The story of the Indian family that built an empire in Hawaii and helped popularise aloha wear

 

Thousands of South Asians traversed this route – between mainland US and India, via Hawaii – over the next few decades, but the one among them who played a key role in the foundation of a business empire came in the early 20th century.

Rochirdas Dharamdas, an Indian merchant, was on his way back from San Francisco when he stopped in Honolulu in 1914 and was swept away. Something about the town, its quiet beautiful streets, horse-drawn carriages and weather charmed Dharamdas and he saw its potential as an entrepot. With his partner Jhamandas Watumull, he opened a store on Honolulu’s Hotel Street that bore both their last names – Dharamdas & Watumull.

Dharamdas & Watumull sold exotic goods sourced from East and South Asia and countries along the Pacific Rim: ivory crafts, brassware, silks from China and Japan, batik prints from Java, and the Spanish shawls that were especially popular in Manila. The store was a success. Its fortunes spurred a wave of expansion that included a landmark department store on Honolulu’s Fort Street. It also laid the foundations for the Watumull family from Hyderabad in Sindh to build an empire that has been involved economically, culturally and philanthropically in Hawaiian life for more than a century. With its investments in real estate – in Hawaii and on the US mainland – its philanthropic work related to cultural and educational institutes, the story of the Watumulls is inextricably linked to the recent history of the Hawaiian Islands.


                                             A clipping from Honolulu Star-Bulletin, February 23, 1931.

East India Store

Born in 1895 in Hyderabad in Sindh, Jhamandas Watumull was the oldest of nine siblings. He was 14 when his father, a brick-laying contractor, was left paralysed for life in an accident while overseeing the installation of a part of the town’s water supply system.