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The Gandhis of Porbandar

The Gandhis of Porbandar

Porbandar, a small town around 400 kms from Ahmedabad is well known across India. It is after all the place where Mahatma Gandhi was born and where he spent his childhood. But what most people don’t know, is the fact that before Mohandas Karamchand – Mahatma Gandhi, five generations of the Gandhi men, including his father and grandfather before him, had been the diwans or prime ministers of the kingdom of Porbandar. In fact, Mohandas Gandhi’s decision to opt for law as a career could have been prompted by the thought that he might follow suit…which he of course didn’t.

Steeped in legend and mythology, Porbandar was small but always important. In Hindu mythology, it was known to be the birthplace of Sudama, the close childhood friend of Lord Krishna. The kingdom of Porbandar was established around 1193 CE, by the Jethwa Rajput rulers. Over centuries, it came under the suzerainty of the Sultans of Gujarat, the Mughals, the Gaekwads of Baroda and finally, the British. Porbandar was rich and prosperous thanks to the thriving trade it enjoyed as a port on the Western coast of Gujarat, frequented by traders from West Asia and Africa.

Porbandar in the map of British Presidency, 1909 | Wikimedia Commons

Following the fall of the Mughal empire in the 17th century, the Kathiawar region of Gujarat was a mass of hundreds of tiny principalities, perpetually at war. A son of the Mughal governor of Gujarat from the Babi clan had proclaimed himself the Nawab of Junagadh. Porbandar was ruled by Jethwa Rajputs, who claimed to be the descendants of Lord Hanuman, while Nawanagar (Jamnagar), Rajkot, Gondal, and Kutch were ruled by the Jadejas, who claimed to be descendants of Lord Krishna. Added to the mix, were the Maratha Gaekwads of Baroda, who ruled over several parcels of territory in Saurashtra, such as Amreli and Dwaraka. To travel from Ahmedabad to Porbandar, you had to criss-cross at least 50 different jurisdictions. No wonder, Saurashtra was considered a feudal maze.

It is at such a time, that we find the first reference to Lalji Gandhi, the earliest known ancestor of Mahatma Gandhi, around the year 1674 CE. The Gandhis were originally a family of grocers from Ghogha, (in present day Bhavnagar district of Gujarat), a once important port dating back to the 5th century CE. It is said that the destruction of town in a tidal wave in the late 17th century, forced Lalji Gandhi and his family to migrate to the village of Kutiyana in Junagadh state. He worked there as an estate manager to a local zamindar. Over time, Lalji moved from there too, around 24 miles away to the princely state of Porbandar, where he served as the Naib Dewan (Deputy Prime Minister). He did so well in his new role that the Gandhis soon became the hereditary administrators of Porbandar kingdom. They were the pillar behind the throne.

Birth place of Mahatma Gandhi | Wikimedia Commons

After Lalji Gandhi, the position of the Deputy Prime Minister of Porbandar was held by his son Ramji Gandhi and then his grandson Rahidas Gandhi. It was Rahidas Gandhi’s son Harjivandas Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi’s great grandfather), also a Naib Diwan of Porbandar, who bought the Gandhi family’s ancestral villa haveli in Porbandar in 1771 CE. It is in this very haveli that Mahatma Gandhi was born, in 1869. In keeping with the tradition of those times, the haveli would be protected by special Arab guards, who served the Gandhi family.

The most illustrious of the Gandhis before the Mahatma, was Harjivandas’ son and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandfather – Uttamchand Gandhi. He began his career as a customs contractor at the Porbandar port. His administrative brilliance meant that soon, from Deputy Prime Minister, he was promoted to the position of the Prime Minister of Porbandar. Uttamchand multiplied the revenues of Porbandar state and pulled it out of debt. He also negotiated with Junagadh and other neighbouring states to ensure a free flow of trade and commerce. The Gandhis, were at the height of their power and prosperity under him, but 1831 saw sudden reversal in their fortunes.

Porbandar State, Coat of Arms | Wikimedia Commons

In 1831, Rana Khimoji , the ruler of Porbandar, died suddenly and was succeeded by his 12-year-old son, Vikmatji, while his widow Rani Rupaliba, ruled as the regent. Queen Rupaliba was an autocratic ruler who ruled Porbandar with an iron fist. This brought Uttamchand in conflict with the Queen. The conflict escalated dramatically soon after, when a minor treasury official was sentenced to death by the Queen and sought refuge in Uttamchand’s haveli. The Queen demanded that he hand over the man and Uttamchand refused. Soon the Queen sent cannons to blow up the haveli. The Arab guards of the Gandhi family defended the haveli till the last. The leader of the guards was a man named Ghulam Mohammad Makrani, who died in the face-off. A memorial to him still exists in the Vaishnava temple adjoining the Gandhi haveli in Porbandar.

Karamchand Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi’s father) | Wikimedia Commons

It was only the intervention of the local British officials that saved the Gandhis from certain death at the hands of the Queen’s henchmen. Following this, the family fled back to their native village of Kutiyana in Junagadh state. It was only in 1841, after Rani Rupaliba’s death, that the Gandhi family returned back to Porbandar where they got back their property and title. Uttamchand’s two sons Karamchand Gandhi (Mahatma’s father) and Tulsidas Gandhi (Mahatma’s uncle) also served as prime ministers of Porbandar.

Karamchand Gandhi became the Diwan of Porbandar in 1847, at the young age of 25, and served on the post for the next 28 years. He was an extremely successful and popular diwan. However, in 1876, when Mahatma Gandhi was about 5 years old, Karamchand Gandhi decided to take up the position of the Diwan of Rajkot, a bigger and a more prestigious state, leaving the post in Porbandar to his younger brother, Tulsidas. The appointment in Rajkot, meant that Karamchand Gandhi was one of the most prominent men in Saurashtra, adjudicating disputes between the numerous tiny principalities. However, due to court intrigues, his tenure in Rajkot was not smooth. He passed away in 1885.

Mahatma Gandhi in London as a law student | Wikimedia Commons

In 1888, when Karamchand’s son Mohandas wished to go to London to study law, in the hope of one day becoming a diwan like his father, he was turned down sponsorship by the Porbandar State, claiming that a poor state like Porbandar could not afford to spare Rs 5000.

In hindsight, that was a good thing because had Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi availed of Porbandar’s sponsorship of his studies, he would have had to return to the job his father and five generations of the Gandhi’s had followed. He would have remained a diwan and India would have missed out on the Mahatma!

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