"In the Future Too, Shri Hari Will Prove It": Written Oaths in Eighteenth-Century Maratha Politics
Timeslot:07/28 | 16:30-16:50 UTC+2/CEST
Invocations of the divine have been associated with the written expression of legal and political authority in Marathi-speaking western India since at least the twelfth century. Indeed, the donkey curse, inscribed on stone pillars to protect royal donations to Brahman settlements, was an early vehicle of vernacular writing in the region. Curses took on a new function in Marathi documentation of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reinforcing the authority of legal decisions rendered by local assemblies. At the same time, the taking of oaths and especially the undergoing of ordeals became central to the public and collective adjudication of disputes over property. Hence in early modern western India, ‘rational’ elements of judicial procedure – those cognizable through more or less rule-bound human deliberation – were supplemented by appeals to the less predictable decision-making capacity of otherworldly authorities.
In this paper, I will investigate another iteration of these ‘signs of power’ by exploring the role of oaths in Marathi documentation produced in the very different context of intergovernmental negotiation. In the eighteenth century, much of western and central India was controlled by far-flung Maratha states whose relations were carefully managed through the circulation of letters, treaties, and memoranda. One of the most efficacious tools in the diplomat’s repertoire was the oath-producing letter, or shapathpurvaka patra; however, even less freighted diplomatic correspondence was routinely littered with oaths and promises consisting of highly regular terms and phrases. Sacred objects, such as holy basil, Qur’ans, and Bibles, were also