Legal worlds

The West Asian ‘group testimonials’ are written on the two sides of the last plate. They are graphically powerful reminders of the diversity of medieval trade communities.  Photographs of the Kollam plates courtesy of M. Raghava Varier and Kesavan Veluthat, with kind permission of His Grace the Most Reverend Dr. Joseph Mar Thoma Metropolitan and His Holiness Basileus Marthoma Paulose II Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan.

The West Asian ‘group testimonials’ are written on the two sides of the last plate. They are graphically powerful reminders of the diversity of medieval trade communities.

International trade and travel brought different legal systems into direct contact. The copper plates from Kollam are an example of one such encounter.

In the first part of the document, the local chieftain, a feudatory of Kerala’s Cera king, granted agricultural land and tax privileges to an Eastern Christian church, enabling the community to cover “the expenses of [lamp] oil and other things” used in the church. The text sets out the boundaries of the church lands and describes the different occupations of the people who lived on the land.

The second part of the document assigns two trade associations, the Manigramam and the Ancuvannam, to oversee trade in the marketplace at Kollam: “All royal business whatsoever, in the matter of pricing commodities and suchlike, shall be carried out by them.” This included assessing and collecting taxes on commodities arriving in and going out on boats and land-based vehicles.

Both grants were made for “as long as the Earth, the Moon and the Sun shall endure.” Such agreements over land and tax were typical of Indic practices at the time.

On the copper plates, the names of twenty-five witnesses coming from West Asia are given. As Western Asia included many different language groups, one group at Kollam wrote in Arabic, another in Middle Persian and the final one in Judaeo-Persian. These names, however, should not be seen as modern-day ‘signatures’ – rather they follow West Asian conventions whereby one person wrote on behalf of the whole group, scholars call this a ‘group testimonial.’

Recent research indicates that the Middle Persian ‘group testimonial’ represented both Persian-speaking Christians and Zoroastrians. Language therefore did not always denote faith. As there was a diversity of religions in West Asia in this period, it is possible that the Arabic ‘group testimonial’ included Muslims as well as Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews.

The first side of the plate (shown here at the top) reads: “[Arabic] Maymun b. Ibrahim [witnessed] that. And Muhammad b. Manih witnessed. And Salih b. ‘Ali witnessed. And ‘Uthman b. al-Mardhuban witnessed. And Muhammad b. Yahya witnessed. And ‘Amr b. Ibrahim witnessed. And Ibrahim b. al-Dabbi witnessed. And Bakr b. Mansur witnessed. And al-Qasim b. Hamid witnessed. And Mansur b. ‘Isa witnessed. And Isma‘il b. Ya‘qub witnessed. [Middle Persian Pahlavi] Likewise I, Farrox son of Narseh son of Shahraban am witness to it. Likewise [I], Yohannan son of Masya son of Wehzad am witness to it. Likewise I, Shahdost son of Mardweh son of Farroxig am witness to it. Likewise I, Senmihr son of Bayweh am witness to it. Likewise I, Sina son of Yakub am witness to it. Likewise I, [···] son of Mardweh am witness to it …”

The reverse (bottom image) reads: “…Likewise I, Maroe son of Yohannan, am witness to it. Of those of the Good Religion [Zoroastrianism] likewise I, Farrbay son of Windad-Ohrmazd am witness to it. Likewise I, Mard-Farrox son of Boyshad, am witness to it. Likewise I, Azadmard son of Ahla am witness to it. [Judaeo-Persian] Likewise I, Hasan ‘Ali, am witness on it. Likewise I, Sahaq Sama‘el, am witness on it. Likewise I, Abraham Quwami, am witness. Likewise I, Kurush Yahiya, am witness.”

Revised translation of the Arabic based on F. C. Burkitt with amendments by Geoffrey Khan and Eric Vallet. Pahlavi translated by Carlo Cereti; Judaeo-Persian translated by Cereti with amendments by Ludwig Paul.