Maritime Histories, Merchant Networks and the Production of Locality in Western India

Abstract: Based on fieldwork in old port towns in Kachchh and some research at the Maharashtra state archives, this paper proposes to think about the idea of the ‘cosmopolitan’ as we know it today, and to think through late modernity’s idioms of rootless-ness, movement, and flexible citizenship from the point of what we know about similar sorts of movement in the past, to locate the ‘global citizen’ across space and time.  Second, the paper asks whether the fact of mobility or travel always implies an inclusive consciousness; whether in fact mobility does not sometimes more effectively and decisively seal the boundaries between us and them, self and other?

Bio: Farhana Ibrahim has a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from Cornell University. Her dissertation research, conducted in Gujarat state’s Kachchh district, examines the production of national political cultures through the conceptual prisms of religion, state-formation and settlement along the borders of modern nation-states. In future, she hopes to study madrassas (Islamic schools) located along the India-Pakistan border to explore the implications of Islamic education for the construction of transnational Islamic subjectivities within the context of the liberalization and privatization of education more broadly. She is currently Assistant Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Bombay.

Email: ibrahim.farhana @


I have recently completed a PhD in Socio-cultural Anthropology from Cornell University. My dissertation, titled “Mobility, Territory and Memory in Kachchh: The Making of a Region in Western India”, examines the production of national political cultures through the conceptual prism of state formation and settlement along the borders of modern nation-states. I argue that the production of national borders is an enactment that is a political, but also a social and cultural process. I conducted ethnographic research in Kachchh district, Gujarat, along the border with Pakistan and critically interrogated Gujarat’s contemporary nationalist identity, formulated in a Hindu nationalist idiom. In this discourse, Pakistan is a Muslim state, and a cultural and political ‘other’ for the region’s self image. My ethnography among the Jatts, who are Muslim pastoralists on both sides of the border, as well as other political migrants (post Partition “refugees”) across this border, allowed me to complicate nationalist histories of place and identity by foregrounding alternative projections of history, memory and territory.
While an independent research Fellow at Sarai, I plan to continue with my research on mobility in Kachchh. This time my focus will be on exploring the nature of maritime migration between Kachchh and Mumbai. My research project, “Maritime Histories, Merchant Networks and the Production of Locality in Western India” will involve exploring the relationship between two old port towns in Kachchh – Jakhau and Mandvi – which have for different reasons, been progressively declining in prosperity since 1947 and Mumbai, which has been steadily populated with Kachchhi merchant immigrants. The Kachchhi merchants of Mumbai have in many instances moved in circles variously removed from the actual point of origin. Movement between Zanzibar, Muscat, Karachi, Kachchh and Mumbai was not uncommon and often took place across generations from the mid-19th century onwards. I will conduct ethnographic as well as archival research in Kachchh and Mumbai, and contribute a research paper as well as a collection of photographs that can be read as archival evidence both of urban development and decline.

I am back in Kachchh, after a year and a half, a long time to be away in the present context, when “post earthquake reconstruction” means that nothing of the built landscape remains the same for long. This time, my research takes me to the far western edge of Kachchh – to the old port town of Jakhau. Today, Kachchh is known for Kandla port, developed after Partition as a replacement for Karachi. More recently, the privatization of another port – Mundra – is also changing the southern coastline of Kachchh. But there are many other ports in Kachchh, that were once gateways to this region, ferrying people and goods back and forth across the Arabian sea. Jakhau is one such port, that speaks of a former grandeur, as seen in elaborate old houses, with richly sculpted and decorated facades. These houses are still owned by wealthy merchants – primarily from the Bhatia and Vania (Jain) communities who now live overseas or further down the coast in Mumbai. Today old rusty padlocks sit on the front doors and weeds grow indiscriminately around. These houses stand apart from the other genre of elaborate house architecture – newer, showy structures in other parts of Kachchh that are commissioned by foreign exchange remittances from the Persian Gulf or Europe or North America. These old abandoned houses were left at the height of their prosperity and in the absence of local interest in them, are slowly rotting away.

With the integration of the princely state of Kachchh into the Indian Union in 1948, its ports were overshadowed by newer larger and more mechanized ports with better harbors. Perhaps more significantly though, following the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, Kachchh became a border territory subject to intense surveillance and control. Many of its ports were now too close to a tense international boundary. Partition put an end to any through traffic in this region. As their activities are significantly reduced today, some of these old ports retain an aura of a bygone prosperity but little else as their population and commercial activity has dwindled over time.

Jakhau is one such port, whose decline began at the time of Partition. Situated on the extreme western edge of the Kachchhi coastline, it is 35 nautical miles from Karachi. Bombay and Karachi were the maritime hubs of Western India. Kachchhi traders owned spice plantations in Africa, and carried on a major trade in spices (especially cloves) and cotton. Prior to 1948, Kachchh was a princely state, and its ports were tax free. Today, apart from the old crumbling mansions, Jakhau is a small village. 2300 people were counted it its last census. All that remains of the once thriving port is a stretch of coastline where fishing and salt making are the only occupations left. I met Hirachand Shah, who recalls as a child, the bustling market place and bullock carts laden with dry fruit and cloth, as they were loaded from the port and went out into Kachchh. I would like to meet some of the former residents of these splendid houses, but they are all away. They live in Bombay or the United States and Canada now, I am told. My next stop will have to be Bombay, as I try to recover the stories behind these houses, and the people who lived in them.


Apologies for this delay – I hope to become more regular at these postings once I stop traveling around in Kachchh and return to some archival research in Delhi and Mumbai.
I still am on my search for some clues about the lives of the Kachchhi merchants who were once based in Kachchh and have now moved out in all kinds of directions. After Jakhau (I discussed it in my last posting), I moved to Bhadresar, another old port of Kachchh, close to the contemporary port of Mundra. Mundra is becoming highly mechanized – it has been taken over by the Adanis – and is increasingly the new face of industrialized Gujarat. On the other hand, Bhadresar is now little more than an old fishing village. Once a shallow-water port known as Bhadravati Nagari and then Bhadresar, it was home to large shipping magnates of the region. In the old part of town, and old temple and dargah sit side by side, frequented by the fishermen and what is left of the once-thriving port town. It is almost as though the post-earthquake reconstruction drive in Kachchh has passed by this area. Old houses stand disheveled and dilapidated, but not as a result of the 2001 earthquake. These structures fell apart over time and have not been rescued from decay by the state government. Recently a Japanese heritage conservation project has identified a cluster of old buildings to restore and maintain. There has been much controversy among local level leaders over the proposed plan to restore an old Ismaili Muslim Jama’at Khana. The Jain temple should be restored first said the panchayat, then the Jama’at khana. These divisions are relatively recent in Kachchh. As far as the villagers are concerned, they seem to be relatively unconcerned about these fractious debates. As I walked into the village with my research assistant, the call to prayer was sounding from a nearby mosque. He went in to pray, while I sat outside for him, admiring the frescoes and sculptures on the imposing house just across the mosque on the narrow street. Soon I was engaged in conversation with an elderly man smoking a bidi next to me. The Khimji family house that we were admiring so ardently was once a towering structure of three storeys. The family lived here while they traded in Muscat and Zanzibar, dealing in spices and silks. As they prospered, they decided to add storeys onto their single floor. Painters were invited from all over Kachchh to decorate the facades and sculptors who were employed by the royal families of the area were secretly spirited away to embellish the house. They were warned not to go higher than the dome of the mosque, and once they did, they began to lose their business. Then the old man fell and broke his leg. The upper storeys have never been inhabited again, I was told. All the villagers know this tale, and believe it carries a powerful portent for the future; they bow their heads in respect as they pass the mosque, regardless of their religious or sectarian allegiances.