Nearly two hundred years ago, in 1812, a bazra (big country boat) sailed into Mancachar in Assam from Azimganj in Murshidabad district of Bengal. It occupant was Mahasingh Rai Meghraj Kuthari, a wholesale trader of foodgrains who had heard paeans of praise of the area’s jute and cotton. After dropping anchor at Mancachar, Kuthari expanded his business to other places of the region, including Tezpur, a place that since 1818 virtually served as the firm’s local head office.

Business flourished and he sent his son Zalim Singh Kuthari to Guwahati. In 1828, Zalim Singh opened a wholesale shop in town, the firm’s 18th branch in the region. The shop was located near the ghat in Fancy Bazar in order to aid easy navigability of goods.

According to Aridaman Singh Kuthari and Suprabhat Singh Kuthari - the senior Kutharis of the 21st century, Meghraj Kuthari introduced masur dali (red lentil) and nimakh (white ocean salt) in Assam. Large and spacious boats used to bring in salt and masur dali along with other merchandise while on the return trip the boat used to carry back jute, cotton and sometimes resham silk. This arrangement optimally utilized the transport system and it could thus release goods at low rates. Herein of course lay the secret of the firm’s success.

True to the Rajput spirit (before migrating to Azimganj, the Kutharis belonged to Bikaner in Rajputana), the Kutharis took up challenging tasks. After tea estates were established in Assam, the house built close liaison with various gardens and by the 1860s started issuing hundis to a few gardens against a commission. In certain cases they also became the local financiers of the gardens. Interestingly when the RSN and ISN Companies started their steamship carrier business in eastern India in the first quarter of the 20th century, it was the Kuthari family which acquired exclusive right of the transmission network of radio telephones for the vessels. For this, a special jetty was also allotted to Messrs Mahasingh Rai Meghraj. At a later stage, they were to become the chief carrier of goods of the RSN and ISN Companies.

During a very crucial stage of the Bhutan war this business firm helped the British Army for which Meghraj was conferred the title of Rai Bahadur by the British Government. The citation given to Meghraj, signed by Johan Lawrence, Viceroy and Governor General of India and dated October 8, 1867, reads: “In consideration of the useful service rendered to the state during the Bhutan campaign, I hereby confer upon you the title of Rai Bahadur as a personal distinction.”

The house never neglected business. During the 1930s, it had a record 64 shops in different parts of Assam making it the largest wholesales dealer of foodgrains in the region during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. It is interesting to note that the company had drawn up a detailed map indicating the exact location of the gaddis of its business empire in Assam at least a hundred years ago.

Apart from business, the Kuthari family excelled in other fields too. Dilip Singh Kuthari played football for the Guwahati Town Club and later a mark as goalkeeper of Mohan Bagan Club, Calcutta. Amal Kuthari was the pre-Olympic captain of the Indian Water Polo squad. Manoj Kuthari, the world champion in billiards is a product of the extended Kuthari family. Suprabhat Singh Kuthari is a keen philatelist and rifle shooter of Assam. Octogenarian Aridaman Kuthari served as vice-chairman of Guwahati municipality for two terms.

The philanthropy of the family has also been unique because it has never publicized its generous donations. All along the family has followed the tradition of guptadaan or secret donation. Very few know that land for several religious and charitable institution like the Sangenaria Dharmasala, Panchayeti Thakurbari, Hanuman Mandir, Mahavir Akhra etc., in the city were donated by the Kuthari family. In fact there was a time it also dug up drinking water wells in several towns of Assam.

This old business house has the distinction of being the town’s first sales tax payer. Records reveal that the CS Tax that it paid through the erstwhile Imperial Bank bears CST Account No 1. It was possibly also the proud owner of the first motor vehicle (a Ford) in town, if the registration no - - ASK 1 - - is any indication. Even today the firm has a made-in-England iron chest cemented on the wall of its old gaddi and which bears a golden British royal insignia. It goes back to the days when the British Government occasionally used to safeguard its revenue in this chest, when under certain circumstances it had to halt its ships laden with taxes from the people midway in Guwahati.

Messrs Mahasingh Rai Meghraj, popularly known as Bargola of Fancy Bazar, is the oldest surviving business house of town today carrying with it nearly a two-century-old legacy. It is not surprising therefore that when Guwahati Municipality was established in 1853 the town post was installed at the corner of this business house. Even today a city street takes its name after Meghraj Rai, founder of the Bargola business empire.