Genealogical Records of Medieval India

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By S. A. I. Tirmizi, In World Conference on Records: Preserving Our Heritage, August 12-15, 1980.

Born in India. Resides in New Delhi, India. Director, National Archives of India and visiting professor of history, University of Delhi. M.A. (Persian and Urdu), Univeristy of Bombay, India. M.A. (history), Aligarth Muslim University. Author, lecturer.

The aim of the present study is restricted: it is to draw the attention of scholars to some genealogical records of medieval India which have not received the attention they deserve. The reasons for this phenomenon are not hard to find. The study of genealogy has been considered a sign of an obsolete, effete, and worn-out nation. Moreover, many jest at what is called pedigree-hunting. There have, however, been not a few who have been more or less interested in knowing something of their own genealogy, however humble it might be. This is proved by the number of those who have taken some pains to trace their pedigree and place it on permanent record.

It is pertinent to point out in this connection that all races of men seem to posses an instinctive feeling that a line of honorable ancestry is a subject of legitimate pride. It is true that this feeling has been exaggerated into what may be termed ancestor-worship, and with those people with whom it does not attain such a form, the family trees of their kings are usually deduced from a god or at least a demigod. It was so with the Greeks and the Romans. It is so with the Indians, who claim divine origin particularly for their kings, whose pedigrees they trace back to the Sun, the Moon, and the Fire.

The idea of preserving genealogies seems to have appealed to Indians since remote times. In ancient India, historical records were called vamsas or dynasties. Their title indicates their origin as genealogies.[1]According to the Vayu Purana, it was the special duty of the sutas to preserve the genealogies of gods, rishis, or sages and most glorious kings.[2]  From the time of the Imperial Guptas, the royal archives kept the genealogical lists. This is evident from the epigraphical records that give stereotyped lists of kings of some dynasties for generations together, and in some cases with regnal years, exactly as in the Puranas.[3]

As in ancient India, so in medieval times, honorable ancestry was highly esteemed. This is showm by the attention given to genealogy in medieval Indian chronicles which usually include shajarat, or family trees, and nasabnamas, or genealogical fables of kings.

At the very beginning of the Turkish rule in north India, Fakhri Mudabbir wrote Shajara-i-Ansab-i-Mubarak Shahi comprising mainly the genealogical tables. The one hundred and thirty-seven genealogies relate to Adam and Eve and their descendants, the prophets mentioned in the Qur'an, the Ghassanids, pre-Islamic and Islamic poets, the pre-Islamic Persian kings, the Umayyads, the Abbasids and their nobles, and so on down to the Ghaznavids and the Ghorids. The author was probably a native of Multan and went to Lahore after the Ghorid occupation in 1186 A.D.[4]

An anonymous writer composed in about 968 A.H./1561 A.D. a sort of diary or notebook containing, among other things, genealogies. It is entitled Tafsili Salatin i Delhi. It comprises a series of short notes on the emperors of Delhi from 602 to 1206 A.H./960 to 1561 A.D.[5] Half a century later, in 1016 A.H./ 1607 A.D., Fursi compiled Nasabnama i Shahryari which is a poem on the history of the Qutb Shahi dynasty extending to the beginning of Muhammad Quli's reign (989-1020 A.H./1581-1611 A.D.).

Unlike the Nasabnama i Shahryari, the Nasabul ansab is in prose. It is a general history of India which comes down to 1210 A.H./1795 A.D. Five years later the Nasabnama i rajaha i Maisur was translated from Kanada into Persian. It is a list of the rulers of Mysore from the time of Timaaraj to the time of Haidar Ali with the dates of their birth, the names of their wives and children, and the territories over which they ruled. It was translated into Persian at the instance of Tipu Sultan by Asad Anwar and Ghulam Husain.

Similarly the Nasabnama i Jarejah is based on the oral statements of a certain Upadhyah Kurji Jadev Mir, an inhabitant of Virah in the Pargana of Bhuj. It is a history of a ruling tribe of Kutch from its origin to 1819 A.D. It was translated from Gujarati into Persian by the order of Mr. Walter, assistant resident of Kutch.

The shajarat and nasabnama detailed above correspond to rajawalis and bakhars compiled during the medieval period. Banwali Das Wali, munshi or secretary of Shah Jahan, composed Rajawali, which is a short account of the Hindu rajas of Delhi from Judhishtir to the invasion of Muizzud Din ibn Sam Ghori, followed by a tabulated list of subsequent Muslim rulers to Shah Jahan.

Likewise Kanji Mal compiled a chronological list of the Hindu rajas from Judhishtir to Prithviraj Chavhan and of the Muslim rulers from Muizzud Din ibn Sam Ghori to the accession of Akbar II.

Akin to rajawalis are bakhars, which began to be written during the seventeenth century and continued down to the nineteenth century. They usually start with the age of the Pandavas of Hastinapur and, tracing genealogies from the mythological heroes, come down to Prithviraj Chavan and then to the Rajput kings of Udaipur and their descendants. These men traveled south, took the name of Bhonsle, and became the founders of the family of Shivaji.

Equally important are the vahis and the pindhiyawalis. The former were compiled by the Charans and Bhats, the family bards of the Rajput families. The origin of the institution of family bards is still uncertain, but its efflorescence seems to extend from approximately the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The hereditary genealogists and bards of the Rajputs of earlier periods were Brahmans known as Bhats. The development of bhasa or vernacular literature at that time and the replacement of Sanskrit by the vernacular resulted in the popularization of epic poetry. Gradually even the Brahman-Bhats began to compose in the vernacular.

These bards preserved the genealogical records of their Rajput patrons and paid them periodic visits carrying with them vahis or ledger-books containing their patrons' family registers. Every bard maintained one vahi or section of the vahi for each lineage of his patron. If the patron was tilayut or head of the lineage, the vahi traced his descent as far as the founder of the clan, who in many cases was a legendary figure. But if the patron happened to be a member of phutayo or cadet branch, his descent was traced only as far as the branch ancestor, and the information on the remoter ancestors was obtained from the vahi of the senior line. The vahi is a record of authority by which questions of consanguinity were determined when marriage was on the tapis, and by which disputes relating to the division of ancestral property were decided. Despite the richness of these records, the material has to be sifted judiciously. Since the records are recopied from time to time, a degree of interpolation cannot be ruled out. Sometimes anachronisms may be glaring, and separation of a kernel of truth from literary hyperbole can prove a daunting task.

More accurate than vahis are pindhiyawalis, or genealogical tables, which are generally in the form of lists of bare names without dates. These orderly and accurate pindhiyawalis do not appear to be the work of the ancestors of the bards, whose rough and disconnected genealogies compare most unfavorably with the systematic pindhiyawalis. It is probable that while the bards went on periodic circuits from village to village with their genealogical scribbles, other men better trained in methodical and accurate work compiled the pindhiyawalis in the capital, probably in part from the very data furnished to them by the traveling bards.

In sum then, medieval India can claim institutions which have bequeathed to us a fairly rich heritage of genealogical records. Such records include shajarat, nasabnamahs, rajawalis, bakhars, vahis, and pindhiywalis. These records go a long way in providing clues to the myths of origin, individual life-style, intercommunity relations, individual acts of beneficence and merit. Apart from queens and princesses, women by and large receive only incidental notice in these records. It may be doubted whether any Indian genealogist ever compiled a pedigree which included female lines. Though rinch in genealogical data these records have tended to be under-utilized by researchers, and it is imperitave that attempts should now be made to document them before they are lost to posterity through disuse.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. R.C. Majumdar in Historians of India, Pakistan and Ceylon, ed. C. H. Phillips (London, 1962), p. 56.
  2. Ibid., p. 15.
  3. Ibid., p. 16.
  4. Peter Hardy in Historians of India, pp. 116-17.
  5. H. Ethe Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the India Office I (Oxford, 1903), no. 412