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.

Archival Research in the Rajasthani Zone, February – March 2019

By Elizabeth Thelen

During February and early March, I travelled in Rajasthan and visited four archives and research institutes. I pursued several strands of inquiry during this trip. First was continuing the matter of manuals we had investigated in London in December. During the London trip, I had found fairly limited materials relating to Rajasthan – partially due to Rajasthani materials not being separated from Hindi materials either geographically or linguistically in most of the British Library’s catalogues. So the question remained of what sorts of manuals, if any, were being produced in Rajasthan in either Rajasthani or Persian. The other matter was to continue the overview of documents and genres begun in our workshop to develop a better understanding of the use of Persian in Rajasthan, including its chronology, geography, and social boundaries of use, along with identifying collections for more in-depth study.

Entrance to the Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner

I began my fieldwork in Bikaner at the Rajasthan State Archives, following up on ideas and leads from our workshop held jointly with the archives on February 6-8. While at the Archives, I surveyed the collections of personal papers held in the ‘non-archival’ section. In the Guide to the Archives published in 1992, 32 collections are listed. However, as that guide itself acknowledges, only some of those collections were donated to the archive, while others may have been microfilmed, and yet others remained in the possession of a private individual or organization. the list of collections does not indicate the status for each of the collections. I confirmed the presence of 15 of these collections at the archive and consulted the handlists available for 11 of them to gain an overview of their contents. The collections cover a wide range of material: newspaper clippings, the records of local organizations and individuals involved in the independence struggle, the records of a school in Bikaner, the notes of authors and historians, and family and business records. I took a closer look at the contents of three of the collections that are of particular interest to Lawforms research because of their inclusion of both Rajasthani and Persian documents from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Entrance to the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, Jodhpur

From Bikaner, I travelled to Jodhpur to visit the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute and the Maharaja ManSingh Research Centre. The Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute is a government institute holding several hundred thousand manuscripts, mostly in Rajasthani and Sanskrit. The largest part of the collection consists of literary manuscripts, but there are also a good number of historical texts and texts on various sorts of technical knowledge. Sifting through the catalogues, I located a number of texts on mathematics that proved to deal with topics of revenue collection and even a couple Rajasthani texts titled ‘Dastur Amal.’ Several miscellanies also turned out to include transcriptions of a variety of documents, which are interesting both in terms of their contents and what they may show about practices of archiving.

The Maharaja Man Singh Pustak Prakash Research Centre is overseen by the Mehrangarh Fort Trust and is located inside the fort. Its collections include records pertaining to the Jodhpur royal family (all of the records of Jodhpur state affairs were transferred to the Rajasthan State Archives) and the royal family’s manuscript library. Among this collection, I found several short nineteenth-century texts on legal principles and the Centre’s director, Dr. Mahendra Singh Tanwar, alerted me to the presence of a small collection of Persian and Urdu documents.

At the MAAPRI, Tonk with the director, Dr. Saulat Ali Khan, and calligrapher Jameel Ahmed

The fourth institute I visited was the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Arabic and Persian Research Institute in Tonk. This institute is a parallel institute to the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute, but contains Arabic, Persian and Urdu manuscripts. A large fraction of its collection comes from the erstwhile Tonk State, but there are also sizable collections from Alwar and Bharatpur among others. At the institute I consulted 13 ‘Dastur al-Amal’ manuscripts, of which a particularly interesting subset that give explicit directions on how to write various types of documents and collect revenue come from Alwar State in the nineteenth century. In addition to these texts, I consulted a number of insha collections containing samples of various sorts of letters and documents, and several collections of Persian and Urdu documents from the state of Tonk. Though they are currently not readily accessible to researchers, the institute has begun a program of scanning the records from Tonk’s courts that are in its collection, which should open up an exciting new set of archives for understanding the legal history of Rajasthan.

Seminar and Workshop in Bikaner, February 6-8, 2019

By Elizabeth Thelen and Dominic Vendell

On the 6th, 7th and 8th of February, we convened a seminar/workshop program jointly with the Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner on the theme of ‘Documents and Archives.’ The aim of the program was to share an overview of types of sources and ongoing research on the seminar day with invited participants and interested members of the public and then over the course of a two-day workshop to read and discuss a series of different varieties of documents in Persian and Rajasthani from the Rajasthan State Archives collections.

Dr Mahendra Khadgawat addresses the seminar

Over the course of the first day a series of talks highlighted the diversity of sources and ongoing research in the Rajasthan State Archive’s collections. After the archive director Dr Mahendra Khadgawat introduced the archives and particularly the ongoing digitisation program, Dominic gave an overview of the Lawforms Project and our aims during the seminar/workshop program. Prof Ramya Sreenivasan discussed the nature of the zenana tahrir records and their significance for understanding the history of royal households and Mr Salauddin Qamar introduced the genres of imperial Persian documents. Dr Sumbul Halim Khan gave an overview of the structure, content and creation of Vakil reports which informed the ruler of local events and sometimes included coded messages, while Elizabeth presented on the nature and research possibilities of the bahi records of Marwar. Mr Muhammad Shahnawaz discussed nirakh hundawan records and their insights into the use of notes of exchange (hundis).  Several other presentations highlighted the range of sources in the Rajasthan State Archives and ongoing research, especially on gender history and economic history, including those of Ms Meera Malhan, Dr S.D. Mishra, Dr Ambika Dhaka and Dr Mahendra Panehaniya. Given the vast scope of records in the archive – including the range of languages and usage, scripts and handwriting styles, formats and genres – the seminar program demonstrated the value of bringing scholars together to grasp the scope of the records and the complexity of their relationships to each other across time and location.

Ms Meera Malhan presents her paper as Prof. Ramya Sreenivasan looks on

The seminar also featured public history and outreach aspects. The audience included students from local colleges who connected with the presenters about their research and pathways to becoming historians during the program breaks. The day concluded with a visit to the archives and a tour of ongoing renovations to create and update several display halls within the archives complex. This museum section covers themes including the Indian independence movement in Rajasthan and Rajput states in the Mughal period and highlights the types of records in the archive’s collections. The new museum has been designed in consultation with the architect Dr Shikha Jain who had presented the plans and scope of the work earlier in the day, including the logistics of displaying different types of documents.

Mr Salauddin Qamar clarifies a point in a Persian document

On the second day we dove into the reading of Persian documents. Our sessions were facilitated by Mr Salauddin Qamar and Mr Jameel Ahmad from the Arabic Persian Research Institute in Tonk and Mr Shujauddin, a retired Rajasthan State Archives employee. All three had been involved in Dr Khadgawat’s project to publish the Mughal farmans held by the Rajasthan State Archives, so were very familiar with the sorts of documents we were covering. During the course of the day, we read and discussed farmans, a nishan, an arzdasht, a royal khat, a manshur, a vakil report, and a page of akhbarat. Our discussions ranged from the reading and meaning of a particular word to the relative authority of different levels of documents in giving orders. We compared the formulas used in different documents and noted how the conventions in several genres, including khats and arzdashts, to put the date and the addressee’s name on the envelope which has sometimes been lost or separated from the document, creates methodological challenges for the researcher.

Workshop participants discuss the documents

On the final day, we turned our attention to Rajasthani documents in the state archives. These are far more numerous and diverse than the Persian documents, so we were able to cover only a subset of the genres and series. Our readings were led by Mr Poonamchand Joiya, a retired research officer from the archives, with additional facilitation and presentations from Dr Sumbul Halim Khan of Aligarh Muslim University, Dr Mahendra Singh Tanwar of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, and Mr Rameshwar Bairwa, Mr Puranmal Koli and Mr Sohanlal Damor from the branch offices of the Rajasthan State Archives. Our readings and discussions covered a tamrapatra, an arzdasht, a royal khat, a toji from the patar khana, an arsattha, a hazir asami, and entries from registers including a sanad parwana bahi, a kagad bahi and a haqiqat bahi. These documents came from various states in Rajasthan: Mewar, Marwar, Jaipur, Kota and Bikaner. They covered a variety of functions, including letters, petitions, orders, and tax collection. Particularly useful moments included a close analysis and exposition of the accounting conventions used in taqsim documents and other revenue-related documents by several participants and Dr Tanwar’s explanation of sanad parwana bahi entries via an examination of state management of water resources. We also discussed the processes by which registers were created and their relationship to documents that were issued by the various states.

Thematic and methodological discussions throughout the workshop emerged around topics including the classification of documents whether through self-nomination or the creation of archival series at a later point; the materiality of documents including the significance of paper quality and paper decoration; the identification of shared features between Persian and Rajasthani documents such as structure and vocabulary; and the translation of various customary titles and honorifics as well as occupational and collective categories featured in documentation.