SOHAN LĀL SŪRĪ, vākīl or attorney at the Lahore court, is famous for his monumental work in Persian, 'Umdat ut-Twārīkh, a chronicle of Sikh times comprising five daftars or volumes. Little is known about Sohan Lāl's early life except that he was the son of Lālā Gaṇpat Rāi, a munshī or clerk successively under Sardār Chaṛhat Siṅgh and Sardār Mahāṅ Siṅgh of the Sukkarchakkīā misl. Ganpat Rāi had kept a record of important events of his own time which he passed on to his son around 1811 enjoining upon him to continue the work of writing a history of the Punjab. Lālā Sohan Lāl who, according to his own statement, was well versed in Persian, Arabic, mathematics, astronomy and numerology, was inspired to take to historiography by, besides the example of his father, Sujān Rāi Bhāṇḍārī's Khulāsāt ut-Twārīkh which covers the period from Hindushāhī rulers of the tenth and eleventh centuries to 1704 in the reign of Auraṅgzīb. While acknowledging his debt to Sujān Rāi Bhāṇḍārī, Sohan Lāl Sūrī mentions another motive that prompted him to write his book. In the beginning of the first daftar of 'Umdat ut-Twārīkh, he remarked referring to himself in the third person : "In fact the purpose and reason for which he undertook the novel and noteworthy compilation was that ever since the time of the Sultanate the writing of such works was looked upon as the proof of literary ability, which distinguished a scholar from an ordinary man. Learned men received due recognition and encouragement from the rulers of the time..." The sources for his voluminous Twārīkh, 7,000 pages of manuscript in shikastā or running Persian script covering the period from the birth of Gurū Nānak in 1469 to the annexation of the Punjab in 1849, are his own knowledge of contemporary events, the notes bequeathed to him by his father and the historical or legendary material bearing on the subject available to him.
Besides his magnum opus, the 'Umdāt ut-Twārīkh, Lālā Sohan Lāl Sūrī wrote 'Ibrat Nāmah, lit. an account that teaches a lesson. It is a small poetical composition on the tragic murders of Mahārājā Sher Siṅgh, Rājā Dhiān Siṅgh and the Sandhāṅvālīā Sardārs and their associates in September 1843. The title of another work of his, Selections from Daftar II, is deceptive. The manuscript contains brief notes on courtiers, rājās, dīwāns, learned men, saints and ascetics living in the year 1831; a genealogical table of the author's family up to 1836; a funeral oration on the death of his father, an account of the cis-Sutlej chiefs, a description of the institutions of the English; a brief description of the author's meeting with Captain Wade, later Colonel Sir Claude Martin Wade, British political agent at Ludhiāṇā, and copies of certain letters and testimonials. He is also said to have written treatises on mathematics, astronomy and geometry. Faqīr 'Azīz ud-Dīn, Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh's favoured minister, introduced Sohan Lāl to Captain Wade as a historian of the Sikh court. At Captain Wades request the Mahārājā allowed Sohan Lāl to visit Ludhiānā, where he used to read out to his host from the 'Umdat ut-Twārīkh twice a week. He also presented the latter with a copy of the work which is still preserved in the Royal Asiatic Society Library in London.
After the annexation of the Punjab to British dominions in1849, Lālā Sohan Lāl Sūrī was awarded a jāgīr worth Rs.1,000 per annum in the village of Māṅgā, in Amritsar district, to which he probably retired to pass his remaining years.
V. S. Sūrī