Meet Narottam: The 17th Century Hindu Merchant who Refused to give his Daughter to a Christian Portuguese Commander

Meet Narottam: The 17th Century Hindu Merchant who Refused to give his Daughter to a Christian Portuguese Commander

This is the story of the 17th Century Hindu Merchant named Narottam who lived in Muscat and had a business relationship with the Portuguese. The disgraceful conduct of the Portuguese commandant Pareira, triggered a chain of history-altering events.

Read the Earlier Episodes

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Meet Narottam: The 17th Century Hindu Merchant who Refused to give his Daughter to a Christian Portuguese Commander
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The Generational Glory of the Sindhi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat and Thatta
Meet Narottam: The 17th Century Hindu Merchant who Refused to give his Daughter to a Christian Portuguese Commander

IN 1555, THE TARKHAN WARLORD Mirza Isa Khan I requested Portuguese help in his insurrection against his master, Shah Hussain Arghun who was ruling Thatta. But when the Portuguese force arrived, it found that Isa Khan had already won the war. And so, he refused to pay the Portuguese soldiers. Enraged, they went on a brutal rampage, plundering the town, looting its abundant gold treasury and slaughtering its population indiscriminately. In a way, this seemingly minor incident altered the fortunes of Thatta for the worse. It heralded decadal instability in this prosperous commerical town.

In 1591, Akbar dispatched Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan who annexed Thatta. What happened to Thatta after that will be narrated later in this essay series.

The Sindhi Bhāṭiyā proximity with the Portuguese soured in 1650 over… marriage. In fact, the final expulsion of the Portuguese from Muscat was directly enabled by a simple but furious letter written by a Sindhi Bhāṭiyā named Narottam. Most mainstream histories not only overlook his pivotal role in this momentous event but also omit Narottam’s name. His importance will be better understood in the context of the dog-eat-dog politics of that period. 

After decades of internecine tribal wars, Nasir bin Murshid hailing from the Yaruba tribe became the Imam of Oman in 1624, thereby founding a dynasty. He immediately crushed lawlessness in the countryside and stamped his authority as the leader of all the tribes. But he also understood the mercurial nature of the powerful Ibadi and Nizar tribes and discovered a way to unify them. His message to them was straightforward and it unerringly found its target: Dear Muslim brothers, we’re fighting amongst ourselves while our hated enemy, the “infidel, beardless Portuguese polytheists” are controlling all our flourishing ports. Sohar, Sur, Qurayyat, and Muscat are in their hands and we suffer to see them prosper at our expense on our own soil. 

Unity was achieved in no time. 

And so, by 1633, Nasir bin Murshid had raised a formidable army. And then, he launched a series of offensives, which initially met with failure. The Portuguese managed to beat Nasir’s attempt to take the fort of Sohar. But they had not bargained for Nasir’s doggedness. And when he came this time, he captured both the forts at Ras al-Khaimah, ejecting the Persians from one and the Portuguese from the other. The fort of Sur fell next, followed by Qurayyat. The Portuguese were now thoroughly demoralised. In 1643, Nasir stormed Sohar again. This time, it capitulated. Three years later, he signed an alliance with the British East India Company, which was steadily expanding its operations in the region.  

Now, only Muscat remained in Portuguese hands. Fully aware of their precarious position, they signed a humiliating treaty with Nasir in the desperate hope of retaining it. But before he could expel the Portuguese from Muscat as well, Nasir died in 1649. 

That task would be completed by his cousin and successor, Sultan bin Saif. In December 1649, Saif assembled a large force and pitched his camp at Muttrah, within striking distance of the two forts at Muscat. 

The siege commenced. But the Portuguese were ready for Saif’s troops.

Salil ibn Razik, the compiler of the History of the Imams and Sayyids of Oman describes the scene: 

The Portuguese, on their part, were well prepared for these attacks, and showed no signs of cowardice or of yielding. They had filled the two forts of Maskat, its towers, walls, and mountains, with picked men, and waited patiently for the coming assault. The Imam Sultan-bin- Saif’s troops advanced against them as far as the Bir-el-Rawiyah, of Maskat; but the Portuguese had erected towers on the mountains of Maskat and garrisoned them with musketeers. so that whenever any of the Imam's soldiers approached they fired upon them. They had also suspended an iron chain in the air from the tower whereto were attached iron cradles, in which men were concealed who discharged shot on any of the Imam's followers who ventured near them…They showed the greatest determination and were everywhere on their guard... The struggle went on in this way for a long time, and the Imam and his party began to despair of effecting an entrance into the place.” 

This frustrating stalemate miraculously turned in Saif’s favour in a dramatic fashion. 

PAREIRA, THE PORTUGUESE COMMANDANT of the Muscat fort had a long standing business relationship with the aforementioned Narottam. Razik describes him as a “worshipper of the cow, to wit, the polytheist, a Banian [Bania].” In spite of his precarious position, Pareira found time to lust after Narottam’s beautiful, unmarried daughter. He sent word to Narottam through a Pastor of the church attached to the Western fort: I want to marry your daughter. A horrified Narottam rebuffed the proposal and rebuffed it again in a stronger tone when Pareira offered him a lavish sum of money. Narottam’s reply is a lesson to all the present-day Hindu parents of “interfaith marriage.” 

The thing which the commandant requires is unbecoming of him and me. He is a Christian, whereas I am of a different religion. He and his co-religionists hold it lawful to drink wine, and to eat ox-flesh and the flesh of other animals. Neither in ancient nor modern times have Christians intermarried with us.” 

Because the lure of monetary inducement had failed, the Pastor warned Narottam of the dangers of upsetting Pareira: 

“You must not thwart the commandant, for he has been most generous towards you…and he declares that if you do not give your consent to the marriage I am to marry your daughter to him forcibly, and he will punish you and yours with fines, penalties, and other punishments, such as have not been inflicted on any before you.” 

This singular episode suffices to illustrate the chasm of difference in the moral outlook separating Sanatana Dharma and Christianity. Here is a Pastor, an alleged man God, behaving worse than a streetside pimp, telling a father to trade his daughter. A man of God who has zero moral or spiritual authority over a mere Commandant.

The full implication of the threat dawned on Narottam who wisely took recourse to strategy. He personally visited Pareira and told him that although he was unwilling to betroth his daughter, he had no choice. He sought time. Give me a year, he said, because in our custom, weddings require elaborate preparation. I need to procure dresses and ornaments and other finery for the bride. All these items should come only from a certain town in India. Pareira was elated. One year was granted to Narottam.

And then, Narottam played on Pareira psyche. 

To be continued

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