World History 2 18 - 2.1.2 The Sultanate of Gujarat

Despite their power, the Mughals never controlled all of India, and several areas remained relatively free of their dominance. In the sixteenth century, one such area, the Sultanate of Gujarat on the northwestern coast of India, was an important center of Indian Ocean trade. Gujarat was located on the Arabian Sea, close to Persia and the Arabian Peninsula (Figure 2.7). From May through September monsoon winds blew, and the resulting ocean currents pushed sailing ships from East Africa and Arabia in the direction of Gujarat and other spots on the western coast of India, such as the province of Kerala to the south. In the winter months, the monsoon winds and currents reversed, helping sailors return home. In the period between these changes brought by the monsoons, foreign sailors and merchants made their home on India’s western coast, and thriving commercial hubs developed with a year-round population of both Indians and non-Indians.

This map is a regional map showing India, China, the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. The Sultanate of Gujarat is highlighted. Gujarat sits on the northwest coast of India, on the Arabian Sea.
Figure 2.7 Gujarat is located on the northwestern coast of India. Close to the Arabian Peninsula and bordering the Arabian Sea, the Sultanate of Gujarat was a hub for Indian Ocean trade. (credit: modification of work “Banda Sea” by Demis/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In 1573, Emperor Akbar incorporated Gujarat into the Mughal Empire. Through its harbors moved the wealth of India, and the port cities of Surat and Khambat were especially busy. Among the goods exported were fine cotton textiles purchased by buyers in East Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. In addition to warehouses and trading companies owned by Indians, Arabs, and Persians, the port cities contained rest houses for travelers, shops, and banking houses. In addition to being a commercial hub, Gujarat was a place of learning. Many Islamic scholars made it their home, and several cities had large mosques and religious schools, some of which were built with funds provided by Hindu rulers.

Beyond the Book

The Port of Surat

Surat was a prosperous port on the coast of Gujarat, the region conquered by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1573. The sixteenth-century painting presented here, by court painter Farrukh Beg, commemorates this event, showing Akbar seated on a black horse greeting the town’s residents (Figure 2.8). This painting is one of many such illustrations in the Akbarnama (Book of Akbar), a text written in Persian that was commissioned by Akbar to serve as the official chronicle of his reign.

Painting (a) shows Emperor Akbar entering Gujarat with his entourage. Painting (b) is a closeup of from painting (a) which more clearly shows an elephant.
Figure 2.8 This sixteenth-century image (a) by Mughal court painter Farrukh Beg was influenced by Persian artistic styles of the period. Emperor Akbar was a great lover of art and studied it himself. The elephant in the foreground (b) may have been included in deference to Akbar’s desire for the images produced by his artists to include symbols of Mughal power. (credit a and b: modification of work “Farrukh Beg. Akbar's Triumphal Entry into Surat. Akbarnama, 1590-95” by Victoria and Albert Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • In what ways does this image indicate that Surat was a wealthy community?
  • Where can you see the influence of Islam?
  • How is the ethnic diversity of the city’s residents indicated?

The populations of Gujarat’s ports were diverse. Although most residents were Hindus, other religious communities were well represented. For the most part, these were trade diaspora communities, communities established by merchants from foreign lands who came to do business but often settled and married into the local population. The most significant of the trade diaspora communities in Gujarat were those founded by Muslims. Some of their inhabitants were the descendants of merchants who had arrived from Persia or the Arabian Peninsula as early as the eighth century, or descendants of Hindu merchants who had converted to Islam to better do business with Arab and Persian merchants. Sharing the faith of their business partners helped build the trust necessary for transacting business in distant lands, ventures that might take many years to become profitable.

Sufis, Islamic mystics, had arrived in India in the eleventh century, and a substantial number of Muslims had Sufi ancestors. Yet other Muslims were descended from soldiers who had arrived in India in the armies of central Asian or Afghan invaders from the tenth through the thirteenth centuries. There were also large numbers of Parsis in the cities of Gujarat. The Parsis were Zoroastrians, members of a religious sect that worshipped fire and whose ancestors had arrived in India from Persia in the seventh century. They may have fled Persia after the Islamic conquest for fear of religious persecution, or they may have settled in India before the conquest and never returned home.

Also present in Gujarat were Jews and Nestorian Christians, who had split from the larger Christian Church in the fifth century over an argument regarding whether Jesus was of one nature—divine—or two—one human and one divine. The Nestorian Christians had come primarily from Syria and Persia. A larger Christian community lived in Kerala. Gujarat also housed small communities of Indian Jains (followers of Jainism) and Buddhists.

The great religious and ethnic diversity of Gujarat contributed to its commercial success because merchants there traded more easily with others of the same religion and ethnic background in other parts of the world. Arabs traded with Arabs and Persians with Persians. Jews in Gujarat maintained ties with Jewish communities elsewhere in India, North Africa, and the Middle East. The prominence of the Muslim merchant community in Gujarat was undoubtedly aided by the fact that the Mughal emperors were Muslim. By the middle of the seventeenth century, however, Mughal dominance in India was being threatened.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax