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Cousin Marriage

178 – “My family were pioneers of photography in the Subcontinent”

My grand-uncle, Maharaja Birendra Kishore Manikya in his studio at Ujjayanta Palace, Agartala, Tripura. Circa 1910

Image and Text contributed by Vivek Dev Burman, Agartala & Kolkata

While clearing a godown in our house in 2015, I chanced upon a wooden box with a sliding cover. On close inspection, it contained ten 10”x12” B&W glass negatives photographed between c. 1897 to 1910, covered in cobwebs and fungus. It turned out to be part of my grandfather’s photographic portfolio. My grandfather, Maharajkumar Brajendra Kishore Dev Burman of Tripura was an avid photographer and a gadget freak.

Up until now only few prints of my grandfather’s early work existed and had never before been seen or mentioned outside of immediate family. But discovering these negatives revealed a whole different level of quality and scope than what we had seen before. Later I discovered 36 more glass negatives, dated c.1890-1925, in cupboards wrapped up in newsprint, albeit not in very good condition.

This is a photograph of my grand-uncle Maharaja Birendra Kishore taken by my grandfather, his brother, Brajendra Kishore, a year after my grand-uncle became the King of Tripura. They were both 24 years old. My grand-uncle was born in 1883, just 3 months before my grandfather (their mothers were sisters). He was a gifted painter, singer and songwriter. The painting you see on the left,‘The Hermit’, was his adaptation of Job (1880) by Léon Bonnat, an Italian painter. In those days it was quite usual to copy other artists works, and family stories tell us that the painting was sent to Paris, France and won a prize for the best copy. Several of his paintings now hang the palace and other residences of the royal family.

The rulers of Tripura were among the pioneers of Photography in the Indian Subcontinent. My great great grand father Maharaja Bir Chandra Manikya was the architect of modern Agartala (capital of Tripura), and an enthusiastic photographer. He acquired one of the first two cameras that came into Subcontinent (the other was purchased by Raja Deen Dayal, perhaps funded by the Indore state) and was photographing Dagguerotypes in the 1860s. He kept up with all the newer techniques of photography. Culture and arts flourished in the kingdom under his rule. He was the first person to recognize Rabindranath Tagore to be accomplished genius and awarded him when all of Bengal was critical of his early work. He even provided regular financial assistance to Santiniketan, a practice that continued with his son Radha Kishore & grandson Birendra Kishore (above).

In those days most subcontinental photographers followed the European style of making portraits – with backdrops, and props & clothes to mimick the pictures they saw as examples. I hear there was a studio setup constructed in the palace in which backdrops & props were changed whenever they got bored of it. Photography was also achieved in collaborative ways. Exposures of 10-20 seconds, plates and paper had to be sourced from Calcutta, and that was a rather tedious journey as well as a long wait. Soon the king constructed his own dark room, learnt the developing and coating process and began importing his own chemicals and accessories. His passion for photography, its dissemination and developing also got the family involved. His third wife Monmohini is said to have been an amatuer photographer, whom he tutored to develop and make prints. Perhaps the first selves-portrait in India (1880) was of them together in a fairly intimate photograph using a long wire shutter control. He established a club called the “The Camera Club of the Palace of Agartala” and what we must assume was a first, an annual photo exhibition in the subcontinent at the palace.

Bir Chandra‘s sons were also keen photographers. Samarendra (Bara Thakur) my great grand-uncle, was a prolific photographer and regularly sent his pictures to England for competitions. His work & writings on Photography are well documented and one of his most well known pictures of a tribal girl is held at the British Library. He even experimented with methods to preserve negatives in Indian hot and humid weather conditions. His own father was known to comment- “Samarendra’s paintings and photos were near flawless”. The other son Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya, my great grand father was also a keen photographer and succeeded the throne in 1897. Unfortunately, no negatives of their works have been found so far.

My grand-uncle Birendra Kishore and my grandfather, Brajendra Kishore also took to the new medium. Of the two, my grandfather was more involved with photography, its technical aspects and was an expert at coating the plates and paper. I find this image so telling of their bond and as an ode to their exchange of ideas, because the photograph is of one brother – a keen painter, taken by the another – a keen photographer.

My grandfather, the photographer of this image, Brajendra Kishore had a passion for all the new things invented in the world and experimented with everything. He serviced and repaired all the royal cars and pocket watches. He loved to carve wood & ivory, and make furniture. Of course photography was a passion as it combined the aesthetic, mechanical and chemistry that he dabbled in anyway. He would coat the glass negatives and paper, and process and print for most of the family and taught others how to do it. He had a darkroom with a hole in the ceiling where the sun was the source of light for the enlarger. Not all of his images have survived the test of time, but this image is one from his collection of negatives that have.

Through my childhood I met my grandfather often, though only during school holidays. He taught me to shoot (with a gun) at the age of about seven and after a few years, to hand-color B&W photographs. Unfortunately I found photography to be my own keen pursuit only just before he passed in 1976, so I could not discuss any of my discoveries about photography or his pictures with him; else I am sure he would have told me about these plates, and asked that they be looked after. Nonetheless, I am proud that we are probably the only family in the subcontinent who have engaged with photography as pioneers and later as practitioners for five generations.


174 – Founder of the first Waldorf kindergarten in Karnataka

My mother, Lalitha Mandana. Madras (now Chennai), Tamil Nadu. 1958

Image and Narrative contributed by Jyotsna Mandana, Bengaluru

This is a photograph of my mother, Lalitha Mandana (née Belliappa) and it was taken around the time when she was 18 years old. Born on January 18, 1940 to Kodava (Warrior community of Coorg) parents in Tabora, Tanzania, my mother and her four siblings lived in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania or (formerly Tanganyika), till the age of 18.

My Tatha’s (grandfather) name, was Chendrimada Kuttappa Belliappa. He came from Madikeri, the capital of Coorg (now in Karnataka State). In 1919, at the age of 15, he ran away from home and managed to reach Bombay, where he bet on a horse and won Rs. 50. He immediately boarded a ship bound for South Africa and paid his boarding and lodging by working on the ship.

We don’t know how he survived till his 20s but at the age of 28, he returned to marry my grandmother, Biddannda Seetha Achaya who was a 18 yrs old from Pollibetta, South Coorg (now Mysore district). She was the youngest of seven children ( born July 12,1914) and had just completed high school – She was brilliant, but naive. She was happy to be married to Thatha so that she would get her new sarees as she was tired of wearing her sister’s hand-me-downs. Eventually my grandfather became the Chief Clerk in the East African Railways and Harbour, while my grandmother became a middle school teacher at the Aga Khan Girls High School.

My mother whom I call ‘Ma’ is the third born among her four siblings, her dark skin and dusky features always set her apart from the others. At the tender age of two, just after World War II, she was sent to India to live with her mother’s elder sister, for four years. The aunt had five children of her own, but included Ma as her own. My mother says she was usually left to herself, which in retrospect, she considers a blessing. A keen observer, Ma watched and absorbed the talents of her new mother who was an extremely skilled, kind and spiritual person.

At the end of four eventful years, my biological grandparents, returned from Africa to pick her up, but my mother announced that her adopted family was her family as she knew it and she did not want to return. Nonetheless, she went back home with them to Africa, where she started life anew, struggling to fit in with her own siblings. Things were tough for Ma there – she was aware of her darker skin, and the troubles it caused her – it wasn’t easy to fit in. My mother held the memories of her time in India close, with a decision to find a way back to the place she knew as home.

In 1946, Ma, a non-English speaker, was enrolled into St. Josephs Convent run by Swiss nuns, where she was introduced to the quasi Waldorf system of education. In the matter of a year, by the age of seven, she had grasped English. She learnt to knit and crochet by the time she was eight, and stitched her own clothes at the age of 11. By 12 she had exhausted all the stitching sets imported from England and graduated to using the sewing machine. By 13, she was perming her own hair and her friends. She steadily acquired several skills, but was not encouraged to question any of them, so much of her learning took place by challenging herself. At the age of 15, she watched a tailor cut and stitch a dress. When she returned home, she chopped her mother’s beloved voile sari and created a beautiful flared skirt, much to her mother’s horror.

Although, Ma had the opportunity to pursue medicine in England she chose to come back to  India and earned her own passage to India in 1958 at the age of 18. This photograph was taken around that time, a little after she reached India.

When she didn’t secure a seat in medicine, she pursued her next best love, art and went on to complete her MA in History of Fine Arts/Architecture/Sculpture and Painting, from Stella Maris College in Madras (now Chennai). Unlike what society considered appropriate in those days, she got married much later, at the age of 31 to my father, who is five years younger than her. She went on to do her Montessori training, followed by her B.Ed, and became the head mistress of a school with 600 hundred children and me (I was all of seven years old).

In the years after that, she went on to pursue her first love, healing & medicine and eventually learnt Homeopathy at the age of 39 and started her own free clinic when she was 42. Decades later, she became a teacher again when she founded Promise Centre Kindergarten in Bangalore, making us the first Waldorf kindergarten in Karnataka. I took over the reigns from her in 2009.

My mother has redefined a mother-child relationship through her parenting and grandparenting style. She maybe one among a handful from her generation who can even claim to have an amazing relationship with their child. We had conversations with each other that I never heard other children having with their parents and most times still don’t. She climbed trees and rocks with the children at the school until an accident left her with a broken leg at the age of 70. Although, the broken leg troubles her, she doesn’t let it get in the way of all that she loves to do, from parent education to being a core member on the board of trustees at Advaya Shaale, the second Waldorf Grade school in Bangalore (now Bengaluru, Karnataka).

Even today, my mother is dressed in her impeccably creaseless cotton kurtas and with the glint of a curious two year old in her eyes. Her positivity and composure are enviable. She has touched and inspired thousands of lives from the children to their parents in the course of running the kindergarten. However, if you compliment her, she will humbly say, “but I haven’t done anything yet.”

 


148 – Picnic at Juhu Beach

Our family and friends at the Juhu Beach. Bombay. 1941

Our family and friends at the Juhu Beach. Bombay. 1941

Image & Text contributed by Rumi Taraporevala/ Sooni Taraporevala

This photograph of our family was taken by my youngest kaka (uncle) Shapoor at Juhu Beach. We had all gone out to Juhu beach for a picnic, outside the Palm Grove hotel (now Ramada Plaza Palm Grove). It was a regular haunt for picnics and we used to look forward to our day out for weeks. The beach was totally un-spoilt and had only a few small shacks around. Now I wouldn’t go even if someone paid me for it.

I remember, we would take the train from Grant Road to Santa Cruz and then take a bus to Juhu beach. At that time the Bombay trains were not called Western or Central railways. The Western line was called BB & CI – Bombay Baroda and Central India Railways and the Central line was called GIP – Great Indian Peninsula Railway. I don’t remember what we would do though, I think mainly chatter, run around, eat and some of us swam. Picnic lunches were fun, sometimes they were large tiffins full of Pork Vindaloo. It was very tasty.

In the middle wearing a white dress is Freny, now my beautiful wife, and on her left is me. Freny and I are also first cousins, our fathers were real brothers. Like some other communities in India, in Parsis too, marriage between cousins is allowed. Though we weren’t an arranged match, we just fell in love with each other. She was beautiful. I think even at this picnic I was eyeing her. Our parents must have noticed and declared that we must be made into a match. There was no ‘dating’ at the time, so the way I would get to meet her was – when she would be attending the girl guides meeting, I would go and fetch her back. We would walk through Azad Maidan and at Churchgate take the train to Grant road. At the time she used to live at Sleater Road. A lot of boys were after her, she was a beautiful girl you know, but I got her.

At that time there was not much entertainment for us in Bombay. In school, we were big on Hollywood movies. It was our only past time. On Thursdays and Sundays, we’d be standing in the queue at the Metro Cinema (now Metro Big Cinema) and buy tickets for Four Annas (one Anna was 1/16 of a Rupee).

In this picture, I would have been 11 years old and Freny was six months older to me. I studied at St. Xavier’s School and then St. Xavier’s college. My daddy was a foreign currency exchange broker, and would earn around Rs. 3000 a month, which was a lot of money and would take care of the entire family. After I left college, I joined the same business in 1951. At that time we didn’t question the expectations of our parents and teachers. My father was a tough disciplinarian but that was the general case with our parents anyway. My mom however, was full of mischief, and was a very jovial and fun person.

Daddy used to pay me Rs.100 and when Freny and I got married my salary was Rs. 400. It was a lot of money for us. We used to go to the movies, for the office dances, and then there was Ideal restaurant where Freny and I would eat Chicken salad for 12 Annas.

In the picture there were also my cousins from Canton, Hong Kong – Veera, Perin and Baji. My uncle and aunt were visiting India to show their children what India was like. But then Japan declared occupation in Hong Kong and they couldn’t go back. So they stayed here in Bombay for four years, until they could return. Veera was a beautiful girl. She was dark with one of the most beautiful faces one had seen. She was a great athlete, swimmer and diver -and all the boys used to run after her. My mom and she used to get along like a house on fire. They loved each other, and were in touch all the time. The ladies of my mum’s generation would correspond with each other in Gujarati and the men would write each other in English. Maybe it was because many of the orthodox families didn’t educate the girls for too long. When Freny’s elder sister was studying at Sophia’s college, one of the Parsi girls converted to Christianity. Right then my grandmother wrote to my uncle/father-in-law saying “immediately remove her from school”. Her fears were that maybe they will brainwash her into becoming a Christian.

On the top right are Jehangir Tarapore and his wife Khorshed. Jehangir was a very well known studio photographer in the Gujarati and Parsi community. His images are simply beautiful, very radical for the time. The superb quality of his prints still baffles me. Many of his photographs are now stored by a museum in London, with my daughter Sooni as the guardian.

Sorab Kaka is on the top left. He was a professor of French and he used to teach French at the Elphinstone college. Shapoor, my youngest uncle who took this picture, was very fond of photography. As children we started off with cameras such as the Brownie and Agfa. It had only six exposures. Then they increased it to eight and we were ultra excited about that. I remember we had an old gramophone too, and had to change the needle after each record revolution. Then they started making bronze needles, each lasted three records, then came the gold needle which lasted eight records. We had to change it else it would spoil the record. Can you imagine that?

This area where we live, the Gowalia tank was so beautiful at the time, it was an absolutely quiet locality. The trams used to end at the maidan (playground), and the only sound at night was the bell announcing the tram changing tracks. In 1942, the Quit India Movement Speech was issued by Gandhi right here at the maidan. I remember, I was at my boy scouts meeting and there was a rally going on. Then my father fetched me, because there was a lot of rioting and shooting going on and many people were killed.

After Indo/Pak partition Bombay changed. I remember that in December of 1942, Japan dropped a few bombs on Calcutta, and so all the Gujarati traders fearing that Bombay will be next, fled back to their native places. Several apartments were available with “To be let” signs. Or as my Gujarati colleague used to pronounce it- “Toblet”. By the late 1940s, a lot of people immigrated into Bombay from Karachi and different places – the prices started rising, houses became difficult to get, and what really changed for the worse that suddenly the builders had the bright idea of ‘ownership apartments’. Till then all Bombay flats were only on rent and we didn’t have any ownership. Of course, a lot of the Parsis were pro-brits. You will find many of them still keep pictures of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth and call them “Aapnee Rani” (Our queen). When Sooni did her photo book on the Parsis, I ensured that we get the book to the Queen in England. At first it got rejected, because of the letter bombs going around, then a British colleague helped me re-send the book to her.

I have had a wonderful life with a very warm close knit family of cousins & friends and now grandchildren. Together we have had a lot of fun. There was always some outdoor activity or the other – trekking to Nepal or scooter tours to the south of India- the sites of our subcontinent are amazing. But Bombay, I tell you, was the most beautiful and interesting city.


139 – Impressions of a Memsahib

My great-grandmother May Stokes. Vallum, Madras, Tamil Nadu. Circa 1895

My great-grandmother, May Stokes. Vallam, Tanjore District, Tamil Nadu. Circa 1895

Image and Text contributed by Teresa Stokes, Ireland

My great grandmother, May Forence Stokes (nee Fuller) was born in Sneem, Ireland in 1862. Her father James Franklin Fuller was an actor, novelist and a renowned architect of the time. In 1889, she married her cousin Gabriel Stokes, whom she fondly called ‘Jack’. She was his second wife; his first wife had died of puerperal fever, five days after the birth of their son, Hugh. May’s notes are not dated, but I estimate it to have been written in 1895-96. Gabriel was the Collector of Tanjore (now Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu), and they lived at the Collector’s bungalow in Vallam with their three small sons, Adrian, Terence and Herbert, and their pug-dogs Punch and Judy. She never lived to undergo what she writes of with dread in the last paragraph –which was to take the children back to Europe and return to India without them – as she died of an abscess of the liver on January 15 ,1897. Gabriel was left with four motherless boys, who were sent back to Ireland and were raised by relatives. He continued to work in India and became a member of the Executive Council of the Government of Madras, and even served as acting Governor for a few months in 1906. Eventually he received a Knighthood.

The following edited excerpts are from May’s long notes that she wrote for the family titled “Impressions of a Memsahib“. Her notes tell us a lot about the British mindset of the time; in particular where she implies that Indians are by nature too idle to govern themselves, is incredibly outdated, patronising and racist today. But they are also outdated mindsets of a wife of a British civil servant, which is how most Europeans were in those days, regarding other races and cultures, considering them inferior and unenlightened.  But she loved her life in India, and unlike other European ladies who never ventured very far, she travelled  to the jungle camps with her husband, sleeping in tents, rather than stay back home with the other ladies. It must be noted that in those days the term “Anglo-Indian” also referred to the English in India, not just of mixed race as it does now.

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“I was reading about Eastern embroidery in an English paper, at an Indian camp, and I found myself wondering if the English women imagined what India would be like before they came here like I did, before I married Jack. Before moving here, I thought of it as a shining land of flowers, of white mosques glittering in the sun. I imagined the thronged bazaar full of picturesque merchandise, with stately Hindoos and mystical Parsees bargaining for a piece of engraved steel or the right carpet for the jewelled sandals of Jehan’s queen. I felt the air alive with an ancient charm of bulbuls. I felt the soft magic of air, filled with the sweet sad melody of Omar Khayyam. I imagined the East was all enchanted, compared to the alertness of our Western civilisation.

I brought with me to India an already formed liking, and a genuine interest in the region and its people. Since then I have lost some of my illusions, but it is not that bad after all. I have seen the “thronged bazaar”, the narrow, filthy quarters and roads of every native town, the scene of excited chatterings, for instance, a tousle-headed coolie woman, the veriest Witch of Endor who ever sold grain cakes. She tied the coins into a corner of the gruesome rag which draped her old brown shrivelled body, like the most grotesque of medieval gargoyles carved rudely out of rough wood.
I have seen a stately Hindoo bargaining with the tin-man for an old padlock with noisy gesticulations. Most alarming, until Jack laughed and assured me both were conducting the business quite amicably; and indeed when I looked at the tin-man sitting cross-legged in the middle of his wares, I had to acknowledge that he did not look very much perturbed.  Then he curled himself up among his wares and went to sleep again, his native laziness stronger even than his love of annas.
Imagery I have found in plenty but it is not imagery of the poet –the breezes which blow through the trees come, alas, laden with the foul odours of an unsanitary, crowded, disease-laden native village than spiced with the breath of flowers. Still there is much to interest. Women draw water at the well with earthen water-pots. The patient ox with his mild brown eyes still treads out the corn. The grave, bearded Mohammedan still kneels at evening in the field or by the roadside with his face toward the setting sun to worship Allah who is great. The Eyoh patiently tills the earth and lives on the fruits thereof – he is contented with little and grateful for less. He is a perfect master in the art of cultivation. He is a simple grain-eating creature, born on the land and living on it, but he is not without intelligence.

At home, Periamal and Rukmini (maids) grin and chatter on their way, none the less happy because life presents no problems to their untutored minds. Sometimes Ramaswamy may beat them if his food is not cooked on time, or if the annas do not seem to go far enough in “curry stuffs”, but they are on the whole no worse off than their more enlightened sisters. Women bring their own contributions to the household exchequer, and are generally treated with the respect due to any moneymaking animal. They do not think themselves much injured by the blows, which they share in common with the patient and invaluable bullock.

One knows very little in England about either native or Anglo-Indian life. To begin with Jack, he is a Collector. When I heard this in England I felt a little strange. I could only think of a seedy person in a rusty coat with a sheaf of papers in one hand and a black bag in the other. But I soon found out that a collector is really a sort of small Lord Lieutenant in his own district only with very much more to do than the other two Lord Lieutenants I have known. Nothing in his district – which is usually as large as an Irish province – is outside his business. He is the Aunt Sally for all belligerents. To the Eyoh he is “his god to protect him” – to the staff he is the giver of appointments, and promotions, which means rupees. To the average European he represents a fair income too easily earned, while to the government he is a working machine to weave its different systems and varying details into one whole, as harmonious and as cheap as possible.

Part of the year he is bound to spend in camp, so that the British may mean something more than just a name to the jungle subjects of the Queen Empress. Some men think that a “Missis” is out of place in camp but we have often gone together – Jack and I and the dogs, and taken the rough with the smooth like good comrades. And a little roughing it does a Missis no harm. When she has been in Headquarters for some time she begins to grumble over the dullness of up-country life on a station, where the few Europeans meet at tennis and the club, dine with each other now and then, and pass and re-pass each other on their evening drives; but where life is limited in every sense of that expressive word. There is something pathetic in the efforts whereby the Anglo-Indian up-country Memsahib contrives to delude herself with the idea that she is keeping up with the usages of society and not drifting hopelessly behind the times. The most distinct and prominent feature of up-country Anglo-Indian life is monotony and an entire absence of humour. Perhaps it is the climate. Anglo-Indians, who are as a body tied and bound to officialdom, have no time to waste on new ideas. Their work is enough, and more than enough, for their energies.

It is a safe general rule that everything in India is the absolute opposite to English ideas. If two men shout at each other with wild excitement and gesticulations, there is no need to conclude that they are fighting. It is only their way of managing a friendly chat. If a native chirrups to his bullock he wishes him to stop; the tailor sews from left to right; the carpenter puts in his screws the reverse way; and so on all through the social gamut. As one drives past spreading avenues of banyans and tamarind trees, one passes many curious and unaccustomed sights to Western eyes. Rude Hindoo wayside shrines, where groups of bizarre red and white pottery horses and grotesque images keep guard over their swami, and strange, roughly carved temples. One of the largest and most interesting idols and one of its kind we passed by in our wanderings was the Monkey God, of which Jack took a photograph. This shrine is roofless, as the Monkey Lord is supposed to be perpetually growing. “You ought to give him an umbrella at least, poor chap,” said Jack irreverently to the smiling and indifferent “thasildar” who was our cicerone on the occasion.

Scarcely any of these better-class Hindoos here know the meaning of any of the symbols surrounding their temples, though they invent answers which suit the unofficial enquirer just as well; but I have never met any of them who could explain the origin of a sort of cross between a lamp-post and a flagstaff to be found in front of many temples in this district. My apology is due to the antiquaries for this irreverent description of the symbol. They take very little interest in their religion and any vitality which Hindooism possesses among the non-Brahmins is nowadays left to the women. Along the roadside are many wayside graves, of pilgrims who were buried where they died, with here and a European soldier’s grave; and whitewashed Mohammedan tombs illumined, if not long forgotten, by a little lamp whose dim neglected flicker only gives a greater loneliness to the scene. Indian jungle life is busy, and the cultivators work hard, though no people can enjoy leisure with a more luxurious abandonment to the bliss of being, without doing. All Plantations of castor-oil trees with long stems of silvery-purple bloom in the distance; tall nut palms outline themselves against the still, cloudless sky, and spreading plantains make dark rich shade. And everywhere there is a sense of illimitable space.

But the Indian jungle with all its beauty and all its colours lacks that intangible peace which touches the heart in the soft cool grey English country. No one really knows India, but those who have never been in the jungle,  know least. It is in such backwaters that you most plainly hear “the East a-calling” with the voice of bygone mysterious centuries of a civilisation as conservative as the ages hold. One cannot but wonder how many generations it will take the Babu to forget the inherited traditions and instincts of those dim centuries; to eliminate the fatalism and indolence of his race; to cease to be afraid of any approach to personal responsibility, and be fit to take on his shoulders a European-made self government.

During my Indian years I have been in many camps, but of late Jack has always gone alone – and more conventional places, things and people have amused me. But there is little new to write of Viceroys and governments, dinner-gowns and ball-frocks. Environment is the only essential difference between social Anglo-India and social Europe, environment and its consequent limitations.  Of governments, rupees, politics, progress and suchlike even the most loyal and conservative of memsahibs had better not write, lest perchance she speak lightly of dignitaries; lest she should speak of the vanished hopes and crippled lives of men who have given to duty the best of their mental, moral and physical being, to become at last the puppets of a mistaken policy as distasteful to native minds as it is to European feelings; a policy which thrusts on an apathetic and unwilling people a local self-government for which they are not ready, and augurs to them an unlimited right of appeal which makes capacity only another factor in the sum of the Civilian’s dissatisfaction, and any personal influence or individuality he may possess superfluous or embarrassing. Still he spares himself nothing the less because he has lost all hope and pleasure in his work, or because success is no longer the achievement. But a truce to politics. This ramble has grown apace.

Jack and I will go upstairs and see the children in their little beds, under the swinging punkhas; then we will go and sit outside in the moonlight, and talk of anything – everything – rather than the nearing day when, after one or two more hot weathers, we will take them across the dark water [to Europe]; to return alone to the large empty familiar house, and the new consciousness that for us, as for most of us out here, in India, this shining land has lost its glory and become a land of regrets. Meanwhile the night is beautiful, we are still together, and the children sleep. Let us talk long and think as little as we can; too much thought is bad. Time enough to bid sorrow good morrow when one meets it, and the memsahib has no wish to forecast the future.”

 


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.