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Origins

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Gujaratis/Rasesh Thakkar

The Gujaratis have come to Canada from several countries, but they all trace their ethnic and cultural heritage to a state in northwestern India called Gujarat. Facing the Arabian Sea and sharing an international border with Pakistan, the Indian state of Gujarat covers nearly 196,000 square kilometres. The Indian census of 1981 recorded 34 million inhabitants in Gujarat, but, with an annual population growth of 2.7 percent per year, it is estimated that the population has now reached about 50 million.

Based on the 1981 figures, 91 percent of the population speak Gujarati, an Indo-Aryan language of partly Prakratic and Sanskritic origin that over the centuries has been strongly influenced by Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Portuguese, and English vocabulary. Gujarati has its own script and since the twelfth century has developed a rich literature whose most famous writer was the twentieth-century religious and political leader Mohandas Gandhi, known throughout India as the Mahatma, the Hindi word for “Great Soul.” The vast majority of Gujarat’s population are Hindus (89.5 percent), followed by smaller numbers of Muslims (8.5 percent) – both Gujarati- and Urdu-speaking – Jains (1 percent), and a tiny Zoroastrian/Parsi minority. (See also ISMAILIS; PARSIS; SOUTH ASIANS.)

In early times the Gujarati homeland was known by different names. It acquired its present appellation in the tenth century, when the kingdom of Gujarat, or Gurjardesh, was founded in the northern part of the present-day state. In subsequent centuries, Gujarat’s boundaries changed under a succession of different political regimes headed by Hindu, Jain, Mughal, and finally, at the end of the eighteenth century, British rulers. In 1810 the British incorporated Gujarati lands into its Indian state known as the Bombay Presidency. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Bombay state was renowned for its growth of cotton, with the chief centre for the production of cloth based in the Gujarati city of Ahmadabad. After India became independent in 1947, Gujarati territory came under various administrative entities until in 1960 the separate state of Gujarat was created.

Gujarat’s complex historic past and the absence of a distinct territorial entity in modern times has contributed to the internal divisions that characterize the present-day state. Gujarat has six regions, each of which is distinguished by physical geography, dialectal differentiation, cultural nuances, and local pride. Nevertheless, a sense of Gujarati cultural unity has been nurtured over the centuries by the Gujarati language and literature. These have been the main sources of a distinct Gujarati identity that has been sustained regardless of which regime has ruled in the homeland or in which country Gujaratis have lived as immigrants abroad.