Conclusion: Why the princely states? Why now? What’s next?

By Elizabeth Lhost

During my time as guest blogger this month, I’ve demonstrated how sources from the Indian princely states can help historians overcome the binaries, dichotomies, and oppositions that sometimes hamper the study of colonial legal change, especially in the context of understanding developments in the interpretation, administration, and governance of Islamic law. The sources I’ve highlighted not only add nuance, depth, and richness to existing historical narratives but also challenge the totality and reality of those narratives. What did legal modernization look like? How effective was the colonial legal system at capturing pluralism in empire? Where did individuals find room to maneuver? And how did their maneuvers reconfigure the authority of the state?

These are just some of the questions that wider collections of sources give us the opportunity to rethink and reconsider; there are many more that we could add to this list. Yet before closing out my series, I want to add that even if scholars want to find sources that challenge conventional narratives or help them bring complexity and nuance to standard narratives, locating those sources can pose problems.

For major states like Hyderabad, sources abound in publications (like Mīr Bās̲iṭ ʿAlī Khān’s Tārīkh-i ʿAdālat-i Āafī), miscellaneous orders and decrees now gathered and preserved in the state archive, bundles of files organized by department and awaiting further investigations from scholars, and rare, relatively under-utilized published collections like the volumes of the Deccan Law Reports that resemble “colonial” sources in a lot of ways but continually push us to reconsider the terms we employ and how we engage them.

For minor states, identifying and locating (let alone accessing) sources that shed light on local, regional, and imperial histories of law can be difficult, if not impossible. With those difficulties in mind, over the past few years, I’ve been working, with support from student research assistants at Dartmouth College and seed funding from the American Institute of Indian Studies, to make this type of research more accessible to scholars. The Indian Princely States Online Legal History Archive, or, IPSOLHA (ip-so-laa), is a digital history initiative to make it easier for scholars to identify, search, access, and compare legal-historical sources from across the Indian princely states.

Although our labors thus far have only scratched the surface of what is possible, the hope is that in the coming months, we will be able to launch a working prototype of the database we’ve compiled. It is clear from other essays on this blog and the broader aims and ambitions of Harvard’s Program in Islamic Law and its SHARIAsource Lab that digital tools, resources, and methods can alter our understandings of Islamic legal history on small and large scales.[1] For the study of colonial legal history in British India, digitization has made it possible to search for relevant cases across dozens of volumes of published law reports from multiple high courts almost instantaneously. In addition to scholarly databases like HathiTrust and LLMC, public projects like IndianKanoon have widened who has access to legal sources and how those sources are accessed. The ability to do keyword searches alone has radically changed scholars’ use of and engagement with digitized sources.[2]

IPSOLHA aims (albeit on a much smaller scale) to make similar contributions to the study of legal history in the Indian princely states, not only to support the work of scholars interested in one princely state or another but also to support comparative work across multiple princely states and the directly ruled territories.[3] As my essays this month have tried to show, legal ideas were constantly circulating between fora, across borders, and among different constituencies and stakeholders. Accordingly, we need scholarship that is equally nimble and adroit, that moves across archives, into and out of different languages, and through multiple venues. Such scholarship is difficult to accomplish when archives are scattered, languages are multiple, frames of reference are manifold, and evidence is fragmentary. Such work requires collaborative, multi-modal (digital and analog) methods.[4]

IPSOLHA is but one small effort to enable this type of research to flourish in the future, but the hope is that it will inspire scholars to reconsider the archival materials we choose and how we approach them as we work to understand the past.


[1] For one example, see Adnan Zulfiqar’s work on “Mapping COVID-19 Fatwās,” Islamic Law Blog, May 4, 2020,

[2] On the potentials and pitfalls of keyword-search research, see Ian Milligan, The Transformation of Historical Research in the Digital Age, Elements in Historical Theory and Practice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022),; and Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” The American Historical Review 121, no. 2 (April 2016): 377–402,

[3] The project will eventually live online at

[4] The Harvard Program in Islamic Law and Nandini Chatterjee Lawforms project at the University of Exeter are two examples of this approach. See “Lawforms: Digitised Legal Documents from the Indo-Persian World,”

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