Samuel Kutty and Sandhya Rao Mehta -
Recorded Indian trading communities are found along ports of Sur, Suhar, Muttrah and Muscat for over 600 years in continuity. James Onely shows that the earliest recorded Indian merchant community was found in Muscat, dating to the 15th century, then in Manama (Bahrain) and then in Muttrah (the Lawatis).
These traders came from the Kathiawar peninsula, from Kutch and Karachi. They were primarily Sindhi Bhatias from Tattha, on the Indus river, and were powerful until the middle of the 17th century when the Portuguese rose. The Banians prospered at this time, advising the Portuguese on trade, even being given permission to construct a temple. In fact, so influential were they with the Portuguese and the Yaarubi rulers that one merchant helped to expel the Portuguese when their commander asked for his daughter’s hand in 1650.
The earliest specific reference to Indian merchants in Oman is that of Naruttim who assisted Omanis to fight the Portuguese in 1650. Multiple sources narrate the story of Naruttim, the Indian merchant who, when angered by the Portuguese commander Pereira’s proposal, advised him to empty the fort’s supplies of food and essentials, and then informed Imam Sultan bin Saif al Yaarubi who attacked the Portuguese fort, ensuring their total defeat.
With the fall of the Portuguese and the rise of the British, the centre of trade shifted to Bombay and Gujarat. Originally trading in cotton and small goods, the Banyans gradually developed a large share of the market in dates. With the establishment of the Al Busaidi rule, they had become important partners in trade and some members of the community were now permanently settled here.
In 1836, explorer J R Wellstead noted that the Hindu community constituted a major portion of the traders in Muscat. They built more temples, one of which survives until today.
In addition, the community also had a ghat to burn their dead, a ‘gowshala’ where they kept their cows for milk, and a ‘holy cave’ near Seeb. By the early 19th century, however, the Sindhi Bhatias were replaced by the Katchi Bhatias as trade shifted to Surat and Mandvi after the
defeat of the Portuguese and their expulsion from this part of the Indian Ocean. Kutchi Banyan merchants worked with date farmers and exported dates to Mandvi and Bombay. They also traded in pearls which were sourced from Bahrain and Kuwait as well as coffee routed from Mocha in Yemen.
By 1805, 4,000 Banyans were noted to be present in Muscat, according to local accounts. Chayya Goswami describes the life of the Banyan merchants who often did not bring their families, unlike the Khojas (Lawatis): “They lived either in the Al Waljat or in the Banyan quarters, both of which were located inside the old walls of the town of Muscat. In Muttrah, they had their own quarter of shops.
Their houses were of stone and cement.” They lived on top of their shops and were known for their hard work and honesty. Goswami quotes Charles New who notes about a Banyan merchant: “See him at his books, and you see
a man lost to all the world.”
Banyans could dress in their traditional way, spoke Gujarati and Kutchi, and adhered to their religious customs. In fact, four families were named as the ‘pillars’ of the Banyan community during this time: Dowlatgiri Manrupgiri, Ratansi Purushottam, Virji Rattansi and Damodar Dharamsi. Some of the families who can still trace their continuous presence in Oman from that period include Khimji Ramdas, Topranis, Ratansi Purushottam, Dayal Purushottam Kanji, Gopal Mawji Bhimani, Danji Murarji, Vallabhdas Umarsi and Gopalji Walji, among others.
Brief descriptions of some of these families offer fascinating glimpses into the life of the Indian community along the ports of Oman for over 300 years.
The Dhanji Morarji Family
The Dhanji Morarji family is more popularly known as the ‘Seth Dhanji Morarji Shabica family’ after the German rifles which they were trading in World War II. The family trade was then based in the Masirah islands as the British infantry had a base there. Dhanji Morarji, who was from Mandvi, Kutch, in fact came from Zanzibar to Sur in the 1790s on the special request of Sayyid Said Bin Sultan to act as a representative of Omani interests there.
In Zanzibar, the family traded in dry dates, dry lemon, cinnamon, cloves and other spices. The ships they used to trade in would stop in Kutch, Mandvi, Karachi, Gwadar, Hormuz, Sur, finally moving on to Zanzibar, trading in all the ports as they went along. Dhanji’s son, Purshottam Dhanji would travel to Khaimal and Jalan by donkeys to pursue trade and provide the interiors with essentials.
Hemlataben, a scion of the Dhanji Morarji family today, reminisces that it would take two weeks for these traders to reach Khaimal from Sur on donkeys, and at least 4 days by sea using sail boats. The journey from Sur Bay to Muscat Bay would be usually through wind propelled boats in high tide, sometimes using row boats when the tide was low.