Monday, April 22, 2019

Gujarati Traders: Power, Politics, and Patronage

The close connection between political power and business elite in Gujarat goes back at least one thousand years. When Lavananprasada, the Vaghela Chief wanted
to revive his sick empire in the early 13th century, he asked fellow King (nominally his overlord) Bhima II for a minister, who at the same time would be proficient in both replenishing the treasury and winning battles. Bhima II lent him the services of two brothers, Vastupala and Tejahpala. Through their military as well as financial success and patronage of religion and literature, they soon overshadowed their political masters.

Vastupala, as the governor of Cambay, managed to curb piracy and greatly contributed to growth of commerce at the premier port, resulting in huge increase in revenue collection. He also defeated the ruler of South Gujarat or Lata. As a result of this success, he was elevated to the post of the Prime Minister, which he continued to occupy till his death. Tejahpala defeated the Chieftain of Godhra, thereby extending the eastern boundary of the state and opening up new trade routes. After Vastupala’s death in 1238 or 1241 CE, Tejahpala succeeded him as the Prime Minister and continued till his death (either in 1247 or 1251 CE). More than anything else, it was their prudential fiscal management, which helped Gujarat to become a rich state during this period and greatly encouraged internal and external trade.

A large number of prabandhs (essays), prasastis (panegyrics), plays and kavyas (poetic compositions) attest to the stellar role these two brothers played in development of the state and culture in the first half of the thirteenth century. Their contemporary, Jagadu was perhaps more important as a merchant, who maintained his representatives in all major ports in Western India and Middle East, including Hormuz in Persian Gulf. His life has been celebrated in his biography, Jagaducharit. Once when harvest failed, he opened his granary to feed the poor. He renovated old temples and even built a mosque for Muslims.
Vastupala Vihar, Girnar

Vastupala and Tejahpala were born in a family of aristocratic merchants of Anahilavada. Their maternal grandfather, a Pragvata merchant, also served as governor. This shows how a tradition established during the time of Vanaraja, founder of the Chavada dynasty in the eighth century expanded over the next few centuries. Vanaraja was helped to the throne by merchants and he symbolically acknowledged their help by asking Sridevi, sister of a merchant to apply tilak on his forehead during his coronation. He also appointed Jamba Sresthi as his Prime Minister. Vanaraja invited merchant prince Ninnaya to the capital Anahilavada. Ninnaya eventually became his prime counsellor and his family supplied a long list of ministers and senior government officers for more than three centuries.

During the reign of Jayasimha Siddaraja (1093-1143), a number of Jain merchants-turned-ministers like Sajjan (from the family of Jamba), Udayana, Santu, and Munjala played the most important role in military-administrative as well as financial matters. King Kumarpala (1143-1172) came to the throne with the assistance of leading Jain merchants like Udayana and to defray the cost of regular warfare, continued to depend on their resources. Though a Hindu, he showed great reverence to Jain temples and preachers as Jain merchants continued to be his main pillar of support. Merchants gained social status by joining royal service at the highest level and probably this helped them to expand their businesses too. On the other hand, the state benefitted from their overall managerial and financial skills. 

Dilwara Temple, Mt Abu

Extraordinary commercial success in the post-10th-century period also led the Gujarati traders to systematically train their next generations. Most of the rich merchants employed home tutors but there are also mentions of schools (Vidyamatha) and arrangements for imparting basic education at Jain mathas. A compilation of essential commercial documents–Lekhapaddhati–establishes beyond doubt the existence of a class of highly proficient clerks, who used to draft loan agreements and bills of exchanges. Jain teachers, particularly Jinesvara Suri and Hemachandra, advised merchants never to cheat on either weight or quality. They also advised maintaining a close relation with the King and always flatter the King in public as his support was crucial for business.

Though it is doubtful whether every businessman followed the path of ethical business as we have enough examples from contemporary texts about unfair means adopted by greedy merchants, but the general impression was that of an industrious and enterprising business community. Nearly half a century after Vastupala, Marco Polo echoes this while describing the Gujarati merchants as the best business community in the world.

In Gujarat, trading castes like Pragvatas and Srimalas produced major poets, men of letters and patrons of art. The greatest Gujarati scholar of this period, Hemachandra, who wrote a new grammar, new metrics, new logic and a defining work on the biography of Jinas, was son of a Modha merchant. Vastupala was a noted poet himself and a large number of literary works were inspired by him. Unusual for his age, he built three public libraries in Anahilavada, Cambay, and Broach and an auditorium solely for staging dramatic performances. Tejahpala’s famous wife Anupama, well known for her intelligence, composed a Kankana Kavya or verse for women. The miniature paintings found in well-illustrated Jain manuscripts of this period–executed under the patronage of rich merchants–provide one of the earliest examples of the Indian miniature paintings. Prominent Gujarati merchants spent a considerable part of their fortunes for construction of temples, tanks, and other public utilities. Even after so many centuries, some of the examples of their munificence at Mount Abu, Girnar, Palitana, and other places still bedazzle us.

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