UAE: Meet the 'wealthiest' Indian expat in the former Trucial States

Uttamchand Tulsidas Bhatia, who was affectionately known as Uttra, embraced the Emirati way of life



Uttamchand Tulsidas Bhatia (left) with Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum at Zabeel Palace. (Supplied photos)
Uttamchand Tulsidas Bhatia (left) with Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum at Zabeel Palace. (Supplied photos)
by

Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Wed 1 Dec 2021, 9:03 PM

Last updated: Thu 16 Dec 2021, 7:04 PM

This is an incredible story of a Thathai Bhatia — a Chandravanshi Rajput clan, who traces their origins to the ruling ‘Bhatti’ clan from Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, in undivided India. In the 14th century, the community moved to the province of Thatta in Sindh in modern-day Pakistan.

The community members moved to various parts of India after the Partition in 1947 and then migrated across the globe, especially in the Middle East to countries such as the UAE, Bahrain and Oman.

Uttamchand Tulsidas Bhatia (1910-86) — who was affectionately known as Uttra — is, perhaps, the first and the wealthiest Indian expatriate in the then Trucial States.

Bhatia, orphaned at a tender age and left to the care of an exploitative uncle, came to ‘Dabai’ — as the emirate was known back in the day — in 1920 and set up his own shop in 1922.

The store, which was set up in 1922, was originally known as 'Uttra's shop', but officially became known as Uncle's Shop.
The store, which was set up in 1922, was originally known as 'Uttra's shop', but officially became known as Uncle's Shop.

Those days, it was known as ‘Uttra’s shop’ because no formal registration of a trade name was available, and such norms came into force only in the early 1960s. The enterprise was more about serving the community than doing business.

Dabai was gaining ground as a trading port under colonial British rule. Merchants from various parts of the world — most notably undivided India — set sail on the Arabian Sea and came to Dabai that had started to flourish in its seafaring tradition.

Dabai and the other emirates in the Trucial States were renowned for pearls. Indian merchants exchanged spice and silk in lieu of pearls.

Bhatia’s phenomenal rise as a wealthy and generous merchant would not have been possible had it not been for the kind intervention of Sheikha Hessa bint Al Murr, the wife of the then Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum.

Bhatia carried rolls of cloth — known as taka — on his shoulders; cooked his own vegetarian meals; and roughed it out in the emirate, where civic amenities such as potable water and electricity were few and far between. He used to deliver the clothes to the Royal household.

Soon, he became a close confidante of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who was his contemporary and went on to succeed his father, Sheikh Saeed.

Vijay Bhatia, Uttamchand's son, exchanging pleasantries with His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
Vijay Bhatia, Uttamchand's son, exchanging pleasantries with His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

Emiratis and Arabs referred to Bhatia’s shop as Uttra’s Textile that traded in goods known in Arabic as Khalak Al Gandhi or Gandhi’s clothing.

Soon, he diversified to the pearl business. He became so successful in pearl trading that he came to be referred to as Banyan Lulu (Banyan refers to merchant and Lulu means pearls in Arabic).

Deepak Bhatia, Uttamchand's grandson, holds a book about pearl trading. (Photo by Rahul Gajjar)
Deepak Bhatia, Uttamchand's grandson, holds a book about pearl trading. (Photo by Rahul Gajjar)

He supported the pearl divers, who would venture out into the sea in boats with food and water supplies enough to last three months. Bhatia lent them money wholeheartedly and unconditionally.

During World War II, Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum (father of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum) gave Bhatia special permission to trade in food grains, which he sold at modest prices to help the community that was struck by rising inflation.

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His friends’ list read like a who’s who of modern Dubai — such as Thani bin Abdullah, the first director of Customs and speaker of the Supreme Council; Saif Al Ghurair; Sultan Owais; Abdullah Rostamani; Mohammed Saeed Al Mulla; and Essa Saleh Al Gurg, among others.

Deepak Bhatia with Saif Al Ghurair and Mohammed Saeed Al Mulla.
Deepak Bhatia with Saif Al Ghurair and Mohammed Saeed Al Mulla.

In an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times back in 1981, Bhatia had mentioned that he was not an expatriate but a local, in recognition to which the Ruler of Dubai had honoured him with a special decree permitting him Emirati rights, including making investments in properties in the UAE.

One of his three sons, Vijay Bhatia, who followed in his footsteps and managed the textile business and unfortunately passed away last year, had said in an earlier interview: “My father’s shop was like a majlis. The Ruler’s office was nearby and the shop was a one-stop destination for officials who took a break before meeting Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum.”

Bhatia would cook special Bhatia meal for Sheikh Rashid, who would relish yoghurt, pulses, rice and sira, a sweet dish. He was invited to weddings at the palace, where he and his friends would be served vegetarian meals, dates, dried fruits and camel’s milk in aluminium containers.

Bhatia’s legacy lives on as the third and fourth generation. Vijay’s son Deepak is in the business of construction materials. His grandson Yash is into renewables, sustainability.

Time and tide — akin to all forces of nature — will change, but Bhatia’s contributions to the golden nation will live forever in the memories of all those whose lives he had touched upon.

The Bhatia family continues to enjoy close relationships with the UAE’s Royal families as a tribute to the patriarch’s rich contributions to his adopted motherland.

Late Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and Minister of Finance, with Deepak and Vijay Bhatia.
Late Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and Minister of Finance, with Deepak and Vijay Bhatia.

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