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In the historic district called Al Shindagha, at the mouth of Dubai Creek, there is a museum by the same name. For over a century, between the 1830s and the 1940s, the Creek used to be the heart of maritime trade in this village-that-became-a-city.
Dhows from Karachi, Khambhat, and Bombay, with their fluttering masts and narrow hulls, would dock here after arduous crossings across the Indian Ocean. It was a point of loading and departure, where the treasures of the Gulf—like pearls—began their outward journey to faraway coasts. Among the many theories about the origin of Dubai’s name, one suggests that it was derived from the Arabic word “yadub” which means “to creep,” referring to the way the creek creeps into the land.
Pearls are a preoccupation of the Al Shindagha Museum, too. One of its online displays narrates the history of pearling in Dubai through a merchant’s chest.  The chest contains a pair of weighing scales, a set of sieves through which gemstones were passed for quality grading, and a diary.
In one of the diary’s pages, on top of a table containing entries in Arabic, are certain words in Gujarati: dokda, meaning rupees; chav, for miscellaneous comments; and daana, literally seed, and in this instance, pearls.
But the museum makes no mention of the fact that many of the pearl merchants in Dubai were Indian, often Gujarati and Sindhi-speakers. It’s an omission that skips over a long moment in time when the Indian merchant community in the Gulf, colloquially referred to as ‘Bania’ after the trader caste, was essential to Dubai’s economic and social life before the discovery of oil transformed its character.
The Bania presence in Gulf ports such as Doha, Muscat, Matrah and Bandar Abbas may date back to at least the fifteenth century. At this time, and for hundreds of years following, trade in the Gulf was controlled by the various maritime powers ringed around it: the Qawasim at Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah; the Persians; the rulers of Bahrain and Oman; and the Ottomans. But starting in the 1700s, Indian merchants were bolstered by the arrival of a new power in the Gulf: the British.
Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, among others, came to be called the Trucial States after they signed a peace agreement with the British Crown in 1853. By the terms of the treaty, Dubai’s social composition remained unaltered. At the ports, it was to be business as usual. Persian, Yemeni and African traders continued to buy and sell from these coasts. Iron, timber, pepper, rice, wheat and sugar came in from the Indian subcontinent. Prize exports included horses, dates and pearls. The trade in this last item, particularly, was dominated by the Indian community.
Think of Indians in Dubai today, and you might think of industrious Malayalis in the service sector, Hindi movie crews shooting song sequences on the dunes and high-flying investors doing business in the lounges of the city’s splashy hotels. But long before any of these people, merchants from the subcontinent’s western coast made a place for themselves in this small emirate and its neighbours.
From the first traders, whose histories aren’t housed in any museum, to Dhamanmal Issardas, the founder of one of the largest Indian firms in the Middle East, Indian merchants once undertook risky and dangerous crossings to make new beginnings in an unlikely land. Even as their own country writhed under the heel of the British, as intrigues played out among the Gulf’s royal families, as two major wars changed the balance of power in the world, Bania firms ensured that Dubai’s denizens were fed, clothed, and making money.
The Al Fahidi Life
ania communities had established themselves in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, Dubai’s neighbouring emirates, as early as 1822. But the Bania community in Dubai was founded much later, by a set of Bhatia merchants who came from Thatta, a town in Sindh, in present-day Pakistan.
These men lived and worked around the Al Fahidi Fort, the focal point of the city-state in the late nineteenth century. It had a massive wooden door reinforced with barbed iron bands, and was mounted by ramparts above its high gate.
The Indian community, which also included a small number of Khoja Muslims, was confined to this quarter, where they lived and traded from what came to be called the Souq Baniyan. The souq had about 50 shops and 100 houses, which were typically made of mud and palm fronds. It was laid out for utility and safety, with shops below and the flats above.
By the early 1900s, we know, there were at least 67 Banias settled in Dubai. It’s likely that all of them were Sindhi Bhatias. Most of these traders had families back in Thatta. Wives and children were not brought to Dubai, since life could be gruelling in the desert. The water, brought in on donkeys, was brackish. Fresh water was expensive since it was hard to source: four cans for one rupee, the currency of trade. (It wasn’t uncommon for these merchants to develop gall-bladder issues.)
A day in the life of a Dubai Bania began when the heavy wooden doors of the souq opened. After a hurried breakfast of hot rotis and milk—most traders kept at least one cow in a shed nearby—he would open up his shop. All day, he sold wares that included cotton and silk piece goods, and essentials like rice, pulses, oil and wheat flour. At night the doors of the souq were closed for safety against raiders and thieves.
The water, brought in on donkeys, was brackish. Fresh water was expensive since it was hard to source: four cans for one rupee, the currency of trade.
Meals were humble and rustic. The markets were full of ingredients from back home: rice, wheat, sugar, spices. Fresh fruits and vegetables were scarce, though. Locally grown brinjals and gourds were available only in the cooler months from December until March. (The Bania diet, being vegetarian, precluded fish, an abundant and nutritious local staple.) There wasn’t much to do after dinner. Peering out the window, the Bania might either see the stars above, or the lone watchman wandering the souq with a lantern in one hand and a long stick in another.
These traders were devout, and longed for the darshan of their favoured deities from back home. In the early 1900s, community leaders Jethanand Lalchand Raiponcholia and Chandumal Whabi consecrated two figures of the deities known as Shrinathji and Lalan in a cowshed, turning it into a makeshift temple. On cool mornings, people walked through the palm-lined lanes to reach the temple and pay obeisance.
Pearls of Fortune
s early as 1865, an alliance of Banias had developed a system of financing pearling expeditions. The pearls were used as capital for transporting goods into Dubai from a boomtown at the far edge of the Arabian Sea: Bombay.
Bombay was, among other things, the pearl emporium of the Indian Ocean at the time. From there, the pearls went out to become treasured possessions of royal families and business magnates in India and around the world. The very smallest were used to embroider expensive, shimmering textiles. But the pearl had a long journey to make from the rocky seabed before it became the pride of a maharajah’s turban, or the heirloom of a businessman’s daughter.
The prime season for pearling, called the ghaws-al-kabir, was in the months of June to September. In these weeks, the waters of the Gulf were warm, the sun shone bright and hot, and the shamal, a strong north-westerly wind, had abated.
Pearling boats were stocked for the whole season. This is where the Bania would come in as the tawwash, the pearl merchant, and supply the boat with rice, dates, oil, and other essentials. The Bania would ply the nakhoda, the boat’s captain (typically a local Arab skilled in seafaring), with food, clothes and tobacco needed for the long trip. The divers were Africans of enslaved descent, or poor Arabs. These men would ask the Bania for advances to run their homes while they were away. As a result, the crew would be in debt to the Bania before the boat even went out to sea.
The Bania re-entered the scene once the pearling season was complete, and the boats were safely moored on land. The nakhoda sold the entire cache of pearls to the Bania at about 20 percent of their gross value. In order to avoid payment of cash for the remaining 80 percent, the Bania would deduct the amount of the advances given and pay the rest in kind: dry rations and supplies that would last until the next pearling season.
In the case of non-payment of the debt, the Bania was free to liquidate his relationship with the nakhoda. He could approach the salifeh-al-ghaus, a member of the maritime court, who would usually direct the nakhoda to repay the loan in yearly instalments. In this way, the Bania reaped a handsome profit from the transaction without shouldering too much of the liability. He was likely to find comrades in this endeavour at several points in the transaction. Often, the tujar, the wholesale merchant who purchased pearls from the tawwash, was also a Bania. So was the exporter of the pearls.
To Their Credit
redit was one of the reasons that made Banias central to the economy of the Gulf.
Banias provided big loans, sometimes going up to ₹20,000, to influential locals, including sheikhs and their relatives. When the loans remained unpaid, which was often, Indian merchants took recourse to writing to various authorities, including the Political Resident, the senior-most British official in the region, who worked at Bushire, a port city in southern Iran. Indians were British subjects, and so it was considered the duty of British administrative officials to protect the life and property of Indian traders.
But the authority directly responsible for protecting the interests of Indian traders in the region was the Residency Agent in Sharjah, Dubai’s neighbouring emirate. The Residency Agent was an Arab on British payroll. (Dubai did not get a British Political Officer until 1939.)
Animosity towards Bania moneylenders was common. In one instance, the Residency Agent himself had a strained relationship with Indian merchants. Khan Bahadur Isa bin Abdul Latif, who was the Residency Agent from 1919 to 1935, attempted to harass the merchants by petitioning Sheikh Sa’id of Dubai to stop Indians from rowing out to supply warships stationed some distance from shore.
Isa, who was involved in intrigues of varied kinds, did not take kindly to the British obligation to discharge his duties to protect Indian merchants and saw it as an intrusion on his power. So he doled out favours to locals, gaining support to further his political and economic ambitions. (Unsurprisingly, after Isa’s death, a Bania called Virumal Valabdas claimed that Isa himself had owed him ₹3454.) 
Such was the value of Bania credit on the Trucial coast that, in 1921, the British settled an imminent conflict between two local tribal chieftains because one side had recruited all the able-bodied pearl divers into its army. The lack of divers meant that the annual pearling expedition would go to waste, and Indian merchants would be unable to recover investments.
Local sheikhs walked a political tightrope when it came to indebtedness to banias. In 1929, Sheikh Sa’id found that his majlis members were disinterested in putting down a power grab by his armed political rivals. In a year that had seen a lean pearling season, Sa’id had insisted they honour their debts to the city’s Indian merchants, and the majlis was making its displeasure known.
In Times of War
hen the British entered this game, they honoured and protected Indian merchants primarily because Banias were extensions of their own power. Any threat to British supremacy in the Gulf was seen as a challenge to their position in India. In turn, maintaining outward allegiance to the Empire was a practical and worldly strategy for the Indian merchants.
For long years, traders in the Gulf had been required to secure themselves against hostile elements like raiders and pirates. To deepen a fragile peace, the merchants had to leverage their status as British subjects to protect themselves and their businesses.
This task of importing grains was fraught with risk at a time when Italian, German and Japanese submarines patrolled the shipping routes of the Indian Ocean.
It was a delicate balancing act. The merchants also had to ensure that they did not question the supremacy of the sheikhs. Invoking the displeasure of the ruling family could lead to dispossession of business assets, and Indian traders were expected to keep their nose out of local intrigues. In 1911, the Bin Lotahs, a Khojah trading family, found this out the hard way when they were made to pay a fine of ₹5,000, for acting as a go-between in disputes between the rulers of Ajman and Al Quwain. 
Then, when the Second World War broke out in Europe, the Banias became key players on the colonial chessboard. As food rationing squeezed British colonies in Asia and Africa, Indian mercantile houses and commission agents in the Gulf sheikhdoms, such as Dhamanmal Issardas, Ratanchand Tarachand and Jethanand Lalchand were critical to keeping whole cities and towns alive. To ensure the supply of essentials, these firms established branches in the Gulf port cities and connected them to production and distribution centres along the Indian subcontinent’s coastline and hinterland.
The British had introduced quotas that constrained the civilian consumption of grains, with regular import amounts being cut down by 20 percent. A Civil Requirements Programme was created for every port of the Gulf. This detailed the amount of ration required for the needs of the civilian population.
From his seat in the small sultanate of Bahrain, the British Political Agent would send out a list of trusted importers in the Gulf and exporting partner firms in India to officials in the British Indian government. At the other end of this channel in India, the exporting firm sought a permit from the Director of the Food Purchases Department in New Delhi.
This task of importing grains was fraught with risk at a time when Italian, German and Japanese submarines patrolled the shipping routes of the Indian Ocean. Documents in the British Library reveal sightings of German U-boats off the coasts of Ormara, Porbandar and Jask.  Some of these U-boats were reported to have stopped and questioned dhows travelling to and from the ports of the Trucial States, to glean the routes of merchant ships from Allied nations and their colonies.  Grain-laden ships heading for Dubai were by no means exempt from this threat.
A Fine Balance
or was the Gulf spared of war intrigue. In the Trucial States, there were rumours of treasonous acts by locals, and pro-Nazi statements being made in Sharjah. Graffiti proclaiming “Long live Hitler” and “Right is with Germany” were chalked on some walls in the town. Abdullah bin Faris, the secretary of Sharjah’s sheikh, was alleged to have spread pro-German propaganda amongst the common public. 
One victim of British wartime paranoia happened to be a Bania from a trading firm that played a critical role in keeping the Gulf supplied with essentials. On 14 August 1940, Tirathdas, an agent of the firm Dhamanmal Issardas, left Dubai for India on a steamer. He was being deported after being charged with making seditious remarks against His Majesty’s government.
In response to a question about the latest news, he had been heard to say that the Allied forces would be crushed by “mighty Germany.” Tirathdas conveyed his innocence and his unwavering loyalty to the British Empire in a letter. “I have never spoken anything against my benign Government,” he wrote, “and as local agent of a respectable firm I have always considered it my duty to render as much help as I can. I am a firm believer in the final victory of my king emperor.”
“Because of our lack of political ambition, our Arab business associates did not see us as rivals and the British viewed us as neutral players.”
Tirathdas, while declaring that he was “prepared to take oath” on his religion about his innocence, suggested that he had been framed “out of trade jealousy and business rivalry.”  Even his employer wrote to the Political Agent in Bahrain, asking him to reconsider the orders of deportation. But their combined efforts proved futile, and Tirathdas had to leave Dubai. 
It was an example of how shaky the loyalties and alliances that tied together different stakeholders in Dubai really were. Sometimes, protectors turned hostile and rendered life uncertain for merchants and traders. A telling comment comes from a descendent of the line of Dhamanmal Issardas.
“One of the reasons we were trusted,” Vallabh Dhamanmal Issardas wrote many years later, “is because of our lack of political ambitions. “Because of this, our Arab business associates did not see us as rivals and the British viewed us as neutral players. In any case, the British were quick to put down any interest we may have had in politics.” Tirathdas had learned so to his cost.
The Dhamanmal Empire
erhaps no single firm in Dubai embodied the indispensability or the vulnerability of the Bania position more than Dhamanmal Issardas, the firm where Tirathdas worked. It was first established in Bahrain in the early 1900s, by the eponymous merchant from Thatta. His two older sons Tikamdas and Lalchand ran the Bahrain business, while Ghanshyamdas, the youngest, was sent to Dubai.
In Dubai, the DI house was close to the Souq Baniyan,  not far from the temple, for which Dhammanmal Issardas and Sons had assumed responsibility in the 1940s, having become community leaders. The operations of the house of DI were diverse. A British report described them as “Shroffs, pearl and general merchants and commission agents.” 
Apart from importing foodstuff and cotton, the firm also financed pearl dives. In 1945, Ghanshyamdas Dhamanmal Issardas invested a handsome ₹12 lakh in the pearling season.  This investment was made at a time when Japanese cultured pearls were already beginning to eat away at the sales of natural pearls: it may indicate not only the continuing profitability of the enterprise, but also the risk-taking capacity of the firm.
DI was among the firms importing food grains from the subcontinent at great risk during the Second World War. We know that in August 1942, one of DI’s agencies applied for permission to import 800 tonnes of rice from the Poojara Trading Company in Calcutta.  Later, in 1945-46, Dhamanmal Issardas was the only importer approved by the British agent in Sharjah and was allotted 1 tonne of moth—a kind of lentil—and 2 tonnes of moong. Even as German military units all over Europe capitulated to Allied forces in the spring of 1945, DI was importing a batch of 16 tonnes of dals for the Trucial Coast from their consignor Lalji Lakmidas from Karachi’s Bombay Bazaar. 
The firm continued to import and export foodstuffs after Indian independence. By this time, the Japanese cultured pearl industry had helped shrink natural pearling considerably, yet DI continued to be influential in Dubai’s social life, with Sheikh Rashid making annual Diwali visits to the family home in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1963, Ghanshyamdas Dhamanmal was granted permission by Sheikh Rashid to build a structure to house the figure of Srinathji. The deity had been worshipped for half a century, but his ask was for a plot of land where a temple could be built. (The Krishna Temple—also called “haveli”—still stands today, between the Creek and Dubai’s Grand Mosque.)
Indian families, realising that dealing only in food supplies and pearling was no longer sustainable, expanded their offerings, setting up textile, electronics and home appliances enterprises.
But by the late 1960s, the firm had started winding down operations in Dubai and Bahrain. This coincided with a number of transformations taking place in Dubai, many of which were linked to the discovery of oil in 1966. The natural creek was silting, and Sheikh Rashid no longer wanted to remain dependent on it. He had started envisioning his city as a regional transhipment hub. The spanking new Port Rashid, which allowed for the entry of container ships, was inaugurated in 1972.
Indian families, realising that dealing only in food supplies and pearling was no longer sustainable, expanded their offerings, setting up textile, electronics and home appliances enterprises. Their customers were the new middle class, which had moved to the city to work in the booming oil and construction industries. This class had developed a taste for imported consumer goods.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Dubai-based Bania enterprises continued to widen their supply chains and distribution networks across the wider Middle East and North Africa region. Some like Uttamchand Bhatia, who had started off with foodstuffs and textiles, entered the construction materials and film distribution business. Others like Maghanmal Pancholia, who had his start as a pearl merchant, established the Arabian Trading Agency to distribute home appliances, watches and electronics.
The house of Dhamanmal Issardas perhaps failed to adapt to these fast-changing equations. Lalit Karani, a friend of the DI family and chairman of the Mercantile Hindu Community of Thatta,  suggested to me that a slowdown in the traditional businesses, coupled with a disinterest in the next generation to continue the business, ultimately meant curtains for DI in the Gulf. While most of the family now lives in Mumbai, some of the grandchildren work in the service sector in the Gulf.
he oil boom launched Dubai on a path of accelerated modernisation, making it a globalised metropolis. It is the Middle East’s richest city,  a holiday destination for tourists from around the world, and the subcontinent in particular, and a popular choice of base for expats in the shipping, oil and construction businesses.
Dubai’s own museums and exhibitions about its nineteenth- and early twentieth-century history tend to promote the impression of a harsh land, run by enterprising Bedouins, sustained by fishing, pearling and dates. However, scholars in the field of Gulf Studies have pushed back on this notion, pointing out that the “historic hybridity of its port cities has been obscured” in favour of building an image of an authentic Arab past. 
But this hybridity lives on in digital, open-source archives, both within and outside the region. Between the lines, they contain portraits of the industrious Indian community that was a bulwark of the economy for many decades.
Later, even as Dubai transformed, Indians were involved in some of the earliest endeavours to create the city’s civic infrastructure. In colonial times, as the British began modernising the city, they relied on Indians in the skilled workforce and on advisory bodies.
Indians continued to be at the heart of critical projects in Dubai long after 1947. The Indo-Arab Electric Supply Company, which supplied enough power to run fans and lights in the area from Customs House to Shindagha, was set up by Maghanmal Pancholia in 1957. Vasu Shroff, chairman of the fabric company called Regal Group, has recalled being part of the earliest census in Dubai in 1953. The Al Maktoum Hospital, the first of its kind in Dubai and established in 1951, was routinely staffed with Indian medical officers and nurses. 
Much of this was owed to the legacy of those early Indian traders in Dubai. Their willingness to extend loans, their support to the city’s economy and their amicable nature in interactions with locals and the British, had created the image of the peaceful and reliable Indian and amassed an historic amount of goodwill. Perhaps, in time, they will assume their place in Dubai’s official histories, too.
Revati Tiwari is a historian by profession and a writer by passion. Her life’s work is to uncover forgotten histories and present them in a lucid manner. She is currently researching Indian mercantile communities in Dubai, which is also the topic of her PhD thesis. When not worrying about her next piece of writing, she reads novels and watches reruns of Arrested Development.
Corrections & Clarifications: Lalit Karani's remarks about DI's later years featured a misattribution in an earlier version of the story. The author regrets the error.