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Marwaris refer to a commercial and industrial community originating from Marwar, an old state of Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Immigrants from Rajasthan into Eastern India, particularly Bengal, established their credibility in commercial enterprises and emerged as the leading merchants and traders. Their friends and relatives, who joined them to help and open new firms, came to be known as Marwaris irrespective of their original homes, since they were either associated with the Marwaris or introduced by them. The credibility attached to the Marwari businessmen influenced other Rajasthani traders and merchants to introduce themselves as Marwaris. In the social and trade parlance of Calcutta and Dhaka of the British period all traders from North India passed for Marwaris. The Marwari diaspora to Bengal seems to have begun from the 17th century or even earlier. The pure Marwaris of Rajasthan belonged to several socio-religious groups, such as Agarwals, Maheshwaris, Oswals, Khandeshwals and Porwals. During the Nawabi period the Oswals seem to have established their dominance in Bengal trade and commerce. In some areas of trading, such as banking, grain, cloth, salt, and moneylending, their presence was very large.

Ever since the time of akbar the Marwaris established their business houses outside Rajasthan, particularly in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. It is known that some members of the Vaixya class first came to Bengal in the train of the Mughal Rajput army. Some of them settled here permanently and participated in local trade and moneylending. Murshid Quli Khan's malguzar system provided for securities from the revenue farmers, zamindars and taluqdars. Standing as jamin or security to government for malguzar clients became a great business in the early 18th century and the Marwaris were its principal beneficiaries. The jamini business reached its peak in the early phase of British rule.

The landholders, revenue farmers and ijaradars looked to the Marwaris for standing as their jamins to the government. Hajari Mull, engaged in revenue farming in almost all Bengal districts, was the most important Marwari house in Murshidabad and Calcutta in the last two decades of the 18th century. After the permanent settlement he also acquired extensive landed estates. Another great speculator was Dulalchand Singh (alias Dulsing), a Porwal Marwari, who bought large zamindari estates in Bengal districts. He lived in Dhaka where he established many markets. Many of his large estates in Bakarganj, Patuakhali and Comilla districts were co-shared by the Khwajas of Dhaka. Subsequently the Singh family entered jute trade.

It was banking and bank-related trade in which the Marwaris established their predominance. During the Nawabi period the Marwaris monopolised the mint and currency business, which were in the private sector. The famous house of jagat sheth, which had the monopoly of the mint and banking sectors of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa and which played a crucial role in the politics of Murshidabad Darbar, belonged to the Oswal group of the Marwaris. So were the great commercial and banking houses of Gopal Das and Banarasi Das, who were also Oswal Marwaris. They mainly dealt in hundis (bills of exchange) in long distance trade.

The three great nawabs of Bengal-murshid quli khan, Shujauddin Khan and alivardi khan, depended consistently on the Marwaris whenever they were in distress. The Marwaris were the main target of the Maratha marauders who raided Bengal several times during Alivardi's regime and it is estimated that from them the Marathas squeezed above three crores of rupees. Nawab mir qasim sought Marwari help in implementing his plan for rebuilding his army. Unable to get the expected help from the Jagat Sheths, Mir Qasim captured two chiefs of the House and killed them, declaring them responsible for the miseries of Bengal.

There was a massive migration of Marwaris in the 19th century and within four to five decades they gained control over the whole economy of the region. The Marwaris had set up commercial firms in the towns of East Bengal - Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, Naogaon, Mymensingh. They had established a near complete domination over indigenous finance and trade. The advancing Marwaris pushed the economic frontier of the hundi to areas where it had never operated-to Assam and to Arakan. In Akyab they dominated indigenous finance and trade, overshadowing the Nattukottai Chettiars, a monopoly made possible by the large Arakan trade with East Bengal. For instance, the large Marwari firm of Lakshminarayan Rambilash, with headquarters in Akyab, had branches in Calcutta, Rangoon, Khulna, Chittagong and Sandaway where they dealt in hundis and gave loans to traders and private persons. Six great Marwari bankers and merchants at Barabazar, Calcutta, namely Tarachand Ghanshyamdas, Bansilal Abirchand, Sadasuk Gambhirchand, Harsukhdas Balkissendas, Kothiwal Daga and Ramkissen Bagri, dominated the indigenous money market. From Barabazar these great Kothiwals financed the centres of Marwari banking and trade in East Bengal in Naogaon, Dhaka, Chittagong, Mymensingh etc.

Most of the shopkeepers of Calcutta and other Bengal towns in the 19th century belonged to the Shekhavati Agarwal group of Marwaris, who came from Jaipur. The opium and indigo trade in Bengal was a British monopoly, but its main financiers were the Marwaris. dwarkanath tagore had opened several indigo concerns with financial support from the Marwari houses of Sevaram Ramrikh Das and Tarachand Ghansyam Das.

European and Marwari firms dominated the East Bengal jute trade with Calcutta as headquarters. Dealers, peddlers and cultivators were the subordinate instruments of big Marwari firms that financed them and collected their produce. For example, Nathuram Ramkishan established Messrs. Ramkishandas Sivadajal in Calcutta in 1847. This firm dealt in jute, commission agency and rice and opened agencies in other parts of Bengal during the jute season. By 1900, more than one half of the jute balers of Calcutta were Marwaris; of the 74 balers on the rolls of the Jute Balers Association in Calcutta 49 were Marwaris. Gulabchandji established another firm in Calcutta in the 1930s where a flourishing business in banking, jute bailing and shipping was carried on. Several branches were opened in Rangpur and Dinajpur. There were also independent jute traders, such as the Lohia, Nag, Shethia, Tularam and Dugar families.

The exact number of Marwaris in Bengal districts and Calcutta is not known. It has been estimated that their number never reached above 200 thousand at any stage of their presence in Bengal. Though they belonged to the Hindu and Jain religions and though they had many castes among themselves, socially they lived together as a community. Almost all the Jains who settled in Bengal were xvetambar. Chief deities of the Hindu Marwaris are Ganesha and Laksmi. The social structure of the Marwaris was quite simple and had grown along the concept of the extended family. At the centre of the family was the father; he was the head of the family and controlled the family business. The females of their society had very little freedom. Compared to other Hindu societies the females were confined to their homes and lagged behind in all aspects of education. The Marwaris maintained the traditional panchayat (council of elders) system that they brought with them from their native land. The panchayat used to settle social and religious disputes and its decrees were binding on the part of the members. Influence of the local culture on the Marwaris is also evident. Amongst their religious ceremonies the most attractive and most wonderful ones are Holi, Diwali, Rakshi and Karbachut. The Marwaris of Bengal were bi-lingual; amongst themselves they used the Marwari dialect, while with people outside their community they used Bangla. All Marwaris loved a rich diet. Both the Hindus and Jains were vegetarians.

In the early 20th century the Calcutta-based Marwari community was divided into two groups. One was highly orthodox in religion and largely pro-British and anti-nationalist, and controlled by the more traditional types of traders and agents (banians) engaged in the British firms. The other was reformist in religion and often nationalist. GD Birla, founder of the great House of Birla, led the nationalist group. This reformist group financially supported many Hindu reform movements. The Arya Samaj movement, for example, is said to have been entirely supported by the Marwari House of Ghanshyam Das.

The support of the Marwaris to the Congress is well known. MK Gandhi and the Nehrus, who received donations and hospitality from them, are said to have influenced them to undertake humanitarian and social welfare activities. Consequently, a series of Marwari-backed schools and colleges were established in Calcutta and other towns in the 1920s and 1930s. The Marwari Relief Society played a significant role in relief operations during the Great Famine of 1943. In the 1940s the Marwaris of Calcutta set up a number of hospitals, vagrant homes and charity houses. Numerically the conservative Marwaris were in the majority and they controlled the Marwari Association and Marwari Chamber of Commerce, the two major institutions of the Marwari community in Bengal. Even GD Birla, backed by the Congress and Hindu elite, was unable to get elected as chairman of the Marwari Association in 1923. The Marwari nominee for the Central Legislative Assembly from Calcutta was Keshoram Poddar, a British-backed conservative.

The dominance of the conservatives had one serious ill effect on the Hindu-Muslim relations. In the 1920s the conservative Marwari firms openly refused to maintain co-operative relations with the Muslims. The Marwari shopkeepers refused to sell goods to Muslim buyers. Marwari landlords refused to let their houses to Muslim tenants and Marwari traders replaced local Muslim dyers and tailors and weavers by Hindu upcountrymen. Muslim bandsmen, coachmen and shahises were also boycotted. In newspaper announcements it was urged that no good Marwari should keep Muslim employees in their establishments or have any business transactions with them, on religious grounds. Scholars believe that the Calcutta riot of 1926 was largely the outcome of such a communal outlook of the Marwaris.

The depression of 1929-30 and Partition of India in 1947 caused an exodus of Marwaris from East Bengal, but quite a substantial number of them stayed back and continued their business, mainly in the cloth and jute trade. The communal riot of 1964 and the wars of 1965 and 1971 caused the departure of the community from Bangladesh. At present there are only 700 Marwaris living in Bangladesh; the Tularams of Narayanganj and Dugars of Dhaka are the most known. [Prodip Chand Dugar]