Sheherwalis: The Bankers of Bengal who faded into oblivion after Partition

The Sheherwalis culture began after Manikchand became the first banker of Murshidabad and acquired the title of ‘jagat seth’ meaning banker of the world

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A Jain Temple in Murshidabad. Image Source: Panoramio.com
  • Sheherwalis first came to settle in the fertile land of Bengal about 300 years back
  • The community played a significant role in establishment of the first jute mill in the region and leaded major business organizations across Bengal
  • The architecture of the 14 Jain temples in Murshidabad, constructed by the members of the community, also points to the community’s rich cultural heritage

While it was about 300 years back that the Sheherwalis first came to settle in the fertile land of Bengal, they have certainly left an indelible mark on its culture and tradition.

It all started when Manikchand, a rich Jain merchant migrated from the barren deserts of Rajasthan and encouraged Murshid Quli Khan, who later became the first Nawab of Bengal, to leave Dhaka and find a city with his name on the banks of the Hoogly.

Thereafter, the village of Maksudabad was transformed into a city named Murshidabad in 1717. After which, Manikchand became the Nawab’s personal banker.

The Sheherwalis culture began after Manikchand became the first banker of Murshidabad and acquired the title of ‘jagat seth’ meaning banker of the world, reported The Hindu.

Though the Nawabs of Murshidabad did not enjoy a long history and suffered a major blow with the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the culture of Sheherwalis continued to flourish.

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Manikchand also invited a number of  Jain families to settle in Murshidabad, and in the nearby  twin cities of Azimganj and Ziaganjj. And this is how, the Nahars, Dudhorias, Dugars, Nowlakhas, Singhis and Kotharis among other such communities settled in the area.

An opulent dinner in a Sheherwali home. Image source: Special Arrangement by The Hindu
An opulent dinner in a Sheherwali home. Image source: Special Arrangement by The Hindu

These new settlers also started adopting the native ways of living, including food, attire, customs and language and added to evolving a community different from the Marwaris.

Pradip Chopra, a Kolkata-based entrepreneur noted that Sheherwalis were discreet investors and so made a lot of money. Over a period of time, they came to be known as one among the wealthiest sections of Bengal.

Chopra further said, the Sheherwalis used to live in huge mansions, which were often designed by architects from England and France. In fact, the architecture of the 14 temples constructed by the Jain community in Murshidabad reflects the rich cultural heritage of the community.

“They were essentially bankers who introduced a system of doing transaction with hundis, or promissory notes, instead of actual money. It should be remembered that the entire revenue from Bengal, the most prosperous province during the time, was sent to the Mughal emperor through such hundis and was worth 20 million silver coins. Manikchand made a lot of money in the process,” he added.

The Sheherwali were also the chief moneylenders of the region. According to a document, they also gave money to the Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, who used to finance companies from France, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Britain, as well as some Indian Nawabs.

The community played a significant role in the establishment of the first jute mill in the region and leaded major business organizations across Bengal.

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Over the years, they emerged as one of the wealthiest communities of Bengal. The architecture of the 14 Jain temples in Murshidabad, constructed by the members of the community, also points to the community’s rich cultural heritage.

Apart from the industries, Sheherwalis immensely contributed to philanthropic works like funding the establishment of colleges and hospitals in Murshidabad.

Another interesting aspect of Sheherwalis culture is the influence of Bengali cuisine on their vegetarian food. Their use of ‘paanch phoron’ and adoption of ‘pitha’ are some of the examples of the community’s affinity for Bengali food.

Bengal immensely influenced Sheherwalis’ attire as well. The men simply wore kurta and dhoti along with a pagri (headgear) resembling that of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and pump shoes instead of their traditional Rajasthani attire.

The women switched to sarees but had their own unique style of draping it.

Though this community in East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) became disoriented and scattered after Partition, they are now struggling to orient the younger generation with their rich cultural past.

-prepared by Bulbul Sharma, a staff-writer at NewsGram. Twitter handle: iBulbul_

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