By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, August 12: India’s impact on the Ceylon Moors (a community distinct from Indian Moors who are more recent Muslim migrants from India) can be seen in their language, culture and practices. Their active links with India (more particularly South India) have snapped, but the legacy has survived in a variety of forms.
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 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.” She then goes on to quote James Emerson Tennent to say that after these settlements expanded with increase in trade and migration, the Muslims spread to the coasts of Sri Lanka.
By 7th Century AD the Arabs had settled in Kayalpatnam in Tamil Nadu. From Kayalpatnam, they spread to the Eastern and Western coasts of Sri Lanka. The Muslims of Arab-Indian origin from Malabar and Kayalpatnam, along with those from Arab lands, settled in Colombo and Beruwela. Beruwela received its first Muslim immigrants in 1024. It is acknowledged that the art of weaving was introduced in Beruwela by Muslim migrants from Kayalpatnam.
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. Some say that the Sri Lankan Moor’s adoption of the Tamil language to shape their own language Tamil called “Arabu Tamil” or Arabic Tamil, was due to the fact that Tamil was the language of trade in South and South East Asia. But the cultural practices of the Lankan Moors (down to this day) show marital and cultural integration with the coastal Tamils of Indian origin from the earliest times rather than with the Sinhalese or even the Ceylon Tamils for that matter.
The Muslims of Sri Lanka produced literature in Arabic-Tamil, as well as pure Tamil, using the Arabic script as well as the Tamil script. However, Arabic Tamil as a literary tool went out of vogue. 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. However, many of the differences could be traced to the Lankan Muslims’ historic links with the Malayalees of Kerala, which is evident in the Eastern districts.
In Batticaloa, the Muslim immigrants married local women from the dominant Mukkuvar caste who were also migrants from Kerala, coming to the Eastern Lankan coast via Mannar and Jaffna in the 4th century AD. This is evident in the Tamil spoken by Eastern Muslims and also their matrilineal organization.
According to the late Prof Karthigesu Sivathamby, Tamils should be grateful to the Muslims for preserving Tamil in the Sinhala-majority areas. “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,” Sivathamby said.
Writing in Roar Media on “How Muslims lived in Colombo many moons ago” in 2018, Asiff Hussein vividly describes the cultural events in the lives of the Ceylon Moors in Colombo. Their rituals and practices clearly show South Indian or Indian Tamil influence.
The circumcision of boys was celebrated like a wedding as “Sunnattu kaliyanam” with the circumcised boy described as title of “Sunnattu mappula” (circumcision groom).
“Affluent folk would take the boy to be circumcised around the neighbuorhood in procession in a car with an open hood, that moved very slowly so that all may catch a glimpse of the smartly dressed lad. This usually took place at night with gas lamps carried by hired hands lighting the procession. The boy, who would be done by a traditional barber known as Osta would be given gifts of money and gold rings by kith and kin. Then followed the seven night festivities known as “el-naal sappadu” (the seven day feast), which were grand affairs back then.”
“It began with the “sunnattu sappadu” (circumcision feast), usually a sumptuous dinner for friends and relatives followed by six nights of feasting,” Hussein writes.
The ceremonial style is typically South Indian. The use of jasmine or ‘Malliyaapoo” in the ceremonial canopy was another South Indian trait. According to Mohamed Marzook, “Wathiars” (or teachers or experts) would show their artistically martial skills with sticks through the “Selambu Vilayattu” to the accompaniment of the Nathaswaram and Molam music. All these smack of Indian Tamil influence.
The cuisine in weddings and other ceremonies was a mixture of North and South India. Before the biryani (or Buryani) came from north India, the favored main dish at Moor functions was the Indian Tamil “Nai Soru” (ghee rice).
The marriage procession was another feature which showed Indian influence. “The bridegroom, having received presents and congratulations from his friends, departs to the house of the bride amidst a flourish of tom toms, cymbals, and flutes, under a brilliant display of fireworks, blue lights and pendant lamps. He sits in an open carriage if the bride’s house is distant, or goes on foot attended by two boys dressed up for the occasion and an immense concourse of relatives, friends and the ‘hoi polloi’ to the number of several hundreds,” Hussein writes.
During the Ramzan month of fasting, “a band of men called Indian fakirs, dressed in turban, long black capes, and cloth, with beads hung round their necks and arms used to roam the streets with a staff in one hand and a hurricane lantern in the other. They would knock at the doors of slumbering Muslims with their staffs and shout “Otto Bawa Otto” (corruption of the Hindustani words for ‘Get up folks, Get up’). The fakirs were probably Urdu speaking Muslims from Tamil Nadu.
MMM Mahroof in his paper “Performing and Other Arts of the Muslims” portrays the Ceylon Moors’ performing arts as being of Arab origin. Some of them like “Kali Kombu” dance ( a dance with small sticks) indeed are. But “Silambam’ or “Silambattam” which shows dexterity in the handling of sticks, is clearly of Indian Tamil origin. The “Villu Pattu”, a very Tamil art, is also part of Muslim folk arts, though these arts have died because of the spread of Wahhabism and its hostility to music and dance.
Portuguese era and the Indian connection
The arrival of the Portuguese in Kerala in 1498 and their subsequent into Ceylon in 1505 had a devastating impact on the Muslims Ceylon as they did on the Muslims of Kerala.
The Portuguese were determined to cripple the Muslims’ trade and to convert them to Catholicism. The Muslims did not convert, but they lost the trade war. In Sri Lanka a good number of them had to migrate from the Western to the Eastern coast.
British rule brought Indian Moors to Sri Lanka in the 19 th.Century. Because of them, Ceylon’s trade with Tamil Nadu and Malabar flourished. According to the 19th.century chronicler, Alexander Johnston, the Muslims of Ceylon followed the trading practices of the Hindu traders of India.