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175 – The Maharanis of Travancore

The Maharanis of Travancore. Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left) and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (right). Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India). c. 1905

Image contributed by Jay Varma, Text by Manu S. Pillai, New Delhi

(This narrative is an edited version to suit the format of this archive.)

It was in the fall of 1900, that the Maharajah of Travancore adopted the two girls in this photograph (taken in c. 1905), as his Maharanis — and as his ‘nieces’. For in Kerala, queens were never wives of monarchs, but their sisters. Under the matrilineal system of succession, ranks and titles passed in the female line; the Maharajah was a ruler not because his father was king before him, but because his mother was queen.

The Maharajahs of Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India) inherited the crown from their mother’s brothers, and thus power passed in a topsy turvy fashion from uncle to nephew, down the generations. Naturally, then, the sons of kings from their own wives were not seen as princes, but were only exalted nobles of the realm, fated for oblivion after the deaths of their royal fathers. Instead, princely dignities were granted to sons of royal sisters, and it was these boys who were considered heirs to the throne.

In 1900, however, the Maharajah had no heirs through his sister, and so the two girls seen here were adopted. They were cousins, and granddaughters of the famous artist Raja Ravi Varma. Sometime before the princesses were born, their mothers had journeyed to Rameswaram (Tamil Nadu) on a pilgrimage to pray for the birth of daughters to them. Legend has it that the deity appeared to them in a dream and promised the fulfilment of their desire. And thus when the girls were born, they were named Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left) and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (seated right) respectively, with the prefix ‘Sethu’ denoting their divine origins from the lord of Sethu Samudram in Rameswaram.

The girls grew up in Trivandrum Fort as ‘Junior Maharani’ (Sethu Parvathi Bayi) and ‘Senior Maharani’ (Sethu Lakshmi Bayi) respectively. Indian as well as Anglo-Indian tutors were appointed for them and before long they were able to speak the King’s English, cultivating manners that marked Edwardian high society. They played tennis, golf, and croquet, all in their traditional costumes. In music they mastered the piano and the veena, and they read voraciously, becoming expert conversationalists, impressing everyone who met them.

When they turned 10, a set of boys from the aristocracy was presented to them to select one each as their consorts (the men were never officially called ‘husbands’). Though these consorts were wedded to the Maharanis, they were considered subjects: they lived in separate palaces and only visited their royal wives when summoned; they had to bow to them and refer to them as Highnesses. In public, they were prohibited from being seated in the presence of their highborn brides. The little Maharanis spent several years playing hopscotch with their husbands, and reading fairytales together in the palace library until in their teens the marriages were consummated on nights when the stars were in perfect alignment.

It was the Junior Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi who gave birth to a boy, Chithira Thirunal, in 1912. But until he came of age, for over seven years, the destinies of Travancore were entrusted to the Senior Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who had two daughters but no sons. Power corrupted relations between the two royal matriarchs and records speak of the Junior Maharani as ‘the villain’. She felt that as mother of the future Maharajah, she ought to have been allowed to rule Travancore on his behalf and not her sister. But law and tradition decreed that only the Senior Maharani could reign.

So it was Sethu Lakshmi Bayi who ruled Travancore in the 1920s. She initiated far-reaching reforms constructing highways, bringing electricity and telephone services to her people, spending nearly a fifth of her revenues on education, which augmented Kerala’s high rate of literacy, developing Cochin (now Kochi) into the modern trading port it is today, appointing the first female minister in India, employing hundreds of educated women in her government, and thousands as teachers and nurses, installing the first Dalit and Muslim judges in the state, selecting a Christian Prime Minister instead of a traditional Brahmin or Nair; and opening up public roads to all in Travancore, hitherto accessible only to high caste Hindus.

By the end of 1931, the Senior Maharani relinquished power and handed the mantle of state to her nephew Chithira Thirunal, the Junior Maharani’s son. By then relations between the sisters had deteriorated irreparably, with palace intrigue, black magic, and more vitiating the air at court. For the next many years, the Senior Maharani, despite her acclaimed services to the five million people of Travancore, lived under the vexing control of the Junior Maharani. British authorities noted that while the Senior Maharani was ‘popular and respected’ and ‘held in the greatest reverence and esteem throughout the state’, the Junior was ‘cordially hated’ by their subjects, and was a ‘jealous and masterful’ modern day Catherine de’ Medici. There was perhaps bias, for the Junior Maharani who showed great independence and held unorthodox views, but the man on the ground held her in fear, and not love.

In 1947, when India became independent, the Senior Maharani’s family sensed relief and freedom from control of the Junior Maharani. Her daughters moved to Bangalore and Madras (now Bengaluru and Chennai), leading new lives as ordinary citizens; they cooked their own food, drove their own cars, and brought up their children as regular citizens. In 1957, the Senior Maharani decided to leave her palace and renounce her royal past. From being ‘Her Highness Sri Padmanabha Sevini Vanchi Dharma Vardhini Raja Rajeshwari Maharani Pooradam Tirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi Maharajah, Companion of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India and Senior Maharani of Travancore,’ she retired to Bangalore simply as ‘Smt Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’. From a palace with 300 servants, she moved into an ordinary bungalow with a staff of seven and spent the remainder of her days as a quiet recluse. She gave up her palaces to the people of Kerala; her summer palace is now with the Agriculture College; her official residence is a medical research institute; her beach resort was given to the ITDC.

Some years before her death, bedridden, she remarked wistfully with a stoic smile, to a visitor: ‘Once I had a kingdom, but it is gone. Then I thought the palace was mine but that is gone too. Then I thought I had this house, but now I can only say I have this room.’

In 1983 the Junior Maharani died in her stately palace in Trivandrum where she and her family had continued to reside as royalty. She was granted a state funeral by the Government of Kerala, attended by celebrities and politicians alike. In 1985, the Senior Maharani died in a general hospital in Bangalore. She was cremated at the Wilson Gardens Electric Crematorium, like just anybody else, surrounded by family members. She wrote many years earlier, ‘I have emerged a wiser woman learning that often in this world one gets kicks for honest selfless work, while the canting self-seeker wins half pence.’

And thus ended the saga of the two Sethus, daughters of providence adopted and raised to princely ranks, with one dying as a nobody, faraway from the land she loved and served, and the other meeting her maker in the comforts of her palace, still a queen long after time dissolved her kingdom into the pages of history.


Winner of the 2017  Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, Manu S Pillai is the author of the award winning book ‘The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore’. The book can be purchased here. 


166 – The families that fled Tibet with the Dalai Lama

My grandfather Faizullah Baba with my uncles Abdullah and Majid. Darjeeling, India. Circa 1957

My grandfather Faizullah Baba with my uncles Abdullah and Majid. Darjeeling, India. Circa 1957

Image & Text contributed by Soheb Ahmed Baba, New Delhi

The man in the photograph above is my grandfather Faizullah Baba. Standing left is my grand father’s eldest son, my uncle, Abdullah, age 7, and on the right is Abdullah’s cousin Majid.

During the Tibetan Uprising in 1959, fearing for his life, the Dalai Lama and his advisers fled Tibet with the help of the CIA and were given asylum by the Indian Government. While the world press published stories of strain in Indo-China relationships, very few threw light on the families that followed the Dalai Lama and fled from Tibet to India in the subsequent months. My grandfather and his family were few of the many that also fled to India to seek a better and peaceful life after the uprising. Our family, however, weren’t Buddhists but Muslim minorities living in Tibet and were often referred to as “Ka- chee” which literally means Kashmiri or Kashmir. One of the reasons that my grandfather also decided to flee was because he sensed Islam being suppressed by the Chinese Government and felt India to be more secular and comforting.

Historically, our ancestors were from Kashmir. On one hand, they were traders who would travel between Kashmir and Lhasa to exchange goods, and on the other, they preached the teachings of Islam. Many community traders married local Tibetan women forming a fusion of cultures and resulting in the gradual growth of the Tibetan-Muslim community in Tibet.

It was important for our ancestors that the young were educated in the lessons & practices it boasted and there were a few madrasas in Lhasa but these institutes were limited to religious education. My grandfather instead wanted his kids to gain more knowledge and decided early on (before the uprising) to send the young boys all the way to Delhi, in India, to study in a school founded within Jamia Millia Islamia.

What fascinates me about this picture and the story, are the journeys young Abdullah and his cousin Majid, made each time they crossed over to the Indian border to study and to return during vacations. From Lhasa, they would hitch a ride with the traders, trekking through the rough terrains until the border, and then use public transport into India. Sometimes they would make a pit stop at Darjeeling, West Bengal and carry on till Delhi to attend school. They would embark on this journey back and forth each time they visited home in Lhasa.

Occasionally, my grandfather, Faizullah, would make the same journey to go and pick them up from Delhi. This photograph was taken during one of those journeys. The well ironed collared shirts and half trousers with a book in hand were perhaps important props to display at the time because quality education in Tibet was rare and only a few attained an English education.

The separations and the hard journeys must have taken a toll on both Abdullah & his parents but my dad says it was these characteristics of my grandfather that he greatly admired – His inner strength, his will power to let go of problems and his faith in the almighty. Maybe this is why my father, his siblings & cousins were encouraged to travel to far out places and pursue their dreams.

By 1962, the Indian government granted the Kachee community permission to settle in India and many of my relatives began a new life in Delhi, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Siliguri, Gangtok, Kashmir and Srinagar. My grandparents themselves earned a living by selling garments at one point. Abdullah, my uncle in the picture, took up teaching as a full-time profession in Kargil, Ladakh for most of his adult life. He passed away in Srinagar, Kashmir, at the age of 62.

Today, 57 years later after this photograph was taken, I, a grandson of this community is writing this testimony in Delhi, the capital of India. My sister, our cousins and I are the third generation born and brought up in this country and a city that we now proudly call home.


146 – My father’s inspired passive resistance

Woven portrait of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1934

Woven portrait of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1934

 

Image and Text contributed by Jayati Gupta, India

Indian textiles were a major part of the East India Company’s trade since the 17th century. Hundreds of thousands of people in India were involved in the textile trade, as spinners, weavers and dyers. 
By the early years of the 20th century too, textile and textile technology was controlled and promoted by the British and colonial masters. Indian textiles was a rapidly growing industry, especially since the demand for British cotton had slumped during the interwar period.

During the booming era of the East India Company, raw materials were sent back to Britain and the finished goods were re-exported and sold in the colonies at exorbitant prices. The production and consumptions of textiles was controlled with imbalanced equations between the producer and the consumer, the coloniser and the colonised.

 When Mahatma Gandhi’s activism to promote khadi (homespun thread and home-woven cloth) became a big part of resistance to imperial authority, cotton became an important symbol in Indian independence and the Swadeshi movement began to overrule all. The resistance took the form of boycotting foreign goods and textiles.

My father, Nirmal Chandra Ghosh (1911-1989), after his initial education in the Zilla School (district scool) in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, (formerly part of Bihar), won a scholarship and decided to train as a textile technologist.

In 1930, he became a student of Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute (now Veermata Jeejabai Technical Institute/VJTI) in Matunga, Bombay (now Mumbai). He graduated in 1934 becoming that year’s recipient of the Dadabhai Nowrojee Gold Medal. His name appears on the Roll of Honour, a board that is maintained in the Institute.

 Those were heady days of the nationalist movement and my father was very far away from home living in a cosmopolitan city thriving with conversations on the movement. At the time, for such distances from Bombay to Jharkhand, a railway journey would take more than three days, letters reached after more than a week and telephone calls were unheard of.

My grand father Kshitish Chandra Ghosh, was employed as a Post Master in the Bihar Postal Service run by the State & British administrators. It was a transferable job and he had warned his children, a large family of four sons and five daughters, that any nationalist activity they indulged in could be interpreted as anti-government and lead to losing his job. He sternly indicated that any anti-government activity would have disastrous consequences for the family as he was then the sole earning member and hence they would have to be very cautious.

But my father, at the time a young man in Bombay, was inspired by the movement of resistance and found a way to express himself. In his final year (1933-34) one of the assignments that he had, was to design and weave a piece of cloth. Very ingeniously he wove several textile portraits of public and national figures, highly respected and feted by patriotic countrymen. He wove portraits of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the Father of the Bengal Renaissance, of Rabindranath Tagore, Poet & Nobel prize winner and of Mahatma Gandhi, already an icon of Indian nationalism. One of those portraits woven of Raja Ram Mohan Roy by my father, as shown in the photograph, was framed many years later and still hangs in my sister’s Kolkata home. As a child, I remember the woven portrait of Gandhi hanging in my grandmother’s room in Hazaribagh. The other portraits may have been gifted by him to others and seem to be lost.

Luckily, this gesture expressing solidarity with the national movement went unrecorded and unnoticed by his sahib instructors. My father spoke of the act as an inspired passive resistance, and that it was a source of immense thrill and excitement when he was planning and executing the design. In volatile colonial times, it must have needed immense personal courage and extreme conviction to think and act in this manner.

My father was also an excellent amateur photographer. The image above was photographed and pasted by him in his album. The album also holds photographs from early to late 1930s from the time of his education in Bombay to when he lived in South India on his first and only job with A &F Harvey Limited, established in 1883 by two Scottish entrepreneurs. A & F Harvey Ltd., a british company, was incorporated as a private limited company in 1945 to manage textile and other companies in South India. It acted as the Management Agents of Madura Mills Co., Ltd., until December 1969. My father retired from his job in 1970.

 


136 – The Motiwalas of Bombay

My aunts Zehra, Zainab and mother, Rubab Bombay. Circa 1946

My aunts Zehra, Zainab and mother, Rubab. Bombay. Circa 1946

Image and Text contributed by Fawzan Husain, Mumbai

This picture was taken at my grandfather’s home, on the occasion of my aunt Zainab’s pre wedding ceremony. She was about to be married to a fireworks merchant. Zehra, was my mother Rubab and Zenab’s half sister.

My maternal grandfather Abdul Husain Motiwala, a Pearl Merchant, belonged to the Bohra Shia Community in Saurashtra (now Gujarat State). At the time, during the early 20th century, Saurasthra’s coast line had been a rich hub for pearl hunting, and trade was in the community’s blood. The word Bohra itself comes from the Gujarati word vehru (“trade”). As most merchants and families began to adopt and attach last names after the products they traded in, my grandfather’s name Motiwala too, literally translates as “Pearl Man”.
As a teenager, he decided to go to Bombay with Rs. 5 in hand, and landed up at the shop that dealt with pearls, for a job. Soon he grew in stature and bought the same establishment that he worked for. He turned the business around, made it hugely profitable and became one of the top businessmen of the community.

My grandfather was a liberal man and was inclined towards reformism. After the death of his first wife at a rather young age, and a young son to care for, he decided to marry Fatema, a young widow and mother to a daughter Zehra, from her own previous marriage. The Bohra community was hugely upset and wondered aloud as to ‘why this very rich and eligible man needed to marry a widow with a child, when there were so many other eligible proposals from the community.’

My grandfather Abdul Husain and Fatema, my grandmother, had three children together. With three daughters and two sons, it became a family of seven. Zehra and Zainab for some reason never got educated, while my mother and her brother studied up to 10th grade college. All the sisters got along very well. Two of whom were so close, that later while my father could afford a bigger house in Bombay, my mother insisted instead that we live next to my aunt Zenab’s house in a chawl (inexpensive community housing) near Bombay Central.

My grandfather Abdul Husain Motiwala was the first man in our community to own an American Kaiser car. He was so well respected that he was given the title of “Patel”. A surname that was used primarily by Hindus whose ancestors were traditionally landlords and owners, I suppose it had come to mean “Respected man”. People would shout from the streets as his car passed by- “Patel Saheb’s car has come!

While Abdul Husain was one of the best businessmen around, he was keenly aware of his own hardworking background. He had great respect for the dignity of labour and had no sense of class discrimination. He, for instance did not go easy on his own son Kamruddin, and ensured that he worked very hard to earn his keep. Another instance was, when a proposal for Zehra came from a man in the community who had walked away from his own family business. With problems at home, he had decided to begin life on his own terms and became a taxi driver. My grandfather agreed to the proposal, perhaps because he knew his to be son-in-law to be a dignified & hardworking man. He helped him out with good advise and offered him loans to build a fleet of taxis in Bombay. The advise was taken but the money wasn’t, proving my grandfather right.

My mother Rubab or as she was fondly called Ruby, was the youngest and the most adored. So much so, that she like many of the youngest members in families enjoyed several liberties. Being exceptionally intrigued with photography, she would dress up in different attires & accessories and get herself photographed regularly by a photographer called Ahmed Zardi in the near-by photo studio called Dayzars.

My father Ahmed, a photographer, and my mother Ruby, the photographed, fell in love over pictures, and my grandfather accepted the relationship with great ease. My father became a regular visitor at my mother’s home and would take our family pictures ever so often, even before they got married. It was the first love marriage in our family.

Dayzars was a Photography studio in Bombay Central and was named after its two partners – Dayabhai from Rajasthan and my father Ahmed Zardi.  They worked together for 32 years. As far as I know, it was uncommon for a Hindu and a Muslim to have such a great and long partnership. But when Dayabhai’s eyes began to fail him, he decided to leave Bombay and return home. My father and Dayabhai’s son tried to work together but a generational gap of ideas led him to relieve himself of the business and Studio Dayzars was sold. I was an only child and would frequent my father’s studio. I learnt how to handle cameras, developed film and made prints. The magic of the dark room was an incredible experience. However, I was absolutely not interested in studio photography and so I studied journalism and became an editorial photographer.


114 – The Last Great Silk Route trader of India

My great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah and Munshi Abdul Rehman. Kargil, Ladakh. 1945.

My great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah and Munshi Abdul Rehman. Kargil, Ladakh. 1945.

Image and Text contributed by Muzammil Hussain Munshi, Kargil, Ladakh

This photograph is of my great grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat, in his proud head gear Pagdi (locally the Thott) with his two sons, Munshi Habibullah (my grandfather) and Munshi Abdul Rehman, sitting at the Sarai on a usual business day. It was taken by a Mr. Daniel Berger from Neuchatel, Switzerland in 1945, who was probably a Moravian Missionary travelling across Ladakh and Tibet. This photograph along with few others was telegraphed to my great grandfather in Kargil, Ladakh the following year.

Munshi Aziz Bhat was my paternal as well as maternal great grandfather. My mother (daughter of his son, Munshi Abdul Rehman, seated left) and father (son of his other son Munshi Habibullah, seated right) are first cousins. In older times, marriages between cousins was normal like many other cultures of the world. Marriages were fixed when the betrothed were still children and they hardly had any say in the decision.

My great grandfather, Munshi Aziz Bhat was last of the Great Silk route traders of India. Born in Leh in 1866, he was the son of Khoja Rasool Bhat. The last name Bhat came from his ethnicity of  Kashmiri Brahmins from Kishtwar, Kashmir. Due to influences of Islamic revolutionaries during the Mughal period, several Kashmiri Brahmins converted to Islam but the last name was retained. Khoja Rasool Bhat was a record keeper with the Maharaja Pratap Singh of Jammu & Kashmir State government. After he died suffering a sudden illness in 1868, Aziz Bhat’s mother brought up him with the pension she received from the Maharaja’s Government. He was a bright student and managed to pass the class V examination from Skardoo Primary School which was the only primary school in Baltistan (now in Pakistan).

Soon after his mother passed away, Aziz now alone, married four women (two Buddhists and two Muslims and had 15 children between three of them. His first wife Khatija Begum came from Gungani in Baltistan (now Pakistan) and had two sons, (in photograph) Munshi Habibullah (my grandfather) and Munshi Abdul Rehman. The second wife was originally a Buddhist from Zanskar called Kunzes Bee, but she later changed her name to Karima Banoo. His third wife was from Kargil and the fourth, a Buddhist lady came from a village Mulbek about 50 kms from Kargil. With a large family of 40 members, my grandmother tells me that the food cooked everyday was literally like a community feast.

The Silk Route(s) a forgotten road of history, is almost mythological in it’s essence. Eponymous with its most valued piece of trade, Silk from China, it in fact traded every possible item for daily as well as luxury use. Goods were despatched from Asia to many ports and towns in Africa, Europe and the Americas, receiving produce and manufactured items in return, as was the trade system of Barter. The overland and sea Silk Routes frequented during reign of Greek Emperor Alexander, and the Han Dynasty in China, expanded to become a multi-directional, transcontinental thoroughfare for traffic on horseback, donkey, mule, yak and foot. And Kargil, before the infamous wars, had a rich heritage as one of the key feeder routes of the Silk Route.

An important stop on the “Treaty Road” from Srinagar, to Leh and Central Asia, it was said  ‘all the roads lead to Kargil’ as it was equidistant from Kashmir, Baltistan (in Pakistan), Zanskar and Leh. Kargil literally means a place to stop from all directions. Its etymology has evolved from the word Garkill. Where “gar” means from all places and “khil” to stop. And true to its name, all historical accounts of British and European travellers reveal Kargil to be just that. Situated along the river Suru (a tributary of the Indus, which flows into Pakistan) it boasted of a fort build by the Ladakhi King in the 19th century. The old caravan bazaar ran along the river and a few mud houses by the slopes nestled in a green oasis of the Suru valley. The town had a population mix of (Shia) muslim and buddhists, both of whom were very indifferent to the prejudices of creed. Although the local language was Purgi, it is said that atleast two people in each village were also fluent in new Persian and Urdu, and the knowledge of English was very rare.

Munshi Aziz Bhat rose to prominence as a pioneer Silk Route Trader during 1880-1950 when all trading activity in Kargil, both retail and large scale was run and controlled by Punjabis & Hoshiarpuri Lalas. He began his career as a ‘Patwari'(village accountant) for the revenue department, but quit his job in 1915 to try his luck in business. He began as rival to his competitors but soon merged with them to established himself as a large scale trader in the region. He partnered with a Punjabi Sikh merchant Sardar Kanth Singh and started a retail-whole sale shop with a capital of 6000 silver coins (equal to Rs. 6 Lakhs today) and by the end of the year they had made an annual profit of Rs. 9000. In 1920 he established his own large scale trading business with the help of his two older sons and a cousin. The enterprise was named “Munshi Aziz Bhat & Sons”.

Imported from Europe, the shop sold soap, toiletries, stationery, cosmetics, medicines, spices, textiles and shoe polish which was considered a luxury item. The carpets were imported from Central Asia. It also sold unusual items such as horse and camel accessories, catering to the big demand to decorate horses and camels which were a status symbol like cars today. The items were bartered between the traders from all over the world but later with the influence of East India Company and Christian Moravian missionaries, goods began to be traded in money and silver coins. The shops was known far and beyond for its variety of goods and earned itself a local folklore that “one could even find Birds’ Milk at the Munshi Aziz Bhat Sarai”. It is notable that stocking such a range of goods in Kargil, almost 100 years ago, with no paved roads or motor vehicles, was a great feat.

The usual trade route began from Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan in Central Asia, Xingjiang province of China and entered Indian borders at Nubra valley in Leh to Kargil then carried on till Srinagar on horse or camel backs. From Srinagar it travelled to Hoshiarpur or Amritsar via Rawalpindi by lorries. And from there it travelled to the ports of Bombay and Bengal via trains from where on these goods were shipped to Europe, Africa and Arab countries.

Munshi Aziz Bhat who by now was also appointed as the official petition writer of the Maharaja of the Jammu and Kashmir state for Baltistan Wazarat (region of reign), also built the first ever Inn in Kargil for central Asian traders, the Aziz Bhat Sarai. The Sarai, built as a three story square building in 1920 still stands by the banks of river Suru in old Caravan Bazaar. It was the main hub of activities, a depot for goods meant for all directions including Tibet, India and Baltistan routes. It also housed Bhat’s seven shops. The ground floor of the inn was used to keep horses and straw. The first floor to keep the goods of the traders and the third floor was used for boarding and lodging.

Munshi Aziz had become one of the  most influential people in the whole of Ladakh & Baltistan wazarat.  As a petition writer for the Maharaja he had managed to network with Princes, Kings and high ranking officials from all around the world, including the Moravian missionaries and East India company officials who frequented the town for business and strategic concerns. He was considered a man with integrity because he knew English, was literate and fair in his dealings. He was publicly appointed as the village decision maker, and people from all villages would come to him to settle disputes. For a very busy man he was was a very caring and a loving person. Everyday, he would return from the Sarai, bearing gifts for all of his children and a loaf of meat for his pet dog, a Tibetan Mastiff.  Once, during a famine in the region, he sheltered and fed 60 villagers in his house for almost 50 days.

The Silk Route trade saw its lasts days during the Partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and the uprising of communism in China the following year. All the major trade routes were shut down between India and Pakistan which had now become two separate countries. Hence, all the traders along the route were forced to shut down business activities. The Munshi Aziz Sarai also suffered a similar fate.

My great grandfather passed away of old age in 1948 just one year after the Independence of India and closure of the great silk route. My Grandfather, Munshi Habibullah then joined the state politics. Following him my father, Munshi Abdul Aziz (named after my great grandfather) got into government service in the Revenue department as a Tehsildar and my mother was a government school teacher. My family left the Silk Route trade post independence and most of the family members either joined politics or government service.

The Sarai remained under lock and key for almost half a century before the chance discovery of nothing less than treasure prompted efforts that culminated in the establishment of a museum. On the classic persuasion of a researcher, Jaqueline who immediately recognized the value of the contents, we eventually decided to safe-keep the memorabilia and intensified efforts to house them in a museum in a designated house-space. If it was not for not that intervention, the artifacts would have been forever lost to antiques shops. The Museum is curated from the mercantile items found at the Sarai, from family possessions and relics, and donations from local and other interested parties.

The Aziz Bhat Sarai is considered the only surviving inn of the Silk route in Ladakh and North-West India and the discovery of incredible mercantile items has been an unprecedented find in recorded history. Today, the  museum in our house, This family-operated, public museum the Kargil Museum lives with a vision to preserve ‘The Last Great Silk Route Trader’, Munshi Aziz Bhat’s legacy. It offers anyone who visits a rare glimpse into the Indian and Central Asian business culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries.


94 – The devout brahmin who went on to build a Silk textiles empire

My paternal grandparents, Jambakalakshmi & Srinivasaraghava Iyengar. Tirubuvanam (Tanjavur District) Tamil Nadu. 1951

Image and Text contributed by K.S Raghavan, Chennai

My great grandfather, Sri Krishnaswamy Iyengar hailed from a humble Brahmin family of Kausika Gothra (clan) belonging to SamaVeda Shakha (branch) at Manalur in Tanjavur district.

The family migrated to a near by village called Tirubuvanam on the banks of River Veera Cholan looking for greener pastures. The village was very famous for its Chola period architectural splendor.

My great grandfather served a very well known temple, Sri Kothanda Ramaswamy, as a cook, which was maintained by the local business community. He and his wife Vanjulavalli had three sons and two daughters. They were Srinivasaraghavan, Veeraraghavan, Ramaswamy, Kanakavalli and Pankajavalli. All these names inspired by Lord Rama indicated his devotion to the God.

The eldest son, my grand father Srinivasaraghavan (1891-1952) was intelligent and seemed to have a flair for business. During that period the entire village community was engaged in silk cloth weaving, for the district was famous for its silk sarees. So he joined a local business outfit that manufactured and sold silk sarees as an accounts clerk, even though Brahmin families were not known to enter the business arena.

My grandfather a very pious person and his devotion to Lord Rama earned him a lot of goodwill among the village folk. His towering personality with a prominent vaishnavite insignia on his forehead along with his ever- affable smile, added a saintly aurora to him, and he was compassionate to all and they looked up to him for wise counsel.

As days passed he grew in stature. His sharp business acumen prompted him to start a business of silk cloth weaving and marketing in partnership with another weaver who was also the village chieftan, Nattanmai Ramaswamy Iyer. Their business quickly grew leaps and bounds, and they became master weavers running more than one hundred looms. The duo became very good friends. However, later even when Nattanmai Ramaswamy Iyer decided he wanted to invest in a micro finance venture and my grandfather and he parted ways, they remained close friends.

My grandfather then started his own business of silk cloth weaving and marketing along with his two brothers. The business flourished and they opened two branches, one in Chettinad and the other in Valayapatti. All the brothers and sisters had gotten married and were well settled. But as the brothers’ families grew in size, the needed to chalk out their own path to progress. The brothers split the business into three units and continued their businesses.

My grandfather Srinivasaraghava Iyengar’s business establishment was popularly known as “Peria Iyengar Kadai” He came to known as a very successful businessman of his time. He explored new business avenues by supplying cloth for the parachutes used in the armed forces. He also created a brand for “Kooraipudavai” or the Nine yard saree that is used to this day during the marriage ceremonies of Hindu Brahmin families. His products and good reputation had already reached far off places through the country. The shop cum house, was a busy picture from the morning till night. Activities like bleaching & dyeing of silk yarn, unwinding of gold threads would go on in the hindquarter of the house. He used to sit on the mat made of reed, while weavers, workmen, customers and visitors would stream in and out and transact their business.

He was so industrious, that he introduced many new methodologies in dyeing silk. He would travel into the dense forests of Orissa to buy Areca nut that was used as a dyeing pigment. Once he even risked his life to tread the dreaded forests of Berhampur. He had to spend nearly six months in those inhospitable terrains to procure his raw materials, so much so that people back home almost gave up hope of seeing him alive.

Srinivasaraghava Iyengar’s devotion to Lord Rama remained strong. He organized ‘Srimad Ramayana’ discourses and arranged for renowned scholars like Villiambur Swamy, Gaddam Sri Vardachariyar swamy to translate the verses and expound them to local folks.

He was also a connoisseur of Karnatic music and would sing songs in praise of Lord Rama. Adults and children would both be captivated. During his last days, his failing health restrained him from much of movement, but even then he did not swerve from Ramayana recitation. His last day, we hear he was in a very happy mood and that day’s discourse had gone off with much fan fare. But around midnight he complained of discomfort and suddenly passed away. The whole village bid him adieu with tears in their eyes and singing “Ragupathi Raghava Rajaram” till his mortal remains were consigned to holy flames.

Even to this day the people fondly remember him and recall their happy days with him.

 

 


83 – The mythical Uncle Bunnu.

The Cordeiro Siblings. Alec (Bunnu), May and Beatrice. Karachi (now Pakistan). Circa 1910

Image and Text contributed by Naresh Fernandes, Author, Bombay

The picture, photographed sometime around 1910, is the childhood image of my grand-uncle Alec Cordeiro, fondly called Bunnu. Next to him is my Grand-aunt May and my Grandmother Beatrice.

It isn’t clear when and how exactly my ancestors got to Karachi, but it seems that they’d been there for four generations. Like most Goans, they left looking for work: the Portuguese didn’t establish any industry in Goa, so hundreds and thousands had to seek work in other places. There were sharp discussions in the family about whether our ancestor Santan Vaz had made his money running a liquor distributorship or a booze joint.

My paternal great-grandfather, Xavier Cordeiro, was a postmaster general in Karachi. His son-in-law, my grandfather, Alfred Fernandes, moved to Karachi from Burma during World War II. He’d been working for the Burma Railways and had to leave when the Japanese invaded in 1941. So he and his wife, my grandmother, Beatrice (standing right), decided to return to their family’s home in Karachi. In only a few years, the entire family pulled up their roots from the city in which they’d lived for four generations to take their chances in India, a few months before Partition in 1947.

Though my father was only nine when the family left Karachi, his elder siblings had more vivid memories : trips between Bombay and Karachi were made on ferries named the Saraswati and the Sabarmati (“they were like little tubs, we all got seasick”) ; relatives having leisurely evenings at the Karachi Goan Association (KGA), “gin and lime was the favourite drink”, and the enterprising nature of the Karachi Goan community -“they even owned a flour mill!” From my grandmother’s stories, it appeared that everyone in the family had spent a lot of time at the KGA. After all, it was right opposite their bungalow in Depot Lines. That bungalow, sold months before Partition, has long been replaced by a characterless block of apartments.

When we were children, my cousins and I could have been forgiven for thinking that our great-uncle’s first name was “Poor”. That, was how my grandmother and her sisters referred to their only brother each time he came up in conversation, “Ah, poor Bunnu,” they’d sigh whenever someone mentioned their Cambridge-educated sibling who’d chosen to stay put in Karachi at Partition. The somewhat embarrassed tone in which his three sisters talked about him left Bunnu obscured by a whiff of mystery—even scandal.

If there’s one thing I knew about Uncle Bunnu, it’s that he spent a great deal of time at the bar of KGA. Friends joked that the committee of Karachi Goan Association had once made a decision to sack the chowkidar (guard). He wasn’t really needed since Bunnu Cordeiro never seemed to leave the building.

When I finally made a visit to Karachi in November 2011, I met 92-year-old Rita de Souza. She’d been in school with all three of my grand-relatives. She displayed all the discretion you’d expect of a woman of her breeding, but under my badgering, was gradually lulled into talking about my great-uncle. “Ah, poor Bunnu,” she eventually sighed. “He was quite a talker.” She let slip an anecdote relating to the time Bunnu was at Cambridge in the 1920s. “He was disappointed in love,” Rita de Souza said. “He was quite keen on a woman when he was in England, but his mother heard of it and made him exit the situation post-haste.” That’s all she remembered about him.

Others too remembered Bunnu. “He’d tell us about the libraries in Cambridge, where you’d have to maintain pin-drop silence,” a third-cousin said. “‘What would happen if you had a cough?’ we’d ask. He’d reply, ‘If you had a cough, courtesy would require that you didn’t visit the library.’”

At one recent family get-together, the conversation turned to Bunnu. It would be difficult to send mail over the border after each India Pakistan war, so Bunnu’s letters were infrequent. But sometimes, perhaps to remind everyone of his real name, Alec, he’d sign himself as “Sikander”—the sub-continental name for Alexander the Great. “He called his three sisters ‘the gangsters’,” someone recalled. “When he was in England, they sent him a childhood photo of the four of them and he said, ‘I’m not coming home. If I do, I’ll have to take care of them.’”

My aunt Margaret corroborated the story I’d been told in Karachi. Evidently, Bunnu had refused to return to Karachi because he’d fallen in love with an Englishwoman. His mother, Mary, who wanted him to marry a Goan, was horrified. She “picked up her skirts and took the next boat to England”. The conclave was divided on what happened next. Either my great-grandmother “grabbed his ear and dragged him right back home” or “he sent her right home without even allowing her a day to see the sights, but promised to return soon”. At any rate, Bunnu was back in Karachi by the mid-1930s and would remain a KGA Bar fixture for the rest of his life.

Uncle Bunnu never married, held a job for long or seen his sisters after 1947. Later he moved into an old folks home in Karachi. No one in the extended family seemed to have a recent photograph of him. I’d always held the impression that Uncle Bunnu had drunk himself to death, but considering that he was 80 when he died, he didn’t do it very efficiently. By the time he passed away in 1984, Bunnu had become more like a hazy myth to his younger Indian relatives than a real person.

The old folks home in which Bunnu had spent his last years is located in one corner of Cincinnatus Town. Cincinnatus Town was unnervingly familiar. Many of the older homes had been built in the 1930s, exactly at the time the pocket of Bandra in which I live had been constructed and with the same coastal-city architectural features. Parts of Garden East (Cincinnatus Town) resembled the now-demolished landscapes of my childhood. They were filled with the kind of teakwood furniture you find in older Bombay homes and had identical Catholic iconography. My ancestors, yes, they’d been dead for decades, but as we discussed them in Bombay, six decades and 900 kms away, they were warm, breathing presences, as real and as resolute as Karachi.

An unedited version of this narrative can be found here.


81 – This was his last photograph

Above : My father's brother, Nagarathnam with his colleagues. Below : A Telegram announcing his death. Burma, 1938

Image and Text contributed by Meera Janakiraman, Bangalore

This image was photographed on October 26, 1938, in Burma. The person in the center is my father’s elder brother, Nagarathnam, with his colleagues from Burma.

My father T.J Raman and Nagarathnam’s parents (my grandparents) were originally from Thiruvallikeni, (now Triplicane) State of Madras. Their family business involved exporting Burmese Teak. Teak during war was “as important an ammunition of war as steel”, especially used in the construction of Warships. The family moved to Burma (formerly Myanmar) during World War I as it made better business sense.

Nagarathnam, fondly called Nagu, got married when he was 23 years old and had two sons. Leaving his family in with good care in Madras, he returned to Burma and first worked as a representative of the Prudential Life Insurance Company before he joined the Burma Railways as a clerk.

He was on his way to Mandalay, the royal capital of Burma, on a business visit by train when this photograph was taken. It is believed that during the travel he chocked on a piece of guava. Late at night, he was rushed to the Mayyo Hospital where he was declared dead due to heart failure. He died at the age of 30, the very next day after this photograph was taken. A telegram announcing his death was sent to his family in Madras via Calcutta.

 


73 – He folded sarees for One paisa each, and went on to become the Director of a Bank.

My maternal grandfather, Manikchand Veerchand Shah (seated in white turban) and extended family, Solapur, Maharashtra. 1956

Image and Text contributed by Anshumalin Shah, Bangalore

This image of maternal grandfather, Shri Manikchand Veerchand Shah and our extended family was photographed in November 1956, by the famous ‘Malage Photographer – Oriental Photo Studio’ who charged a tidy sum of 30-0-0 (Rupee-Anna-Paise) for two Black & White 6” x 8”copies with embossed-border mounts. The occasion was my grandfather’s birthday, he had just turned 60.

The family was photographed in the front yard of the bungalow called ‘Ratnakuti’ opposite the Fort in Solapur (then Sholapoor), Maharashtra. Ratnakuti was one of twin bungalows built around 1932 as mirror images of each other, known as ‘Jod-Bangla’. Beautifully crafted in stone and plaster, with imposing pillars, balconies and rooms with ceramic-chip handcrafted flooring, exquisite teak, brass grills for windows, coloured glass panes on windows and doors, verandahs with neat terracotta tiles, a large court-yard in front, ‘Ratnakuti’ and its twin would never fail to draw the attention of passers-by and stands to this day as a well known landmark. Eventually, the two bungalows were sold and are now owned by the Goyal family.

My grandfather, Manikchand Veerchand Shah, born in 1896, came from a pioneering and visionary Gujarati Digambar Jain family. He was a self-educated, successful entrepreneurial man with modest beginnings. Before 1910, he along with his younger brother, Walchand Motichand Shah, worked in a Saree shop of their guardian where they got paid One Paisa for every saree they neatly folded, ready for dispatch or sale and delivered on a bicycle to the shop at Phaltan Galli.

As they grew up together, my grandfather and his brother established and operated several businesses together complementing each other’s strengths. The businesses included a handloom cloth dyeing unit, in Valsang, near Solapur, for which the dyes were imported from Japan. They also began importing General Motors cars, motorcycles and trucks around 1922. I am told my grandfather would drive and deliver the imported truck chassis himself from Bombay to Pune and Sholapur. Their firm ‘Sholapur Motor Stores’ continues on in Pune, albeit only as a Fuel Station. He also established the well-known ‘India Garage’ in the 1930s where the present showrooms of Renault and Volkswagen stand, still operated by the family.

Closely associated with the freedom movement in Solapur, opposing the Martial Law imposed in 1930, he was arrested by the British, sent to Bijapur Central Jail and later exiled. Not to be outdone by the British, he used his stay at Bijapur Jail to monitor the establishment of a ‘Sholapur Motor Stores’ branch in the city.

Also associated with the Hindu Mahasabha, he rubbed shoulders with very important personalities like V. D. Savarkar, Dr. K. B. Hedgewar, M. S. Golwalker Guruji and Gulabchand Hirachand Doshi. While he was also deeply involved with several causes for the people of Valsang, unfortunately, owing to his association with the Hindu Mahasabha, an irate mob of villagers from Valsang set his car on fire in a frenzied reaction to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948. Barely managing to escape with his life, he was deeply hurt and disillusioned by the senseless act by the people of Valsang. In consequence, he wound up his businesses and left Valsang, never to return.

After the death of his wife, my grandmother, when he was just 34, and as a sign of love for her, he changed his attire to only pristine white – a white turban, coat and a dhoti with white canvas pump shoes. While visiting us in Hyderabad, he would regularly buy the special black metal ‘Bidriware’ buttons for his white coats from a handicraft showroom at Abid Road.

My grandfather was a man of many parts. He was the Director on the Board of Bank of Maharashtra Ltd. As well as on the governing council for several religious and temple trusts. His contribution to the educational infrastructure development from his own funds at Solapur is widely acknowledged. He offered personal loans, scholarships and donor’s seats at the Walchand College of Engineering, Sangli for students pursuing higher studies in the 1950s and 60s. Several successful senior Engineers owe their careers to him.

Farming, Gardening, and Photography were his passions. I remember us youngsters gathering on his farms near Sholapur during summer holidays and enjoying the juiciest mangoes to our brim. Quite taken up with Photography as well, he had acquired a glass-negative Camera in the 1920s and his collection of glass negatives and pictures are our family’s priceless treasures.

My grandfather passed away in June 1968. Many members of the two older generations of the three appearing in the pictures have also passed on. The third generation now have their own children and grand-children. I feel very honoured to have shared some of the birthday celebrations along with my grandfather as we were both born only a few days apart.

Time moves on, but photographs manage to freeze fleeting moments here and there. If we could preserve these photographs, we succeed in reliving those moments over and over again and again.


34 – The fourth President of India, before he became one

The Farewell party for V.V Giri, then the High Commissioner of India to Ceylon (Now Sri Lanka), Columbo. July 3, 1948.

Image and text contributed by Sunder Mirchandani

Since Colombo was a relatively small capital, much of the social life of expat Indians involved mingling with the diplomatic circle. When an officer was transferred there would be a round of farewell parties. This particular farewell was hosted by my parents Sita and Nari Mirchandani at the Galle Face Hotel for V V Giri, (Varahagiri Venkata Giri) then the High Commissioner for India in Colombo prior to his return to India. I sit next to him, as a child. The Hotel is still a landmark  in Colombo. V.V Giri went on to become the fourth President of India in 1964. He was in power until 1974.