Indian Shikarpuri Trader Communities in Central Asia

Shikarpur is a town in Sindh in modern-day Pakistan sitting at the mouth of the Bolan Pass, which was once a vibrant trading town. From Shikarpur travelers could approach the Central Asian khanates through various routes. One could either go to Multan, Peshawar, Kabul and then on to Bukhara, or through Quetta, Kandahar, Mazar-I Sharif. Travel accounts record the presence of Shikarpuris merchants in Bukhara from the 16th century.

I first encountered these Shikarpuri traders in accounts of 20th century Bukhara written either by western travelers or their Indian/Persian speaking munshis, or secretaries. Most of these accounts, like those of Mir Izzatullah (1813); Alexander Burns (1831-32); Mohan Lal; or Arminius Vambery (1864); record the presence of Indian traders and moneylenders in the bazaars of Bukhara. This was not surprising, since trade connections between the two regions along what is romantically known as the Silk Road is well recorded. What was surprising was their absence in ethnographic records of the time and the fact that even very detailed studies of Bukhara did not mention the presence of an Indian settlement. It was this absence that aroused my curiosity and I began a search for Indian diaspora community in the region in the course of which I discovered the presence of a rather different kind of diaspora.

Traditionally, the study of diasporas revolves around the dilemma of groups, who, though settled in a host state, maintain memories of and connections to their homelands, living a dual existence between two cultures. Nostalgia, then, was the central focus of diaspora studies.

The introduction of traders and merchant communities to the field extended the lines of inquiry to the examination of the impact that transnational linkages play in group formation. The study of what was identified as the “trade diaspora” emerged in the 1970s when a distinction was made between merchants who moved and settled and traders who continued to move back and forth. In most cases, the diaspora trader communities lived in compact groups within the host-state and rigidly maintained their way of life. In fact, with the recognition of their role in the host-state, concessions were often made for their way of life, thus inviting a reevaluation of the diaspora-host state interaction.

One such example of the trader diaspora is the Indian Shikarpuri trade and money lending communities in Central Asia. Until the end of the nineteenth century, this community of Indian trader-moneylenders utilized their position as agents of Indian family firms to finance trans-regional trade and complex systems of rural credit. This exemplified the tie-up that existed between local capital markets in India and markets for financial services and goods situated outside the subcontinent.

The study of the Indian diaspora in Central Asia is also interesting since they cannot be defined in terms of the characteristics that are generally attributed to a diaspora group. In fact, if one keeps to the classic definition of the diaspora, in a number of ways it is difficult to define the Indian Shikarpuri traders as a typical example. The Shikarpuris were not permanent settlers and in most cases returned to India after having lived in Bukhara for a maximum of ten to twelve years. In fact, there was a steady stream of traders who went and then returned – some as early as a year. The Indian traders who resided there rarely came with their families or for any length of time. In one of the first descriptions of the Shikarpur traders, Mir Izzat Ullah, who visited Bukhara in 1813 wrote, “Hindoos of Shikarpoore are to be found in considerable numbers in Bukhara. They go there for trade, live for a year or two, and return, never settling permanently in that country.” Similarly, British census reports of the 19th century identified that many Hindus were employed as agents in Bukharan trade, however, their families always remained in Shikarpur.

The temporary nature of their residence is also evident from the fact that ethnographic writings that trace the demography of Bukhara from the end of the 19th up to the early 20th centuries do not record the presence of Indian households in any of the numerous quarters into which the city was divided. Neither, for that matter, does the Materialy po Raionirovanniyu Uzbekistana (Materials about District Division of Uzbekistan), published after the 1926 census. However, this later omission may be explained by the fact that by this time a large number of Indians had already left the region. Another explanation could be that the successors of some of the Indians who settled permanently often lost contact with their own language and generally recorded Russian as their mother tongue. In a census recognizing dialect as the defining characteristic of a community, these merchants were often classified with the Russian population.

The absence of any recorded households in the 19th century presents a more complex problem. Sukhareva notes that in Bukhara, Indian traders resided principally in two caravanserais, Sarai Karshi and Sarai Hindi. She points out that while in Sarai Karshi there were about sixty rooms each inhabited by one or two people at a time, at Serai Hindi there were about ten. Given the volume of trade between the two regions, indicated by Claude Markovits and which peaked during the 1870s, this absence of significant settlements of Indian traders from ethnographic records presents a dilemma.

The absence of a large settlement of Indians in the region, given the volume of recorded trade, remains unexplained. One explanation could be that this absence was because Central Asia  was not a part of the British empire during this time and most of the settled Indian colonies of the period are found in the places where the British had colonies. In fact, at the time in which the Shikarpuris were extending their trade practices, the region was being taken over by the Russians. Another explanation could lie in the fact that Shikarpuri women never traveled beyond the Amu Darya, so that the Indian community consisted only of men. As to why these women never traveled, there is no recorded explanation though it may lie in the hazardous nature of the journey or the taboo on travel for women. On the other hand, the opportunity for marriage for these Hindu men in the region was severely limited. What is generally recorded as “Indian settlements” in the region were groups of men who lived together in caravanserais, except for very few exceptions.

Today, there is much talk of uniting Central and South Asia via energy and transport corridors. What the Shikarpuri traders reveal is that such corridors have long existed in the region since the time of the ancient Silk Roads and beyond. In fact, the single largest group of people who traveled between the two regions were traders. Their stories are a reminder that these trade networks continued long after the advancement of maritime trade, linking Indian capital markets with the Eurasian world.

Anita Sengupta is Director of Asia in Global Affairs, Kolkata and Senior Fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research in New Delhi.