Is letter-writing a thing of the past? These days, we intuitively assume that it is. Yet try typing the words “how to write a letter” in your search engine and a long list of suggestions pops up. The options I got included: application letters and letters of recommendation, resignation and intent.

I imagine, most people would get as utilitarian a list as I did – as opposed to say, “how to write a love letter”, an activity one presumes has reduced dramatically in the world of phone calls, texts, and chats. Letters – professional and personal – are still around and remain a universal form of communication, recognised instantly across cultures and linguistic traditions. The same is true for much of history.

Lekhapaddhati, or writing guide, from 15th-century Gujarat, is a manual that gives us a rare insight into document and letter-writing practices in a bygone era. This compilation of documents was a reference book of sorts, most likely meant for state officials and professional letter writers. Composed in a colloquial Sanskrit used for business transactions and practical communications, the Lekhapaddhati also has local Gujarati influences.

A must-have manual

The earliest specimens included in the Lekhapaddhati are from nearly 1,200 years ago. Even so, what is remarkable is how familiar the contents of many of these communiqués are: deeds for sales and purchases of property, mortgages and debts, certificates, letters of safe passage, correspondence with various family members, marriages, divorces, and love affairs among others. Whether it was a letter to a business associate or a lover, this was a “must have” manual of personal and professional correspondence.

We do not know who wrote or compiled the collection but one of its translators and scholars, Pushpa Prasad, finds that many of the model epistles share common features – including titles of administrative departments and officials as well as the writing style – with the Chaulukya (also known as Solanki) administration’s royal charters and copper plate inscriptions. The Chaulukyas ruled over much of modern-day Gujarat for three centuries from c. 944 CE until 1244 CE. But many of the documents in the collection are dated from much before the Chaulukyas from 744-45 CE and span several centuries until as late as 1476. The documents were compiled in the later part of that time range, during the 15th century.

Pushpa Prasad’s English translation of the Lekhapaddhati.

The Lekhapaddhati, like today’s Google search, leans towards practical matters. It is the business of governance, particularly at the local level – administrative measures, revenue arrangements and tax collection, property transactions of various kinds, appointments and transfers of officials and judicial pronouncements – that makes up the bulk of this manual of model documents. And, just as we expect it from official transactions, most of the documents in the Lekhapaddhati are meticulous in noting days and dates.

These official letters also carry a whiff of a modern state’s penchant for bureaucracy.

One specimen recording what appears to be a personal cash loan (“out of his own need”) against a house mortgage says: “If he (the borrower) does not pay the money on the fixed day the house will be permanently lost to him (even if) he pays the double amount after the period is over.” This transaction needed to be certified not by one but over six witnesses.

Letters and communiqués like these are the grist to the historians’ mill. This is not only because they are hard to come by but also because they uncover aspects of the administration and economy that other traditional sources from this time, such as chronicles or religious texts, do not. Deshottara, a kind of permission letter carried by couriers and merchants which granted them exemption from local taxes, must also have been issued by the thousands at the time but none have survived – they were usually discarded after the journey.

The Lekhapaddhati thus stands out as an instance of an epistolary manual in Sanskrit at the cusp of the transition from the medieval to early modern times. As the early modern era, 1450 to 1750s CE, unfolded, the importance of writing in the functioning of administrative bureaucracies continued to grow, as did the crucial role of those who were skilled in the art of writing.

Stepping away from stone

It is this growing significance of writing – a very important, often overlooked, aspect of South Asian history – that the Lekhapaddhati points to. Until around the 14th and 15th centuries, public or official communications – royal announcements and orders or even donations made to a religious site for instance w– ere done on stone or copper plates; every school child in India is familiar with the earliest deciphered example of these in the form of the Mauryan king Ashoka’s famous rock edicts.

But as Daud Ali, Associate Professor of South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania explains, there was a “gradual but conspicuous decline in copper plate and stone inscriptions across North India between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. This was the time when new manuals on letter and document writing like the Lekhapaddhati of Gujarat and Vidyapati’s Likhanavali of Mithila (both dated to the fifteenth century), were composed, signifying a shift to both a greater reliance on writing in general and on more ephemeral substances, including paper.”

Some of the model documents in the Lekhapaddhati too specifically mention that they were intended for writing on copper plate and even birch bark and cloth.

Pushpa Prasad’s English translation of the Lekhapaddhati.

Even though the Lekhapaddhati leans towards the public and professional, it is the models of personal letters it includes – letters to friends, teachers and students, lovers, wives and husbands, and a variety of other relatives – that offer us a window into an otherwise inaccessible world of people’s everyday lives. Today, thanks to widespread literacy, we consider the exchange of letters to be a matter between the sender and the addressee. But as we read Lekhadpaddhati’s contents, it is important to remember that this was not always the case. Personal correspondence in and around the 15th century likely involved four different individuals: the sender, the writer, the recipient and the reader. The notion of privacy that we associate with personal communication today was the privilege of a select few.

There are the letters in the collection, for instance, that focus on conjugal and amorous relationships. A template of a happy wife’s letter to a husband, begins thus: “From place A, always obedient X with love, with eagerness, and with modesty communicates to the respected husband Y of this same place, who is adorned with amiability, self-control and other sterling qualities…”.

An angry wife

In contrast, an angry wife’s letter refrains from any such terms of endearment and, after notifying the husband that all is well, it gets straight to the point: “… the moment you left this place…you have forgotten about the house, the wife, the children…Days here pass after getting ornaments released from mortgage and taking (money) on credit. Nowadays with children there is much trouble.”

The letter insinuates that the husband may be away living with another woman. It also demands that he either return or take financial responsibility for his dependents, else the wife would leave his home and move back with her parents.

A letter from a secret lover is without the restraint of the ones bound by conjugality. “The always obedient X” sending the letter is more effusive than the exemplary happy wife. A person in her position, one whose paramour is away, must express the pain of their temporary parting: “…I do not find consolation day and night…come back here, you have to extinguish the fire of my body by means of the ambrosia of your presence, since (my body) is getting burnt by the fire of separation. You must not delay any more.”

Husbands needed to find the words to write to wives too. Predictably, one letter asks the wife to manage the household as per his instructions while he is away; another praises the wife’s unsurpassed beauty in formulaic terms drawn from Sanskrit poetry: she is one “who by the lustre of her body has surpassed the gleam of gold… whose face is like the moon, whose eyes are like those of a frightened fawn, whose two thighs are the stem of banana plant; whose voice is always sweet…” Yet another letter, this time, from a displeased husband, chides the wife for not fulfilling her duties in his absence: “Whosoever comes from there makes a complaint about the household...”

The documents and letters in the Lekhapaddhati, even if they were meant as templates, conjure up a strikingly familiar world inhabited by real flesh and blood people – their quotidian concerns reflective of many of our own. While the collection deepens our factual understanding of history, perhaps it’s more important function lies in revealing the “dailiness” of medieval life. The Lekhapaddhati evokes empathy for those who lived in the distant past, and in an era obsessed with sweeping historical narratives, reminds us to savor the minutiae that make our lives meaningful.

Quotations from the text are from Pushpa Prasad’s English translation of the Lekhapaddhati (OUP, 2007). Ingo Strauch’s Die Lekhapaddhati-Lekhapañcāsikā: Briefe und Urkunden im Mittelalterlichen Gujarat (Reimer, 2002) is a critical edition with an annotated translation and glossary in German. An earlier printed Sanskrit edition from 1925 edited by CD Dalal and GK Shrigondekar can be read here.

Aparna Kapadia is a historian of South Asia at Williams College in the US. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.