Islam and Mercantile activity in Konkan – I

The sea that laps at the shores of Konkan brought traders and merchants with it from faraway lands. And this very sea made sailors out of land-bound men in Konkan. The annals of history render a colorful, and often thrilling picture of exploits at the sea along Konkan. The 8th century CE opened doors to aggressive maritime trade, and the seize of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE further encouraged the sea trade to South Asia. It was then that Vasco da Gama reached the shores of Kerala, and then Goa, in search of new sea routes. The Dutch, French and British sailors followed suit, and the subcontinent was thriving with mercantile activity.

Konkani connections with the Mediterranean world further expanded to included trade with West Asia, other parts of Europe, and increased traffic from China, and Indonesian archipelago. The contact with the Arabs in late 7th century CE had strengthened the Konkan and Middle East connection. This Arab-Konkan contact was to shape the future of maritime trade in the Indian Ocean.

The Arabs arrived in Konkan with their trading bevy and gradually their monetary investment in Konkani towns made them at home. Then rulers of a large part of Konkan, the Rashtrakuta kings (c. 735 – 982 CE) offered the Arab traders a haven, and the Arabic culture of Konkan took seed. The distinctive language and culture that flourished in Konkan became quintessential Konkani identity. Later nomenclature divides the people as Daldi, Kokni Muslims, Nawayats, etc.

Daldi Muslims in modern times are intimately connected with fishing activities in Konkan. Both Kokni Muslims and Daldis speak of being different from each other. The term “Nawayat” is a matter of debate to trace the roots of the term usage as well as the ancestry of this sailing group that the scholars have posited to be of Iranian descent. “Naav” (boat) and “Ayat” (sign or blessing) could be taken as an origin for this term. Other suggestions include the corruption of word “na-khuda” used for sailors in the medieval period. “Na-khuda” could mean “one without a lord”, or “one with the ship/boat as their lord”. The Gazetteer of Bombay Presidency compiled in 1883 refers to all (or atleast the majority) of Muslims in Konkan as Nawayats. A lesser known dialect of Konkani language spoken in some parts of Konkan is Nawyati.

The Arab roots and strong connection through the veneration of Sufi Pirs from Arabia is palpable in many parts of Konkan. On one of my visits to Konkan, a Nawayat family in the town of Masure shared their family document with me. The document is an elaborate handwritten scroll with genealogies tracing back to the time of Prophet Muhammad (c. 575 CE). The validity of the text is secondary as compared to the preserved oral history of the family about its descent, migration and settling in Konkan.

Details of the scroll with genealogies (Masure, Sindhudurg)

The African connection of Konkan is noteworthy for its trade and the movement of people since ancient times. However, it was under the Silahara Kings of Konkan (c. 810-1230 CE) that the trade between East Africa and Konkani ports reached its zenith. Sailors, slaves and military-men were recruited from the areas of Abyssinia, Sofala, and other parts for the courts in Egypt and India. Some recruits reached North India, while some were recruited as merchants and slaves in Konkan. The African slave-trade in Konkan is markedly different than the popularly known and studied American slave-trade. Intelligence, hard work and certain favours earned some of the African migrants prestigious positions at the royal courts and merchant guilds in Konkan.

The African sailors and merchants were generally known by their place of origin or occupation. Abyssinian merchants and slaves were called “Habshi” (a corruption of Abyssinia). Syed, an honorific title used for the ship-owners or commanders, became popular as Sidi. The Sidi line that settled at Janjira in Konkan has been an illustrious chapter in the history of South Asia. Emerging as a strong naval force with a large fleet, the Sidi rulers ascended the political rung from being merchants, vassals to the rulers of Konkan.

There is much to elaborate on the history of Islam and its direct impact on trade and society in Konkan. More in Part II…

(also look for detailed references in the next post)


6 of 30 in the series “Konkan: May-illuminate”


Published by Kalemighty

Penned thoughts from South Asian culture. Follow for thoughts on Archaeology, Anthropology, and Pedagogy around the world

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