The bankers of Bengal

An opulent dinner in a Sheherwali home  

Legend has it that nearly 300 years ago Manikchand, a Jain merchant who had come from the deserts of Rajasthan to the fertile lands of Bengal, encouraged Murshid Quli Khan — who would become the first Nawab of Bengal — to leave Dhaka and establish a city bearing his own name by the banks of the Hooghly.

So it was that the village of Maksudabad became the city of Murshidabad, and Manikchand became the Nawab’s personal banker. Murshidabad was established in 1717 and Manikchand became its first diwan, acquiring the title ‘jagat seth’ (banker of the world). This is where Sheherwali culture began.

Though the Nawabs of Murshidabad did not have a very long history, and slowly faded into oblivion with the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the culture of the Sheherwalis lives on.

Shiv Sahay Singh

On the invitation of Manikchand, a number of Jain merchant families migrated to Murshidabad and the nearby twin cities of Azimganj and Ziaganjj. Thus, the Dugars, Dudhorias, Nahars, Nowlakhas, Singhis, Kotharis and many such families settled in the region and started adopting the local ways of living, including food, attire, customs and language, evolving as a community distinct from the Marwaris. The name Sheherwalis came from the fact that they were itinerant traders who moved from town to town ( sheher).

Kolkata-based entrepreneur Pradip Chopra said that Sheherwalis were prudent investors and made a lot of money. Over the years, they emerged as one of the wealthiest communities of Bengal, and lived in huge mansions designed by architects from England and France. The architecture of the 14 Jain temples in Murshidabad, constructed by the members of the community, also points to the community’s rich cultural heritage.

“They were essentially bankers who introduced a system of doing transaction with hundis, or promissory notes, instead of actual money. It should be remembered that the entire revenue from Bengal, the most prosperous province during the time, was sent to the Mughal emperor through such hundis and was worth 20 million silver coins. Manikchand made a lot of money in the process, says Chopra.

(Their homes were grand mansions designed by architects from England and France. Photo: Special arrangement)

The Sheherwali community soon became the region’s chief moneylenders. Documents show that ‘Prince’ Dwarakanath Tagore had borrowed money from the Sheherwalis, who also financed companies from France, Portugal, the Netherlands and Britain, as well as Indian Nawabs.

The community was instrumental in setting up one of the region’s first jute mills and headed prominent business associations in Bengal. Their investments spread across practically all fields of business, and with the wealth accumulated, they undertook philanthropic works, setting up hospitals, schools and colleges in Murshidabad.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Sheherwali culture is their vegetarian cuisine. In his book Sheherwali: Regal Vegetarian Cuisine of Murshidabad, Chopra talks about the community’s unique cuisine that uses saffron and a distinct brand of rosewater as the key ingredients. The influence of Bengali cuisine is also evident in their use of paanch phoron, and they even adopted dishes like pitha, a Bengali sweet dish. Their signature dishes include saloni mewa ka khichdi, bode ka boondiya, bhapia (a steamed lentils dish) and kheere ka kachori (cucumber kachori). The community is quite fond of desserts, which is eaten before, during and after meals.

(Unique vegetarian cuisine. Photo: Special arrangement)

Bengal also influenced the attire of the Sheherwali community. The men replaced bagas with simple kurta and dhotis. And the colourful pagri (headgear) from Rajashtan was replaced by pagris resembling those wore by Bengalis like Raja Rammohan Roy, with mojris replaced by pump shoes.

Deepali Singhee, Principal of J.D. Birla Institute, says that women switched from traditional lehengas and odhanas to sarees but evolved their own style of draping it. And it is widely believed that the Sheherwalis, with their belief in non-violence, developed the concept of ahinsak or non-violent silk hundreds of years ago.

(The Sheherwalis adopted the local ways of living, including food, attire, customs and language, evolving as a community distinct from the Marwaris. Photo: Special Arrangement)

In 2010, Sandip Nowlakha, a member of the community, established Murshidabad Heritage Development Society to revive the heritage of the Sheherwalis. “We have produced four documentary films and a few books on the culture,” says the founder-secretary of the Society. Sidharth Dudhoria explains how after Partition, the community that was based in Murshidabad but with business interests in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) became scattered and disoriented. “They migrated from Murshidabad to different parts of the country and even outside. The number of Sheherwalis now in Kolkata would only be a few thousands.”

The community is now trying to reacquaint the younger generation with their traditions and culture. And their 300-year-old history.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 4:40:40 AM |

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