Kashi, through the centuries: city of traders, thugs, banias, bankers and brahmins

A treasure trove of literature provides glimpses into the ancient city of Kashi, where Brahmins were liberal, Gundas were folk heroes and thugs were spared the death penalty

Photo Courtesy: Social Media
Photo Courtesy: Social Media

Mrinal Pande

“Fulfiller of the ultimate dreams of traders”, was how Patanjali (in his commentary on the grammarian Panini) described Kashi during the Shunga period.

Early in the first century, this ancient and prosperous city on the banks of the mighty Ganges was already trading extensively through its waterways with not just the rest of India but also with the West. According to Kautilya, the city of learned men and temples produced some of the finest silk, flax and cotton weaves. Known as Kashik Vastra or Kashikanshu, fabric from Kashi despite their high price, were treated as the gold standard for all fabric. The finest Mulmul fabric imported from India was referred by Romans as Gangetic. Kashi possibly imported it from Bengal and branded it as its own.

The earliest fabric were sent by river to the Gujarat port of Bhrigukachha or Bhadauch, from where they were exported down the Malabar coast and also to Europe. Kashi had its own municipality which stamped its produce with its own seal. This is proven by the square clay seals excavated from Rajghat. According to Buddhist texts Kashi by the first century had at least 18 prosperous guilds including one that traded exclusively in cattle (Gavyak Seniye) and another that traded in bullion. There was also a regulatory clerk (Koshthagari), appointed by the Court.

By the 6th century there were three other kinds of seals in circulation, used for authorising trade, for granting valid entry permits to outsiders and for money sent into or taken out of temple coffers.

The rich money lenders cum bankers were called Sangrahikas. Their head was known as Nagar Sreshthi (the Seth of the City) who headed the traders’ Panchayats, laid down rules and settled trade disputes.

With influx of money came taxation. By the 11th century the kings of Kashi exacted some dozen taxes from the rich, including a rare Turushk Dand, a tax on Muslim citizens. This was in retaliation to the Jaziya that some Islamic rulers in western India were exacting from the non-Islamic population.

By now Varanasi was a flourishing trading centre for fabric, gold, studded jewellery and perfume.

If prosperity comes can Thugs be far behind? Hemchandra Suri, a 12th century Jain grammarian emphatically said Varanasi was the home of Thugs. One reason for their proliferation, claimed Al Beruni, was that the Thugs were exempted from death penalty. Ukti Vyakti Prakaran, an interesting compilation of folk sayings and beliefs in Apbhramsa, also spoke of Thugs, thieves and Gundas, who were Robin Hood like figures, that wandered around the city and lived off the fat of the land.

By now the thrifty Baniyas of Varanasi were well known for their wealth, trading in money and the high rates of interest they charged. Their treasurers or Bhandaris were teased for keeping their money chests (Peti) perennially locked. Prosperous Kashi traders hired watchmen to ward off predators. But this did not prevent occasional cases of broken locks and looted chests.

It was a period of political turmoil when might was right and in rural Kashi, armed men could grab properties and cattle after bribing and silencing the royal constables. The Gundas of Kashi who were also popular figures among the impoverished artisans, beggars and exploited weavers were folk heroes for robbing the rich and feeding the poor.

With money flowing into the city, courtesans were in great demand among the rich. Girvan Padmanjari, a 12th century text provides a detailed list of debaucheries (Durachar) prevalent among the rich, some relating to extra marital relationships with courtesans, maids and others’ wives, besides the age-old vices of short charging customers and evading taxes.

The 17th century Girvan Vangmanjari provides insights into Brahmins of Kashi that demolish many stereotypes. In this period, we learn, city Brahmins competed in grabbing pilgrims with alacrity and beating back their equally learned counterparts from Maharashtra who had settled in Kashi. But they would come together to make fun of what they felt were inordinately long names of the Bengali Brahmins in the city.

The same work records two Gandharvas condemn Brahmins in Kaliyug. They apparently carried arms, talked freely and happily mingled with Muslim citizens and wandered around the city merrily breaking many of the restrictions and taboos for eating.

By the 18th century, Mughals built a whole network of roads to facilitate trade and travel. Most of them in the north passed through Kashi. This and a steady stream of pilgrims helped the city flourish and grow even as political systems began collapsing all around. By now the East India Company’s lengthening shadows were also beginning to cause some alarm among the merchant classes.

A new tax was imposed by the Company representatives on carts carrying goods in and out of Varanasi. Earlier the tax rates rarely varied but now they did. The higher and variable tax rates for goods entering and leaving Varanasi for Bengal and the southern regions proved to be a serious setback to traditional Gusain traders of Kashi and nearby city of Mirzapur. But when many of them began bypassing Varanasi and started trading through Nepal and northern Bihar, taxes on silk were eventually reduced and later taxes on finished garments of silk were also lowered.

By now money lenders of Kashi were lending money to the Company in the form of bullion for their mint in Calcutta. This gave them considerable clout. But Thugs joined hands with corrupt and greedy Company officials. By the mid-18th century many of the old houses of traders went bankrupt.

Some like Sahu Gopaldas, bankers to the Nawabs of Awadh, managed to keep his head above water by lending to the British and getting their businesses auctioned to recover unpaid loans. It is recorded that one Seth Kashmirimal arrived in the city and in a short time became the new star banker. Tales abound about the rivalry between Gopaldas and Kashmirilal. Eventually the latter lost all his fortunes in a long court battle, but his rival’s family fortunes kept growing. One of them spent ₹20,000, an astronomical amount then, to repair a water tank, which is still known as Manohardas tank.

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Published: 20 Jan 2019, 4:14 PM