Arrival of the core Gujarati group is traced to 1830

Madurai has always assimilated different cultures, without compromising on its own, by welcoming with open arms whoever came to settle down here. For the Greeks, Romans, Nayaks and Sultans of the past, this has been a home away from home. The Patels, Chouhans and Desais, who reached the historic city on call of duty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are proud to call themselves ‘Maduraikkarans,’ without having to look in the north-westerly direction.

As a community, Gujaratis form a major chunk of the Madurai population. The arrival of the core Gujarati group is traced to 1830 when Kehta Shivji Rathore was drafted on contract by the British government to work on the railway lines that were planned to branch out to Rameswaram and Bodinaickanur from Madurai.

“At that time, Gujaratis were involved in the construction of railway lines, bridges and stations,” recalls Hina Chouhan, Shivji’s great grand daughter. “Then, there was no tendering system. The British considered the Gujaratis as very honest people and so entrusted with them the task of building up a vital infrastructure,” says C. R. Patel, who landed in Madurai following his father who arrived in 1945.

Impressed with Madurai, Kehta Shivji started his own company that produced shirts, after completing the railway work. His home on West Perumal Maistry Street played host to pilgrims from Gujarat to Rameswaram, while on transit.

The second wave of arrivals started in the first quarter of the 20th century when people from all regions of Gujarat descended on Madurai to do textile business, with the giant Madura Coats as the centre of attraction. In the 1930s and 40s, many families followed G. P. Sangoye, who had started his textile business in the name, ‘Truthful Company.’

“Entrepreneurship is in the blood of Gujaratis and so the settlers here have diversified from textiles into various other fields,” says Ashwin Desai, an IT entrepreneur. Those who had migrated to Madurai from Gujarat organised themselves into various groups as ‘Gujarat Library’ and ‘Navajeevan Samaj.’ The Shree Madura Gujarati Samaj came into existence in 1963 by merging all Gujarati associations. The samaj is celebrating its golden jubilee from Friday.

“We celebrate all festivals from Deepavali to Deepavali, along with Republic Day and Independence Day. Our objective is to make the people realise that they are not alone when they are away from Gujarat,” says Mr. Patel. Members of the samaj have been lending a helping hand in times of natural disasters, like the rare flooding of the Vaigai. They are also involved in philanthropic work in a big way.

Today, there are about 120 families from Gujarat, who are members of the samaj. “We do not want to go back to Gujarat. People here are good. Madurai is a safe place to live and we are happy. We have lived here and we will die here,” says Mr. Patel. The Gujarati families have identified so much with Madurai that the latest daughter-in-law of the first settler’s family is from Tuticorin.