(This Article was received from Dr.J.Raja Mohammad on our request to portray the Trade connections between Tamils & Arabs and in Particular with the island of Bahrain)
Dr. J. Raja Mohammad
M.A. (Hist), M.A. (Arch), M.A. (Anth), BGL.,PhD, Former Assistant Director of Museum, Govt. of Tamil Nadu – Chennai
Arabs had direct commercial contact with peninsularIndiaright from 2000 B.C. They were the masters of Indian commerce.Bahrain,Oman,Hadramaut,Yemen, Hijaz carried on much sea trade with Indian ports. The Greek historian Agatharshidas says ships coming fromIndiatouched the Arab coast and then proceeded toEgyptviaMediterranean. The strategic location of South Indian ports on the Indian silk made it possible that rare and highly priced products ofIndiafound their way here in transit to the western marts. Indian products were held in high esteem by the Arabs.
When Hazarath Omar asked an Arab sailor his opinion aboutIndiahe replied “Its Mountains are rubies and its trees are perfumes”. Ptolemy (79 A.D.) and Periplus (86 A.D.) have copious reference to Indo-Arab trade in the first century A.D.
The Arab Geographers and Travelers called the east coast of peninsularIndiaas Mabar (the present Tamil Nadu); it was also known as Mandal. To the Europeans it was known asCoromandel Coast. The ports on the coast ofMabarwere the crossing point to Srilanka. The flowing trade of the Arabs enabled them to establish their colonies on the west coast and as well as on the east coast.
The Arabs were called in the ancient Tamil land as “Yavanas” as attested by the Tamil classical literary works of second century A.D. Many of the ports on the south Indian coast are found in the Arab geographical dictionary. The Arab geographers were well versed in the calculation of low and high tide on the Indian seas. Suleyman, the Arab traveler pf 3 A.H., says that the Arab ships fromMuscatwill reach Kollam on the west coast within one month and then reach Mabar ports in ten days.
Spices and aromatics were produced in Arab lands for seasoning food and for burning in the ceremonial rituals, the foremost among them was incense (Sambirani), a precious commodity of ancient trade. Rose-water and carpets fromPersiawas a much wanted commodities inIndia.
Keys is an island in Persian Gulf nearOmanthat need to be mentioned. Owing to Indian commerce it had grown into a highly flourishing trade centre during middle ages. The ruler of the island was held in high respect in the court of the Pandian kingdom in Mabar – Tamil Nadu.
During the 13th -14th centuries it was an emporium of Indian commerce and a harbour for Indian ships. Every nice things found inIndia were brought here. Arab horses were exported from Keys to the ports in Mabar. The breeds of horse from Keys were in great demand in the Pandian kingdom. The horse trade brought enviable profit to both the countries.
Bahrainhas been a centre of Middle Eastern commerce for centuries. It has a great antiquity among the Arab countries. The island was the site of the ancient Dilmun civilization dating back to 4000 and 2000 B.C, contemporaneous with theIndusvalley civilization that flourished in Indian soil.Bahrainemerged as a flourishing trading centre from second century A.D. It was a place with abundant fresh water for sailing ships in Mesopotamian route. It became a centre of trade for frank-incense and myrrh.
Bahraincontinued as a maritime nation; its dhows plying the waters of the Arabian Gulf, Red Sea andIndian Ocean. Pearl fishery contributed to the island nation’s growth as the Bahraini divers plunged as deep as 75 feet below the waters of theArabian Gulffor the pearl harvest. The boats used in Pearling were unique in design. The pearl ofBahrainwas highly priced in the international emporia. It is interesting to note that the Pearl fishery on the Mabar coast – Gulf of Mannar – attracted a large number of Pearl divers from Arabia particularlyBahrainregion and their services were utilized by the local chieftains on high payment. It has been recorded that such Arab divers could remain in waters for more time and gather more oysters. Thus there was a free flow of men between these lands.
Arab civilization blossomed with fragrance in Bahrainon the birth of Islam. As major trade centre in Arabian Gulf Bahrainhelped in the spread of Islam. Arab merchants and sea men of the region carried the message of Islam as far as India. Bahraincarried on it’s brisk maritime commerce in India– Mesopotamiaroute for centuries. The British East India Company established it’s factory here in 18-19th centuries and the ancient trade from the south Indian ports continued uninterrupted.
The Arab merchants took in their ships from India precious stones, pearl, elephant tusk, odiferous wood, sandal, camphor clove, nutmeg, perfumes, peacock, parrot, musk, coconut, jute, cotton, textiles, pepper, lemon, mango, orange, ginger, cardamom, pan (betel), handloom lungies etc.,
The age long commercial contact betweenArabiaand Mabar has brought many cultural elements on both sides. As many as 5000 words of Arabic, Persian, Turkish origins have mingled in Tamil language. A new lingua-franca Arab-Tamil came into being in Tamil Nadu and it was in practice till the second half of the twentieth century.
The Arab gold coin Dinar came into wide currency in Mabar. Social customs and practices in large numbers relating to dress, food, marriage and birth have found their way in the life of the Tamil people. Islamic architecture have came into practice in the religious and secular buildings. It will be surprising to note that the early mosque of 8-9th centuries in Mabar are similar style like the early mosques at Kufa andBasra. Many words of Hindustani origin have crept into the Arabic dictionary, particularly on shipping technology. Among them, one word deserves mention. Arabic Nakhudhah is the Persian form of Indian Nakhoda. This is really Nao + Khoda. ‘Nao’ (Navai) is a Tamil word meaning ship and ‘Khoda’ in Persian meaning master or captain. In-depth field research on both lands may bring very interesting materials to bridge-up the gaps in the pages of history.
No doubt the ancient contact of the Mabaris is still continued withBahrain, where thousand in various fields live in harmony.
(The writer is the Author of the book “Islamic Architecture in Tamil Nadu” and “Maritime History of Coromandel Muslims 1740-1900”)