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“Unhitching the Oxcart of Delhi”: a Mughal-Period Hindi account of Political Insurgency


This article is part of a larger effort to broaden the source-base for understanding Mughal-period India by engaging with the Hindi literary archive. I analyze the vignettes of Aurangzeb and other Mughal figures that are available in Lāl Kavi's Chatraprakāś (Light of Chatrasal, c. 1710), a Brajbhasha (classical Hindi) historical poem commissioned by the Bundela ruler Chatrasal (1649–1731). Written shortly after Aurangzeb's death, the Chatraprakāś is in part a retrospective on Aurangzeb's reign. It is also a valuable source of regional history that gives voice to how the Mughal Empire was perceived from a local court that went in and out of political favour. In places, Lāl Kavi engages in trenchant political critique, expressing the court's strong disillusionment with the Mughal manṣabdārī system as well as more local grievances. While by no means the dominant tone of the work, there are occasional hints of the court's outrage at Mughal offenses against what Lal Kavi explicitly terms “Hindu dharma.” Parsing the Chatraprakāś as both poetry and history, I probe the text's complex perspectives on Mughal rule.

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1 On the Mughal turn toward Persian literary culture during Akbar's reign, see Alam, M., “The Pursuit of Persian: Language in Mughal Politics”, Modern Asian Studies, 32: 2 (1998), pp. 317349. By “Hindi” I reference “Brajbhasha” or classical Hindi.

2 Mahendrapratap Singh and Bhagavandas Gupta are notable exceptions. See Singh, M. P., Aitihāsik pramāṇāvalī aur chatrasāl (Delhi, 1975), pp. 158159; Gupta, B., Mughaloṃ ke antargat bundelkhaṇḍ ke itihās-saṃskṛti ke hindī sāhityik srotoṃ kā mūlyāṅkan (Jhansi, 2001).

3 Chatraprakāś evidently sparked the interest of the colonial state since there are several nineteenth-century manuscripts in the British Library. See Ghosh, Dipali, A Handlist of Hindi Manuscripts in the India Office Library (London, 1990s), entry 17: Mss.Hin.B.1, Mss.Hin.B.23, Mss.Hin.C.22, Mss.Hin.B.32.

4 Price, W., The Ch,hutru Prukash; A Biographical Account of Ch,hutru Sal, Raja of Boondelkhund (Calcutta, 1829); Pogson, W. R., A History of the Boondelas (Calcutta, 1828).

5 Pogson, A History of the Boondelas, p. vi.

6 Typical are Tivari, B. (ed.), Chatra-vilās (Allahabad, 1984), p. 5; Gupta, M., “Prastāvanā [preface]”, in Singh, K., Yugpravartak mahārājā chatrasāl (Delhi, 2001), pp. vi–viii.

7 Pogson, A History of the Boondelas, p. v.

8 Dirk Kolff defines bhumiyāvaṭ as a Rajput prince's “raid in search of a territory of his own”, Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy, p. 61.

9 See, respectively, Rothfarb, E., Orchha and Beyond: Design at the Court of Raja Bir Singh Dev Bundela (Mumbai, 2012); Seitz, K., Orchha, Datia, Panna: Miniaturen von den rajputischen Höfen Bundelkhands 1580-1820 2 Vols (2015); Busch, A., Poetry of Kings: The Classical Hindi Literature of Mughal India (New York, 2011), pp. 2364.

10 Chatrasal's capital at Panna is located less than 30 miles southeast of Khajuraho in today's Madhya Pradesh.

11 Kolff, D., Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy (Cambridge, 2002 [1990]), pp. 117158.

12 See Busch, A., “Literary Responses to the Mughal Imperium: The Historical Poems of Keśavdās”, South Asia Research 25: 1 (2005), pp. 3437, and Pauwels, H., “The Saint, the Warlord, and the Emperor: Discourses of Braj Bhakti and Bundelā Loyalty”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 52: 2 (2009), pp. 187228.

13 “Sanad of Chhatrasal to Lāl Kavi,” in B. Gupta, Contemporary Sources of the Mediaeval and Modern History of Bundelkhand (1531-1857) Vol. 1 (Delhi, 1999), p. 4.

14 Codicils note the granting of additional villages eleven years later.

15 It is difficult to fully attest Lāl's oeuvre, much of which remains unpublished and unstudied. B. Tivari, the editor of Chatravilās, mentions 10 works, and also notes that Lāl Kavi was the “gāyatrī guru” (initiatory teacher) and “sāmarik saciv” (war counsellor) of Chatrasal, on what grounds it is difficult to say (p. 6).

16 K. Seitz, Orchha, Datia, Panna: Miniaturen.

17 Compositions attributed to Chatrasal have been collected in Hari, V. (ed.), Chatrasāl-granthāvalī (Panna, 1926). Although Lāl Kavi provides a somewhat formulaic account of Chatrasal's upbringing and education, he does pause to note the king's literary proclivities, saying “When he heard the poems of fine poets, he would be immersed in feeling and he enjoyed engaging his intellect in the meanings (satakabi kabita sunata rasa pāgai, bilasata mati arathani meṃ āgai), Chatraprakāś, (ed.) M. Singh (Delhi, 1973), p. 73.

18 Sharma, R., Śaurya evam bhakti ke pratīk mahārājā śrī chatrasāl (Jaipur, 2002), p. 60.

19 Bhūṣaṇ Tripāṭhī is credited with ten verses in praise of Chatrasal, Chatrasāldaśak. Nevāz (also Nevāj) is a slightly harder poet to place because there are multiple figures with that name. The association with Chatrasal is briefly mentioned in Nagendra (ed.), Hindī Sāhitya kā bṛhat itihās Vol 6 (Varanasi, 1973), p. 406; also see Pauwels, H., Cultural Exchange in Eighteenth-Century India (Berlin, 2015), p. 38.

20 Ram, S., Swāmī lāldās kṛt mahāmatī prāṇnāth bītak kā madhyakālīn bhāratīya itihās ko yogdān (Delhi, 1996), pp. 157176; on his religious sermons in Delhi and the conversion of Chatrasal see B. LaRocque, “Trade, State and Religion in Early Modern India: Devotionalism and the Market Economy in the Mughal Empire”, unpublished PhD., University of Wisconsin-Madison, History Department, 2004, pp. 206-210.

21 These include the Pranami and Nijanandi (also Nijdhami) sampradāys (communities).

22 For a brief synopsis of the life of Prannath see B. LaRocque, “Trade, State and Religion in Early Modern India”, pp. 152-166; Jayasval, M., “Bītak kā aitihāsik mahatva”, in Bītak, (ed.) Bhagat, K., with the commentary of M. Dhami (New Delhi, 1991) pp. 15.

23 The word used here is tāratamya, which has a special signification as scripture among practitioners of the Pranami and Nijanandi communities.

24 Chatravilās, p. 28.

25 As written by Lāl Kavi, the term mahāmati means “greatly enlightened”. Another variant is “Mahamat” which as noted by Brendan Larocque would mean “the supreme religion” but in a more syncretistic spirit can also be an evocation of Muhammad. See his “Mahamat Prannath and the Pranami Movement: Hinduism and Islam in a Seventeenth-Century Mercantile Sect”, in Religious Interactions in Mughal India, (ed.) Vasudha Dalmia and Munis D. Faruqui (New Delhi, 2014), p. 357.

26 As the poet puts it “The brilliant deeds of Chatrasal wipe out the darkness of the kaliyug” (chatrasāla ke carita ujyāre, meṭata kula kalikāla aṃdhyāre), Chatraprakāś, p. 63. Luminosity is often connected to fame (both are depicted as bright/white) in Indian poetry. Compare the title of Keśavdās’ praśasti-kāvya to the Mughal Emperor, Jahāṃgīrjascandrikā, “Moonlight of the fame of Jahangir”. Lāl Kavi must have been aware of the compositions of his famous predecessor, who had worked for a Bundela ruler from whom Chatrasal was descended. There is congruence in the genealogy and Lāl Kavi occasionally adopts similar phrasing and themes employed by Keśavdās. (see notes 29, 85, and 98).

27 See note 33.

28 See Provincializing Europe (Princeton, 2000), pp. 14-16.

29 Chatraprakāś, pp. 4-8 (with genealogical details continuing through p. 13). As elsewhere in the work, Lāl Kavi may have been drawing directly on Keśavdās. The goddess of the Vindhya Mountains is similarly given an important role in the frame story of Keśavdās’ Vīrsiṃhdevacarit (notably in Chapters Two and Three), where she is hailed as the clan deity or kuladevī. Keśavdās may also have been Lāl Kavi's source for the genealogical information of the Bundelas. Compare Vīrsiṃhdevacarit, in Keśavgranthāvalī Vol. 3, (ed.) V. Mishra (Allahabad, 1959), vv. 2.21-54 and Kavipriyā, in Keśavgranthāvalī Vol. 1, (ed.) V. Mishra (Allahabad, 1954), vv. 1.6-39.

30 Chatraprakāś, pp. 63-65.

31 Mohiṃ baira turakana sauṃ lībai, aurau kāja apūraba kībai/tā taiṃ phiri avatārahiṃ laihauṃ imi phiri āi tumhai sukha daihauṃ, Chatraprakāś, p. 66.

32 Cakravarti ke cinha saba, aṅgana-aṅgana rākhi/chatra-dharma janu autaryau, sāmudrika dai sākhi, Chatraprakāś, p. 67.

33 Lāl Kavi often uses chatra as a homonym, playing off of the dual meaning of Kshatriya and Chatrasal as in these instances: chatrasāla chatrī chavi chāyau (Chatrasal was engulfed with warrior luster, Chatraprakāś, p. 180) or tinake tanaya chatrapana dhārī, chatrasāla sohata bhaṭabhārī ([Campat Rai's] son upheld the warrior code, Chatrasal, a luminous and formidable warrior, Chatraprakāś, p. 192).

34 Chatraprakāś, p. 70.

35 Chatraprakāś, p. 71.

36 Chatraprakāś, p. 71.

37 White, H., The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore and London, 1987).

38 For further on the historical background see Kolff, Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy, pp. 120-144; Saksena, B., History of Shahjahan of Dihli (Allahabad, 1958), pp. 7993.

39 D. Kolff, Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy, p. 16.

40 Sāhi jahāṃ umaṛyau ghanaghorā, campati jhanjhā pauna jhakorā/sāhi kaṭaku jhakajhora jhulāyo, gilyoṃ bundelakhaṇḍa ugilāyau, Chatraprakāś, p. 16. Cf. gilī bhuṃma bhujabala ugilāī, p. 93.

41 Pahar Singh's two attempts to assassinate Campat Rai are what drove him to seek out a manṣab with the Mughals. See Chatraprakāś, pp. 28-30.

42 Jahāṃ na guna kī būjha baṛāī, cugalī sunai citta dai sāī/rījha ṭhaura prabhu khījha janāvai, tahāṃ kauna guna gunī calāvai, Chatraprakāś, p. 32.

43 V. G. Khobrekar, (ed.) Tārīkh-i-dilkasha (Memoirs of Bhimsen relating to Aurangzib's Deccan campaigns), English Translation by Sarkar, Jadunath, in Sir Jadunath Sarkar Birth Centenary Commemoration Volume (Bombay, 1972), pp. 1719.

44 Chatraprakāś, p. 35.

45 Nauraṅgasāha . . . vara buddhi pravīnī, Chatraprakāś, p. 36.

46 Bhimsen, Tārīkh-i dilkasha, p. 20.

47 Cāmila pāra kauna vidhi hūjai, Chatraprakāś, p. 39

48 Chatraprakāś, p. 38.

49 Chatraprakāś, p. 39.

50 Tārīkh-i dilkasha, p. 20.

51 Chatraprakāś, p. 44. The “inferno” (āga, a word in all likelihood chosen for its pleasing assonance with āgarai, i.e., Agra) is evidently a metaphor for the disruption that Campat Rai occasioned Aurangzeb, who was still battling his brothers in the succession struggle.

52 Chatraprakāś, p. 44.

53 Hama na sāha kauṃ manasaba chaihaiṃ, bhumiyāvaṭa meṃ sāmila raihaiṃ, Chatraprakāś, p. 49.

54 Chatraprakāś, p. 74. Shikhandi had been born as Amba in a previous life and gravely wronged by Bhishma, who abducted her even though she was in love with Salva. In the end Bhishma recognised his error but when he tried to return Amba to Salva the latter rejected her as damaged goods.

55 Chatraprakāś, pp. 59-60.

56 Haq, S. M., Khafi Khan's History of ‘Alamgir (Muntakhab al-lubāb) (Karachi, 1975), p.134.

57 Khan, S., Ma'ās̤ir al-umarā Vol. 2, translated by H. Beveridge (Calcutta, 1952), pp. 720721. Spellings have been lightly emended for clarity.

58 Heidi Pauwels has also noted similar characterisations in her comparison of memory traditions that focus on the Akbar-period Bundela ruler Madhukar Shah: the Mughal sources invariably see him as a “recalcitrant rebel”. See “The Saint, the Warlord, and the Emperor”, pp. 192-196.

59 Dukha kī lahara lahara par āī, hiyau hilaura dṛgana para chāī, Chatraprakāś, p. 75.

60 Chatraprakāś, p. 75.

61 Chatraprakāś, p. 75.

62 Here the text appears to skip quickly over a period of 4-5 years.

63 Chatraprakāś, pp. 79-81; for further context, see M. Singh, Introduction to Chatraprakāś, p. 7.

64 Chatraprakāś, p. 81.

65 Chatraprakāś, p. 82.

66 Chatraprakāś, pp. 82-84.

67 Chatraprakāś, p. 85.

68 Lotuses are supposed to grow in water.

69 Surdas was a famous Hindi poet who was thought to be blind.

70 Chatraprakāś, p. 86.

71 Chatraprakāś, pp. 16-17.

72 Aiṛa bundelakhaṇḍa kī rākhī, campati kīrti jagata mukha bhākhī, Chatraprakāś, p. 85; and similarly: campati rāi tega kara līnī, opa bundela baṃsa kau dīnī, Chatraprakāś, p. 95.

73 For details of Shivaji's military and diplomatic exploits during these years, see Gordon, S., The Marathas: 1600-1818 (New Delhi, 1993), pp. 7080.

74 Chatraprakāś, p. 88. The relatively weak elephant is considered the enemy of the stronger lion.

75 Tripāṭhī, Bhūṣaṇ, Śivrājbhūṣaṇ (Delhi, 1982), v. 163.

76 For a brief synopsis of Chatrasal's political life under the Mughals and pursuit of independence in Bundelkhand, see B. LaRocque, “Trade, State and Religion in Early Modern India” pp. 212-213.

77 On the impact of the Marathas’ expertise in guerilla warfare, see S. Gordon, The Marathas, pp. 37-41, 75.

78 Chatraprakāś, p. 90.

79 Baldau is called bhāī or brother in the text, a term that in Hindi also applies to cousins. According to the text's editor, Mahendrapratap Singh, Baldau (also Baldivan) was the paternal cousin of Chatrasal with ancestral holdings in the area of Pahara. Chatraprakāś, pp. 104-105.

80 The word manṣab is often used as a stand-in for the Mughal relationship in this text.

81 Chatraprakāś, pp. 97-98.

82 This episode is a useful reminder of the power of the occult in everyday political life. For more on this important theme, see Moin, A., The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (New York, 2012).

83 Chatraprakāś, pp. 99-100. Here the text takes a strongly documentary turn, with Lāl Kavi providing specific names and even the time of year: Baishakh (March/April) of V.S. 1728, approximately 1671.

84 Chatraprakāś, p. 100.

85 Chatraprakāś, p. 101. Keśavdās had used a similar expression in Vīrsiṃhdevcarit 1.33: bina bhītihi kata citrahi citra.

86 Chatraprakāś, p. 104.

87 Kula dillī dala bahala kau, gayau dhurā so ṭuṭi, Chatraprakāś, p. 171.

88 On the financial arrangements with Baldau, see Chatraprakāś, p. 104. For a brief description of cauth, see Asher, C. and Talbot, C., India before Europe (Cambridge, 2006), p. 240. References to cauth, and the related concept of ḍāṃḍ, are numerous in this section of the Chatraprakāś. See, for instance, pp. 100, 109-110, 114, 144-153.

89 Chatrasal, whose very name means “thorn to the enemy” (derived from Sanskrit śatruśalya), is aptly described as a “thorn that pierced through” (salyo sāla), cutting his enemies to the quick.

90 Chatraprakāś, p. 134.

91 Chatraprakāś, p. 141.

92 M. P. Singh discusses the extent of Chatrasal's conquests in Bundelkhand (and Baghelkhand to the east), in Aitihāsik Pramāṇāvalī, pp. 114-124.

93 Lāl Kavi's regionalised description of Chatrasal's conquests is a far cry from the more universalising digvijaya in the Sanskrit political imaginary, which envisioned “power up to the horizons”. See Pollock, Sheldon, Language of the Gods (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2006), pp. 237258.

94 See note 33.

95 I owe this insight to Cynthia Talbot. On the lowly status of the Bundelas, see Dirk Kolff, Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy, Chapter 4.

96 Chatraprakāś, p. 102. Uddim is also invoked in Chatrasal's conversation with Subhkaran Bundela (p. 90).

97 Cf. M. Singh, Introduction to Chatraprakāś, pp. 46-47.

98 Ali Anooshahr has called attention to a late sixteenth-century pivot in Persian historiography towards newly elevating human reason above fate. See “Author of One's Fate: Fatalism and Agency in Indo-Persian Histories”, Indian Economic and Social History Review 49 (2) (2012), pp. 197-224. Analogues can also be found in Hindi texts. For instance, in Keśavdās’ Jahāṃgīrjascandrikā (1612), the Mughal manṣabdār Iraj Shahnavaz Khan (son of the famous Mughal general ‘Abd al-Rahim Khan-i khanan), is portrayed asking Keśavdās whether personal striving or fate play the greater role in a man's life: kahijai kesaurāyajū, uddima baṛo ki karma, Jahāṃgīrjascandrikā, (ed.) K. Lal (Allahabad, 1994), v. 10. The work then enfolds as a debate between these two forces.

99 See (among others), C. Asher and C. Talbot, India Before Europe, pp. 235-236.

100 Chatraprakāś, p. 73.

101 See note 74.

102 Chatraprakāś, p. 86.

103 Chatraprakāś, pp. 91-92. In Persian the word fidā’ī means somebody who sacrifices himself for a noble cause.

104 Chatraprakāś, p. 92.

105 Pātasāha lāge karana hindu dharma kau nāsu, Chatraprakāś, p. 93. Cf. B. LaRocque, “Mahamat Prannath and the Pranami Movement,” p. 355 (quoting one Ashajit, a contemporary of Aurangzeb who considered him “an enemy of Hindus.”

106 Lit. torā, “turban ornament” (Arabic t̤urrā).

107 Chatraprakāś, p. 95.

108 This meeting is described in the canto previous to the one in which Chatrasal's meeting with Baldau in the Deccan is reported. See note 81.

109 R. Eaton, “Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States”, Beyond Turk and Hindu, pp. 264-266; cf. Pauwels, H., “A Tale of Two Temples: Mathurā’s Keśavadeva and Orcchā’s Caturbhujadeva, Religious Cultures in Early Modern India, (eds.) O'Hanlon, R. and Washbrook, D. (London and New York, 2012), pp. 156159.

110 Many scholars have weighed in on the interpretation of terms like “Turk” and “Hindu” in the premodern literary record. Several now-classic discussions are Talbot, C., “Inscribing the Other, Inscribing the Self: Hindu-Muslim Identities in Pre-Colonial India”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 37:4 (1995), pp. 692722; Lorenzen, D., “Who Invented Hinduism? Comparative Studies in Society and History, 41:4 (1999), pp. 630659; and Gilmartin, D. and Lawrence, B. (eds.), Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia (Gainesville, FL, 2000).

111 Lorenzen, D., “Who Invented Hinduism”; Nicholson, A. J., Unifying Hinduism (New York, 2010), pp. 196205.

112 Hindu dharama jaga jāi calāvau, dauri dilīdala halani halāvau, Chatraprakāś, p. 96. Cf. D. Lorenzen, “Who Invented Hinduism,” pp. 651-653.

113 For the Maratha case, cf. Deshpande, P., Creative pasts: Historical Memory and Identity in Western India, 1700-1960 (New York, 2007), p. 42.

114 Hindū turuka, duhūṃ sama rākhai, Daud, Cāndāyan, (ed.) M. Gupta (Agra, 1967), v. 14.

115 The Kachwaha court poet Narottam Kavi, a contemporary of Akbar, said of the emperor, “This is Hindu rule, who says it is Turk?” or “Akbar loves Hindus, he has turned against the Turks”, Māncarit, (ed.) G. Bahura (Jaipur, 1990), vv. 123-125.

116 Keśavdās referred to Jahangir as duhuṃ dīna kauṃ sāhiba, “the master of both faiths,” Jahāṃgīrjascandrikā, v. 31. In his Binhairāso, a Rajasthani account of the succession conflict between Aurangzeb and Dara Shukoh in 1658, Maheśdās signals his approval of Shah Jahan by saying that he ruled justly over “the two paths” (rāha dahuṃvai). Binhairāso, (ed.) S. Shekhavat (Jodhpur, 1966), v. 10.

117 See Busch, A., “The Rulers of Bundi in Mughal-Period Literary Culture”, in Bundi Fort: a Rajput World, (ed.) Beach, M. (Mumbai, 2016), p. 106.

118 A recent article by Rajeev Kinra makes clear that sulḥ-i kull or “absolute civility” with respect to religious freedom was an enduring Mughal-period political value. “Handling Diversity with Absolute Civility: The Global Historical Legacy of Mughal Sulḥ-i kull.” Medieval History Journal 16: 2 (2013), pp. 251–295.

119 Recall how the sanad referred to earlier in this article contained a gentle exhortation to complete the work.

120 Mān Kavi, Anūpprakāś (a biography of the Bundela warlord Anupgiri Gosain), mss.Hin.D.9a, British Library, London, Chatrasāla ke desa/Chatrasāladesa, vv. 443, 449.

121 See note 6.

122 Chatraprakāś, p. 194. A wealth of correspondence between Chatrasal and a quick succession of Eighteenth-century Mughal emperors survives, further attesting to the continuing relationship. See B. Gupta, Contemporary Sources of the Mediaeval and Modern History of Bundelkhand and M. P. Singh, Aitihāsik pramāṇāvalī.

123 The Māncarit of Narottam Kavi, written for the Kachwahas of Amber during Akbar's reign, is one such work. See note 115 and Busch, A., “The Classical Past in the Mughal Present: The Brajbhasha Rīti Tradition”, Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Kāvya Literature, (eds.) Bronner, Y., Shulman, D., and Tubb, G. (New Delhi, 2014), pp. 650662.

124 See Gupta, B., Life and times of Maharaja Chhatrasal Bundela, New Delhi, 1980), p. 8.

125 See note 25.

126 There have been some revisionist strides in scholarship, but these do not have much effect in countering the dominant views in popular culture and the historiography that most South Asians imbibe through school textbooks. Nuanced approaches to Aurangzeb historiography include Chandra, S., “Reassessing Aurangzeb”, Seminar, 364 (1988), pp. 3538; C. Asher and C. Talbot, India Before Europe, Chapter 8; Brown, K., “Did Aurangzeb Ban Music? Questions for the Historiography of his Reign”, Modern Asian Studies, 41:1 (2007), pp. 77120.

127 C. Talbot, “Inscribing the Other, Inscribing the Self”, pp. 705-706.

128 For more on the the so-called “Rajput rebellion,” and further arguments on the need for historical contextualisation of the polemics espoused in various Mughal-period literary works, see Cynthia Talbot's essay in this issue.

*The research for this article was generously supported by a Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. I am grateful to my fellow panelists at the 23rd European Conference on South Asian Studies in Zurich (July 2014) for fostering a productive scholarly dialogue on the importance of vernacular historiography. Brendan LaRocque, Anne Murphy, Heidi Pauwels, and Audrey Truschke gave me incisive feedback on earlier drafts. I also wish to thank my research assistants Justin Ben-Hain, Owen Cornwall, and Leela Khanna for their careful work at various stages of the project.

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