The Paravars: Chapter 5 – The Pre-Muhammadan Period


Myself

 By T. V. Antony Raj Fernando

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Previous: The Paravars: Chapter 4 – The Paravar Caste

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There are different methods of assessment to understand any particular society. For example, in accordance with their respective academic and social backgrounds the anthropologists, ethnologists, and sociologists all attempt to study and understand communities. However, a complete understanding of any given community is impossible without taking its historical background and it requires an unbiased and unprejudiced approach. The writing of this series on the Paravars has been motivated by such a sense of responsibility.

As south India is situated along the ancient maritime trade routes that connected Europe and West Asia with the Indian subcontinent and East Asia, it was but natural that the ancient Tamil literature is replete with references to foreigners such as the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Arabs, and the Chinese.

In his work on ancient India, Ptolemy who appears to have resided in Alexandria during the first half of the second century AD had identified Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari) and the Gulf of Mannar as a centre of pearl fishery. He had also mentioned that Korkai, the ancient Tamil port city to the east of Kanyakumari, as the cynosure of pearl trade.

An Arabic work of the tenth century, Adja’ib Al-Hind, refers to a merchant from Alexandria known as Cosmas Indicopleustes, who sailed to south India in the sixth century AD before Egypt was Arabised or Islamised.

To the pre-Islamic Arabs, ports and towns in South India, Ceylon, and south-east Asia were along their trade routes to China. In ancient Tamil literature, the pre-Islamic Arabs along with the Greeks, Romans, Persians and Jews, who had fled their homes in West Asia, were frequently referred to as Yavanas.

In the seventh century AD, the Islamic political-cum-religious revolution, based on the principle of equality that swept across Arabia opened a new chapter in world history. Very soon,  parts of the world stretching from Spain to Arabia and from Arabia to China, Persia, and Sind in the Indian sub-continent, came under the influence of the revolutionary wave of Islam.

Among the early Islamised Arab travellers who sailed to India in the 9th-century was Sulaiman al-Tajir. He was a merchant, traveller and writer initially from Siraf in modern-day Iran. He made several voyages from the Persian Gulf to the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, and China and wrote an account of his voyages around ad 850 AD.

J. B. Prashant More in his book “Muslim Identity, Print Culture, and the Dravidian Factor in Tamil Nadu” writes that Abu Zeyed Al Hassan of Siraf, though he had never set foot on Indian soil, edited and completed the work of Sulaiman al-Tajir by gathering information from merchants and travellers who had been to India and that he has left us a vivid account of certain social and political conditions of southern India and Ceylon.

According to Abu Zeyed in the densely populated country called ‘Al-Comary’, which has been identified as Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari), the inhabitants went barefoot, abstained from licentiousness and from all sorts of wine, and that ‘nothing indecent’ was to be seen in this region. However, Abu Zeyed mentions the ‘Devadasi’ custom that was prevalent in the country, where some females were consecrated to the gods and such females were allowed to have sexual relationships with foreigners in exchange for money.

Also, Abu Zeyed notes that the men and women of Ceylon were extreme licentious and even the king’s daughter did not hesitate to flirt with a newly arrived Arab merchant, with the full knowledge of the king. On account of such sexual permissiveness, Arab merchants of integrity avoided sending their vessels to Ceylon, especially when there were young men on board.

Neither Sulaiman nor Abu Zeyed refer to the presence of Tamil Muslim communities of mixed descent or otherwise, during the 9th-century. However, there is a strong possibility, though it cannot be clearly ascertained, whether relationships either with the women of the Pearl Fishery Coasts in the Gulf of Mannar or with the Devadasis of the Kanyakumari country resulted in offspring of mixed Arab-Indian descent.

Both Ibn Khurdadba (d. 912 AD), the famous Arabian traveller, historian and geographer who converted to Islam and the Arab historian Al Masudi (896–956), who were contemporaries of Abu Zeyed have nothing more to add to our knowledge of the origin of Muslim communities in the Coromandel Coast. However, Ibn Khurdadba noted that in the country of Kumar (Kanyakumari), both drinking wine and fornication were unlawful.

During the second half of the tenth century, neither did the Persian writer, Al-Istakhri (d. 957 AD), nor the Arab Muslim writer Ibn Hawqal (d. 978 AD), who spent the last 30 years of his life traveling to remote parts of Asia and Africa, shed any light on the Tamil Muslims of the Coromandel coast.

In the 9th century, Southern India came under the control of the Cholas but around the mid-1200s, after a series of battles reverted back to the control of the Pandyan kings.

The 9th century Tamil classic Thiruvasakam written by Manikkavasagar does not shed any light on the Tamil Muslim communities in the Coromandel Coast but mentions the Arab horse traders. that was carried on in the Tamil country with the Arabs.

Though the 12th century Tamil classic Periya Puranam written by the great poet Sekkilar does not mention the presence of Tamil Muslims on the Coromandel coast, we nevertheless find in it many references to ships, merchants and the conservative nature of the then Tamil society.

The earliest available written records by a foreigner about the Tamils of the southern coast are the accounts of Marco Polo (1254-1324), the Venetian traveller, merchant, explorer, and writer. In 1292 CE, while returning home from China in a merchant ship he entered the kingdom of the Tamil Pandyas on the Coromandel coast. His accounts reveal that the most powerful sovereign of the Indian sub-continent of that period was Nasiruddin Mahmud, the Turkish Sultan of Delhi and though both Sind and Bengal acknowledged his supremacy, no part of south India was under his control.

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King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I

During the middle part of the 13th century, the Pandya kingdom was ruled by many princes of the royal line. This practice of shared rule with one prince asserting primacy over the others was common in the Pandyan Kingdom.

Between 1268–1308/1310 AD, the Pandyan king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I ruled most of the regions of the Pandya kingdom by asserting his primacy over other princes of the Pandyan royal family. The other co-rulers of the Pandiyan kingdom were Jatavarman Vira Pandyan I (ruled 1253-1275 AD), Maravarman Vikkiraman III (acceded 1283 AD) and Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan II (acceded 1277 CE).

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Yapahuwa rock fortress (Photo: Adam Khan)

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In Sri Lanka, Bhuvanaika Bahu I, the king of Dambadeniya who reigned from 1272 to 1284 AD moved his capital northward to Yapahuwa, lying midway between Kurunegala and Anuradhapura for security. The citadel Yapahuwa was built around a huge isolated granite rock rising abruptly almost a hundred meters above the surrounding lowlands which he strengthened with ramparts and trenches. The fortress was also known as Subhagiri as the rock was used by a military officer named Subha before King Bhuvenekabahu converted into his citadel.

In the late 1270s, King Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan sent an expedition to Sri Lanka headed by his minister Kulasekara Cinkaiariyan Aryachakravarti who defeated Savakanmaindan of the Jaffna kingdom, a tributary to the Pandyans. He then plundered the fortress of Subhagiri (Yapahuwa) and brought with him the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Bhuvanaika Bahu’s successor Parâkkamabâhu III went personally to King Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan”s court and persuaded him to return the tooth relic.

Sri Lanka was under Pandyan Suzerainty for the next twenty years and regained its independence only in 1308 AD.

The Persian historian Abdulla Wassaf of Shiraz claims that an Arab Muslim named Takiuddin Abdur Rahman, son of Muhammadut Tibi was appointed by Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan as the prime minister and adviser, he was also bestowed with the coastal cities of Kulasekharapatnam, Kayalpattinam, Fitan and Mali Fitan for his services to the crown.

In 1292 CE, while returning home from China in a typical merchant ship the Venetian traveller, Marco Polo arrived on the Coromandel Coast of India. Marco Polo refers to king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan I as the “eldest of five brother kings“. His accounts reveal that the hitherto independent kingdoms of southern India were as yet untouched by foreign conquest and the gold accumulated through the ages lay in their temples and treasuries, making them easy prey for any invader.

Marco Polo identified the port at Kayal under the control of king Maravarman Kulasekara Pandyan. Ships from the Islamised countries of Hormuz, Kis, Dofar and Soer, Aden and the other Arabic countries touched Kayal, carrying merchandise and horses. Foreign merchants, mostly Arabs and Persians, were well received and treated with fairness by the ruler of Kayal who might have been Takiuddin Abdur Rahman.

In 1296 AD, Jatavarman Veera Pandyan II, the illegitimate but favourite older son of Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan associated himself with the government. Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan III, the legitimate younger son attained to that dignity sometime in 1302 AD.

Sundara Pandyan felt discontented by the preference given to Veera Pandyan by his father by advancing him to the position of co-regency. According to Muslim historians, Wassaf and Amir Khusrow, in 1310 AD, Sundara Pandyan killed his father Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan in a moment of rashness and placed the crown on his head in the city of Madurai. With the support of the troops loyal to him, he moved a part of the royal treasures to the city of Mankul (must be one of the Mangalams, Méla Mangalam or Kila Mangalam, in the western hills, not far from Madura and quite close to Periyakulam.)

The death of King Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan led to a long protracted war between his sons Veera Pandyan and Sundara Pandyan that lasted from 1308 to 1323.  During a skirmish, both the brothers fled from the battle field, each ignorant of the fate of the other but Veera Pandyan being unfortunate, and having been wounded, seven elephant loads of the gold fell to the army of Sundara Pandyan.

Until then, during Maravarman Kulasekaran Pandyan’s rule which extended over forty years, neither any foreign enemy entered his kingdom, nor any severe malady confined him to bed.

Until then, the Paravar community lived and traded their catch of fish and natural pearl oysters in peace and prospered.

Next: The Paravars: Chapter 6 – The Muhammadan Invasion of the Pandya Kingdom

Previous: The Paravars: Chapter 4 – The Paravar Caste

 

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