The Jains have been famous traders since ancient times. In medieval times they persisted in the profession and prospered.

The economic life of Jains in medieval times can be reconstructed from a host of indigenous and European language sources.

Most of the indigenous language sources lack quantitative data. The contemporary literature in Gujarati, Rajasthani, Hindi and Sanskrit, etc., speak of the ‘affluence’ and ‘prosperity’ of individual Jains and of the community in different places but they seldom give any significant statistical data.

Surendra Gopal

The preeminent position of Virji Vora in the economic life of Surat was recognized by the imperial Mughal authorities. They sought his advice and consulted him whenever any problem cropped up between the government and the traders. Similarly, traders, both Indians and foreigners sought his goods offices for the redresses of their grievances against the government. There are numerous instances when the Mughal authorities sought his assistance to resolve a crisis situation.

The Governor of Surat formed a committee in 1636 to inquire into the looting of two ships belonging to Surat merchants by English pirates. Virji Vora was made a member of the committee.

After the sack of Surat by Shivaji in 1664, the local Mughal governor sent Virji Vora and Haji Zahid Beg another important merchant to the imperial court to plead for the fortification of town as a measure of sucurity against future attacks.

It seems that around 1670 Virji Vora renounced the world, entrusted the business to his family members and retired to a monastery.

Like his early life, we hardly have details about his last days.

From 1619 to 1670 Virji Vora dominated the business scene in Surat, the premier port of India. He had successfully competed against the Indian and Asian merchants and also the Europeans. The later were a formidable foe since they did not mind using their fire-power on the high seas to enforce their demands. But Virji Vora by his economic acumen and clout ensured that the Europeans complied with his wishes and did not resort to extra-economic coercion. Virji Vora’s top position remained unchallenged.

What is remarkable is that Virji Vora had achieved this distinction without any political support.

Unfortunately, neither the European nor the indigenous sources give us any idea of his life-style. But we do learn that he tried to discharge his social responsibility. During the severe famine of 1630-32, he distributed grain and cooked food to the hungry and needy. Like other Jains of his age, he lavishly contributed to the socio-religious functions of his community.

Most of the Jain traders in medieval times, the big, the medium and the ordinary, generally traded in precious stones diamonds, rubies, pearls, etc. They also sold ornaments, which are always in demand in the Indian society, cutting across caste, class and religion. The Jains took advantage of this persisting demand.

It appears that investment in jewels and jewelry was a form of earning high profit and a form of hoarding wealth in troubled medieval times. These could be easily hidden and transported whenever the local condition became troublesome. Unfortunately this was not rare.

Jain jewelers were to be found in places where there was a concentration of nobility, administrative functionaries and businessmen.

Ahmedabad was a reputed mart for jewelry and precious stones. The English ambassador Sir Thomas Roe and the French traveler Tavernier, both mention this. Shantidas was the most prominent trader in jewels. For obtaining diamonds he used to visit Bijapur, a centre of diamond mining and trade. Since the Mughal rulers were fond of jewels, they kept in touch with prominent jewellers. This was an important reason why Shah Jahan used to address Shantidas as ‘Mama’ or Uncle. Jahangir had appointed him as his jeweler and it was expected that “(he) should offer gifts and present and every kind of jewelry” to the emperor. He sold jewels to Asaf Khan, the brother of Nur Jahan and father-in-law of Emperor Shah Jahan. Prince Dara Shikoh also bought jewels from him.

His wealth was well-known to the royal family and this made him an object of extortion. During the war of succession following the serious illness of Shah Jahan, Prince Murad forcibly extracted from Shantidas and his family a sum of Rs.5.50 lakhs. It was a measure of his usefulness to the Mughal court that when Murad lost the war, Aurangzeb, who became the Emperor ordered Rahmat Khan to return one lakh rupees from the royal treasury as a part payment towards the loan incurred by his deceased brother.

Aurangzeb sought to derive political mileage out of his magnanimity and issued to Shantidas another firman asking him to convey to the “merchants and the mahajans and to all the inhabitants”, his” goodwill towards them”.

Shantidas like Virji Vora was consulted by the Mughal authorities on matters affecting the state of economy in the city. The other traders also accepted him as their spokesman and he was definitely ‘the first’ among them. He interceded on their behalf with the imperial authorities. Like other Jain traders, Shantidas had several business interests. He also participated in long distance sea trade. This is evident from the fact that an English ship which was captured by pirates had goods belonging to Shantidas. According to one version his loss amounted to 10,000 rupees and according to another, to 35,000 rupees.

Since many other Gujarati traders had also suffered losses, Shantidas organized the Ahmedabad mahajan to put pressure on the English East India Company to make good their losses. When the Englishmen dallied, he prevailed on the local authorities to punish the Englishmen, who were put behind bars. Ultimately, the English relented and Shantidas was paid the amount he was claiming.

Another reason for Shantidas’s influence was his capacity to advance loans to the Europeans. This was a source of income as well as influence. Shantidas regularly lent money to the European East India Companies. In 1627 the English borrowed from him 10,000 rupees at 1 p.c. interest per month.

Like Virji Vora, Shantidas also exercised great influence over the local trading community. The English complained that in 1640, there was a great shortage of money in Ahmdedabad and all small merchants were unwilling to lend because Shantidas was holding his money. The local traders considered him as their role model.

Shantidas became the Nagar Seth of Ahmedabad. Subsequently a number of his descendants became Nagar Seth of the city.

Such vast economic power and influence, however, did not insulate both these merchants from local bureaucratic tyranny. The political master always remained supreme and the merchants either had to toe their line or to persuade to accept their view. This created a highly unfavorable situation for the merchants, who had to contend with political uncertainties along with ups and downs in business.

Hakim Sadra (Masih-uz-Zaman) who became the governor of Surat in 1638, was personally interested in trade. He wanted to corner all supplies of pepper and extorted money form the merchants of Surat. To terrorise the trading community, he even imprisoned Virji Vora. When the matter came to the knowledge of Shah Jahan, he ordered his release. In order of soothe his feelings to Shah Jahan invited him to the imperial court.

Shantidas incurred the wrath of Prince Aurangzeb, while he was the governor of Gujarat. The latter ordered the defilement of the temple of Chintamani Parsvanath which Shantidas had constructed in the Saraspur suburb of Ahmedabad. When Shah Jahan came to know of it, he ordered its restoration to Shantidas and some compensation was also paid to him.

The above two incidents are highly revealing.

The fact comes out that in Gujarat the Jain traders, despite enjoying economic dominance, could not escape bureaucratic tyranny. Normally they seldom got involved in politics. They adopted a neutral stance. They reacted when their collective economic interests were threatened or when the tyranny became unbearable. This is illustrated by the following example. The Hindu and Jain merchants of Surat en masse left the city to protest against the behaviors of the local Qazi who was trying to force them to accept Islam. The emperor intervened when he realized that the economic life of the city would be disrupted and the state exchequer would be adversely affected. The Qazi was recalled and the traders returned to Surat.

While political neutrality was the hall-mark of traders in Western India, the story is different when we take up the fortunes of another Jain trading concern, the House of Jagat Seth which emerged in eastern India in the last quarter of the seventeenth century.

The founder of the House of Jagat Seth was Hiranand Shah, an Oswal Jain from Nagaur in Marwar who came down to Patna in 1652. He started as a banker and a trader of saltpeter. Saltpetre from Bihar was then the most sought after commodity by the Europeans and he soon prospered. He advanced loans to Europeans and discounted bills of exchange, they received from other places.

Hiranand Sha’s eldest son, Manikchand moved to Dacca, the capital of Bengal and a famous center for producing the finest muslin in the world. Banking business which entailed supply of liquid money to Europeans and Indian merchants was thriving in the seventeenth century as business flourished in Bihar and Bengal in the second half of the seventeenth century after the Dutch and the English systematically started exploring its markets for cotton textiles, silk, opium, saltpeter, etc. Bengal and Bihar were the most important entrepot for the European and Asian merchants, where they obtained goods for export to European and Asian markets. Manikchand was financing even the private trade of Josiah Chitty, an employee of the English East India Company.

Manik Chand developed cordial relations with Murshid Quli Khan, ‘the Supreme head of financial administration in the province’.60 When the capital of Bengal was shifted to Murshidabad from Dacca, Manik Chand also moved over to the new city; the establishment at Dacca was not closed since Dacca remained a mint town of the Mughal empire and a flourishing trade center.

Under the direction of Manik Chand, the banking operations expanded and soon he had branches all over Bengal and north India under different names. When Farrukh Siyar declared himself the Mughal emperor in Patna in 1712 he borrowed money from local bankers. Manikchand was his chief creditor. He had become a close confidant of Murshid Quli Khan and received from the Emperor the title of Nagar Seth. The nearness of The House to the Bengal Governor and the Emperor was a crucial factor in the economic progress of the family.

After Manik Chand’s death in 1714, his nephew Fateh Chand succeeded him. He was also a favorite of Murshid Quli Khan. Under him the House reached its zenith. His influence over the money market of the Mughal Empire was dominant. In this he differed from both Virji Vora and Shantidas. The Mughal Emperor made him the ‘Treasurer General of Bengal’ and Emperor Muhammad Shah conferred upon him the designation of Jagat Seth as a hereditary distinction. It is said that before making this recommendation to the Emperor, Murshid Quli Khan forced Fateh Chand to pay him five lakh rupees.65 The Central Office of the House at Dacca was styled as ‘Manik Chand Jagat Seth Fateh Chandji’.

Fateh Chand’s nearness to the political supremos in Delhi and Murshidabad gradually led to his involvement in the politics of the period. The European companies courted him for his word carried great weight with the Nawab and the Mughal Emperor. Whenever they needed some favor from the Nawab or the Emperor, they routed their request through the House of Jagat Seth.

The English and Dutch companies requested Jagat Seth Fateh Chand not to interede on behalf of the Ostend Company with the Nawab when it pleaded for the issuance of a firman permitting them to trade. Finally, when the Ostend Company struck a deal with the Nawab, it deposited Rs.70, 000/- in the bank of Jagat Seth. The money was to be handed over to the Nawab after the Ostenders received the imperial firman.

Fateh Chand’s and his successor Mahtab Rai, held that the right to the minting of coins in Bengal exclusively belonged to them even though the English East India Company had obtained an imperial rescript to use the imperial mint for coining gold and silver coins. The Bengal Nawab agreed with the views of the Jagat Seths. This privilege made the Seths the biggest buyer of silver in Bengal.Another author describes the House as the ‘biggest purchaser of all the bullion imported to Bengal.’

In 1751 the Nawab of Bengal ordered the Dutch, the English and the French East India Companies to ‘send all money whether Bullion or Rupees to the Mint at Muxadvad (Murshidabad) to be coined there into siccas or disposed of to Jugut seat (Jagat Seth) and forbidding the Europeans to pay away any Money to their Merchants but the new Siccas’.

The right to mint coins was a source of great profit to the Jagat Seths since it enabled them to exercise dominant control over the money market. Secondly, since Bengal was an important trade mart, coins of various countries were brought here as Bengals’s exports always exceeded her imports. They were sometimes reminted and this gave the Jagat Seths great profit because they could decide and charge the batta i.e. the relative exchange rate. Also they exchanged the various coins and received commission for this sevice. According to one estimate, the House ‘coined 5 million rupees a year and the profit on this account amounted to 0.35 million rupees’. (Continues) 


Courtesy: Jain World

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