In the medieval era, Rajasthan stood divided into five large and several smaller principalities. The big 5 were Amber (Jaipur), Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur (Marwar) and Udaipur (Mewar).
The founder of Shekhawati region was Maha Rao Shekhaji, a descendent of the Kachhawaha Rajput Clan which held Amber-Jaipur for centuries. The chieftains of Shekhawati were the descendants of Baloji, the third son of Raja Udaikaran of Amber, who succeeded to the throne in 1389. Shekhawati, named after its founder, meant ‘Garden of Shekha’.
As the Mughal Empire fell into decline after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, the descendants of Maha Rao Shekhaji, who had already spread themselves in the east of the Aravalli, began to encroach the west and north through the Udaipurwati and Sikar gaps in the hills. Shekhavat Rajputs wrested land from the ruling Muslim Nawabs (governors) to expand their fiefdom. By 1730, the Shekhavats grew very powerful and Shekhawati was flourishing.
Shekhawati comprised of towns like Jhunjhunu, Bikaner, Sikar, Ramgarh, Fatehpur, Sujangarh and Sardarsahar. It also had within its fold many large and small villages.
From the turn of the 19th Century till about 1822, a vast amount of trade was diverted through Shekhawati and more and more merchants got attracted into this region. This was a meeting point of the camel caravans from the Middle East, China and India.
Trade in opium, cotton and spices flourished. The merchant community that grew then were called ‘Marwaris’. These Marwaris built palatial havelis (villas). They also financed and built temples, baolis (step wells), schools and Dharamshalas (inns) in their home towns and villages.
The flourishing cross desert commerce wilted away as the British political set-up grew stronger. More and more stress was being laid on the ports of Bombay and Calcutta instead, to establish monopolies for the East India Trading Company. By the 1820s and 30s, it became obvious that the future of trading did not lie in the sands of Rajasthan.
The Marwaris of Shekhawati would not be so easily put down. Leaving their native land, the menfolk migrated all the way to Calcutta, the colonial capital. They also migrated to East Bengal (now Bangladesh), Assam, Burma, Bombay, Surat, Hyderabad, Chennai, etc. Here too they flourished and inspired their brethren to join them.
When Shekhawati started flourishing, words went around and my forefathers also decided to move into that region. They chose Sardarsahar as the place to settle down. They moved from Hissar, which now is part of present day Haryana. A rough estimate is that it happened in late 1700. I am the ninth generation.
Chowdhary’s of Rajasthan was a highly respected name in Sardarsahar as apart from being rich, they had done a lot for the society. They had built a school, a baoli and a Dharamshala. School and Dharamshala were later converted to a Guest House. Baoli still continues and provides sweet water to about 100,000 citizens, in old part of the town. A family trust operating from Calcutta looks after the maintenance of these facilities. There used to be a street which had haveli’s of Chowdharys lined up and was named after my great grandfather, Surajmull Chowdhary Street.
When trade started wilting away from Sardarsahar also, my great grandfather decided to set up a base in Calcutta. Elder brother of my grandfather was mandated to move their and set up a base.
My grandfather was directed to a place called Barisal, in Bhola of East Bengal, which in present times is Bangladesh. This place was chosen as it had vast cultivation of Areca Nuts (Supari). From what I had heard, this was inhabitable, full of mosquitoes and flooded during monsoons. Hardly any food was available, except coarse rice, lentils and some vegetables. Malaria was rampart. Business was to buy areca nuts, process, grade, pack them and ship to Calcutta by steamers. There was no banking system. Money used to come in gunny bags.
Travel time one way to Barisal from Sardarsahar was about six months, using modes like camel, camel carts, bullock carts, trains, bus, steamers etc. Minimum stay time was 8 years for all male adults.
As infrastructure improved a base was set up at Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh) where Areca Nuts were transported. Couple of Munims (accountants) were stationed there to trade and collect money. Munims as per the Marwari traditions were considered members of the family.
My father, after completing his graduation from St. Xavier’s, Calcutta also moved to Barisal to assist my grandfather. He was later joined by his younger brother.
The story does not end here. Post partition East Bengal became East Pakistan and my family decided to shift to Allahabad, where they already had a small trading post. In this migration, my grandfather boarded the last train out of East Bengal and was nearly killed. When the train reached India, it was full of copses. My grandfather’s life was saved by a Bengali Muslim who knew him. He was also in the line of migrants whose heads were being cut off. Luckily one of the killers knew my grandfather as he had received some help from him. He placed my grandfather along with the corpses and covered him with a bloodied cloth.
Taking into account my grandson, we are eleven generation connected to this history, which saw the best and worst of times.
In Sardarsahar, I have stayed in the beautiful haveli couple of times, which my forefathers built. It was like a small fortress, with Rajasthani Murals painted all over and carved doors and windows. Sadly, just a decade back it had to be sold off, as most of the family members were not interested in holding it. It was destroyed and a mall was build there. Members of our extended family still have their Havelis on that Surajmull Chowdhary Street. Baoli still provides water to residents of the old city. Guest house is available for marriages at a nominal token amount.
Property in present Bangladesh is lost. In Calcutta, part of our family continues using the original Gaddi (office) we have in Burra Bazar.
Memories remain and will remain till my generation.
Allahabad side of family, except few, have migrated to Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, USA, UK, UAE and Luxemburg. Most members of the Chowdhary family reside in now called Kolkata. A family tree in print is maintained which has all the names of male members of ten generations.