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Sri Lankan Muslims’ links with India

By P.K. Balachandran

Like their compatriots, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, Sri Lankan Muslims also came from India. Although their links with the Indian subcontinent had weakened over the years, Sri Lankan Muslims do retain one strand in the relationship, the Tamil language.

Religion appears to have played a role in the weakening of the Muslims’ ties with India. For the Sinhalese Buddhists, India is the land of the Buddha. Buddhist lore and pilgrimages to Bodh Gaya keep up the links from generation to gneration, despite Indo-Lankan political differences and tensions. For the Tamils, the State of Tamil Nadu in South India is the home of their language and culture and, of late, a source of political support for their causes in the island.

But for the Muslims, Saudi Arabia is the home of their religion. Saudi Arabia has also become the mainspring of their culture thanks to employment in the Middle East and education in Islamic institutions there. Previously, Islamic institutions in Tamil Nadu had played that role. However, the use of Tamil and love for that language ensure that links to the Indian mainland are maintained.

A distinction has to be made here between Sri Lankan Muslims or Ceylon Moors and others such as the Indian Moors, Bohras, Kachchi Memons and Malays. Except the Malays who are from Java, the others retain links with India thanks to their involvement in trade with India and Pakistan.

“Sri Lankan Muslims” or “Ceylon Moors” are of part Arab descent. Though the earlier lot of Muslims came from the Middle East, the really significant Muslim migration came via the Malabar coast in what is now Kerala.

Marina Azeez, in her contribution to The Ethnological Survey of the Muslims of Sri Lanka (The Razik Fareed Foundation, Colombo, 1986) says: “The first Muslim fleet is said to have sailed to the Indian Ocean in 636 AD during the Caliphate of Omar; and since then, Muslim traders began settling along the Malabar coast of India wherein pre-Islamic-time Arabs had settled as far back as the 4th century AD.”

“According to Tennent (James Emerson Tennent, London, 1859), when these settlements expanded with increase in trade as well as migration, the people spread to the coasts of Sri Lanka, settled here and carried on their trading activities.”

By 7th century AD the Arabs had settled in Kayalpatnam in Tamil Nadu. From Kayalpatnam, they spread to Sri Lanka.

Although the Arabs had been traders from pre-Islamic times, Islam gave them a shot in the arm, which helped them expand trade and territorial possessions. Expansion of trade meant more settlers overseas, more marriages with local women, and more converts from non-Arab communities.

Sri Lanka Muslims1“By the 9th century AD all trade between Europe and the East was transferred to the Arabs, and by the 14th. Century AD they were operating in the region of the Persian gulf, the Indian Ocean, the Malay Archipelago and China,” Azeez observes.

The Muslims of Arab-Indian origin from Malabar and Kayalpatnam, along with those from Arab lands, settled in Colombo and Beruwela with Beruwela receiving its first Muslim immigrants in 1024. The art of weaving was introduced in Beruwela by migrants from Kayalpatnam.

Muslims of Arab and mixed Arab-Indian descent, married local women in Sri Lanka. They took Tamil wives because the Tamils populated the coast and were also in trade. But soon the Muslim ventured into the interior with their bullock cart transport system, called the Thavalama the caravan. They settled in many parts of interior Sri Lanka. According to Dr.Ameer Ali, most of the operators of the Thavalama transport system were Indo-Arab Muslims from South India.

Links With Kerala

The Muslims’ links with Kerala are clearly seen in the Eastern Province. In Batticaloa, the Arabs and those of Arab-Indian descent married local women from the dominant Mukkuvar caste, who were themselves early migrants from the Malabar Coast. The had come to Eastern Sri Lanka via Mannar and Jaffna in the 4th century AD.

It is therefore not surprising that the Muslims and Mukkuvars of Batticaloa practice matriliny or the system of tracing descent through the female (or the mother’s) line. As in Kerala, they organized themselves into matrilineal “kudis” or clans.

Arabic Tamil

However, a factor distinguishing the Sri Lankan Muslims from the Indian Moors is a form of Tamil known as Arabic Tamil. Arabic Tamil uses Arabic words and expressions and may be written in the Arabic script also. The 16 th.Century Portuguese chronicler, Duartes Barbossa, reported that in the port of Colombo, the Muslims spoke a mixture of Arabic and Tamil and used the Arabic script to write Tamil. Earlier, Sri Lankan Muslims produced literature in Arabic-Tamil. Both the Arabic and the Tamil scripts were used by the authors.

However, Arabic Tamil as a literary tool vanished over time. Today Sri Lankan Muslims use the purest form of Tamil in their writings and formal speech, though their day to day spoken Tamil may have Arabic terms and expressions. Indian Moors, especially those with continued links with South India, speak Tamil as spoken in Tamil Nadu.

Muslims living in the Sinhala areas are responsible for the survival of Tamil in these areas. As the Late Prof Karthigesu Sivathamby put it: “If Tamil is heard today in the villages deep inside Sinhala country, it is because of the Muslims. But for them, Tamil would have vanished from the Sinhala areas.”

Performing Arts

In the field of the performing arts, the influence of Tamil Nadu and Kerala is clear. MMM Mahroof in his paper “Performing and Other Arts of the Muslims” portrays the Silambam or Silambattam, which shows dexterity in the handling of sticks, as an “Arab art” though he admits that Silambam is popular in Kerala and the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu also.

The Kali Kambu dance, a dance done by men with small sticks, is also said to be Arab origin. But it is also identified with the Moplahs of Kerala who are of mixed Arab-Malayali origin. Villu Pattu, a very Tamil musical form, was part of the Muslim folk arts earlier.

Sri Lanka Muslims2However, these links with Tamil Nadu and Kerala have either disappeared, or are fast vanishing partly because of modernization and partly because of Islamization of the Sri Lankan Muslims since the 1980s.

Impact of Portuguese Rule

The arrival of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka in 1505 had a devastating impact on the Muslims. The Portuguese took on the Muslims both on the Malabar Coast and in Sri Lanka, with an intention to cripple them. Force was used unabashedly to drive the Muslims out of the Western seaboard of Sri Lanka.

Taking pity on them, the Sinhala king of Kandy, Senarath, gave the fleeing Muslims land to cultivate in Batticaloa district on the Eastern coast. This had a deep impact on the Muslims because intrepid traders became successful peasants in a short time.

British Rule

After the nightmare of Portuguese and Dutch rule, the Muslims rose to freedom under British rule which began at the fag end of the 18 th.Century and consolidated itself in the entire island from 1815 onwards. Indian influence caught up with the Lankan Muslims again, because the British ruled India too. Trade with the Coromandel, Malabar and Western Indian coasts flourished. The Indian Moors made the most of British rule, naturally. British rule also led to the influx of non-Tamil speaking Muslims from India such as the Bohras, Kachchi Memons, Urdu speaking Muslims from North India and some from Bengal too.

(Courtesy: Daily Mirror)

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