Origin of Oshwal Community

(note: this is part 2/2 of a series by Rati Dodhia.  See here for Part 1 “I am Proud to be Oshwal”

Birth of Oshwal Sect

City of Osiya is closely related to the origin of Oshwal community. Its original name was Upkeshpattan or Upkeshpur, located in state of Rajasthan 32 miles north of city of Jodhpur. It is an ancient city built during Lord Mahavira’s time more than 2600 years ago. It was ruled by King Upaldev. He appointed his childhood friend Uhad as his chief minister.

Lord Mahavira attained nirvana about 2607 years ago. 70 years after that, Shri Ratnaprabh Suri the sixth head of Lord Parshvanath’s monastic order with his disciples went to Upkeshpur to spend the rainy season (chaturmas). While he was there a tragic event took place. King’s son was bitten by a poisonous snake. No one was able to help. One of the disciples of Suriji suggested the king to go to his guru. The king with body of the prince went to the place where the acharya was staying and begged him to revive the prince. Acharya agreed with condition that in return he will have to accept Jaina religion.

The acharya with the help of supernatural powers was able to revive the prince by sucking out the poison from the prince’s body. As promised king with is subjects embraced Jaina religion. He called them Mahajans and founded the Upkesh Gacch (division of monastic orders with its followers). The community came in time to be known as Oshwals.

Before conversion people use to worship goddess name Mahishasurmardini also known as Chamudadevi. They had built a temple for her and used to sacrifice goats and buffalos and offer to please the goddess. But after the conversion the animal sacrifices stopped and replaced by the offerings of sweets and savory dishes and she was adopted as the communal deity of the Oshwal sect and called her Sachiya Mata. Even now she is continued to regard as the communal deity.

In conclusion from the historical documents, manuscripts and poems of the bards and legends, it seems most logical that:

  1. King Upaldev is the ancestral father of Oshwal sect.
  2. Acharya Ratnaprabh Suri, the sixth head of monastic order of Lord Parshvanath, is the founder of Upkeshvansh, which evolved into Oshwalvansh probably around twelfth century V.S.
  3. The conversion took place 70 years after the nirvana of Lord Mahavir, and
  4. The birth of Oshwal Sect took place in Upkeshpattan/ Upkeshpur now known as city of Osiya.

Exodus: Flight of the Oshwals

Around 154 B.C. a calamitous epidemic visited on the entire population of Upkeshpattan the prosperity of the city started deteriorating from that time. Entire Oshwal population left the city and settled down in other parts of India.

The history of Halari Oshwals is approximately 500 to 600 years old. The colorful and inspiring history of the migration of Halaris was not only due to adverse financial conditions but also social and religious reasons. Our ancestors, who came from Rajasthan, embraced the path of non-violence and renunciation. While following this path they had to face many obstacles. In the early and medieval age India was not one united country, but was divided into many small kingdoms. There were feuds between the kingdoms, invasions by foreign rulers and frequent drought. Because of political and economic insecurity, Oshwals began to look for new opportunities elsewhere and fled Punjab and Sindh around tenth and eleventh centuries A.D.

While Hindu kings ruled Sindh, life was peaceful. In the early part of the fifteenth century V.S. Sindh came under the power of Muslim rulers who either killed the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains or forced them to adopt Islam. So the people fled again, this time to Cutchh for safety.

In Cutchh they settled down and established 48 villages in Kanthi District and 24 in Kanthkot. Due to internal conflicts and feuds part of the royal family left Cutchh and went to Saurastra to establish a new kingdom accompanied by loyal subjects which included many Oshwal families.

The Oshwal families who came with Jam Rawal from Cutchh separated into two groups.  Most of the Oshwals who were farmers at first settled in and around Khambhalia, the original capital, later spreading eastwards towards Jamnagar.  The majority of them settled down in villages located between the two cities Khambhalia and Jamnagar. In the beginning they were in few villages but as time passed the number of villages increased to 52. Most of the people, who lived in villages, as they had done in Cutchh, were landowners who farmed their own family properties. Some worked as hired hands or laborers and continued speaking the Cutchhi language as their mother tongue. The farmers lived in villages. A few settled down in towns and cities and started businesses. They stopped speaking the Cutchhi language and instead adopted Gujarati as their mother tongue.

For 250 years in spite of battles and internal conflicts in royal families, the Halari Oshwals lived happily with what they had. But then natural disasters started occurring. The Kingdom of Halar is on the periphery of the monsoon belt and receives irregular rainfall, which often drops below normal. There will be a drought every two or three years. There will not be enough water to cultivate and grow crops and famine will set in. Because of that people and mostly domestic animals will perish due to lack of food.

The condition in Halar was becoming bad. The period between 1880 A.D. and 1940 A.D. was worst. A number of calamities fell on Halar. Some young man went to Bombay. Life in Mumbai was hard
some found jobs with a Cutchhi Oshwal owning a shop selling spices, grains and provisions. They worked twelve or more hours a day. They had to carry heavy bags of grain weighing 200 of more pounds on their backs. The pay was meager, about 1 to 2 Rupees a month. They were provided with meals but the food for the owner and for the servants used to be different. For people who worked in shops, owners were kind enough to let them sleep in the shops. The shops were dusty. There were rats and cockroaches all over and in summer it was very hot. So most of the time they preferred to sleep on the footpaths. Because of all these hardships after they had made enough money most of the people would return home.  Some people though small in numbers went, to Arbi, to Pandhurna in Madhya Pradesh, or to Sindh and Hyderabad and settled down there. Many of them became quite wealthy.

In spite of the opportunities, which were available in various places in India, the financial condition of most of the people did not improve much.  As the situation was getting desperate some people started thinking of migrating to foreign lands across the ocean.

The first Halari Oshwal who undertook the journey across the sea was an eighteen-year-old young man Jetha Anand from the village of Kharaberaja, in year 1896 A.D. He sailed on an Arab dhow from Jamnagar. After an arduous journey of two to three months he landed in Madagascar.

After hearing about the success of Jetha Anand more people thought of going abroad. Four courageous sons of the Halari Oshwal community, Hirji Kara from Moti Rafudal, Popat Vershi from Ambla, Devji Hirji and Nathoo Devji from Dhunia in 1899 A.D. left their homeland took the arduous journey by Arab dhow from Porbunder to East Africa to escape poverty. They landed in Mombasa after several weeks of sea voyage. As there were no hotels they probably either stayed in rest house or some kind person’s house.

Hirji Kara decided to stay in Mombasa.  In 1900 A.D. his wife Kankuben joined him in Mombasa. She was the first Halari Visa Oshwal woman to go to Kenya. After saving enough money he opened his own business firm of Hirji Kara & Co. in 1901 in Mombasa. Devji Hirji and Popat Vershi, the other two, decided to go to Nairobi. They decided to hitch hike to Nairobi. They would hitch a ride on a railroad trolley during daylight and at dusk spend the night in the tents or in the trolley in the company of railroad workers. In this way they reached Nairobi after about a month. Popatlal Vershi passed away six months latter of an unknown illness.

The news of the first four pioneers’ success spread fast all over Halar and more people decided to follow their path. In the beginning only a handful came. The numbers then went on increasing. The Oshwal flow increased during Second World War. Some who migrated were very young 12 or 13 years old. Thus the honor of opening the doors of East Africa to Halari Visa Oshwal community goes to these four pioneers.

(note: this is part 2/2 of a series by Rati Dodhia.  See here for Part 1 “I am Proud to be Oshwal”)