History archives in Bikaner and Mumbai


A visit to the Maharashtra government archives in the historic Elphinstone college building Mumbai on March 29 was depressing. The archives are fine with their valuable records dating back to the East India company and Shivaji era but reaching there is messy. Old chairs, tables and other furtniture are dumped in the passage and adjoining areas.

What a contrast to the fine archives of the Rajasthan government in Bikaner I visited last week during the two day conference on archives organised by the department.

And this in the college premises with which are associated illustrious names like Tilak, Justice Ranade, Dr Ambedkar and Pherozeshah Mehta when the municipal corporation is on a so called beautification drive in preparation for the forthcoming civic polls.

The archives in Mumbai long needed a new building but it is low in priority in state which exploits Maratha history for politics. Land has been earmarked for the archives in the Bandra Kurla complex next to the posh gymkhana of the Mumbai Cricket Association but no work is planned yet and right now the plot is taken over by Mumbai metro railway. Its construction work has made life so difficult in the metropolis.

The main archives of the Rajasthan government are in Bikaner not in the capital Jaipur and are an invaluable source for understanding Mughal and Maratha history. A spectacular gallery and museum was opened in 2020 and a good part is dedicated to Maratha history and Shivaji’s escape from captivity in Agra..The archival Document Gallery contains the historical records of Mughal times including Nishans, Akbarat, Arzdasht, Persian Farmans, Vakil Report, Khatoot and Manshurs. These documents are important records of the Mughal communication with the Rajput Princes who often served as their army commanders. The most unique document is the 5.6 meters long Purandar Treaty written on paper comprising 99 lines in beautiful Nastaliq style of Persian (Farsi). The Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb transmitted this Farman, i.e. decree, to Mirza Raja Jai ​​Singh of Amber in 1665 CE. This decree mainly comprises of the treaty conditions between Aurangzeb and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj where Mirza Raja Jai Singh played a major role in drafting and getting this treaty signed.

The biggest design challenge was to design the display case and interpretation for this long treaty. The display case incorporates a pull-out drawer of 6 metres for the treaty to be taken out horizontally without folding it in any manner as per conservation norms. The treaties are interpreted in a fluid vertical display with visuals of historic paintings on a backlit panel to communicate the complete story to the visitors, as pointed out by Shikha Jain, a museum expert.

Archives director Dr Mahendra Khadgwat proudly mentions that documents found there recently prove that Shivaji’s escae from Agra was facilitated by the Rajputs.

In her keynote address at the conference Dr Swapna Liddle, history scholar and author, said that since during the 1857 war, the British destroyed most of the Mughal records in Delhi, the archives in Bikaner and elsewhere are an important source for history writing. She said record keeping was an important part of the democratic process and more records need to be transferred to the archives than is happening now.

Playing an important role in the organisation of the conference was Dr Rakesh Batabyal of the Centre of Media Studies of Jawaharlal University, history scholar and author.

The conference was inaugurated by Mr B.D. Kalla, Rajasthan’s minister for art and culture, who hails from Bikaner.

Mahalakshmi Ramakrishnan of the centre for historical studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, showed how the British used the upcoming genre of photography to record the 1857 uprising and other events. She showed among other things how the Italian photographer Felice Beato documented the aftermath of the gruesome events, depicting military groups, bullet-scarred walls, blown-out battlements, corpse-littered courtyards, and the hangings of mutineers.

Tintu Joseph of Mahatma Gandhi university,Kottayam, spoke on archiving medieval Cjhristian traditions of Kerala , he discounted claims that the Syrian Christians were originally Brahmins. He said Brahminism had not arrived in Kerala till the arrival of St Thomas in the region.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist, culture critic and author of a book on the importance of public transport


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