Primary Source Analysis


Shivaji. Letter to Alamgir, 1679. In Shivaji and his times by Jadunath Sarkar. London: Longmans Green and Co., 1919.

This is a translation of a letter written by the Marathi ruler Shivaji to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who is addressed by his imperial title “Alamgir.” Here it has been reproduced in a book by the eminent Indian historian and translator Sir Jadunath Sarkar. The original of this document was produced in late seventeenth century India. It may have been dictated by Shivaji, or written by the monarch himself. This letter offers several potential uses for the historian, while also coming with some limitations. Shivaji employs skillful rhetoric, using numerous metaphors and analogies while making a clear and consistent point. The purpose of this letter was to persuade the emperor that the reintroduction of the jaziya tax was a bad idea, but beyond this particular issue the letter has a great number of potential uses as a primary source.
The letter uses numerous titles and Islamic terms and refers to time in lunar rather than solar years. The work mentions several other figures in addition to Shivaji himself and his recipient, Aurangzeb. These include Aurangzeb’s father Shah Jahan, his grandfather Jahangir, and his great-grandfather Akbar, as well as a king referred to as “the head of the Hindus,” Rana Raj Singh. The work also quotes a set of verses; the source of these quotations is not obvious, they appear to be proverbs of some sort.
Shivaji clearly wrote this letter in order to convince Emperor Alamgir (Aurangzeb) that the reintroduction of the jaziya tax would have negative effects for everyone. The jaziya, also transliterated jizya, is a traditional tax levied upon non-Muslims in an Islamic society. Shivaji employs a number of rhetorical techniques to make his point. He frequently uses flattery, while also making references to the successful policies of Alamgir’s predecessors, particularly Akbar, who as Shivaji points out was the first Mughal ruler to abolish the jaziya. He also refers to the Timurids, the medieval ancestors of the Mughal Dynasty. He also appeals to Aurangzeb’s humanity, attempting to provoke in him pity for those who will suffer as a result of the tax, and also appeals to religion, referring to the Qur’an for Aurangzeb’s benefit, as Shivaji himself was a Hindu. He also goes as far as to use threats, which plays interestingly into his overall polite and flattering tone.
This source is surprising in how modern many of the ideas expressed sound, with Shivaji claiming, “Verily, Islam and Hinduism are terms of contrast. They are used by the true Divine Painter for blending the colours and filling the outlines … to show bigotry for any man’s creed and practices is equivalent to altering the words of the Holy Book.” This sort of pluralistic and tolerant attitude is not one that modern readers typically expect from a nearly four hundred year old document, but it offers insights into how religious politics at that time in India differed from those of the west.
There are certain limitations as to what this letter can show. Whatever Aurangzeb’s reaction was, if he even bothered reading it, is not at all clear. Nor is it evident who actually physically wrote the letter, if Shivaji himself truly composed the whole thing himself, or who may have been helping him in writing it. It is not immediately clear exactly where Shivaji wrote it, nor where Aurangzeb received it, if he did receive it. Whatever the reception may have been, the letter can demonstrate that Shivaji was ultimately ineffective in his goal, as the jaziya tax continued despite his efforts.
There are numerous potential uses for this letter as a primary source document. This gives major insight into the character of Shivaji, and could be used as a source to investigate his policies and ideas and more broadly the policies and ideas of the Marathi rulers. It could also be used to research the policies and ideas of the Mughals, and the wider reception of Indians to these policies. It would be important in reflecting upon the historical relationship between Hindus and Muslims in India generally. The original document could also give insights into rhetorical techniques and writing styles of seventeenth century India, particularly those of educated Hindu classes, as well as study the influence of Muslim writing on Hindu writing.
In order to discover further insights the letter can give, it would be necessary to figure out the exact year the letter was written and what reception it may have had, and if there was a reply from Aurangzeb or from anyone else. It would also be useful to know if any other Indian leaders wrote similar appeals to the reintroduction of the jaziya. Shivaji’s letter’s initial purpose of getting the jaziya repealed may not have been successful, but his letter does represent a useful source of information for historians interested in this topic.

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