Bharuch in Gujarat, 192 km south of Ahmedabad, is today an industrial town known for chemical and fertiliser plants and textile mills. But can you imagine that it is also the second-oldest city in India after Varanasi, continuously inhabited for at least 2,500 years!
According to the Skanda Purana, one of the 18 Hindu religious texts known as the Puranas, Bharuch, or ‘Bhrigukachcha’ as it was known, was named after a sage Bhrigu, who is said to have lived here. Sage Bhrigu, a scholar in astronomy and medicine, is considered to be one of the seven most important sages of the Hindu religious tradition (the Saptarishis).
Historically, the key to Bharuch’s destiny was its location at the mouth of the Narmada River, just inland from where it meets the Arabian Sea. Here, the Narmada was wide and deep, making for a suitable harbour for trading vessels from around the world. The river also contributed to the fertility of the land, and the wheat and cotton grown in the region was highly valued. As a result, the region surrounding Bharuch was known for its cotton textiles. In addition, the thick forests of the Narmada valley yielded rich timber, which also led to the development of the ship-building industry here.
The earliest historical reference to Bharuch comes from the 1st century CE Greco-Roman text known as Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
It refers to ‘Barygaza’ (as Bharuch was known to the Greeks and Romans) as a ‘commercial emporium’ that had trade contacts with Egypt, the Persian Gulf, Syria, Ceylon and the Far East. Ships from here went eastwards to Java and Sumatra and westwards to Aden and the Red Sea. According to Periplus, the then ruler of Barygaza was Nahapana, an Indo-Scythian ruler of a dynasty referred to as the ‘Western Satraps’.
Periplus also tells us how the biggest export from Bharuch was teakwood, ebony wood and wheat. It goes on to say that Bharuch also served as a kind of ‘foreign exchange’ centre, where vast quantities of Roman and Greek gold and silver coins were converted into local currency for profit.
British historian Peter Frankopan, in his book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, tells us how the Silk Route from China branched out from Bactria in Central Asia, all the way down to Bharuch. Frankopan states that it was through the port of Bharuch that the goods of the Kushana empire were sent across to Europe and the Middle East.
With the traders and merchants who settled here came money for religious establishments. Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang, who visited Bharuch in the 7th century CE, notes that ‘Bhrugukutch had around 10 Buddhist monasteries with 300 monks’.
In the 10th century CE, under the Solanki dynasty, Bharuch was a hub for ships arriving from Sindh and China.
From the 11th to the 17th centuries, Bharuch was at the height of its glory. Al-Idrisi, a 12th century Arab geographer, observes that it was a ‘magnificent town with fine buildings and inhabitants who were highly ambitious and had copious resources, wealth and recognized traders.’ It is said that in the same century, Kubera, a wealthy merchant from Anhilwar-Patan, visited Bharuch for trade along with 55 merchants and 500 ships.
Interestingly, a port along a coastline didn’t serve only as a magnet for commerce; but also had to double as a line of defence from seaborne invasions. This was realised by Solanki ruler Siddharaj Jaisinh (r. 1092-1142 CE), who built Bharuch’s first fort in the early 12th century, while the walls of the city were extended later, during the Sultanate and Mughal periods.
It was during the reign of Alauddin Khilji (r. 1296–1316) that Bharuch saw its first structure built by the Delhi Sultans – a Jami Masjid. Under Muhammad bin Tughlaq (r. 1325-1351), it was used as a base for expeditions against rebels in Gujarat province and the Deccan.
The year 1509 CE marked a turning point in India’s maritime history, when the balance of power shifted in favour of the Portuguese following the Battle of Diu. In 1547, Bharuch was attacked and brunt by the Portuguese under the command of Captain Jorge de Menezes. By 1618, the Dutch and the English had established warehouses here to procure textiles at cheap prices. They called the city ‘Broach’.
One of the early communities to take advantage of this new wave of trade in Bharuch were the Parsis. From being the city’s chief brokers to the English Factory as early as 1644, to enjoying a monopoly over the manufacture and sale of liquor, to employing the locals’ carpentry skills in ship-building, the Parsis did it all.
Many of these Parsi residents were referred to as ‘Bharucha’, a common Parsi surname even today.
However, the fortunes of this port city changed dramatically in the second half of the 17th century, when Bharuch was sacked twice by the Marathas. Surprisingly, it also faced six droughts between 1681 and 1696. As a result, people started migrating. Furthermore, the ports of Cambay (Khambat), Surat and Bombay cornered the spotlight and began attracting trade.
After this, Bharuch virtually dropped off the radar, only to return to the country’s collective consciousness in the 1900s during the independence movement. The city gave birth to some of India’s most recognised freedom fighters including K M Munshi, founder-president of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and a noted personality in Gujarati literature. Post-Independence, the Narmada once again gave Bharuch an impetus, and it developed as a centre of textile mills and chemical plants.
Trade and commerce give Bharuch its modern-day identity but the remains of its old fort, towering gates and charming old havelis remind us of the splendid city it once was.
Cover Image: ‘Brotsch’, by Peeters Jacob, 1690