The quiet port town of Mandvi in Kutch is a popular destination for tourists. A sleepy port known for its white sandy beaches, with wooden sailboats bobbing on the sea, it is idyllic. But it wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, in the late 18th and early 19th century CE, Mandvi was among the greatest and busiest ports in India. At the epicenter of sea and land trade which spread from Central Asia to the West coast of Africa and India, it was a key point in the triangular trade route between Oman, Mandvi and the hinter land of Punjab and Sindh.
The port of Mandvi is located on the coast of Kutch, around 60 kms from Bhuj. Through history, political change has always been the reason for the rise and fall of great cities and the same is true in the case of Mandvi. The most authoritative work on the rise and decline of Mandvi port is the book ‘Globalization before its time-The Gujarati Merchants from Kachchh’ by Chhaya Goswami, a noted historian who has studied the Kachchhi community extensively. Goswami says the story of the Mandvi port is the story of the visionary rulers of Kutch, its administrators and merchants.
The Jadeja kings ruled Kutch from the mid-16th century CE. Unlike other rulers in India, the Jadejas realized that trade and commerce was the biggest source of revenue in their arid and rain-starved kingdom and hence were extremely favorable to traders. Chhaya Goswami describes them as ‘Pro-Trade, Pro –Entrepreneur’. The founder of the Jadeja kingdom in Kutch was Khengarji I, who in 1548 CE, assumed the throne, taking the title of Rao, thus becoming the first Rao of Kutch. He not only founded the capital city of Bhuj but also the town of Mandvi around 1581 CE with the help of a Bhatia trader named Topan from Nagar Thatta in Sindh who supervised the construction of its port.
Khengarji was succeeded in 1585 CE by his son Bharmalji I. Due to the geographical proximity of Kutch to Oman and the Arabian ports, Bharmalji encouraged Mandvi as a port of passage for Hajj pilgrims. He promoted a shipping service from Mandvi to Mecca, which earned him the gratitude of Mughal Emperor Jehangir, who exempted Kutch from paying tribute. With rising business opportunities, people belonging not only to the merchant community like the Banias but also the agricultural community like the Bhatias, migrated here. The rulers established a firm, symbiotic relationship with them by providing commercial benefits. Soon enough, Mandvi was thriving as a trade centre as it was at the junction of two prominent trade routes - the maritime spice route right up to Mozambique and the desert camel caravan route which went up to Central Asia.
As business thrived, new industries cropped up. The most prominent was the new boat and ship building industry. Mandvi became the center for the manufacture of small country boats known as dhows and later the bigger wooden ships like Kotias. These were made from the locally available Sal wood. Till the decline of the Mughal Empire in mid-18th century, it was Surat, which was the greatest port in the Mughal Empire. However, the fragmentation of the Mughal empire and the political uncertainty meant that caravans from the Indo-Gangetic plain could no longer travel safely to Surat. Numerous petty powers emerged in different regions, which exacted money from the passing caravans. There was also rising lawlessness and attacks on travelers. Conscious of the decline of Surat, the British had by now also shifted their base to Bombay (now Mumbai), and they were soon followed by the prominent Gujarati and Parsi merchants from Surat.
The rulers of Kutch too were quick to take advantage of this political situation. In 1760, when Rao Godji became the ruler, Mandvi saw its real rise as an urban centre with a huge ship building industry. Godji built a dockyard and personally supervised the building and repairing of ships. The ship builders of Mandvi became so adept at building ships that by the 18th century, Mandvi merchants collectively owned a fleet of over 400 vessels. This small town grew so much that by 1818, it had a population of about 50, 000. Even the earthquake in 1819, which caused great destruction and even caused a tsunami, could not displace its spirit. The entrepreneurs were now not only good managers of capital but also adventurous seafarers.
In 1830s, Captain Thomas Postans, a British trader, reported that the opulent and busy port of Mandvi conducted inland trade with Marwar, Malwa, Sindh, Gujarat and Jaisalmer, and by sea with all the ports of western India, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, East Africa, and occasionally as far as Mozambique. His wife Marianne Postans observed that Mandvi primarily exported cotton cloths; and in return received dates, coffee, dried grapes, antimony, colored mats and the teeth of elephants and rhinoceroses. Mandvi was not only a trade hub for Indian merchants but also for merchants from Arabia and Africa. Infact, one-third of all trade from Somalia was carried out from Mandvi port. The research paper ‘The Indian Merchant Community of Masqaṭ’ by Calvin H Allen, mentions that Mandvi was such a hub for African trade that there was even a suburb outside called ‘Swalli’ , named after the Swahili coast of Africa.
Over time, Mandvi emerged as a prosperous town, earning four times more revenue from export than import. It became an important profit-making center of the Kutch state, even surpassing the capital city of Bhuj in terms of wealth. However, the second half of the 19th century witnessed the gradual decline of Mandvi and there were multiple reasons for it. The Industrial Revolution brought steamers and colossal ships carrying much bigger loads and Mandvi’s narrow entrance to the creek was not wide enough for them.
Meanwhile to make things worse, a series of natural disasters between 1862-1905 sounded the end of this mighty port. It faced a deluge of rain in 1862 which destroyed the harvest in adjoining areas. There was a cholera outbreak in 1866, followed by a famine in 1888 and plague between 1896 – 1905. This was also the period when Bombay was on the rise- better port facilities and a steady stream of hard working immigrants were fast turning the tide in Bombay’s favour
Mandvi just couldn't stand the competition. This once powerful port city, that had shone through like a shooting star in the skies of India’s West Coast - gradually crumbled piece by piece. Today, the waves have reclaimed their land. Ships and harbors have been replaced by idyllic beaches and swaying palms… Mandvi and its predecessor Surat have been replaced by Kandla and Mundra on Kutch’s forever busy coast.