Sheherwali (Oswal) Jains, their financial prowess in Bengal (18th century)

Murshidabad,WB, Sheherwali Jain business community,

That roughly 300 years ago there existed a prominent and powerful  Indian business community whose prominent members were offering finances to the British, French companies, Nawabs and Amirs will surprise you.  The Jain community was called Sheherwalis (Sheherwalli means ‘one who goes to the city),  merchants and financiers (mostly Oswal Jains) migrated from the desert regions of Rajasthan to Bengal to try their luck in business there. Bestowed with business acumen, hard work and adaptability to a new cultural environment, they achieved success in business by earning the trust of the local community.  

 About Sheherwali Jains in Bengal :

Bengal Jain bankers palace, Kathgola, Murshidabad,WB.

Above images: Murshidabad, WB. Kathgola Bagan Bari, the beautiful yellow color building of Raja Dhanpat Singh Dugar and Lakshmipat Singh Dugar was built in 1873;  eye-catching variety of floor patterns.

01. The name Sheherwalis  had its origin in the fact that they were mostly travelling  traders moving  from town to town ( sheher). In reality, mostly they were Oswal Jains who would inculcate business talents at a pretty young age.

02. The Sheherwalis  have deep faith in non-violence, and will avoid  the use of silk clothing. Their concept of non-violence - ahinsak has been around for centuries. The take only vegetarian food.

03. Manikchand, a  member of this community, 300 years ago  gained  the trust of the first Nawab of Bengal, Murshid Quli Khan (1704 to 1725) and having become a  confidante, he  advised the Nawab to move his capital from Dhaka and build a new  capital in his name on the banks of the Hooghly river. 

04. Through the efforts of Manikchand, a discrete village  of Maksudabad became the powerful  town  of  Murshidabad (established in 1717) with  palatial buildings, mosques, temples, mints, etc. 

map of Murshidabad,WB.,

05. Manikchand became the Nawab’s personal banker, trusted friend  and also the first Dewan receiving the title ‘jagat seth’ (banker of the world) from the Mogul ruler..

Murshidabad, renovated  Bari Kothi, gaddi ghar.

06. Thus enterprising Manikchand  and his family members, pioneers in banking  business  were in the forefront in the progress of this community' s growth of the Sheherwali culture and tradition in Bengal. 

07. Because of unstable political turmoil after the arrival of the English company and their  wheeling and dealings  under Robert Clive, the Nawabs of Bengal lost their power and money. The rulers lost their exalted status and gradually faded  into insignificance. However, the culture of the Sheherwalis kept going unabated. Manik Chand died in 1714 and under the administration of  Fateh Chand, his nephew and successor ran the financial house effectively.

 08. Numerous Jain families migrated to Murshidabad and other neighboring towns of  Azimganj and Ziaganjj on the river Bhagirathi (the Ganges river goes by that name).They also started adopting the local ways of living, including food, dress customs and language, slowly evolving as a prosperous community distinct from the Marwaris often referred to as Sheherwali community.

Sheherwali dinner party,

 09.  Being adept in trade investment and  banking, Sheherwalis  became wealthy business people in Bengal and lived in big mansions designed by French and English architects. 

10. They built temples and thereb were 14 richly ornate Jain temples in Murshidabad and this will corroborate their influence and cultural  mooring in this town. 

11. It was the  "Sheherwali business men who  introduced a system of doing transaction with hundis, or promissory notes, instead of actual money". It is said Rs 3 out of Rs. 4 collected  from the state revenue would go to  the banker's coffers  against loans borrowed from Jagat Seth and his company.

12. Bengal being a prosperous province, the Nawbs of  Murshidabad  used to send  the revenue of 20 million silver coins   to the Mogul ruler in Delhi  through the system of  hundis. Manikchand made high profits by way of commission. As for his successor Fateh Chand, his house minted coins for the Nawab and bought much of the foreign bullion imported into Bengal. This way, they earned more  profits annually.  Sheherwali business people in this town kept the economy in good nick;better trade dealings, financial services, and above all their integrity stood them in good stead. 

13. After Fateh Chand, his grandson Mahtab Chand succeeded to the title in 1744. He and his cousin Maharajah Swarup Chand were influential and were close to Nawab Alivardi Khan. His successor and grandson Siraj-ud-daulah, intemperate and immature, sidetracked  the brothers and they ultimately conspired against him with the English and Siraj's dissident relatives in the Council to dethrone him.

14. The Seth brothers had good terms with Nawab Mir Jaffer, English company's puppet ruler however, his  successor Mir Qusim, for political reasons, assassinated the Seth brothers in 1763. When East India company seized power from the Nawab, the house of Seth began to slide down hill. Though the ESI gave special treatment to their financial house in minting coins, their fortune declined drastically when the British shifted the capital to Calcutta (Kolkata) in 1773 from Murshdabad.

15. After  Mahtab Chand, the title of 'Jagat Sheth' lasted for six generations. The last of the clan Fateh Chand  inherited the title in 1912. After his death his successors  did not assume the title in the colonial period. 

16. The Sheherwali community financed many firms in Europe and became leading money lenders. Once Prince Dwarakanath Tagore, a wealthy Bengali man (one of the first Indian industrialists to form an enterprise with British partners), had borrowed money from them.

17. The credit  goes to Sheherwali community  for setting up one of the region’s first jute mills in Bengal and this gave them the chance to head prominent business associations in Bengal. Further, they made their foray in other industries as well. Not contended with earning lots of wealth, they engaged themselves in charity and  philanthropy by way of  constructing hospitals, schools and colleges in Murshidabad.

18. This community adopted the attire of Bengal; men gave up pagri (headgear of Rajasthan) and adopted the local tradition. Women gave up their traditional dress - lehengas and odhanas and began wearing saris, but they adopted their own style. 

19. This community favors  vegetarian food  and the members introduced several varieties of their vegetarian cuisine.  Apart from palatial homesteads and Jain temples, the Sheherwalis  also added a name to the culinary repertoire of Bengal.

Places like  Azimganj-Jiaganj Murshidabad, Baharampu carry the legacy of this Jain community The  present generations of the Sheherwali families are particular about restoring their old family homes built in  French and Roman style to promote tourism.. The ancestral home of the Dudhoria family, Bari Kothi, an  early 18th century structure, a fusion of  Greek, Roman and French architecture, had been carefully restored. The owners, had a plan to convert it in to  a luxury heritage hotel.