The Indian Seal Case Study: The Sykes Seal

sykes seal close up

Sir Francis Sykes’s Seal

The seal is small, its total height no more than  40mm, the seal itself only 25mm by 20mm.  It is engraved in steel and is set in a holder probably made of gun metal, the holder tapering pyramid-like to a tiny swivel which might have been used to hold a cord.  Nothing much to look at on first appearance yet this seal carried with it the authority of one of the most powerful men in mid eighteenth century Bengal.

The seal was initially read by Professor A.M.K.Masumi, William Jones Professor at the Persian Department of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, on 28 July 1995. It is written in a script called Nastaylick, one of the main styles used in writing Perso-Arabic script and traditionally the predominant style in Persian calligraphy, which had been used in seals and coins since the latter part of the Emperor Akbar’s reign (1556-1605) and continued to be used as the language of administration in 18th century Mughal India.  The inscription reads from right to left “Faransis [Francis] Saiks [Sykes] sang 6″ so is a phonetic rendition of his name with year 6. [With thanks to Sue Stronge, Senior Curator in the Asian Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum who also read the inscription]. [1]  This means that it was made in the 6th year of the reign of the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II (reigned 1759-1806), namely 1765.

In addition to the lettering there are three flowers engraved in the seal.  These were only for decoration, indicating that the seal belonged to someone of importance since under the rules governing the cutting of seals in the Mughal period no ordinary person was permitted to use such decorations.  Since all official work was done in Persian language it was necessary for all important persons to have a seal in that language for the use in the Nawab’s Court and administrative establishments, in legal documents, trade and business contracts, administrative directions, formal correspondence and various other official and quasi-official documents and papers. The seals were precious possessions and were only left with the person in whom the principal had total confidence such as the banian.  Trust was the most important element of official and business relationships in 18th century Bengal as standards of ethical behaviour were not high.

It is presumed that when he left for England Francis Sykes left the seal with his banian Cantoo Baboo to complete his unfinished business, reference to which will be found in his letters to Warren Hastings.  Unfortunately no document has yet come to light where the seal has been used.

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[1] This amendment was added to the case study on 20 March 2013.


Sarah Longair, British Museum – A similar seal also made in the reign of Shah Alam II (1760-1806) exists in the British Museum collections. The seal belonged to Colonel Gabriel Harper of the East India Company. Visit the British Museum website for more information.