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Sri Lankan Muslim




         Amongst a people who have for over twenty centuries preserved their identity as a distinct community, it is a matter for speculation how a large majority of the Moors of Ceylon have come to adopt Tamil as their first language. The reason for this is directly traceable to Dravidian influence, but it is remarkable that although Tamil is spoken by a large majority of them today, the Arabic tongue is without exception used in the recitation of prayers, in the same manner that Roman Catholic use Latin in their religious services. It is noteworthy to understand that the Moors chose the language that was prevalent within the environments that they lived in. Many of them from the South and Central regions speak Sinhalese while the majority living in the Eastern province chose Tamil. Those living in major cities like Colombo chose English which eventually became a tremendous advantage to them in their educational pursuits and career.


         Throughout the entire history of the Ceylon Moors, there is hardly more than a single instance on record where the Arabs of old brought their women-kind with them when they came to this country. Consequently the early Arabs had to look to the  Sinhalese and Tamils for their wives. Of these two races, the latter they had been familiar with already on the Indian continent and as the sea-coast regions were more generally peopled with Tamils, whilst the Sinhalese capitals and strongholds were far away in the interior, what is more natural than that the Arabs as preferred to mary Dravidian wives on account of the fact their business and trade was directed with the Tamil businessmen of the coastal areas. The influence of these women in the household hardly needs emphasis and therefore does not need to be explained at length. No one will deny that it is easier for an Arab to learn Tamil than for a Dravidian woman to familiarise herself with the harsh gutterals which occur so frequently in the Arabic language. Furthermore the Arabs preferred t learn the Tamil language to facilitate their trading activity and thus neglected the use of Arabic.


         Under these circumstances, it is but natural that the husband adopted the new language rather than undergo the inconvenience of initiating an unlettered stranger into the tricky pronunciation and linguistic gymnastics of his language. Besides, a knowledge of Tamil was more useful to him as the means of communicating with the people of Ceylon generally, who from the proximity to India and the inhabitation of North Ceylon by Tamil speaking people, were more likely to understand that medium of speech, than Arabic. Marriages there must have been between these Arabian settlers and the Tamils of the coastal towns, but amongst a people whose religious canons permit of a plurality of wives, it is not unreasonable to expect that there must have been a large number of polygamous liaisons with, both, Tamil and Sinhalese women.


         A certain well-known European traveler who was noted for his ability to converse in any European language, is reported to have said that the easiest way to acquire a practical knowledge of a foreign tongue was by living with a woman who spoke that language only. Such a situation undoubtedly affords unique opportunities for learning. It is not difficult to imagine the embarrassing circumstances which would arise, making a familiarity with the new language imperative, owning to the fact that in some cases it would not only be inconvenient but also undesirable to call in the help of an interpreter.


         Then there is the case of the children of these Arabs by their Tamil wives. Nothing is more probable than that in the first years of his youth, the young Moor was taught to speak in Tamil by his mother with whom most of the day was spent, whilst his Arabian father was away transacting his business, mending his sails, or may be far away on the high seas on a voyage to the Fatherland. In view of this strong Dravidian influence in domestic life, it is no matter for surprise that so many Tamil customs have crept into the life of the Ceylon Moor, as for instance the ceremony observed when young Moorish girls attain the age of puberty.


         The nomenclature of a subject generally throws some light on its origin different versions of a tradition backwards with the object of ascertaining the secrets which etymology reveals, is not without its pitfalls, but even the doubtful information derivable from this source is denied to the student of Moorish history, since the Arabic language ceased to be spoken in Ceylon several centuries ago. The seeker after truth in these fields of doubt and error, therefore, has to rely entirely on Sinhalese and Tamil place names for snatching a fragment of the history of Arab times.


         Kudre Malai or “Horse mountain” for instance, has no Arabic name of which we know, although this bold headland off the Northern coast must have been well known to Arab sailors. The Greek name “Hippuros” for this place, however, still survives. Another example is Beruwela, a sea-coast town in the South West. This is a purely Sinhalese name, derived from Be, a part of the verb Bewa, to lower, and Ruwela, sail; hence, “the place where the sails course to the sails of the Arab merchant vessels which frequented that port. It is amazing that the Arabic name for this place is not known, considering the widespread tradition that Beruwela was the landing place of the first Arabs who visited Ceylon. This little township by the sea continues to be a stronghold of the Ceylon Moors to the present day and is noted for its ancient shrines and tombs said to date back several centuries. It will be remembered that it was a Moor of Beruwela who set out in the Thirteenth Century to bring the Salagama weavers from South India.


         In an ancient Arabic document which is in the possession of one of the oldest Moorish families living in Beruwela today, the following interesting legend relative to the history of that town is related. It is said that in the 22nd year of Hejira, which is said to correspond to 604 A.D., a fleet of four vessels conveying three sultans, left Yemen, in the time of Omar Kathab. The three distinguished visitors, (name not known), Salah-ud-Din and Mohamed. The first named is supposed to have landed at Kanoor (?Cananore) in South India. Salah-ud-Din also made for the Indian Coast, arriving at a place named Perriyapatnam, whilst his son Sams-ud-Din cast anchor at Mannar off the North west of Ceylon. The fourth vessel which conveyed Mohamed’s son, Sad-ur-Din sailed further south and landed at Beruwela where he is said to have settled and their ancestry to him. It is not improbable that it is on this evidence that the Moors of South Ceylon base the tradition that Beruwela was the first landing place of the Arabs of old who colonized  the Coastal regions of the Island.


         The name “Serendib” itself is said to be a corrupt Arab form of “SinhalaDwipa.” It is used frequently by Ibn Batuta to refer to the Island of Ceylon. The same writer calls Colombo, Kalambu which in turn is said to be derived from “Kulambu” or “Pond” which when transposed reads Kulampu, hence, Kalambu and the Europeanized version Colombo.


         Hambantota, also a sea port town, in the South-east of the Island traces its origin to the connection with the Moors. The name in use today comes from Hambayan tota, or the “ferry of the Hambayas or Coast Moors.” It is also stated that the root word of Hamban is Champan, which means a boat or a coasting vessel; hence Champan tota, “the ferry of the coasting vessels, Champan is also said to be of Malayan extract and is supported by the fact that there had been at one period a small coasting trade between Ceylon and the Malay Archipelago. It is possible that the name Champan came to be applied to any small brig or skiff whether it came from Malaya or not; cf Champan-turai in the Jaffna peninsula. The suffix turai here means “pertaining to the sea coast” and is noticeable  in place names like Kangesan turai, Parati turai, Colombo turai. The same root form is also present in Hambankaraya, “the men of the ships.” This name is applied to the Coast Moors only, who it must be remembered are a community distinct from the Ceylon Moors. The stronghold of the coast Moors at Bankshal Street, Colombo, is known in Sinhalese by the name of Hambanwidiya, “the street of the Hambayas or Hambankaryas.” The Tamil form is Hambankotte, “the fort of the Coast Moors.


         Another name by which this section of Moors is known is Marakalaya. Although this form is Sinhalese, the origin is from Maram, tree, wood, log, boat, and arkel, men, or people; hence Maramarkel, the people of the boats or ships. The use of the word Maram to designate a boat is present in the word Catamaran, from Kattu Maram to bind logs together so as to form a raft or boat. The Tamil form Maramarkel beccame Marakalaya in Sinhalese.


         Another explanation of the word Marakalaya is to be found in the Sinhalese work, Janawansa where it is said of the Coast Moors that because they have “much trickishness” mahat Kallan, in trading, they are called Marakalayas, but Denham rejects this theory as “purely fanciful.” Besides, it would appear, that the Janawansa applies this term to the Ceylon Moor, who certainly is not a Marakalaya. The Hambayas and Marakalayas, or Coast Moors are a floating population. They generally do not remain in the Island for more than a few years, whereas the Ceylon Moor has been permanently residing in Ceylon for several centuries. On the other hand, the Coast Moor having made a small fortune here as a boutique-keeper or petty trader, goes back to South India and seldom returns. It is of him that the Sinhalese say “there is no place where the crow and the Hambaya is not to be found.” The reference is to the Hambayas’ enterprise in generally being the first to  open his Kaddy or store in every small village of any importance. These Coast Moors have an entirely different history to the Ceylon Moors.. (See South India and Her Muhammedan Invaders by Prof. S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar, M.A., Oxford University Press.). The chief difference between the Coast Moors and the subjects of this history is that the former are more or less Hindus in language and manners, whilst the latter who are of Arab descent, have through isolation in Ceylon, and intermarriage amongst themselves preserved their identity, where a less conservative community would have been merged in the indigenous population. The Coast Moors are closely allied to the Maplias or Moplahs, who are also known as “Half-Hindus.”


         The vernacular equivalent for the Ceylon Moor is Sonahar. If properly understood this single word embraces the entire history of these people. Sonahar is another example of the different changes and transformations to which a name or expression is subjected by usage in the course of time. It is said that Sonahar is derived from the word Yawana which was applied in India, and later in Ceylon, to designate the Ionian Greeks. Afterwards the expression cam to signify any people who came from a northerly direction and brought with them new religious rites. In this manner the name passed from the Greeks to the Arabs who introduced the Islamic faith. The different stages through which the word Ionian, Yonian Yona, Yonah came to be rendered Sonahar is early imagined. The Sinhalese of old called the Ceylon Moors, Sonakarayas, Sonas and Yonas. From the last word, we get the adjective Yon, “Moorish” in Yon Weediya, Moor Street. It will be seen from this, that from the earliest times the Sinhalese observed the distinction between the Coast Moors and the Ceylon Moors whom they called Hambankayas and Yonas, respectively. The differentiation was extended even to the names of the localities in which these two sections of Moors lived, as witness, Hambanweediya and Yon Weediyia.


         A less satisfying explanation is that Sonahar is derived from Sunni through the corrupt from Soni. However this might be, it is a striking coincidence that the Ceylon Moors generally belong to Sunni sect of Muslims of the Shafi school, recognizing the Sufis.


         As in most other respects, in regard to proper names too, the Coast Moors who are a less literate community, comparatively, have been subject to a larger measure of outside influence than the Ceylon Moors. For example it is only amongst the Coast Moors that  the purely Arabic name Saed, or Sahid and Saheed becomes Saedo, Seyado, Seyadu and ultimately Sego until its original form is camouflaged beyond recognition. Similarly the name David which is rendered Davood in Ceylon, becomes in the Coast Dauthoo. Likewise, Omar, becomes Omeroo and Hamid, Hamidoo. This Tamilisation of Arabic names goes on and on in this fashion till we come to the stage where such a name occurs as Seggo Dauthoo Omeroo Lebbai and wonder whether it is the relict of some long forgotten Red Indian or Central African dialect.