Muscat, Thatta and Kutch: A Saga of Three Centuries of Hindu Mercantile Glory

Muscat, Thatta and Kutch: A Saga of Three Centuries of Hindu Mercantile Glory

The first episode of a new series exploring three centuries of the dominance of Hindu merchants in Muscat and the lessons it holds for us today

— 1 —

FOR A CIVILISATION THAT continues to produce some of the world’s top business talent uninterruptedly for more than seven thousand years, it is an untold tragedy that no comprehensive work detailing the business history of Hindus has emerged from India itself. The Vedic civilisation cultivated a flourishing inland and maritime culture side by side with its Rishis and Munis. The so-called Buddhist era witnessed an explosive opening up of new international trade routes both on land and sea. For centuries, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain businessmen dominated the Grand Route in northern India. This route was the business corridor of the whole of Asia stretching from the Caspian Sea to China and from Bahlika to Tamralipti. Merchants, traders, bankers and caravans took with them monks, pilgrims, pedlars, horse traders, adventurers, acrobats, actors, students and tourists. Together, they carried the Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Jataka-Katha, drama, puppetry, painting, poetry, lyric and music.  

This is how Bharatavarsha culturally conquered the whole of Asia without firing a single arrow. She transmitted her culture even to far-off Greece and Rome in pretty much the same manner. Trade and commerce played a central role in this cultural conquest.        

We notice the same process in recent history as well. Over the last century, Hindu Dharma has left its characteristic invisible cultural imprint in Africa and the United States. Philip Goldberg’s American Veda is a good book exploring this phenomenon. It is a different matter that even today, powerful sections of the American polity and society stubbornly refuse to be cultured by Sanatana Dharma. 

The prolific and highly learned scholar, V.S. Agarwala describes the historic role played by Hindu businessmen as carriers of culture and spirituality in evocative language: 

“It is difficult to understand the story of Indian history without understanding the great achievements of Indian sailors and sea captains and their close cooperation with caravan leaders. Particularly is this true with reference to the eastern Archipelago and the Arabian Sea. According to the Milindaprasna, a determined and dutiful sailor always thought, “I am a servant who works on the ship for wages. It is due to this ship that I earn my livelihood. I should never be idle and neglectful in my duties. I should always be busy in my work attentively.” This thought was the true foundation of the ancient Indian shipping. 

The Indian caravan always extended an earnest invitation to people to come out of the safety of their houses and lead a healthy outdoor life.”  

The other profound scholar, Moti Chandra echoes Agarwala when he writes,

These ancient stories inform us that in spite of manifold difficulties the Indian caravan always plied on land and sea routes and it was due to their indomitable courage that Indian religion and culture gained a firm foothold in Greater IndiaThe development of the trade-routes of a country serves as the yardstick for measuring the evolution of culture. As soon as minor routes started branching out from the grand routes the parent Indian culture began penetrating the farthest corners of the country, and after it had covered the whole country then following the land and sea routes, it spread to Indonesia, Burma, Indo China and other parts of the world… [we] see how in different ages the conquerors, merchants, artists, and monks traversing these grand routes helped in the expansion of the trade and culture of this land. (Emphasis added)  

Muscat was one such city to which Hindu businessmen took their culture throughout the centuries. What makes this story poignant and significant is its timeline. Hindu businessmen in the ancient period didn’t have to contend with Islam and its bigoted rulers in the Arabian region. But the Hindu businessmen who first landed in Muscat around the fifteenth century and made it their home had to deal with vastly different circumstances. And not only did they deal with it, they eventually dominated the financial and — at times — the political life of Oman for three centuries. Until the end of the nineteenth century. 

It was not coincidental that Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Motisvar Temple in Muscat in 2018. The visit in a way, was a celebration of a rather thrilling history.  

— 2 — 

THE EARLIEST KNOWN HINDU SETTLEMENT in Muscat is no later than the 15th century. Archeological digs have revealed that there was thriving maritime trade between the ancient Sumerian and the Harappan civilisation but no concrete evidence of Hindu settlement in the region dating back to that period has been found yet. 

On April 6, 1506, the Portuguese pirate Afonso de Albuquerque left Lisbon on a second expedition to India. In a series of raids en route, he destroyed several Arab cities along the coast of East Africa and pocketed the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, now part of Yemen. 

Albuquerque’s next target was Hormuz, a flourishing port city in the Persian Gulf. Its capture would singularly alter the fortunes of the nascent Portuguese Empire. He took seven well-equipped ships and a force of five hundred men and in July 1507, began devastating the coast of Oman. All its port cities fell like ninepins. Qurayat, Muscat, Sohar, and Khor Fakkan surrendered without giving a fight. In September 1507, he conquered Hormuz. Its Safavid ruler Shah Ismail I submitted in a craven fashion and Hormuz became a tributary state of the Portuguese King Manuel.

In his memoirs titled The Commentaries of the Great Afonso Dalboquerque, Second Viceroy of India , he mentions that “Hindu merchants from Gujarat fled Khor Fakkan and landed in Muscat.” 

But Albuquerque could retain Hormuz for less than a year. A mutiny within his ranks forced him to abandon the city and in January 1508, he sailed to India, more than twenty years prior to Babur’s invasion. However, he returned in 1515, recaptured the city and reduced Hormuz and its provinces to the status of a Portuguese protectorate. He erected massive garrisons and forts throughout the region. Portuguese military and merchants flooded the place and till 1656, Portugal directly controlled the whole of northern Oman. 

Muscat became the headquarters of this Portuguese mercantile imperialism. Its teeming population of talented Hindu businessmen aided Portugal in establishing a monopoly over the lucrative commerce between the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf. 

The prime source of this monopoly was its lavish trade with Thatta, a bustling port city of great antiquity. 

To be continued

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