The Gujaratis of Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Those of you who have lived in Calicut will always remember a Guajarati or two from their days in school or college or daily life. It is simply so, that they have always been around, though they have kept somewhat to themselves and the Gujarati area of Calicut (or lately Mavoor) since so many centuries. We will always remember them fondly and they have always made our lives easier and colorful. In the old days their shops were the ones that brought in fashion from Bombay and it was their attire that people looked at when a fashion change was planned. There was a time when mimics mimed their funny Malayalam accents and many a Malayali lad pined after a comely Gujju lass with no results. Anyway let’s take a look at that community which enriched Malabar.

In the very early times, Brahmins from the North had embarked on a southerly sojourn for some reason or the other, and some perhaps even settled at Cellur near Taliparamba. It is even said that Parasurama himself was born in Anarta in Gujarat (though others say he was from MP Maheswar) and his legend or myth were supposedly propagated by the migrants from Gujarat. Nevertheless, as to when they came in large numbers is not exactly clear though there are some indications that it happened after the Afghan lord Mahmud of Ghazni attacked Gujarat (1025- 11th century) and quite a few Vanias or Banias (Lohanas, Bhatias and Patels) and Brahmins moved southwards to the land Parasurama had established (I will not use the term created – and all that axe throwing bunkum) for the Brahmins between Gokarna and Kanyakumari. As time went by the Muslim traders (Memons, Bohras and Khojas) also moved to Malabar when it acquired importance in the Indian Ocean trade. One must also keep in mind that these Guajarati traders had already been trading with the Red Sea and Gulf traders for a very long time. Recent Geniza fragments with Gujarati text in those scrolls testify to the vibrant trade relationships, and in a recently uncovered scrap, it is clear that the parchment is addressed to one of the earlier nonresident Gujaratis living across the oceans, perhaps Aden where they always had a vibrant community. But we will talk about the Geniza Gujarati scraps some another day and for now concentrate on their presence in Calicut.

According to another source - It is also said that 'Akananuru', a collection of records, refers to people from the North West having settled in Malabar during 4th century AD. The collection speaks a lot about earlier relationship between Kerala and Gujarat. Migration of Gujarati community to Kerala and other places occurred at different stages in different centuries (PS Zaid – rediff article).

Gujaratis of course kept their account books till they were closed and eventually destroyed them in flames, but never made an account of their times or their history, so quite a bit of their hoary past is gleaned from oral accounts and of course, the one and only book of their past in Kerala, written by Dr Jamal Mohammed, which I was thankful to lay my hands on recently. So with many thanks to Dr Mohammed, let me carry on.
It is not that Gujarati’s were only involved in trade of Malabar goods, but one must note that they were also conduits to many other commodities sourced from the Gujarati interiors like cotton, poppy, opium, honey, wax, sugarcane, betelnut, woods and bamboo. Finished textiles and indigo were also staple in addition to leather and tanned goods.

As time went by, it was also a Gujarati who guided Vasco da Gama to Calicut, for more details see my article on the subject. But one of their main reasons for frequent visits to the South was because Malabar in the 6th and 7th centuries was a center for Jainism. In fact it is said that the Calicut Jain temple, supposedly 2,500 years old was an abode for Kalikunt Parasunath, and that is how Calicut gets its name (we will get to some more details in a separate article about how Calicut got its name). During the early Portuguese times, the Zamorin deputed a few Gujaratis to help get the Portuguese settled. According to Pearson, the house where the first Portuguese factory of Calicut was started belonged to a Gujarati. While they were very much in support of the Portuguese in furthering their trade relations, once the Portuguese started restrictions with Cartazes, the Gujaratis went on the offensive with the Moplahs and even joined hands in attacking Portuguese ships. Their (Gujarati merchants – not the ones in Malabar though) fortunes are well documented by Pearson in his book for those interested. In fact many of the Gujaratis then moved to the SE Asian ports like Malacca and that was how the famous though ancient saying came about – Je java jaye pariya pariya khaye…those who visit java would become commercially successful for many generations.

The later day trading Gujarati community of Calicut were primarily comprised of Banias and Muslims and the Banias were mainly Kaira Patels, Bhatias and Jains. Sometimes I wonder how strangely these matters turn out. The Kaira Patels came to Calicut and Cochin in Kerala seeking prosperity. A Malayali named V Kurien from Calicut went to Anand in Kaira district of Gujarat and created Amul and later prosperity for the same lot!! See how fate works. The Patels quickly cornered and monopolized the tobacco business in Malabar. The Bhatia’s on the other hand, established trade with far off lands such as Arabia and Persia and one of the pioneers in Calicut was the Kutchi Hitenda Bhatia. He created the first shipping agency in Calicut around the turn of the 19thcentury, living near the Beach road. He was the main British port agent in Calicut and monopolized later day spice business. The fashionable Hathis and Bhimji’s of Calicut were also Bhatia’s. Another group of 52 Kutchi Lohana’s came to Calicut in 1865 and soon cornered the money lending business of Calicut and Cochin. Famous among them are Jamnadas and Mathurdas. The later day Jains headed by Rameshlal on the other hand were officially granted a plot of land by the Zamorin in 1872 and they established 5 Jain temples in the beach area Jain colony, the most famous being the Kalikund Parasnath temple in the Trikovil lane. Perhaps this was in the general area I mentioned in an earlier comment, about a mosque in Kuttichira.

Let us now look at the Muslim Gujaratis of Calicut. While the Cutchi memons or mumins, an offshoot of the Hindu Lohanas flourished in Travancore (kayamkulam) and Ismail Sait even went on to produce the famous film Chemmeen, Abbas Sait was a famous shop keeper in Calicut dealing in imported goods and among them they had as many as 120 shops in Calicut. But most of them closed down when exchange rates fell after the world war. Many went to Pakistan after the partition. Then there were the Dawoodi Bohras, of which some 25 families lived in Calicut. Among them Ibrahimji was well connected with the Zamorin’s family during his time and helped the declining family tide over many a bad situation.

But they came into much infamy when a Bohra boy named Powderwallah Bohra married Mappila girl Suhra in Calicut. The Bohra community excommunicated Powderwallah who then settled down in the house of Suhra. The powderwallh bohra then became known as Mappila Bohra. Finally to arrive were the Khojas (not to be confused with the Koyas though many still do) and we see Mohiuddin Khoja, another Zamorin associate. These Sufi Chisti khojas came during the reign of Tipu Sultan and started off in Kondotty and continued to produce a number of Thangals of Kondotty according to Jamal Mohammed. In fact there were instances where Manjukutty and Inayat represented the Zamorin at the Madras presidency meetings.

Interestingly, looking at history books, they were termed the betrosians (Portuguese terms for Gujarati) or bedrosians of Calicut, and considered to have moved into the area some 400 years ago. Trisha in her paper however believes it started much earlier in the 6th – 7th century.  Trisha explains – The Gujarati Street is in the vicinity of other commercial streets like Halwa Bazaar, Valiyangadi, Gunny Street, Copra Bazaar, etc. which were olden day Arab Bazaars and Dutch markets. In the 1800s and 1900s, the port city and the Zamorin’s welcoming nature provided several opportunities to agro- based merchants who readily invested in the infrastructure required to carry out their business. - The settlement grew around the already existing Arab Bazaars and Dutch markets, 50-100m from the sea. The Gujarati businessmen lived in Pandikasalas which are typical warehouse– cum- office– cum residential buildings having its own form of architecture, social relations and culture. She concludes - With the closing of the port and the monopoly of government in agro based industry, and because of the supermarket and brand culture, both wholesale and retail options have been closed for many of these small merchants. The very large infrastructure required to carry out those activities have become obsolete spaces.

The opportunity which the Gujaratis seized with open hands came when the American civil war broke out and cotton exports to England ceased. The Gujaratis using their contacts with the British in Calicut and Cochin provided large amounts of raw and finished material. One such firm which rose to the front was the Asghar group dealing with silver, gold and spices. And of course we know from the various historic sources that they were brokers of great skill. With their command over Arabic, Gujarati and local languages as well as a smattering of western languages like Portuguese and English, they managed to be great port agents certifying the delivery quality and quantities as per any given agreement. The ability to credit sales for 6 months allowed them to play decisive roles in the business of Malabar. Manekji, Indulal, Sunderji, Velji and Haribhai were well known names in Calicut. Nagalbhai from Navasari and his son Nagal Parekh were prominent brokers representing Harrison and Crossfield. Ratansai was also a well-known broker representing H and C.

Nagji Saitji rose to fame with cloth sales to Japan and his umbrella assembly company in Calicut, and of course there was Ibrahim Currim.. Most of the saw mills were Gujarati owned, like Devesh’s. But in the years after Independence, when communism took hold of Kerala and labor unrests became commonplace, the Gujarati industrialists moved on to other states.

Sundardas Shamji of Calicut was for example the host of Mahatma Gandhi when he visited Calicut in 1921. He later went on to create the Charka Sangh of Calicut. The creator of the Indian Muslim league of Kerala was Calicut’s Abdul Sattar Sait, who then rose to high levels in that organization. Sattar Sait later moved on to Pakistan after the partition and became the Pakistan ambassador in Egypt. And of course do not forget Mandakini from Bhavnagar who went on to became an activist in Kerala. Moving to Calicut with Kunnickal Narayanan, she became a teacher at the Gujarati school, but again veered away into activism. Ajitha her daughter followed her footsteps in activism.

 There was a time when the Azakodi kavu was also called the Bhavani temple since the Bali pooja was performed there by Gujarati’s during the dasara festivals. Eventually the Gujarati school and the Haveli temple were established.

Today we still have the Pankaj variety hall of Calicut, and the small community continues to do well, though the families are scattered. Their festivals especially during Navarathri and merry lives go on as usual, the school does well, and in fact it has gone ultra-modern with AV facilities in classrooms, according to a recent newspaper report. They still keep to themselves, with hardly any case of inter community marriages reported and otherwise live a harmonious existence with other communities, though the younger generation quickly moves to other metropolises in search of fame, fortune and other luxuries...

The Gujaratis, a study of socio-economic interactions, 1850-1950 – T Jamal Mohammed
The Study of a hundred year old Gujarati settlement in Calicut – Trisha Parekh
Calicut city centenary celebration – 1966 souvenir – article by Ramaniklal Jamnadas
Merchants and Rulers in Gujarat: By Michael Naylor Pearson