[Thattai Bhatia, a small diaspora largely settled in the Persian Gulf, originally migrated from Rajasthan in India and later from Thatta in Sindh, Pakistan. The research reveals the reasons behind their distinct foodways such as abstinence from consuming liquor, meat, garlic and onion in particular, despite their intermingling with different ethnicities due to migration]
Navreet Kaur Rana
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia
The cuisine of Thattai Bhatia community
The members of the community refer to their food as “Panja Khada” which in Sindhi language means “Our Food”. The cuisine uses Bengal gram ﬂour called besan in generous quantities and many dishes revolve around it.
Also, many recipes such as muthia, mohan thaal, sev tamatey curry, dhokra and churmo show remark-able similarities with the food and terminology of Gujarat and Rajasthan in India. This led to the ﬁrst step of enquiry as to—are the community members even distantly related to Gujarat or Rajasthan? Since they derive their name from a place (Thatta) from undivided India, the possibility of any connection could not be ruled out. Tracing back the roots revealed that the community ingeniously belonged to Jaisalmer which is in modern day Rajasthan (India). They belonged to the “Bhatti” clan who migrated from Rajasthan to Sindh around fourteenth century. The presence of Bhatti clan is mentioned in A Gazetteer of the Territories under the Government of the East-India Company. The record mentions that the Bhutneer or Bhutnair (later renamed as Bhatner and is now known as Hanumangarh district in Rajasthan) was formally the principal place of Bhattis and that the Bhattis were Rajputs who had migrated from Bhatner approximately six centuries ago. Another noteworthy fact stated in Vol II of the gazette about Bhattis is that “the religious strictness of the Bhatti Rajpoots is relaxed in consequence of their continual intercourse with the Mussalmans to the westward”. Similarly, Tod mentions how the Bhatti tribe was accustomed to smoking opium in hookas (pipe) and that “To ask a Bhatti for a whiﬀ of his pipe would be deemed a direct insult.” On the contrary, considering the Panja Khada of the community, the present culinary habits did not seem to be as “relaxed” as cited by Tod in the paragraph above. The everyday food of the community members is devoid of meat, eggs, onion, garlic and any intoxicating ingredients. They cook simple recipes with local vegetables (like eggplant, ridge-gourd and bitter gourd) mostly ﬁnished with chopped coriander leaves. Though tempering with cumin and high dose of asafetida in the form of vaghar is an essential procedure, the cuisine makes minimal or no use of whole spices. And to almost all the curries, a slurry of roasted Bengal gram is poured in. It could be done to add body to the curry in the absence of onion. This fact was later validated by one of my informants. He informed me that in the absence of egg or onion, a solution of Bengal gram (called Channe jo atto) and water is added to the curry as a thickening agent. This solution is known as Mayer. The menu also shows striking similarities with that of Sindhi cuisine while maintaining the restrictions on onion, garlic and non-vegetarian products.
The Thattai Bhatia cuisine shows extensive use of lotus-stem called bhey or bhay in the form of curries (bhay gutter & bhay batate jo saag) and fritters (bhay ja pakora), which is a Sindhi favorite. Other preparations like a refreshing drink made out of jasmine ﬂowers (mogray jo sherbet), tuk, kari, dal pakwan and koki (wheat bread usually had for break-fast) are quintessential to Sindhi cuisine. Despite adopting many Sindhi delicacies, the Bhatia cuisine has made a complete distance from thoom (garlic), pallo (illish/hilsa/palla) and other ﬁsh and macroli (macaroni). Also, these dishes are known by the same name in Sindhi cuisine.
The similarity of the Thattai Bhatia food with Gujarati-Rajasthani food is established by the presence of Bhatti clan in Jaisalmer. The similarity with Sindhi cuisine is indicative from the name of the community which they derived from Thatta, a town in Sindh. However, what let the Bhatti tribesmen move to Thatta and their abstinence from the use of non-vegetarian food, onion and garlic guides the research further. Evidence shows that the Bhatti tribe from Jaisalmer (Rajasthan) migrated westwards to Thatta, a town in Sindh province. This migration could be a circumstantial migration as the period of their migration over-laps with the period of decline of Rajputs around early fourteenth century after the Mughal invasion or it could be with an intent of trade. The tribesmen later established themselves as one of the oldest and strongest trading communities in Sindh who had strong commercial ties with the Portuguese and in the Gulf of Arabian Sea, especially Masqat (modern day Muscat). After late eighteenth century, they were clearly referred to as merchants as also classiﬁed by Scott Levi in his research on Indian diaspora as “merchant diaspora”. Even so, a sudden transition from being a warrior clan to being traders doesn’t seem to be perceivably possible.
A web portal on Bhatias mentions that in the early 1400’s, they were approached by the king of Thatta, who sought their help in putting down a rebellion in his kingdom. The Bhatias fought heroically and won back the king’s land. Obliged for their help, the king asked them to settle in Thatta itself. Yet, no historical evidence of this story is found in the literature. Nonetheless, the Bhatias settled in Thatta and as mentioned in the beginning of the paper, it is from Thatta in Sindh, the community derived its name. Also, it is their stay in Thatta and neighboring regions, the striking similarity of their food with Sindhi cuisine is explained. However, their constraint from consuming animal products and onion and garlic remains unanswered.
The answer was found in the scholarly works of Richardson and Burton that the community members adopted Vaishnavism, a faith-inspired path of life. In the ﬁfteenth century, Swami Vallabhacharya (1473–1531), a philosopher of the Pushti sect of Vaishnavism visited Kutch, on the other side of Indus (on the banks of which lies Thatta). The devotees from Thatta crossed the river to hear the sermons and thereafter became the followers of Pushtimarg. The recognition of Narayan Sarovar in Kutch on the other side of Indus, as one of the 84 seats (baithaks) of Pushtimarg tradition in India ascertains the fact for the seats are sites where Vallabhacharya recited discourses from sacred scriptures. Richard Burton in his work on the races in Sindh (1851) further writes that it was the followers of Vishnu who are forbidden to drink spirituous liquor or to eat meat, egg, ﬁsh, and onions. He also writes that the priest of bhatias who worship Maharaja, an avatar of Vishnu is called pokarno and that he wears a tilak (mark on fore-head) of horizontal lines distinguishing him as a Vaishnav, a practice followed by Vaishnavs throughout India.
The fact that Thattai Bhatia are followers of Pushti-marg, was also supported by the informants who were also kind enough to share certain other foodways of their community. They informed that that are a “traditional and conservative” community and not only abstain from consuming meat, ﬁsh poultry, onion and garlic, but also kidney beans and masoor (a kind of lentil). They follow a Sattvik (food with spiritual essence) diet and refrain from foods which induce tamsik gun (food which induces anger and laziness). Another reason they restrict them-selves from eating meat and other products is that they oﬀer their meals to the Lord (Shrinath or Maharaj, an avatar of Vishnu,) before consuming it. The food is then supposed to be blessed by the Lord and is consumed as a Prasad (blessed food). They call this ritual as Bhog Dharanu. As per one of my informants, many families still follow this ritual every day in their household. Some community members also observe a fast every month on the 11th day of the lunar calendar which they call as Igyas. The person fasting consumes only one meal in a day which is devoid of grains and legumes. Apart from fasting, they also observe a ritual of feasting which is called Annakut (meaning mountain of food) and prepare a meal of 56 sattvik dishes. The meal is called chhappanbhog (Chhapan means numeral 56 and bhog means oﬀering) and is oﬀered on the day of Goverdhan Puja. Goverdhan is the name of the mountain in Mathura, (northern India) which Lord Krishna (an avatar of Lord Vishnu) lifted on his little ﬁnger when he was just 7-years old and held it for 7-days to protect the natives from incessant rains. To pay their homage to the lord, the villagers prepared 56 food items considering oﬀering 8 items per day for 7-days. Toomey has described, how signiﬁcant the festival of Annakut is for Vaishnav followers and how it is celebrated across various places. With these foodways in sight, it can be supposed that the faith of the community in Pushtimarg played a crucial role in shaping their cuisine. The cuisine is still meticulously practiced by the community despite their small size and having migrated from their indigenous homeland.
Most of the Thattai Bhatias today live in the Gulf countries, mainly Muscat and Bahrain. With the decline of the port city of Thatta, Bhatias started moving to the Gulf through waterways. They had established intense commercial relations at Muscat by then. Several accounts of the decline of Thatta and Bhatia traders in Muscat are available in literature. Although, the ﬁrst mention of banias of Sindh occurred in Arab and Portuguese documents concerning Masqat at the end of the ﬁfteenth century. Thatta is mentioned as `Masqat’s most important Indian trading partner’, and its Hindu merchants, the Bhatias, appear to have been the main participants in the trade between Sind and Arabia.
Several historians and Gazetteers have accounted the story of the decline of Thatta from once town of commercial importance to ruins. Edward Thornton describes it in the mid-nineteenth century as “a town formerly very famous, but now much decayed… situated about three miles west of the right or western bank of the Indus” and that its extensive ruins are scattered to ten miles in the south and three miles to the north-west. The population of Thatta in 1699 is estimated to be about 150,000 but after being marred by a plague epidemic, in 1854 the population is estimated to be less than 40,000 and by the beginning of nineteenth century, it was reduced to 20,000. Pillaged and burned by Portuguese mercenaries in 1555, Thatta regained some of its prosperity with the arrival of Dutch East India Company between 1652 and 1660, but its revival was short lived as the Indus River silted in the later years of the seventeenth century. It shifted its course further east which led to the abandonment of the city as a seaport. Despite the abandonment of the port functions of Thatta, its Bhatia merchants continued to play an important role in trade, and began using their own ships rather than relying on European ships for trade. Traders were particularly active in the region around Masqat, in modern Oman, and members of Thatta’s Bhatia caste established Masqat’s ﬁrst Hindu temple during this period. Both Marcovits and Allen also state that they have extended their activities in the Gulf to new areas, such as the Bahrain islands which is where some of the informants who participated in this research are based today.
Contemporary food habits of Thattai Bhatia community
As far as modern foodways are concerned, the everyday household food strictly follows the religious restrictions. In many households, the ritual of Bhog Dharanu is practiced every day, as described by our informant and the author of the book Panja Khada discussed in the former sections of the paper. The community still practices the rituals of Chappanbhog and Annkut during Goverdhan Puja. Many unsaid rules are also observed while consuming Thattai Bhatia meal like the diner must suck the juices from the singhi (drumsticks), chew on the cubes of potato, yam and banana, and leave out the curry leaves, kokum phool (wild mangosteen) and kelay jo chilko (banana peels). Unlike other north Indian communities, the Thathai Bhatias begin the lunch with rice, and follow it up with the roti, phulka and poori (types of ﬂat-breads). Many non-alcoholic drinks called sherbet made up of sandalwood, jasmine and rose are also a popular feature of the Thattai Bhatia meal as the ingredients of sherbet are refreshing in nature, and they are more suitable for a cuisine developed around deserts. However, the younger generation is quiet ﬂexible in and is evolving in terms of their food choices. My inform-ant stated that the newer generation is less strict in their food choices and do not refrain themselves from trying other cuisines like “Chinese, Italian and Mexican” and also consume alcohol socially as a personal preference.
It is nearly impossible to study the history of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan without studying the velour stories of the Bhatti clan and the Bhatner Fort which is one of the oldest forts in India. Likewise, the merchants of Sindh and especially the city Thatta as a commercial hub has been a subject of interest to many scholars (Marcovits, Subhramanyam), Thatta being one of the richest cities of the Orient as per the chronicles of Diego de Couto. Similarly, the Thattai Bhatias are a theme of great interest as a Hindu minority diaspora in the Muslim dominated Gulf countries (Jain, Mathew, and Khalid). The three have been prospective research topics in their own capacity. However, it is their culinary identity, “what they eat” made us see all three of them as chronologically dependent events of history shaping the foodways of the com-munity to what it is today. Their everyday food revealed the answers to their similarity yet distinctness from both Sindhi and Rajasthani cuisine. It also brought to light the potential role, faith can play in shaping the cuisine. The paper bared the history of the community by tracing back the salient characteristics of the Thattai Bhatia cuisine. Thus, culinary identity proved to be an eﬀective method to study history of any community of which there is little or no documentation of culinary regime. The method may not necessarily always precisely converge at one point but reserves the potential to streamline the course of the research.
The study has established the reasoning behind the identiﬁcation which their ethnic cuisine pro-vides them. The research revealed that the Thattai Bhatia com-munity underwent several migrations and has very small presence but with their exemplary eﬀorts, they have man-aged to practice and maintain a distinct cuisine undeterred by their migrations. Despite its resemblance with Sindhi and Gujarati cuisine both in terms of ingredients and nomenclature, Thattai Bhatia cuisine is unique and discrete in many ways and clearly revolves around their faith. The cuisine provides a spread of pre-planned vegetarian sattvik meals and is worthy of marking a presence on the global map. The community is now assiduously working towards recording their history under the name of the Bhatia History Project announced in 2020. Historians from multiple nations will be working on it to converge facts from India, Pakistan and the Persian Gulf. Probably, it is now that they have all the “resources”, which Appadurai referred to in the context of cook-books, to record and document the history. This research may be a drop in the ocean, but I believe that the Bhatia History Project will generously beneﬁt from it. (Concludes)
Courtesy: Research Gate – Published by Journal of Ethnic Foods in December 2021
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