The Marwari people hold a storied place in the tale of India’s economic development; an ethnic group that at various points during the country’s history has bankrolled trade, financed regional wars, and provided crucial support to its fight for independence.
In 2020 the influence of this highly successful merchant dynasty continues to be felt across Indian society. Billionaire Rahul Bajaj and media mogul Shobhana Bartia (chairwoman of HT Media) hail from their ranks, as does legal academic, politician, and member of India’s Supreme Court Abhishek Singhvi.
Disappointing, then, that this title by Timberg fails to offer an in-depth exploration of precisely why this ethnic group has played such a crucial role in the story of India.
The Marwaris is a compelling work of narrative history, weighed down with some superficial business advice. This edition is an updated version of an earlier 1978 iteration of the title by the same author, and in many ways the first section, which summarizes the author’s earlier historical work, contains by far the most interesting details. This initial section is supplemented with discussion of the evolution of a few modern Marwari business families — especially that of the Birla family — whose autobiographies are used extensively.
The first part of the book offers an interesting institutional explanation for the geographical locus of Marwari business dominance. Many of their merchant families came from a part of Rajasthan where local Rajputs divided inheritances between sons. This had the effect of creating a large number of small city states in northern India that competed to attract merchants with low taxes and good security.
The spread of Marawi trading networks became crucial as Marwari business families became local agents for British firms. Even British colonial officers would use Marwaris to remit money from provincial outposts to British banks in Bombay or Calcutta.
The book also contains a fascinating description of Marwari participation in stock and futures markets. A Marawari business ledger contained bets on the timing of the monsoon as early as 1791, and Marwari traders became deeply involved in the Calcutta stock market. Timberg draws a direct line from British colonial suspicion of Marwari speculators to Nehruvian efforts to control speculators.
The Marwaris offers some fascinating insights and identifies extrinsic factors that have contributed to the rise of this financial dynasty. But it doesn’t give us a compelling thesis about why this might be the case, or ask what modern India would like without the profound influence of this ethnic group.
THE MARWARIS was published in paperback by Portfolio/Penguin Books India, pp.224, ₹299 ($4.00). May 2014.
Steven Brownstone is a development economist and PhD candidate at the University of California at San Diego. Previously he worked for IDInsight in New Delhi.