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The Indian merchant community of Masqaṭ

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 December 2009


In 1836 the Arabian traveller J. R. Wellsted described the Hindu community of Masqaṭ, 'Umān, as constituting ‘a body of the principal merchants’ of that port. By the 1870s the Indian merchants dominated the commercial life of Masqaṭ and had replaced the Āl Bū Sa'īd rulers of the town as the paramount economic power in 'Umān. While this community has much wider significance than their pivotal role in the commerce of Masqaṭ and 'Umān (the Indian merchants in Masqaṭ were a component of the great Indian Ocean trading network, and as Hindus and Shī'īs in a Sunnī, more properly Khārijī, country they offer potential insights into the status of minority groups in Muslim states) the focus of this study is the more specific problem of their origins, development and social and economic activities in Masqaṭ to the end of the nineteenth century.

Copyright © School of Oriental and African Studies 1981

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1 Wellsted, J. R., Travels in Arabia, London, 1838, I, 1821Google Scholar.

2 Landen, Robert G., Oman since 1856, Princeton, 1967, 138Google Scholar.

3 Bibby, Geoffrey, Looking for Dilmun, New York, 1969, 220Google Scholar.

4 Williamson, Andrew, Sohar and Omani seafaring in the Indian Ocean, Masqaṭ, 1973Google Scholar.

5 Miles, S. B., Countries and tribes of the Persian Gulf, second ed., London, 1966, 526Google Scholar. On Qalhāt see Wilkinson, J. C., ‘Ḳalhāt’, Encyclopaedia of Islam, second ed., 500501Google Scholar.

6 de Albuquerque, Afonso, The commentaries of the great Afonso Dalaboquerque, second Viceroy of India, ed. Birch, Walter de Gray, London, 1875, I, 99100Google Scholar. Miles (p. 151), incorrectly claims that these Hindus were Kutchis. This view probably derived from the fact that the Hindus in Masqaṭ during Miles's residence (late nineteenth century) were Kutchi.

7 See Pearson, M. N., ‘Indigenous dominance in a colonial economy: the Goa Rendas, 1600–1670’, Mare Luso-indicum, II, 1972, 6173Google Scholar, for a study of the role of Hindu traders under the Portuguese.

8 Burnes, James, A visit to the Courte of Sinde, Karachi, 1974, 27Google Scholar. Burnes had visited Thattha in 1828.

9 Loonghee, s. from Hindi lungī, a scarf or length of cloth to wrap around the body. See Hobson-Jobson, London, 1903, 519Google Scholar. In 'Umān these lungīs, known locally as wazar, are worn by all males.

10 Aitken, E. H., Gazetteer of the Province of Sind, Karachi, 1907, 116Google Scholar. Aitken was quoting a British official, Henry Pottinger, who was a member of the British mission to Sind in 1809.

11 Burnes, , op. cit., 92Google Scholar. In 'Umān and the rest of Arabia these shawls are used as turbans.

12 Al-Sālimī relates a story about how the Aḥmad, Imām Sa'īd b. (1199/1784) wore a silk ‘diwālī’ or cummerbund, Tuḥfat al-a'yān bi-sīrat ahl 'Umān (5th edition), Kuwayt, 1974, II, 176Google Scholar.

13 Foster, William, The English factories in India, 1634–1636, Oxford, 1911, 127–34Google Scholar. 'Umān had a local indigo dyeing industry centred on Nizwā and Firq.

14 idem, The English factories in India: 1637–1641, Oxford, 1912, 135.

15 idem, The English factories in India: 1646–1650, Oxford, 1914, 153.

16 idem, The English factories in India: 1634–1636, 127.

17 Banian or Banyan derives from the Gujarati vāṇiyo, a man of the trading caste. The term has been adopted to mean all Hindu merchants regardless of caste. See Hobson-Jobson, 63–4. Landen claims that the term is ‘evidently a corruption of the word “Bhattia”’ (p. 131). This is incorrect.

18 Personal communication to the author from Banchordas Lalji Purecha, the grandson of Ratansi Purshottam, and Sampat, Dungarsi Dharamsi, ‘Bhaṭṭiyā saṃsthāno itihās; Part 6: Masqaṭ’, Bhattia Yuvak Magazine, Magh [vs] 1989, 111–15Google Scholar. This series, written in Gujarati, is an extremely important source for the history of the Bhattia community throughout India and the Indian Ocean basin. I wish to express my thanks to Mr. Dilip Ukka of Mandvi, Kutch, for his assistance in translating the various articles used in this study. On the Bhattias, see also Enthoven, R. E., The tribes and castes of Bombay, Bombay, 1920, I, 133–45Google Scholar, and Campbell, James (ed.), Bombay Presidency District Gazetteer, V (Cutch, Palanpur and Mahi), Bombay, 1880, 53–4Google Scholar.

19 Ruzayq, Ḥumayd b. Muḥammad b., al-Fatḥ al-mubīn fī sīrat al-sādah Āl Bū Sa'īdiyyīn, Masqaṭ, 1977, 286–91Google Scholar; Badger, G. P., History of the imams and seyyids of 'Oman, by Salil ibn Razik, London, 1971, XXVI, 81–7Google Scholar; al-Sālimī, pp. 65–7. The account given by al-Sālimī differs from that of ibn Ruzayq in that the former claims that the principal Hindu was named Sakālība and his assistant was Narūtim. Ibn Ruzayq mentions only Narūtim. Niebuhr, Carsten, Travels through Arabia and other countries of the East, Edinburgh, 1792, II, 116Google Scholar contains the earliest (1765) published account of this story, although he offers no details. In Mandvi, Kutch, a similar story was related to me in which a prominent nineteenth-century merchant family, known in Masqaṭ as Bayt Shabika, was alleged to have assisted the Āl Bū Sa'īd in a similar manner.

20 Al-Sālimi, 67; ibn Euzayq, 291.

21 Sampat, D. D., ‘Part 7: Masqaṭ’, Phalgun, 1989, 172–8Google Scholar. Sampat doubts that the idol went from Basra. This whole episode is of interest as it provides some clues to early Bhattia religious practices. The majority of Bhattias were converted during the last decade of the seventeenth century to the Puṣṭimārgī sect, a Vaishnavite group with principal deities Krishna as a child and as flute player and Śrī Nāthjī (an incarnation of Krishna) founded by the Mahaprabhu Śrī Vallabhacārya. The movement began in, interestingly enough, Thattha and spread to Kutch and the rest of Gujarat. The fact that this was a Govindarāj temple rather than a Puṣṭimārgī temple, known as Haveli, serves either to date the temple before 1700 or may be an indication of a certain amount of conservatism within the Bhattia community of Masqaṭ. Ranchordas Lalji relates that this temple, which was located near the old palace, was torn down in 1971 to make way for the new palace, and the idol was returned to India.

22 Niebuhr, , Travels, 116Google Scholar.

23 These included the Govindarāj temple, the Haveli, known as Bāvājī, which is one of the two temples that still exist in Masqaṭ, a Kālkā temple situated on the Masqaṭ side of the pass to Riyām and a large Śiva temple, known as Motīśvar, located in the Rāwiyya section of Masqaṭ. The Kālkā temple, utilized by the small but influential Gosain Brahmin community in Masqaṭ, included a graveyard to accommodate the Gosain practice of burying their dead in a seated position. The temple was demolished in 1970 to make way for a road, and the idol is now stored in the Bāvājī temple. Motiśvar was built near a large banyan tree and contained two wells. The temple became the centre of Hindu social life in Masqaṭ as well as the water source for the community. It has been rebuilt recently, and contains, beside the linga representing Śiva, Nandi, Śiva's mount, and a turtle, as well as a small shrine to Hanumant. The Hindu community also had, and continues to utilize, a burning ghāṭ for the cremation of its dead, a cow pen, no longer in use, and a guphā, or ‘holy cave’, located in the mountains near Sidāb.

24 On the decline of Thattha see the massive work by William Foster, The English factories in India, passim. Also, for a more succinct description of the plight of the former trading centres in Portuguese India see The travels of the Abbé Carre in India and the Near East, 1672 to 1674, ed. Fawcett, Charles, London, 1947, I, 214–15 for his description of GoaGoogle Scholar.

25 Aitkin, , Gazetteer, 116–17Google Scholar.

26 ibid., p. 116. This is Pottinger's description based on personal observation (see n. 10).

27 Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government, new series, no. 17, 1–245. Two articles on Karachi from 1838 and 1840. Sampat, ‘Part 3: Karachi’, Paush 1989, 26–9.

28 See the author's unpublished Ph.D. thesis, ‘Sayyids, shets and sulṭans: politics and trade in Masqaṭ under the Āl Bū Sa'īd’, University of Washington (Seattle), 1978, 3367Google Scholar.

29 ‘Report on the commerce of Arabia and Persia by Samuel Manesty and Hartford Jones, 1790’, in Ḥakima, Aḥmad Muṣṭafā abū, History of Kuwayt [in Arabic], Kuwayt, 1970, I, part 2, 2182, 59–60Google Scholar.

30 Mandvi is also known as Musca-Mandvi after th e neighbouring village of Musca. This name is very intriguing as Masqaṭ is often referred to as Muska in the Arabic chronicles. I visited Musca in May 1977 in search of information on the origin of the name of the town but met with little success. I would speculate tha t this village is probably name d after Masqaṭ, just as Mandvi's newest suburb, Swalli, is named after the Swahili coast. On the early history of Mandvi see Campbell, , Bombay Presidency District Gazetteer, 1227 passimGoogle Scholar.

31 Williams, L. F. Rushbrook, The Black Hills: Kutch in history and legend, London, 1958, 41Google Scholar. Sampat, D. D., ‘Part 65: Bhattias of Mandvi’, Phalgun 1992, 133–8Google Scholar.

32 Campbell, , op. cit., 10Google Scholar, states that the rice fields of western Kutch were reduced to grazing lands as a result of this action.

33 ibid., pp. 10, 17, 40; Sampat, D. D., ‘Part 73: Customs of Bhattias’, Asadh 1992, 313–16Google Scholar.

34 Young, Marianne, Cutch: or, Random sketches of western India, London, 1838, 1014Google Scholar; Tod, James, Travels in western India, Delhi, 1971, 448–51Google Scholar.

35 ibid. Both of the above sources give excellent accounts of Mandvi's role in the slave trade.

36 Sampat, D. D., ‘Part 4: Sind’, Paush 1989, 2931Google Scholar. Sindi Bhattias still play an important role in the commerce of Baḥrayn and Dubay.

37 At least one Sindi merchant family continued to reside in Ṣuḥār as late as 1977. The principal Sindi merchant in Masqaṭ today is Meghji Laxmidas Ved from Shahbunder, but this family, which was established in Maṭraḥ in 1907, has no direct ties to the early Sindi merchants. (Personal communication to author from Meghji Laxmidas Ved.)

38 Sampat, D. D., Kacchnũ vepārtantra, Karachi [vs] 1991, 1718Google Scholar; idem, ‘Part 105: trade with Masqat’, Karttik 1994, 863–5.

39 Personal communication from Virji Purshottam Toprani. The genealogy of the family is:

40 Personal communication from Premji Jamnadas Bhimani of Mandvi. The genealogy of the Bhimani family is:

41 Sampat, D. D., ‘Part 62: towards Kutch and Kathiawad’, Bhadarvo 1991, 527–34Google Scholar. The association of the Bhattia merchants with Sa'īd's African policy is very significant. The standard interpretation of the establishment of Hindu commercial influence at Zanzibar has attributed it to Sa'īd b. Sulṭān encouraging their migration to that port. 'Sharīf, Abd al-Muḥammad Ḥusayn, in his Ph.D. thesis ‘The rise of a commercial empire: an aspect of the economic history of Zanzibar, 1770–1873’, University of London, 1971Google Scholar, expresses doubt about this theory. He argues that the Hindu merchants encouraged Sa'īd. Sampat's evidence supports that view, although it may be more proper to argue that the development of Zanzibar was a joint endeavour.

42 Sampat, D. D., ‘Part 105: trade with Masqat’, Karttik 1994, 964–5Google Scholar.

43 The earliest mention of a Banian holding the customs farm is in 1827 in Thomas, R. H., Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government, new series, no. 24, 1856, 632Google Scholar. Sampat, D. D., Kacchnũ vepārtantra, 19Google Scholar, states that Sa'īd b. Sulṭān farmed the customs to the Bhimanis.

44 See Cooper, Frederick, Plantation slavery on the East Coast of Africa, New Haven and London, 1977Google Scholar, for a discussion of the development of Sa'īd's Zanzibar plantations. The impact of Sa'īd's moving to Zanzibar on Masqaṭ is discussed in my ‘Sayyids, Shets and Sulṭāns’, 68–86.

45 Thomas, , op. cit., 631Google Scholar.

46 See my ‘Sayyids, Shets and Sulṭāns’, 86–92.

47 A good account of the problems of 'Azzān b. Qays's reign, based on India Office Records, Muscat Political Agency, R/15/6/2, is available in Landen, pp. 309–10.

48 India Office Records, Muscat Political Agency, R/15/6/2, Disbrowe to Gonne, Muscat, 26 April 1869. As is usually the case in dealing with statistics from these sources, some error is assumed. Disbrowe says that there are 250 subjects with dependents. It is possible that the population was as high as 750.

49 Landen, , Oman since 1856, 134–5Google Scholar.

50 India Office Records, Muscat Political Agency, R/15/6/67, Memorandum, Cox, Muscat, 30 July 1900. This once again raises the problem of numbers. Landen says that there were 250 merchants at this time (p. 141). Ratansi Purshottam's family came in 1900 and was one of the first to do so according to family tradition.

51 Shet, singular, from the Hindi śeṭh meaning head of a corporation, merchant or banker. See Hobson-Jobson, 813. In Masqaṭ the title is used as an address of respect.

52 Most of the facts concerning the life of Ratansi Purshottam were related to me by Ranchordas Lalji, Ratansi's grandson, who also provided the following genealogy:

On the training of a young Banian see Sampat, D. D., ‘Part 6: Masqaṭ’, Magh 1989, 115Google Scholar.

53 Landen, , op. cit., 137Google Scholar, is very critical of this system.

54 In the course of numerous interviews with many of Masqaṭ's merchants, both Hindu and Muslim, this fact was stressed.

66 Landen, pp. 96–9.

56 Banian utilization of the steamship to the benefit of Masqaṭ is discussed in my ‘Sayyids, Shets and Sulṭāns’, 140–77.

57 This property was sold to the British Indian government in 1901 and is now included in the British Embassy compound. See Hawley, Ruth, The British Embassy in Muscat: a short history, Muscat, 1974, 910Google Scholar. India Office Records, Muscat Political Agency, R/15/6/26 contains a detailed record of how Ratansi originally acquired all of this property.

58 In 1906, the year of his death, Ratansi owned one large residence with office building and twelve warehouses, five of which had upper-story residences and one with a courtyard, in Masqaṭ; two houses, one with garden, in Sidāb; two houses with lower story offices and two warehouses, one with an attached courtyard, in Maṭraḥ and two farms with water-rights in outlying villages. Ratansi Purshottam papers, Account Book for 1905–6.

59 India Office Records, Muscat Political Agency, R/15/6/67, Cox to Landsdowne, Maskat. 21 September 1902.

60 India Office Records, Muscat Political Agency, R/15/6/25, Cox to Government of India, Muscat, 27 September 1902.

61 Personal communication from Ranchordas Lalji. The Hindu Association, known as the Mahajan, was formally incorporated in the 1930s with the president becoming an elected official. During the twentieth century the Mahājan administered most aspects of Hindu communal life, including the schools, temples and cow herd and property donated to the community by merchants who died without heirs or otherwise.

82 Sampat, D. D., ‘Part 7: Masqaṭ’, Phalgun 1989, 172–8Google Scholar.

63 The cow-pen, pañjarāpol, was located next to the Śiva temple in Rāwiyya. These cows, unlike most in Masqaṭ, were not fed fish, which resulted in a fishy taste to the milk. Surplus milk was sold for the benefit of the community. When the 'Umān National Dairy was opened, the cows were donated to the state with the agreement that when the animals stopped producing they would be sent to India rather than slaughtered.

64 On dress distinctions among various levels of Banian society in Masqaṭ see Sampat, D. D., Kacchnũ vepārtantra, 19Google Scholar.

65 These four merchants were given nicknames corresponding to the four high cards in a deck. Dowlatgirji was the ‘ace’ (Ikkā), Ratansi was the ‘king’ (Batsa), Virji was the ‘queen’ (Rāṇī) but was also called Bayt Bīsah (after the Masqaṭī coin) because of his banking activities, and Damodar was the ‘jack’ (Ghulām). See also Sampat, D. D., ‘Part 7: Masqaṭ’, Phalgun 1989, 172–8 for references to Ratansi as BatsaGoogle Scholar.

66 Lūti, pl. Luwātiyya. The origin of the name is unknown, but both the Arabic and Persian roots are unflattering terms.

67 Muḥammad Taqī Ḥasan al-'Umānī, Dalil al-sāil, n.d., 6 pages.

68 Personal communication from Ḥājjī 'All Sulṭān of Maṭraḥ.

69 Personal communication from Muḥammad Matwānī of Maṭraḥ.

70 Sapat, Girjir Ratansi, Bhattiyāonī prācim sthiti, Bombay, 1899, 69Google Scholar. Enthoven also lists the clans, or ‘nookhs’, of the Bhattias.

71 Sampat, D. D., ‘Part 8: Thattha’, Bhadarvo 1991, 525–7Google Scholar; Part 73: Customs of the Bhattias’, Aṣāḍh 1992, 313–16Google Scholar.

78 Ruzayq, Ibn, al-Fatḥ al-mubīn, 356Google Scholar; Badger, , History of the imams, 163Google Scholar.

79 Aitken, , Gazetteer, 113Google Scholar.

74 See above, p. 42.

75 Lorimer, J. G., Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, 'Oman and Central Arabia, Calcutta, 1915, I, part 1, 535Google Scholar.

76 Ruschenberger, W. S. W., Narrative of a voyage round the world during the years 1835, 36, 37, I, London, 1970, 125Google Scholar.

77 Dr. Nihami Levtzion, on the basis of oral traditions collected in West Africa, has found that migrant groups usually recall genealogy only as far as the first settler in the area. Personal communication. The following genealogies are offered as examples:

78 India Office Records, Muscat Political Agency, R/15/6/8, passim.

79 See note 53. The Luwātiyya suffered equally under 'Azzān.

80 Landen, , Oman since 1856, 140Google Scholar.

81 The Sūr Luwātiyya retains its exclusivity. My one attempt to walk through the quarter was unsuccessful as I did not get past the main gate before I was met by a concierge and told to leave. Ruschenberger was told in 1835 that outsiders were not admitted to the Sur because Lūtī women went unveiled (p. 125).

82 See Masselos, J. C., ‘The Khojas of Bombay’, in Ahmad, Imtiaz (ed.), Caste and social stratification among Muslims in India, Columbia, Mo., 1978, 101Google Scholar, for a discussion of Khwāja marriage practices.

83 Hollister, J. N., The Shia of India, London, 1953, 364–70Google Scholar.

84 Lorimer, , Gazetteer, I, part 2Google Scholar, appendix H, Religions and sects of the Persian Gulf region’, 2377–80 and II B, Calcutta, 1908, 1034–5Google Scholar. Personal communication from 'Alī Sulṭān.

85 The few Aghā Khānīs (as they were called) who remained in Maṭraḥ left in 1965 on the orders of the Aghā Khān, who feared for their safety following the revolution in Zanzibar. Their jāma'at khana, located in front of the girls' school in Maṭraḥ and next to the Jibru roundabout, was bought by the W. J. Towell Company and torn down to make way for an office building.

86 United States National Archives, Muscat Consular Archives, Microfilm Publication T638, Macquire to Wharton, Muscat, 19 February 1893.

87 The early history of the W. J. Towell Company is unclear. Towell apparently sold the company during the 1870s as in 1880 an Irishman named William Maguire, who became the second American Consul in Masqaṭ, described himself as the ‘sole partner’ in the company, which, despite Towell's absence, retained his name. Kamāl 'Abd al-Riḍā Sulṭtān of W. J. Towell believes that his great-grandfather, Muḥammad Faḍl, became a partner in the company in 1884 when he purchased shares valued at RO 11,000. That seems unlikely according to American consular records which show that a Scot, Archibald Mackirdy, became Maguire's partner in 1887 and then inherited the company, and the American consulship, in 1893. Muhammad Fadl probably became a partner in 1894 and inherited the company on Mackirdy's death in 1906. See United States National Archives, Muscat Consular Records, Microfilm Publications T638 and T639, passim.

88 India Office Records, Muscat Political Agency, R/15/6/8, passim.

89 India Office Records, Muscat Political Agency, R/15/6/8, Political Secretary to Resident, Persian Gulf, Simla, 19 October 1875.

90 Landen, , Oman since 1856, 202Google Scholar.

91 India Office Records, Muscat Political Agency, R/15/6/8, Political Secretary to Resident, Persian Gulf, Simla, 19 October 1975.

92 Landen, , op. cit., 392Google Scholar.

93 On the various difficulties between the British and the sulṭāns see sections in Lorimer entitled ‘Protection of British Subjects in Oman’, I, part 1A, 513–16, 535–8, 553–5.

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