History of Jainism ►Oswal

Posted: 21.03.2011
Updated on: 30.07.2015

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History of the Oswal Community

1. Oswal Ancestry

The origin of the name "Oshwal" is probably tied to a small village in the Indian State of Rajasthan named Ossiya. There was once a large city at the site of Ossiya. The ancient names by which this city was known at various times 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's Nirvana. King Upaldev and his very able minister Uhad ruled the city at that time. 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 But in the historical documents published in the city of Bhinmal, it is mentioned that Minister Uhad left Bhinmal and founded the city in year 70 after Mahavira’s Nirvana.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’s Nirvana.

Therefore, from the several historical accounts, it appears that Acharya Shree Ratna Prabhu Suri Shvarji, a leader of Lord Parshvanath’s sect, established the Oshwal Gaccha in the year 70 after Bhagvan Mahavira’s Nirvana.

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.

2. Migration to Jamnagar

Around 1535, a small group of Oshwals of Vagad District suddenly left Kutch and moved to Saurashtra. 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 horses slipped in this discarded ghee and injured itself. The Prince filed a complaint with his father, the King. Fearing 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, two brothers, Jam Hamirji and Jam Rawal of Jareja Rajput family ruled the Kutch. 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 capital. Later on, the settlement spread eastwards and a new capital 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. The mother tongue still remains Kutchi. Those who stayed back are called Kutchi Oshwals. By profession, our ancestors were mostly farmers and traders, some were moneylenders and a few were even hired hands.

A census of the Oshwals in India was undertaken in 2001. The map of Halar, in English, has been redrwan to show the villages and Jamnagar where our Oshwal brethren are still living. Many have left villages to settle in Jamnagar, Mumbai, Bangalore, other parts of India. Many have migrated to Africa, UK, the Americas, Australia, other parts of Asia. Details of the census will be publishd on this website very soon. 2001 Census

The majority of the Oshwals are followers of Jain religion. Approximately 1% are followers of Swami Narayan religion; most of these come from the same village of Dewalia and were probably converted in mid 19th century. Oshwals are divided into a number of groups by Atak or Nukhs (surnames).

3. Migration to Africa

At the time of settlement in Mumbai the Oshwals were not successful in settling elsewhere in India, because they were not educated. There was a lot of competition in getting jobs. One had to have, influence to obtain jobs. The Oshwals did not have any influence. They had little capital and also some became debtors. On top of this there was constant famine and so their position was really worrisome.

At this time some communities from Halar had started to go overseas to earn a living. There were many stories about openings for businesses in the underdeveloped African continent. The Oshwal people were totally unaware about the people and this continent which was thousands of miles away from India. But to earn a living, no matter whatever kind of difficulties had to be faced, one of the Halari Visa Oshwals, Mr. Jetha Anand, and his family from Khara Beraja, set out in 1896 on the first sea voyage and went to Madagascar after passing through Zanzibar. These Oshwal heroes made the blessed beginning of the Oshwal settlement in Africa in an absolutely unknown land and amongst people who followed unknown customs. These heroes inspired many Oshwals in spite of facing a lot of difficulties.

Oshwals crossed the Indian Ocean in dhows (small sailing ships). Some of these Oshwals were only 12 or 13 years old, and their voyages took several months, often up to six months.

A few years later in 1898 (another source puts the date as 1899) Oshwals started to venture to Kenya. It is generally assumed that the first Oshwals who arrived on the Kenyans coast in 1899 were Shri Hirji Kara of Rafudad, Shri Popatlal Vershi of Arnbala and Shri Devji Hirji & Shree Nathu Devji of Dhundia. They had voyaged to Mombasa by dhows. Two years later, Mr. Premji Virji and Mr. Devji Kara. Arrived and with them came the first Oshwal woman in Kenya, Mrs. Kankuben Hirji Kara. Mr. Keshavji Ramji came in 1903 followed in 1906 by Mr. Karrnan Jetha, Mr. Raishi Lakhamshi, Mr. Manekchand Khimji, Mr. Mepa Khimji, Mr. Kachra Dharamshi and Mr. Hansraj Ladha.

At that time much of the Kenyan hinterland was unknown. Mombasa was a well established trading port and the building of the railway line from Mombasa into the interior had begun. The British brought in a large labour force, from India, to work on the construction of this railway line. The early Oshwals began to be associated with this railway. Some set up the business of providing meals to the railway workers, others undertook work as builders while some even worked on the actual construction of the railway line.

The railway opened up the Kenyan interior. As the news of Africa spread among the Oshwals, more of them came to Nairobi, which was initially just a small trading post, via Mombasa. In 1908 there were 1000 Hindus in Nairobi, in addition the Oshwals numbered nearly one hundred.

As said, in the beginning the Oshwals did service or ran eating houses. There are examples of some Oshwals who worked as masons also. The Oshwals of those days earned good name due to their honesty, cleverness in work and ardour (spirit) and by doing work as if it was their own. But Oshwals who believed that to do service is inferior, ventured into business as soon as they had gathered enough experience.

The Oshwal worked extremely hard, gradually called over their families and slowly established themselves in trading centres like Thika, Kisumu, Eldoret, Kitale, Nyeri, Nanyuki, Meru, Makuyu, Ruiru, Maragua, Saba Saba, Fort Hall (Muranga), Karatina, Kisii and Nakuru. Some even moved onto the other East African countries of Uganda and Tanganyika as years went by. Mr. Keshavji Parbat was the first Oshwal to walk to Murangna (Fort Hall) in two and a half days in 1905.

Mr. Keshavji Ramji of Kansumra started the first Oshwal firm in Nairobi, Messrs. Meghji Ladha & Co.. This firm earned a lot of fame in Kenya and overseas. It played an important role in the Oshwal settlement and its progress in Kenya, providing new Oshwal arrivals with the necessary training for work, the knowledge of language, as well as providing daily bread and accommodation. Thus continuing the precious tradition of Indian hospitality. Those Oshwals who were ready with the training were helped to set up their own shops and were given the credit facility of buying goods for trading. The generosity of the owners of this firm will always be immortal in the History of the Oshwals. Besides Nairobi, the firm had its branches in Mombasa, Limuru, Thika, Makindi, Maragwa, Saba Saba, Embu, etc.

With the inspiration of firms established in Mombasa and Nairobi, many other Oshwal companies had started their businesses. Amongst them were the main firms of Messrs Lakha Karamshi, Messrs Karman Mepa and Co., Messrs Premchand Nathu, Messrs Karamshi Merag, Messrs Narshi Karamshi, Messrs Meghji Mulji and Messrs Kachra Vrajpal. Besides these many more named and unnamed firms played a special role in expanding and strengthening the Oshwal settlement in Kenya. Because of their interest in work, courage, practice of economising and virtues of good will the Oshwals and their firms started to prosper and the Oshwal settlement started to expand.

From 1910 to 1915 there were 200 Oshwals in this Kenya. By 1920 this number increased to 800. The first Oshwal to be born in Mombasa was Mr. Ratilal Hirji Kara, in 1902. The first child to be born in Nairobi was Mr. Mulchand Devji Hirji.Oshwals earned high respect with their puritanical qualities of hard work, thrift, simplicity and prudence. Gradually as the numbers increased they organised themselves into a community.

In 1910 Mr. Keshavji Ramji laid the foundation stone of the building of one of the leading institutions of those days, 'Shree Cutchhi Gujarati Hindu Union'. In 1915, the first ever-meeting of Oshwals in Africa was held in Nairobi under the leadership of Shree Keshavji Ramji. A Dharamsala Fund was set up to provide accommodation to assist the Oshwals coming from India. Mr. Keshavji Ramji was the President of this fund during 1916. Also, he became the President of the 'Shree Halari lain Gnan Vardhak Mandal' which had been formed in Nairobi in 1918. The service provided by this institution was very useful to the community and the Oshwal community started progressing towards institutionalism.

Due to the first world war, many opportunities arose in trade and due to their insight in trade, trust and common sense, the Oshwals became stronger and the foundations of Oshwal settlement in East Africa became firm.During the early 1940's Oshwals institutions were established for social, religious, cultural and educational purposes. In 1941 the 'Oshwal Education and Relief Board' was established with the objective of promoting education. To meet the needs of the local Oshwals community centres (or Mahajanwadis) were set up in various towns and cities in Kenya. In Kenya alone Oshwals have very successful nursery schools, primary schools, secondary schools and even a college. Opulent Jain Derasers have been built in Nairobi, Mombasa and Thika.

4. Migration to the United Kingdom

In the late 1950's some Oshwals decided to migrate, from East Africa, and set up homes in the U.K. Amongst the first families to set up in the U.K were the family of Shri Meghji Pethraj Shah whose name is not only the synonymous with charitable activities in East Africa and India, but who have also made their mark in the U.K. Another notable person who came to the UK in1957 is Shri Jayantilal Ranmal Shah, who until May 2003 was one of the 7 trustees of the Association. Africanisation policies in East Africa and the post independence uncertainty led many Oshwal families to look towards settlement in the U.K and the trickle which started in the late 1960's became a steady flow in the 70's. By 1976 it was estimated that there was at least 15000 Oshwals in the U.K. Today the figure is much larger, around 20,000 in 2000. Whilst the majority of the U.K Oshwal settlement is in the Greater London, there are substantial settlements in cities like Leicester and towns like Luton, Northampton and Wellingborough.

In the similar fashion to East Africa, the pioneers of the U.K Oshwal settlement foresaw the need to organise their growing numbers into a community and the Oshwal Association of the U.K came into being in 1969. It was formally transformed into a registered charitable organisation in 1972. The main objective of the Association is the Advancement of Jainism by the provision of a place of worship. It was with this objective in mind that the elders of the community purchased the site in the beautiful Hertfordshire countryside known as the "Hook House".

This site, later renamed the Oshwal Centre, consists of almost 80 acres of green field with a listed building and a few run-down stable buildings and barns, has been transformed into the headquarters of the Association and its Administrative nerve centre. The mansion has been totally renovated, in accordance with the provisions of the law relating to listed buildings, and now houses the Administration block. This building is now called the Oshwal House. The old stables and barns have been removed and in its place now stands the two large assembly halls fronted by a large, well landscape, car park. The Assembley Halls were officially opened in 1989. The Oshwal Centre also has Europe’s first traditional Shirharbandhi Derasar.

5. Migration to North America

The Oshwals' migration to North America began 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 preserved their culture, tradition, and religion and organised several social and religious functions.

In the mid 1970s, a second group of Oshwal immigrants went to North America, 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.

During the 1980s, most Oshwal immigrants were the 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 North America. As the time passed, Oshwals recognised 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 organised in 1986, in New Jersey, by the residents of both New Jersey and New York states.

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 North America".

In 1994 Oshwals Canada Inc. was set up to serve the needs of Canadian Oshwals.

6. Who is an Oswal?

I am sure that most people are aware that our forefathers originate from the so called 52 villages (Bavan Gam) in India. Apart from that, I wonder how many of us are fully aware of our origins and history. It is important that from time to time that we reflect on our roots and heritage.

When I first got interested in Jainism, I used to discuss with my late mum about the origins of our community and how and why we adopted Jainism as our faith. What follows is based on our discussions and further reading from various sources to satisfy my curiosity.

In the context of different communities in the world today, the Halari Visa Oshwal community is a very small community, with approximately 75000 members scattered throughout the world, but mainly in India, Kenya, UK, USA and Canada and in the last few years Australia.

From various historical accounts, it appears that the origin of the name Oshwal comes from a small village in the Indian State of Rajasthan known as Ossiya. Shree Ratna Prabhu Shvarji, who was the 7th Acharya in line of Lord Parshavanath’s sect went to Ossiya with five hundred of his disciples in the year 70 after of Lord Mahavir Nirvana. The Acharya converted the Kings and many of his subjects to Jainism and gave this group the name Oshwals. Thus, a new Jain sect of Oshwal Gaccha, the ancestors of the Oshwal Community came into existence. We got the name ‘Visa Oshwal’ as there were 20 leaders in this group.

Around the 10th and 12th century AD, due to adverse natural conditions, a small group of these Oshwals left the village of Ossiya in search of better life and migrated to Sindth - what is now called West Pakistan. Unfortunately, the conditions in Sindth were not much better, so they continued their migration southwards into Kutch, now a part of the state of Gujarat.

In 16th century AD, two brothers, Jam Hamirji and Jam Rawal of Jareja Rajput family ruled Kutch. As a result of internal conflict, Jam Rawal assassinated his brother and took over. Subsequently his late brother’s heirs defeated Jam Rawal, who then fled with his followers, some of whom were Oshwals, crossed the desert of Kutch and established a settlement around the city of Khambhliya of Halar district, naming it the capital. Later on the settlement spread eastwards and a new capital was founded which was named after Jam Rawal as Jam Nagar. To this day, the Oshwal settlemenmt exists in 52 villages between these two cities. That is why we are known as Halari Visa Oshwals.

Oshwals are divided into twenty five to thirty groups by Atak (surnames) such as Nagda, Chandaria, Haria, Dodhia, Sumaria etc. However most common surname used is Shah. One might think the origin of the word Shah is related to the Persian Shah meaning King. Actually it is completely of Indian origin and the word Shah indicates a respected member of the business community.

By profession, our ancestors were mostly farmers and traders. Our forefathers had to work hard to till and sow the land and to obtain sufficient harvest. On a typical day, they would start work at 6.00A.M. and not return until 8.00P.M. The food was very simple, chaas and rotlo. At that time there was very little education and knowledge of what happens outside the local area. Children were expected to work in the farms and spend a life for work with little time to play. Times were hard but there was no stress or greed. People were happy and accepted their fate as their karmas.

Between the years 1880 and 1890 due to hardships, a small group left their homes and went to Bombay and Ahmedabad and worked in shops. As their financial situation improved they opened their own small businesses. Around 1900 the first Oshwals went to East Africa by dhow (small sailing ships). Some of these Oshwals were only twelve to thirteen years old and the voyage took several months. Often up to six months. Initially they worked as labourers in the railways and slowly started shops in small towns. Education came to our community when the first boarding school was established in Jamnagar in 1942. The students who graduated started their own businesses in Jamnagar and Bombay. In the East Africa the new generation of Oshwal youth began formal schooling during the British rule. More and more people emigrated to East Africa invited by their relatives who needed more manpower in their expanding businesses.

The rest is history. From 1950’s onwards the general prosperity of Oshwals in East Africa grew by leaps and bounds. They became one of the country’s most prominent business men and played a major part in the post colonial economic history of East Africa.

In the early 70’s they started a wave of immigration from East Africa to UK. This was principally based on the citizenship, many Oshwals having chosen to retain British Passport as they were unsure about their future in East Africa. Those first Oshwals endured many hardships and difficulties in settling in the UK in the early years. Since then, we have successfully integrated into UK society and having enriched this country with our rich tradition and culture. Many of our members have progressed into highly respected professions and businesses and perhaps as an ethnic community we have the largest per captia number of professionals in the UK.

The majority of Oshwals are followers of the Jain religion. And the Halari Visa Oshwals is the largest Jain community in the UK. Culture is important and is a large concept. Religion is a very integral part of culture. What we eat, how we dress, how we speak, how we behave, how we conduct our business, how we deal with each other is all part of culture. Although many Oshwals have little knowledge of their faith, the Oshwals culture and traditions are defined by Jainism and Jainism way of life. I truly believe that Jainism has great deal to offer and we have an obligation to ensure that it impacts positively on British culture without having to compromise any of its inspiring traditional values. Let it be our cause to do our very best and be proud for being an Oshwal Jain. The ambassadors of Jainism are the youths of today. It is therefore our duty to teach them in a manner that will engage their interest and challenge them.

In conclusion, we as Oshwals have prospered wherever we have settled because of our entrepreneur spirit and the desire to improve the quality of our life. There is a strong bond among our community members as we come from a small geographical area and regardless of where in the world Oshwals live we have maintained a common culture and social and economic background.

We are indeed fortunate to be part of the Halari Visa Oshwal family. Our heritage, culture, sense of caring and sharing and our concept of our community are remarkable and each of us should nurture, contribute to and feel proud to be part of this family.

(This last chapter is by Kishor Bhimji Shah, for a talk given at a progamme organised by Mahila Mandal - South Area a few years ago).

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