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About Marwaris

The term Marwari literally refers to someone who hails from or is an inhabitant of Marwar - the erstwhile Jodhpur state. This term gained currency initially in Bengal, where the traders from Shekhawati and other parts of Rajasthan established their business empires. Distinct in their dress, customs and language, the traders and merchants of Rajasthan came to be known as Marwaris.

Thomas A Timberg states, 'In colloquial usage, outside of Rajasthan, Marwari is used to refer to emigrant businessmen from the vicinity of Rajasthan." The earliest link of the Marwaris with Bengal can be traced back to 1564, when Rajput soldiers under Akbar's flag came to camp there during the reign of Suleman Kirani. The contract of supplying the essentials for the soldiers was awarded to the merchants of Marwar. On their arrival in Bengal, they are supposed to have introduced themselves as Marwaris and since they wore pugris (turbans), they were also referred to as pugridhari Marwaris (Marwaris who wore turbans). These seths commanded a great deal of respect back at home in Shekhawati. Rulers of different states would vie with each other to offer the best possible terms to entice the seths to set up business in their towns. The Thakur would provide them with fertile land which they were allowed to till without paying the obligatory tax. They were also given armed protection for their convoys, charters for the construction of schools, wells, temples and other charitable enterprises, and offered immunity from customs, search and seizure, as well as criminal prosecution! Royal letters of recognition and admiration, and the permission to wear the tazim - the anklet of honor, were some of the other privileges bestowed on them. Their opinion was given due weightage and often, they were consulted on the matters of the state as well. The rulers were wise enough to realize it was better to get the cooperation, if not the approval of the merchant community, as they were dependent on them for economic support. For instance, at an estimate, the merchant class met half of the 15,00,000 rupees budget of the state of Sikar.

The rich and prosperous trader community in turn, would offer extended loans to the rulers and also invest in other public related projects. Seth Mirzamal was known to have loaned a sum of four lakhs of rupee to Maharaja Surat Singh. of Bikaner. The Poddars of Ramgarh provided financial assistance to the Raoraja of Sikar, and gained implicit Powers through unwritten rules and regulations. On several other occasions, the Marwari community succeeded in framing ordinances and decrees to suit their interest. When income tax was imposed on them, the merchants of Churu, Sardar Shahr, Sujangarh and Nohar protested, and got the Proposal postponed. In 1868, the ,Surana family protesting against the imposition of heavy taxation, left Churu to settle in Mehansar. Sir Ganga Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner (Churu was a part of Bikaner) had no option but to accede to their demands and get them back to Churu. But some rulers were more stubborn and paid the price. Thakur Sheo Singh levied heavy taxes on the Poddars of Churn in the early part of the 19th century. The Poddars asked him to reconsider his decision. He refused. The Poddars migrated en masse, and founded a new town, Ramgarh, 15 kms. south of Sikar. Churu's loss was Sikar's gain as the Poddars were perhaps the biggest traders of the region and Ramgarh stands testimony to their entrepreneurial abilities.

Shekhawati provided an interesting Picture of the domination of the combined forces of feudalism and capitalism. However, while capitalism continued to dominate for a little longer, the feudal system was on the decline. Constant infighting amongst the Rajputs had weakened them and the East India Company forces were only too willing to move in and take control.

As the impoverished thakurs took to looting and plundering the caravans of the traders, the killings and robberies on the trade routes increased. Besides the fear and insecurity this caused them, the merchants had additional cause for worry as British patronage of Mumbai, Calcutta and Madras ports was severely affecting the existing caravan routes so essential to their trade. When the political scenario started deteriorating, the Marwaris needed little encouragement to migrate to garrison towns. Luckily, here too, they received protection from the British, who were wise enough to recognise their importance.

The progress in transportation and communication made migration easier and soon there was a veritable Marwari exodus to the states of Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Hyderabad and Mysore. Some enterprising Marwaris (like Bhagwandas Bagla, who is considered to be the first Marwari millionaire) even proceeded abroad to Burma and settled in Rangoon. The opening of the Delhi-Calcutta rail link gave a fillip to the migration and the new migrants started lining up for jobs in their newly adopted places of work. They were helped immensely by the early Marwari migrants whose operations had expanded by this time, and who needed all the help they could get. Foreign companies wanting to sell finished British goods in India required agents to represent them and offered good brokerage. The resourceful Marwaris recognising the potential of colonial trade, moved into the ports as brokers and amassed a great deal of wealth.

Since British traders had developed an interest in opium, tea, jute, silver and gold, the migrant traders soon specialised in these commodities and became the mainstay of foreign firms. Naturally, in the process they reaped tremendous benefits for themselves! While Nathuram Saraf served as a bania to the firm of Miller Kinsell and Ghose, Ramkumar Chokhani of Nawalgarh was the bania for Ludwig Duke. Hariram Goenka was guarantee broker to the Ralli Brothers, Onkarmal Jatia to Andrewe Yule and Anandiial Poddar to Toyoto Menka Kesha. The Poddars and Ruias of Ramgarh had set up firms in Mumbai and Ramnarain Ruia and Govindram Ghanshyamdas were so firmly entrenched in the cotton trade that they came to be known as 'cotton kings'.

Bilasirai Kedia, Gulraj Singhania and Ramdayal Nevatia, from Fatehpur, and Nathuram Poddar and Jokhiram Ruia of Ramgarh, hit the big times in the opium trade and were referred to as the magnate of the opium markets. The Birlas , too, were raking it in during the First World War, through the supply of cotton and textiles. While Surajmull Jhunjhunwala and Nathuram Saraf were pioneers in the cloth market in Calcutta, Ganeriwala of Lachhmangarh made such a name in Hyderabad that he was employed as the treasurer to the State.

By early 20th century, control over most of the inland trade routes was in Marwari hands. Most of the business of banking, selling of cloth and trading in opium was with them. They had also started replacing the Khatris and Bengalis as brokers. Then, after 1910, they started setting up industries. Surajmull Nagarmull established the first jute factory in 1911, the second three years later, and the third in 1916. Following this development, the Birlas opened the first Indian jute export office in London in 1917. They also set up a cotton mill in Calcutta in 1920 and the famous Gwalior Cotton Mill in Gwalior, in the following year. While the Sekserias set up textile mills, Ramkrishan Daimia established cement factories. Sir Sarupchand Hukumchand was an opium speculator, and when he opened his Calcutta office in 1915, he conducted business to the tune of rupees five million on the first day! He was worth Rs. 10,000,000 at the end of that financial year.

Gradually, the Shekhawati Marwaris migrated to the coastal towns of undivided India, under the protection of the British. The latter needed agents to, handle the vast imports they were thrusting upon the local economy, as well as suppliers to produce cotton, muslin, opium and spices for export to Europe. The Marwari traders in turn, weary of the looting thakurs in their home towns, readily moved out to set up shop in Mumbai, Calcutta and Indore, while some even moved as far as Rangoon. The rest is, as they say, is history.

Marwari businesses flourished, their net worth rose beyond limits that even they had set for themselves. A lot of this was reinvested in their home towns, in an interesting manner. Firstly, they constructed huge palatial havelis for their loved ones who had been left behind. These handsome homes were adorned with some of the finest most memorable frescoes in the world, by bringing in painters from the neighboring towns of Jaipur and Bikaner.

Their next act of benevolence was toward their towns, where they had spent their childhood. Schools, temples, wells, hospitals, even colleges were built in memory of their forefathers and donated to the town, for the development of its people. Birla Institute of Technical Training, the IlTs, Ruia College, Poddar School, are all results of these acts of charity and benevolence. Well-established Marwaris invited nephews, uncles, cousins and well wishers to come to the cities to lend a helping hand in the expansion, diversification and the consolidation of their business there. Other trustworthy persons were appointed back at home to ensure regular procurement and supply of goods from the hinterland to the ports and other processing units. Lakhs of rupees of business was conducted daily, and the influence and the fortunes of these enterprising men rose tremendously. After the Maharajas and the thakurs back home, it was now the Britishers' turn to acknowledge Marwari contributions and bestow various honours upon the community. They were elevated to city councils, and their advice sought on the smooth running of their adopted cities. The onset of the Second World War might have disrupted the seafaring routes that the Marwaris were so heavily dependent on, but then the large Allied forces could not obviously march on empty stomachs. The forces needed food, uniforms, shoes and ammunition. The more successful Marwaris quickly diversified, and mills and factories in Mumbai, Indore and Calcutta were soon spinning out newer requirements. So by the time the freedom fighters managed to get the Britishers out of the country, India already had its first crop of self-made millionaire industrialists, and above all, a reasonably good industrialised sector. Pandit Nehru, despite his other short-sighted decisions, realized the immense potential of this nascent, fast growing sector, and set about encouraging the Birlas, Goenkas, Dalmias, Ruias, Poddars and Singhanias amongst others, to expand, diversify, and get into core sectors. Today, these very names figure in the who's who of Indian industry and economy. Corporations and groups now bear the names of those industrious few, whose scions still hold controlling shares in large companies run by board of directors, company secretaries, and other technocrats, armed with MBAs, IIT degrees and what not. The old order changes for the better, one hopes. As a modern economy striving towards liberalisation, we obviously need modern methods to run these companies, which started with meager beginnings from towns and villages that today are but a tourist destination for the art lovers from Europe.

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