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The Khojas in Cosmopolitan Mundra

By Iqbal I. Dewji, June 2020

The phenomenal growth of the maritime trade in the Indian Ocean between the Kutch and Eastern Africa in the mid-19th century is properly described by some historians as "the Miracle of Kutch". What is less known about this trade, however, is that it was a catalyst for the large scale migration of the Khojas from Kutch to East Africa during the last two centuries.

The Khojawiki database contains the names of thousands whose ancestors are from the Mundra area, including my great-grandfather (my grandfather, Mohamed Dewji was born in Sadaani, near Bagamoyo, Tanzania). In fact, almost all early migrants to Zanzibar and the mainland Tanganyika were Kutchis (see Ibrahim Ladha, Abdallah Ratansi, Alidina Kanji Ramji). What was so special about the port–town of Mundra that accorded its Khojas inhabitants the talent to successfully migrate across the globe?

"Kutch has a unique geographical feature that the land of this region is separated from the main land of Indian subcontinent by the Rann, the marshy saline clay desert which extends from the root of Kathiawar peninsula to the southern border of Pakistan." [1]

Kutch has a limited supply of water and is relatively isolated. It is shaped like a “katchboo” tortoise, and owes its history to its maritime economy. It used to export cotton, castor seeds, pulse, wool and dyed cloth. Its imports included different metals, timber, grain, dates and grocery. These were traded along the coastal belt of Northwest British Indiaas well the Arabian Peninsula including Muscat.

In 1640, the port of Mundra was built by a local ruler as part of a series of minor port-towns that served the ancient trade route between the West and India, initially out of old medieval port-city of Cambay (present day Khambat) and later, after the rise of the Mughal Empire, out of their primary export-port, Surat.

"In the seventeenth century, Surat was the richest and busiest trading city in British Indiaas it was the entrepôt of the whole of Hindustan, absorbing everything that was brought there."[2]

We know that the merchantile "jati" community sometimes called the "Khoja quam" were part of this trade at least since early 1500s’ (seeKhoja Shamshuddin, who was named in official Portuguese communications of this period).

The Khojas ventured far south along “the “Veparkantha”, a name the Kutchi merchants used for the Eastern African coast.

"From time immemorial, the Khojas and their ancestors seem to have traded on that coast and the early Portuguese annals describe numerous flourishing communities of them established between Sofala and Socotra." [3]

"The Nizari Khoja had been active as traders between western British Indiaand coast of Africa at least since the 17th century." [4]

Later when the English East British IndiaCompany established itself with Surat as its headquarters, many Khojas moved in from Kathiawar, establishing their role as intermediate traders between the Europeans and the hinterland of North West India; some becoming regional shipowners. (see Quedagh Merchant, the tale of a pirated Khoja ship)

"The Muslim merchants were generally the ship-owning merchants of Gujarat." [5]

By this time, the Khojas were established as one of the leading merchant groups of Mundra and had their own mohalla quarter, as did other jatis(occupational guilds)

"They are the merchants such as Bhatia (Hindu), Luhana (Hindu), Vania (Jain), Khoja (Muslim) and Bhora (Muslim)."[6]

Though Mundra did not have access to an open sea, its seafaring tradition was so well established that it had its own “Darya Pir". The shrine remains the most popular sacred place in Mundra to this day. The town also observes a popular multi-religious holiday ‘Darya Navu Varsh or Nav Navroz day every year.

"Jairam Shivji, (a Hindu Bhatia) for instance, who went on to become the leading entrepreneur of Zanzibar, sought the blessings of the (Muslim) Pir before launching his highly-profitable venture from Mundra to Zanzibar."[7] (in around 1800 ed.)

This trading and seafaring economy had a major influence on the social culture of the town. All nationalities and all religious groups were allowed access to businesses. Besides the Khojas, the residents of Mundra were made up of Hindu Kathiawaris, Sufi Sindhis, Shia Persians, Sunni Arabs & Baluchis, Iraqi Jews, Christian Malyalis from the Kerala coast and other Indian communities with their diverse customs and belief systems.

"Overall, governed alternately by Hindu and Muslim chiefs, Mundra acquired a cosmopolitan and pluralistic personality."[8]

Business was paramount to all other concerns and stability was accepted from any ruler, irrespective of religion. Unlike many Gujarati cities, Mundra did not a ruler's darbar gadh citadel to impose its presence.

"These spatial characteristics indicate that these port cities are not the stronghold of the particular lord but the widely open cities which allow the free traffic of the people and ships." [9]

Indeed, for some time, Mundra had a ruling council of twelve merchants called the Bar Bhayat Jamaat, much like in Venice and other Italian sea-ports during this same time period.

The two historical developments leading to the growth of Mundra was a period of political instability in the Surat area in the seventeenth century. This helped the expansion of Bombay and its trade with Mundra. Secondly, the decisive defeat of the Portuguese and the re-establishment of the Omani sea power in the western Indian Ocean, which took place around the same time re-opened the East African links. (see Muscat )

The Kutchi merchants were nimble traders and they maintained sensitivity to changing power shifts in the Indian Ocean. This allowed them to take advantage of business opportunities of supplying the trading needs of the entire region.

'"'In the first part of the nineteenth century, many of the merchants of Mandvi and Mundra invested in textile export and ivory and pearl import, which marked the strength of their enterprises."[10]

"White and red coarse cloth woven of English thread came to Kachchh from Marwar and was exported via Mandvi, Tuna, Mundra, and Jakhau to different ports of the Gulf of Kachchh, Sindh, and Muscat." [11]

In time, Mundra became a major exporter of piece-goods, a term for cut pieces of printed garments, familiar to many Khoja textile importers and dukawallahs in East Africa.

"The East African rulers maintained close political relations with the rulers of Sind and Kachh, which in turn, promoted commerce with these territories."[12]

The Khoja merchants who migrated out maintained close ties with the town and created an entreport economy for goods moving between their far-flung connections. Waras Moledina Meghji's family purchased wool from nearby villages and exported it to Bombay for generations.

"The town was also the home of some of the big businessmen who not only made remarkable contributions to the economies of Muscat and Zanzibar but also diverted profitable business opportunities to Kachchh and Bombay...From Mundra, the Kachchhi kotia and other ships of such businessmen set sail across the western Indian Ocean. The port, thus, had sea-going vessels of the wealthy merchants and had a considerable volume of trade with Muscat and Zanzibar on the one hand and with the hinterland of north-west British Indiaon the other."[13]

Mundra became quite wealthy from its trade with East Africa and Bombay.

"Various merchant communities including the Marwari (originally from Marwar in present day Rajasthan, but dispersed over a large part of the trading world of Eurasia), Bhatia, Khoja, and Memon created extensive inland and overseas trading network."[14]

"In the 1840s, Colonel Holland states, ‘Moondra is a walled town, upwards of 1½ miles in circumference, town in good repair, containing 1500 houses. To the west is a dry river, and across it some fine gardens and trees. Round the town, a well cultivated and open neighbourhood."[15]

The imposition of British colonial rule did not undermine this versatile merchant town as their vyepari trading ethos allowed them to adjust to the new rulers.

"These two middle size coastal towns during their zenith evinced cosmopolitanism, entry of new techniques in production and mechanism of banking through inter-continental and interlocal mobility. Both sites are also represented by concentration of merchant communities and accumulation of wealth which later spread in the sub-region evenly." [16]

However, with the arrival of steamships around the 1870s, trade with East Africa went directly from Bombay to Zanzibar. Mundra lost its status an an entreport. With the silting of its river bed, large tonnage ships could not use its harbour and so it also lost its importance as a regional trading centre, although to this day, it still functions as the base of the dhow ships, which sail for Dubai and Persian Gulf region.

The Mundra khojas were well known for their philanthropy and in fact, the great Mahatma Gandhi has spoken on the meritorious outreach work of two Khojas in Mundra.

"...After having come here, I heard of the school for the untouchables. I felt that at such a place the Antyajas [lit. the last born – ed] would receive service. I would congratulate Ibrahim Pradhan Saheb on the school but the Hindu public deserves no such congratulations……. However, in this case, the Khojas are doing the work that should be done by Hindus'[17]

"The people of Mundra also informed me that the gentleman in charge, Mauledina Meghji was a Vedanti [belonging to a school of Indian philosophy – ed.] and a learned person. All this must be regarded as satisfactory." [18]

As Khojas contemplate their present lives in the countries of the diaspora, they come across terms like pluralism & entrepreneurship and it is important to remember that the Khojas merchantile jati acquired these traits centuries ago in societies where they thrived as leading citizens.

Notes & References

  1. Shu Yamane, Naoko Fukami, Tomoaki Okamura - Spatial Formation of the Port Cities of Kutch Region, India, ( (ebook-location 24-25)
  2. Goswami, Chhaya - Mundra - A Tale of a Walled Port. ( (ebook-location 76-77)
  3. Frere, H.B.E - The Khojas: The Disciples of the Old Man of the Mountain. (MacMillan's Magazine, Volume 34 1876 342)
  4. Chatterji, Joya. Routledge handbook of the South Asian diaspora
  5. Priyanka Khanna - 6 EARLY MODERN CITIES UNIT 28 ebook-location 519-519
  6. Shu Yamane, Naoko Fukami, Tomoaki Okamura - Spatial Formation of the Port Cities of Kutch Region, India, ebook-location 139-140
  7. Goswami, Chhaya - Mundra - A Tale of a Walled Port. ( (ebook-location 21-22 )
  8. ibid. Goswami ebook-location 72-73
  9. Shu Yamane, Naoko Fukami, Tomoaki Okamura - Spatial Formation of the Port Cities of Kutch Region, India, ebook-location 24-25
  10. ibid ebook-location 113-115
  11. ibid. Goswami (ebook-location 185-187 )
  12. Nadri, Ghulam - Exploring the Gulf of Kachh: Regional Economy and Trade in the Eighteenth Century ebook-location 142-144
  13. ibid. Goswami ebook-location 131-135)
  14. ibid. Goswami ebook-location 46
  15. Nadri, ( (ebook-location 190-192)
  16. ibid. Khanna ebook-location 416-419)
  17. Mahatma Gandhi’s Speech at Mundra, November 1, 1925, page 177 – 181).
  18. Mahatma Gandhi’s Reminiscences of Kutch, November 1, 1925, pages 181-187.

Further Readings On Kutch

  1. Alpers, Edward A., (1976) “Gujarat and the Trade of East Africa, c. 1500-1800”, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 22-44.
  2. Burnes, James. 1974. A Visit to the Court of Sinde. Karachi: Oxford University Press.
  3. Bayly, C. A, (1992) Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars, North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion :1770 1870 (Delhi).
  4. Choksey, R. D., (1969) Economic Life in the Bombay Gujarat (1800–1939) (London).
  5. Nadiri Ghulam A ‘The Rise and Fall of the Kutch Bhayat’, Eighteenth European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies, University of Lund, July 6-9. (2008)
  6. “Exploring the Gulf of Kachh”, JESHO, Vol. 51, No. 3, pp. 474-82. Nadiri, Ghulam, (2009)
  7. Eighteenth Century Gujarat:The Dynamics of Its Political Economy, 1750-1800 (Leiden).
  8. Machado, Pedro Alberto da Silva Rupino. 2005. Gujarati Indian Merchant Networks in Mozambique, c. 1777-1830. PhD dissertation: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (unpublished).
  9. Merchants and Eurasian Commerce, 1600-1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  10. Saxena, Adhya Bharti, (2015) “Ports of Gujarat: Far & Near: Cultural Continuum,
  11. Sheriff, Abdul. 1987. Slaves, Ships and Ivory in Zanzibar: Integration of an East African Commercial Empire into the World Economy, 1770-1873. Nairobi: E.A.E.P.
  12. Shokoohy, Mehrdad, Bhadresvar The Oldest Islamic Monuments in India, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988)
  13. Subramanian, Lakshmi. 1996. Indigenous Capital and Imperial Expansion: Surat, Bombay and the West Coast. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  14. Steiner. Indian Merchants and the Decline of Surat, 1700-1750. Wiesbaden: 1979.
  15. Uma Das Gupta The World of the Indian Ocean Merchant 1500-1800: Collected Essays of Ashin Das Gupta. comp. . New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  16. VOC’s Engagement with Piracy in Western British Indiain the Eighteenth Century: Perceptions and the Construction of Social Identities. In Contingent Lives: Social Identity and Material Culture in the VOC World, ed. Nigel Worden. University of Cape Town: 172-8 3.2007b.
  17. Williams, L. F. Rushbrook. 1958. The Black Hills: Kutch in History and Legend: A Study in Indian Local Loyalties. London: Weidengeld and Nicolson.

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