Sometime in the year 1342, the Moroccan traveller Ibn Batutah made his way from Delhi to Cambay, a busy port on India’s western coast. Cambay’s governor – a man named Muqbil – welcomed him with a banquet at his mansion. The reception, according to Ibn Batutah, was a jovial affair.

In addition to the famed traveller from the Moroccan city of Tangiers, the party included high-profile men like a local Muslim judge, or qadi, and a nobleman, or sharif, from Baghdad. The host, Muqbil, was from Telangana in southern India and his deputy, says Ibn Batutah, was a wealthy and erudite, and somewhat homesick, man from Isfahan.

That Ibn Batutah met such a wide mix of people in a town that is barely known today outside Gujarat should not surprise us. In the 14th century, Cambay – Kinbaya or Kanbaya in Arabic, or Khambhat as Gujarati-speaking locals would have called it – was among many vibrant trading cities on the Indian Ocean’s shores.

From the tenth to the 16th centuries, Cambay and other Asian and African cities like it – Calicut, Hormuz, Kilwa, Mogadishu, Aden, Jeddah, Samudera Pasai, Malacca and Guangzhou – were some of the world’s booming commercial centres: places where numerous people, ideas, and goods mingled freely.

These Indian Ocean connections shaped the Indian subcontinent in ways that remain curiously underappreciated today. Land-based Delhi-centred empires dominate the popular imagination. This is despite the fact that in recent years there has been a lot of exciting academic work on the ways that complex practicalities of trade and financial exchange developed across the ocean. Many of these studies show that port cities like Cambay were hotspots of these interconnections.

One factor that made Cambay’s success possible was its location in the eponymous Gulf.

While the Gulf of Cambay or Khambhat connected the city to the age-old Indian Ocean networks on the west, land and river routes in east, north, and south linked it to a rich agricultural hinterland.

As a result, Cambay emerged as the Indian subcontinent’s foremost port, buzzing with people and products from across the globe, for nearly six centuries – from the late 900s to 1500s common era, or CE. During its high point, in the 14th and 15th centuries, Cambay was even used as an alternative name for the larger political unit, Gujarat, itself.

A portion of a map of the Gulf of Cambay. Credit: Page 56 of the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, the British Library, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cambay’s long history reveals that this pre-colonial city had many of the elements we assume as being unique to modern urban centres: a flourishing multicultural population, diverse specialised occupations, and an administration attuned to extending its attractiveness to profitable business enterprise.

The city’s astonishing multilingual and multicultural character is apparent not just from travellers’ anecdotes, but in the material remains that Cambay’s own residents left behind.

The late scholar and epigraphist ZA Desai closely read and analysed several stone inscriptions – some recording their donations, others their deaths – that survive from the 13th and 14th centuries. These are written in Arabic and Persian, and sometimes include an additional Sanskrit section. These literary languages apart, in their daily lives, people in Cambay would have used spoken versions of Arabic and Persians as well as other languages like Gujarati and Gujari, a western Indian style of Urdu.

The snapshots of the assortment of inhabitants – men and occasionally women – who lived and died in Cambay as depicted in these short texts on stone is remarkable. They are neither royal nor aristocratic but relatively common people rarely visible in the historical record.

Among them, Desai found that several Persians and Iraqis had settled in Cambay – in some cases, for more than one generation. One example is the prominent family with the appellation al-Bammi, referring to Bamm, a town in Iran’s Kirman district.

Desai also came across another multi-generational family with the name Irbili – from Irbil, a town in Mosul in modern Iraq – that had settled in the port-city. One of the three epigraphs commemorating its members refer to the deceased as “king of merchants and prince of shipmasters”.

Cambay’s residents had varied occupations: merchants, ministers, sailors, craftsmen, and scholars. While many of the city’s inhabitants were involved in commercial activities, they seem to have had other interests too: a certain “Zainuddin Ali, son of Salar al-Yazdi”, who died in 1287 CE, for instance, was a Sufi and a poet. Some of his Persian verses – a ghazal and two ruba’is or quatrains – are inscribed on the stone slab that commemorates his death.

Muslin, marble and silks

If the city’s urban demographics are surprising for what we expect of “medieval” times, its economy is even more so. International trade was at the heart of Cambay’s prosperity. A dazzling array of commodities travelled back and forth between Cambay and various Asian and African ports.

Throughout the sailing season, which in the western Indian Ocean ran from mid-September to early May, numerous merchants risked shipwrecks, drowning, and other vagaries of pre-modern sea-travel, to buy and sell a range of goods – goods that people around the Indian Ocean world would have used, collected, cooked, eaten, or worn.

From Cambay, they took expensive items such as precious stones, especially agates and carnelians, pearls, perfumes, fine muslins and silks. They also bought items for everyday use like coarse cotton cloth, pulses, rice, spices, and coconuts and commodities like indigo that had industrial and medicinal uses.

In turn, Cambay demanded an equally wide assortment from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf ports for subcontinental consumption. Even a single observer’s report is telling: the 16th-century Portuguese writer and official Duarte Barbosa, on a visit to Aden, found that ships going to Cambay were laden with “madder, opium, raisins…copper, quicksilver, vermillion, and a great store of rosewater…much woollen cloth, colored Mecca velvets, gold in ingots, coined and to be coined (and some strings), and camlets”.

A detail from a 16th-17th century painted kalamkari textile depicting celestial musicians, likely produced at the workshops of Ahmadabad and Cambay. Credit: In Public Domain, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Although precise data on the goods that drove the bulk of trade is hard to come by, there is strong evidence of three products that were manufactured in and around Cambay itself that people wanted across the world. These were: printed textiles, both cottons and silks, beads made from carnelian and other agates quarried in local mines, and a kind of leather shoe or sandal referred to as “Kanbayan” that seems to have been a well-known Cambay-made product sold around Indian Ocean markets.

But a much heavier item made in Cambay – elaborately carved marble slabs – seems to have had a long appeal for global elites. These were primarily sought after by Muslim patrons around the Indian Ocean littoral, from east Africa to Java. They were used in buildings and for cenotaphs commemorating deaths.

Art historian Elizabeth Lambourn, who researched the carvings found that this famed export commodity was most coveted from the 13th to the mid-15th centuries, although it continued to be produced even later.

Cambay-gravestones are an example of how artistic styles intermingled and borrowed freely to create new motifs. Lambourn, a professor of Material Histories at De Montfort University in the United Kingdom, writes, “This production grew out of the strong pre-existing marble-carving activity at the port for Jaina and Hindu patrons.”

For instance, she suggests that there was a “natural association between the Islamic motif of the lamp hanging within a cusped arch requested by Muslim patrons and the cauri” or wedding pavilion, in Jaina manuscript illustrations. The craftspeople probably adapted the various familiar elements for their global Muslim patrons.

A carved marble tombstone from Cambay. Credit: Thomas Quine, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The rulers of Cambay

Cambay’s success was not an accident. Its many rulers played an active role in building and sustaining the port-city. Two prominent Gujarat-based empires form the bookends of Cambay’s long haul as a commercial hub: first the Solankis, also known as Chaulukyas, who ruled from Patan from 940 to 1244 CE, and second, their later successors, the Ahmadabad-based Gujarati sultans, whose reign lasted from 1407 to 1572 CE.

Both these dispensations were “regional” states rather than Delhi-centred pan-Indian empires. The two could not be more distinct from one other. The Solankis were Shiva-worshippers who had emerged from local western Indian clans. The Gujarat Sultans, who had roots in north western India’s warrior traditions, had a Muslim lineage. They had broken away from the famous Delhi sultanate in the early 1400s to make Gujarat their home.

Both the administrations were deeply aware of Cambay’s importance. We can only reconstruct a fragmentary picture of how the two dynasties governed Cambay and managed the port city’s multi-religious and multiethnic society. But its lasting prominence is a testimonial that the measures worked.

The Solankis, and then the Ahmadabad sultans, built, repaired, and linked road networks from Gujarat’s rich agricultural lands and manufacturing centers to Cambay. This supported the flow of goods and people that went in and out the port. They also encouraged professionals to settle in the city, ensured their safety, and encouraged various social groups to coexist smoothly.

The Solankis were reputed to have been particularly concerned about the welfare of the town’s Arab and Persian merchants, who were the primary movers of goods from Cambay across the Indian Ocean. Siddharaja, the most renowned of the Solanki kings whose reign lasted from 1094 to 1143, was also a pious Shiva devotee and patron of temples.

Yet, according to another north African visitor, the geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi, who came to the city during Siddharaja’s reign, Cambay’s multi-ethnic Muslim traders had their own mosques and access to the king in times of trouble.

Two centuries later, the acclaimed Gujarati sultan, Mahmud Begada, who ruled from 1458 to 1511, also encouraged craftspeople as well as religious leaders and intellectuals to settle in Cambay and other cities in his kingdom, thus enhancing Gujarat’s vibrant urban character.

To maintain Cambay as an attractive economic centre, the sultans had to be nimble. Historical records reveal impressive details of what it took to manage the nitty-gritty of this effort. In the year 1512, for instance, Mahmud Begada’s son, Muzaffar II, who ruled from 1511 to 1526, declared that previously imposed taxes at the port and the surrounding district were to be reduced.

We know this from an extant four-foot-tall stone inscription in Persian that he commissioned in Cambay. According to the inscription, Sultan Muzaffar recognised several existing taxes as unfair and hence announced their removal or reduction. The carved text mentions that this was done “with the view to ensure the prosperity of the condition and wellbeing of the inhabitants of and travellers to the district of Cambay”.

His amendments included the reduction of monthly rent and service tax on the boxes carried from the harbour to various ports, those imposed on agricultural produce, and the shroffs’ banking or money changing services. Moreover, Muzaffar reduced the tax on the sweetmeat makers, or kandoi. One wonders just how significant this trade in confections would have been for the Sultan to have the exemptions on it carved in stone.

An illustration depicting a view of Cambay. Credit: Credit: Forbes, James; Hooker, William Jackson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Saints and spirituality

Cambay was also the port of entry for another group of travellers coming to India: saints and intellectuals from distant shores. This was the era when the rest of India was also witnessing a churn: a variety of new heterodox voices – Basavanna, Kabir, Mirabai for instance – were gathering followers across the subcontinent.

Cambay, true to form, produced its own particular blends of piety and commerce. The most famous of these is Baba or Bawa Ghor, a holy figure linked to Cambay’s beadmaking industry.

Bawa Ghor, it is believed, was a Sufi of either Abyssinian or Nubian origins. He may have made his way to India’s western coast from Mecca sometime in the 12th century and settled in Ratanpur, or Village of Gems, in Gujarat about 95 kilometres from Cambay. This is also where his remains are said to be enshrined.

From around the 15th century, Bawa Ghor came to be venerated as the beadmakers’ patron saint. Even today, stone miners from Ratanpur pray to him before descending into their dark shafts; Cambay’s bead cutters throng to his annual festival; and, a banded agate is named Babaghori after him.

Over time, other layers of spirituality were added on to Bawa Ghor. A local goddess was incorporated into the beliefs that coalesced around him. He was adopted by the small but significant, African-descended, community of Siddis.

From as early as the seventh century, the Siddis arrived as merchants, sailors, soldiers and slaves on board Indian Ocean vessels. Like the legendary saint, they settled in Gujarat. It is perhaps unsurprising then that they consider him one of their own and revere him to this day.

Bawa Ghor is one among the many who traversed the Indian Ocean and morphed in unexpected ways into the subcontinent’s relentlessly inventive landscape. It was Cambay that shaped his unlikely spiritual journey, much in the same manner as it did the marble gravestones that once dotted the great cities of the Indian Ocean.

The loss of Cambay’s cosmopolitan world in public memory is a double tragedy. For one, it feeds the myth of Europeans as the pioneers of global trade – intricate webs of exchange existed for centuries before they “discovered” the Indian Ocean.

Moreover, the violent European colonial rule that came in the guise of merchants left the subcontinent forever suspicious of “foreign” goods and ideas. Yet there was once a time when international trade without gunboats and traders without fleets was the norm in the Indian Ocean and cities like Cambay, its thriving heart.

Aparna Kapadia is a historian of South Asia at Williams College in the US. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.