by Samira Sheikh
Starting to write this blog post gave me a startling realization. Although I have been carrying out historical research on Gujarat, in one way or another, since 1994, I can’t think of an archive or library that I can claim to know really well. I am not the kind of historian who has spent months in a dusty regional archive, mastering its cataloguing system and getting friendly, over regular cups of oversweet chai, with the curator. I have visited a number of libraries and archives but never for longer than a few weeks (usually a few days). Nevertheless, there are some archives that are particular favourites.
The Baroda record room
One is the large branch of the Gujarat State Archives in Baroda (Vadodara), which Nandini Bhattacharya wrote about in a recent post. For anything to do with the wealthy and powerful Gaekwad state of Baroda, this archive, formerly known as the Baroda Record Room, is a wonderful resource. Over the winter of 2013 and 2014 I spent a few weeks here to examine records that explained how the Gaekwads came to control, in the early 1800s, the famed Krishna temple complex of Dwarka. I was curious about why the Gaekwads decided to make a bid for Dwarka and the distant Okhamandal peninsula in the westernmost part of Gujarat, which was not even contiguous with the rest of Baroda state. The results of my investigations can be found here.
I only worked on the English documents in this archive, the catalogues of which are in handwritten registers. The archive also contains a substantial collection of land records from the erstwhile Baroda State. While leafing through files of correspondence on the Gaekwads’ bickering with Jamnagar State over pilgrim revenues in Dwarka, I would overhear fascinating snippets of conversation between the then archivist, C.B. Solanki, and petitioners from remote villages who had come to ask for copies of colonial period records. One day a group of Third Gender individuals came in to explain that a well on their property was being disputed by their neighbours. They knew that the well had been granted to them a century ago. Surely the archives would have a record of the grant. Mr. Solanki listened patiently to them, as he did to each petitioner, summoning a peon to fetch the relevant document. Later, when I asked if I could see indexes of the land deeds, he laughed and refused. “You will not understand them,” he said. “They are in here,” tapping his head.
The Baroda archives apparently contain a small collection of Persian documents. A catalogue of these manuscripts was published in 1945. In 2014 I was told that none of the manuscripts were in a condition to be examined. I was never able to find out more about them. It is unfortunate if the manuscripts have disintegrated or been otherwise lost as the catalogue lists a number of land deeds and letters containing rich materials for a social history of Baroda. The earliest manuscript, from 1607, is a sanad granting Maulana Bhikhaji Khatib a small allowance for lamp oil. It carries the seal of the chief judge, qazi, of Baroda, Muhammad Ahmad. A number of documents are land or house deeds that show women owning, buying, gifting, and selling property. One from 1625 (serial number 7) records the grant of 40 bighas of land to Bibi Amtul Aziz, wife of Sayyid Shukrallah. Another from 1663 (serial number 22) grants the revenues of Hanspur (Savad village) to the wife of Sada Khan. In 1696, Fatima Bibi sold a house to Sher Khan Taj Khan for Rs. 81 (serial number 31) and in 1702, Bibibu sold a house to Sayyid Pir, son of Vali, for Rs. 150 (serial number 35).
Most names in the Persian catalogue appear to be those of Muslims. But there are a number of exceptions. A deed from 1674 (serial number 24) records that Vania Kuwarji Keshav of Bahadarpur sold a house to Vania Vallabh Sangji for Rs. 51. In 1729, a liquor merchant named Ramsingh Prema secured a document granting him security. In 1768, Madhaji Ganesh bought a house in Baroda for Rs. 125 (serial number 80). In 1771, the subedar of Gujarat bought white paper worth Rs. 201 from Kriparam, a paper merchant of Ahmedabad (serial number 81). A number of documents are letters of invitations to weddings or circumcision ceremonies. A handful are letters between men of affairs of the day.
Of the early documents, relatively few pertain to the Gaekwads. Interestingly, it is only after Lord William Bentinck abolished Persian as the language of official correspondence in 1833 that we see Persian letters exchanged between the Gaekwads and the British. There is a series of letters dating from 1834 to 1844 between Sayajirao II, the Maharaja of Baroda, and British officials including Governors-General Auckland and Ellenborough. In 1842, the Maharaja made a point of congratulating Lord Ellenborough on his recovery of the sandalwood doors of Somnath from Afghanistan. It is a significant loss that all this correspondence is no longer accessible.
There are more collections of Persian records and correspondence from Gujarat in the National Archives of India, in New Delhi. Some of these were explored by Farhat Hasan in 2004. There must be many more in private and public collections throughout Gujarat. There must, equally, be surviving letters in Gujarati and Braj Bhasha. It is interesting, however, that members of the Gujarati Hindu elite valued the art of Persian letterwriting well into the nineteenth century. A number of volumes of elegant correspondence (insha’) and form letters survive that throw light on writing conventions and etiquette. One, by the well-known Ahmedabad writer Bholanath Sarabhai (d. 1886), is titled Ma‘dan al-insha’ (Mine of Elegant Style) and may be found in another of my favourite libraries – the Bhogilal Jesang Institute in Ahmedabad – which will be the subject of another post.
A neglected area
Letters and epistolography are a neglected area in the history of Gujarat. Hardly anyone has catalogued and worked on such documents. This is in spite of the fact that some of the earliest “form letters” in South Asia are from Gujarat. The celebrated Lekhapaddhati, a collection of Sanskrit letter templates, was compiled in Gujarat in the fourteenth century (and was translated by Pushpa Prasad in 2007). It gives us a splendid picture of epistolary conventions in the centuries prior, and along the way, also of social and political life. It is a great pity to ignore more recent letters, as also documents such as deeds of ownership, sale, gift and so on. Such documents illuminate social history, certainly, but may turn out to have implications for other kinds of stories as well – of gender history, urban configurations, and even exclusivist literary narratives.
This has turned out to be a post about documents I did not see at an archive I only worked at briefly. Perhaps it will interest more dogged researchers to ferret out records before they fall to pieces. They certainly exist, in archives public and private. Oversweet chai may or may not be on offer.
Samira Sheikh teaches history at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, USA. She is writing a book on Gujarat in the eighteenth century. She is the author of Forging a Region: Sultans, Traders and Pilgrims in Gujarat (1200-1500), OUP, 2010, has co-edited An Anthology of Ismaili Literature: A Shi‘i Vision of Islam, along with Kutub Kassam and Hermann Landolt, as well as After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth-Century North India, with Francesca Orsini, and has published several papers among which are, ‘Jibhabhu’s Rights to Ghee: Land control and vernacular capitalism in Gujarat, circa 1803–10′, Modern Asian Studies 51, 2 (2017) pp. 350–374