Indian Trade Compound (Source: Russian Ministry of Culture)
For centuries the 3,530-kilometre long Volga River, affectionately called Matushka Volga (Mother Volga) has played a pivotal role in the migration of people from north to south and east to west. This river, which begins in the Valdai Hills near Tver, was used by Russian merchant Afanasy Nikitin in the 15th century, when he travelled south to the Caspian Sea on a journey that would eventually take him to Rev Danda on the coast of Maharashtra and onwards to southern India. Just before the Volga empties out into the Caspian, it bisects a city that has long been Russia’s window to the treasures of the east- Astrakhan.
India can feel a lot closer to this city, known as the southernmost outpost of Russia, on a summer day when temperatures regularly rise to the high 30s. The mingling of various ethnicities is also clearly visible in this city, which in part has a distinct West Asian feel. Some Russians in Astrakhan attribute their dark brown eyes and black hair to an Indian ancestor their grandparents told them about. For centuries a tiny community of Indian traders lived in this part of Russia that was only separated from India by Persia.
A two-floor building in Volodarskogo Street in the heart of Astrakhan is called the Indian Trade Compound. Rebuilt in the classical style in 1809, the Indian compound’s history goes back to the 17th century, when it was a stone structure built with Indian architectural elements. The street was at one time called the Indian Street.
“In 1625, the Persians, Armenians and Indians built … living quarters using Armenian, Persian and Indian stone in the Asian style, near the Spassky Monastery,” Kirill Vasilev wrote in the Klucharyov Chronicles, a book that chronicled the history of Astrakhan from the 16th to 18th centuries and was published in 1887.
The construction of the new building in the early 19th century was financed by Sabra Mohandasov, a wealthy Indian merchant who took Russian citizenship.
State support and success
The Indian community was welcomed by the Russian authorities in the 17th century and consisted mainly of traders. They went on to become influential.
In 1720 Astrakhan Governor Aleksei Volyn was ordered by the Russian Senate to provide assistance to “Eastern merchants” who were settled in the city and was asked to “show kindness and goodwill” to them as well as ensuring their personal well being.
Historical records also show that Peter the Great met a delegation of Indian merchants that was led by one Anbu Ram. The Tsar then issued an edict that gave Indians the right to resolve property disputes according to their own law and customs.
Astrakhan at that time was a small outpost and had a population of around 10,000. The Indian community, which may have numbered around 300, was probably an extension of Indian traders in Persia, and part of a larger constellation that spread across West and Central Asia and was visible in cities such as Kandahar, Isfahan and Bukhara, Stephen Frederic Dale wrote in Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade 1600-1750.
“It is impossible to attribute the relative commercial success of Astrakhan-based Indian merchants to their unique or innovative forms of business organisation, for in that respect, the Khatris and Marwaris who resided semi-permanently in the city were absolutely typical of their Russian and non-Russian counterparts,” Dale wrote. “Like those ties, Indians used kinship to form the nucleus of their business.” Like Sabra Mohandasov, many Indians Russianised their names to an extent. Dale’s book mentions a Talaram Alimchandov from Sind and a Ramdas Dzhasuev from Multan.
Until the middle of the 18th century, members of the community only paid 12 roubles a year as rent for a shop in the Indian Trading Compound, and were exempted from taxes and duties by the Russian authorities.
By the early 19th century about than half the small shops in Astrakhan were owned by Indians. They sold silk, cotton fabrics, furs, copper, leather, carpets, wool, precious stones, fruits, wine, frankincense, gold and silver. The industrious traders would source many goods from Central Asia.
They also managed to hire agents and bought goods from Moscow, Yaroslavl, Kazan for export to India.
Russian historical accounts also mention the presence of Indian labourers and sadhus in Astrakhan at that time. Meticulously-kept archives from Astrakhan indicate that in 1746, the city had 12 sadhus.
German botanist and geographer Johann Gottlieb Georgi wrote about the Astrakhan Indians in his book,published in 1777, titled Description of all people living in the Russian state and their everyday rites, customs, clothing, housing, faiths and other memorability.
“The Indians are tall and lean, their hair and eyes are black, they sport small beards, their teeth are very white, they have a yellowish-pale complexion and an important bearing,” Georgi wrote. “In their gait and their actions, they demonstrate an air of importance, and their speech is quiet, deliberate, and thoroughly thoughtout. They are honest, courteous, patient and careful.”
A window into India
18th century Astrakhan was a potpourri of ethnicities and cultures with Russians, Central Asians and Tatars. Indians were still considered exotic at that time.
Indian Street was a major shopping centre in Astrakhan, according to Russian writer Nikolay Nepomnyashchiy “Once upon a time Indian Street in Astrakhan fascinated the locals, immersing them in an unfamiliar world filled with the aroma of incense and spices, silks, gold, precious stones,” he wrote. Many Indian men married Russian and Tatar women who wore expensive saris and bangles making them look like Indian women.
“There were both Armenians and Persians, but the Indians who created their micro world, their small Universe in a foreign land, attracted more attention than others,” Nepomnyashchiy added.
Alexander Digby, an Italian architect who lived in Astrakhan in the late 18th century and designed many of the buildings in the city took an interest in the Indian Trading Compound. He wrote that in addition to shops, it had barns, pantries, cowsheds, canteens, baths and a Hindu temple. The Indian trading community almost completely comprised of Hindus.
Although the Indian community stayed out of local politics, it ended up being caught in the crossfire between rebellious Cossacks and the Imperial Russian authorities. In 1670, the Cossacks, led by Stepan ‘Stenka’ Razin revolted against the Tsar for looking after the interests of the just the nobility and upper class in Russia. The revolt turned into a peasant’s uprising against the moneyed class across many parts of Russia.
The rebels attacked the Indian shops in Astrakhan, but locals managed to save the lives of the merchants. While the fighting took place in the city, many Indians moved to Tatar villages.
Indians had started marrying Tatars from the earliest days of their settling in Russia. The children of such Indo-Tatar couples were called Agryzhan Tatars.
A handful of Indians took up farming and records mention one Lachiram Gulabriev who informed the provincial authorities that four Indians lived in Tatar yurts and were legally citizens of the Russian Empire.
By the middle of the 19th century Agryan Tatars merged with Gilan and Bukhara Tatars (descendants of Armenians and Persians). They formed a community called the Tatars of the Three Courts. This community is believed to have survived right until the 1960s.
A new Russian trading class began to emerge in Astrakhan in the 19th century. Unable to compete with merchants from Persia, Armenia and India, they began to complain to the provincial chancery that foreigners “inflicted insanity and caused considerable offense during an auction” by undercutting them.
Restrictions and regulations began to trickle in. A duty was imposed on foreign merchants looking to sell any goods outside Astrakhan and they were also forbidden from buying any goods in any other part of Russia. Although Indians managed to circumvent the rules by using agents in other Russian cities, their business slowly began to fall.
By the start of the 1820s, they had lost their privileged position in Astrakhan. Many shops were closed down and erstwhile traders began to completely assimilate with the local population. The trading compound was permanently closed in 1840.
Once British rule was firmly established in India, immigration to Astrakhan completely stopped.
Historical records indicate that the assimilation of Indians into the wider Russian society began as early as the first part of the 18th century. Among the first batch of 26 students that enrolled in a school of Slavonic studies that was set up in 1721 in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg was an Indian. The school, which would later become the Theological Academy of St. Petersburg, has no information of how this student ended up in the Russian Imperial capital.
Modern Astrakhan and India
Astrakhan today is a modern city of half a million inhabitants, and has a mix of buildings from the Khrushchev and Brehznev eras as well as modern plush housing complexes. The Indian Trading Compound is now a residential building with numerous extensions that have more or less distorted its appearance. The internal verandas with arched windows facing the courtyard look different, and the balcony space has disappeared. The lower rooms, which served as warehouses, are walled up and have been turned into apartments. Thanks to encroachments by new buildings, the yard is now much smaller than before.
The only Indians that one is likely to encounter in the city in 2020 are students enrolled at the Astrakhan State Medical University. The Astrakhan Region is a sister state of Gujarat. Narendra Modi visited the city twice when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. Over the years, several MoUs have been signed by the Russian region and Indian state, but projects with high potential such as the North-South International Transport Corridor are hostage to the global geo-political tensions between the United States and Iran. Nonetheless, Astrakhan still has the potential to be a major logistics and trading hub connecting India with Russia and Europe, while serving as a gateway for Russia to South Asia, essentially reviving the role it played for almost three centuries.