Wednesday, February 08, 2023 | Rajab 16, 1444 H
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Muscat to Mysore

There are references to ruins of an ancient temple in the town of Qalhat which points to evidence of an Indian settlement along the Batinah coast before the 15th century.
There are references to ruins of an ancient temple in the town of Qalhat which points to evidence of an Indian settlement along the Batinah coast before the 15th century.

The book Oman-India ties: Across Sea and Space takes its readers on a visual journey outlining the rich historical relationship between the two great civilizations of Oman and Indian which goes back more than 5,000 years. Published by Oman Observer in association Indian Embassy Muscat and written by Samuel Kutty (Senior Editor of the Observer) and Sandhya Rao Mehta (Associate Professor of SQU), the book is an attempt to document, archive and disseminate this relationship from its historical past to the present time where these relations have taken new wings.

Extracts from the book will continue to appear on this space every Saturday.

Although it is difficult to point to the earliest documented evidence of Indian trade in Oman, there are references to ruins of an ancient temple in the town of Qalhat which points to evidence of an Indian settlement along the Batinah coast before the 15th century.

Historical references mention the arrival of the Omani Al Yaarubi naval fleets on the Indian coast in the 17th century for economic interaction, trade and exchange of goods. Commercial relations were established with Sayyid Sultan bin Ahmad, the Sultan of Oman by Tipu Sultan of Mysore (1782-1799) at the end of the 18th century.

To look after their mutual interest, agents were appointed in Mangalore and Muscat. Tipu Sultan also appointed a ‘vakil’ in Muscat and set up a factory in 1785 in order to take care of his trade interests in the entire Persian Gulf region, based in Muscat. He established strong relations with the ruler of Oman so that he could promote trade relations with some concessions.

While special privileges like lesser customs duty were extended by the ruler of Oman to Mysore merchants to encourage trade with India, Tipu Sultan reciprocated by reducing duties on Omani trade with Mysore. Two agents, Nurallah Khan and Ghulam Ali Khan were received by Imam Ahmed Said and were bestowed special favours.

In 1798, a new dalal (agent) by the name of Vishnu Das was appointed as he was, as records suggest, instrumental in providing Sultan Said with a British physician. Thus trade flourished between these two kingdoms, with cardamom, rice and pepper being the most traded goods from Mysore, and dates, horses and mules being sent from Oman.

In those days, dates, mules and horses were mainly imported from Oman to Mysore. Tipu Sultan also encouraged Omani and Arab merchants to come and settle in Mysore and gave them special privileges as they were seen as successful businessmen. Valuable gifts such as jewels, elephants, khillats, sandalwood, ivory, pepper and cardamoms were given by Tipu Sultan to the ruler of Muscat.

In his descriptions of oceanic trade between India and Oman, Onley states about the pearl trade: “They were bought by pearl merchants, usually Indians, and taken to India, where they were sold on the world market. Because of this, and the monopoly Indian merchants enjoyed in the Gulf credit market, Indian ports became banking centres for the Gulf—notably Bombay in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a result, the Indian rupee was commonly used in many of the region’s ports as early as the seventeenth century, emerging as the principal currency of trade in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the Trucial States, and Oman from the 1890s to the 1960s. Even today, older GCC nationals refer to their local dirham, dinar, or riyal as the rupee-ya.”

The Italian physician Vincenzo Maurizi had observed in 1688 that Masqat alone had 4,000 Sindhi merchants, and that they had complete control over pearl trade and imported grain and cloth from India. Calvin Allen quotes Carsten Niebuhr, a Danish explorer who visited Muscat in January 1765. He said: “In no other Mahometan city are the Indians so numerous as in Maskat; their number in this city amounts to no fewer than 1200. They are permitted to live agreeable to their own laws, to bring wives hither, to set up idols in their chambers, and to burn their dead.”

This leads to the first documented references to the Indian community in Oman, much of which settled along the coast in the ports of Sur, Muttrah and Muscat and has roots until this day. Mohibbul Hasan, in his translation of Waqai (commissioned by Tipu Sultan) mentions that “...the traders from Masqat were not all Arabs. A few like Seth Mao, Jiwan Das and Ratansi were of Indian origin and had settled in Masqat and were subjects of the Imam.”

The existing merchant communities are primarily Bhattias, from Kutch in Gujarat. These existing families can trace their genealogy back to more than eight generations of continuous presence in Oman. Since the beginning of the 19th century, relations between India and Oman have been associated with the British who occupied India and extended their influence and domination to the coast of the Arabian Peninsula and thus the relationship between Oman and India was negotiated through British agencies and the British India office.

From the 18th century, Indian merchants controlled commerce not only through trade, but also by acting as bankers, brokers and money lenders. Many of them were engaged in shipping, having large dhows which traded in the shipping routes across the western Indian Ocean. Most of the foreign trade was controlled by the Hindu merchants while the Khojas controlled inland trade. Hindu and Muslim merchants from India (mainly Banians and Khojas) were actively involved in trade across the coastal parts of Oman, including places like Seeb, Nakhl, Samail, al-Dhahirah, Shinas, Khabura, Barka, Suwaiq and Ras Zuheir.

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