The information contained in this brief history was compiled by Rati Dodhia and Kanti Gosrani, and edited by Manu Shah.
Halari Visa Oshwal community is a very small community. At the beginning of this century, the population was between 10 to 12 thousands. By 1972, it had increased to 45 thousands and at present it is probably between 50 to 55 thousands, almost equally divided between India, Kenya, England with approximately 2,000 members in North America (USA and Canada). The latest migration has been to Australia. Most Oshwals are well informed and aware of their origin and are very proud of their heritage.
What follows is a historical resume of the Oshwal community. More detailed information on our heritage is available from our elders. The origin of the name “Oshwal” is probably tied to a small village in the Indian State of Rajesthan named Ossiya. At the site of Ossiya, once there was a large city there. The ancient names by which this city was known at various time were Uplesh Pattan, Urkesh, Melpur Pattan and Navmeri.
According to an Uplesh publication written in 14th Century, Shree Ratna Prabhu Shvarji, the 7th Acharya in the line of Shree Parshvanath’s sect, came here with his five hundred disciples in year 70 after Mahavira Nirvana. The city at that time was ruled by King Upaldev and his very able minister Uhad. After receiving proper guidance from Acharya, the King, his minister and more than thousand Rajput soldiers gave up alcohol and meat and adopted Jainism. The Acharya gave this group the name Oshwals. Thus, a new Jain sect of Oshwal Gaccha, the ancestors of the Oshwal community, came into existence.
However, according to another publication “Ossiya Vir Stavan” written in 1721 by Naya Pramod, a disciple of Hir Udya, the city of Ossiya was founded in 1011 and the conversion by Acharya took place in 1017. But in the historical documents published in the city of Bhinmal, it is mentioned that Minister Uhad left Bhinmal and founded the city in year 70 after Mahavira Nirvana. Also, in the documents available from city of Korta there is a mention of a conversion of a large group to Jainism by Acharya Shree Ratna Prabhu Suri Shvarji in Ossiya in the year 70 after Mahavira Nirvana.
Therefore, from the several historical accounts, it appears that the Oshwal Gaccha was established in the year 70 after Mahavira Nirvana by Acharya Shree Ratna Prabhu Suri Shvarji, a leader of lord Parshvanath’s sect.
Around 10th or 12th century AD, because of adverse natural conditions, a small number of these Oshwal Mahajans left the village of Ossiya in search of better life and migrated to Sindh – what now is called West Pakistan. The conditions in Sindh were not any better. So, they continued the migration southwards into Kutch, now a part of the State of Gujarat and settled in Vagad district. Later on, some moved to Kanthi district.
Around 1535, a small group of Oshwals of Vagad District suddenly left Kutch and moved to Saurashtra. As usual, there are two stories as to why this happened. One, a real story and the other a fictional one.
The legendary story is very interesting. It is said that Oshwals of Kankoth of Vagad District, after holding a feast in memory of a death, discarded the left over ghee. As it happened, one of the Prince’s horse slipped in this discarded ghee and injured itself. The Prince filed a complaint with his father, the King. Fearing a retaliation, some of the participants of this feast left the village in the dark of the night and moved to Saurashtra.
However, the historical fact is that in the 16th century AD, the Kutch was ruled by two brothers, Jam Hamirji and Jam Rawal of Jareja Rajput family. As a result of internal conflict, Jam Rawal assassinated Jam Hamirji and seized the properties. Hamirji’s heirs with the help of their friends defeated Jam Rawal, who than fled with his followers, some of whom were Oshwals of Vagad District, crossed the desert of Kutch and established a settlement around city of Khamhaliya of Halar district, naming it the capitol. Later on, the settlement spread eastwards and a new capitol was founded which was named after Jam Rawal as Jam Nagar. To this day, the Oshwal settlements still exists in the 52 villages between these two cities, though the number of villages with Oshwal settlements now may be as high as 80. That is why we are known as Halari Oshwals and our mother tongue still remains Kutchi. Those who stayed back are called Kutchi Oshwals. By profession, our ancestors were mostly farmers and traders, some were money lenders and a few were even hired hands.
Oshwals are divided into 25 to 30 groups by Atak (surnames) such as Bid, Chandaria, Dodhia, Gada, Galaiya, Gosrani, Sumaria, etc. Majority of the Oshwals are followers of Jain religion. Approximately 1% are follower of Swami Narayan religion, most of these come from same village of Dewalia and were probably converted in mid 19th century.
There is a strong bond among the community members as we come from a small geographical area. We have prospered wherever we have settled because of our entrepreneur spirit and the desire to improve the quality of our life. Regardless of where in the world Oshwals live, we have maintained a common cultural, social and economical background.
Migration of Halari Visa Oshwals
Migration within India
Between years 1880 and 1890, due to hardships, a small group left their homes and went to Bombay, Karachi, Ahmedabad and Hydrabad where they mostly worked in the shops of Kutchi Oshwals. When the financial situation improved, they opened their own small businesses and even ventured into small industries.
Migration to Africa
Around year 1896, a few young men crossed the Indian Ocean in dhows (small sailing ships) and settled down in Island of Madagascar and in Kenya around 1899. Some of these Oshwals were only 12 to 13 years old and the voyage took several months, often up to six months.
Migration to the West
The Oshwals’ recent migration to England began in the 1960’s and to North America in the middle 1960s. The first group of Oshwals came to North America to further their education and professional careers. After their education, many Oshwals entered the job market and found new opportunities attractive enough to settle in America. This first group was made up mostly of student bachelors who returned to their home land (India and East Africa) to find suitable mates to start families and establish roots in America. A small number married Americans. Oshwals in America have preserved their culture, tradition, and religion and have organized several social and religious functions.
In the mid 1970s, a second group of Oshwal immigrants came here due to the unsettled political situation in East Africa. The majority of these Oshwals settled in Canada. This second group was primarily composed of families who were resettling in America.
During the 1980s, most Oshwal immigrants have been relatives of the first and second group. These immigrants received support from the early immigrants which made their transition a little easier. Due to uncoordinated arrivals, there is no clear accounting or census of the total number of Oshwals in America.
As the time passed, Oshwals have recognized the need for a united body and improved communications among all Oshwals in America as well as the world. The first Oshwals of America gathering was organized in 1986 in New Jersey by the residents of both New Jersey and New York states. A second annual “get together” was held in Connecticut in 1987. The success of these two gatherings led to a third annual get together in Massachusetts in 1988. The significance of this third annual event was the formation of the “HALARI VISA OSHWALS of AMERICA”. The fourth annual get together was held in New York state in 1989. Since than, an annual gathering is held on Thanksgiving weekend. These annual events display our unity and determination to continue Oshwal traditions, culture, and religion. We hope to add additional services to bring American Oshwals together and also serve as a community resource for the recent Oshwal immigrants and visitors. Some of the activities undertaken were collection of funds for the drought relief in Halar in 1988 and scholarships for deserving Oshwal students in India.
Additional information on Oshwals is available in the following publications:
“Oshwal History” by Somchand Premchand Shah
“Indian Businessman in Kenya During the 20th Century, Case Study” by Zarwan John Irving.
“Through Open Doors, A View of Asian Cultures in Kenya” by Cynthia Salvadori
The first two publications are available from Anila or Gulab Shah of South Hadley, MA, Tel:413-536-6017. The third publication is available at a cost of $100 from Paperchase Kenya Ltd, P.O. Box 18800, Nairobi, Kenya.