Pragmatism, innovation, collaborative partnership central to Gujarati heritage of trade and business

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By Hemang Desai*

An embassy dispatched by the powerful Indian Pandyan king to the court of the Roman emperor Augustus had left the port of Bharuch in Gujarat in 25 BCE. The journey of this embassy took four months to reach the Roman town of Samos. The Indian ambassador, desirous of striking a chord of goodwill, had brought for Augustus a variety of gifts; among them tigers, a python, and an armless boy who discharged arrows from a bow with his toes. The leader of this embassy, one Shravanacharya, had also carried a letter from the Indian king written in Greek on vellum, offering Augustus an alliance.

The intercourse between Rome and India was taking place on the lines of maritime heritage of previous centuries. The theme of ports and of hinterland involved in production of goods to be exported is a constant feature of Indian history; the world’s oldest corridors of long-range commerce indeed are the monsoons of maritime Asia. Sea navigation had already commenced by the time of the Buddha in the sixth century BCE. A jataka in the jataka mala, written between fourth to the first centuries BCE, describes the attributes of an ideal sea-pilot:

“The Bodhisatva knew the courses of the stars and their path orientation. He would never ignore any weather condition; he could distinguish regions of the sea by fish-life, colour of water, nature of sea-bottom and depths, birds and coastal features. He was one with sharp memory and a strong character, and had great abilities in guiding the vessel to the right destination in safety, even in foul weather.”

unnamed (4)The remains of Buddhist establishments have been found almost in every region of Gujarat in the form of rock-cut caves and stupas. Buddhism became a popular religion in Gujarat during the Kshatrapa period (1st – 4th century A.D.) and it continued to flourish during the Maitraka rule (470-788 A.D.).

However, there is evidence that trade was already finding markets in distant lands two thousand years before the time of the Buddha, during the Indus-Valley civilization that existed five thousand years ago. This great urban civilization, contemporaneous with those of Egypt and Mesopotamia, covered an expanse that stretched from Baluchistan in the west to the Upper Ganga-Yamuna Doab in the east. Dholavira in the Great Rann of Kachchh and Lothal are two incredible examples of Indus-Valley civilization settlements in Gujarat.

Lothal in Gujarat was a prominent port of the Indus- Valley civilization. It is located in the Bhāl region of modern Gujarat and dates from 2400 BCE. Discovered in 1954, Lothal was excavated in 1960 by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Lothal’s dock, the world’s earliest known, connected the city to an ancient course of the Sabarmati River on the trade route between Harappan cities in Sindh and the peninsula of Saurashtra.


Back then the surrounding Kachchh desert of today was a part of the Arabian Sea. It was a vital and thriving trade centre in ancient times, with its beads, gems and valuable ornaments reaching the far corners of West Asia and Africa. The Indus Valley ornaments made in lapis lazuli, agate, carnelian, shells, silver and gold as well as utensils and toys made from clay also reveal a refined artistic and technological sense.

Historian D.D. Kosambi, has noted:

“We have conclusive evidence for long-distance trade of the Indus-Valley people. Indian copper was taken by sea to the island of Bahrain (Tilmun) for exchange with commodities brought by a special group of traders. The patronage in the earlier period was from the great temples like that of Nammu at Ur, from whose stock the stores were obtained, as well as the finance. We know a good deal from the Babylonian end of insurance, risks, loans, division of profits, as well as about the monopolist alik Tilmun merchants of Bahrain. In the later period the Assyrian king seems to have been the special patron, virtually senior partner in the merchants association for this trade. That they imported copper, ivory, monkeys, pearls, and such novelties is attested to by cuneiform records; all of these came in some quantity from India.”

The Solankis, also known as the Chalukyas, came to power in the area of Gujarat after the collapse of the famous Gupta Empire of India. Scholars of the period describe the land of the region as agriculturally fertile where artisan industry thrived. That apart from being traders, Gujaratis were also manufacturers of excellence during this time is noted by the historian Makrand Mehta:

“Hemchandra (1089-1173AD) mentions several types of leather products manufactured in Gujarat. The thirteenth- century Chinese traveler Chau Ju-Kua refers to Gujarat as a source of cotton fabrics of every colour and mentions that every year Khambhat sent cargos of textiles to Malaysia, China and to the Arab countries.”

It may be noted here that the Chalukyas or the Solankis are famed for their stupendous architecture breathtaking in its technological sophistication.

The dauntless navigator and to Europeans the ‘discoverer’ of India, Vasco Da Gama, was drawn to India by his search for Indian spices and also to look for the mythical Christians. The European age of discoveries had started unfolding on the watery globe, riding on the shoulders of renaissance science. Vasco Da Gama set sail from Portugal on July 8, 1497 on board the 120 tonne ship San Gabriel with a squadron of three ships. He journeyed via the Cape and arrived in Calicut on May 11, 1498 A.D.

Lothol then
Lothal, as it may have existed in 2400 BCE
lothal now
Lothal today

Some scholars believe that Da Gama was piloted from Africa to Calicut by a Kachchhi Gujarati navigator, identified as Kanji Malam. The Portuguese arrival in India completely changed the game in the Indian oceans as they were the first men at war in the Indian seas to have mounted canons; for example, the San Gabriel had 20 guns. The Estado da India, the Portuguese empire of India, was on its way to be created.

The Mughal Empire (1526 to 1858 AD) in India was expanding during the 16th century. The conquest of Gujarat by Akbar in 1572 AD had given to the Mughals access to Gujarat ports including Surat. How busy and prosperous Surat was is revealed by the account of the French traveler Jean de Thevenot who had visited this Mughal port in 1665 AD. Surat by this time had representatives of all the major East India Companies of the time. That medieval Gujarat textile manufacturing was drawing attention of the world markets is noted by the Cambridge Economic History of India:

“In 1609 William Finch had sent a list of the types of cotton cloth available in western India suitable for the European or Lavantine markets; advising that the fine white fabrics and the painted calicos of Gujarat would yield more profit. The former could be exported to the north African markets or to the Levant where the moors made their ‘cabayas’ from this cloth, while the latter might prove useful at home for making fine quilts and also serve as wall-hangings. By 1614, the English Company had resolved to order more than 12,000 pieces of textiles from Surat, and in the auction sale of 1619 over 26,000 pieces were sold…By the third quarter of the 17th century the popularity of Indian textiles in these markets had become sufficiently established as to extend their use to the luxury end of the market.”

All through the 18th century the old textile centres of Gujarat like Ahmedabad, Bharuch, Surat, Navsari, Gandevi continued to produce a variety of textiles for the various markets of the world. Apparently thousands of artisans were employed in the production process in these towns and in the villages nearby; Bharuch was famous for its fine bafta as for its muslin, Surat was famous for its chintz and Ahmedabad was famous for its dhotis and duppatas.

When the political power of Gujarat fell to the British in the first half of the nineteenth century, the British rule of law created an atmosphere very conducive to entrepreneurs of Gujarat.  In 1856, a British officer had noted:

“Ahmedabad is still famous for its gold, its silks and its carved work, and its merchants and brokers enjoy a distinguished reputation for liberality, wealth, and enlightenment.”

The Gujarati virtues of pragmatism, innovation and collaborative partnership manifested in the first modern industrial cotton textile mill established in Ahmedabad by Ranchodlal Chotalal in 1861 with a capital of 100,000 rupees. The difficulties faced by Ranchodlal have become the subject of both folklore in the Gujarati language and in the business parlance – his first machinery brought by sea from England perished in a shipwreck; the second had to be brought all the way from Khambhat by carts to Ahmedabad; the first English technician employed in the mill died of cholera before the mill even started production and other technicians had to be dismissed.

Inside a textile mill

Ranchodlal is rightly called the father of Gujarati industries for providing the European industrial revolution a perfect soil of his entrepreneurial genius to flower in. It was this booming business in textiles that gave Ahmedabad its nickname, “Manchester of India” by the beginning of the 20th century.

*Independent researcher.

Pix: Vatsal Vekaria


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