The Rise and Rise of Kutchi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat

The Rise and Rise of Kutchi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat

This episode traces the downfall of Thatta as a great trading hub and the meteoric ascent of the Kutchi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat.

Read the Earlier Episodes

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Muscat, Thatta and Kutch: A Saga of Three Centuries of Hindu Mercantile Glory
The Rise and Rise of Kutchi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat
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The Generational Glory of the Sindhi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat and Thatta
The Rise and Rise of Kutchi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat
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Meet Narottam: The 17th Century Hindu Merchant who Refused to give his Daughter to a Christian Portuguese Commander
The Rise and Rise of Kutchi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat
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A Letter from a Wronged Hindu Father Destroys Portuguese Power in the Persian Gulf
The Rise and Rise of Kutchi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat
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The Arab Destruction of Portuguese Churches in Daman and Diu and how Muscat got its First Hindu Temple
The Rise and Rise of Kutchi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat

AURANGZEB’S DEATH IN 1707 HAD IRREVERSIBLY SHATTERED THE MUGHALS. The British were now vying for supremacy, warring with the Marathas, the Dutch, and the French in India. Elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, they had replaced the Portuguese. The focus of maritime commerce had now shifted from Thatta to Surat and Bombay on the west coast, and to Bengal, Machilipatnam and Madras on the east coast. With astonishing swiftness, Thatta first became an economic backwater, and then a wasteland.  

Another factor that led to Thatta’s destruction was the bigoted rule of the Talpur “Sultans.” Their short-lived tenure (1783-1843) witnessed industrial scale persecution of all Hindus within Sindh. To this river of woe, nature poured her own share of misery. The Sindhu River suddenly changed course and with that, Thatta’s centuries’ old transportation route was permanently closed. Henry Pottinger, who served as a lieutenant in the Third Anglo-Maratha War, visited Thatta in 1809 and witnessed this scene: 

The only manufactures now carried on in Tatta are those of a few white cloths and coloured loongees [lungis], and in lieu of the bustle of a great trading city, the streets are deserted, the few shops that remain are scarcely worthy of being called such, in view of the disreputable figure they cut, and the whole bazaar exhibits a deplorable picture of poverty and depressed commerce.” 

Faced with such bleak prospects, the Sindhi Bhāṭiyās began to develop Karachi as an alternative. While they continued to trade with their counterparts in Muscat as before, their glory days were long gone. They were swiftly overtaken and replaced by another Hindu mercantile group, the Kutchi Bhāṭiyās, who surged forth from the Mandvi port in Kutch, Gujarat. 

— 5 — 

IN 1830, MUSCAT BOASTED of a large Kutchi Bhāṭiyā enclave. Their meteoric rise in the city is the stuff of legends. They not only dominated trade and commerce but exercised a powerful influence over its ruler, Said bin Sultan. A Kutchi Bhāṭiyā named Gopal Bhimani induced Said bin Sultan to conquer Zanzibar. Gopal also organised campaigns on behalf of the Sultan to suppress piracy on the high seas. 

Indeed, the conquest of Zanzibar proved so eminently fruitful that in 1832, Said bin Sultan shifted his entire court from Muscat to Stone Town on the island of Unguja. This brought two massive windfalls to the Kutchi Bhāṭiyās. 

The first: in Muscat, the Office of the Treasurer and the Chief Customs Officer passed into their hands. 

The second: Said bin Sultan, as a policy, encouraged Kutchi Bhāṭiyās to settle in Zanzibar. Most academic studies are unanimous in holding that modern Zanzibar was actually built by the Kutchis from India.       

The vacuum created by Said bin Sultan’s exit from Muscat was filled, quite obviously, by the Kutchi Bhāṭiyās. They flooded into the city from India and in 1840, Muscat’s Bania population exceeded two thousand. The British explorer James Wellsted who spent thirteen years touring Arabia gives us this striking observation about Muscat, circa 1836: 

There are more Banians in Maskat than in any other town of Arabia. [They are] estimated at 1,500, and their number is rapidly increasing. They possess a small temple there, are permitted to keep and protect a certain number of cows, to burn their dead, and to follow in other respects the uninterrupted enjoyment of their respective religious tenets.... They mostly embark at Porebunder, from the north-west provinces of India, and in the prosecution of their commercial avocations frequently remain for a period of fifteen or twenty years.. ..They constitute a body of the principal merchants of the place, and almost monopolise the pearl trade from the Persian Gulf. They enter as largely into the supply of grain from India, and have also extensive dealings in Indian cloths and piece goods.”

Said bin Sultan’s death in 1856 caused no real damage to the Kutchi Bhāṭiyās. On the contrary, their prosperity touched even greater heights under the regime of his son, Thuwayni bin Said. He continued the hands-off policy of his father. And so, the Kutchi Bhāṭiyās remained the absolute masters of the Muscati economy, facing zero competition from any quarter. Calvin Allen gives us a memorable clue as to the extent of their glory: “The profits that had formerly filled the coffers of the ruling family now went to the Kutchi merchants.”  

To be continued

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