The history of accounting can be traced back to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Babylon and corresponds to the very rise of empires, the development of forms of writing and early inventions.
In India the influential 2nd century BCE Sanskrit text, the Arthashasthra authored by Kautilya, also known as Chanakya on aspects of statecraft included not just treatise on economics, law and military strategy but in addition contained detailed notes on the importance of maintaining accounts for a Sovereign State. The text included accounting principles, bookkeeping standards and methodology, the role and responsibilities of accountants and of course of auditors and the detection of fraud.
States, merchants, traders, householders had long maintained accounting information but it was in the late 15th century that the Venetian Luca Pacioli, regarded as the father of accounting and bookkeeping in his publication ‘Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria, Proportioni et Proportionalita’first enunciated the system of double-entry bookkeeping that with adaptations, continues in use till today. Simplistically explained, the double-entry system of bookkeeping balances two corresponding and opposite entries, assets and credits with liabilities and debits.
In India like elsewhere in the world much has changed with handwritten accounts, moving on to the typewritten and now on to modern professional accounting on computers. But one bookkeeping system continues unaltered over the centuries and that is the use of the double-entry system maintained in the traditional Bahi-Khata, also called pothis and chopdis in western India.
These accounting books are recognizable by their distinct dark-red cloth covers, a colour associated with Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. This cloth of auspiciousness and good luck is wrapped around a soft cardboard to which it is stitched on to reinforce it, giving it strength and durability. The thick white cotton thread contrasts with the dark-red cloth giving the Bahi’s their distinct identity. The threadwork, earlier hand-stitched and now executed on a sewing machine, is patterned in a continuous running stitch that turns onto itself in loops and straight lines without a stitch-break thus ensuring that the Bahi-Khataremains hard-wearing to serve as a long-term record of money spent and received.
Used throughout the country and across communities, castes and religions there are several variations but what remains the same as with all matters of profit and loss is that good luck is invoked with messages that resonate with the user. For the Hindus words like Shubhlaabh or goodness-and-wealth to ShriPujanuPano or Goddess Lakshmi’s prayer page are printed on to the fly-leaf. Pictures of the elephant-headed Ganpati, the Hindu god of good beginnings, of Goddess Lakshmi to a picture of the Swastika the sacred symbol of auspiciousness and good luck are also common features.
A new Bahi-Khata is started on the first day of the new year and in many parts of north India, Gujarat and Maharashtra that falls on the day after Diwali, in Bengal it falls on PoilaBaisakh while in the Islamic calendar it is the start of the Hijri Year or Misri year that is followed among the many other new year days celebrated. In addition the start of the Khata is initiated with prayers and offerings to the deities who are being invoked for blessings and good fortune in the days to come.These prayers may be privately held in home, offices, shops and karkhanas or in the presence of preists. Some larger gatherings are publically held as is the ChopdaPujan in temples in Maharashtra and Gujarat
As the Khatas are foldable their sizes can vary according to the needs of the user as can the paper lengths that sometimes extend up to a yard. The binding of the Khata depends on the number of sheets it contains so it is either held together by a central stitch or by several stitches that bind sections of sheets. The white inner pages are vertically creased into columns that are divided by the standards of precision, accuracy and intelligibility required for the double accounting system. While earlier these creased line were done by hand using a metal template they are now machine creased and often even printed in a matrix like format for ease of entry. Likewise in keeping with the times the earlier hand-stitched cover is now sewed on by machine.
The Khatas are available in commercial markets across India from Delhi’s Sadar Bazaar, Mumbai’s, Mangaldas Market to General Ganj in Kanpur and now online.
The Bahi-Khatahave been immortalized in art (see photo), in cinema where vivid pictures of the extortionist money-lender maintaining his accounts comes to life and in the law courts where a landmark judgment of the Punjab and Haryana High Court Prevented the exploitation of farmers by commission agents, asserting that entries in the ‘Bahi-Khataare not enough to prove that loan has been sanctioned to cultivators’ further stating ‘that farmers cannot be convicted in cheque bounce cases for non-payment of loans entered in the Bahi-Khata.’
The Bahi-Khata are now being produced for not just accounts as their retro design and long-use sturdiness and toughness is so contemporary that it is finding new uses by note-takers, artists, writers, students and many others.
First published in Sunday Herald.