Sheth Keshavji Raghavji Naik was a crown jewel of the Jain community. He belonged to the Kutchi Dasa Oshwal sect. It is a fascinating tale of rags to riches through perseverance.
He was born in Lākhania town of Kutch in India in 1800AD. His mother was called Hirbāi. They were farmers by profession. The family moved from Lākhania to Kothara. When he was only 5 years old his father passed away. His mother had to do manual labour jobs to sustain themselves. His maternal side of family were in the same town and looked after him so that he did not feel the absence of his father. He was very impressive, assertive and clever since childhood.
It was common for people to migrate to Mumbai for better prospects as many people from the Kutchi Bhatias and Banias clan had made tremendous progress. His mama (mother’s brother) also moved to Mumbai taking along the young ten year old Keshavji. Initially all worked assiduously for their daily sustenance and eventually ventured into business.
His mama’s son was Shivji. Both Keshavji and Shivji were classmates and ambitious. They each progressed well and were considered to be the top five achievers within the Kutchi Dasa Oshwal community along with Narshi Natha. Keshavji was more adventurous, brave and stronger in his beliefs compared to Shivji. His mama founded a private company called “Shivji Nenshi” and Keshavji used to study during the day and work here as an accountant in his spare time.
Once Shivji wore elegant clothes and bragged to Keshavji. Keshavji challenged him that he too will wear stylish clothes the next day. He asked his mother for some money, but due to their financial hardships she could not give him. He became very upset and later in the evening when he went to his mama’s office to do the accounts, accidentally ink spilled onto the books. His uncle berated him. As it is he was very upset, and his mama’s scoldings pushed him to his limits. He poured the entire ink bottle onto the books and stormed out of mama’s office. Where to go? He dare not even go to school without stylish clothes due to the challenge he had given Shivji.
He decided to commit suicide and started walking towards the sea. Since it was low tide, he decided to wait for the high waves and fell asleep on the sand. Next morning Prince of the Bhatia caste, Devji Sheth came and asked Keshavji to purchase a ship full of dates. Keshavji was surprised at this proposal and told the prince about his predicament. The Prince replied, “Do not worry about money. I will support you”. You may wonder how can such a strange proposition occur to a total stranger. It appears that Prince Devji Sheth could never make any profits in his business. He consulted an astrologer who advised him that one day you will come across a boy standing on the sea shore and if he trades under his name, your fortunes will change. Alas! Prince Devji Sheth was thrilled to meet Keshavji.
The dates were auctioned in Mumbai and they made a profit of Rupees 8000. They both shared the profits and now the young Keshavji became known as Keshavji Sheth (it is a form of address for people prominent in the business world). This was a turning point in Keshavji’s life and from then onwards there was no limit to the fortune he amassed.
In 1838AD he married Pābubāi daughter of Vershi Pāsu of Suthari town. His second wife was Mānkabāi and third wife was called Veerbāi. In 1843AD, with Pābubāi he had a daughter named Tejbāi and in 1846AD a son named Narshibhai. With Mānkbāi he had a son named Trikamji who had a short lifespan. He did not get along well with Veerbāi.
Due to his foresight in 1842AD, Keshavji opened offices in Hong Kong as well as Africa. He had good relations with members of the Khoja community, in particular with Mr. Peerbhai Khalekadina based in Hong Kong. They both were progressing well, though some members of the Khoja community became jealous and started creating rivalry between both the communities. In 1843AD, huge riots occurred between both the communities in Mumbai lasting three days. Khato Madāi of the Lohana community was considered to be a don of the area and Keshavji reached out for his assistance. With 500 of his men, he went to the Khoja Lane and harassed the Khojas. Eventually the leader of the Khoja community Mr. Dharamshi Punjā reconciled with Keshavji maintaining peace and harmony between both the communities.
At that time William Nicol and Co., was one of the oldest trading houses in Bombay, owning ironworks, sawmills, docks, wharves and ships and also acting as agents for printed cotton sales and Indian market information. When Keshavji used to work for his mama’s company (Shivji Nenshi) he formed a close alliance with Scotsman John Nicol Fleming who was working for William Nicol. When Keshavji separated from his mama, all business from John was done with Keshavji’s new company called “Narshi Keshavji”. This saw the decline of Shivji Nenshi and the phenomenal rise of Narshi Keshavji’s business.
In 1862 there was an American Civil War and the cotton prices sky rocketed. To capitalise on this, people in Mumbai went to the extent of selling cotton in their pillows and blankets! Mumbai saw increased economic activity with many flourishing businesses. This led to the formation of many financial instituions and banks. Keshavji saw this as an opportunity and started various institutions such as
- Bank of India Limited
- Bombay Trading and Banking Association
- East India Bank Limited
- Eastern Financial Association
- Elphistone Land and Press Company
Textile mills were thriving in India. Keshavji was also a pioneer in this business. The first mill, United Mills, was established by Mangaddas Nathu followed by Royal Mills by Dinsha Manekji Pitite. Keshavji formed a mill in partnership with Bamanji Hormasji. His son, Narshi Sheth founded Narshi Spinning and Weaving Mills Ltd by investing Rupees 500,000. Many other mills were later opened. Keshavji’s important role in this industry will always be remembered.
Keshavji was also one of the prominent landlords in Mumbai. He owned large amounts of land in the Umarkhadi area.
Whilst Keshavji was a partner in Nicol company, various ports such as Clare, Carnac, Masjid, Elphinstone including huge demense were under his jurisdiction. Later, the governemnt decided to take over the control of the private ports and the Governor of Mumbai Sir Seymour Fitzgerald wrote a letter to Keshavji asking for an appointment to visit him. Keshavji accepted the invitation and lavishly decorated the entire length from Clive Road where his bungalow was situated to the Bridge at Masjid Bandar to welcome the Governor which impressed him.
The meeting with the Governor was successful and Keshavji was the first person from his community to be conferred an official Civilian Award.
Keshavji had an exclusive carriage pulled by four horses. The only other person who had such a carriage was another eminent member of the Bombay Parsi Community, Jehangir Cowasji. These carriages were used by the British Government to welcome important dignitaries. In fact huge crowds of people used to gather when the well-built Keshavji sat in carriage driven by an English coachman. There is hearsay that when the Government had issued an order that if Keshavji’s carriage was passing by the Ummarkhand Jail and if anyone was sentenced to death, they would be pardoned! There are many anecdotal interesting tales during this period in Bombay’s history.
The gorgeous Jain temple of Kothara, two tuks at Shatrunjay tirth including a temple and dharamshala were built by him at Palitana which shows his extensive love for religious activities. Having performed the consecration ceremony (“Anjana Shalaka“) was the ultimate success and joy of his illustrious career.
In 1857AD together with Sheth Shivji Nency and Sheth Velji Malu they decided to build a marvellous Jain temple in their native town of Kothara. This temple is considered to be as prestigious as some of the prominent Jain temples in Ahemdabad. This temple is one of the five tirths in the Abdasa region of Gujarat. In 1861AD, during the eight day consecration (pratistha) ceremony, an entire sangh went from Mumbai to Kothara via Palitana. The sangh reached Bhavnagar by sea. Maharaja Jaswantsinhji welcomed them. At Palitana they were royally welcomed by Maharaja Sur Singh due to his close friendship with Keshavji, even though the Maharaja had frictions with the Jain community. The temple was inaugurated under the blessings of Anchal Gacchadhipati Ratna Sagarsuriswarji Maharaj on Magh Sudi 13 (according to the Indian Lunar calendar). It is during this time, Keshavji laid the foundation of a temple and dharamshala at Palitana and the construction completed within four years.
Poet Ratan has elaborated this event in his poetry called “Anjana Shalaka Raas”. He describes that there were around 100,000 pilgrims including numerous elephants and horse carriages. Accompanying the Acharya Maharaj were 700 sadhus and sadhvis (monks and nuns). This was a momentous occasion not only for the Kutchi Oshwal community but for the entire Jain community.
In 1864AD, on Thursday Magh Sud 7, Acharya Ratansagar Suriswarji Maharaj consecrated 7000 Jain idols. This unprecedented event was celebrated over twelve days. Perhaps, in the history of Palitana such a grand festival may not have occurred. On Wednesday Mag Sudi 13, consecration ceremony occurred at the Narshi Keshavji Tonk installing Lord Abhinandan as the main deity. In Palitana, Choumukh (four faced) murtis (idols) were consecrated. After completion of the works, pratistha at the Narshi Keshavji Tonk happened in 1871AD. It is estimated that Keshavji spent Rupees 15 lacs in the construction of the temples at Palitana. He also donated Rupees 1 lac to the Anandji Kalyanji Pedhi. towards साधारण (general purpose) fund to everyones astonishment. Can anyone ever forget such a magnanimous philanthropist?
From Palitana, Keshavji along with the entire sangh proceeded to Girnar. Since all the temples were open and exposed, he decided to build a fort around them. During the renovations at Girnar in 1875AD he spent Rupees 45000. He got Surajkund renovated and also built a bungalow there. The sangh then proceeded to Ahemdabad. At Ahemdabad, the Anandji Kalyanji Pedhi extended their invitation to have one representative from their community to be within the Board of Trustees. Keshavji appointed his grandson Jethabhai who remained on their Board until the end of his lifespan. Thereafter, Sheth Raimal Shivji from Naliya became a Trustee.
In 1874AD, Keshavji renovated Shree Kunthunath and Shree Dharmanath tonk at Sammet Shikhar tirth. He also took a sangh to Kesariyaji Tirth. He also built a Jain temple at his Walkeshwar bungalow and a temple dedicated to Lord’s chief disciples (gandharas) in Bhavnagar at Godiji temple. At Motikhavdi he built a temple within a residential house and a upashray (shelter for monks and nuns). In Akola he purchased land to build a Jain temple. With the help of Maharav he bought the village of Jashapur and built residences for members of his caste. In Suthari he built a Mahajanwadi. In Palitana he got a goshala (shelter for cows) built. His wife commissioned a pathshala (school to learn Jainism) to be built called Virbai Jain Pathshala and also a Granth Bhandar (library for spiritual books).
Keshavji’s son Narshibhai was very charismatic. His wife was called Ratanbai. They had five sons called Shamji, Jethabhai, Mulji, Jivraj and Bababhai. His daughter Jamanabai got married to Sheth Bhanji Jetha who donated land to the Kutchi Dasa Oshwal Community.
Sheth Narshi had a unique social standing. He was in tune with the times and socialised in high circles to ensure that his community maintained high status. He was a strong opponent and succeeded in eradicating child marriages and child prostitution. He promoted education within his community for their welfare and progress in their lives.
There was an interesting episode of some people within his community not in favour of Rajgor Brahmans to dine at their Mahajanwadi whilst other were in favour. As a result there was no clarity within the community members. There were two camps of people. Those against were under the leadership of Sheth Harbham Narshi Natha and those in favour were under the leadership of Sheth Narshi Keshavji. Many members of the community deflected to Sheth Narshi Keshavji’s side due to his commanding oratory and negotiating skills. He advocated that the citizens decision cannot be determined by a select few community members. He promulgated democratic community proceedings. History attests to the fact that he was one of the first truly constitutional leader. Hitherto, if people convened in groups or formed a committee, they would be shunned and punished. Sheth Narshi Keshavji abolished such an archaeic custom. He died in Pune on 12 June 1900.
His son, Sheth Jethabhai succeeded as the community leader, upheld the rich tradition of his ancestors and completed his father’s incomplete work. Similarly, Jethabhai’s son Sheth Nayak also played a leading role in the community and continued the legacy of his forefathers.
In many texts it is written “Sheth Keshavji Naik’s body was huge with a large and plump face. He used to wear a beak-like turban and always travelled in a carriage drawn by four horses. Once he went to meet a relative named Valji Vardhman and was offered to sit on a grand strong chair. When Keshavji, weighing 300lbs sat on the chair, it broke into pieces!
In 1876AD, Narshi Keshavji Pedhi came to near bankruptcy due to bets on cotton and opium commodities. Shareholders took him to court. It is documented that as he was so heavy he could not climb to the first floor of the court to give his testimony. Ultimately, the special court session had to take place on the ground floor.
“During that time, wealthy people traded in cotton and travelled in carriages drawn by two horses. Amongst these wealthy people, Sheth Keshavji Nayak was seen as a “billionaire”. Sheth Keshavji Naik would travel from his bungalow in Napean Sea Road in a carriage pulled by four horses to his office in the market. His coachman would be wearing an English hat. He was a well built person. People on the road would stop to see him. He spent Rupees 23000 on a water fountain on Narshi Natha Street and presented it to the municipality. On 8 January 1876, the inauguration day of the fountain, the King of Kutch, Philip Wodehouse (Governor of Bombay) and all European and local protagonist businessmen and gentlemen gathered. There was a elaborately decorated awning built for guests from the fountain to the Masjid Bridge.
Once one of the representative of his Hong Kong offices came to visit Sheth Keshavji during the New Year to seek his blessings. Sheth Keshavji welcomed him and addressed him as “Peerbhai Sheth“. Peerbhai though Keshavji was joking, but Keshavji opened his heart and said that the real reason for addressing him as Sheth is because he had deposited Rupees 300,000 in his account for his faithfulness. Peerbhai was taken aback and tears of joy flowed from him eyes. He promised that he will remain devoted and faithful for the rest of his life and that his son Jerajbhai would also serve Keshavji Sheth in the same manner.
During the opening ceremony of the Jain temple in Kothara, he was welcomed with pomp and grandeur. Amongst the huge crowds one of his childhood friends shouted “Hey! bull like Keshaa”. Sheth Keshavji saw him come closer to him and instantly recognised him and they embraced each other. What an ironical sight. Sheth Keshavji was like the King of Kutch and his friend was putting cow dungs on huts. Extremities of life! Noticing that his ornate silk clothes were soiled by the cow dung, Sheth Keshavji remembered his childhood and tears rolled out of his eyes.
During the Anjanshalaka ceremony at Palitana, Keshavji came with a large entourage. A stately and royal welcome was to be given to the head of the Sangh. However, some disgruntled and envious people started to form a conspiracy. Keshavji challenged them and observing his adamant and fierce demeanour, the opponents backed off.
In 1884 AD on Wednesday Vaishak Sudh 15, Sheth Keshavji gave up his earthly body in Palitana. It seemed that the entire community had lost its crown. The sun had set on the entire Jain community.
1. Translated from Gujarati Book “Sheth Keshavji Naik” into English by Hinaben Vora & Sonalben Dadia
Apologies for any unintentional errors in translation.