Thursday, May 22, 2008
Tamil Muslims, Trade Relations and Nagore Durgah: A Chandelier from Singapore
Trade is the staple of mankind in every civilized society. Commercial entrepreneurs had ventured into many foreign lands without even knowing the language of the country they visited. They struggled with harsh terrains, crossed the turbulent seas, and risked their precious lives merely to transact a business with burning passion. Ocean voyages were dangerous, full of hassles and subject to unexpected shipwrecks.
Profit was, indeed, the abiding motive but, at the same time, we could not disregard the exciting spirit of adventure.
The Indians had commercial relations with a number of ancient countries like Sumeria, Babylon and Egypt since the dawn of civilisation. Later such contacts kick-started with West Asia and the Mediterranean countries from the first century B.C. Trade towards the east with Indonesia, the Malay peninsula, Thailand and Burma is noticed in the first century A.D. Indian coastal ports not only bartered their own spices and cloth for gold but also acted as important intermediaries for the Southeast Asian spices. King Vespasian of 1st century A.D, having determined to liberate Rome from the financial burdens, prohibited gold barter with India as the drain of the precious metal adversely affected his economy. Therefore, search for the gold bullion in the Southeast Asian region intensified vigorously. Arikkamedu a suburb of Pondicherry was an establishd Indo-Roman trading station during that period.
Major Asian trade boom of the 10th to 13th centuries, backed principally by China, coincided with the rise of the Chola Empire. Large scale commerce was conducted with the formation of powerful merchant associations and private armies. These merchant guilds were seen until 17th century A.D. Cloths of fast colour with diversified designs were the leading important Indian item that was incessantly sought after. Development in weaving, dyeing, spinning and block printing enhanced traffic in textile. More than thirty different types of cloth were exported from India.
Kalinga grew as the principal region of textile manufacture with its rich hinterland of cotton crops. Kalingam, besides being the name of the country, is also used to denote dress in Tamil language. Kalinga had been invariably occupied by the Tamil Kings while the Tamil traders who sold kalingam might have been called as Klings. One of the earliest references to Kling occurs in 883 AD in a central Java inscription of Kalirungan. This epigraph provides a good list of foreign traders coming from the neighboring regions of Champa, Burma and Khmer while the South Asian list mentions of Kling, Arya of Aryapura/Ayyavole, Pandikira (Karnataka), and perhaps Singhala. In another inscription both Kling and Drawida are mentioned. Drawida is later replaced by Colika. Kling is cited as late as 1305 AD. Later, Portuguese and Dutch rulers continued using Kling to refer to the Indians and to the Tamils in particular.
Trade relations incidentally led to the formation of States with Indian concepts of kingship, royalty, rites and rituals. Evidences of such relations abound in Burma, Malaya, Sumatra, Java, Bali, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China. In addition to various living settlements, Hindu and Buddhist temples, idols and statues numerous inscriptions in Sanskrit and Tamil are found in these areas. Sanskrit inscriptions date from 5th century AD whereas the eight Tamil inscriptions range from mid 9th century to 13th century AD
(1 in Burma, 2 in Thailand, 4 in Sumatra, and 1 in China). At least three epigraphs are specific to the Tamil mercantile corporations active then. Kedah popularly known as Kataram to the Tamils, flourishing between 5th and 13th centuries A.D, today represent the greatest number of archaeological remains though many of them were destroyed.
Chola and China
Chola kings of the Tamil country, wielding enormous naval power in the 10th and 11th centuries flexed their muscle by twice undertaking military expeditions in Southeast Asia. Their fleet, in essence, controlled the rulers of Sri Vijaya and Kedah possibly to support and strengthen the Tamil trading communities operating in this region. Rajendra Chola I, in 1025 A.D orchestrated a raid against 13 Southeast Asian port cities. The onslaught included Kedah, several other peninsular ports, a number of Sumatran ports and the main port of Sri Vijaya itself. During that expedition to Kedah the king Sangrama Vijayathunga Varman was captured together with squadrons of elephants and other treasures. Another expedition took place in 1068 A.D to Kedah by Virarajendra. He claims to have conquered Kadaram on behalf of a local king who sought his protection and ceded the kingdom back to him. Virarajendra did not personally participate in the war. Only his generals did. His nephew Kulothunga I accompanied the Chola forces.
Relations with China were greatly valued. And the Chola kings duly sent envoys to China. Emperor Raja Raja Chola, considered as the greatest and most popular in the dynasty, is mentioned in the Chinese annals as King Locha Locha. His emissary Soli Samudra, with an entourage of 52 members, embarked on his journey in 1012 A.D. But he could arrive at the Sung Emperor Chun Cheng’s court only in 1015 A.D nearly three years later, having visited a number of ports on his voyage. By the time he reached China King Rajaraja had already died in 1014 A.D. He had no opportunity to learn of his King’s death. Soli Samudra stayed for about a year in China and died there. Trade delegations to China were also dispatched by Rajendra Chola I, son of Rajaraja, in 1033 AD. Another Chola travel to China took place in 1077 AD.
About 200 years later, Yang Tingbi of China undertook two journeys to Quilon in 1279 and 1281 respectively to exact tribute from the Malabar King to the Chinese Emperor. For each voyage Yang travelled to South India and back in a year without stopping at the Straits of Malacca, which was considered to be a nest of piracy, at that time, by the Chinese. Missions from Malabar coast, too, sailed to China between 1279 and 1314 A.D. The great Chinese admiral Cheng He visited South India seven times between 1405 and 1433 A.D. A little earlier than Cheng He another eunuch Yin Ching visited Quilon in 1403 A.D and envoys from Quilon followed Yin Ching to China.
Bilingual Tamil and Chinese inscription of 1281 at Guangzhou is connected with the remains of a Siva temple constructed by Tamil traders. Marco Polo confirms Indian traders were active in Guangzhou in late 1280s and early 1290s.
As a result of this trade, Sung dynasty coins of 1023 A.D were found in Mysore. Early 13th century hoard of Chinese coins were also found in many places on the coast of Tamilnadu.
So, it is evident that India and China enjoyed a lasting relation for nearly 300 years that seemingly corresponded with the major trade boom of 10th to 13th centuries.
Merchants of Kadaram had also visited India. There are two records of visits by the Southeast Asian delegates to India.
Acheh was the first court in Southeast Asia to convert to Islam in 1204 A.D. Hence it took nearly 500 years for the new religion to reach here. The Malays of Malacca did not embrace Islam until 1276 A.D. According to some scholars Malacca waited for the Indians to be converted. Both Gujerat and South India have strong claims for the conversion. It was not to Persia or Arabia but to India that Southeast Asia had always looked for cultural inspiration combined with commercial prestige. The acceptance of Islam had therefore to wait its acceptance by Indians who were prominently engaged in the overseas trade between India and Southeast Asia. This condition fulfilled in 13th century.
With the establishment of Malacca trade again picked up between India and SEA. The Indian traders especially the Gujeratis and the Tamils were great favorites with the Sultans and other aristocrats. The Tamil Muslims, in particular, enjoyed extraordinary privileges and also married into the noble families. As the Portuguese historian Tome Pires observed, the Tamil Muslims were a mighty force in the royal court and they acted as real kingmakers. As Muslims the Tamils naturally had an edge over others.
Their off springs wielded considerable influence and acquired chief positions.
A Tamil prince Raja Kassim born to a Tamil muslim mother in the royal court ascended to the throne of Malacca under the name of Sultan Muzaffar Shah, the first Muslim ruler in Malaccan history. He reigned till 1456 A.D. His uncle Tun Ali, a Tamil noble became his Bendahara or Prime Minister. Tun Ali, after a while, relinquished his post in favour of Tun Perak, a dignitary of pure Malay blood. For that favour Tun Perak rewarded him with the hands of his sister Tun Kudu. Tun Ali’s son by Tun Kudu by the name of Tun Mutahir assumed the offices of Temenggong and Bendahara. And his son Hassan too rose to the post of Temenggong later. Tun Mutahir became a very influential person and with his position he was bound to make grave mistakes. In 1510, one year before Malacca fell to the Portuguese Tun Mutahir was put to death by Sultan Mahmud on the charge that he aspired to become a Sultan by himself.
With the coming of the Portuguese, Dutch and British, trading activities prospered further. Tome Pires, the Portuguese historian, described that Malacca could not live without Cambay (Gujerat) nor Cambay without Malacca. 84 different languages could be heard on the streets of 15th century Malacca. The Indians in Malacca lived in a special quarter called Kampong Kling since the period of the Malacca Sultanate.
In 1641 A.D, Joost Schouten, Senior Dutch Merchant and the Director of the Dutch East India Company’s factory in Siam, visited Malacca just after the Dutch conquest. His report advised the Governor General in Batavia that ‘a quantity of the most useful goods could be imported, preferably such assortment of Coromandel as is recommended by the Klings, who assure that if all foreigners are allowed free trade, yearly a thousand packets could be consumed by Malacca”. Freight and duty of 18% of the cost of goods from Coromandel was levied by the Dutch. The Kling’s novel idea for a free port went unheeded.
In 1678 Balthasar Bort the Dutch Governor of Malacca released an extensive report on his settlement. He said no European nation could compete with the Moors (Indian Muslims) in cloth trade.
Most of the Hindu and Muslim populations settled permanently in Malacca comfortably occupying the Kampong Kling. Their descendants had eventually built a Hindu temple and a mosque. Sri Poyyaatha Vinayagar temple built under the Dutch rule in 1781 is the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia and Singapore. A mosque, too, was erected by them. The vicinity of the Tamil mosque became known as Kampong Palli. Palli(vaasal) in Tamil means mosque. Over time these traders were completely cut off from the Indian mainland. They are the logical pioneers of the contemporary Tamil migrations and settlements in Southeast Asia.
Tamil Muslims or Chuliahs moved away from places of European control to the Sultanates of Johore, Perak, Kedah and Acheh in 17th and 18th centuries. Some of them were appointed as court merchants or ‘saudagar raja’. The Sultan of Kedah used prominent Tamil Muslim merchants as intermediaries in his dealing with European powers, especially with the English. These experts also participated in negotiations with the British in the cession of Penang island. When the English settled in Penang the Tamil Muslims, too, spread with them. In 1804 A.D the Captain of the Chuliah community in Penang was one Cader Meyden who bequeathed a great and lasting legacy in the island under the British.
It is well known that Munshi Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir (1796-1854), a descendant of mixed Tamil, Arabic and Malay parentage, had to learn Tamil to survive in the commercial surroundings of British Malacca. He was born at Kampong Palli there. He writes in his autobiography: “It was about a month before I was completely cured after the circumcision and then my father handed me over to a teacher to learn the Tamil language and the character that is to say the Hindu language, for from the days of our forefathers it was the custom in Malacca for all the children of good families and of rich people to learn the language. The object of it was to know how to keep accounts, and to reckon and speak the language, for at that time Malacca was full of Tamil merchants; and a great many of them became rich by trading in Malacca, for which reason the Tamils in Malacca became famous, and everyone had their children learn the Tamil language.”
Abdullah continues his experience of learning Tamil: “For two years and a half I studied the Tamil language and their written character, and in that I endured no little trouble, and received many slaps and much abuse, and the end of my forefinger was worn out by writing in the sand”.
He also learnt Hindi from the sepoys stationed in Malacca, who called him Munshi.
The occupation of India by the British destroyed indigenous Indian trade and commerce. A completely different class of people under entirely different circumstances migrated to Malaya. Even in this changed environment the Tamil Muslims seized new opportunities and revived their trading acumen under the British.
The Tamils, wherever they went, had never failed to erect places of worship whether simple or elaborate. The Tamil Muslims, likewise, established their own mosques. The Nagore Durgah a shrine dedicated to Saint Shahul Hameed (1498 -1588) at Nagore, 4 km north of Nagappattinam in Tamilnadu is the most revered of all the Durghas and it plays a very important role in the religious life of the Tamil Muslim maritime traders.
Nagore derives its name from the ancient inhabitants of Naagars. Nagappattinam is said to be a variation of Naavaai Pattinam, a littoral city of ships. Nagappattinam emerged as an early centre of Budhhism. It was the place where monasteries were maintained for Southeast Asian traders with Chola grants. Sulamani Varman of Sri Vijaya kingdom commenced to constuct a vihara at Nagappattinam which was completed by his son Mara Vijayatunga Varman in 1090 AD. Even the Chinese traders had a settlement in Nagappattinam having built a brick pagoda in 1261 AD. This was in good condition even in 1846 A.D. But it was demolished in 1867 A.D.
Saint Shahul Hameed, who is regarded as the 23rd lineal descendant of Prophet Mohammed, was born in Manickapur, near Allahabad. He travelled widely and finally settled in Nagore on the land bestowed by King Achudappa Naicker of Tanjore.
The monarch is said to have been cured of his chronic illness by the mystical powers of the Saint who is commonly known as the Nagore Andavar or the Lord of Nagore. He also goes by the name of Meeran Sahib. Nagore Dhurga is the mausoleum of the Saint. The Kandoori festival, celebrated on the anniversary of the Saint’s demise is the high point of the Nagore Dhurga activities. A large number of non-Muslims visit the shrine regularly and for that matter the Dhurga is often esteemed as a symbol of communal harmony for nearly 450 years.
A Chandelier from Singapore
The Muslims in Singapore, having migrated from the region of Nagore in great numbers wanted to demonstrate their support for the Durgha in their homeland by presenting a gorgeous and resplendent chandelier. This happened in the year of 1888 when the Indian Muslim community here collected a donation of $ 1,500 for the purpose. A total of 41 firms and individuals contributed a sum of $1,458 to defray the cost of the large cluster lamp. The single largest gift of $300 came from Katz Bros, a thriving European shopkeeper established in 1865. Apparently the wealthy Tamil Muslim business houses had significant relations with the company that also owned several ships.
The chandelier stood 9 feet tall with 72 decorative ‘arms’ according to the Singai Nesan the sole Tamil weekly of the time. The paper published the complete list of the donors that appeared on the 16th January number of Singai Nesan which was edited, printed and published by S.K.Makhdum Sahib, evidently a Nagore immigrant. His elder brother N. M. Mohammed Abdul Kadir Pulavar, a poet and an author of a book of poems, was charged with the responsibility of safely handing over the chandelier to the Nagore Durgah. He sailed on board SS Meenathcy wih a number of supporters to Nagappattinam perhaps in time to celebrate the Kandoori festival with pomp and grandeur.
The institution of Nagore Dhurga had incidentally found its way to Singapore and Penang as well. The Singapore Durgha on Teluk Ayer Street reminds of the staunch faith the Tamil Muslims profess in their religion. Its four minarets are quite reminiscent of the Nagore Dhurga in shape and structure. When the Singapore Dhurga was built between 1828 and 1830 it also served as a mosque as it was also known as the Masjid Moulana Mohammad Ally. Suffice to say that it looked after the immediate care of the new immigrants as was the practice in early Singapore with other Hindu and Chinese temples, too.
(Nagore Dhurgah Heritage Centre Souvenir Magazine 3 Dec 2006)