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Rise and fall of Coromandel Muslims

Once the ruthless Europeans entered the trade arena, these Muslims began to lose clout, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2006 11:38 IST

Before the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English established themselves on the Coromandel or East Tamil Nadu coastline, maritime trade was entirely in the hands of Tamil-speaking Muslims of Arab-Tamil ancestry.

But once the pushy, ruthless, cunning and better organised European merchants entered the arena, the Coromandel Muslims began to lose ground rapidly.

And in their fight for survival, they got no help from the Indian rulers, writes Dr J Raja Mohamad, in his fascinating book entitled: Maritime History of the Coromandel Muslims (published by the Government Museum, Chennai, India, in 2004).

The local rulers were indifferent to the Muslims' plight because they were not interested in maritime trade and the Muslims had not cultivated them.

In the new era, when trade was inextricably tied to political and military power, the apolitical Coromandel Muslims found themselves completely outplayed by the more savvy Europeans, Raja Mohamad says.

The dominant Muslim communities on the Coromandel coast were the Marakkayars, also known as Maraikars, Marikkars or Marcars, and the Labbais, also known as Lebbe or Coromandel Moplahs. Maraikars and Labbais were found in Ceylon too.

These communities dominated trade with Ceylon and South East Asia. So much so, that English records describe the ports on the Coromandel coast as "Moor ports".

Cuddalore was known as Islamabad and Porto Novo or Parangipettai, as Mohammad Bandar.

The Tamil-speaking Muslims of Arab-Tamil ancestry had inherited their dominant position in South and South East Asian trade from the Arabs, who had acquired a virtual monopoly of Indian maritime commerce by 3rd Century BC.

The Arab and Tamil-speaking Muslim traders brought much prosperity to India. The 14th century Arab writer Ibn Fadbullah ul-Omari had written that in India the seas were pearls and the trees were perfumes!

According to Raja Mohamad, Arab contact with Tamil Nadu is mentioned in the Tamil Sangam literature of 2nd Century AD.

He says that the "Yavana" in Sangam literature are not Greeks, as generally presumed, but Muslims from what is now Yemen.

He also says that the term "Sonaka" used to identify Coromandel and Ceylon Muslims of Indo-Arab descent is but a corruption of Yavana. He also points out that the Mapilla or Moplah Muslims of Kerala were known as Sonaka Mapillas.

The Arabs came to the Coromandel coast not as conquerors, but as traders.

Conversions to Islam took place through preaching to the under-privileged sections of the caste-ridden Hindu society, and marriage to Tamil women. Islam came to the Coromandel coast in its earliest days.

The oldest mosque in Tamil Nadu which is near the Kottai (Fort) Railway station in Tiruchi is dated 743 AD.

The native Hindu rulers of what is now Tamil Nadu and Kerala, encouraged the Arab-Muslims to settle down and trade.

The Zamorin of Calicut in Kerala needed Muslims to man his ships. He even decreed that the Arab traders should marry Malayali women and bring up at least one of their children as a Muslim.

The Rowthers, as the name suggests, had made a name for themselves as traders in Arab horses.

The Marakkayars (boat people) and Lebbais were expert mariners and traders. The Marakkayars claimed a higher social and economic status.

Arrival of Portuguese and end of free trade

Prior to the advent of the Portuguese in the early part of the 16th. Century, trade in South and South East Asia was free.

It was the Portuguese (followed by the Dutch and the English) who introduced the system of monopolies and unfair trade regimes based on military might and political clout, Raja Mohamad says.

Cooperation and peace were replaced by discord and war, he comments.

In bringing about this iniquitous system, the Indian rulers had a hand. Indian rulers at that time did not enter trade.

So they did not pitch for monopoly over trade in the Indian Ocean. They extended all facilities to the Portuguese to attract them to their ports, Raja Mohamad says.

He laments that the Indian rulers did nothing to protect the Muslims, who were the only Indian maritime traders operating shipping services to far-flung areas.

The Indian rulers declared that trade in spices, gold and silver were a Portuguese monopoly.

Being virulently anti- Muslim, the Portuguese told the Christians of Kerala not to sell their pepper to the Muslims.

By 1530, the Arabs lost their monopoly over trading in horses. This passed entirely into the hands of the Portuguese.

By 1537 they had converted to Christianity an oppressed fishing community on the Tamil Nadu coast called Paravas.

The rejuvenated Paravas were set up to compete with the Muslims in trade and pearl fishing.

Pearl fishing, which was entirely in the hands of the Muslims for a long time, went into the hands of the Paravas.

To control trade in the entire region, the Portuguese established their power over key points like Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, and Malacca in South East Asia. Ceylon passed into their hands.

Under the Cartaz system, only those ships with a Portuguese Cartaz (document or permit) could trade and enter ports in this region.