents. The Mundwa mela was part of a larger ecosystem of annual fairs held across Rajasthan in the early modern period; some of these fairs, including the Pushkar Mela and the Balotra Mela, were attested to in early modern records and continue to be held annually, though there may be less serious live-stock trading nowadays, as mechanization has displaced draft animals. The annual mela in the village of Mundwa, located about 10 miles southwest of Nagaur, was a site of bustling commercial activity for about six weeks every winter in the second half of the eighteenth century. Merchants and traders hawked wares ranging from camels to sugarcane to vermillion powder (gulal). They brought their wares from around the wider region, travelling from places such as Jodhpur and Umarkot, though many came from the nearest city, Nagaur.

The document I open with addresses two overriding concerns of the state in regards to the Mundwa mela: reducing crime and increasing trade. As the order makes clear, the officials in the nearby city of Nagaur were responsible for the security arrangements of the fair. Unlike major pilgrimage festivals, such as the Kumbh Mela and Haridwar Mela, where the congregation of rival groups of warrior ascetics known as Gosains might spark fights and clashes, here theft was the main concern. This was a regular topic in official correspondence to urban officials anyway, and although we do not have statistics for the size of the crowd that gathered, even if we take the 1879 estimation of 30-40,000 people as a starting point, this suggests that the fair created a temporary urbanisation, greatly surpassing the usual size of the village. In order to tamp down crime, armed contingents of footmen were sent to the fair, including those of the watchmen, but also those from the armoury. What is surprising, however, in the order above is that sending a contingent of watchmen to the fair is framed as a response to only three to four thefts with a stated aim of eliminating all theft. This may have been a rhetorical move, in line with Maharaja Vijai Singh’s (r. 1752 – 1793) broader efforts to crack down on crime and vice in the 1770s. Or perhaps the mention of three to four thefts refers to stealing high-value items or large quantities, not petty crimes like pickpocketing.

To promote the fair and encourage merchants and vendors to attend, the state also offered financial incentives such as customs discounts of up to 25 percent to merchants bringing their wares from neighbouring regions and sent invitations encouraging their participation during this period. In addition to tax discounts, state officials oversaw the setup of stalls or shops at the fair and were instructed to let the officials in Nagaur know if not enough merchants came so that they could respond – presumably by ordering or encouraging merchants to bring their wares to the fair. It is clear from the orders sent to Nagaur officials, including the one above, that there was considerable state pressure on local merchants to participate in the fair.

A third strand of state involvement also emerges from the bahi records. State support of the fair went beyond the strictly commercial and also attended to the religious components of the fair. The documents copied in the state registers from the 1770s do not explicitly describe the religious aspect of the Mundwa mela, but various records read together indicate that this was an important part of the fair even though Mundwa was not a famous pilgrimage location. The Rajputana Gazetteer of 1879 states that the fair was instituted in the middle of the eighteenth century by Maharaja Bakht Singh (r.) in honour of the deity Krishna as Giridhar ji, the deity in his form as a youthful cowherd lifting a mountain to shelter the villagers and cattle from a rainstorm. Although I have yet to find any earlier texts referencing this origin account of the fair, a prominent Giridhar ji temple still stands in Mundwa on the banks of village tank and eighteenth-century records show that the temple received patronage from the royal court on various festivals dedicated to Krishna throughout the year.

State orders regarding arrangements of the fair specifically targeted the religious aspects, such as making sure there was water in the tank for ritual bathing. In 1776-7, after a poor monsoon, water levels in the village tank were low, as they were across the region. Prior to the fair, the inspector of Nagaur’s custom house raised concerns about the water level, which resulted in a decree that the people of Mundwa needed to use water from wells instead of from the tank in order to save the water in the tank for the fair, because the water was needed to support revenue (hasil), presumably in the context of ritual baths overseen by the pilgrimage priests (ghatiya) who attended the fair. This raises the possibility that Maharaja Vijai Singh was levying taxes on pilgrims, something which will need further investigation. After the fair, the state ordered the tank in Mundwa desilted and repaired at a cost of 1,000 to 1,200 rupees in order to improve its holding capacity when the rains returned, with the work to be partially paid for by revenue from the fair.

Returning to the question of why the state undertook such activities and interventions, if the fair did originate in the 1750s at the behest of Maharaja Bakht Singh, ongoing state support may have been needed to make it more established. The state certainly would have had a financial incentive to keep it going. In the 1770s, the mela provided an income of over 5,000 silver rupees, as shown by an order to investigate an accounting discrepancy. This made it a considerable source of revenue, though it is hard to fully contextualize this amount. Thus far, revenue statistics for fairs in Marwar in the eighteenth century are not available, but if we compare to the data compiled by B.L. Bhadani for three other fairs in Marwar the mid-seventeenth century, this amount is well in line with average returns from other fairs, though well below the high point of almost 26,000 rupees of revenue recorded for one fair in 1648. Perhaps more instructively, Bhadani also compares non-agrarian revenue to the total revenue in several districts of Marwar in the 1660s to 1690s, which suggests that such customs revenue, ranging from 2,000-25,000 rupees depending on the size and population of the district, made up on average between 6 and 16 percent of the total district revenue. By 1879, Lt. Col. Walter reported in the Rajputana Gazetteer that the fair was only bringing in 3,000 rupees of revenue but stated that in past years it had been as much as 10-15,000 rupees. However, given the century or more between each of these datapoints and the years of the fair under consideration and the fact that they have not taken fluctuations of the value of the rupee into account, these comparisons can provide only rough guides until further research is undertaken in the eighteenth-century revenue records of the region. An order indicates that in the 1770s, specific series of records of the income of the fair under the previous ruler, i.e. Bakht Singh, were available to consult, although such records may no longer be extant.

Beyond profit, the fair was also a way for the state to acquire needed supplies, including luxury goods like vermillion powder but also livestock, including cattle, camels, and horses. Although colonial accounts of the fair emphasize its importance as a cattle market, the state orders of the 1770s are far more focused on camels, which were used as draft animals in agrarian, transport, and military contexts. Such orders included instructing officials to replace an ill camel attached to the magistracy with one purchased from the Mundwa Mela, to purchase a camel for the head of guards, and excusing revenue duty (hasil) on the transport of two camels from the fair to Jodhpur. Not only was the fair a source of camels for Marwar’s officials, it also supplied other regional powers. When the representative of the Maratha Peshwa, Pandit Ayaram Mahapat Rao, purchased 500 camels at the fair, the state ordered the hasil taxation excused. During this period, the Marwar king was generally under treaty obligations to the Marathas. Thus, such an order might also be as much about diplomacy as about revenue. As the copies of state orders in the bahi records show, the state manner and reasons for involvement in the arrangements of local fairs like the Mundwa mela were both extensive and complex.

[1]Jodhpur Sanad Parwana Bahi 21 f 53a, Magsir sud 5 VS 1835. Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner. Own translation.

Primary Sources

Jodhpur Sanad Parwana Bahis nos. 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 21, Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner.

Further Reading

Bayly, C. A. Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Bhadani, B. L. Peasants, Artisans and Entrepreneurs: Economy of Marwar in the Seventeenth Century. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 1999.

Maclean, Kama. Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 1765-1954. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Sahai, Nandita Prasad. Politics of Patronage and Protest: The State, Society, and Artisans in Early Modern Rajasthan. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Sharma, G. D. “Vyaparis and Mahajans in Western Rajasthan during the Eighteenth Century.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 41 (1980): 377–85.

Yang, Anand A. Bazaar India: Markets, Society, and the Colonial State in Bihar. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.