The rushing winds of the monsoon have, for more than 2,000 years, acted as an immense conveyor belt through which goods and peoples moved between East Africa, West Asia and South and Southeast Asia. As they waited for seasons to change, these peoples settled down in lands they had come to trade in, gradually establishing roots and ties with local communities. Towards the east, Shaivite Tamil merchants and Brahmins settled through Southeast Asia and even China, as did Bengali tantric Buddhist masters. In the west, Arab and Persian traders settled in India. The earliest immigrants from this region were Zoroastrians and Christians; after the 7th century, they were increasingly Muslim.
Indeed, Islam in India is almost as old as Islam itself: during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, c. 629 CE, the Cheraman Juma mosque, the oldest mosque in all of South Asia, was constructed 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 that India’s coastal Muslims participated in allow us to better understand how the globalised people of the medieval Indian Ocean made wealthy, successful economies.
Muslim merchants, local communities and global trade
Muslim diasporas were crucial to India’s global trade because their familial and language ties allowed them to relate information and capital from West Asian markets to other Indian buyers and craftspeople. They often organised themselves in large guilds, such as the South Indian Anjuvannam of the 9th to 12th centuries CE. Comprising Indian and West Asian Jews, Muslims, Christians and Parsis, the Anjuvannam was particularly important in connecting India to networks across Afro-Eurasia. Historian Meera Abraham shows in Two Medieval Merchant Guilds of South India that they often worked in conjunction with the wealthy and influential Manigramam and Ainnuruvar merchant corporations, which extended through much of southern India and even had a presence in Southeast Asia.
The Anjuvannam traders were part of a much larger dynamic. In the early medieval period, along India’s West Coast, Muslims were being sought after for their expertise in seafaring and commerce. In the 9th and 10th centuries CE, Indian Ocean historian Elizabeth Lambourn has shown that the mighty Rashtrakuta emperors of the Deccan arranged for Muslim officers to administer personal law to Arab traders, and even appointed Muslim governors to the port of Sanjan in present-day Gujarat. One of them, the Persian Muhammad ibn Shahryar, commissioned a Sanskrit epigraph in which he is named “Madhumati”, a Sanskrit title; he also established a land grant for offerings at a Durga temple and arranged facilities for pilgrims. This underlying dynamic, of inviting foreign expertise to further state interests, was very similar to the reasoning of contemporary Southeast Asian kings who were inviting Indian Brahmin scholars for their ritual expertise, who then went on to become assimilated into local communities.
By the 12th century CE, Muslim merchants could be found along India’s East Coast as well. Professor Y. Subbarayulu writes in South India Under the Cholas that a Sri Lankan Muslim merchant called Asavu (Asaf), bearing the title of ‘Sun of the City‘, was entrusted by the Ainnuruvar merchant corporation 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 title of ‘Durga’s Beloved‘ and ‘Emperor of the Town Assembly‘, again titles granted to him by the Ainnuruvar corporation.
Intertwined architecture, intertwined religions
What might this Ainuttuva-Perumballi mosque, patronised by the primarily Shaivite merchants of the Ainnuruvar, have looked like? Answers can be seen in other South Indian mosques, which took considerable inspiration from contemporary temples and likely hired the same artisans. Consider the Palaiya Jumma Palli in Kilakarai, Tamil Nadu. Its earliest structures date to 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 that can be found in both sacred and secular architecture in South India.
As the Palaiya Jumma Palli was expanded over centuries, it continued to use architectural elements that we might think of as Hindu, but modified them to Islamic preferences. The main hall that can be seen today is inspired by pillars constructed in Tamil Nadu in the Nayaka period, c. 17th century CE. In the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai, these pillars consist of a stone shaft out of which a mythical yali beast with a rider leaps out; in the Palaiya Jumma Palli, the yalis 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 the Indianisation of Islam along the coast on the coast comes from the bilingual Somanatha-Veraval inscription of 1264, studied by historian Alka Patel. The inscription has 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 portion describes the mosque as a dharmasthanam and Allah as Vishvanatha (a title often used for the god Shiva), and an influential Hindu merchant was appointed to the mosque’s waqf board. Happening 200 years after the brutal attack of Mahmud of Ghazni on the very same city, it is clear that the people of Somnath understood that Turkic Central Asian Muslim raiders were not the same as their Arab and Persian Muslim friends and business partners on the coast. This was not allowed to get in the way of thriving economic activities. Indeed, Gujarati Muslim and Hindu merchants would go on to become among the most influential Indian Ocean traders by the 15th century and after.
The Indian subcontinent’s deep, humane diversity is what allowed it to become the dominant force of the premodern global economy — and the methods and ideas by which our predecessors collectively flourished are well worth remembering today.
This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval‘ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)