In the cosmopolitan world of Indian Ocean trade, the Muslim sailors, merchants and shipowners attained prominence by the close of 13th century CE. The ports in Konkan were strategic strongholds as trade posts and naval bases. Researchers such as Simpson, Risso, Wink, and others have expounded on the interconnection of Islam and the fostering of maritime activities along the west coast of India.
However, it was not just the tradespeople that helped sow the teachings of Islam. Konkan coast welcomed scores of Sufi thinkers and awaliya who have shaped the identity of Konkan coast. It will not be an overstatement to think about the medieval Bhakti movement in Western India deeply influenced by the Sufi teachings that travelled to India from the Hindukush mountains and from the sea. The modern districts of Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg are dotted with numerous Sufi shrines and the oral narratives carry forth the Sufi traditions. Legend has it, that the Maratha king Shivaji also received some guidance from Sufi saints who were in residence in Raigad district.
The documents from c. 1550 CE onwards, viz. Shivaji’s period in Deccan and Konkan put some pieces of the story of Konkan together – at least in terms of political and military conquests. We hear of Shivaji’s wish to capture the dominions of Sidi in Konkan, and the later Peshwa Bajirao (1700-1740 CE) conquering much of Sidi’s kingdom, except the fort at Janjira. The corrupted form of the Arab word for island etched the presence and identity of Janjira off the Konkan coast. The political stronghold of the Sidi kings was a coveted port-site of strategic importance. The palace of the Sidi in Janjira continues to capture a sliver of the medieval opulence of the principality of Janjira.
It is not just Janjira, but other coastal towns such as Musakaji and Dhaulvalli in Ratnagiri district highlight the Arabic and Islamic connection. The medieval Sufi saint, Daud Wali resided in a coastal town south of Ratnagiri. Local Muslim population today speaks highly of the philanthropic wali (godman) who “helped people and his blessings could grow rice on barren laterite stone!”
Musakaji, on the other hand, is a memory for a Qazi (designation for a village judge) who came to these parts of Konkan in the medieval period. The name “Musa” may either be his given name or refer to the place in Iran since the oral narrative connects him to the origin in Iran. Musa Qazi is remembered for his judgements and overall administration. One can supplement host of other personalities with non-Islamic affiliation who served as an inspiration for place-names in South-Asia in general and Konkan in particular. These two places however stand out for their maritime importance and the age-old Muslim quarters.
Faith and trade
The sailors and merchants who had left their native land sought brotherhood under Islam in farther ports connected by maritime activity. Sailors who set sail from Arabia to Oman, and then towards Gujarat, Konkan and Mangalore ports had a long treacherous sea ahead of them. Islam joined them together. Akin to Christianity, Islam has a proselytising element that helped the new members of the faith to be joined in. And across the many ports in the Indian ocean world, numerous Muslim brothers joined in. A global family away from home was always at service for the home-sick sailors and merchants.
Furthermore, the political supremacy of rulers practicing, and patronising Islam during the Medieval times offered great impetus to the faith and mercantile activity at once. Muslim dynasties such as the Bahamani kings (1347- 1527 CE), Adilshahi (1489-1686 CE) and Qutubshahi (1591- 1687 CE) held sway over Deccan and intermittently over the parts of Konkan. In the later part of the 16th century, the Sidis at Janjira held their powerful control over much of Konkan, and the sea trade. The coalation between Angre family and later Sidis etched a strong faith-based identity for Konkani exports and trade in general. By the close of 18th century CE, the trade strongholds began to lose the tight weave of faith-based loyalty. The aggressive trade expansion of the European trading fleets that of Portuguese and the British further impacted the Muslim movement along the ports of Konkan.
The Pirate coast
During 12th to 16th centuries CE, the coastal sites of Konkan connected the east and the west, so to speak. And with increased trade, traffic and revenue, the coastal sites prospered. Portuguese and British records mention increased piracy off the coast of Konkan. The ports of Vengurla, Malvan, Rajapur and Chaul (from South to North) were notorious for piracy. Prange’s work mentions the control of pirates from Gujarat ports in the North to Malabar in the south. Piracy was tacked on the “indigenous” population of South Asia! Accounts on Konkan frequently mention piracy as a threat in the high seas. British Gazetteers routinely mention Konkan coast as “Pirate coast” (see Gazetteers of Bombay Presidency Vol X). The decline of sway of Muslim sailors off Konkani coasts and the attempts at criminalizing non-European sea traffic by the Europeans in the Indian Ocean added to the complex mosaic of Indian ocean trade world.
7 of 30 “Konkan: May-illuminate”
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