Monday, December 20

Havildar in Bukhara

(In his Bangalnama, Tapan Raychaudhuri translates the 'Subaltern' of Subaltern Studies into Bengali as Havildar, as in Havildar Tattwa. However, insofar as most of the Indian subalterns in Central Asia were 'gumastas', money-transferers or moneylenders, this post could also have been titled Hawala in Bukhara.)

Looking past the orientalists' fantasies of unreachable oases of depravity and derring-do, Central Asia has another reality as being contiguous to and continuous to India. Scott Cameron Levi has written an interesting book on the Indian diaspora in Central Asia; it is worth quoting at length from his introduction:

“In recent years it has become more generally acknowledged that the comparatively well-recorded political and commercial activities of the Portuguese Estado da India and the Dutch East India Companies in the Indian Ocean have for some time received an amount of attention disproportionate to their importance to early modern Asian economic history. One product of this historiographical bias has been the long held belief that, following periods of great prosperity under the Mongol and Timurid Empires, from the seventeenth century Central Asia became increasingly isolated and plunged into a lengthy period of political instability and socio-economic decline. This era of alleged isolation has generally been attributed to the Europeans' monopolization of the transcontinental movement of commodities between Asia and Europe, presumed to be the bedrock upon which all Central Asian prosperity was built. It is considered to have continued until the region again became a part of the global economy as a result of its growing trade relations with the developing markets of nineteenth-century Russia.

It is a central argument of this book that early modern Central Asia was not economically isolated and that, in fact, the commercial relationship between Central Asia and India during this period continued at an escalated level. In an effort to debunk the notion of Central Asian isolation, one need look no further than the main subject of the present work. It cannot be overemphasized that it is during the very period that Central Asia was supposed to have sunk into abject decline that we see thousands of Indian merchants overcoming seemingly prohibitive geographical, political, cultural, and religious barriers to establish a diaspora network comprised of dozens of highly active commercial communities dispersed across urban and rural Central Asia. It is hoped that the present work will encourage others to reconsider global history themes in a less Eurocentric perspective.

… Throughout the diaspora these merchants were well known as a source of various types of short-term high-interest loans and for financing elaborate systems of urban and rural credit. It will also be shown that the Indian merchants' trade and moneylending activities placed them in a unique socio-economic position in their host societies. This, with only a few notable exceptions, earned them the outright protection of the local ruling elites, despite the fact that the vast majority of the diaspora population consisted of Hindu merchants living in Muslim states.

The Indian merchants' ability to dominate the moneylending business throughout the diaspora was made possible by their position as agents of Indian family firms. Those who have looked to European influences for the roots of Asian capitalism will find it interesting that, long before the European merchants working for the Dutch and the English East India companies arrived in the Indian Ocean, there were Indian family firms established throughout north India operating heavily capitalized commercial institutions that maintained diverse portfolios of trade and moneylending investments.”

In his book The Global World Of Indian Merchants, Claude Markovits identifies most of the ones operating in Central Asia as Multani and Sindhi Hindus, such as Bhatias, Sahukars, Banias. In Bukhara, by the reign of Imam Quli Khan (1611-41), there is mention of an Indian Quarter (that continued to the 19th century, corroborated by the accounts of Bukhara Burnes), and records indicate Multani Hindus owning substantial property in the city.

The image in India of the usurer (of whatever nationality) lending planting-money to the impoverished indigo farmer (against hypothecation of the produce) is not a pretty one; so it does not seem likely that any community that monopolized short-term high-interest loans would be regarded by the locals as any more than bloodsuckers. However, Levi writes “the Indians unique economic function in their host societies nearly always earned them the favor and protection of the local government”; and further, in Turanian folklore the “Indian merchants are portrayed as unenviable victims of individuals in dire need of money, frequently for romantic pursuits.“ An example provided by Levi can be paraphrased thus: A holiday was approaching in Bukhara and a teacher wanted to buy a gift of some fine clothing for his lady love. He and two students decide to steal some money from the Indian bania. They sneak into his house, find a box of jewels, and are on the verge of escaping when the merchant wakes to give chase. The rest of the story involves the city watchman; impersonation by the three thieves of the voice and manners of the Emir, his Vizier and his Beg; much confusion; and some sort of eventual restitution to the bania when a good laugh has been had by all.

The German traveler von Albrecht visited an Indian caravanserai in Bukhara in the 1880s and wrote of the internal walls decorated with “Indian paintings”, likely idolatrous to Muslims; other visitors commonly noted that while alcohol and tobacco were banned in the conservative khanate, these flowed freely in the Indian merchants' caravanserais, i.e. Indians were free of the many legal restrictions placed on the native populace. The caravanserais were also known to have housed servants, cooks, barbers, tailors and Indians acquired “much of their necessary goods, including religious paraphernalia, from other Indians.” One imagines incense and Ganges-water carried up the Khyber in camel panniers; the picture below shows an Indian caravan arriving at a Bukhara caravanserai.

At Astrakhan, Hindus were even permitted a temple; in a sketch of icons there by the German botanist Peter Pallas (c. 1790s) I think I see Balgopal, and also Amba or Durga with lion. Another temple at Baku even drew pilgrims from India due to phenomena associated with burning naphtha.

The contiguity of the Indian and Central Asian experiences is not limited to finance or science. Niyazkul Bek was a Bukhara merchant of Turkmen extraction. He traded in horses and carpets and visited Hyderabad (in Deccan) often. Impressed by the Charminar in that city, he decided to build a similar building back in Bukhara. This was completed in 1807.


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