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

An author has graphically described the reasons for the tremendous influence wielded by the House of Jagat Seth. “The major sources of the huge income, tremendous power and great prestige of the house of Jagat Seth were derived from their farms of Murshidabad and Dacca mints, two-thirds of the province’s revenue collection, their control over rates of exchange, interest rates, bill-broking and the provision of credit’.

The economic importance of the House received impetus when it was called upon to remit the annual tribute of the Subah to Delhi.

The existence of branches of the House in all the important trade centers in eastern, northern and western India, enabled the House to carry on the work of transmission of money through hundis. This was a very important segment of their activities. A contemporary author noted that a darshani hundi between rupees fifty lakhs and one crore could be drawn in the time of Seth Fateh Chand. The prosperity of the House was so well established that even when the Marathas in 1742 looted Rupees two crores from the House of Jagat Seth, its liquidity was not impaired. In 1747 the Chief of the Dacca Factory of the English East India Company received lakh by means of a hundi sent from Kasimbazar and discounted by the House of Jagat Seth.

The command over so much cash enabled the House to advance large sums as credits, commercial or otherwise.

The prosperity of the House was so well established that even when the Marathas in 1742 looted Rupees two crores from the House of Jagat Seth, its liquidity was not impaired.

All the European trading companies were dependent upon the House in times of need. The House was playing the same role which Virji Vora played in Surat in the seventeenth century.

In 1732 when the English East India Company sent Rs.150, 000 to Patna, they borrowed the amount from the House of Jagat Seth. At Kasim Bazar, the servants or the Company borrowed Rs.2, 00,000 from the House. The Company was irritated but had to admit that if they were to trade in Bengal. “Futteh Chand must be satisfied” and “the house must be kept in temper”.

In 1747 the English Factory at Dacca had borrowed heavily from the House of Jagat Seth and others and was not in a position to pay the interest.

The Dutch and the French companies were equally obliged to the House for credits.

In 1756, the Dutch borrowed 4 lakhs at 9 per cent from the House of Jagat Seth. A little earlier, the French company owed one and half million rupees to the House.

The representative of the House stood surety for the Amirs of Delhi when Ahmad Shah invaded Delhi in 1757 and was extorting money from the Mughal nobles.

The House advanced loans to European companies, the government and private European merchants, nobles as well as Indian businessmen.

Of course, a part of the reason for their success was the close nexus they had forged with the Nawabs of Bengal right from the days of Murshid Quli Khan till the English became ascendant after the battle of Plassey in 1757. Their relations were equally cordial with the Mughal rulers in Delhi.

But after the battle of Plassey the political scenario underwent a change. Nawab Sirajuddaula distrusted them and Nawab Mir Kasim killed Jagat Seth Mahtab Rai and Maharaja Swarup Chand and held their family members as hostage.

In the famine of 1770, Jagat Seth Khushal Chand donated only 5000/- rupees while an ordinary trader Gopi Mondal gave 50,000/- rupees.

The English East India Company and its servants gained immense booty after their victory at Plassey. The grant of Diwani by the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam further reduced the need of the Company to look for money for commercial investments. The dependence on the House of Jagat Seth for capital was gone and this heralded their decline. Within a decade their economic prosperity had suffered a great setback. This is evident from the following instance.

In the famine of 1770, Jagat Seth Khushal Chand donated only 5000/- rupees while an ordinary trader Gopi Mondal gave 50,000/- rupees.

Such an affluent family as that of the Jagat Seth had a lavish life-style despite the Jain emphasts on austerity. For example, Mahtab Rai and Swarup Chand were purchasing Rs.1, 50,000/- worth of Dacca muslin in 1747 for household use. The Bengal Nawab purchased muslin worth Rs.3, 00,000 an year. Even when the House was economically declining and in ‘dire economic strait’, Jagat Seth Khushal Chand declined a pension of rupees three lakhs an year offered by Robert Clive because he claimed that his household expenses were lakh per month.

The House of Jagat Seth whose capital in early sixties was calculated at 7 crore rupees was now inexorably sliding to its decline.

Clive during his second stay in Bengal offered Jagat Seth Khushal Chand a pension of rupees three lakhs a year but the latter declined. The fortune of the House of the Jagat Seth could not be retrieved. In 1844 Jagat Seth Gobindchand sought a pension from the Company and was granted a sum of Rs.1200/- per month.

To sum up, the fortunes of Virji Vora were based on long distance foreign and internal trade; the prosperity of Shantidas depended upon internal trade and diamond trade; the wealth of the House of Jagat Seth resulted from a combination of banking and internal trade. It dabbled in politics, enjoyed enormous influence at the court of the Mughal Emperor and the Bengal Nawab. The political revolution of 1757 in Bengal changed the political-administrative scene to the detriment of the interest of the House. Soon it faded into background.

Besides, these three top merchants who were at the top in their time, there were several other Jains, who achieved varied degree of success.

Karma Shah, the well-known cloth trader of Chittor, earned so much money that he advanced a loan of one lakh rupees to Bahadur Shah, the prince of Gujarat. When Bahadur Shah became the ruler in 1526 A.D. Karmashah visited him in Ahmedabad. Bahadur Shah returned the money and also permitted him to repair Jain temples on the Satrunjay hill.

Another important Jain merchant of Mewar in the sixteenth century was Bhama Shah, who earned eternal gratitude of the Sisodia ruling house and carved a name for himself in history by helping Rana Pratap during his fight against the Mughal ruler, Akbar.

In the sixteenth century, two Gujarati brothers Rajia and Vajiya belonging to Cambay became prominent traders in the Portuguese held port of Goa. Their affluence is attested to by the grandeur of their shop which was adorned with an inverted gold vessel at the top. They got a person released from the Portuguese captivity in the port town of Goa by paying a huge ransom. When the person after his release once sought to kill twenty-two thieves, the latter protested saying that the particular day was sacred to Shah Rajiya. The person immediately released them saying that Rajiya brothers were not only his great friends but also had saved his life. He could not think of hurting their feeling.

Another important trader of the port of Diu was Abhayraj, who owned four sea-going vessels and was very rich.

I have already pointed out that the members of the Jain community in spite of being small in members were widely distributed in the country. Most of them were either small or medium businessmen, active in important villages, small towns and important urban administrative and commercial centers.

This is best illustrated by the history of the family of the famous Jain Hindi poet, Banarsidas who lived during the reigns of three Mughal Emperors, Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan.

After Muldas’ death in Narwar (near Gwalior), his son Kharagsen (Banarsidas’s father) left the place along with his mother and arrived in Jaunpur (Uttar Pradesh) where the latter’s brother Madan Singh was a jeweler dealing in precious stones.

Trade in precious stones was an important profession of Jains; traders like Shantidas of Ahmedabad supplied gems to the royal Mughal household. Besides these, there were a host of others, in small as well in medium category, who catered to the vast clientele for earning their livelihood. Also it was not unusual for the same person to try his hand at several businesses.

Kharagsen, as he was growing up, moved on to Agra in 1569 and in association with relatives, took up shroffage, i.e. exchange of coins of different varieties, a very popular business in medieval times.

After some time he came back to Jaunpur and in partnership with Ramdas Agrawal continued with the business of shroffage. Side by side, he also sold pearls and precious stones.

Since the local governor Qulich Khan tyrannized over the jewelers, because they failed to satisfy his demand for precious stones, Kharagsen and other jewellers fled Jaunpur. Kharagsen left his family at the village of Shajadpur along with his son Banarsidas and himself went to Allahabad to earn a living.

In the absence of his father, Banarsidas tried to earn some money by selling Cowries.97 It was his first foray in business and his grandmother celebrated the occasion by distributing sweets out of the first profit made by Banarsidas. Business was the basic profession, the Jains took up. It did not matter even if the beginning was a humble one.

Banarsidas’s father decided to take a hand in training his son in the art of business. He took him along to Allahabad, kept him as his under study and familiarized Banarsidas with the profession of usury and pawning commodities98. Generally, by participating in family business and by gaining practical experience, the scions of Jains learnt the art of business. The distinct impression is that Jains did not specialise in any particular commodity; they combined business in various items and were active in the lucrative business of shroffage and moneylending.

In 1610 A.D. Kharagsen was convinced that his son was capable of carrying on business independently. He decided to give him a chance. He collected some jewel-incrusted ornaments, some pieces of gems, twenty maunds of ghee, two barrels of oil, some locally manufactured textiles, all costing rupees two hundred only. A part of this amount was borrowed. He wrote down the prices on a piece of paper and asked him to go to Agra and started business there.

The spirit of entrepreneurship displayed here should be noted. The father, personally arranged that the son set himself up in business at a distant place on his own. Of course, Agra being the capital city of the Mughal Empire, was a flourishing business center and provided prospects for larger profits. This must have been uppermost in the mind of Kharagsen when he selected the imperial city for his son to start his business career.

As was customary in those days Banarsidas joined a caravan, proceeding to Agra. The caravan travelled on an average of five Kos (around fifteen kilometers) each day. The journey was full of incidents because of torrential rains but eventually Banarsidas reached Agra and began trading.

The transaction in oil and ghee was profitable while he suffered loss in the sale of jewels and ornaments. But overall the profits were enough to enable him to pay off all his debts.

After a stay of couple of years, Banarsidas along with two friends undertook business trip to Patna, then the most important commercial city in eastern India103. The journey was full of hazards; they survived accidents, loss of way; attack by thieves, etc. They reached the city. Probably this was a pleasure-cum-business trip. Banarsidas had literary and religious interest and was unable to concentrate on business. He returned to Jaunpur.

After the death of his father in 1616 A.D. Banarsidas decided to have another go at business. He borrowed rupees five hundred and invested the money in the purchase of Jaunpuri textiles. Raising capital on credit for purposes of trade was an accepted practice. However, before he could start trading he was summoned to Agra by Seth Sabalsingh Mothia.  Banarsidas entrusted the goods to a friend and went to Agra. The purpose was to clear the accounts.

It seems that Banarsidas was at this point of time issuing and receiving Hundis on behalf of Sabalsingh and this was his primary source of livelihood.

The journey to Agra was full of misadventures. On one occasion he was on the point of being arrested by the police on charges of circulating counterfeit money. With great difficulty he managed to extricate himself from this situation. (Continues)


Courtesy:  Jain World

Click here for Part-I, Part-II 

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