A Brief History of the Thattai Hindu Bhatia Community

An early photograph of the Thattai community in Bahrain shows a big group of young men – dressed in formal clothes of the ‘40s, they represent the pioneers who made the Gulf region a second home for the ambitious men of Thatta.

Who are the people who make up the Thattai Bhatia community? Numbering only 5,000 at the most and having borne the brunt of the partition of India, how did they hold together and carve such a strong niche for themselves in the Gulf* and in India?

a surprising 19% of Thattai Bhatias were born in Bahrain!

Our’s is a story of courage and determination – but more than that it is a history of how our community weathered the winds of change and metamorphosed from the quiet agrarians of Thatta into a merchant community on the international map.

The Thattai Bhatia community traces its roots to the Rajput rulers of Jaisalmer. As part of the Rajput Battle-camps, the Bhatias (or Bhattis as they were then known) were the providers and administrators of the Rajput army. Records show that the community settled around the great Rajput fort of Jaisalmer and thrived on the patronage of its warrior-rulers. With the decline of the Rajputs in c. 1300’s following the Mughal invasion, the Bhatias left the protection of Jaisalmer for other parts of India.

The core of the group which settled later in Thatta, first went North of Punjab, Bhavalpur and Multan. The Bhatias were famous for their valour and fighting spirit and in the early 1400’s, they were approached by the king of Thatta, a fertile province in Sind across the River Indus (now in Pakistan), who sought their help in putting down a rebellion in his kingdom. The Bhatias fought bravely and won back the king’s land. Grateful for their help, the king asked them to settle in Thatta itself. Villages consisting of five to seven large joint families made up the settlement – Karanipara, Janjianipara, Palangpara, Gangarampara and other villages soon dotted Thatta.

“Don’t be misled by the word “family” – each joint family had at least 50 to 60 members as brothers and their offspring lived together.” said Shri Kishore Tirathdas, who is well known for his knowledge of community history, “In the beginning, the Thattai Bhatias were kshatriyas, having lived for so long as part of the Rajput army. But shortly after they settled in Thatta, they heard of a religious movement that was sweeping India – the Bhakti movement. Soon the famous saint Shri Vallabhacharya came to Narayan Sarovar near Kutch on a pilgrimage, on the opposite banks of the River Indus. Since the Swami had taken a vow not to cross water, representatives of the Thattai Vaishnava community went across the river to hear him – and started following to the faith of Pushtimarg.”

Once they embraced this faith, the Thattai Bhatias became followers of Pushtimarg – strict vegetarians who eschewed even onions and garlic and devoted themselves to Srinathji. The one thing that they didn’t do, however, was restrict themselves to the boundary of the River Indus! In fact, in their search for new business opportunities, the men of Thatta moved further and further away from their quiet home-town – first to Karachi, the closest sea-port and a thriving business centre, and then to the nearest foreign lands – which happened to be the Gulf countries. Trade with Arab lands began in the early 1700’s and the Bhatias were invited to establish closer ties with the Gulf region.

Shri Damodar Jethanand Raipancholia, a UAE-based Thattai Bhatia remembers tales told to him by his father Late Shri Jethanand Lalchand about the hazardous travel conditions that the dhows had to brave to reach the Gulf in the early days. Things became a bit easier with the establishment of the British East India Company to Thatta in 1830. A network of roads were laid and prominent businessmen like Ratanchand Hiranand Karani of the Karani family paid the princely sum of Rs. 200/- each so that Thatta too may benefit. Soon, roads linking Thatta to Karachi were laid and railway lines too came up.

As more and more men left for the world outside the boundaries of Thatta, the province was home mainly for the women and children – nearly 90% of the men were either in Karachi or in the faraway Gulf. The lifestyle and profession of the community too changed – by the end of the nineteenth century, as more of the Thattai Bhatias became involved in trade, the agricultural economy of Thatta was left in the hands of the old-timers and hired labourers. For the upcoming generations, trade in the far-off Gulf countries was the goal.

The first Thattai Bhatia whose name is taken among the established names in the Gulf was Gangaram Tikamdas (great grandfather of Vasti Patrak Co-ordinator Shri Ashok D. Bhatia). He came to Bahrain in the early 1900’s and joined an enterprising group of Thattai Bhatia entrepreneurs such as Dhamanmal Issardas, the Karanis, the Gajrias and the Janjanis.

At that time, the Bhatias had been operating in the Gulf for a couple of decades and were known as “banians” – businessmen who were highly-trusted by the Arabs as well as the British whose Protectorate this region was in those days. Shri Gangaram Tikamdas soon established himself as a shrewd administrator and was appointed by the Ruler of Bahrain to set up the Customs Directorate for the country. The Chief Administrator of the Customs was Shri Kumbhi Maharaj.

In the course of researching this article, we had the luck to meet Shri Kushaldas Krishnalal Bhatia (maternal uncle of Shri Kishore Tirathdas), who settled in Dubai in the early 1920’s. He was able to shed much light on the status of the Thattai Bhatias in those pioneering days.

“The Thattai Bhatias were greatly trusted – in fact, one of the main roles we played were as financiers to the men involved in the pearl trade.” said Shri Kushaldas, “Many Arabs would trust their money with the “banians” rather than with the Eastern Bank (now Standard Chartered Bank) and would give their money to us for safe-keeping, taking as much as they required from time to time.”

This view was corroborated by Shri Vallabh D.I., who recalled an incident in those early days, “Since there was no running water in the houses, Bhatia men used to congregate at a public water fountain near the present Police Fort. This was called the Chochaeb and the water was used for bathing and then carried home for other washing and cooking purposes. Once there was an altercation between some persons near the Chochaeb and one of our community was among those accused of causing a disturbance. But when the police came, they took one look at the man in Indian clothes and refused to arrest him, saying “Banians do not create problems. There must be a mistake somewhere.”

But life for those pioneers was not easy – compared to verdant Thatta, the climate in the Gulf was harsh and infertile. There was no electricity or running water and food was restricted to rise, dal and an occasional vegetable.

“Life in the Gulf was primitive”, comments Shri Tolaram Kavalani, “My grandfather, father and uncle had come here many years before and I grew up in Thatta with my mother and Naani. On my first visit here with my mother, I was shocked at the living standards and I remember wanting to return to Thatta as soon as possible!”

Most of the men lived together since there were no families with them and either cooked their own food or had a cook to do so. They were very strict about their dietary habits and still followed the vegetarian code that they had grown up with in Thatta. None of these men ate anything prepared by strangers – hotel food was taboo of course and except for business purposes, the Thattai Bhatias hardly mixed with the Arab or British residents. This was not out of any snobbery and surprisingly, it gained for the “banians” the respect of the Bahrainis.

“We were known for our strict code”, said Shri Vallabh D.I., “When “banians” visited the majlis of the ruler or any sheikh, we weren’t offered even the traditional gahwa because the people used to say, “The “Banians” will not break bread with anyone outside their community. However, the locals themselves followed very strict practices and they understood our need to keep up our traditions and food habits. In fact, because we were so particular about not letting go of our traditions, we were able to keep the community spirit and develop a strong identity as an honest and upright people.”

Following their strict Thatta traditions did not, however, prevent the Thattai Bhatias from extending their hospitality to their business associates and friends in Bahrain. The largest house in Manama in those days was Beit D.I. It stood very near where Aradous Hotel is today and had a majlis hall with 17 windows and 3 doors and a soaring ceiling 30 feet above. This was the gathering place for merchants from Muharraq who congregated there every afternoon to rest after the morning trade. Such intermingling served to develop the strong links between local authority and the Bhatia community. The community was involved in the administration of the country under the British and many Bhatia merchants were given permission to buy land in their own names – the earliest land documents giving such permission, date back to 1229 Hijri or 1813!

April to September were the busiest months for the businessmen since the pearling season ran during those months. As financiers to the pearl fleets, the Bhatias advanced the money necessary to equip the fleet. In return, they were given first choice from the pick of pearls and entrusted with the marketing of these lustrous gems of the sea in India where maharajahs and rich merchants sought these Bahraini treasures.

In the days before 1930, there were about 56 Bhatia-owned “pedis” (companies) involved in pearl financing and foodstuffs trading. In the marketing sphere, the Bhatias were joined by representatives of jewellers from Surat in Western India who descended on Bahrain during the pearling season. Unlike the Bhatia community, the Suratis were temporary businessmen with no permanent links to the Gulf.

By this time, the Bhatia merchants were well-established in Bahrain and Dubai. In those days, the Emirates were called the Trucial States and, except for Dubai, the other Emirates were uncharted territory. Bahrain was certainly preferred over Dubai then because it offered better facilities! For one thing, electricity came to Bahrain first and running water became a reality shortly afterwards. For the young Bhatias coming from Thatta (or worse still, from sophisticated Bombay!), Bahrain was definitely preferred over primitive Dubai! Yet, true to their business sense, most of the merchants developed ties in both countries.

The business profile of the community was changing, though. Where once the Bhatias were content to finance the pearl trade and act as middle-men in the marketing of pearls, as they settled in these parts, they started branching out into other areas of trade. Many Bhatia merchants started shipping out food supplies from India and became wholesalers for vital food stuffs such as rice, pulses, tea and spices such as cardamom and pepper.

As cautious businessmen, the Bhatia merchants did not own the ships which carried their goods from Bombay and Karachi to the Gulf. They preferred to use shipping companies and make profits only from the goods sold. They guarded their trade links with the Gulf countries and Iran, shipping out tea, rice and cardamom and held a virtual monopoly on food supply to the region.

In 1939, when World War II broke out, the food trade became a risky venture. The shipping lines were under threat from submarines and air attacks and a lot of money could be lost if a ship sank. In such a situation, businessmen started winding down their shipments, leading to rationing of food in the Gulf. There are, however, stories of great generosity, of how Bhatia merchants helped to salvage the food situation. The D.I. family was by then a well-known name in the food trade. As shipments became less frequent, the ships refused to travel to the Gulf. Responding to urgent summons from the Bahraini and Kuwaiti ruling family, Shri Dhamanmal Issardas sent a huge consignment of food to Bahrain and Kuwait, waiving aside the usual business formalities of purchase orders and advance payments. Later that year, the D.I. family celebrated Diwali with guests from Bahrain’s royal family and a surprise visitor – the then Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah, returning to Kuwait from Bombay, stopped en route to personally thank D.I. for keeping food supply lines to Kuwait open during the crisis.

For a community that was unofficially known as “treasurers to the sheikhs”, the Bhatias wee curiously apolitical. Like businessmen all over the world, they kept a low profile, even though they wielded enormous clout.

“One of the reasons we were trusted is because of our lack of political ambitions. Because of this, our Arab business associates did not see us as rivals and the British viewed us as neutral players.” Commented Shri Vallabh D.I., “In any case, the British were quick to put down any interest we may have had in politics.”

Up until the ‘forties, the Bhatia community was the foremost expatriate group. The other communities came much later – in fact, a visiting British political agent who came in from Delhi in the ‘thirties, was surprised that the Bahrain Customs had not a single South Indian in its ranks. In keeping with their position of trust and respectability, many concessions were granted to the Bhatias by the Bahrain Government.

Since they were known for their strict lifestyle, permission was granted for establishing a temple in the name of Srinathji – thus, the present temple in Manama has a history dating back almost 150 years! The idea of establishing the present temple building was first pursued by Shri Gangaram Tikamdas and Shri Lalchand D.I. Prior to the temple committee being setup, these prominent Bhatias also acted for a time as adhikaris (trustees) for temple affairs, along with Narain Maharaj. The construction of the present Manama temple was supervised by Shri Kushaldas Karani and the administrative work involved was carried out by Shri Ladharam or Ladhoba of the Haridas family. The temple interiors were supervised by Shri Vallabh D.I.

As the community grew, the elders started negotiations with the authorities for a proper crematorium where the Hindu dead could be given their last rites. At that time, bodies were cremated on the seashore at Muharraq Island – bodies were brought in even from neighbouring Saudi Arabia for the cremation. “Muharraq” in fact means “Burning Island” in Arabic.

In their turn, many Bhatia businessmen were involved in bringing new ideas to Arab lifestyles – Shri Gangaram Tikamdas and Narain Maharaj, two prominent members of the Bhatia community, helped in setting up the first Arabic school in Muharraq. Much later, the Bhatia community established the Indian School which later blossomed into the giant educational institution that it is today, with two campuses, one in Sitra and the other in Isa Town.

World War II was in fact a watershed in Thattai Bhatia history. Whereas World War I opened new business avenues and led to many ambitious Bhatia men settling in the Gulf, traversing the busy shipping routes radiating from Bombay and Karachi, the second war saw the upheaval of the community’s roots in Thatta, Sind. It heralded the end of an era when power and money were consolidated by the community and the beginning of a new age, with the partition of India.

The loss of Thatta made the Gulf-based businessmen change priorities. Using their considerable influence, the Thattai Bhatias brought their womenfolk and children to the Gulf, far from the upheavals of post-Partition India.

“We left Thatta with the clothes we stood in an what little jewellery we could hide in the folds of our clothes” remembers Shri Tolaram Kavalani, who made the long trek to Bombay with his mother, wife and other dependents, “In Bombay, we joined other members of our community in the suburb of Kandivili, where we were housed by the Government. My grandfather, father and uncle were still in the Gulf and I started sourcing food suppliers in Bombay for my father’s business.”

“In my generation, we saw a lot of sacrifice and hard work,” he commented, “In my grandfather’s and father’s time there was sacrifice also, but it was more physical endurance. There was always the assurance that money was to be made at the end of the day. In our time, however, we took a leap into the dark – there was no guarantee of profits and with our lands and wealth left behind in Thatta, we had nothing but our self-confidence to fall back upon.”

Times were hard in the Gulf too. Since the Great Depression of the ‘thirties, the pearl trade had taken a beating. There was no market for even the best pearls and prices dipped wildly. The discovery of oil in Bahrain led to the establishment of BAPCO and many former pearl-divers joined the new oil companies where they got a regular salary and life was not so physically difficult.

“The bottom fell out of the pearl market and many Bhatia merchants who had made their fortunes as financiers of the pearling trade, saw their wealth wiped out within weeks” mused one old-timer. “We Bhatias were also affected by the fact that our business ties in the Gulf left us with very little time in which to travel further a field in search of new markets.”

The D.I. family’s Ghanshyamdas D.I. travelled to Paris and sold all the pearl stocks there. Another Bhatia businessman who travelled out from the boundaries of the Gulf was Shri Purushottamdas, father of Shri Balu and Shri Indu Bhatia. His business visit to Japan earned for him the sobriquet “Pishi Japani”. (While very few Bhatia families went outside the Gulf, the Java family was among those who took the plunge and had business ties with Indonesia – hence the name!)

But other families were not so lucky or as enterprising. Panic set in and many established Bhatia businessmen sold their businesses and even their land-holdings in the Gulf. Shri Kishore Tirathdas remembers how prime property in Manama’s suq area (…..from Tijjar Avenue upto where Citibank stands today”) was sold for as little as Rs. 2 lakhs. The same stretch of land was valued at Rs. 40 lakhs just a couple of decades later.

“There are property deeds giving ownership of Bahraini land to Bhatias dating as far back as 1229 Hijri (c. 1813). Even today, a couple of Bhatia families own land in Manama” said Shri Tirathdas.

When the war ended, the returning Bhatias found that the equations had changed. While the discovery of oil had led to the decline of the pearling trade, the invention of cultured pearls in Japan sounded the final death-knell for the industry. No longer able to play the role of financiers, only those who had moved to other businesses were able to survive. Others joined companies and business houses as employees and settled into a lifestyle far removed from the adventurous cut and thrust of the early pioneering days. They were helped by generous “old hands” such as Shri Thawardas Kikla, a Chief Accountant at BOAC (and later the first Chief Accountant of Gulf Air), who ran free classes in business administration and accountancy for new comers.

And yet, these new settlers were pioneers in a different way. Spurred on perhaps by the success of the Indian independence movement and in search of an identity in the post-Partition world, the Bhatia community of the ‘forties and ‘fifties were active in fostering a sense of Indian identity among themselves. The first time the flag of Free India was raised in Bahrain it was in the Taj Mahal Hotel which belonged to C. Kumar’s. (Located near the present Ibn Sina Health Centre in Manama, the hotel closed down in the early ‘sixties.)

Buoyed by their sense of belonging to a new order, Bhatia merchants like Shri Kakumal Vallabhdas met other businessmen and local traders at informal get-togethers where they sounded out each other on new business ventures, opportunities and new legislation. This group was later to form the core of the present-day Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry. Today, the Asian sector of the Chamber has Shri Baboo Kewalram as Vice-Chairman, Shri Lala Gajria, Shri Vallabh D.I. and Shri Harish Damodar Devidas among its committee members.

Bahrain’s much-acclaimed Indian School too owes its origins to the far-sightedness of the Bhatia community here. When families started coming to the Gulf in the ‘fifties, formal education was non-existant and housewives ran an informal “gurukula” system of in-house study. Older children were sent off to India for higher education. It was obvious that the “gurukula” system was of limited use and when a young Indian boy playing in the streets was involved in a road accident, queries were raised by the British Advisor Sir Charles Belgrave about schooling for Indian children.

Seizing this opportunity, Shri Lalchand D.I. sought permission for such an establishment, and to the delight of the Indian community, permission was granted almost immediately. To make the vision a reality, two prominent and industrious Indian businessmen were elected – Shri Balubhai B. Desai who was with BAPCO and Shri Karunakaran of Kanoo, brother of Shri Narayanan, Sir Charles Belgrave’s secretary. Assistance was provided by the Divine Life Society, a religious body, and several individuals such as Shri Shivlal Hemraj, Shri B. Ratilal, Shri Chaturbhujdas Mulchand, Shri Purushottam Naraini (Narain Maharaj, who had already helped establish the first Arabic school in Muharraq) and the prominent Paris social worker Shri Jamshed Marolia.

The school’s founder members who served in the initial years were: Shri B.B. Desai, Shri Thawardas Issardas Kikla, Shri Chaturbhujdas Tulsidas Asarpota, Shri Karunakaran, Shri Khubchand Jayramdas Megchiani, Shri Vishwanath and Shri Budhanmal Tirthadas Gajria. The school was inaugurated on Dussehra day in 1950 and started with three lady teachers and 30-35 students. The first teachers included Smt. Shantaben Gopaldas Kikla, Smt. Nirmalaben and Smt. Geeta Tikamdas Gajria. Despite modest salary scales (Rs. 150/- for the Principal and Rs. 75/- for the teachers), the fledgeling school needed support and this was given by businessmen such as Shri Lala Gajria and Shri Mathardas Rupchand Bhatia. This help continued and the present Senior School in Isa Town owes a lot to the pioneering vision of Shri Lala Gajria and Shri Atma Jashnmal among others who undertook to obtain land and raise funds for the school.

An Indian Association had been established by the Bhatia community in the early days and after 1948, the Association served as an embassy of sorts for Indian Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq visiting the country from time to time to complete paperwork. Later on Shri Asandas Kikla was the first Bhatia President of the Bahrain Sorts Club (now the Indian Club) and was also one of the founding Member of the Manama Toastmasters. The letter club in fact still attracts many eloquent young Thattai Bhatias – Presidents in recent times include Shri Latesh Gordhandas Chandra, Shri Manoj N. Megchiani and Shri Sunil I. Asarpota. Many Bhatia sportsmen also took part in Bahrain’s sports scene – cricketers such as oldtimer Maghan N. Kikla and more recently Bharat Vallabh D.I., Babloo Govind Jaytee and Haresh Damodar Devidas and badminton champ Suresh Thakker brought laurels to the community.
Although very small, the Thattai Bhatia community has strong links with India and in the suburb of Kandivli, near Bombay, they have invested considerably in creating the infrastructure for their community to live comfortably.

“There was a Shewa Fund in operation in Thatta which received contributions from Thattai Bhatias everywhere and carried out charitable work for the needy.” said Shri Baboo Kewalram, the current President of Bahrain’s Thattai Hindu Community, “When the Bhatias fled Thatta, Shri Paramanand Haridas Janjani managed to carry the Shewa Fund contributions with him to Nasik where he deposited it in safe hands till most of us were settled in Kandivli. This fund came in handy when we started picking up the pieces of our lives. Paramanand Haridas Janjani was a visionary and along with other active members of our community, he helped to build a hospital and a wedding hall in Kandivli with the Shewa Fund money.” Today, the Shewa Fund still exists and continues to be administered for charitable works.

After the Thattai Bhatia families came over to the Gulf, many of the younger generation grew up studying in India and later settled down in the Gulf. These “baby boomers” now have children of their own who are growing up in the Gulf where the availability of schools, the strong family structure and community spirit make it the ideal environment for growing families.

Lifestyles are also changing and the younger generation growing up today can look forward to greater educational opportunities and a loosening of the strict codes of conduct that the pioneers followed. It is a far cry from the physical privations and uncertainities of the early days, but this modern generation also has its challenges to face…..

Our younger generation has not been through the crucible of the difficult early days,” commented Shri Kishore Tirathdas, “I fear that they take many things for granted that we and our elders had to struggle for. Added to this is the sense of not belonging either to India or to the Gulf countries. This rootlessness makes adjusting very difficult for our children when they return to India. The emotional ties that bind you to your country will grow only if you participate in the country’s growth. For this generation, home means the Gulf – and with growing nationalism in the region, we expatriates must be ready to move on when necessary.”

Many of the community elders are reconciled to the fact that the community profile will change in the years to come. For one thing, the joint family which was the strength of the Thattai Bhatia community, is now almost a thing of the past. The quiet strength of the Bhatia women is being complemented by the new educational and career opportunities that they face and this means the family structure changes yet again.

“Change is slow but certain,” said Shri Tolaram Kavalani, “As a generation which passed the test of the bitter Partition days and the re-building of the community after that, we can only advise our youngsters to always remember to respect the honour of the community. Our strength is that we live not for the individual but for the community and it is this sense of unity that will see us through to the winning post in the years to come.”

Courtesy – Bhatia Mitra Mandal, Bahrain