The Generational Glory of the Sindhi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat and Thatta

The Generational Glory of the Sindhi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat and Thatta

The second episode of the series tracing the history of Hindu mercantile dominance in the Persian Gulf deals with the role played by the Sindhi Bhāṭiyās who pioneered maritime and inland trade in the region

Do not forget to read the previous episode

Also Read
Muscat, Thatta and Kutch: A Saga of Three Centuries of Hindu Mercantile Glory
The Generational Glory of the Sindhi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat and Thatta

A TWO HOUR DRIVE FROM KARACHI takes you to Thatta. On the map, Thatta directly faces Muscat across the Arabian Sea. But the early Arab geographers had called Thatta with a different name. They called it Debal, the ill-fated city that fell to Muhammad bin Qasim. It is the site of the so-called Arab conquest of Sindh. You can reach Thatta by land, traversing the treacherous route that passes along the Makran coast. Or you can directly sail to it from Muscat. 

This was the picture of Thatta’s prosperity when in the 16th century, the Portuguese took control of Muscat: it boasted of 40,000 weavers of calico and lungis. Thatta lungis were especially prized in Oman. They called it wazar and paid handsome money for these lungis adorned with exquisite prints. Thatta was also home to more than 20,000 artisans of every variety: weavers, carpenters, potters, ironsmiths, sculptors, builders, braziers and trinket-makers. Bankers, money changers, shopkeepers, traders, and grainsellers totalled 60,000. Thatta also exported a staggering gamut of goods including silk, cotton yarn, ghee, sugar, opium, indigo and elegantly embroidered Kashmiri (Cashmere) shawls. In his Tuhfat al-A ’yan fi sirat ahl ‘Uman,’ Muhammad Al Salimi, the blind Omani historian mentions how the 17th century Imam named Sayyad bin Ahmad wore something called a silk Diwali. Diwali was also the name given to cummerbund. This was the selfsame Cashmere shawl imported from Thattta but worn as a cummerbund. But elsewhere in Arabia, these shawls were typically used as turbans.      

In the late 17th century, the Portuguese missionary of the Augstinian Order, Sebastian Manrique who stayed in Thatta, describes its opulence: 

“It is a very rich city for several reasons. Because of the great fertility of the land in that principality, abounding in foodstuffs of all kinds, especially wheat and rice, and also of the vast quantities of cotton collected there, from which, on over two thousand looms, rich cloths of various kinds are woven, and exported to many parts of Asia as well as to Portugal. It abounds in very fine white cloth, also in coarse cloth and printed cloth of two kinds, and has much leather which is exported to Arabia and Persia. The country produces much grain, and butter and ghee are very plentiful. There was also a species of silk in that country from which excellent taffetas and tafecirias are made, and other cloths. 

This region also abounded in cattle, especially buffaloes, which are so numerous that many ships were dispatched to various parts laden only with their hides. From these they manufacture the lovely leather which the Portuguese call "Sinde leather," ornamented with back-stitch work in different coloured silks, in fine designs, lined and finished off with fringes of silk at the ends. These leathers are used to cover tables and as hangings in reception rooms, as well as for beds, as they are very soft and cool in summer. From these leathers they also make very quaint and rich trappings for horses. In this City they manufacture besides rich back-stitched quilts and the excellent mattresses called Sinde-mattresses.

On this account, this City, with its large foreign population, its port filled with ships laden with every kind of merchandise, which arrive by passing down the navigable Indo [Indus] river, on whose bank it stands, is at the same time a most wealthy and most vicious spot.”

However, Manrique was describing Thatta when it was undergoing terminal decline, as we shall see. But in the early 16th century, Thatta not only plied an abundant trade with Muscat, it also did extensive business with Africa. The volume was so enormous that the British — who were vying for maritime supremacy with other European powers — believed that the Portuguese power was wholly dependent on the revenue from Muscat. All ships bound towards Africa and the Gulf had to mandatorily call at Muscat and pay a hefty licencing fee to the Portuguese. 

While the Portuguese derived their power from military conquests, their actual trade between Muscat and Thatta was carried on by Hindu merchants on Portuguese ships. Several wealthy Hindu businessmen had warehouses as large as entire villages in Muscat. 

And a majority — if not all — of them were Sindhi Bhāṭiyās. The current spelling of Bhāṭiyā is Bhatia

— 3 — 

ORAL TRADITIONS and various firsthand documentary evidence reasonably prove that the Sindhi Bhāṭiyās were the first Banias from India to settle in Muscat. By the sheer dint of talent, hard work, savviness, cultural rootedness and business DNA, the community emerged as a formidable power in Muscat. It prospered continuously for about three centuries. It outclassed and outlasted the Portuguese, it was untouched by a series of Islamic civil wars and violent disruptions. It bequeathed a glorious legacy of intrepedity, cultural expansion and the art of survival amidst savage odds.  

The most outstanding feature of this history is the fact that the Hindu business community including the Sindhi Bhāṭiyās flourished as a minuscule minority in a Sunni majority country. They were Kaffirs who prospered in a “pure” Islamic land.

The Sindhi Bhāṭiyās undoubtedly owed their wealth and primacy to the Portuguese. The aforementioned al Salimi and another Omani chronicler, Ibn Razzaq mention that a “Bania worshipper of the cow acted as a supply agent for the Portuguese garrison at Muscat.” However, it was a two-way street. The Bhāṭiyā stranglehold over the trade between Muscat and Thatta owed to their generational family ties. A sizeable chunk of these Bhāṭiyās from Thatta had migrated to Muscat and elsewhere in Oman. And the Portuguese immensely benefitted from them.

To be continued

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