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Arab explorers in the Indian Ocean


The book Oman-India ties: Across Sea and Space takes its readers on a visual journey outlining the rich historical relationship between the two great civilizations of Oman and Indian which goes back more than 5,000 years. Published by Oman Observer in association Indian Embassy Muscat and written by Samuel Kutty (Senior Editor of the Observer) and Sandhya Rao Mehta (Associate Professor of SQU), the book is an attempt to document, archive and disseminate this relationship from its historical past to the present time where these relations have taken new wings. Extracts from the book will continue to appear on this space every Saturday.

The history of India’s contact with the Arab world goes back to ancient times, long before the rise of Islam or the Muslim conquest of South Asia when sailors in the region, facilitated by the knowledge of the monsoon winds, plied their ships across the seas and established commercial and cultural relations with each other.

In fact, by the time Marco Polo set out to explore East Asia in the 13th century, communities across Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean had been exchanging their wares for thousands of years in a vast network driven by the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean.

Arab travellers to India also showed deep interest in Indian religion and culture and translated several Indian sacred and literary texts into Arabic. Indian wood was found in the Sumerian sites, possibly used for construction of boats.

In fact, Abu Zayd, the Arab traveller of the 9th century CE noted: “The Arabs of Umman (Oman) take the carpenters’ tool-box with them and go to the place where the coconut trees grow in abundance. First, they cut down the tree and leave it to dry. When it is dry, they cut it into planks. They weave ropes of coir. With this, they tie the planks together and make of them a vessel. They make its mast from the same wood. The sails are made of fiber. When the boat is ready, they take a cargo of coconuts and sails for Oman. They make huge profits in this trade.”

A prominent commentator on Indian culture was Abu Rayhan al Biruni who travelled extensively across the country and left behind eighty chapters containing his observations on Indian religious, cultural and social life. Probably the most famous among all famous Arab travelers, Ibn Battuta started his extensive travels with the purpose of performing pilgrimage at the city of Mecca in 1325 before he was 22 years old. He traveled the world and came back to die in his home around 1368-69.

Battuta is said to have crossed the Indus River on September 2, 1333 CE and made his way to Delhi. Ibn Battuta, who also visited several parts of South India, had also chronicled in detail his travels to Malabar. His landmark book Rihla is an engaging account of the various ports he had visited and its inhabitants. In his travelogue, Ibn Battuta explains about the trade in Malabar through the ports of Calicut and Quilon, where ships from Persia came to trade in spices. He is said to have visited the port of Sur in 1329 and perhaps Muscat in 1330, writing about the ship’s route from Muscat to Quilon.

Omani traders in the Indian Ocean

Since the time Omanis started navigation activities and reached Indian seaports, there has been a protracted history of interactions between the two countries, which have contributed to lasting imprint on both cultures. Thanks to its strategic location in the Arabian Peninsula, Oman was a trading and commercial hub even before the first century CE, and it is this history as a citadel of trade, especially by sea, which has shaped the culture of this country. India, being close in geographical proximity, was even more heavily involved in maritime trade along its western coast.

Indeed, the products of the Indian subcontinent have been essential for trade and commerce in Oman, especially for wood for shipbuilding.

According to the great 10th century Arab traveller Abu Al Masudi, Omani sailors’ knowledge of the sea and their expertise in path finding through astronomy meant they were readily hired by merchants who wanted to travel the Indian subcontinent. According to UNESCO’s Silk Road Program, “by the mid-9th century, Omani vessels from the Arabian Peninsula started sailing towards South China. The Chinese port of Quanzhou (Zaitun) was one of the major destinations of Omani sailors. Quanzhou keeps even nowadays, different evidences of these exchanges especially during 14th century. Furthermore, Omani merchants played an important role in the expansion of Islam toward South East Asia.”

According to historians, Ibn Battuta gave extensive accounts of the Arab community in the Malabar Coast and “it is clear that the Qadi (judge) and Khatib (orator) in many of the coastal towns were from Oman.”

By this time, Oman played a major role in transit trade as Omani ports and markets had become the centre for traders across the Indian Ocean. According to researcher Ali al Nasiri, in his work Annashaat fi shibh al-jazeerat alara, Omanis were as skilled as their Indian counterparts in trading and sailing. He added that Omani ships used to take sail to Indian ports and come back carrying Indian goods and commodities to the peninsula.

Arab writers of the early Islamic period were full of praise for the Rashtrakuta rulers of Deccan India for protecting the life and property of the resident Arab community, facilitating trade and giving them freedom to worship. The Arab community soon integrated itself in local affairs, fighting wars on behalf of its Hindu rulers, setting up services and endowments for the benefit of local people and even having official positions in state administration. Arab traders built their permanent settlements on the western coast of India and they played an important role in the exchange of Indo-Arab cultural relations.

As traders waited for the annual monsoons to finish before they could go back home, many Arabs settled along the coast of Kerala and eventually had families, becoming part of the local mosaic24. According to Ibn Battuta who visited Kozhikode in 1342, there were already two mosques and an Arab Qazi at that time.

The Mappillas around Kozhikode are said to be descendants of the early Arab traders, particularly the Koyas. They form the majority of the Muslim community in Kerala. The regular interactions between Arabs and Indians throughout this period culminated in influencing each other’s language and culture as well, given their regular journeys across the seas.

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