The roaring monsoon winds have acted like a giant conveyor belt, transporting goods and people between East Africa, West Asia, and South and Southeast Asia, for more than 2,000 years. While waiting for the seasons to change, these peoples settled in lands where they intended to trade, gradually establishing roots and connections with local communities. To the east, Shaivite Tamil merchants and Brahmins settled in Southeast Asia and even China, as did Bengali Tantric Buddhist masters. To the west, Arab and Persian traders settled in India. The earliest immigrants from this region were Zoroastrians and Christians; after the 7thth century, they became increasingly Muslim.
In fact, Islam in India is almost as old as Islam itself: in the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad, c. In 629 AD, the Cheraman Juma Mosque, the oldest mosque in all of South Asia, was built by merchants in Kodungallur, Kerala. (A gold replica of the mosque was presented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Saudi Arabia in 2016.) The many centuries of peaceful trade in which India’s coastal Muslims participated allows us to better understand how the globalized people of the medieval Indian Ocean built prosperous, prosperous economies.
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Muslim merchants, local communities and global trade
Muslim diasporas were vital to India’s global trade as their family and language ties allowed them to pass information and capital from West Asian markets to other Indian buyers and artisans. They often organized themselves into large guilds, such as the South Indians anjuvannam of the 9thth until 12th Centuries AD Consisting of Indian and West Asian Jews, Muslims, Christians and Parsis who anjuvannam was particularly important in connecting India to networks across Afro-Eurasia. The historian Meera Abraham appears Two medieval merchant guilds of South India that they often worked with the rich and influential manigram and Ainnuruvar Trading companies that extended across much of southern India and even had a presence in Southeast Asia.
That anjuvannam Traders were part of a much larger dynamic. In the early Middle Ages, Muslims were in demand along the west coast of India for their expertise in seafaring and trade. in the 9thth and 10th In the late 19th century AD, the Indian Ocean historian Elizabeth Lambourn showed that the powerful Deccan Rashtrakuta emperors arranged for Muslim officers to administer the personal rights of Arab traders and even appointed Muslim governors for the port of Sanjan in present-day Gujarat. One of them, the Persian Muhammad ibn Shahryar, commissioned a Sanskrit inscription in which he is called “Madhumati,” a Sanskrit title; He also founded a land grant for offerings at a Durga temple and arranged facilities for pilgrims. This underlying dynamic of inviting foreign expertise to advance state interests was very similar to the reasoning of contemporary Southeast Asian kings, who invited Indian Brahmin scholars for their ritual expertise, who then assimilated into local communities.
By the 12th century AD, Muslim merchants could also be found on India’s east coast. Professor Y. Subbarayulu writes in South India under the Cholas that a Sri Lankan Muslim merchant named Asavu (Asaf), entitled “Sun of the City”, was entrusted by the Ainnuruvar Trading company with a grant to a mosque called The Ainuttuva-Perumballi in Visakhapatnam. Another grant to this mosque c. 1204 was in the name of an Indonesian merchant with the titles “Durga’s Beloved” and “Emperor of the City Assembly”, also titles bestowed upon him by the Ainnuruvar group.
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Intertwined architecture, intertwined religions
What could that Ainuttuva-Perumballi Mosque patronized by the mainly Shaivite merchants of the Ainnuruvar, have looked? Answers can be found in other south Indian mosques, which drew heavily from contemporary temples and probably employed the same craftsmen. Consider the Palaiya Jumma Palli in Kilakarai, Tamil Nadu. Its earliest structures date from the 7th century and feature the simple octagonal stone pillars that were fashionable in temples at the time. They are arranged in a colonnade outside the mosque reminiscent of mandapas found in both the sacred and secular architecture of South India.
As the Palaiya Jumma Palli expanded over the centuries, it continued to use architectural elements that we might consider Hindu, but modified them to suit Islamic preferences. The main hall seen today is inspired by pillars built in Tamil Nadu in the Nayaka period, c. 17th Century AD In the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, these pillars consist of a stone shaft supporting a mythical jali animal with rider jumps out; in the Palaiya Jumma Palli, the jalis are replaced by simple columns. Later Muslim sites in other parts of India – such as the Badshahi Ashurkhana in Hyderabad or the Rani Sipri and Rani Rupmati mosques in Ahmedabad – even incorporate ancient Indian symbols of prosperity such as the overflowing pot or purna-kalasha.
Perhaps the most striking example of coastal Indianization of Islam along the coast comes from the bilingual Somanatha-Veraval inscription of 1264, educated by historian Alka Patel. The inscription contains Arabic and Sanskrit sections commemorating the founding of a mosque by an Arab Muslim with the support of the local king and merchant guilds. The Sanskrit part describes the mosque as one dharmasthanam and Allah as Vishvanatha (an often used title for the god Shiva), and an influential Hindu merchant was appointed to the mosque waqf Plank. 200 years after Mahmud of Ghazni’s brutal attack on the same city, it is clear that the people of Somnath have understood that the Turkish Central Asian Muslim attackers were not the same as their Arab and Persian Muslim friends and business associates on the coast. This must not stand in the way of flourishing economic activity. In fact, by the 15th century, Gujarati Muslim and Hindu merchants became the most influential traders in the Indian Oceanth century and after.
The deep human diversity of the Indian subcontinent enabled it to become the dominant force of the pre-modern world economy – and the methods and ideas by which our predecessors collectively thrived are worth remembering today.
This article is part of the Thinking Medieval series, which takes a deep dive into medieval culture, politics, and history of India.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)
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