I had the privilege of transcribing English MS 24 as part of the Sikh Digital Heritage Project. Written in English by an unknown author in 1821, the manuscript details the history of the Phoolkian family and makes for a compelling read.
Named after Phool Singh (1627-1689), this prestigious Sikh family trace their origins from the Mihraj kian and disciples of Guru Govind Singh. Concentrated in the Punjab/Pinjour region, specifically the state of Putteealah (modern Patiala), the manuscript provides an invaluable glimpse into the composition, customs and traditions of the Sikh states before the British colonisation of India in 1858.
I was instantly drawn to the text. This seemingly innocuous manuscript is peppered with rich references to strategic alliances, betrayals, warfare, ceremonies of grandeur, displays of exorbitant wealth, and even elephant fighting. It has the added bonus of comprising many powerful women, from aides and close advisors to the Maharajah, to those who actively defied his wishes. Suffice it to say, I had a blast.
The Sumbut mystery
One of the first things I set out to do was to create a rough timeline of dates and events as they appeared in the manuscript, principally to keep tabs on the ever-increasing cast of characters, and their various movements. I presented this to Inbal Harding and Aya Van Renterghem, my advisors, at our first meeting. They were surprised that my notes indicated that the manuscript had been written somewhat later than they had initially expected, given the context.
I was wise to something amiss as well, even at this early stage, and my concern was as follows: what on earth is Sumbut? And why does it appear before almost every date in the manuscript?
I had begun to look into the key figures at the heart of the manuscript, which follows the reigns of Maharajahs Ala/Alla Singh, Amar/Amur/Umr Singh, and Sahib Singh, culminating in the latter’s death and the ascension of Kurm Singh in Sumbut (!) 1870. However, the dates I found online for these figures differed greatly… I started to doubt I had the right Ala Singh.
And yet, it could not be pure coincidence that none of the dates aligned. When I started to do the maths, I discovered, time and time again, the number 57. All the dates in the manuscript were off by 57 years.
Some further research confirmed the author’s use of the Bikrami calendar, a dating system historically used by Hindus, Sikhs and Pashtuns, set 57 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar. It is sometimes referred to as the Bikram Sambat, hence Sumbut.
This allowed me to redate the manuscript from its original catalogued date of 1870 to the far earlier 1821, before the wholesale colonisation of India in 1858.
Maps…and family trees
Now thoroughly captivated by this world of itinerant Sikh kings, their palaces, treasures, and conquests, I booked myself in for an appointment with some maps to find the places I had been reading so much about.
Donna and the Reader Services team were kind enough to set me up with an assortment of nineteenth-century maps of India. They did not disappoint. I felt incredibly accomplished every time I came across Putteealah (or a variant on this spelling), and instilled with a sense of wonder. These places are real, as are the people who lived there, and any descendants who continue to reside there today.
I did not realise just how extensive the Phoolkian family was until I tried to create a family tree to keep track of how everyone related to one another. My first attempt on paper proved impossible as I quickly ran out of space. So I turned to an online resource, and just as well; I ended up with a sweeping web containing nothing short of 114 people.
My work on the manuscript was presented as part of the collections encounter for the second Sikh Digital Heritage Workshop: the Sikh Empire and the British in India. I was able to discuss my findings with members of the Sikh community in Manchester, a rewarding experience I will never forget.
Of course, none of them bat an eyelid when I mentioned what I thought was my breakthrough Sumbut discovery. I could almost hear their inner monologues responding: ‘yeah, yeah, it’s the Bikrami calendar…obviously…’.
And they were the first to tell me about the etymology of Putteealah, which literally translates to son of Ala.
The workshop was a great success. I met so many lovely people, who were genuinely appreciative of the work I had done, and eager to read my transcript in full. I was delighted when Owen, a fellow volunteer and current Master’s candidate, thanked me for making it possible to read, a boon for his upcoming dissertation on Sikh materials at the Rylands.
My many dedicated hours of transcribing had most certainly paid off. I wanted nothing more than to help make this riveting history accessible for future researchers and members of the community to enjoy.
My work on the enigmatic English MS 24 only scratches the surface of its many mysteries. There is much that remains unresolved.
For instance, who wrote it, and why? And why was it written in English?
We do not know, only that whoever did was well-versed in English, knowledgeable about events in the Punjab, local vocabulary and customs, and closely acquainted with the history of the Phoolkian family.
Did this person have malicious colonising intentions, crafting in essence, a cultural guidebook for outsiders? Or were they close to the family and tasked with preserving their memory?
The margins of the manuscript are reminiscent of Sikh religious texts, which could suggest that the manuscript was written by a Sikh scholar, which would make the choice to record this history in English all the more intriguing.
I have no doubt that this gem of a manuscript still has a lot to offer for researchers to come.
Acknowledgements and further resources
I would like to end by expressing a massive thank you to Inbal and Aya for letting me be a part of this project, and for encouraging me to research and satisfy my curiosity.
I have attached a link to my family tree below, and to my beginner-friendly guide for budding transcribers. I am happy to share my transcript with anyone interested in giving it a read.
You can reach me at email@example.com. Until then, keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming digital exhibition.
Medium resource for transcribers: A how-to transcription guide for beginners | by Maisie Proctor | Special Collections | Aug, 2023 | Medium