Digitised Legal Documents from the Indo-Persian World

Contextual Essays

Regimes and Territories

Sultans and Others in the South

The first Muslim kingdoms in the southern part of the Indian peninsula were formed in the fourteenth century CE as breakaways from the Delhi Sultanate. The earliest among them was the Bahmani Sultanate, with its capital at Bidar, which eventually split into five kingdoms: Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur and Golconda. These five kingdoms are collectively referred to as the Deccan Sultanates.

The Deccan Sultanates formed a zone of Persianate culture that was distinct from the northern Indian versions. Among other things, the Sultanates, especially Bijapur, formed close connections with the Safavid rulers of Iran, and welcomed large number of Persian soldiers and administrators directly to the southern part of the subcontinent. While such immigrant professionals brought Persian language and administrative styles with them, they were also influenced by the regional languages of the peninsular south - Marathi, Kannada and Telugu – and the locally-born service elites working in those languages. The Persianate culture of the Deccan Sultanates was associated, therefore, with local communities and cultural styles in fine arts, architecture, clothing, rituals, and performance.

The Deccan Sultanates co-existed and competed with other late medieval regimes; most important among them was Vijayanagara, with its capital in Hampi. The rulers of Vijayanagara, while Hindu, shared styles of courtly dress, ritual, and architecture, and patterns of military recruitment with the Deccan Sultanates. In fact, the king of Vijayanagara adopted the title of Hindu raya Suratrana, or ‘Sultan among Hindus.’ This is why Vijayanagara has been considered part of the Persianate era of Indian history. The Vijayanagara kingdom was destroyed following a battle in 1565, in which the other Deccan Sultanates achieved a rare moment of political unity in order impart a crushing defeat on the Vijayanagara army.

The Sultanate of Bijapur is particularly relevant to the collection of documents presented on this website. Bijapur was situated astride the Marathi and Kannada language zones and Bijapuri records were often bi-lingual, written in Persian and Marathi, with the latter in the archaic Modi script. Bijapur also regularly interacted with the Portuguese Empire, which was formed at the end of the fifteenth century as a sea-borne empire with fortified settlements in coastal towns all around the Indian Ocean. The headquarters of the Estado da India was in Goa, which was captured from Bijapur after several battles in the early sixteenth century. The Sultanate of Bijapur relied on large numbers of servicemen from various Marathi-speaking groups, including soldier-administrators of Maratha caste. One lineage of these soldier-administrators later founded the independent Maratha Empire in the late seventeenth century.

The Mughals, securely established as rulers of northern India or Hindustan by the mid-sixteenth century, began threatening the southern kingdoms soon afterwards and launched a series of military campaigns in the Deccan over the next hundred years. By 1687, the last of the Deccan Sultanates – Golconda – was conquered by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and turned into a Mughal province or suba.

Further Reading

Richard Eaton, India in the Persianate Age, 1000-1765 (London: Allen Lane, 2019).

Roy Fischel, Local States in an Imperial World: Identity, Society and Politics in Early Modern Deccan (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020).

Emma Flatt, The Courts of the Deccan Sultanates: Living Well in the Persian Cosmopolis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Jorge Flores, Unwanted Neighbours: The Mughals, the Portuguese and their Frontier Zones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Philip Wagoner, “‘Sultan among Hindu Kings’: Dress, Titles, and the Islamicization of Hindu Culture at Vijayanagara,” The Journal of Asian Studies 55, no. 4 (1996): 851–80.

Mughals and Rajputs in North India

The Mughal Empire was nominally founded in 1526, but it was not until the 1550s and 1560s that the empire became a stable polity and the dominant political power in North India through the military campaigns of the third Mughal emperor, Akbar. Subsequent emperors continued expansionist campaigns to the East, South and Northwest; at its greatest extent in the late seventeenth century, the Mughal Empire encompassed most of the Indian subcontinent. Due to wars of succession, invasions, overstretched finances, and challenges from the Marathas and breakaway nobles, Mughal imperial power declined between the 1710s and 1740s. However, the empire did not formally end until the last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was exiled in 1858 by the British in the wake of the Uprising of 1857.

Although its territory and practical power varied, the Mughal Empire was an important influence on South Asian political culture between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Mughal ruling dynasty, which traced its lineage to the fourteenth-century Turco-Mongol ruler Amir Timur, embraced Turkic and Persian models of governance, and endorsed the use of the Persian language for literature and government; many scholars from Iran and Central Asia found patrons and employment in the Mughal court. Indian scholars and scribes also learned Persian in order to secure imperial employment, and many enjoyed prominent posts. Indeed, the nobility and cadres of imperial officials were multi-ethnic, and the incorporation of local populations into Mughal imperial service was a key way that the empire’s power expanded.

Exactly how centralized the empire was and the extent of its regional power and influence is a matter of historical debate. Court chronicles depict the emperor as having wide-reaching power shored up by an extensive centralized bureaucracy, a large cadre of officials, and an effective hierarchy of regional administration. The empire was administratively divided into provinces (subas) overseen by a governor (subadar), and further subdivided into regions (sarkars) and districts (parganas), with each level staffed with officials such as record-keepers and landlords. While high-level ministers and nobles were often transferred from post to post and place to place, low level officials typically, if unofficially, held their post on a hereditary basis.

Rajputs were military professionals in medieval and early modern South Asia. From the advent of the Mughal Empire, many Rajputs took up posts in the Mughal nobility and military; some of them became powerful generals and entered the upper echelons of the nobility, and several Rajput noblewomen married into the Mughal imperial family. Other Rajputs, like the rulers of Mewar, resisted Mughal rule and waged repeated military campaigns against the Mughals. Those Rajputs who joined Mughal service typically retained control of their core territories, which were deemed a ‘home assignment’ (watan jagir), in addition to being assigned other territories as part of their salary. Within these home territories, the administration was often carried out according to local idioms of rule and was typically conducted in local languages, such as Rajasthani or Hindi, rather than Persian.

In the eighteenth century, many Rajputs, especially in western and central India, (re)established themselves as rulers of independent kingdoms. However, their status was quickly challenged by rising Maratha power and Maratha military campaigns in north India. Many Rajput kingdoms signed treaties with the Marathas that obliged them to pay large amounts of tribute. In the face of these financial obligations, Rajput rulers relied on wealthy merchants and moneylenders to support the state with loans. During the British East India Company campaigns against the Marathas in the early nineteenth century, many Rajput rulers allied themselves with the British, and by 1818, most Rajput states in central and western India had signed treaties with the East India Company. These treaties established the Rajput kingdoms as quasi-independent Princely States. Under the terms of the treaties, the Rajput chiefs and kings typically retained rights to control the internal affairs of their kingdom independently, though often under the advisement of a British Resident, but ceded control of external affairs to the British. In contrast to their actual limited political power under colonial rule, the idea of the martial Rajput hero as ideal patriot became an important symbol in nineteenth-century anti-colonial discourse that was embraced and amplified in new genres of history-writing and literature.

Further Reading

Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, The Mughal State, 1526-1750 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Richard M. Eaton and Ramya Sreenivasan, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Mughal World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020),

D. H. A. Kolff, Naukar, Rajput, and Sepoy: The Ethnohistory of the Military Labour Market of Hindustan, 1450-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Norbert Peabody, Hindu Kingship and Polity in Precolonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Barbara N. Ramusack, The Indian Princes and Their States, The New Cambridge History of India, III, 6 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

John F. Richards, The Mughal Empire, The New Cambridge History of India, I, 5 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

G. D. Sharma, Rajput Polity: A Study of Politics and Administration of the State of Marwar, 1638-1749 (New Delhi: Manohar, 1977).

Ramya Sreenivasan, The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts in India c. 1500-1900 (Seattle: University of Washington, 2007).

The Maratha Imperial Interlude

The Marathas were a Marathi-speaking peasant caste in western peninsular India, who came to be associated with a spectacular military empire in the late seventeenth century. From about the fourteenth century, Maratha soldiers and Marathi-speaking scribes of Kayastha caste served the Muslim kingdoms of southern India collectively known as the Deccan Sultanates. Marathi Brahmin communities spread more widely over the subcontinent, forming prestigious clusters especially in the northern city of Banaras, an important Hindu religious centre.

In the mid-seventeenth century, Shivaji, the ambitious and capable son of a Maratha noble in the Bijapur Sultanate, developed an imperial programme of his own. When neither service in the Bijapuri Sultanate in the 1640s nor negotiations with the Mughals in the 1650s resulted in the opportunities he desired, Shivaji struck out on his own with his band of armed horsemen, attacking Mughal cities and forts, and building up a stronghold in the Western Ghats. Defeated by the Rajput Mughal general Jai Singh I in the Battle of Purandar in 1665, Shivaji arrived in Emperor Aurangzeb’s court, potentially to be incorporated into the Mughal nobility as many warlords before him had been. This encounter did not go to plan, and he made a daring escape. Shivaji eventually crowned himself sovereign at the fort of Raigadh in 1674, adopting the ancient Hindu title of chhatrapati. Thus formed, the Maratha project of swarajya (self-rule, sovereignty) attracted a number of Maratha warlords or sardars, who brought with them their bands of horsemen, adept at guerilla warfare in difficult terrain. Shivaji died in 1680, and after his son and successor Sambhaji was captured and executed by the Mughals in 1689, the Maratha empire entered into difficult times. However, with their immediate overlords (Bijapur) removed by Mughal conquest in 1684, the Marathas drew the Mughals into ruinous and interminable warfare in southern India. One strand of the Maratha royal lineage survived in the southern fort of Gingee, and Maratha raids grew in number, audacity, and range.

In the wake of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 and the Mughal Empire’s severe crisis soon after, the Marathas regrouped again. From the 1710s, the Brahmin ministers of the Maratha kings, known as Peshwas, became the effective rulers of the Maratha kingdom. In this period, the Marathas entered their imperial phase, taking their raids far north, controlling the weakened Mughal emperor himself, and demanding tribute as far afield as Jodhpur and Bengal.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the Maratha Empire entered a third phase. Maratha sardars or warlords who led raids all over the subcontinent began to establish practically autonomous local kingdoms in central and western India. Of these the kingdoms, that of the Puwar dynasty of Dhar, and of the Holkar dynasty of Indore are most important to our collection: the descendants of the landlord Purshottam Das held onto their posts through regime change from the Mughals to the Maratha Puwars; likewise, the Indore Mandloi family served both the Mughals and the Maratha Holkars. While most Maratha leaders were men, the Holkars were led by an eminent queen – Ahilyabai Holkar – from 1767 to 1797.

After the 1760s, following a disastrous battle with the Afghan Durrani invaders, the third phase of the Maratha polity began, where the Peshwa’s control weakened and the erstwhile sardars set up practically independent kingdoms in places ranging from Baroda to Gwalior. The Peshwa’s rule was ended by a war with the English East India Company in 1818; the other Maratha kingdoms were also subdued and turned into subordinate princely states associated with British-ruled India.

Further Reading

Prachi Deshpande, Creative Pasts: Historical Memory and Identity in Western India, 1700-1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

Stewart Gordon, The Marathas: 1600-1818 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1993).

Dominic Vendell, ‘The Scribal Household in Flux: Pathways of Kayastha service in eighteenth-century Western India,’ The Indian Economic and Social History Review 57:4 (2020), 535-66.

Andre Wink, Land and Sovereignty in India: Agrarian Society and Politics under the Eighteenth-century Maratha Svarājya (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1986).

Trading Companies to Colonial rule in the Indian Ocean

From the end of the fifteenth century, Europeans became a significant military and political presence in the Indian Ocean and on the coastline of the Indian subcontinent. Portuguese explorers, backed by the Portuguese crown, made their way eastwards, successfully rounding the African peninsula and arriving in southwest India in 1498. By the mid-sixteenth century, the Portuguese seaborne empire, titled the Estado da India, stretched from Mozambique off the east coast of Africa to the Malayan peninsula, with its headquarters in Goa. The Portuguese Empire consisted of a series of fortified coastal towns around the Indian Ocean and was premised on the forcible control of maritime trade routes through a combination of military threats and selling safe-conduct passes, known as cartaz.

The Portuguese, Safavids and Mughals created and expanded their empires at around the same time, occupying largely distinct territories and with only occasional conflict. Around 1600, a new kind of European entity entered the Indian Ocean arena: the joint-stock trading company, incorporated by law in the country of origin. The English, Dutch, and French East India Companies were created in 1600, 1602, and 1664 respectively with the stated aim of conducting profitable trade in spices and textiles from the ‘Indies’. Because of their desire to purchase goods produced in the mainland interior of Iran and the Indian subcontinent, all three of these corporations had to deal with the major incumbent regimes: the Safavids, the Mughals, and the Sultanates of the Deccan, the Malayan peninsula, and the Indonesian archipelago. The Companies’ trading strategy involved negotiating with the regimes to acquire favoured rights of purchase, tax exemptions and permission to build and secure warehouses along the coastlines.

In the beginning, the English East India Company was more successful in Iran than in India. By providing military assistance to the Safavid regime to expel the Portuguese from Hormuz, they acquired a special licence to purchase Iranian silk. By the mid-sixteenth century, however, the Iranian trade had declined in importance, whereas the trade as well as politics in Mughal India was becoming the main focus, with competition from the Dutch and the French. The Dutch turned their attention towards Southeast Asia by the late seventeenth century. As the Mughal regime began splintering in the early eighteenth century, the fractious dynastic politics of the emergent successor regimes offered opportunities to the French and the British to provide military services and meddle in political alliances, with associated kickbacks. The decisive turning point for the English East India Company was a battle in 1757 whereby the king of the province of Bengal in eastern India was dethroned and replaced by his relative through British machinations. With the treasury of Bengal under their control, the British turned the tide against the French and expanded across the Indian subcontinent through military campaigns and treaties, eventually transforming into a territorial power that formed the core of the largest empire ever seen.

By the early nineteenth century, much of the Indian subcontinent was under British control and became a base from which British imperial rule spread eastwards and westwards along the Indian Ocean littoral. In the Arabo-Persian Gulf, British control expanded in the form of treaties with local rulers that were ostensibly aimed at curbing piracy and slave-trading. In the long run, this led to the creation of an informal empire of protectorates ranging from Oman up to Zanzibar, off the east coast of Africa. Indian consulate officials and Gujarati family firms played a major role in both colonial governance and capitalist trade, including in enslaved human beings.

Further reading:

Fahad Ahmad Bishara, A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Huw V. Bowen, The Business of Empire: The East India Company and Imperial Britain, 1756-1833 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

C.R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825 (London: Hutchinson, 1969).

Pieter Emmer and Jos Gommans, The Dutch Overseas Empire, 1600-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Catherine Manning, Fortunes à Faire: The French in Asian Trade, 1719–48 (London: Routledge, 2017).

Thomas R. Metcalf, Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

James Onley, The Arabian Frontier of the British Raj: Merchants, Rulers, and the British in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf (Oxford: Oxford University, 2007).

“Portugal i. Relations with Persia in the Early Modern Age,” in Encyclopaedia Iranica, online edition, 2009,

Daniel Razzari, “Through the Backdoor: An Overview of the English East India Company’s Rise and Fall in Safavid Iran, 1616–40,” Iranian Studies, 52, no. 3-4 (2019): 485-511, DOI: 10.1080/00210862.2019.1646118.

Legal Authorities

Petitioning Lords and Rulers

Administering personal justice was a key tenet of sovereignty in early modern South Asian polities. Therefore, direct petitions to nobles, lords or rulers was a key route to justice and legal rights. Such petitions were used by officials and nobles seeking entitlements from the king or emperor, but there were also many instances of common people petitioning for their rights to the highest levels of authority. In fact, the Mughal emperors famously received petitions from their subjects on a regular basis. Jahangir famously sat at a window balcony (jharoka) of the imperial palace to hear and respond to the pleas of people who gathered on the ground below; a chain of bells was installed so that petitioners could summon him. Some people also travelled long distances to the court to have their petitions heard and as kings and nobles travelled through their territory, they were frequently approached by petitioners, including local chiefs and landlords seeking favour.

Petitions could be made in writing or orally and petitioning was governed by specific forms of presentation. Written Persian petitions typically took the form of an ʿarzdasht, a formal letter from an inferior to a superior in which, after a series of praises of the recipient, the request was humbly presented. The writing and presentation of such documents followed a strict protocol and featured prominently in formularies and writing manuals. ʿArzdashts had a wide range of usage, from diplomatics to securing official posts, to requesting the ruler’s intervention in a local dispute. While one could make a request on one’s own behalf, it was also common to lodge a petition to a ruler through a representative, such as a highly placed noble. Such petitions were read out in court by a court minister, as depicted in a well-known sixteenth-century painting showing an older, well-dressed minister kneeling to read out the ʿarzdasht of an artist who was being recruited to the Mughal court. The form of the ʿarzdasht was adopted by both Rajputs and Marathas with different but equally set formulas of politeness; examples of and references to araj and arjadasht abound in the historical documents from both regions.

Written petitions could also take the form of written testimonials, or mahzar namas, which were frequently used to present problems facing multiple people, all of whom signed or sealed the document. Mughal mahzar namas were used to testify to rights where previous documents were lost and also to lodge complaints about mistreatment. They were always sealed by a qazi; some were presented to the law court while others sought redress from the political authorities.

Petitions were typically written by professional scribes; petitioners were not necessarily literate themselves. Notably, however, written petitions often reference orality, employing the reported speech of the petitioners or those who have complained against them, and were frequently written from a first-person perspective, using ‘I’ and ‘we’. Aside from the ʿarzdashts of high-ranking nobles and the mahzar namas, few examples of petitions from early modern South Asia survive directly in archives today. However, we know of their widespread use through references to petitions and petitioning in many of the orders that were issued. Some of these orders even summarized the petition that was received; this was a common practice in the royal orders of the Rajput kingdom of Marwar in the eighteenth century. Indeed, those records show that people from all backgrounds lodged petitions in the event of serious disputes or crimes, though in some cases the ruler simply endorsed a resolution or punishment that was set by low-level local authorities.

Further Reading

Sumit Guha, “An Indian Penal Régime: Maharashtra in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present, no. 147 (1995): 101–26,

Abhishek Kaicker, The King and the People: Sovereignty and Popular Politics in Mughal Delhi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020),

Abhishek Kaicker, “Petitions and Local Politics in the Late Mughal Empire: The View from Kol, 1741,” Modern Asian Studies 53, no. 1 (2019): 21–51.

Nandita Prasad Sahai, “Some Were Larger Than Their Communities: A Potter’s Family, Community, and Justice in Early Modern Rajasthan,” Studies in History 25, no. 1 (2009): 39–68,

Abolala Soudavar, “Between the Safavids and the Mughals: Art and Artists in Transition."Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies 37, no. 1 (1999): 49-66. See p. 50 for a discussion of the painting of the petition being read. 

Declaring to the Qazi

The office of the qazi or Islamic judge is the lynchpin of Islamic legal systems worldwide. It was a similarly important position in the Islamic empires of South Asia, including the Mughal Empire and the Deccan Sultanates. Records show that qazis continued to be appointed even in the non-Muslim regimes that followed the Mughal Empire, such as the Maratha polity, and that the office was adapted to the needs of the colonial government in the nineteenth century. In early modern South Asia, the qazi’s jurisdiction was not limited to Muslim communities or practices, but extended more broadly over property and other disputes, to the notarising of legal documents, and even to the validation of records related to taxation.

Numerous documents record the appointment of qazis by Mughal emperors, with some details about their duties. A farman issued by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1629 CE directed the appointee towards the ‘settling dealings and differences, settling and deciding law-suits, contracting marriages …, distributing inheritances, drawing up legal sentences and decrees’ and instructed him not to deviate from sharia (Islamic law) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). The office of the qazi was often, if not always, hereditary in learned Muslim families. Such multi-generational appointments were accompanied by tax-free land grants that were termed madad-i maʿash (support for livelihood). Farmans appointing qazis usually had notes and seals on their zimn (reverse) by the sadr, who was the minister in charge of religious endowments.

Among the documents displayed on this website, several bear the seal of a qazi alongside a note that summarises the contents of the document or that declares the contents to be true and accurate. A large subset of such documents, sealed by a qazi, contain an iqrar - a unilateral, legally binding declaration made in the qazi’s presence, that may record a range of transactions, such as a sale, the repayment of a debt or the settling of an employment dispute. Similar seals and notations are found when a qazi endorsed the accuracy of a document copy. Other documents show the qazi’s role in resolving disputes, and procedures used in doing so. Scholars of Islamic law have shown how qazis preferred oral testimony but also accepted, in fact, sought written documents as evidence, and how they sought the considered opinion of muftis (jurists) on applicable legal principles, but also considered local custom and principles such as sulh (resolution, peace). We also see disputes traversing jurisdictions, for example that of the qazi to the local jagirdar and back.

Such documents demonstrate both the intricate enmeshing of Islamic legal practices in South Asian society, but also the familiarity of the qazi as a representative of the state on the one hand, and of local notables on the other.

Further Reading

Rafat M. Bilgrami, Religious and Semi-Religious Departments of the Mughal Period, 1556-1707 (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1984).

Wael Hallaq, An Introduction to Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Momin Mohiuddin, The Chancellery and Persian Epistolography under the Mughals (Calcutta: Iran Society, 1971).

Christian H.O. Müller, "Acknowledgement,” in Encyclopedia of Islam THREE, edited by Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson.

Related documents

Declaration of Nathu, 1661.

Declaration of Anwar Beg and Sayyid Azam, 1787.

Convening the Caste and Village Council

Many disputes and disagreements were resolved locally through recourse to caste councils or village councils. Caste councils, which served a particular ethnic or occupational group (jati), primarily heard disputes within the given caste community, while village councils attended to matters involving multiple castes. The issues addressed by these tribunals included inheritance and property disputes, as well as matters of social relationships and vice such as broken engagements and adultery. Such councils formed the most immediate legal tribunal available to most people.

The most common form of caste council in the period, especially across North India, was the panchayat, which typically consisted of five men who were community elders from a given village or town. Whereas in contemporary India the panchayat is an elected group of village representatives, in earlier periods the panchayat consisted of members of a single caste group. While they mostly handled issues from within the locality, occasionally the caste panchayat from another village might be called to weigh in on a matter. Alongside the panchayat, other forms of council were found in different regions. In Rajasthan, the nyat or subcaste group enforced social norms and also advised and decided on some disputes. In Maharashtra, the gota, which referred to a kin or caste group but also a group of people who held the same type of rights, functioned at village, city, and district levels to adjudicate the concerns of its members, the majalis, a large village council that included state officials, typically heard property disputes, and the dharmasabha, led by an official known as the dharmadhikari, typically dealt with matters involving religious queries, broadly construed, as well as appeals of decisions made by the majalis. While all of these types of councils could and did function independently, they also often worked closely with the state, either advising the state on the resolution of disputes and crimes or seeking state endorsement for the settlements and punishments that the councils issued.

Despite their variation in formation and membership, the different types of tribunals often worked in similar ways. They tended to meet publicly and were approached by supplicants who made oral or written petitions for justice. The tribunals heard complaints, testimony and examined documents in order to determine what had happened and how to resolve the matter. Ordeals, like plunging one’s hands in hot oil or rubbing one’s eyes chili peppers, in which it was believed that someone telling the truth would emerge unscathed, were also sometimes used to determine the outcome of a case, though their use declined over the period. In contrast, written documents took an increasingly prominent role as evidence by the eighteenth century. Dispute settlements determined who was in the right and frequently required the party who lost the decision to provide some form of compensation to the party who won. In cases where a party had seriously broken social norms, the council sometimes decided to banish that person from the caste group or village. Caste and village councils often kept records and produced documents recording the settlements they reached. However, such records have rarely survived from the core period covered by this website, and the workings of the caste council in this period are often known through other documents – such as petitions to and judgements from the king – that describe these councils.

Further Reading

James Jaffe, Ironies of Colonial Governance: Law, Custom and Justice in Colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015),

Rosalind O’Hanlon, “In the Presence of Witnesses: Petitioning and Judicial ‘Publics’ in Western India, circa 1600–1820,” Modern Asian Studies 53, no. 1 (January 2019): 52–88,

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

Taxes and Tribute

Many of the documents featured on this website relate to the functioning of the Mughal Empire at the level of the district (pargana) and are concerned with the collection and remission of taxes and tribute, the condition of the local peasantry, and the assignment of revenue rights to local administrators as compensation for their service. Agricultural taxes were a major source of revenue for the Mughal Empire and other polities across South Asia. Systems put in place in the sixteenth century, described in detail in Abul Fazl’s Ain-i Akbari, became an enduring model of revenue assessment and collection. The basis of the main tax assessment was the crop; revenue schedules known as dastur-ul-ʿamal were derived from direct measurement of the average productivity of different crops on one unit of land. This assessment was carried out regionally, so the rate reflected regional agricultural conditions, and was occasionally updated. Much of the land was double-cropped and taxes in this area were assessed and collected on both the spring (rabiʿ) and fall (kharif) harvests. However, not all areas were surveyed and the extent to which tax collection matched assessment is debated.

When it came to collection, land was recognised as either crownlands (khalisa), from which taxes were paid directly to the imperial treasury, or assigned lands (jagir), held by rank-holding princes, nobles and officials in Mughal imperial service who received the tax revenue in lieu of salary. Most of the territory in the empire was jagir. Such revenue rights, as well as charitable grants of land revenue and the lease of tax collection rights, are discussed in more detail in ‘Rights and Landholdings’. Tax concessions to officials and landlords, merchants, and recipients of charitable grants meant that the assessed tax burden was often heaviest on cultivators and peasants. Although the tax system allowed for the assessment of individual cultivators, in practice land revenue taxes were usually assessed and collected on the unit of the village (mauzaʿ) or district (in revenue terms, mahal) and remitted by a village headman or district-level officials called karori in crownlands and ʿamil in nobles’ jagirs. These officials were held responsible for timely and full payment of the taxes. Other officials in nearby areas often stood surety (zamin) for the payment of taxes and were responsible for their payment if the official in question failed to pay or absconded.

The state pursued policies to protect agricultural revenue. To encourage increased cultivation, the revenue assessed on land newly brought into cultivation was typically discounted for the first five years. Discounts could also be issued in case of crop failure. In instances when the local officials were causing distress to the peasants, the state often took action against the officials. Without such actions, the cultivators might migrate to different areas. However, despite these policies, the tax demand, if fully realised as assessed, was heavy and peasants who refused to pay were punished.

Alongside the main land revenue tax (mal) on crops, additional taxes and fees were assessed on cultivators and villagers by local officials. These included taxes on grazing and water usage and fees collected to cover the expenses of tax assessment, known as jihat, and to pay a variety of local officials and functionaries, from the watchman who guarded crops at night to the local record-keeper. Furthermore, there were taxes on markets and artisanal production in both villages and urban areas, and tolls and customs fees, called rahdari, were charged on the transport of goods.

In addition to taxes, nobles and officials were obliged to pay tribute (pishkash) prior their appointment, reconfirmation or inheritance of a post, as well as when they personally attended court. This latter sort, also called nazrana, could include valuable presents, such as jewels, horses, and elephants, as well as money. Rajput rulers paid tribute annually in exchange for imperial recognition of their right to administer their core territories, known as watan jagir, and as a symbol of their submission to the Mughal Emperor. Likewise, chiefs and rulers defeated in a military conflict were required to pay tribute, either in one lump sum or as a recurring annual amount.

The taxation systems in the Rajput watan jagirs and later kingdoms were largely similar to those used by the Mughals, but often differed in the particulars: the precise rates were different, the assessment was often expressed in kind instead of cash and a mixture of Rajasthani terminology and loanwords from Persian were used to identify taxes. For instance, in Marwar the terms bhog and kharch bhog were used for land revenue and the fees to cover the expense of tax collection respectively.

The Marathas termed land revenue in general as rajbhag, or the king’s portion. Its precise assessment and implementation varied across the Maratha polity and in some territories drew on existing systems put in place by the Vijayanagara Empire, the Bijapur Sultanate, and the Mughals. André Wink argues that while implementing tax assessments was an expression of Maratha sovereignty, actual collections relied on custom (rivaj) to set the amount due from each village. In newly conquered territories and from subordinated rulers and chiefs, the Maratha rulers did not implement detailed revenue assessments and instead demanded tribute of one-fourth of the revenue, known as chauth. A further tribute, known as sardeshmukhi, was equal to one-tenth of the government revenue demand; initially applied mostly in the Deccan, it was also a claim to authority over the deshmukh landlords. Both chauth and sardeshmukhi functioned as protection money; the Marathas took military action against those who failed to pay them.

Further Reading

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

Nandini Chatterjee, Negotiating Mughal Law: A Family of Landlords across Three Indian Empires (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020),, see especially Ch. 3.

Sumit Guha, “Rethinking the Economy of Mughal India: Lateral Perspectives.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 58, no. 4 (2015): 532–75,

Satya Prakash Gupta, The Agrarian System of Eastern Rajasthan, c. 1650-c. 1750 (Delhi: Manohar, 1986).

Irfan Habib, The Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1556-1707, 3rd ed. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Tapan Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of India (Cambridge University Press, 1982),

André Wink, Land and Sovereignty in India: Agrarian Society and Politics under the Eighteenth-Century Maratha Svarājya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Revenue Rights and Landholdings

Rather than receive cash salaries, most officials in early modern South Asia were paid through rights to the revenue from a defined area of land. Various sorts of revenue rights were also granted as charitable endowments to mosques, shrines, and temples and as stipends for clerics, priests, scholars, and widows. This system of granting revenue rights was used by most early modern South Asian political regimes, including the Mughals, Marathas, and Rajputs, though the precise legal forms and terms used varied by region. Although in most cases the rights were to revenue or produce, rather than land per se, those who held these grants often became powerful landlords whose actions had a direct impact on the fortunes of the cultivators and peasants.

While in the Mughal Empire such rights might be conferred directly from the emperor, via a farman (imperial order), they could also be made by lower authorities using a parvana (order). In either case, the order quantified the terms of the grant and specified the particular villages and amount of land – and in some cases, trees – that were included. The grants also specified the duties and expectations of the recipient. For instance, nobles and officials were obliged to provide a certain number or troops or improve the cultivation and settlement of the area, and religious leaders were instructed to pray for the glory and longevity of the ruler. After the farman or parvana ordering the grant of land revenue was issued to the recipient, one or more parvanas were sent to the district headmen and revenue authorities in the relevant area informing them of the terms of the grant and ordering them to implement the grant. The area granted was typically measured and assessed at the start of a grant and this measurement was recorded in a further document. When the ruling authority changed – whether through the accession of a new ruler to the throne, or by military conquest – or when a new noble became the governor or jagirdar (revenue rightsholder) of an area, grant recipients petitioned to have their awards reconfirmed. Much of the time, these petitions were successful.

Revenue and land rights came under several specific categories. While all broadly followed the pattern sketched above, there were important distinctions, especially in terms of the length and inheritability of the grant. The jagir rights of Mughal nobles were typically transferred to a new area every couple of years, likely to prevent the nobles from building a local powerbase. In contrast, many of the inʿam rights granted to local officials were explicitly hereditary; their service obligations were also typically hereditary. Mughal charitable grants, known as madad-i maʿash and suyurghal, technically were partially resumed upon the death of the grantee until the 1690s, but in practice were often fully inherited. In Rajput kingdoms, jagirs were less frequently transferred and a similar type of land grant called bhom, typically secure and inheritable, was used to reward Rajputs in the service of the king. Likewise, charitable grants of land known as punya arath were permanent and inheritable. Regarding the Marathas, the prescriptive Ajnapatra treatise describes four main types of land grants: saranjam or mokasa grants to pay for the maintenance of troops, hereditary tax-free watan grants dependent on good service to pay most district-level officials, hereditary inam grants that reduced tax obligations to reward merit or former service, and vritti grants as charity. However, in practice, these categories were less systematically implemented, especially across conquered territories.

The rights to collect revenue could also be leased out, or ‘tax-farmed’, in a practice known as ijara; the leaseholder was called an ijaradar. The ijaradar signed an agreement, variously called patta-i ijara, qaulnama or qaul-qarar, that specified the area, time period, and amount of the lease. Any revenue collected above the contracted amount was kept as profit. Ijaradars took on such leases not only for financial ends, but also, especially in the eighteenth century, as a political tool for gaining control over certain territories.

Further Reading

Nandini Chatterjee, Negotiating Mughal Law: A Family of Landlords across Three Indian Empires (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020),, see especially Ch. 2.

Prachi Deshpande, “The Marathi Kaulnāmā: Property, Sovereignty and Documentation in a Persianate Form,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 64, no. 5–6 (2021): 583–614,

Stewart Gordon, The Marathas 1600-1800 (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2012), see especially Ch. 1.

Satya Prakash Gupta, The Agrarian System of Eastern Rajasthan, c. 1650-c. 1750 (Delhi: Manohar, 1986), see especially Ch. 5, 6 and 9.

Tapan Raychaudhuri and Irfan Habib, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)

Sudev Sheth, “Revenue Farming Reconsidered: Tenurial Rights and Tenurial Duties in Early Modern India, ca. 1556-1818,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 61, no. 5–6 (2018): 878–919,

Property and Transactions

While the nature of property and property rights in early modern South Asia is a topic of much historical debate, the documents on this website pertaining to transactions involving goods, services and money – and those found in similar collections – offer insights into economic activities and domains of social life that were only occasionally and partially influenced by the state. Several general trends stand out. First, that rights to the produce of land and to buildings could be transacted separately from rights to land. Second, that whereas rural land was typically transacted through leases and rents, in towns and cities houses and land were bought and sold between private individuals. Third, that although there were specific legal forms and documents for different transactions, these might be applied to other ends. Most notably, sales could be used as loans. And lastly, that social relations were central to property transactions, shaping who could transact with whom and sometimes resulting in exploitative transactions.

Documents recording transactions tended to be on paper of poorer quality and smaller size and were more readily discarded than royal grants and orders, which were written on high-quality paper and retained long-term for their prestige and the security of title the provided. In Mughal India, transactional documents included sale deeds, pawn or mortgage deeds, gift deeds, records of debts incurred and repaid, and several other kinds of contracts. Often, but not always, these documents were recorded in the form of an iqrar or legal declaration in front of a qazi, who appended a note and affixed his seal to the document that recorded this declaration. The documents usually also bore attestations by parties to the transaction and other witnesses, their names written and personal seals affixed to the document’s margins. These features are shared with Islamic deeds of contract from across the Islamic world, examples of which may be seen here (requires signing up, free). South Asian sale deeds and other such documents are distinctive for sometimes being written in two languages and scripts, one Persian and the other a dominant local vernacular used for administrative purposes.

Sale deeds and other contracts required witness signatures; the number of witnesses and their social location may indicate the status and relationships of the contracting parties. Deeds and contracts also often point towards unequal relationships in which the formal freedom of the contract hardly conceals feudal, hierarchical relationships. In one document on this site, Nathu, an Afghan Muslim man, sells a house he had built on the estate of the landlord to the landlord himself. We cannot tell whether this was a truly willing transaction on both sides, or a distress sale, or even an eviction of the poorer tenants.

Sale deeds were complex instruments that could disguise a number of different kinds of transactions, including interest-bearing loans that were prohibited in Islamic law. While several different specific forms were preferred for such transactions in different regions, they were often constructed as temporary sales, in which the seller could buy back his property in a stipulated period. The buyer earned interest through the produce of the property – such as rent or the profit from the crops on the land – during that time period.

Transactions and trade also utilised a range of financial instruments and wealthy merchants were often moneylenders as well. While most made small loans to local residents, some lent money to rulers and nobles and played a key role in financing kingdoms and empires, especially in the eighteenth century. Such moneylenders also moved large sums around South Asia and the Indian Ocean world through a system of bills of exchange, which the holder could encash in a different location.

While on the whole the legal forms and documents used for transactions in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region were remarkably stable across both time and space, some changes become noticeable by the end of the period covered by this site. For example, several nineteenth-century Arabic documents from Oman, which record the giving and taking of loans, use the form of the iqrar, but here there are no qazis’ seals; by this point this form of Islamic documentation had been incorporated into a colonial economy and no longer required the qazi’s endorsement. Instead, such documents were simply signed by witnesses and in some cases registered with colonial officials.

Further Reading

Fahad Ahmad Bishara, A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Faisal Chaudhry, “Property and Its Rule (in Late Indo-Islamicate and Early Colonial) South Asia: What’s in a Name?” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 61, no. 5–6 ( 52018): 920–75,

Farhat Hasan, “Property and Social Relations in Mughal India: Litigations and Disputes at the Qazi’s Court in Urban Localities, 17th-18th Centuries,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 61, no. 5–6 (2018): 851–77,

Nobuaki Kondo, “Conditional Sales and Other Types of Loans in Qajar Iran,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 64, no. 5–6 (2021): 615–39,

Mohammad Shahnawaz, “Huṇḍī and Nirakh Huṇḍāwan: Indic Mercantile Instruments in the Persianate Bazaar,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 64, no. 5–6 (2021): 660–92,

Marriage, Family and Inheritance

The family was not just a key social institution in the Indo-Persian world, it was also at the core of state formation, business and record-keeping. Most of the documents presented on this website come from collections acquired and preserved by wealthy families over generations. In turn, the documents point towards patterns of kinship, marriage and the inheritance that produced both lineage and group identities.

Since the majority of protagonists encountered in the selection of documents on this website are Hindus, the site does not include any direct records of marriage. Across the entire range of castes, Hindu marriages consist of various scripturally-derived and customary ceremonies and celebrations; there was no procedure for producing a written record of Hindu marriages in the early modern period. Hindu marriages could be polygynous, although multiple wives were usually a mark of wealth and status. Muslims marriages involve the production of a marriage contract, or nikah nama; here is a lavish example, written in 1840 CE. Muslim marriages could also be polygynous, under certain given conditions. Given the absence of written records of Hindu marriages and the convention of naming the father but rarely the mother in legal documents, it is very hard to reconstruct marriage patterns from these documents. In genral, however, most people married within their religious community, sect and sub-caste; the marriage of Rajput princesses to the Mughal emperors is a notable exception.

The Mughal dynasty was itself a successful family, as was the lineage of Bhonsles that formed the Maratha Empire. Historians have written about the centrality of intra-family relationships, frequently managed by women, for these political lineages. Most people who appears in our documents are of considerably humbler social background. Families appear in our documents mainly in connection with claims to property or other entitlements. Many village level appointments in the Mughal Empire, for example of chaudhri (landlord) or qanungo (record-keeper), were made hereditarily. Hence at the death of the office-holder, sons, nephews and other relatives made statements of their relationship with the deceased to officials; these statements could sometimes reveal deep ties of affection but also fractures over non-normative marriages or romantic relationships, or simply over relative shares of the estate. Family members, including and especially women, could also appear in court, demanding payment from an employer for unpaid wages or compensation for the death or injury of a son or father. Such occasions suggest the dependence and economic precariousness of female members of working families. Sons and other successors paid off debts incurred by their fathers, demonstrating a shared norm of intergenerational financial responsibilities.

Muslim, Hindu, and Zoroastrian (Parsi) rules of inheritance differ from each other. In general, women had weaker rights of inheritance in all traditions. For example, Sunni Muslim women could inherit from their parents, husbands and children, but their shares were less than those of men in the same relationship with the deceased. Women’s inheritance rights were even weaker among Hindus, providing mainly a dowry for daughters and lifelong maintenance for widows; however, the Dayabhaga school did give inheritance rights to women. In addition, there were provisions for marriage gifts to women which, in theory, was their sole property – mehr in Islam and stridhan in Hinduism. These scriptural rules were often overruled by local custom, which furthered weakened women’s rights. Nevertheless, we do see both Muslim and Hindu women gifting and selling substantial properties in the documents in our collection, demonstrating the clear existence of significant property rights among women in the period.

Under British colonial rule, these religion-based rules of marriage, family relations and inheritance were codified as personal (status) laws, specific to each community. However, in the period represented by the majority of the documents on this site, family laws did not rigidly align with scriptural rules, nor were they clearly separable by religious affiliation. In addition, while offices such as zamindari and qanungoi were frequently passed on from father to son, they required government confirmation in every generation, including the re-issue of documents of appointment, and usually, the payment of peshkash. In these cases, the authority determining succession was not a judge, but the noble in charge of the area.

In wealthy polygynous families, the rights of children to inherit were often disputed according to the status of the mother. The children of senior wives from within the same caste and religion may believe themselves to have a stronger claim to their father’s estate. On the other hand, men could attempt to provide for concubines and their children through gifts and other legal devices. Men or women without heirs might adopt a male heir, including adopting an adult, who was usually a relative. Hindu law allowed for the adoption of a male heir because the performance of funerary rites was believed to be essential for the wellbeing of the departed soul. Islamic law did not allow for the adoption of an heir; however, there is clear evidence of the adoption of children that violated or ignored these provisions.

Further Reading

J.D.M. Derrett, ‘Administration of Hindu Law by the British,’ Comparative Studies of Society and History, 4: 1 (1961), 10-52.

Munis D. Faruqui, The Princes of the Mughal Empire, 1504-1719 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Asad A.A. Fyzee, Outlines of Muhammadan Law, 4th edition, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1974).

Farhat Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India: Power Relations in Western India, c. 1572-1730 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 71-90.