Brief History of the Thattai Hindu Bhatia Community
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.
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?
surprising 19% of Thattai Bhatias were born in Bahrain!
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.”
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!)
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.
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
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