Makli Necropolis in Thatta

Trade between Thatta and Lahori Bandar, and Hurmuz, was well-established by the early sixteenth century, and the governors of the Estado da Índia at Goa were broadly aware of the commercial significance of the area.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

E como os soldados da Índia são muito soltos, e livres, davam da noite grandes matracas ao Capitão mór; e a voltas de muitas palavras desordenadas lhe chamavam fracò, pusillanime, e que de medo não vingava tamanha offensa; e tantas vezes lhe disseram estas cousas, e outras, que lhe deo a desconfiança de maneira, que sem tomar conselho com alguem, mandou dizer pelas fustas que fizessem pelouros. Com este recado se alvoraçáram os soldados, e começáram a guarnecer seus arcabuzes, e a limpar suas armas; e entre tanto mandou o Capitão mór com muita dissimulação comprar mantimentos a Cidade, de que proveo a Armada bastantemente (Couto, vii/1, p. 275).

Having thus ensured that his supplies were sufficient, Rolim mounted an attack on Thatta, after calling his captains together and telling them that “era necessário castigarem aquella affronta, a destruirem por ella a Cidade”. Couto no doubt exaggerates the extent of the damage done; in his words foram os nossos entrando a Cidade e mettendo à espada toda a cousa viva que achavam, até os brutos animaes; e como não tiveram em que executar sua furia, mandou o Capitão mór que saqueassem a Cidade, como logo fizeram, tomando todos tantas fazendas, que se carregaram os navios. Large sections of the city were set on fire, and the deaths in the town are estimated at eight thousand (“a mór parte della gente inutil”!), with the goods taken and destroyed supposedly being worth “dous milhões de ouro”.

It is significant that Couto notes the presence outside the town of a “Mesquita muito grande, e da feição de nossos Templos, e tinha três portas”; this could not have been the Shahjahan mosque for obvious reasons, and is more likely to have been the Dabgar Masjid, of which we have written above. He writes that the Portuguese force did considerable damage to the structure, and that it partially collapsed killing numerous people inside in the “mais cruel, e miserável género de morte, que se podia imaginar” (Couto, vii/1, p. 279).

For some reason, Couto’s valuable description of Thatta and its “Bandel” (presumably Lahori Bandar) in the late 1550’s has never been used systematically by historians of the Sind region (who have relied for their version of this incident on Manuel de Faria e Sousa’s regurgitated account). It shows us beyond a doubt that at this point in time, Thatta was one of the most formidable ports in India in Couto’s own words “das maiores da Índia… (e) recheada de fazendas grossas, e ricas, de drogas, manteigas, azeite, cifas, e outros materiaes”. Also we learn from him that Lahori Bandar had a small fort, which the Portuguese attacked on their way downriver, after their attack on Thatta. However, the account does not make it entirely clear on what Thatta’s prosperity was based. In this respect, the testimony of Seydi Ali Reis is rather more valuable, since it makes it clear that Thatta was the meeting point of several routes, some terrestrial and some fluvial. To the east, for example, lay Gujarat, with which Sind had long-standing political and economic ties. It was from Gujarat that the Ottoman admiral himself made his way to Thatta, following a route that took him from Ahmadabad via Patan, Radhanpur, Parkar, Wanga (the frontier with Sind in the 1550’s) and Junagadh to Thatta. Again, later on in his peregrinations, Seydi Ali sought to make his way from Thatta to the Mughal domains, to make contact with Humayun’s court. On this occasion, he went up the Indus via Nasarpur, Sehwan, Patri, Dible (Darbela), and Bhakkar (an important political centre for the Arghuns), to Mau, Sultanpur and Ucch, until he crossed the Sutlej river to make his way to the great stapling centres and inland entrepôts of Multan and Lahore. These two trading towns commanded the trade from northern India to Central Asia in some measure, and were also central to the trade to Kabul and Kandahar (and thence to the cities of Iran). But it was equally possible to bypass these towns and make directly for Kandahar from Bhakkar. This overland route into Iran waned and waned with the ebb and flow of the maritime trade from Lahori Randar to Hurmuz and other Persian Gulf ports, and the relationship was a structural constant that held as much for the early seventeenth century as for the 1550’s. For example, in 1611, when an attack by the Safavids on Hurmuz was feared, Philip of Spain and Portugal wrote to his viceroy Rui Lourenço de Távora in Goa, of the rivalry between the two routes in the following terms.

All contemporary accounts agree that the principal part of the maritime trade from Sind led to the Persian Gulf

Nevertheless, both the overland trade and the fluvial trade extending north-east from Thatta underwent alterations from the late 16th century, as a result of the integration of Thatta (and lower Sind more generally) into the Mughal domains. This conquest — which occurred in 1591-92, some seventeen years after the Mughal conquest of Multan and upper Sind — was the result of a campaign mounted by the Mughal Khan-i khanan, Abd ur-Rahim, apparently on his own initiative and in contravention of orders from Delhi, while on an expedition to Kandahar. The last independent Tarkhan ruler, Mirza Jani Beg, was thus incorporated into the Mughal nobility, even though his descendants continued to maintain links with the region. One of them, Mirza Isa Khan was subedar (governor) at Thatta from 1627 to 1644, and both he and Mirza Jani Beg (who died in 1599) have substantial mausoleums in the Makkli hills. 9 After its incorporation by the Mughals, Thatta became the capital of a province (suba), with a revenue of 92,800,000 copper dams in 1638, which fell however to 68,816,800 dams by 1709. The town thus retained its administrative as well as commercial functions into the seventeenth century. However, as we shall see below, trade between the ports of the Indus mouth and Lahore grew more and more important under the Mughals, and Thatta came to be bypassed to a certain extent in the process. Also, given the uncertain relations between Mughals and Safavids in the seventeenth century, the westward overland trade of the town did not remain wholly secure either.


After 1600, with the arrival of the English and Dutch in the western Indian Ocean, Thatta is mentioned in the sources of the Companies as well. Between the two, it is the English who devoted greater attention to the trade of the Indus mouth ports, which is understandable in view of their greater interest in both Gujarat and the Persian Gulf when compared to the Dutch. 10 It was only in 1631 that the first Dutchmen employed by the VOC visited Sind; they were headed by the merchant Gregorius Cornelisz, on the ship Brouwershaven, but their venture did not enjoy any great success either then or later in the seventeenth century. In contrast, the English showed a far greater inclination to exploit the trade of Thatta, which they saw as holding an important place in their commerce with Persia. We are aware that in about 1620, when the Portuguese still held Hurmuz, someone seventh of shipping to that port originated from Sind, as the table below demonstrates.

All contemporary accounts agree that the principal part of the maritime trade from Sind led to the Persian Gulf, even though there was some trade to such ports as Diu, and Goa (and Sind textiles were at times carried back to Lisbon as well, on the Carreira da Índia). Thus the account by the English factors Richard Steele and John Crowther, en route from Ajmer to Isfahan in 1614:

Lahore is a goodly greate citie, and one of the fairest and ancientest of India… From this place came the treasure of the Portugals’ trade, when they had peace, as being the centre of all Indian traffique. And here they embarqued the same down the river for Tatta whece they were transported for Ormus and Persia. The merchants also passing that way betwixt Persia and India payd them fraight. They did likewise drive a great trade up the river for pepper and spices, furnishing these parts of India therewith.

Two years earlier, the account of Thomas Best provides much the same picture, speaking in similar terms of the close links between Thatta and “Lowri bandar” and Lahore. Again, in 1619, the Dutchman Pieter van den Broecke writes of Sind’s trade as follows:

From Lohoor one may navigate through a river into the kingdom of Sinde, which is also part of the realm of Chachalm or the Great Moghul. The main commercial centres there are named Sinde Tatta and Diolsinde. Here a great abundance of beautiful textiles are produced, which are mostly transported by the Portuguese to Ormus and from there to Persia and Arabia. This is mostly done by Italians, Persians and Moors, who all of them are engaged in this important trade between Ormus and Bassora, a city in the Cinus Persicus.

This account, taken together with the others, seems to give the lie to the rather pessimistic view in Sir Thomas Roe’s letters of the 1610’s. He writes of how ther is noe settled trade betweene Lahor and Syndu worth the mentioning; only a few Banians that shipp in frigates for Ormuz, whom it is hard to persuade to change their customes.

Further, it appears that the decline in Portuguese trade in Sind did not follow quite so rapidly on the fall of Hurmuz to the Safavids and English as has often been assumed. Even as late as the 1630’s, the Portuguese continued to have a quite considerable trade at Thatta and Lahori Bandar, oriented in part towards Goa, but still mainly to the west. This emerges quite clearly from reading António Bocarro’s account of the Estado da Índia in the mid 1630’s in which he devotes some attention to Sind (though he does not mention Thatta by name). While writing of Portuguese trade in and from Maskat, he states:

Not only this; Bocarro assures us that the capital of Sind (one presumes he means Thatta) is “hua cidade muito grande com mais de cento e sincoenta mil fogos de casas”, which is obviously an exaggeration, but nevertheless of qualitative significance. He provides us details of the local administration, in the hands of a “nababo mogor”, assures us that the local people are “gente mui fraca delicioza supersticioza, e mentirosa, mouros e gentios todos misturados”, and goes on to give further details concerning Portuguese trade these in the 1630’s. Returning to Thatta then:

Na cidade referida há trinta mil teares, e dahi para sima, e assy se val do algodão de Cache e Nagana. E he tão grande o trato desta terra que a quantos navios forem e embarcaçois a ella, a todas darão cargua cõ aver navio de Portuguezes que leva em prata, ouro e aljofre duzentas mil patacas de cabedal, e destes há muitos, e até a moeda se paga dereitos cõ grandes tiranias nalfãdega a três e meio por cento que avalião em dobro e aynda mais da valia das fazendas, corn que vem a pagar a sete e a mais por cento, mas como os Mongores que aqui asistem sam mui levados do interesse cõ qualquer cousa se lhe tapa a boca em os grandes dezemcaminhos que os Portuguezes lhe fazem do que levão.

Vão aqui nas mõçoĩs muitas embarcações de Portuguezes e se ajuntarão em 633 mais de vinte e hua embarcaçois entre galiotas, pataxos, e fustas cõ algũs dozentos Portuguezes porque como por estas partes para o estreito não ha ladrões malavares nẽ dos naturais, andão com mui poucos soldados (Bocarro, p. 98).


Courtesy: ICM Cultural Affairs Bureau (Instituto Cultural, Macau)

Click here for Part-I 


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