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Trade Wizards Of The East – IV The Suvarnavaniks

Read the previous section of this series here

Poor recovery of bank loans in our times due to their injudicious sanctioning reminds me of a stalwart of mercantile community of yore in Bengal which refused to do so, to the king.

Raja Ballal Sen of the Sena dynasty was extravagant in his tastes and would borrow money indiscriminately from the lenders. ‘Suvarna Banik’ were a prosperous mercentile community of Bengal who dealt in the trade of precious metals and served as bankers to the region. One of the patriarchs of the community was Gauri Sen, who carried out a prolific trade in importing and exporting of goods. He was also a benevolent money-lender unlike the kind we have grown up reading about. So forthcoming was he with sums of money to help people tide over any financial constraints that the aphorism gained currency: lagley taka, debe Gauri Sen, roughly translated as, ‘if ever you need money, Gauri Sen will give’.

Despite such magnanimity to lend to the royal exchequer, the expenses of Raja Ballal Sen kept inflating and surpassed its limits, and when bankrupt and defaulting habitually, Gauri Sen refused to oblige further until the previous debts were cleared. Incensed at such an act of defiance the king ostracized the entire Suvarnavanik community declassing them into shudras and debarred them from receiving Vedic instruction from the Brahmins.

Such a grossly unjust act of spite was unacceptable to many Brahmins as well many among whom refused to accede to the royal decree, and were depreciated in the social hierarchy as well.

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Sri Nityananda Prabhu
(Source: ISKON)

Many centuries later, the Suvarnavaniks were restored to their rightful social standing by the endeavours of Uddharana Dutta Thakura of Saptagram through his reverence and devotion towards Srila Nityananada Prabhu. As a symbolic act of providing legitimacy, Nityananada Prabhu resided at the home of Udhharana Dutta and even today there stands the temple at Saptagram built in gratitude by Dutta, dedicated to Radha-Krishna, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Srila Nityananada Prabhu.

17th century Saptagram was drained by river Sarasvati and had a busy port at Trishabigha, which was frequented by Portuguese traders. Many among the Suvarnavaniks like Hirnaya and Govardhan Majumdar with annual incomes to the tune of a million Rupees reaped the advantages of the potential of this region of southern Bengal. Later under the British, Calcutta was built and developed by this very influential community who not only controlled trade but had their houses all over the city. More than half the city was owned by the Mullicks, Seals and De. The title Mullick was confered by Muslim rulers on those who had intimate business relations with them.

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‘Marble Palace’, Muktaram Babu Street, Jorasanko, Kolkata (Source: NoiseBreak.com)

The Mullicks of Chorbagan are of legendary affluence. Ramkrishna Mullick was the patriach of the family who is said to have amassed untold riches through his businesses. It was his successors like Nilmoni Mullick who built the Jagannath temple of Puri and his adopted son, Raja Rajendra Mullick, built the Marble Palace (so christened by Lord Minto) in Calcutta in 1835, in the Jorasanko area of Calcutta. Once a wooded area which was the haunt of thugs and robbers, came to be a settled habitation by the virtue of the illustrious family's residence at this place that people thronged to, and became subsequently the gateway of Bengal renaissance with the neighbourhood boasting of the Tagores, Seths, Bassaks and Seals. Even today the Jewellery business in Bengal is a monopoly of the Suvarnavaniks, i.e. PC Chandra and Senco.

trade 4-3Marble Palace, Jorasanko, Kolkata
(Source: India Today)

 King Adisura had in 11th century elevated the stature of this class by conferring on them the title of ‘Suvarnavanik’. Prior to this no mention of such a term is found in any written record. Those were the glorious days for the community. The Vaniks or Baniyas were mostly god-fearing, honest people and the society in general used to have faith in their transactions. The term that was used generally for gentile merchants developed contemptuous and evil connotations thanks to Raja Ballal Sen's royal edict which even ordered the community to give up its rights to don the sacred thread. Horrified at such a suggestion many Suvarnavaniks at the time migrated out of his kingdom. But the slander associated with the term Baniya (in Bangla, ‘Bene’) centuries later still persists.

Author: Tanuka Banerjee

Published: June 3, 2018

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