The First Cigarette

The 1860s and 70s were a difficult time for the old and noble families of Delhi. The changes ushered in after the rising of 1857 had precipitated the decline of the city that had begun with the invasion of Nadir Shah over a century ago. The grandeur of the old Mughal capital was gone and with it disappeared the wealth and commerce. This was the era of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and his poetry of decrepitude and nostalgic longing. Old merchant families were particularly badly hit.

The Ellahies were just such an old family of Delhi merchants. By the 1870s it was being run by Hajee Karam Ellahie. The writing was however, on the wall and the family realized that opportunities in Delhi were dwindling. Karam’s much younger brother, Bukhsh, an ambitious young man therefore decided that he would not sit around waiting for the decline to be complete. Rather he would take on the challenges of the new era head on.

If Delhi was in decline, the new capital of the British, Calcutta, had been growing rapidly over the same period. By the second half of the nineteenth century it was a city bursting with opportunities, ideas and wealth. Young Bukhsh decided the best way to approach the new age was to move to Calcutta. In 1878 he joined an old Muslim firm in Calcutta as a young apprentice hoping to pick up enough skills to survive in the new order.

Gauhar Jaan in a Cigarette Advertisement

During his time in the city, Ellahie also keenly observed his fellow denizens closely. Amongst the new fashions that caught his eye was the habit of smoking cigarettes. The British army had picked up the habit during the Crimean War in the mid-1850s from their Turkish rivals. Unbeknownst to Ellahie precisely around the 1880s, when he was apprenticing in Calcutta, a new cigarette-rolling machine was making it faster and cheaper to produce cigarettes commercially.

A shrewd businessman, Bukhsh soon asked his older brother to lend him some capital to start a business importing tobacco to make cigarettes. In 1885, with his brother’s loan, Bukhsh set up Bukhsh Ellahie & Co. Apart from new production techniques he also adopted new advertising techniques to popularize the new trend in the city. Cashing in on the growing celebrity of the Hindustani classical singer, Gauhar Jaan, Bukhsh Ellahie launched a brand of local cigarettes called the ‘Gauhar be Baha’. he also distributed free cigarettes to the army as a precocious new promotional tool.

The brand and the business were an enormous success. Before the century ended, Bukhsh was one of the richest men in the city. So complete was Bukhsh Ellahie’s domination of the local market that when foreign firms such as Wills and ATC first came to India, they had to enter into partnerships with Ellahie and depend upon the latter’s distribution networks. Until 1901 the firm of Bukhsh Ellahie therefore remained the sole agents for the major foreign tobacco companies. It was only in 1901 that E.J. Parrish, the manager of ATC’s Indian operations eliminated Ellahie’s sole agency and instead set up its own distribution depot at 95, Clive Street, Calcutta, with its own devoted staff. While the partnership flourished however, Ellahie innovated once more and advertised the partnership using yet another then still fairly new commodity, i.e. matchboxes.

Matchbox label issued by Bukhsh Ellahie & Co. advertising their partnership with British American Tobacco.

Bukhsh Ellahie & Co. were, as they themselves would later advertise, unquestionably the “Pioneer of the Tobacco Trade in India”. Yet, their mercantile portfolio were not limited to tobacco, or indeed matches. Ellahie was a general merchant and dealt in a wide variety of goods. He was also an official supplier for the Indian Army, thereby acquiring a large and lucrative captive market. Above all, they were one of the first local firms to recognize the importance of foreign trade and worked hard to develop international trading partnerships.

In time, Hajee Bukhsh Ellahie became members of both the Bengal and Punjab Chambers of Commerce and was honored by the British government, first with the title of Khan Bahadur and later, with the Companion of the Indian Empire (C.I.E.). He also became a well-known philanthropist and built or sustained several charitable institutions in his adopted city, Calcutta. On Chitpur Road he built a Musafirkhana or a Traveler’s Lodge. He also founded an orphanage and an association for the burial of indigent Muslims.

Notwithstanding recent awareness of the unhealthfulness of smoking, Calcuttans continue to smoke in large numbers today. A recent survey found the city is the highest consumer of cigarettes in all of India. Few of these modern smokers however, have ever heard of Bukhsh Ellahie. His once legendary fame and wealth have, alas, disappeared from public memory like the smoke from his Gauhar cigarettes.


  1. SuV

    I am really impressed with the level of research and detail presented here. Hope to read more of this. I wouldn’t mind tagging along for a collective enterprise either. Great work!

  2. Alexander Clays

    Dear Sir, read your very interesting article with great pleasure. I was writing an article on Indian Playing Card related Cigarette cards for CTD, the journal of American 52 plus Joker Club. I could find very little info on Bukhsh Ellahie &Co. Up till I found your article.
    Would it be all wright if I quote part of your article and some pictures for a next CTD article?

  3. Projit B. Mukharji

    Dear Mr. Clays,
    I am glad to hear that you found the post useful. You are most welcome to quote it.
    I would love to read your article too, if you might be willing to share it.
    I have some other playing card cigarette cards from India so would love to learn more about them.
    Best wishes,

  4. Rashid Rafiq

    Dear Sir,

    This is the story of my great great grand father ,I will be great full to you if you have any more story about him .

    Thank you

    • Projit B. Mukharji

      Many thanks for reading and commenting. I would love to learn more about your great great grandfather.
      Very best wishes,

    • Mohammed Faisal

      Dear Rashid Bhai
      Want to know more about Haji Bukhsh Elahi
      as my fore father also belongs from Old Delhi with same name and same profession in same period
      please share your contact details

      • Rashid Rafiq

        Dear Faisal AA

        My name is Rashid Rafiq my father name is M Rafiq Chatman my grand father Khan Sahib Haji Mohammed Rafi my great grand father Khan Sahib Haji Bukhsh Ellahi I am in Holland my email is
        Hope to hear from you soon.
        Allah Hafiz

  5. Kathinka Sinha Kerkhoff

    Thank you, Sir

    This is great information you provide here! I am working on the history of tobacco in India and would love to meet you to discuss more if possible. Would this be possible?


  6. Sujit Sanyal

    Some of us, mostly have beens in advertising run Oly’s The Advertising Roundtable ( A very senior colleague, Ms Gini Sen alerted us about Gohar Jan and cigarette advertising. Can we have your consent to publish this in our website and FB platforms with full acknowledgement, please?

    • Projit B. Mukharji

      Many thanks for reading my post. I have responded to you over email about the republishing request.

  7. Upendra Bhojani

    Thank you for this detailed post – its well researched and written. What I find amusing is that while it is not unusual for women to appear in cigarettes advertisements in India – they have rarely been shown as smoking or holding a cigarette. Most cigarette advertisements are targeted at men showing men smoking. So far, I came across only two exceptions – one that of Gauhar Jaan as you reveal in this post and only other is of an urban elite Indian woman holding a cigarette in hand for Bombay Special Cigarettes calendar in 1930. Do you know of any more such women smoking ad from India? Do you know more about Gauhar Jaan ad – was it not a taboo to feature a woman smoking? Was that ad targeted at women or men? I am a public health doctor and have a keen interest in tobacco history. Thanks again for your post

    • Projit B. Mukharji

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comment. I cannot think of any other advertising image from the period showing an Indian woman smoking, but will think about it a little more and get back to you if I do come across any others. I have certainly seen 19th C images of elite women with hukkas, but can’t recall another one with a cigarette. One thing to keep in mind though, is that Gauhan Jaan was after all a courtesan and hence the codes of “respectability” and “taboos” for her would have been different from the average elite Indian woman of the time. Showing her with a cigarette might not therefore rule out taboos against respectable women smoking.

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