Honor and honors in Great Britain and India

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © John D. Kelly, Martha Kaplan, and Sean M. Dowdy. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.030


Editors’ preface

An introduction to “Honor and honors in Great Britain and India” by Bernard S. Cohn

John D. KELLY, University of Chicago

Martha KAPLAN, Vassar College

Sean M. DOWDY, University of Chicago


Bernard S. Cohn, known to everyone as Barney, was a leader in twentieth century anthropology, history, and South Asian studies, forerunning major shifts toward critical study of the politics of knowledge, colonialism, subaltern studies, and the relation of culture to power and history. A few months ago, Sean Dowdy identified this unpublished, stand-alone piece among the materials in the Barney Cohn papers in the Special Collections Center at the Regenstein Library (University of Chicago), an article that reflects decades of Cohn’s thought about political relationships and the British empire, and speaks to basic questions for political anthropology.

Barney loved a good story and often found them. He made his best points by way of great historical ethnographic analyses, as here in “Honor and honors in Great Britain and India,” in the terrible but influential career of the inept, pivotal Governor General Ellenborough (1842–44), who avenged stinging Afghani triumphs by capturing and returning temple gates to Somnath—but as it turned out, fake ones—and later, having observed a parade of honors granted by the Mughal Emperor in Delhi, indignantly ordered British subjects to give up their robes, shawls, turbans, and elephant rides, once and for all. In the long run, honors were to be dispensed from British officials to Indians, and no longer vice versa. Barney’s article begins with the extant encyclopedia depiction of “honor” and ends with the paradox-unraveling implications of Ellenborough’s story.

There is something untimely (in Nietzsche’s sense) about this article on paradoxes of honor and honors. But then, there is something untimely about much of Cohn’s work. Many of his vivid, particular historical ethnographic stories are now touchstones: how the census gave everyone a jati (caste rank) and religion, as when, plantation overseers counted the majority of the Bengali rural poor, lacking temple rights, as “Muslims”; how the nineteenth-century British reinvention of royal durbars made colonial rank and power visible, and thus why the British decided, as Lord Lytton put it, “the further east you go, the greater becomes the importance of a bit of bunting” (Cohn 1987: 661); that there were many “pasts of an Indian village,” with particular disconnection for the depressed castes, later to be known as subaltern (and subjects of Cohn’s first field research). Much current work articulates with and amplifies Cohn’s findings. In the wake of his seminal article “Command of language and language of command,” are myriad, deeply informed critical philologies tracking the power relations in South Asian language study and use. And the temple gate debacle is still hotly discussed. In 2004 Romila Thapar published Somanatha, deliberately challenging Hindutva myth, demonstrating the British nineteenth century roots of the idea of a despicable eleventh century Afghani Muslim pillaging of Gujarati Hindu temple gates, and the fantasy in Ellenbor-ough’s claim to be restoring Hindu dignity. In Thapar’s estimation (and also Sha-hid Amin’s [2004]), Ellenborough’s British bombast laid groundwork for the myth of centuries-long communal division.

Barney, too, was interested in British mythmaking and the role of colonial culture in reframing history of and for South Asia. But what Barney thought was most important, in these stories, was very much his own political anthropology, which we will now, briefly, explore.

Behind this brief article lies a massive, unfinished book project. We know that Barney was ambivalent about the book, and that he decided to work on new projects instead. His work on colonial India therefore finished with two collections of articles, both now landmark (Cohn 1987, 1996), and without the synthetic monograph. Instead he launched brilliant new forays, one into visual anthropology and India in England, the congealed culture of monument, portrait and public memory, and the other into monument and memory of the US civil war (Cohn and Silvio 2002). But behind both was this project, questions about ritual and the politics of rank, status, and honor, the recognitions, rituals and routines that connected meaning and power in states, with Cohn’s classic, careful interest in how the British changed themselves and the world through their technologies of rule in India.

These were not focal questions in the 1970s in either anthropologyland or historyland. They were untimely, and Barney was comfortable with that. Behind Cohn’s plain prose in this discussion of honor and honors in Great Britain and India—and it is deliberately plain prose, and no one will ever find in Cohn’s clarity anything like Nietzsche’s willful grandiosity, despite their equal interest in the ruthless dissection of the ways and means of power in meaning—lies both hundreds of pages of a book on ritual in Raj history, and decades of thought about how to study political relations. Barney uses the tensions between honor and honors to quietly, directly deploy a basic, general grammar for political depiction. He starts from the 1967 Julian Pitt-Rivers encyclopedia synthesis, and relies on it for the paradox of an internal sense of honor, and the transforming honors bestowed from the outside. But he quickly departs from the Pitt-Rivers script, which uses European history to track human possibility and which finishes with a universal gap between ideals in internal honor versus reality in actual relationships. Nor does Barney even mention the set-piece literature dividing honor and shame, nor does he intervene here into the Dumont-Marriott debate over how to depict caste structures, despite obvious capacity and ready material, leaving this to his students. Barney is aware of diverse and changing cultures of honor, some state dominated, some religiously grounded, some egalitarian and individualist, others hierarchical and/or ascriptive, but that too is not his point.

Cohn is most interested in what is now discussed under headings of “sovereignty” and “political theology,” but characteristically with pragmatic focus. The British in early nineteenth century India confronted an acute form of the paradox basic to honors. By the time he wrote this distillation, Cohn had carefully considered and rejected the reduction of these political transactions to any political-economy of exchange and profit (even though the English, as he shows, loved the symmetric reckoning of exchange and always respected profit). Nor does he find recourse in the theories of overarching and compelling general ideology that came to dominate social theory in the last decades of the twentieth century: neither hegemony nor resistance come up. The best comparison to Cohn’s discussion here of sovereign acts, transforming receipt, political relationships, and offers and grants, might be Marcel Mauss’ reconsideration of commodities by way of a general grammar of gifts (Mauss [1925] 1967). Where Mauss sought a general theory of contracts to describe social actions, and focused on the different species of hidden connections to human activities within the valuation of objects, Cohn shows that these relations of recognition are not exchanges, and were directly about the recognitions among people, with a different type of implicit, ironic entailment, a politics that is in no part economics. Granting honors requires those receiving them to recognize the grantor’s power to create and affirm, and thus subordinates the recipient at the same time as elevating and distinguishing them. There can be no honors without this subordination to a more sovereign primary, and this will be true regardless whether the recognition is of egalitarian liberal citizens or ascribed aristocracy, and whether the creating power is a state, a church, a society, a company, or a god. Within this grammar many kinds of social arrangements are then possible: Cohn is very interested, for example, that learning engenders the highest respect for Brahmins, who can accord honors to kings. The point here for Cohn is not Dumontian reification but the reality of complexity in the distribution of honors in south Asia, where the state is not the alpha and omega in one hierarchy of power and meaning recognition.

But what about honors, honor, the state, and the British? Seeking the history of political relationships outside of any universal timeline or encyclopedic definition, Cohn here, as on so many topics elsewhere in his works, finds the British reinventing themselves and their own institutions for purposes of advancing their position in India. In India, the likes of Ellenborough could no longer live with the paradox, acutely identified by Wellesley before him, that their status as rulers depended upon their subordination to the last Mughals. In the hands of a Carl Schmitt or Leo Strauss, the republican constitutions and egalitarian ethics of liberalism hang precariously, or smuggle in greater or more divine authorities or mandates, inelu-ctably, because they need sovereign authorization and recognition. Cohn more prosaically watches the British chafe at the paradox of their own rank and authority as constituted in India, and watches them invent for themselves, there, the system of honors descending only and entirely from the British crown and no other power, principle, or God.

Ranajit Guha, in A rule of property for Bengal, delineated how the Whigs, conscious of social revolution and progress at home, deliberately applied their imagination of the logic of feudal social relations to their new legal and tax systems in India. Cohn’s account tracks the otherwise strange Whig synthesis of Roman, feudal, and progressive themes within these dilemmas of honor. Whether or not gods, Brahmins or pandits could honor a king or state, the Ellenboroughs of the nineteenth century Raj were determined to disentangle their own sovereign powers from any subordinations, while also perfectly ready, especially by the days of Henry Maine (as Cohn shows elsewhere) to recognize the statuses, honors, and personal laws of their various imperial subjects. And the disentangling of sovereign British self came first, with Ellenborough, the duties to codify the others in their own terms a generation later. Thus, Ellenborough felt himself bound to reply to the insult of British losses in 1840 Afghanistan, not to conquer or forestall but to refashion British prestige.

As the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica summarized, “In his proclamation of 15 March 1842, as in his memorandum for the queen, dated the 18th, he stated with characteristic clearness and eloquence the duty of first inflicting some signal and decisive blow on the Afghans, and then leaving them to govern themselves under the sovereign of their own choice.” But to make sure they understood (and all of them) Ellenborough had to steal back those temple gates from the eleventh century tomb of the Afghani conqueror Mahmud of Ghazni, had to ignore advice that the commandeered gates were mere replicas, had to insist that he was restoring the honor of his Hindu subjects by way of that of Hindu temples and gods. He advised the Queen to become India’s sovereign directly, and forbade the acceptance of khilats from the Mughal emperor.

Dalrymple’s recent history of this last Mughal emperor, whose ambiguous reign shrank to a final explosion at the focal point of the 1857 Mutiny, fits poignantly with Cohn’s analytic: by 1857, Bahadur Shah Zafar II needed the permission of his British Resident even to give gifts to family members, and visiting Rajas offering nazar were forced by the Resident to return Zafar’s khilat, since British subjects could not offer fealty to a foreign ruler (Dalrymple 2006: 38–39). But perhaps the most poignant affirmation of this role of the Raj in the history of Whig reform of sovereignty, comes from Macaulay’s 1843 condemnation of Ellenborough for the gates of Somnath debacle. Macaulay’s India career had begun in 1833; backing the 1833 India Reform Bill, Macaulay had articulated the need for England to be India’s lawgiver, the need to keep the company bureaucracy but back it with more direct crown rule. Thereafter appointed the first-ever Law Member of the Governor-General’s Council in India, from 1834–38 he pushed to anglicize the pedagogy and constitute a uniform civil and criminal legal code. By 1839 he was back in England and Secretary of War, helping the British government publicly justify forced opium importation into China, and what we now know as the first Opium War (the real issue, John Quincy Adams opined at the time, was not opium but “the kowtow—the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of the relations between lord and vassal”). Macaulay’s problem with Ellenborough, then, was not the insistence on disentangling British rank and office from Mughal recognition and affirmation, but rather Ellenborough’s willingness to entangle British military means with divine Hindu ends. A few decades later, on the other side of Europe, Max Weber would doubt Rudoph von Ihering’s doctrine that behind religious ideals and divine agencies lay social groups and their interests. To Macaulay, this was obviously the explanation of all the religions except the true one, and its implications for Ellenborough’s folly were clear:

He ought to have known, without any instructions from home, that it was his duty, in his official character, to show no marked preference for any of those religions, and to offer no marked insult to any. But, Sir, he has paid unseemly homage to one of these religions; he has grossly insulted another; and he has selected as the object of his homage the very worst and most degrading of those religions … Yes, Sir, the temple of Somnauth was sacred to Siva; and the honorable gentleman cannot but know by what emblem Siva is represented, and with what rites he is adored. I will say no more. (Macaulay 1843: para 12)

Ellenborough and Macaulay sought by different means the same end: not, with John Quincy Adams, the sublime, apparent disentangling of commerce from politics, but rather, sustaining the visible hand of English paramountcy. The mandates of political relationship resolve to a paradox in which to give and receive honors, to respect, to live with order and meaning, is to subordinate oneself, but only appropriately, as in Weber’s definition of democracy: subordination to rulers we have chosen for ourselves. The claims of propriety, and aggressive reforms, of the British Whigs, Tories and Liberals from Ellenborough to Macaulay and Maine reveal themselves to be chauvinist. Mauss ended The gift with hopes that society could find its way beyond the domination of the logic of commodity exchange, and that some future socialism could help humanity in its quest for peace, people then able to give without subordinating self to others. Cohn’s sense of the paradox in honor and honors leaves the arc of history with more directions to bend.


We thank Dr. Abby Cohn for graciously granting HAU permission to publish Barney’s essay. We also gratefully acknowledge the staff at the Special Collections Center at the Regenstein Library (University of Chicago) for their help in retrieving the manuscript, as well as Zachary Sheldon for his assistance in preparing the text for publication.


Amin, Shahid. 2004. “Event, metaphor, memory” (review of Thapar, Somanatha) in Outlook, Feb 2, 2004.

Cohn, Bernard S. 1987. An Anthropologist among the historians and other essays. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

———. 1996. Colonialism and its forms of knowledge: The British in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cohn, Bernard S. and Teri Silvio. 2002. “Race, gender, and historical narrative in the reconstruction of a nation: Remembering and forgetting the American Civil-War.” In From the margins: Historical anthropology and its futures, edited by Brian Axel. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Dalrymple, William. 2007. The last Mughal: The fall of a dynasty: Delhi, 1857. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

Encyclopedia Britannica. 1911. “Ellenborough, Edward Law, Earl of.” Vol. 9: 289–90.

Guha, Ranajit. 1963. A rule of property for Bengal: An essay on the idea of permanent settlement. Paris: Mouton.

Mauss, Marcel. (1925) 1967. The gift. New York: W. W. Norton.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. 1843. “The gates of Somnauth.” A speech delivered in the House of Commons, 9th March 1843. In The miscellaneous writings and speeches of Lord Macaulay, vol. IV: Lord Macaulay’s speeches. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2170/2170-h/2170-h.htm#link2H_4_0021. See slso: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00generallinks/macaulay/txt_commons_somnauth_1843.html.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1997. Untimely meditations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thapar, Romila. 2004. Somanatha: The many voices of a history. Delhi: Penguin.


John D. KELLY is Professor in Anthropology and the College at the University of Chicago. He works in the island Pacific, especially Fiji, and in South and Southeast Asia, especially India and Highland Asia, on capitalism, colonialism, diaspora, decolonization and Pax Americana. His books include A Politics of virtue: Hinduism, sexuality and countercolonial discourse in Fiji (Chicago, 1991), with Martha Kaplan, Represented communities: Fiji and world decolonization (Chicago, 2001), The American game: Capitalism, decolonization, world domination, and baseball (Prickly Paradigm, 2006) and, co-edited, Anthropology and global counterinsurgency (Chicago, 2010). His next book concerns paradoxes of self-determination in Asia, the Bandung Conference, actual decolonization and endemic counterinsurgency in the Asian Highlands.

John D. Kelly
Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago
1126 E. 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637, USA


Martha KAPLAN is Professor of Anthropology at Vassar College in New York State. A cultural and historical anthropologist who studies meaning in colonial and postcolonial societies, she is the author of Neither cargo nor cult: Ritual politics and the colonial imagination in Fiji (Duke, 1995), and co-author (with John Kelly) of Represented communities: Fiji and world decolonization (Chicago, 2001). She is currently working on a book titled Water cultures: Fiji, New York, Singapore. Her current research on the cultural politics of water comparatively considers water and its uses simultaneously as public and privatized, as necessity and object of fantasy and desire, as locus of exploitation and as source of postcolonial innovation, as a public utility, and an environmental resource.

Martha Kaplan
Department of Anthropology
Vassar College
124 Raymond Avenue
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604-0220, USA


Sean M. DOWDY is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. His dissertation research focuses on cosmology, economic life, sorcery, and political pageantry in the Mayong Kingdom (Assam, Northeast India). A parallel research and book project on the political relevance of kingship and chiefship in contemporary Northeast India is currently under preparation. He is also the Deputy Managing Editor for HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, the Managing Editor for the HAU Book Series, and Manager for Prickly Paradigm Press.

Sean M. Dowdy
Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago
1126 E. 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637, USA


This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Bernard S. Cohn. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau3.3.031


Honor and honors in Great Britain and India

Bernard S. COHN

Edited by John D. Kelly, Martha Kaplan, and Sean M. Dowdy

The notion of honor has several facets. It is a sentiment, a mani-
festation of this sentiment in conduct by others…. It is both
internal to the individual and external to him—a matter of his feelings,
his behavior, and the treatment that he receives

Julian Pitt-Rivers, “Honor”

In Western society, the history of the idea of honor has been inextricably connected with social structure, the church, and the state. The separation which Europeans made between personal honor and public honor was part of the revolution in consciousness, which was involved in the emergence of the bourgeoisie, who established the centrality of the individual, as a basis of the social structure. To the Europeans, honor is involved in the self-judgment which is part of the basis of social action, in which a person can put himself apart from others in the society on the basis of his own ideas of what is moral and right. The Western European Bourgeoise made “the soul and the mind rather than acts and deeds the fountain-head of honor” (Spier 1952: 44). Simultaneously with the development of the idea of personal honor tied to individualism, the centralized State under a single sovereign claimed to be the source of public honors. In Great Britain, in the nineteenth century, it was the king who was “the fountain of honour and privilege. It is the state which rewards and dignifies, through the medium of its only representative, the Sovereign” (Thoms 1844: 40).

In Europe there is a duality in the conception of honor between one, which is an individual state of moral virtue and self-determined, and the other, a public honor which is derived from the Sovereign and carries with it ideas of public precedence, and is symbolized by the right to wear special clothes or insignia, particularly on public ritual occasions.

In eighteenth century Britain, the public honors were mainly ascribed and were part of the system of ranking of the nobility and the gentry and their differentiation from the rest of the population. Entry into the ruling group of eighteenth-century England was based partially upon the Sovereign’s capacity to honor, new wealth, succession, and connection through marriage and lifestyle to the nobility. By the end of the nineteenth century, achievement based on “application and industry,” the “exigencies of partisan politics,” and the growing national need to recognize great men and heroes lead to a redefinition of public honor in Great Britain (Pumphrey 1959; Smiles [1859] 1900, see especially Chapter VII, “Industry and Peerage”). Even with the growth of public honors based upon new criteria, the Sovereign in legal and cultural terms still remained the source of honor not only for the British, but became the source of public honors for Indians as well.

In eighteenth century India, the distinction we make of public and private honor was probably not part of the cultural system. In retrospect, one can make the differentiation analytically. In India, a society in which hierarchy and precedence are clearly marked, and in which codes of conduct can be rigidly maintained, often by sumptuary rules enforceable by self-help and in courts, there were multiple and overlapping sources and public expression of honor and honors.

The most persuasive source of honor could be found in the caste system, where honor was marked in language, dress, rules of commensality, rules of marriage, and formally in every social encounter. As twentieth century anthropologists have demonstrated, local hierarchies are constantly created, maintained, and demonstrated in seating arrangements, food offerings, admittance to buildings, who can initiate conversation, every change of condition, every crossing of a boundary in a life cycle, to crossing a threshold–precedence is reaffirmed. The precedence and honor so pervasive in day to day life is ascriptive and based on caste, age, and sex.

The Dharmashastra gives specific rules about the basis on which honor is recognized. According to P. V. Kane (1941: 345), “wealth, kindred, age, performance of religious rites and sacred knowledge confer title to respect,” but that most authorities agree that of the five bases of honor, learning is most deserving of formal respect.

Even though honors might be restricted on the basis of ascription to one or another of ranked group in a local hierarchy, an individual within such a group could be marked by a special honor for achievement recognized by special forms of address; for example, an especially learned or pious Brahman [could be given] the titles of pandit and acharya.

In the eighteenth century in India, in addition to ascriptive-based corporate sources of honors, honors derived from achievement which were consensually recognized, there were honors derived from sovereigns, analogous to the European public honors system. Hindu kings could make honors, many of which, as in the European feudal model, attached to roles in the royal household and in the State. In the South of India, there was a highly developed system of temple honors, which were granted to the Kings and their followers by Brahmans. Also, as in Europe, there was an Imperial source of public honor, the Mughal Emperor. With the introduction and development of the Mansabdari system, the Mughals were able to set up a ranking system on the Imperial level, which cut across and added to the existing systems of honors.1

The Mughals judiciously combined symbols of honor, which they brought from Central Asia with already existing ones, and created what seems an infinite combination of titles based on ideas about relations to the state—e.g., the pillar of the state, fierce in war, etc. With the titles went rewards, raises in rank in the Mansabdari system, rent-free or fixed rent, land grants and various other privileges—and insignia, and paraphernalia, the right to use of elephants, kettle drums, to carry banners, to have special kinds of palanquins, to be able to appear in public on certain occasions accompanied by armed retainers, to wear special clothes, and jewels. These outward marks of recognized honor were extremely important both to the Mughal Emperor and to the recipient. The attempt to forge or use insignia one was not entitled to was a serious offense.

The first European introduction to the Indian system of honors was as inferiors, as recipients of honors. Europeans were made part of the Mansabdari system, with functional roles, such as tax collectors or zamindars. The British legal claims to Madras and Calcutta were as tax collectors, nothing more. Pitt and Job Charnock were Mansabdars whose rights to office and titles were based on sanads, prescribing their rights and duties. The Company seems to have been like other corporate groups in India–like a Rajput lineage or a Math or temple. The English in the middle of the eighteenth century craved honors, for their own sake as well as for their functional significance. But I think we misread the situation if we see this craving only as their pushing [of] their financial self-interest. These were men who came from a hierarchic society in which ranks, status, and position were crucial. since so many of the English came from what we might retrospectively term the middle class, or at best were poor gentry or from the younger and/or bastard sons of the aristocracy, they had little hope of achieving honors in their own society. Indian titles and honors seem to have been meaningful. To go through the streets of Calcutta or Banares with mace bearers, kettle drums, and yak tail whisk bearers meant something to them. It is entirely fitting that when they went home they tried to utilize their Indian fortunes to achieve social and political success in their own country; their countrymen disparagingly called them Nabobs, an Indian title, and heaped titles of abuse on them—”Monsters of Iniquity,” “clerks and boys,” and “Peddlers filling the throne of Aurangzebe” (Holzman 1926: 21). One of the Company’s servants, Eyles Irwin, complained:

How long, Britannis! shall in Glory’s race

Thy sons yet struggle for the foremost place,

Or dare the frigid pole or burning Zone,

In every region honoured but their own. (ibid.: 19)

The Transition of the British from Acceptors of Honors to Grantors of Honors.

From the seventeenth century, the British in India were familiar with the most prevalent royal act which symbolized the central relationship of subordination and superordination: the offering of nazarby the subordinate to the superordinate, and the giving of a khilat by the superior to the inferior. The British in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries frequently translated the word nazar as a present. The word is derived from Arabic and means a vow, and the “gift (Nazar) is but a symbol of the allegiance offered” (Buckler 1922: 79). Nazar was usually in the form of gold mohars, and could range from one to one hundred and one mohars, depending on the status of the giver and the occasion on which the nazar would be offered, the lower the status of the giver the lower the amount offered. Traditionally nazar was offered to the Mughul Emperor on ’Id, ’Id Bakr, the Nauroz, and the Emperor’s birthday. Nazar was offered when an appointment was made, a grant asked for, an assignment renewed. It came in the middle of the eighteenth century to be given by Indians to British officials, on occasions such as Christmas or after a British victory. When one went to court to attend a durbar, nazar was offered as well.

In durbar, or when one was granted a position, or a land grant, or one succeeded to a position, the Mughal gave a khilat, a robe of honor. In origin, the word, and presumably the act of offering, implies that literally the robe or clothes were worn by the Emperor, the word being derived from the Arabic khal’aa (he took off). Clothes could transmit authority. Khilats in the eighteenth century usually consisted of shawls, brocade pieces, a turban which symbolized royalty, a pearl necklace, and jewels. The number of pieces offered were graded, the fewest being a khilat of five pieces. By accepting the khilat, one accepted the superiority and authority of the giver. It is my impression that for eighteenth century Indians, this was not an exchange, but a symbolic creation and affirmation of a relationship, between one who can create by the act, and the one who receives the honor and is thus in some fashion transformed. Khilats stood for the acceptance of office and guaranteed the fulfilling of the office.

Peshkash, a term which the British consistently translated as tribute, similar to nazar, was a present, but seems to have been different in its implication than the vow implied in the offering of nazar. In some instances, a better translation for peshkash would be revenue payment, in that it was regularly offered as part of the obligation of taking an office, which had amongst its responsibilities the collecting of the State’s share of the produce.

It is clear from the middle of the eighteenth century, no matter how the words were translated, that the British were fully aware of the symbolic meanings involved in not only the terms, but the rituals which accompanied the offering and accepting of nazar, peshkash, and khilat (Buckler 1922: 197–99).

In 1765, after the British and their Indian allies from Bengal defeated the Mughal Emperor and his chief ally the Nawab of Oudh at the battle of Buxar, the British were granted the right to collect the taxes of Bengal as Diwan of the Mughal Emperor. The British by accepting the Diwani became the feudatories of the Mughal. With this they continued to accept the right of the Mughal to grant honors. In fact, when the British wanted to reward those Indians who were their diwans they sought the intervention of either the Nawab of Bengal or went directly themselves to the Mughal to grant titles (such as Raja Bahadur) to their “loyal” followers, who had been of direct service to themselves. Ram Charan, who had been the bania [merchant middleman] of Robert Clive and Henry Vansittart and who had materially supported the East India Company with supplies and men at the Battle of Buxar, was made a Maharajah and Bahadur at Clive’s request by Emperor Shah Alum II. He was made a mansabdar of 4,000 and was invested with a palanquin, a toghe (flag), and kettle drums. A firman under the royal seal was issued to proclaim him titles and royal honors and he was treated as one of the Mughal’s Omra (nobility). In addition, the Emperor issued a firman to the Nawab of Bengal to put him [Ram Charan] in possession of a jagir (land grant), part of which Warren Hastings later made rent free in perpetuity. In addition to Mughal honors, Ram Charan received an address acknowledging the services and fidelity of the Rajah, and on his death his son received a letter of condolence from the Court of Directors (East India Company Fort William-India House Correspondence 1968: xxxiii; National Archives of India Foreign Department 1845: 176–80). Standing as Diwan of Bengal in the system of nazar-khilat, British officials continued to offer Nazarr to the Mughal and to receive khilats and titles from the Mughal. (For a list of British titles, see Khan 1969: xii-xiii; for examples of British offering Nazar to the Mughal, see India, Imperial Records Department 1953: Vol. I: No. 188 and 687.) At the same time the British received Nazar and granted Khilats to their subordinates. (See India, Imperial Records Department 1953: Vol. VIII: No. 107, for a Khilat to the Nawab of Dacca.)

In 1803, the British defeated the Marathas outside of Delhi, and in a direct sense became the “protectors” of the Mughal Emperor. Lord Wellesley, the then Governor General, wanted to maintain “The name and authority of the Mughals” (Spear 1952: 34). Wellesley specifically wrote to the Court of Directors that he never intended to employ the Emperor’s “royal prerogative” (Wellesley 1837: 554). Wellesley undertook to establish an arrangement which would secure to the Mughal “the enjoyment of every reasonable and convenience and every practicable degree of external state and dignity compatible … with the condition of dependence in which his Majesty and royal family must necessarily be placed with relation to British power” (ibid.: 55). The arrangement created a “great political paradox” (Kaye 1870: 5). How was the Emperor to be maintained with his dignities, and position especially as the central symbol of legitimacy, which indeed he was for most of the Princes (Rajput, Maratha, and Mughal), and be at the same time what the British termed him—a pageant ruler, with only a shadow of sovereignty?

As late as 1843, the British officials were still accepting robes of honor from the Mughal Emperor. The great Princes, such as the Nizam and Sindhia, sent nazar at the time of succession in their states to the Mughal and wanted sanads confirming their succession. It was not until 1835 that the East India Company’s coins bore the image of the English King, rather than an inscription with the name of the Mughal Emperor (Thurston 1890: 39, 66).

A symbolic battle ensued for over fifty years between the Emperor and the Governor General. Cleverly, Shah Allum II had granted Lord Lake, the Commander in Chief of the British Armies that defeated Sindhia, a title which was the “second most important in the Empire … and regretted that he could not confer the highest title on him as it had already been given to Mahadaji Sindhia” (Panniakar 1968: 7). This equated the British with the Marathas.

In 1837, after his father Gopimohan Deb died, Radhakanta Deb of Calcutta petitioned the then Governor General in the following terms:

The memorial of Radhakanta Dewa son of Raja Gopemohana Deva Bahadoor, Honorary Magistrate of the town of Calcutta, Vice President of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society, of Calcutta, Native Secretary to the Calcutta School Book Society, of the Education and Tea Committee of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and Paris and Corresponding Member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, most respectfully shewith, that your memorialist begs leave to represent unto your lordship in Council, that the former Kings and Governor Generals of Bengal were always pleased to show great kindness and distinction to his former father.

That is the Hijiree era 1179 (1766 ad) His Majesty Shah Alum kindly bestowed upon your Memorialist’s first Grandfather Ramsundra Deva, and second Grandfather … a dignity of Munsub 1,500 Sowars and Title of Raja and upon his third grandfather Navakrishna Deva a dignity of 6,000 and title of Maharajah Behadur a pakki, Jhalundar, Togh, and Nagarie (kettle drum) and also the Right Honorable Lord Clive was pleased to confer upon him a gold metal [medal?] with a Persian inscription, as a testimonial to all India, for the regard which his Lordship and the Honourable Company had for his faithful and honest service.

That in the year 1833 Lord William Bentinck was pleased to bestow upon your memorialist’s father the title and dignity of Raja and Bahadur together with an Honorary dress, jewels, sword and shield, as well as an order that he may be allowed to retain a guard of armed people to attend him as his retinue.

Your memorialist therefore most submissively craves your Lordship in Council will be graciously pleased to bestow upon him as the only surviving son of his late father the same honor which his ancestors enjoyed. (National Archives of India Foreign Political Consultations 1837: #115)

Radhakanta Deb’s request was granted; his ancestors had great dignity, and he had high character, probity and the reputation for learning among his countrymen, “and the laudable anxiety you have ever displayed to render your services useful to the public” (ibid.). This latter usefulness was confirmed by a donation from Deb to the Committee on Public Instruction of Rs. 10,000, which was described by the British as peshkash (Ibid.: #116).

If the Mughals were still the symbolic center of the political order, what were the British? What were their relations to the other Indian rulers to be? What position were they to take in the granting of honors to those Indians, the Mughal, or the British crown? Until 1858, instead of the more common problem of the inflation of honors there seems to have been a deflation of honors: the British avoided the creation of honors and seemed to have been content with confirming, by and large, honors previously granted. For those Indians who had titles as Raja Behadur or Khan Bahador, or as in the case of the Marwari bankers of Murshi-dabad, who bore the title Sheths, the British, upon petition on the death of the holder of title, would confirm it to a lineal ancestor with the best claim and would accept peshkash, the traditional payment which the Mughals levied at the time of succession. There are during the period 1803 to 1858 a few cases of the creation of titles and honors by the British. The Raja of Jhansi, as a special mark of honor, was given the title “Devoted adherent of the King of England” and was given permission to use the English flag. Sometimes a medal bearing the coat of arms of the East India Company would be struck as a special favor. Letters from the Governor General or from the Court of Directors appear to have been looked upon as honors by Indians. In a few instances, the Company granted to Indians coats of arms.

In 1833, Kali Krishna, the grandson of Nabkrishna Deb (Nubkissen), was granted a coat of arms—in the European style—with a Latin motto Magnum Vect-igal est Erudito and its Sanskrit equivalent (Vidya Ratnam Maha Dhanam), in the center of which was an Indian shield with an armed elephant, supported by a tiger and lion. The coronet was a Raja’s turban. On the back of the seal is the statement “Created by the Right Honorable Lord W. C. Bentinck Gov. Gen. in Council.” The riband is decorated with tulsi, a plant revered by the followers of Vishnu. Shortly after being granted the coat of arms, the Governor General granted a title— “the faithful subject of His most Gracious Majesty the King of Great Britain and Ireland” (“The armorial bearings of Maharaja Kali Krishna Bahadur, of Calcutta” l843: 200–1).

In 1842, Jamshedji Jijibhai, a wealthy and philanthropic Parsi, was created the first Indian knight by Queen Victoria. Sir Jamshedji was an indefatigable endower of hospitals, causeways, schools, tanks, dharmshalas (guest houses), bridges, and the Poona waterworks. The knighthood was accompanied by the presentation of a diamond-encrusted medal, inscribed “in honour of his munificence and his patriotism.” The knighthood was received with proper sentiments: “I shall hand down this medal to my children’s children with pride and reverence…. They shall be taught fidelity to the British Crown is their first duty, loyalty the first virtue.” In 1857, for his continued philanthropy and loyalty, Jamshedji was created a baronet. Sir Jamshedji’s armorial bearings were quite austere, as perhaps becoming of a true philanthropist, and contained a scene of the sun rising above the Bombay Ghats, with two bees in the upper corner symbolizing his industry. His crest, a peacock amidst a field of wheat. His motto, “Industry and Liberality.” By 1866, several of his co-religionists, although without titles, had obtained elegant coats of arms in the European manner from the College of Arms. (Karaka 1884: 9499; “Parsee Armory in British India” 1866: 240–43).

As a concomitant of the British defeat in Afghanistan in 1839–40, and the eventual victories two years later, Lord Ellenborough wanted to celebrate the British triumph in an Imperial, almost Roman, fashion. He believed that only a great public “triumph” could restore the respect for British authority. The first part of his plan was to bring back to India what he believed were the gates of the Temple of Somnath, sacked by Mahmud of Ghazni in the eleventh century, and which were thought to be part of the tomb of Sultan Mahmoud near Ghazni. They were to be “packed as to be seen in a frame, and they must be carried by elephants,” and be accompanied by a special guard of honor of Indian troops to a temple built on the ancient site of the temple in Somnath by one of Holkar’s relatives (Stocqueler 1854: 133–34).

Ellenborough issued two proclamations to memorialize the return of the Gates of Somnath, one to the Princes and Chiefs, the other to the People of India, in which it was announced, “The insult of eight hundred years is at last avenged”; the return of the gates “are to become the proudest record of your national glory,” the gates were to be treated “with all honour,” and the British Government regards “your honour as its own.” The victory of the armies reflects “immortal Hon-our”on Britain and India. (For the texts of the proclamations, see Kaye 1851: 65051).

The returning armies from Afghanistan were met by a large army which Lord Aukland had assembled on the Sutlej River to act as the reserve force for the expedition sent into Afghanistan to avenge the total destruction of the previous British army. A temporary bridge had been built across the Sutlej, triumphal arches had been erected to welcome the returning armies, and the troops entered the camp “through an honor guard of Indian Cavalry, and were greeted by the Governor General, the Commander-in-Chief, and multitudes of aides de camp, etc., composing their staff, in every variety of uniform, and ladies upon enormous elephants, with Howdahs brightly caparisoned …” (Allen 1843: 369).

Ellenborough held a great military review and durbar for some of the Sikh chiefs and the chiefs in Western Rajputana, whose troops and followers added great color to the events arranged to impress upon Indians the might and Imperial majesty of British rule in India. Previous to the welcoming and at the first news of a British victory in Jallabad, Ellenborough had issued an extra Gazette announcing the distribution of medals to a wide-range of soldiers, the presentation of honors to whole regiments, and granting of extra allowances. Sir Robert Sale, the Commander, informed Ellenborough that with the announcement, “Old officers burst into tears, the sick and wounded entreated that the medal be given to their children; what is more wonderful, in an Indian Army, all declared that the ‘Batta’ (extra allowance) is nothing—it was the Honours.” (quoted in Imlah 1939: 99–100).

Ellenborough’s efforts to establish grandeur and honor for the Indo-British armies met with great criticism (and in many instances, scorn) and played a part in his recall. The Gates of Somnath turned out to be a case of mistaken identity, even the official committee appointed by General Nott to see to their transport to India, seemed somewhat skeptical as so much of the gates seemed to be of modern design. Sir Henry Rawlinson, the great Persian scholar, then a young man who was on the scene in Afghanistan, on examining the inscriptions, “found pretty clear evidence that the gates were not those of Somnath” (Rawlinson 1898: 132; Sanders, et. al. 1843). The Proclamations to the Princes and Peoples of India was seen by many as Napoleonic, as unduly supportive of Hinduism, and his awarding of medals raised the whole question of the position of the Governor General, and whether he or the Crown were the fountain of honor (Kaye 1851: 651–52; Imlah 1939: 100, 115).

Ellenborough’s reach for imperial grandeur, his attempt at the creation of imperial honor, was of a piece with ideas which he had long held. He believed that the British Monarch should be the Sovereign of India, and wrote Victoria in January of 1843 that the recollections of imperial authority associated with the Mughals and Delhi were now practically transferred to the British Government, but this was an anomalous situation as the British Government in India was not royal nor imperial, but that of a commercial company. The situation could be remedied if Queen Victoria were to become the nominal head of the empire. He informed Victoria that, “The princes and chiefs of India would be proud of their position as the feudatories of an empress” (Colchester 1874: 64).

Ellenborough’s imperial designs, however, had one very lasting effect; he terminated the British offering of Nazar to the Mughal Emperor.

William Edwardes, a young undersecretary in the Foreign Department, along with James Thomason, a secretary in the Foreign Department, accompanied Ellen-borough to Delhi to offer Nazar and enquire after the Mughal’s health. This was in keeping with the previously established protocol on those infrequent occasions when the Governor General had visited in or near Delhi. Even though Edwardes was aware that this was an expression of submission and fealty on the part of the British Government to the Great Mughal, it was seen as such a routine matter, that Ellenborough was not informed. Following established practice, the British officials offered gold Mohurs and in return were granted khilats. Edwardes wrote, “We remounted our elephants, and were paraded through the chief streets of Delhi as ‘those whom the King delighted to honour.’” (Edwardes 1866: 55–56). Edwardes went ahead of his companions to urge Lord Ellenborough to see Thomason and Colonel Broadfoot, who had accompanied them, in their “robes of tinsel tissue.” Ellenborough, who clearly didn’t know about the ceremony, was indignant, and immediately issued orders forbidding “the presentation in future of any offerings by British subjects” (ibid.: 57). Thus ended, almost as an afterthought, the vow which the British took and had maintained to be the subordinates of the Mughals.

It is ironic that the one Governor General of India who was ever recalled so accurately prefigured the idiom, style, and political theory, which was to come to dominate the relations between Indians and the British in the second half of the nineteenth century. Ellenborough, in a few short months and in his encampment in December 1842 and January 1843 in Delhi, affirmed the “feudal nature” of the relations between Indians and the British; the Indians were to be the Queen’s loyal feudatories and he saw the Indian Princes not as the descendants of brigands, or decadent descendants of late Mughal usurpers, but as “the hereditary leaders” who would “cordially co-operate with the British Government in measures for the improvements of their subjects and their Dominions” (Colchester 1874: 65).

Ellenborough thus sought for a style which would link the Indian portion of the army and the masses to the government, by appearing to honor their pride in at least one of their religions. The army was to be rewarded in European style with medals and battle honors. The people were to be addressed in an Imperial fashion and to be treated to Roman triumphs. As with the Romans, Ellenborough thought of having the captured Afghan leaders brought to Delhi. Ellenborough’s feudalism was of a Victorian type as the hereditary rulers were to be concerned with the improvement of their land and their subjects. The mixture of the Roman and the feudal public ritual idiom, with its exhortations to “improve,” was to become part of the Imperial style of Lytton and Curzon. Ellenborough also recognized that the last claim to superiority of the Mughal Emperor, whom the British came to refer to as the King of Delhi, which was involved in the offering of nazar and the acceptance of khilats, must be ended.


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Bernard S. COHN (1928–2003) was Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago where he revolutionized historical and anthropological approaches to the study of caste and British colonialism in India. Exquisitely and unpretentiously theoretical in ethnographic and historical terms, Cohn’s writings would deeply influence the late-twentieth century boom in anthropological studies of power, knowledge, and colonialism, and were a major source of inspiration for scholars in the “Subaltern Studies” school and, later, in postcolonial studies. Among his most famous works include India: The social anthropology of a civilization (Prentice Hall, 1971), An anthropologist among the historians and other essays (Oxford, 1987), and Colonialism and its forms of knowledge (Princeton, 1996).


1. The Mansabdari system was a military and civil ranking system used during the Mughal Empire. The Mansabdars (non-hereditary “rank holders”) were agents of the Mughal Emperor who appointed them to commanding positions in civil government and the military. —Ed.