TamilWeek Apr 9, 2006
Lankan Muslims' historical links with India

By PK Balachandran

Sri Lanka's indigenous Muslims, called Ceylon Moors, like other
communities in the island, have had historical ties with India,
especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala in South India.

India's impact on the Ceylon Moors (a community distinct from Indian
Moors who are more recent Muslim migrants from India) cannot be
ignored because it can be seen in the language, culture and practices
of the community.

The active links have snapped, but the legacy is there for all to see.

Early migration from Kerala

Ceylon Moors are of Arab descent. Although from the earliest times,
Arabs from the Gulf had been coming straight to the island for trade,
the really significant migration for settlement 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 what is
now Tamil Nadu. From Kayalpatnam, they spread to the East and
West coasts of Sri Lanka.

Although the Arabs had been traders from the earliest times, Islam
gave their occupation a tremendous boost. Expansion of trade meant
more settlers overseas and more converts from non-Arab peoples.

"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," says Azeez.

The Muslims of Arab-Indian origin from Malabar and Kayalpatnam,
along with those from Arab lands, settled in Colombo and Beruwela, a
coastal town en route to Galle.

Beruwela, which retains its distinctive Muslim character even today,
received its first Muslim immigrants in 1024. It is acknowledged that
the art of weaving was introduced in Beruwela by migrants from

Colombo, which has a substantial Muslim population even today, was
predominantly Muslim when the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in
1505, says Azeez.

Muslims of Arab and Arab-Indian descent, married local women in Sri
Lanka. They mostly took Tamil wives because the Tamils populated
the coast and were the local traders too.

Those who headed for the Eastern Sri Lankan coast, arrived first in
Kathankudy near Batticaloa. Today, Kathankudy is perhaps the only
all-Muslim town in Sri Lanka. It also has the largest number of
mosques per square kilometre in the world.

In Batticaloa, the Muslim Arabs and those of Arab-Indian descent
married local women from the dominant Mukkuvar caste.

The Mukkuvars were themselves early migrants from the Malabar
Coast, who came to Eastern Sri Lanka via Mannar and Jaffna in the
4th century AD.

The Muslims and Mukkuvars of Batticaloa practiced matriliny or the
system of tracing descent through the female line and organised
themselves into matrilineal "kudis" or clans.

The administration of temples and mosques was in the hands of the
kudis and the chief of the mosque was the head of the kudi with which
the mosque was identified.

Adoption of Tamil language

The early Muslim settlers in Sri Lanka adopted Tamil as their spoken
language. This was because Tamil was the language of the traders in
South India and Sri Lanka and it is these Tamil trader families the
Muslims married into.

The Portuguese chronicler, Duartes Barbossa, wrote in the
16th.century AD that in the port of Colombo, the Muslims spoke a
mixture of Arabic and Tamil and used the Arabic script to write Tamil.

Tamil, written in the Arabic script, came to be known as "Arabic Tamil".

Many Muslims in the Sinhala majority areas now say that their mother
tongue is Arabic Tamil.

The Muslims of Sri Lanka produced literature in Arabic-Tamil, as well
as pure Tamil, using the Arabic script, besides the Tamil script.

However, Arabic Tamil as a literary tool is not in vogue now. The
Muslims today use the purest form of Tamil in their writings and formal
speech. But their spoken Tamil remains unique, with the use of Arabic
and Islamic words, terms and expressions.

In his paper "The Language and Literature of the Muslims" MM.Uwise
says that "Muslim Tamil" is different from the Tamil spoken by Sri
Lankan Tamils in terms of words used and also pronunciation.

The use of Arabic words and terms is easily noticeable.

But many of the differences could be traced to the Sri Lankan
Muslims' historic links with Indian Tamils and Malayalees of Kerala.

To give just one example, "Itam" (Sri Lankan Tamil word for place)
becomes "Etam" in Muslim Tamil. But in Tamil Nadu too, Itam is
pronounced as Etam or Edam.

Some of the Muslim Tamil words are actually classic Tamil words,
which are still in vogue in Tamil Nadu.

The Sri Lankan Muslims use "Nombu" for the "vrat" or "vritham"
(fasting). Recitation of prayers is "Odhudhal" not "vaasithal." But both
Nombu and Odhudhal are pure Tamil words, which are used in Tamil
Nadu as substitutes for the Sanskritic terms Vritam and Vaasithal.

There are signs of Malayalam influence too. "Kudithen" (drank)
becomes "kudichcha" which is but a variation of the Malayalam

In Tamil Nadu Tamil too, Kudithen is Kudichchen.

Uwise says that the Tamil spoken by the Muslims living in the Sinhala
areas is very different from the Tamil spoken by Muslims in the Tamil
areas. He also says that the Muslims in the Sinhala areas use many
Sinhala words.

But the cases he is able to cite are few and far between, and these
are used only in common speech.

Earlier, Quixotic attempts by some Colombo-based elite politicians to
get the Muslims to accept Arabic or Sinhala as their spoken language
failed, because the love for Tamil ran in the veins of the Sri Lankan

Performing arts
In the field of the performing arts, the influence of Tamil Nadu and
Kerala is clear, though MMM Mahroof in his paper "Performing and
Other Arts of the Muslims" portrays them as being of Arab origin.Even
if some of them are, they do clearly show links with India.

The Silambam or Silambattam, which shows dexterity in the handling
of sticks, is portrayed as being an Arab game. However, Mahroof
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 ofby Arab origin. This could well be. But the Moplahs of
Kerala have a similar dance.

The Villu Pattu, a very Tamil art, is also part of the Muslim folk arts.

However, these links with Tamil Nadu and Kerala have either
disappeared, or are fast vanishing because of the Islamisation of the
Sri Lankan Muslims since the 1980s.

Many of these performing arts have been dubbed as being
"un-Islamic" and discouraged.

Portuguese era and the Indian connection
The arrival of the Portuguese in 1505 had a devastating impact on
the Muslims of Sri Lanka because the Portuguese saw them as rivals
in Asian and Euro-Asiatic trade.

The Portuguese took on the Muslims both on the Malabar Coast and
Sri Lanka, with an intention to drive them out, cripple them or
decimate them.

Force was used unabashedly, though traders in the Asian region,
including the Arabs and Arab-Indian/Ceylon Muslims, were men of
peace and never used force.

As it happened, the Portuguese came to Sri Lanka via India. On
hearing that Muslim ships were dodging the Portuguese men-of-war
by going to the Gulf via the Maldives, the Portuguese Governor in
Goa sent nine armed ships under the command of his son Don
Lurenco de Almeida to decimate them. But because of bad
navigation, the Portuguese commander landed in Colombo instead!

The Portuguese began to persecute the Muslims of Colombo from the
word go. The Zamorin of Calicut, who had a lot of problems with the
high handed Portuguese in Malabar, sent a fleet of ships to help the
Muslims of Colombo resist the Portuguese.

But this did not prevent the Portuguese from virtually driving the
Muslims out of the Western seaboard of Sri Lanka.

Taking pity on them, the Sinhala king of Kandy, Senarat, gave them
land to cultivate in Batticaloa district on the Eastern coast.

This had a deep impact on the Muslims because traders became
peasants overnight. Eventually, paddy cultivation became the single
most important occupation of the community.

After the nightmare of Portuguese and Dutch rule, the Muslims rose to
some freedom under British rule. Tolerance, peace and law and
order, helped the growth of Muslim trade.

[Courtesy Hindustan Times]