Saturday, June 8, 2019

Indigo Nation

Francois Pelsaert, a Dutch merchant from Antwerp, was posted in Agra for several years on behalf of the Dutch East Indies Company. Near Agra, at a place called Bayana, he witnessed an extraordinary scene during the first decade of the 17th century. At the harvest time of the most important crop of the region, he saw Indian, Armenian, and a few European merchants gathering at the local market and waiting for the largest buyer to arrive. Peasants–as was the custom–left it to the largest customer to decide the price of the commodity! Once the chief buyer had exercised his privilege and others, who had placed advance amount earlier, had collected their goods, Pelsaert and other Europeans had the option either to buy at the spot price decided by the chief buyer or to pay advance for the next year’s crop. The sophistication of this exchange, which so overwhelmed Pelsaert, was over a plant, which produced a distinctive blue dye.

Blue is a colour almost unavailable in nature and therefore, any product in blue colour commanded a great premium in global market. Since, at least the Greco-Roman period, India was known as the only supplier of indigo dye in world market (Greek word for dye was ‘indikon’ or Indian, which led to ‘indigo’ in English via Roman ‘Indicum’). Indigo was so exclusive that worldwide–from the dress code of Yoruba elites in Nigeria to the preferred colour of summer Kimono in Japan–it symbolised status.

The only other comparable product in blue has been the famous blue-white Chinese pottery, made using cobalt imported from the Middle East. In fact the concept of blue pottery itself came from the Abbasid Persia but the Chinese porcelain in blue and white became world famous and later imitated in Europe.

Bayana, near Agra and Sarkhej near Ahmedabad were among the famous indigo producing areas. The British started large-scale export of indigo from Calcutta after 1765, when the Northern plains opened up for commercial exploitation. As the demand in the world market grew exponentially, there was an indigo boom in Bengal and Bihar, fuelled by capital investment of Calcutta agency houses. Again, using state-backed coercion; white indigo planters unleashed a reign of terror–finally provoking an armed rebellion in the late 1850s in Bengal. This Neel Bidroho or Indigo Revolt was a landmark event, when common peasants, a few Indian landholders, a famous newspaper editor (Harish Mukherjee of Hindu Patriot) and a host of others came together to protest against this reign of terror. This finally forced the colonial government to step in and end this sort of exploitation by the indigo planters.

Though indigo farming went on till early twentieth century, particularly in Bihar, its exploitative character had to undergo change. Meanwhile, the unprecedented textile boom necessitated search for more reliable source of dyes leading to the accidental discovery of first aniline dye, mauveine by William Perkin in 1856. Working for more than two decades from 1865, German chemist Adolf von Baeyer produced indigo dye for the first time in laboratory. However, this was far from perfect–this led to further work on this in two German companies–BASF and Hoechst. Eventually, by 1910 or so, factory-produced indigo came to replace natural indigo and BASF, Hoechst along with a host of British companies, which were eventually merged to create Imperial Chemical Industries, led the chemical revolution.

For more such stories related to Indian business history, see Laxminama: Monks, Merchants, Money and Mantra by Anshuman Tiwari and Anindya Sengupta Bloomsbury 2018

Shahs of Astrakhan

Astrakhan 1681

‘Sutur’ was a leading Indian merchant in the 17th-century Astrakhan. This Russian town has been the traditional economic and cultural capital of the Caspian region. Consolidation of Russian authority and expansion towards South under the Romanovs, opened a new Asiatic route of commerce for Russia. The Muscovite state with its modest trading class, then decided to welcome Armenians, Iranians, and Indian merchants. A series of documents preserved in the Russian archives in recent years helped to throw considerable light on this Indian diaspora, led by merchants like Sutur.

Perhaps we would never get to know the real name of ‘Sutur’ as all our information about this extraordinary Indian merchant comes from Russian sources, where he is always identified as ‘Sutur’. In a series of remarkable petitions submitted to the Tsar–and preserved in Russian archives–Sutur mentions that he arrived at Astrakhan from Iran in the 1620s because of favourable business conditions. His brothers worked in Northern Iranian cities as merchants. While generally praising the rule of law under the Tsars, once he complained about a government functionary, who used to harass merchants. His complaint led to quick removal of the officer concerned. Sutur claimed that in 1646, at his invitation, his brothers and twenty-five other Indian merchants arrived at Astrakhan with large amount of merchandise and some of them settled down at Astrakhan.

In 1647, Sutur had obtained permission to set up an Indian gostiny dvor, literally guest house but in effect, a residential bazaar at Astrakhan. This dvor was completed in 1649, when a government census found that twenty-six Indian merchants are living there. They were substantial merchants–Sutur himself dealt in all sorts of commodities and he sourced his stuff from Isfahan and Qazvin, where his brothers were settled. At one point, he went ahead and created another base in Moscow, where he himself stayed for three years.

Ateshgah or fire temple of Baku, used as a place of worship by Hindu and Sikh merchants
Indian merchants and moneylenders were present in significant numbers in Safavid Iran (1500-1722) and Uzbek Khanates or Turan (1500-1920). This important trading diaspora is almost unknown to modern scholarship as there is very little documentation available of them. Merchants like Sutur did not go directly from India but advanced to Astrakhan from his base in Isfahan or Qazvin. Indian diaspora in Iran and Turan not only had the advantage of a common language (Persian) but also operated within the common Timurid legacy in terms of political framework and a similar approach to commerce. Russia was somewhat different but the Russian state welcomed the Indian merchants as they had almost no mercantile class of her own.

For centuries, India dominated the global trade by dint of its cotton exports and the picture was no different for the 17th-century Persian or Russian markets. Varieties of cotton, sugar, and indigo and a few speciality products formed the Indian export basket, the principal imports items were horses, some silk and other luxury goods. Overall, India enjoyed a positive trade balance made up by export of gold and silver by Iran and Turan.

Invocation to Lord Ganesh, Baku Fire Temple
Apart from Muslim Afghan merchants, often from Lohani or Luharni tribes, those who were known as Multani or simply as bania in Iranian and Russian records, were mainly Khattris and also Marwaris and Jains. Their home base was Multan, where rich patriarchs, called Shahs, deputed their underlings or gumasthas to trade in far-off places. In Isfahan alone, there were 10,000 ‘permanently settled’ Indians during the mid-seventeenth century. There were many others in Iranian and Afghan towns, between Multan and Isfahan, their networks were spread all over cities and towns of Afghanistan from Kandahar to Kunduz.

Invocation to Sikh Adi Grantha, baku Fire Temple
In 1727, an Indian merchant ‘Vishnat Narmaldas(ov)’ died while on a business trip to Kizil Yar on the Terek River. Before his death, he had asked another Indian ‘Ardial’ (Hardayal?) to take his property back to his father and relatives in India, but a third Indian, ‘Narayan Chanchamal(ov)’ petitioned the Russian authorities not to allow Ardial to leave the city of Astrakhan as he had claims against the deceased. This petition, which was eventually sent back to the Indian community to settle as per their customary law–presents a unique picture of an Indian mercantile community in a far-off land. Living inside their gostiny dvor, rich Indian merchants had their assistants and priests with them. They maintained their traditional lifestyle including daily rituals, food habits, and concepts of ritual pollution. They were praised for their fairness and hard work as well as high degree of personal hygiene.

‘Sukhanant Dyrymdas’ was an archetypical Multani Shah. He came to Astrakhan from Multan at the age of seventeen, died in Moscow at the age of sixty in 1759. His estate, consisting of cash, goods, letters of credit, and other valuables, was valued at three lakh Roubles (this is at a time when a substantial Russian merchant’s worth was around 1,000 Roubles). Most Indians traded in all kinds of goods and the larger among them indulged in money lending, bill discounting, and other banking activities. For Astrakhan Indians, their supply hinterland stretched up to Multan, through Iran and Afghanistan and their forward trading networks terminated either in Moscow or Nizhnii Novgorod. In 1684, twenty-one Indian merchants were there in Moscow, where they shared a gostiny dvor with Armenians, Bukharans, and Iranians. In Astrakhan itself, their number increased to 209 by 1725 and up to half of them were merchants and moneylenders, others were relatives, assistants, and priests. Some of them, presumably Muslims, lived in Bukharan dvor also. A few married local ladies and settled down outside gostiny. There were rare examples of a few converting to Russian Orthodox Church. Around the same time, there were around 300 Indian merchants in Bukhara.

From Moscow to Astrakhan and from Isfahan, Balkh and Bukhara to Kabul and Multan–they were all linked through kinship and hundi networks. The general practice was to advance another family member or retainer to the next post. This family/kinship based agency system–driven from their home base of Multan by wealthy patriarchs was in no way different from their European contemporaries in Genoa or Pisa. In pre-modern world, in the absence of a universal commercial law and state as an implementing agency for enforcing commercial contract, it was this family/kinship bonds and trust as well as fear of social sanction, in case a trust is broken, used to ensure commercial compliance. Indian merchants like Sukhanant or Sutur were at par or sometimes even better than their European counterparts in terms of their business ethos and financial skills and ability to organise family firms across the vast geography. Their organisational pattern as well as business practices in many ways conformed to a common Eurasian merchant type.

In 1723, ‘Anbu Ram Mulin’ petitioned the Tsar, Peter the Great to permit him to trade in St Petersburg and Archangel and to transit through Russia to trade in Germany on the one side and China on the other. This reflects the confidence of a trading community–which according to the statistics of the next year–imported three times more to Astrakhan than their nearest rivals, the Armenians. In the face of growing opposition from emerging Russian business lobbies, he was denied such permission. His immediate business prospect was, however, no way affected. But the rosy world of Anbu Ram and his compatriots was about to crumble–and it was politics which was chiefly responsible for that.

A year before his remarkable petition, the Safavid rule melted away in front of a ragtag Afghan army. The power vacuum created by this Ghilzai sack of Isfahan lasted nearly seven decades. There were already complaints about extortionate Persian bureaucracy, now the total absence of order in their hinterland destroyed the supply chain of Indian merchants of Astrakhan. They were dealt an even more severe blow as the Mughal central authority went on a downward spiral and for decades, their home base of Punjab remained seriously disturbed. In next two decades, Indian population in Astrakhan was halved and by the turn of the century it was almost over.

Alexander Burnes
In 1832, when Alexander Burnes arrived in Kabul on his way to Central Asia, he reported on Hindu moneylenders in Afghanistan. He was informed that Hindu merchants run their commercial networks/agencies from Astrakhan and Meshid to Calcutta. He was offered bills of exchange on Nizhnii Novgorod (on the Upper Volga region), Astrakhan, and Bukhara–this was the last time we heard about traditional Indian merchant establishments in Astrakhan and interiors of Russia. In Central Asia, of course, they continued as the prime moneylenders till the Russian Revolution. In fact, as the last vestiges of Multani networks, Hindu and Sikh moneychangers were visible on the streets of Kabul even a few years back.

For more such stories related to Indian business history, see Laxminama: Monks, Merchants, Money and Mantra by Anshuman Tiwari and Anindya Sengupta Bloomsbury 2018

Armenians in India

Hovhannes Joughayetsi started maintaining a detailed ledger from 19 December 1682. He was from a place called New Julfa, a suburb of Persian capital, Isfahan. In 1605, Shah Abbas, who reinvigorated the Safavid rule in Iran, forcefully shifted his Armenian subjects eastwards. While battling with the Ottomans on the Western front, he was also steadfast in his resolve to promote economic prosperity of his empire. Shah Abbas thus took special care to settle prominent Armenian merchants on the outskirts of his capital Isfahan. This new suburb came to be known as New Julfa (as one of their most prosperous settlements before shifting was a village called Julfa).

Hovhannes that is John in Armenian, was son of a priest, David. When two rich merchants (Khoja Zakar and Embroom, sons of Khoja Guerak) agreed to take him on as a junior partner, it was his chance to make it big in life. With the capital (mostly cash but also some English broadcloth, a total investment of 250 tuman) supplied by his wealthy senior partners, he was expected to travel through India on condition that he should get one-fourth of the profits. This agreement was concluded as per the existing legal traditions of the Armenian merchant community. This legal tradition enjoined upon a partner like Hovhannes to maintain a ledger scrupulously–failure to do so would have invited jail, physical torture, and social ostracism.

Christian Armenian merchants were well known in the Old World for their trading skill, particularly in Chinese silk. Armenian family business firms extended their trading networks from Ottoman ports in the Mediterranean to deep inside China. Though there are evidences to suggest that Armenians were familiar with India trading even in the twelfth century, shifting of their headquarters to New Julfa in 1605 gave a boost to the expansion of Armenian trade network in South Asia. In the backdrop of regular movement of men and material between the Safavid Persia and Mughal India, Armenian traders were invited to Agra by Emperor Akbar. They built the first Church and the first Christian cemetery in Agra in 1562. Abd-al-Hayy, Eskander and his son Zulqarnayn were among the prominent Armenian faces in the Mughal Court. By the mid-seventeenth century, they were visiting major trading centres like Hooghly, Patna, Hyderabad, Masulipatnam, and Lahore.

āja Petros Voskan-Veliǰaneancʽ, Julfan merchant, painted in Madras, India, 1737
Hovhannes begins his journey by travelling to Bandar Abbas from Isfahan and then reaches Surat. During the course of next eleven years, he travels to almost all the important cities and towns in North and East India and Deccan including Aurangabad, Burhanpur, Khairpur, Agra, Patna, and Hooghly and then travels up to Tibet, through Kathmandu. He deals in a number of commodities–gold, silver, silk, textile, tea, and musk among others. He operates like an archetypical Armenian trader, who has been described essentially as an arbitrage trader. The ledger, which starts with the signing of a partnership agreement, comes to an end on 6 December 1693 when after a long return trip from Lhasa, he finally reaches Calcutta (how this document found its way to a Portuguese archive that is a mystery, which historians are yet to resolve, though we know that contemporary Armenian businessmen were present in Europe and it is quite tempting to believe that after exploring inner Asia, an adventurous Hovhannes travelled to Europe!).

Church of Holy Nazareth Calcutta
The Holy Church of Nazareth, located in one corner of Burrabazaar today on Armenian Street, was formally established in 1724, though a temporary structure was perhaps in existence since the 1680s. It was established next to an old Armenian cemetery and the oldest tombstone there is dated 1630, sixty years before Job Charnock officially founded the British city of Calcutta. This tombstone marked the death of a lady named Rezebeebeh Sookia. A small but important street in North Central Calcutta still bears the name of this important Armenian trading family.

Tombstone of Rezabeebeh Sookia
In fact, in the Mughal subah of Bengal, Armenians played an important role in the economic and commercial life of the province. During the 1740s and 1750s, Armenian merchant prince Khwaja Wajid was one of the three most important players in the economy as well as politics of Bengal (along with Jagat Seth and Umichand). Khwaja Wajid held two lucrative monopolies under the Nawabs–monopoly over Salt and Salt Petre. Based out of Hoogly port, he had absolute control over the internal commerce of the province. Till his businesses were ruined and he ended his life in English captivity, he was the most resourceful supplier for all the European companies in Bengal–the English, the French, and the Dutch. In fact, before 1757, both the concessions secured by the British East India Company were negotiated by the Armenians and a grateful East India Company promised to help them in trade everywhere – that’s the reason why Hovhannes came to Calcutta to despatch his stuff to Bandar Abbas through English ships. The East India Company also promised to build and maintain in perpetuity a church in every location with 40 or more Armenians.

Armenian College Calcutta
Despite their small numbers, they did exceedingly well as businessmen and professionals in colonial Calcutta. From the present Grand Hotel to Stephen Court to Chief Justice’s residence – a number of landmark buildings in Calcutta were actually built by the Armenians. A small community of around 100 Armenians, mostly centred around a small school and college still remain in Calcutta though they are a largely forgotten community in today’s Calcutta.

The other Indian city, which had a close association with the Armenians was Madras. In the first quarter of the sixteenth century, it was a group of Armenian merchants living in Pulikat who guided Portuguese traders to the tomb of St Thomas, the Apostle in the small town of Mylapore. Probably it was the Armenians, who built the old Church there near the tomb. The first Armenian Church in Madras was built in 1712 and this city remained the unofficial headquarters of the Armenians in India for more than two centuries. The first Armenian newspaper Azdarar would also be published from Madras towards the end of the eighteenth century.

For more such stories related to Indian business history, see Laxminama: Monks, Merchants, Money and Mantra by Anshuman Tiwari and Anindya Sengupta Bloomsbury 2018

Jagat Seth

The instrument of hundika (later hundi) or bill of exchange might have originated from royal orders asking merchants/bankers to pay a certain amount, which would be reimbursed–with or without interest–later on. Kalhan’s Rajtarangini mentions such raj-hundikas given normally as payment to a local military caste, tantrin. Two examples of raj-hundika quoted in Lekhapaddhati are from 745 and 1231 CE, respectively. Post-tenth century, in the backdrop of ever-expanding trade, this instrument was adopted with greater efficiency by merchants in Western India as mentioned in Medhatithi’s legal commentary and Lekhapaddhati.

A general consensus is that the bills of exchange have originated in China during Tang times (608-906 CE) but became popular for transfer and exchange of cash and commodities during the Sung period (tenth to thirteenth century). There are also evidences of bills of exchange in the Middle East (Softa) from around the eighth century onward. As evidences suggest, as a system of remittance as well as a negotiable financial instrument, Indians have been using hundi from around the same time, if not earlier. It is also interesting to note that the extensive use of hundi is reported for the first time from Western India, merchants from this area would eventually create the most sophisticated and elaborate hundi network in the late Mughal-British period.

The use of hundi was elevated to a different level by the descendants of Hiranand Sahu, a Jain from Marwar, who started his life as a trader of modest means in Patna in the last decade of the seventeenth century. Patna was then an important administrative centre as well as a centre of riverine trade between North India and Bengal. As Rajput Princes joined the Mughal service and moved to different regions as governors or military commanders, their bankers also started moving with them. Their initial business was financing warfare or providing provisions to the military during peacetime. Gradually they found more lucrative opportunities in trading (both luxury goods like jewels and bulk goods like grains) and banking. After Agra and its satellite towns, they moved to eastern UP and then Bihar. As his trading and later on, money lending expanded rapidly, by the time of Aurangzeb’s death (1707), Hiranand Sahu emerged as one of the important wealthy men in Patna. One of his seven sons, Manekchand, settled down in Dhaka, where he struck a close bond with the Mughal Governor of Bengal, Murshid Quli Khan as his prime financier. Naturally, when Murshid Quli decided to relocate the capital to Murshidabad in 1703, Manekchand also shifted base there.

This was the real turning point for the family. Manekchand was soon given the sole minting rights in the province, which alone, as per one estimate provided him with an annual income of Rs 3.5 lakh and of course, complete control over money supply and interest rates in the wealthiest province of the Mughal Empire. The entire province was divided among a number of zamindars, who were responsible for the collection of land revenue in their areas. They were required to deposit the government’s share on a specific date, which was virtually impossible for them. Manekchand stood surety for them in exchange for 10 per cent commission and provided the governor with the required cash and the zamindars paid him later on. This provided him with an additional annual income of Rs 10 lakh.

Governor Murshid Quli Khan himself depended on him to remit his revenue to Delhi every year. The entire revenue of Bengal moved through hundis from Bengal to Delhi. Through his gaddis at Delhi, Patna, Murshidabad and Dhaka, Manekchand–who was soon given the title of Seth by the Mughal Emperor–came to control money supply and interest rates between Delhi and Dhaka. Manekchand’s adopted son, Fateh Chand, was given the key of Bengal treasury by the Mughal Emperor Farukhsiyar along with the title of Jagat Seth, given to the family in perpetuity.

Jagat Seth Fateh Chand, by some estimates, the richest individual in the contemporary world, decided not to issue any hundi worth less than one lakh rupees under his signature! Even when his kothi was plundered twice by the Marathas and he lost a great deal of money, he had no hesitation in signing darshani hundi worth one crore for the Bengal government (a darshani hundi entitled the bearer of the hundi to show it to any of the branches of Jagat Seth any time and demand one crore in cash; a muddadi hundi, on the other hand, was a date-specific hundi). When Nadir Shah plundered Delhi in 1739, the representative of Jagat Seth was given the highest respect by Nadir Shah as he alone was capable of providing surety for the Mughal nobles.

Nawab Siraj-ud-daula
Jagat Seth Fateh Chand and his successors, Mehtab Rai and Swarup Chand, came to dominate not only the economy but also politics of Bengal. Successors of Murshid Quli had to depend on them to pay the Mughal Emperors on their behalf and secure the throne for them. When the Jagat Seth did not like Sarafraz Khan, he was replaced with Alivardi Khan as the new Nawab of Bengal. So, when Siraj-ud-daula, the successor of Alivardi displeased them (along with almost every important noble and financier) and thrown them into prison, Siraj’s fate was sealed. In a conspiracy, primarily hatched by the Jagat Seths, Siraj was thrown out (Battle of Palashi, 1757) and replaced by Mir Jafar. Jagat Seths were immediately back in the saddle but their decline had started. Mir Qasim, who replaced Mir Jafar, tried to assert his independence. Mir Qasim wanted the Jagat Seths to finance his campaign against the British. As the Jagat Seths resisted, both Mehtab Rai and Swarup Chand were killed in Munger, Mir Qasim’s new capital and their body parts were fed to animals. The fortunes of the House of Jagat Seth declined rapidly thereafter.

In a period, when there was greater monetisation of land revenue (through revenue farming or izaradari system) than ever before, Jagat Seths, though preeminent, were not alone. The house of Daddas was the principal banker for Jodhpur, Bikaner, and Jaisalmer; they were also present in Indore and Hyderabad. The Pittys and the Ganeriwalas dominated in Hyderabad. In various other Princely states of Rajasthan and Central India, the Bapnas, the Lodhas and other Marwari (mostly Jain) families predominated. There was Kashmiri Mull in Lucknow and the house of Gopaldas Manohardas in Banaras. Not only for the Nawab and Zamindars of Bengal, for all the European Companies in Eastern India–English, French, Dutch, and Danish, the Jagat Seth was the most important source of credit. We know how the British in Bombay were bankrolled by Surat-based bankers like Arjunji Nathji Travady and others. Some of these firms, like the Dagas of Bikaner and the Malpanis of Jabalpur continued to be important for the British in the same way.

For more such stories related to Indian business history, see Laxminama: Monks, Merchants, Money and Mantra by Anshuman Tiwari and Anindya Sengupta Bloomsbury 2018

Nagarseth of Ahmedabad

Shantidas Jhaveri started building the Chintamani Parshvanath temple in Ahmedabad in 1622. Son of an Oswal Jain merchant from Marwar, Shantidas (1580-1649) was the leading jeweller, bullion trader and moneylender of Ahmedabad. As the richest man of his times and as the jeweller of preference for the Mughal Imperial household, he enjoyed immense prestige. Shantidas was not only a devout Jain but he was also quite active in internal religious politics of the Jains and tried to promote his gaccha (religious faction) and his preferred religious leader as acharya (chief priest). The temple was completed in 1638 at a cost of more than nine lakh rupees.

In 1645, Aurangzeb, young and abrasive new governor of Gujarat, desecrated the temple. Shantidas appealed to Emperor Shah Jahan and an imperial firman restored the temple back to Shantidas. When a matured Aurangzeb replaced Shah Jahan after a war of succession, he not only returned some of the money Shantidas was forced to lend to Murad (one of the competitors for throne, defeated by Aurangzeb) but also requested Shantidas to convey his goodwill to the business community and residents of Ahmedabad–a clear indication of the leadership role of Shantidas in the civic life of Ahmedabad.

Founded in the early years of the fifteenth century, Ahmedabad emerged as a major commercial centre during the Mughal period. It was the principal centre of textile trade (with indigo coming from the nearby town of Sarkhej) as well as a centre of bullion and jewellery trade. The tradition of craft-specific guilds was part of the commercial landscape of Ahmedabad, in line with similar traditions in other Gujarati cities. But it was in this city, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the unique institution of Nagarseth developed for the first time. Though Shantidas strode the business world of Ahmedabad in the first half of the seventeenth century as a titan, it is doubtful, whether he was ever formally acknowledged as Nagarseth.

In 1724, amidst a general atmosphere of chaos and lawlessness, Ahmedabad fell to the invading Maratha marauders. As the petrified city waited for absolute plunder, head of the jewellers guild and grandson of Shantidas, Khushalchand came forward and paid an enormous ransom out of his own pocket to send the Marathas back. A grateful city, particularly the business community hailed Khushalchand as the saviour and decided that Khushal and his family would receive a small share of each business transaction in the city in perpetuity. There have been many claimants and much politics for civic leadership in Ahmedabad since the demise of Shantidas but this bold and gracious act of Khushal settled the question forever.

Throughout his life, Khushal had to make many sacrifices–fleeing to Delhi or other cities even enduring multiple prison sentences–but in the end, it was his sacrifices as well as a steadfast resolve for ethical business and governance, which earned his family the moral right to leadership for generations. After his death (1748), he was succeeded by his son Nathusa (1720-1793), followed by Nathusa’s younger brother Vakhatchand (1740-1814), Vakhatchand’s son and grandson, Hemabhai (1785-1858) and Premabhai (1815-1887). The long line came to an end in 1977 when the last male member of the Nagarseth family died without an heir (from a splinter line of the family, Dalpatbhai Bhagubhai, came the Lalbhais or today’s Arvind Group).

Kasturbhai Lalbhai
Nagarseth did not head any corporate body of merchants in Ahmedabad. He was formally the head of his own trading guild and a guardian of the city. He was the bridge between the rulers and the most influential group of citizens of Ahmedabad. He also adjudicated among different guilds or merchants. As the ceremonial head of the city, he led the community in some of the religious or social ceremonies. Some of the other cities of Western India came to have Nagarseths following the example of Ahmedabad. Laldas Vitthaldas Parak was the famous Nagarseth of Surat, leading financier to the English and the principal advisor to the merchants in 1732 when they raised an army against the Mughal governor. Pune came to have one from around the last quarter of the eighteenth century after large-scale migration of Gujarati banias and moneylenders to the city.

For more such stories related to Indian business history, see Laxminama: Monks, Merchants, Money and Mantra by Anshuman Tiwari and Anindya Sengupta Bloomsbury 2018

Friday, June 7, 2019

Nuruddin Firoz at Somnath

Modern Somnath temple

Nuruddin Firoz, a Nakhuda from Hormuz established a mosque at Somnath in Gujarat in 1264 CE. Two inscriptions–one in Arabic and the other in Sanskrit–set up to mark this event give us a unique perspective into the trading world of a rich Persian merchant of the thirteenth century and his interaction with the host society. In this case, it was merchants as well as prominent citizens and religious leaders at the famous Saivite centre of Somnath.

Nakhuda means a ship-owning merchant (khuda or lord of the ship, nau; nauvittaka in Sanskrit–both the terms started appearing for the first time around 1000 CE in the context of trade between Red Sea/Persian Gulf to Western coast of India). Somnath, today, is known mostly for its sacred character but in the thirteenth century, along with Diu, it was one of the secondary ports of Gujarat (Cambay/Khambat being the main port). Nuruddin, who was at Somnath due to some work (not specified in the inscriptions), purchased the land just outside the city limit, what appears to be the settlement of the merchants (mahajanapally). The land was purchased from the temple of Somnath as the mahajanapally itself was the property of the temple. To provide a regular income to the mosque, he also purchased another piece of land (this time inside the city and purchased from the Bakulesvara Temple and negotiated by two priests from two other temples), a few shops in the market, and an oil mill. The entire transaction was facilitated by a group of leading merchants of Somanth–all Hindus as their names are mentioned in both the inscriptions. The most prominent among these merchants was Shri Chada, who was described as Nuruddin’s dharmabandhav or righteous friend in the Sanskrit version. The entire transaction was ratified by the town council, Panchakula, headed by the great Pasupata priest Virabhadra, before being ratified by the local representative of the Chaulukya King.

The language used in the Sanskrit inscription, which is also the longer one with full details, shows familiarity with Islam as it describes the mijigiti (masjid) as a place of worship, festivals of baratisab (Sab-e-barat) and khatamaratri (whole night recitation of Koran–both festivals considered important for ship-owners and shipmen) and the jamat or the congregation at Somnath (interestingly apart from the foreign merchants and shipmen, it consisted of lime workers, oilmen, etc). The language is also remarkably similar to donative inscriptions at Hindu/Jaina temples and even some of the epithets used for Allah actually remind one of Shiva (Viswarupa and Viswanatha; also Sunyarupa). So, here is the story of a Muslim ship owning merchants from Hormuz constructing a mosque at a sacred Saiva site with active help from his Hindu merchant friends on a piece of land purchased from the temple of Somnath itself. This in a microcosm encapsulates the tolerant, multicultural, and cosmopolitan trading world of India’s western seaboard in the thirteenth century. The most remarkable aspect of the whole business was complete absence of any malice or antagonism towards a Muslim merchant even at Somnath, which was devastated and desecrated two centuries ago by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni. In another thirty years, Alauddin Khilji would conquer and annex Gujarat, and there would be another round of devastation at Somnath itself.

Gujarat was a curious case where time and again the rulers fought with the Arabs or the Turks on sea and land but always welcomed Muslim merchants. In an instance quoted by a contemporary Muslim writer, Chaulukya King Siddharaja (thirteenth century) himself went in the disguise of a trader to Cambay to probe an incident of attack on a mosque. Once satisfied with their claim, he granted the Muslims of Cambay compensation to rebuild the mosque and also ordered guilty to be punished. Though we, at times, hear of the presence of Indian merchants in ports of Siraf, Hormuz or Aden, there were perhaps very few merchants like Jagadu, who maintained his own agents in all major ports abroad. Overall dominance of Arab traders was so overwhelming in the Western sector that perhaps in states like Gujarat or Kerala, there was no option but to welcome them.

Bohra Men
Apart from the mainstream Sunni Muslims, Gujarat is also the original home for a number of smaller, often Shia Muslim sects. The term Bohra itself originated from Gujarati Vehru meaning trade. The language spoken by more than one million Dawoodi Bohras across the world (mainly in Western India, Karachi, East Africa, and the USA and Canada) is essentially a dialect of Gujarati with a large number of loan words from Arabic, Persian, and other languages. Their religious headquarters, dawat, has been located in India since the seventeenth century. Bohra men, always attired in their distinctive white dress, are mostly traders and naturally their headquarters has always been at a mercantile centre–Ahmedabad, Surat, and now Mumbai. They have always placed high premium on education and equal participation of women (in recent times, they have opened community kitchens in Mumbai to supply meals twice a day to all Bohra families to free their women from daily chores). However, unfortunately they remained the only community in India to still practice female genital mutilation–a vestige of their North African origin.

Present Aga Khan
The Khojas (from Persian Khwaja or honourable gentleman) were converts from the Hindu Lohana caste. Though they have always been part of the Ismaili Shia traditions, they have also preserved their Hindu pasts. Some of their earlier spiritual leaders took Hindu names to attract more followers, their belief system closely resembles Vaishanvite thoughts with their main religious text Dasavatar, celebrating Vishnu’s avatars along with Ali. However, since the arrival of Aga Khan (originally Imam of Nizari Ismailis) to India in the nineteenth century and Aga Khan’s emphasis on Ismaili identity, these beliefs have been in retreat.

Bohra, Khoja, and other such communities in their foundational myths, always refer to Pirs coming from the West as the starting point of their faith. Trading links are clearly discernible in the emergence of these communities. All of them were initially connected with the Shia Fatimid Caliphate that ruled Egypt from 909 to 1171 CE from Fustat or Old Cairo. Destination of exports from Gujarat was Egypt (Cairo/Alexandria, from where Venetian or Genoese merchants took spices and textiles to Europe), though often the gateway was Aden. Local converts in India came from the Hindu trading castes such as Lohana, thus they still maintain similar business ethos and inheritance laws, which prohibit too much division of family wealth (many of these communities are still legally governed by the Hindu laws of inheritance).

What exactly prompted them to change their faith is perhaps difficult to answer and would vary from individual to individual but the obvious connection was trading links. In a rare first-hand account, Buzurg bin Shahriyar, maritime merchant and author of the tenth century Ajabul Hind wrote about his meeting at a Gujarati port with a Hindu Pilot, who had recently embraced Islam and amassed wealth by piloting ships.

For more such stories related to Indian business history, see Laxminama: Monks, Merchants, Money and Mantra by Anshuman Tiwari and Anindya Sengupta Bloomsbury 2018

Baghdadi Jews in India

In 2016, Sunday Times ranked David and Simon Reuben as Britain’s richest people with a net worth of more than GB£13 billion–a fortune made in a variety of business including London property market and Russian aluminium market. Since mid-nineteenth century, the Reuben family–like many other rich and enterprising Baghdadi Jews–lived in Bombay, where the brothers were born in the 1940s. They immigrated to England sometime in the 1950s and started with metal scrap (David) and Carpet (Simon) business–eventually making enough money to enter the London commercial market in a big way. In making this transition from Baghdad to Britain via Bombay, they were following a well-trodden path, most remarkably marked by the Sassoon family, the Rothschilds of the East.

David Sassoon
Though the Jews from Persia have been coming to India regularly at least since the seventeenth century, the last significant wave of Baghdadi Jews reached Bombay in the first half of the nineteenth century. David Sassoon (1792-1864) belonged to a distinguished family of merchants, who were also the treasurers of Pasha of Baghdad. A change in political atmosphere in Baghdad forced him to flee to Bombay with his large family. Soon, he built a vast trading business across Asia. The most prominent opium merchant of his day, he and his eight sons built Asia’s first wet dock in Bombay, Sassoon Docks and in Shanghai Bund, Sassoon House became a landmark. Known for his charity across continents, his inheritors became close friends with the English royal family, became conservative peers, married into the Rothschild family and supplied one of England’s foremost First World War poets, Seigfried Sassoon.

Meanwhile, much of Shanghai opium trade and real estate was dominated by their relative by marriage, Edward Isaac Ezra. Similarly, David Joseph Ezra had a larger-than-life presence in commercial and community life in the 19th-century Calcutta. The last famous Baghdadi Jew of Calcutta was General JFR Jacob, hero of the Bangladesh War. Nahoum and Sons, the last Jewish bakery of Calcutta–through its century-old decor, an ambience of fading glory and fabulous food–somehow has an organic connection with Irani cafes of Bombay, almost similar in appearances.

For more such stories related to Indian business history, see Laxminama: Monks, Merchants, Money and Mantra by Anshuman Tiwari and Anindya Sengupta Bloomsbury 2018

Barmaks in Baghdad

Sometime in the first century CE, while coming back from the great assembly of Buddhists organised by Kanishka, a Tokharian monk, Ghosaka established the Western Vaibhasika school of Buddhist philosophy in Balkh. It was a philosophical sub-division of the Sarvastivadin School, which thrived in Kashmir. The new monastery he established, Nava Vihara, soon became the leading centre of Buddhist learning on the Silk Route.

Ruins of Nava Vihar, Balkh
Around 230 CE, Sassanids threw the Kushans out of Balkh. After the Sassanids, Balkh was ruled by the White Huns and Turki Shahis but Buddhism, in general, and Nava Vihara, in particular, continued to flourish. In 630 CE, on his way to India, Xuanzang, the famous Chinese traveller, reported that there were thousands of monks at Nava Vihara and the monastery was well known for beautiful statues of Buddha, draped in silks and adorned with rare jewels. In 663 CE, the Umayyad armies attacked Balkh. Either by force or by choice some local people converted to Islam. But most of the population still remained Buddhist and Nava Vihara was reported to be functioning normally in 680 CE by another Chinese pilgrim Yijing.

For centuries now Nava Vihara was headed by one priestly family, who appears to be of Kashmiri origin. These hereditary chiefs were known as Pramukhs or in local pronunciation, Barmak. Among the recent converts was one of the Abbotts of Nava Vihara. In 708 CE, Turki Shahis were back in power again and they beheaded the Abbott, who had converted to Islam. The only remaining child of the family was earlier taken to Kashmir by his mother. There in Kashmir the next Barmak grew up learning astrology, medicine, and philosophy. By 715 CE, the Umayyad armies overran Balkh decisively and inflicted massive damage on Nava Vihara. Barmak, now converted to Islam–perhaps to save his life along with his family–ended up at the Umayyad Court, where his knowledge of medicine helped him to gain prominence. His skills in astrology rewarded his family even more as he seemed to have predicted the eventual victory of the Abbasids (745 CE).

House of Wisdom, Baghdad
Barmak’s son Khalid ibn Barmak occupied important administrative positions under the first two Abbasid Caliphs and even their families grew very close. Khalid’s son Yahya was tutor to young Harun al Rashid and eventually became Vizier or Prime Minister of Harun al Rashid. His two sons, Abu-Fadl and Ja’far, also rose to occupy important positions. The vizier, who walks into many of the Arabian Nights stories, is none other than Ja’far. Before the family fell from grace–perhaps because of Ja’far’s relationship with Harun’s sister, Abbasa–in 803 CE, the Barmakids were the second most important family of Baghdad after the Caliph.

But history remembers this half a century of Barmakid influence for very different reasons. Khalid constructed the city of Mansura (Brahmanabad) in Sindh, the first planned city of the period and shortly thereafter he was chiefly instrumental in designing the new capital of Baghdad, which supposedly had many Indian design elements. The Barmakids were legendary for their lavish lifestyle (the word for most lavish dinner in Persian is still barmaki) and patronage of art and culture. It was at their residence at Baghdad the first paper mill of the Islamic world came up. They also set up the first hospital in Baghdad, following their Buddhist heritage. Yahya ibn Barmak was responsible for sponsoring translation of Sanskrit works on astronomy, philosophy, and medicine–clearly the family tradition continued. He also sent his people to procure all the information about India and invited a large number of Ayurvedic doctors from Sindh and Kashmir, the most famous of them was Manka or Kanka. He also patronised the great Bukhtishu family of Nestorian Christian doctors from Gundeshapur.

Though the translation bureau and famous libraries of Baghdad continued till the Mongols sacked the city in 1258 when Tigris reportedly turned black from the ink of thousands of books thrown into the river (now we know that most of the books were taken away and carefully examined by the Mongols rather than destroying them), none showed the zeal of Yahya Barmak to translate books from Sanskrit (till at least Al Beruni, two centuries later). Although the Ayurvedic system was soon ignored in favour of Galen’s Greek (Unani) medicine but the Arab scholars learnt the Hindu numerals and place-value system, including the use of zero. This new system was soon to revolutionise mathematics around the world, reaching Europe by early thirteenth century through Fibonacci.

For more such stories related to Indian business history, see Laxminama: Monks, Merchants, Money and Mantra by Anshuman Tiwari and Anindya Sengupta Bloomsbury 2018

The Golden Buddha

In Afghanistan’s biggest ever foreign investment project, China Metallurgical Group has signed a massive $3 billion agreement to mine copper at Mes Aynak. But they are unable to start work due to constant threats, buried mines, and persistent international demand for saving the heritage of Mes Aynak. Several centuries back, this was at the heart of Silk Road and possibly availability of copper (evidence of copper smelting is there for 2,000 years) made it economically more attractive. In the last few years, archaeologists have dug out two forts, four Buddhist monasteries, a Zoroastrian fire temple, and other structures in what is now the largest archaeological complex in Afghanistan. Apart from several Kanishka-era coins and other artefacts, what caught worldwide attention were the beautiful images of almost gold coloured Buddha, a few with sublime expressions of compassion (

At least seven centuries after the Mahaparinirvana, first Buddha images were made in Gandhara. Perhaps it was the need to present the imagery to an audience of new converts or to reinforce the greatness of their faith in front of a constant stream of foreigners. The Gandhara School of Art with Indian imagination and storytelling and Greco-Roman imagery and technique, produced arguably one of the most fascinating artistic lineages of all times. Gandhara Buddha with its Greek himation/Roman toga-like dress, beautiful drapery over a robust body, curly Mediterranean hair, and a top knot was modelled after Apollo and Zeus.

Bimaran Casket
Till date, the first specimen of this new art is the Bimaran Gold Casket, which could be dated to mid-first century BCE but the halcyon days of the Gandhara School came around the Kushan Empire, two centuries after the domination of the area by the Indo-Greeks. The most acceptable explanation of this gap between the political domination of the Greeks and the flowering of Hellenistic style is the prosperity of the Kushan period. The style, the craftsmanship was available there for quite long but it was the rich patronage of the Kushan period, which led to the creation of this extraordinary artistic tradition. The Gandhara School was active from the second to the fifth century CE, with some continuation till at least the seventh century. The spread of Islam in Afghanistan led to severe damages to such heritages that continued till the recent times as evidenced in the destruction of colossal Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001.

Mathura Buddha
Kamakura Buddha
The popularity and widespread acceptance of the Buddha and Bodhisattva images created in the second-century CE Gandhara could be gauged from the fact that it spread around the subcontinent in no time. Near contemporary Buddha images from Mathura show the same drapery and hairstyle, finely delineated body structure, halo and same poses of Buddha albeit with more Indianized face and often with lighter clothing. More than 1,000 kilometres away at Amaravati and Nagarjunikonda in Andhra or at Kanganahalli in Karnataka, this iconography was adopted by third century CE. In Western India, first such Buddha images were created at Kanheri probably using wood and other perishable material, graduating to massive stone images by fifth century at Ajanta. The style spread to rest of Asia along the Silk Road and to South East Asia and Sri Lanka probably through the sea route, geographically culminating in the giant Kamakura Buddha of Japan in the twelfth century.


Depiction of Amravati Stupa, from the ruins of Amravati

Takht-i-Bahi, Peshawar

In earlier Buddhist traditions, relics were venerated. Stupas were built over these relics–the tradition of building stupas probably predated Buddha–and then stupas themselves came to be worshipped. Ashoka was one of the main propagators of this stupa cult. Early decorations of these stupas were more symbolic with representations of trees, animals, wheels, etc. in relief sculptures. Huge stupa-monastery complexes came to be located close to major cities or along the main trading routes–Mrigadava (Sarnath) outside Kashi, Dharmarajika outside Takshashila, Sanchi outside Vidisha, Amravati outside Dharanikota (Satavahana capital), and Nagarjunikonda outside Vijayapuri (Ikshvaku capital). From third century CE, small and large images of Buddha came to adorn such places of worship and the same model was taken abroad as Buddhism travelled along the Silk Road. Monastery-stupa complexes at Peshawar (Takt-i-Bahi), all over Afghanistan, in Bactria, at Khotan, and Kashgar all attest to the continuation of the same tradition.

For more such stories related to Indian business history, see Laxminama: Monks, Merchants, Money and Mantra by Anshuman Tiwari and Anindya Sengupta Bloomsbury 2018