Sunday, December 14, 2008


How Muslims settled in Sri Lanka
The east-west trade between Asia and Europe came into the hands of the Muslims when trading nations such as Persia went over to Islam. The Muslim traders used the monsoon for sailing in the Indian Ocean. The last stop to wait for the change of monsoon was Sri Lanka. On leaving the Malabar coast, the next landmark they looked out for was Adams Peak.

Sri Lanka therefore became a permanent base of operations for the Muslim trader. Three Muslim writers of the 10th century, Istakhri, Ibn Hawqual and Maqdisi, speak of Sri Lanka as the final destination of Muslim navigators.

Kiribamune says that Muslims had settled in Sri Lanka by the end of the 7th century. Some of them brought their wives and families with them but the majority married local women. The first arrivals were from West Asia.

A focal point for Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority, Kechemalai Mosque at beruwela marks the location of the first recorded Muslim settlement on the island in 1024.

They came from Arabia and the Persian Gulf area. M.A.M.Shukri, using evidence from the Arabic (Kufi) inscriptions found in Sri Lanka, says that the first settlers came from Aleppo, a city in Syria.

Three Muslim tombstones were found in the Mannar - Puttalam area. Z.A.Desai, Superintending Epigraphist for Arabic and Persian at the Indian Archaeological Survey said that the tombstone found off Puttalam-Anuradhapura Road was in calligraphy peculiar to Morocco.

It probably belonged to the 9th or 10th century. The one found off the Puttalam-Kurunegala Road appeared to be inscribed in Sabean characters over which Tamil letters had been super inscribed.

Sabean script was used in kingdoms such as Yemen and Ethiopia. The tombstone found off Puliyantivu in Mannar District was in Arabic Kufic script and was dated it to 12th century.

By the 10 century, Arabs had entrenched themselves as traders on the western coast of India. They married Indian women and from the 12th century, Indo - Muslim settlements came up along the Indian coast, from Gujerat to Bengal. The major settlements were in Gujerat and Kerala.

Low caste Hindus converted to Islam, adding to the number. In the 13th century, the Bay of Bengal trade passed into the hands of these Indian Muslims. The Arabs had dropped out and were concentrating on the Arabian Sea.

The Hindu merchants had also dropped out. The high caste Hindu felt that travelling with Muslims and Europeans, contaminated him and made him unclean. So Hindu merchants let Muslims export their merchandise. A second set of Muslims came into Sri Lanka from these Muslim communities of south India.

Marina Azeez says Muslims from Kalyanapattam in Tamilnadu, established themselves in the eastern and western ports of Sri Lanka and continued to trade with India.

Settlers from Kalyanapattam are believed to have arrived at Beruwela in 1024 AD. Kalyanapattam was the main settlement of Indo-Muslims in southeast India. Dewaraja says that south Indian Muslims visited Sri Lanka in the 14th and 15th centuries for trade and in due course, married local women. W.I.Siriweera says that the local settlements held Malaysian Muslims as well.

The Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka were, almost without exception, located close to sea ports. Kiribamune says the first settlement was near the port of Mantota. Mantota was the leading port during Anuradhapura period. This settlement seems to have disappeared once Mantota lost its position as an international port. Ibn Batuta who visited Sri Lanka in 1344 found no Muslims at Mundel, except for one person from Khurasan who had been stranded there due to illness.

There were Muslim settlements at the ports in the south west of Sri Lanka. The Muslims seem to have followed the movement of trade from the north west to the southwest.

A Kufic inscription datable to 949 AD was found in Colombo, in a Muslim cemetery. Azeez says Kolontota or Kolamba consisted at this time of a small fort and a small harbour from where extensive trade was carried on. This settlement continued to develop. Ibn Batuta visiting in 1344 said Colombo was controlled by a Jalasti who is said to have had a 100 Ethiopians under him. Ibn Batuta also found a Muslim settlement in Chilaw.

Beruwela was at one time regarded as the main centre of Muslim settlements. A tombstone with Hijra 331 found in Muslim cemetery in Beruwela, indicates that Muslim had settled there in the 10th century.

Marginolli who visited Sri Lanka in 1349 refers to a Kwajah Jahan at Beruwela. Gira sandesaya (15 century) refers to Muslim women of Beruwela. The Portuguese arriving in the 16th century, noted that Beruwela was in Muslim hands. Ibn Batuta saw many Muslim merchants at Devinuwara (Dondra). In Galle he was treated by a Muslim named captain Ibrahim who had a residence in town. The Galle settlement continued into the modern period. A collection of 15 tombstones datable to 16th century were found at Karapitiya, Galle.

The main centres of Muslim settlement were in Colombo, Beruwela and Galle. From these centres, the Muslims spread to other points along the western and south western coasts such as such as Kalutara and Alutgama.

Close commercial contacts were maintained with the main ports and often the Muslims at these small settlements inter-married with those of the major ports. Shukri stated that port tombs show that in 16th century, there were permanent well consolidated Moorish settlements in all major ports from Mannar to Matara and in most of these towns, the Moors had their own headmen. However, he provides no supporting evidence.

There were many trading points centred on sheltered bays and inlets such as Weligama (Valuk gama) Matara (Nilvalatiththa) and Bentota (Bhimmathithta). These were predominantly Sinhalese settlements where Muslims were allowed to settle.

There has been a settlement of Muslims in Trincomalee in the 15th and 16th centuries. Two tombstones were discovered at Nicholson’s cove overlooking Trincomalee harbour. One tombstone, in Arabic Kufi and Naskh script was that of a respected Quazi. Desai says the date given is 16.8.1405.

The other was for a ‘noble, pious and chaste lady’ the daughter of Amir Badr ud din Hussain, son of Ali Al-Halabi. Desai was unable to decide whether the year was 1329 or 1523 because the third digit of the year had been ‘completely scraped off.’

There is little or no data regarding Muslim settlements in the interior. Only two tombstones have been found in the interior, one by the Puttalam - Kurunegala Road and the other by Puttalam - Anuradhapura Road.

Ibn Batuta said that initially traders were not given access to the interior. However, he had encountered a Muslim settlement at Gampola. Azeez says it was only after the arrival of the Portuguese and Dutch that Muslims migrated in large numbers and settled in the hill country and in the eastern province.

However, the Portuguese sources say that when the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka, Muslim villages were ‘to be found in every disawani.’

Marco Polo who was in Sri Lanka in 1292 AD, said the Muslims in the ports were actively and busily engaged in trade. In 1344, Ibn Batuta found that Muslims were in a position of privilege and even of power in certain areas. Kiribamune says that after Parakrama bahu VI (1412-1467) Sri Lanka rulers appear to have allowed Muslim and South Indian Hindu merchants, particularly the Muslims, to take over control of the foreign trade of the country and by the 15th century, the dispatch of export items was completely in the hands of the Muslims.

She says that Muslim trade with Sri Lanka showed an undulating pattern of growth culminating in an almost monopoly situation by the end of the 15 century. The memoirs of Gaspar Corea show that when Lorenzo de Almeida entered Colombo harbour, in the 16th century, vessels belonging to Muslims were being loaded with cinnamon, small elephants, various kinds of wood and green and dry coconuts.

Muslims have also been employed as mercenaries in the army. Marco Polo said Sri Lanka hired Muslim soldiers. Marignolli also commented on the fact that there were Muslim soldiers fighting in the armies of this country.

(The writings of M. Azeez, S Devendra, L Dewaraja, S Kiribamune, M.A.M. Shukri and W. I. Siriweera were used for this essay.)

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