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Brief history of plagues and pandemics

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Uditha Devapriya

By the 14th century, trade routes between the East and West had made it easier for pandemics to spread, while conquests by the Spanish and the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries would introduce several diseases to the New World. Trade and colonialism hence became, by the end of the Renaissance, the main causes of plague, which scientific advancement did little to combat, much less eliminate: a physician in the 17th century would have been as baffled or helpless as a physician in the 14th or 15th in the face of an outbreak.

No doubt rapid urbanisation and gentrification had a prominent say in the proliferation of such outbreaks, but among more relevant reasons would have been poor sanitary conditions, lack of communication and accessibility, and class stratifications which excluded the lower orders – the working class as well as peasants in the colonies – from a healthcare system that pandered to an elite minority. By 1805, the only hospitals built in Ceylon were those serving military garrisons in places like Colombo, Galle, and Trincomalee.

Among the more virulent epidemics, of course, was the notorious plague. Various studies have tried to chart the origins and the trajectory of the disease. There were two outbreaks in Rome: the Antonine Plague in 165 AD and the Justinian Plague in 541 AD. With a lack of proper inscriptional evidence, we must look at literary sources: the physician Galen for the Antonine, and Procopius and John of Ephesus for the Justinian.

Predating both these was an outbreak reported by the historian Thucydides in 430 BC Rome, but scholars have ascertained that this was less a plague than a smallpox contagion. In any case, by 541 AD plague had become a fact of life in the region, and not only in Pagan Rome; within the next few years, it had spread to the Arabic world, where scholars, physicians, and theologians tried to diagnose it. Commentaries from this period tell us of theologians tackling a religious crisis borne out of pestilence: in the beginning, Islamic theology had laid down a prohibition against Muslims “either entering or fleeing a plague-stricken land”, and yet by the time these epidemics ravaged their land, fleeing an epidemic was reinterpreted to mean acting in line with God’s wishes: “Whichever side you let loose your camels,” Umar I, the founder of the Umayyad Caliphate, told Abu Ubaidah, “it would be the will of God.” As with all such religious injunctions, this changed in the light of an urgent material need: the prevention of an outbreak. We see similar modifications in other religious texts as well.

Plagues and pandemics also feature in the Bible. One frequently referred to story is that of the Philistines, having taken away the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites, being struck by a disease by God which “smote them with emerods” (1 Samuel 5:6). J. F. D. Shrewsbury noted down three clues for the identification of the illness: that it spread from an army in the field to a civilian population, that it involved the spread of emeroids in the “secret part” of the body, and that it compelled the making of “seats of skin.” The conventional wisdom for a long time had been that this was, as with 541 AD Rome, the outbreak of the plague, but Shrewsbury on the basis of the three clues ascertained that it was more plausibly a reference to an outbreak of haemorrhoids. On the other hand, the state of medicine being what it would have been in Philistine and Israel, lesions in the “secret part” (the anus) may have been construed as a sign of divine retribution in line with a pestilence: to a civilisation of prophets, even haemorrhoids and piles would have been comparable to plague sent from God.

Estimates for population loss from these pandemics are notoriously difficult to determine. On the one hand, being the only sources we have as of now, literary texts accurately record how civilians conducted their daily lives despite the pestilence, while on the other, writers of these texts resorted to occasional if not infrequent exaggeration to emphasise the magnitude of the disease. Both Procopius and John of Ephesus are agreed on the point, for instance, that the Justinian Plague was preceded by hallucinations, which then spread to fever, languor, and on the second or third day to bubonic swelling “in the groin or armpit, beside the ears or on the thighs.” However, there is another account, by Evagrius Scholasticus, whose record of the outbreak in his hometown Antioch was informed by a personal experience with a disease he contracted as a schoolboy and to which he later lost a wife, children, grandchildren, servants and, presumably, friends. It has been pointed out that this may have injected a subjective bias to his account, but at the same time, given that Procopius and John followed a model of the plague narrative laid down by Thucydides centuries before, we can consider Evagrius’s as a more original if not more accurate record, despite prejudices typical of writers of his time: for instance, his (unfounded) claim that the plague originated in Ethiopia.

Much water has flowed through the debate over where the plague originated. A study in 2010 concluded that the bacterium Yersinia pestis evolved in, or near, China. Historical evidence marshalled for this theory points at the fact that by the time of the Justinian plague the Roman government had solidified links with China over the trade of silk. Popular historians contend that the Silk Road, and the Zheng He expeditions, may have spread the contagion through the Middle East to southern Europe, a line of thinking even the French historian Fernand Braudel subscribed to in his work on the history of the Mediterranean. However, as Ole Benedictow in his response to the 2010 study points out, “references to bubonic plague in Chinese sources are both late and sparse”, a criticism made earlier, in 1977, by John Norris, who observed that it is likely that literary references to the Chinese origin of the plague were informed by ethnic and racial prejudices; a similar animus prevailed among the early Western chroniclers against what they perceived as the “moral laxity” of non-believers.

A more plausible thesis is that the bacterium had its origins around 5,000 or 6,000 years ago during the Neolithic era. A study conducted two years ago (Rascovan 2019) posits an original theory: that the genome for Yersinia pestis emerged as the first discovered and documented case of plague 4,900 years ago in Sweden, “potentially contributing” to the Neolithic decline the reasons for which “are still largely debated.” However, like the 2010 study this too has its pitfalls, among them a lack of the sort of literary sources which, however biased they may be, we have for the Chinese genesis thesis. It is clear, nevertheless, that the plague was never at home in a specific territory, and that despite the length and breadth of the Silk Road it could not have made inroads to Europe through the Mongol steppes. To contend otherwise is to not only rebel against geography, but also ignore pandemics the origins of which were limited to neither East and Central Asia nor the Middle East.

Such outbreaks, moreover, were not unheard of in the Indian subcontinent, even if we do not have enough evidence for when, where, and how they occurred. The cult of Mariammam in Tamil Nadu, for instance, points at cholera as well as smallpox epidemics in the region, given that she is venerated for both. “In India, a cholera-like diarrheal disease known as Visucika was prevalent from the time of the Susruta“, an Indian medicinal tract that has the following passage the illness to which reference is made seems to be the plague:

Kakshabhageshu je sfota ayante mansadarunah
Antardaha jwarkara diptapapakasannivas
Saptahadwa dasahadwa pakshadwa ghnonti manavam
Tamagnirohinim vidyat asadyam sannipatatas

Or in English, “Deep, hard swellings appear in the armpit, giving rise to violent fever, like a burning fire, and a burning, swelling sensation inside. It kills the patient within seven, 10, or 15 days. It is called Agnirohini. It is due to sannipata or a deranged condition of all the three humours, vata, pitta, and kapha, and is incurable.”

The symptoms no doubt point at plague, even if we can’t immediately jump to such a conclusion. The reference to a week or 15 days is indicative of modern bubonic plague, while the burning sensation and violent fever shows an illness that rapidly terminates in death. The Susruta Samhita, from which this reference is taken, was written in the ninth century AD. We do not have a similar tract in Sri Lanka from that time, but the Mahavamsa tells us that in the third century AD, during the reign of Sirisangabo, there was an outbreak of a disease the symptoms of which included the reddening of the eyes. Mahanama thera, no doubt attributing it to the wrath of divine entities, personified the pandemic in a yakinni called Rattakkhi (or Red Eye). Very possibly the illness was a cholera epidemic, or even the plague.

China, India, and Medieval Europe aside, the second major wave of pandemics came about a while after the Middle Ages and Black Death, and during the Renaissance, when conquerors from Spain and Portugal, having divided the world between the two countries, introduced and spread diseases to which they had become immune among the natives of the lands they sailed to. Debates over the extent to which Old World civilisations were destroyed and decimated by these diseases continue to rage. The first attempts to determine pre-colonial populations in the New World were made in the early part of the 20th century. The physiologist S. F. Cook published his research on the intrusions of diseases from the Old World to the Americas from 1937. In 1966, the anthropologist Henry F. Dobyns argued that most studies understated the numbers. In the 1930s when research on the topic began, conservative estimates put the North American pre-Columbine population at one million. Dobyns upped it to 10 million and, later, 18 million; most of them, he concluded, were wiped out by the epidemics.

And it didn’t stop at that. These were followed by outbreaks of diseases associated with the “white man”, including yaws and cholera. Between 1817 and 1917, for instance, no fewer than six cholera epidemics devastated the subcontinent. Medical authorities were slow to act, even in Ceylon, for the simple reason that by the time of the British conquest, filtration theory in the colonies had deemed it prudent that health, as with education, be catered to a minority. Doctors thus did not find their way to far flung places suffering the most from cholera, while epidemics were fanned even more by the influx of South Indian plantation workers after the 1830s. Not until the 1930s could authorities respond properly to the pandemic; by then, the whole of the conquered world, from Asia all the way to Africa, had turned into a beleaguered and diseased patient, not unlike Europe in the 14th century.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Features

An amazing Sri Lankan  – ‘the power of one’

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By Siri Ipalawatte – Canberra

From Tidbinbilla to rain forests, red wines to thelijja, cappaccino to kurumba, five-stars to homestay…. Just when I thought I had touched every nook and cranny of Sri Lanka, it sprung yet another surprise. An old Uni friend suggested ‘why not visit the unusual and weird landscape called Ussangoda—the place in Hindu Mythology where King Ravana landed his air machine, dandu-monara? And off came another nugget! He said a batchmate of ours lived in a century-old house in a village called Kiula — an exotic name from the fact that the water in the area is kiul as it gets mixed with an underground seashell bed and salt water —very close to Ussangoda. This chance encounter led to a number of texts and mobile calls, and a few days later, a memorable sleepover in his house located between the 217 and 218t kilometre-post on the A2 highway between the sleepy towns of Hungama and Ambalantota in the southern Sri Lanka.

 Exactly to the minute at 12.20 pm on one Sunday we drove up to the newly renovated old bungalow, and there was my friend—dressed in white drill trousers, open neck shirt, and sporting a perfect stubble—waiting on the huge front porch to receive us. Of course, he receives us as if we might have been royalty. This is his manner. He greets us with an emotional hug, holding a few extra seconds to compensate for the similar greeting that has not taken place recently between us.

 We are shown a room—Wow! We are in a Dutch mansion. He seems to have frequent foreign visitors and in order to make them comfortable, even if they stay for lunch or tea only, he had built a set of large rooms, each with en-suite.  Everything from the linen to the china in these rooms is spotless and clean as clean could be. After finishing our quick wash and change we sit in the backyard verandah — an outer open-air courtyard facing a fish pond and herbal garden, surrounded on three sides by bedrooms, bathrooms and the kitchen, and have our lunch. He has extremely well-trained helpers: look like they have been with him a lifetime, they are respectful without being submissive.

I hear echoes of soft footsteps; children walk in one by one, some still in school uniform, and my friend signals the start of classes. The dining table is pushed back to the sidewall, and huge vetakeiya mats with colourful designs and borders are spread on the floor. The children sit devotedly holding various musical instruments. Then, begin the sound of notes emanating from varied musical instruments. I am pleased to notice that the tunings performed by the children themselves, with the help of an iPad!

 Music gradually becomes diverse with so many instruments; tabla, sitar, violin, guitar, flute — and notes, both musical and vocal rising to a crescendo as the afternoon progresses —swara, raga, and a wide range of the traditional theme songs with tone of love, sadness, anxiety, motivation, devotion and spirituality. I felt truly happy and energised to share the afternoon with these engaged and intelligent young children who gave us an evening of musical magic that I will never forget. The class ended with all standing up and singing the national anthem together.

I am totally puzzled! How have these rural small children developed such strong, balanced and varied performing abilities? I know their minds and hearts are passionate about arts and music and they love to learn. But who would provide resources and opportunities to fulfill their passions? We often get caught up in what the typical career locations —cities, elite venues, large arts institutions— have to offer, but we forget what opportunity and experience might exist in these smaller, and often forgotten rural spaces. I think my friend wants to make people aware of the amazing qualities and gifts these Kiula children have to offer outsiders. And he has a fascinating story to share with me.

 He had come to this village first in 2002, while he was the Chairman of a large corporation in Sri Lanka and quite by chance, bought an old ancestral house of a local politician that was in a dilapidated condition. In 2009, upon his retirement from an active career spanning 45 years, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, he sold his Colombo property, moved to this village having restored and renovated the house, to make it his retirement home. Through routine interaction with the villagers, he soon realised that the village children and their parents had a very limited view of the world and had a low level of self-esteem. Since he had the intention of spending his retirement years productively, he saw that there was an opportunity for him to be of assistance to the village children, to get a broader view of the world and have dreams of better futures for themselves.

He picked on the idea of expanding their knowledge and also their dreams and launched a mobile library. Not only did he buy second-hand books but he also begged his friends to donate whatever books they could, getting a fairly good collection. His first initiative was to begin a mobile library on a tuk-tuk, sent around the village every Saturday afternoon, lent free of charge to village children who became members of the ‘Kiula Kiyawana Gunaya free mobile library service’. Soon, there was widespread interest among children to read and after three years the activity was extended to invite them to contribute their own poetry and essays to a lithographed publication, called ‘Kiula Vimansa Athwela’. While these activities were progressing and the interest of village children on literary pursuits were growing, he moved on to facilitate them to learn music. An initiative that began with learning Sri Lankan folk music was later extended to learning Indian Classical Music.

 On a chance meeting of an old friend, who is a graduate of the Bathkhande Sangeeth Vidyapith of Lucknow, India, and his local school in Badulla, an affiliated institute, he realised that he could provide an opportunity for Kiula children to prepare for the Bathkande Sangeeth Vidyapith examinations as external candidates. So, in 2013, commenced free classes in Indian classical music for a group of about 12 students. The first batch of students appeared for the Preveshika level exam in 2014, examined by a visiting Indian Professor and they did very well at the exam having obtained first and second division passes.

Initially, he had hired the music teachers from nearby schools to teach the music classes and the rest were taught by him, using smart classroom techniques —TV and Internet resources. At present, the music classes are taught entirely by old students who have reached the Visharad levels and a scholarship type payment is made to them.

In 2020, a total of 28 students sat for 34 subject areas in vocal music, violin, sitar, tabla, bansoori flute and esraj.  Seven students who had reached the Visharad II level at the last exam have completed their final theory examination and now are Vishards. A further nine are at the Madyama (Diploma) level with 17 at the Prathama and Praveshika levels.

 As he saw the need for the children to learn English and develop a better worldview, he also conducts free English and mixed learning classes. A few students are learning Japanese, Hindi and Tamil. Japanese taught by a lecturer with a PhD from Japan—one of his own students at Kelaniya Uni and a friend, retired after serving in JAICA. Hindi teacher’s services are obtained from the Swami Vivekananda Indian Cultural Institute, in Colombo and online Tamil teacher is the wife of a friend.  In order to beat the Covid blues of the kids, he began organising online Sangeetha Ekamuthuwa on every Sunday afternoon using Zoom—and now is in its 21 week!

All activities are at no cost to the parents of the children, and even examination fees for the Bathkhande Exams are provided by his own savings. He has two daughters who live and work in the USA and they are his primary source of outside assistance. The only donations he has accepted over the years were used and new books and used and new musical instruments.

He would like to think of this initiative as proof of what one person can do, in a small way, on his or her own to cause change and he is very happy that his consistent effort has now proven to have paid off. He calls it ‘The Power of One’.

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The virus and I

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By Ransiri Menike Silva

Opening the newspapers these days is a hazardous exercise, one never knows from which page the Coronavirus will attack you, from a variety of angles and views that are factual, theoretical or speculative. For there it is, lurking furtively to pounce on the reader. And it is all so unutterably boring!

Is there nothing else to talk about? I wondered, so many interesting and entertaining things going on around us, like the acrobatic antics of our politicians and BIG (not bed) bugs have suddenly been stamped underground. No wonder it is so dull. I had just decided to terminate my subscription to my newspaper dealer, when I hit the jackpot, the virus came my way!

Summoning my regular trishaw man, Ranjith, not only for transport but also to ‘get shot’ himself along with me, we hit the road. The neighbourhood was familiar, the atmosphere not. We were travelling a muted world that was so soothing that I wondered why it could not always be so. The roads were full of pedestrians walking single file, in cliques or family groups. The traffic comprised two wheelers, three-wheelers and four-wheelers, yet there was no harsh screeching of brakes, no incessant honking, no heavy thump of badly negotiated speed bumps. All were heading one way. Nature contributed in her own way.

The breeze was gentle and the leaves rustled softly. A bird chirped on the top most branch of a tree and the telephone wires were bereft of noisy babblers. There were no raucous crows, mewing cats, whining dogs and snivelling kids, only the loud persistent announcements of a lone squirrel about his discovery of a bunch of ripe mangoes.

When we reached our destination the gates were open and the entire location swarming with busy people. It was dotted with billowing tents and awnings of a wisely chosen off-white shade that was easy on the eyes. These housed tables, chairs, writing material, forms and officials offering every form of assistance.

A hesitant expression or gesture from a new entrant had a squad of helpers instantly materialising to offer help with a chair; table; water; snacks; drinks; tissues; as well as by mending broken footwear, massaging tired feet and of course showing the way to the toilets. My Tuk Tuk had hardly stopped outside the main gate when a posse of policemen converged upon it and bore me off to a comfortable chair with the assurance, “Don’t worry Amma we will look after you.”

On spotting my escort returning after parking his vehicle following the unspoken instructions issued by the authorities, a senior police officer guided me to the correct place, his arm protectively around me like a mother with her new born babe; depositing me carefully in a chair he left me with a cheery wave to ‘mother’ some other ‘Amma’. Later he suddenly materialized beside me with the triumphant announcement, “Now it’s your turn Amma go that way.”

How on earth had he known? I wondered thoroughly surprised, but before I could show him my appreciation in an appropriate manner, he had vanished. While Ranjith was attending to all the formalities on my behalf, I sat back in my chair and watched the passing scene as I usually do as a writer. Something was definitely out of the place here. What? No queues! Unbelievable with such an enormous crowd. There were only about three or four people lined up (Ranjith was one) in front of each official who attended to their work. As each one was dismissed another automatically joined the line, not in a haphazard manner but from a row of applicants lolling in shaded comfort under an awning. That was the queue!

Families with no facilities to leave their young children at home alone arrived en masse. The mother joined the queue first and the others took off to some other part of the garden where they could enjoy themselves without disturbing others. I even spotted a lively ‘hide and seek’ game going on with young volunteer workers!

Phase two

“That way” involved climbing two shallow steps to enter the second phase of our adventure and I found myself hauled up with one to my left, one to my right, one behind me and the other in front of me. Here a right royal welcome awaited us now labelled the ‘Ammai-Puthai’ duo. We were provided tidy packages of fresh milk cartons with straws and tissues before being escorted along an airy corridor to another part of the same property; then they turned back to attend to others following behind.

On spotting us, the ‘Ammai-Puthai’ duo, we were accorded special attention as we were the only elderly parent-child group present. I noted that each tent housed a different set of people who had been assigned separate rooms for treatment. The open-air arrangement was cool and refreshing, and the unlittered grass surprising. Then I saw youngsters with garbage bags collecting litter even before it hit the ground. A voluntary act that uplifted my spirits. When it was our turn the forms we had been issued earlier were collected and filled with more vital details, including the date for the second ‘shot’.

Smart blue uniformed matrons supervised everything. When my turn came, I was deposited gently in a chair, my left sleeve rolled up and the upper arm sterilized. Then the needle was jabbed in and pulled out before I could even summon up a grimace. What an anti-climax! Of course I heard a few stray noises emitted by some who probably expected it to be the done thing, but all others were as unaffected as I was. All forms were returned to us and we were advised to wait for 20 minutes to monitor any adverse reactions. Sitting there I wryly recalled the time our dog contracted rabies when I was an adolescent. Each day, after school, we had to report to the MRI for 18 days to get our anti-rabies vaccinations around the ‘buriya’ (navel) with a syringe so enormous that it resembled some ancient torture device! I have yet to see another one of that size.

Our wait was thankfully uneventful, no sneeze or even a sniffle. There were no musical chants from mobile phones but animated comical gesturing into them by their owners instead. When our time to leave was officially approved we were instructed to use the rear gate for exiting. Standing on the grass verge till Ranjith brought his Tuk Tuk around I could not help reflecting amusedly on the great ‘surgical trauma’ we had just undergone. We drove home in silence in keeping with the trend of the day and were finally back at home to relax, eat and sleep.

Phase three

This, however, turned out an unfulfilled dream, for in a very short while the calls started coming in without a break. They came from friends and relatives who had also been ‘shot’ that day and were keen to share their individual experiences with me. They were from locations wide apart; Dehiwala, Moratuwa, Thelawala, Campbell Park (Borella) and De Zoysa Pura. Their experiences were almost identical to mine with only a few minor variations. The overall impression was the almost unbelievable efficiency evident at all these centres. It was obvious that this discipline was not due to any outside pressure but came from within all the volunteer workers; psyche that lay submerged until a time of need, when it swims to the surface.

It happens every day, unknown to the general public, in small and essential ways. It has happened before and will continue to happen in the future. Warmth and care for others is an intrinsic trait. We always share whatever we have with others, even sacrificing our own possessions to gift to another. It is a tradition among us, to never let a visitor leave without serving a cup of tea and other refreshments if available. Often it will be an impromptu invitation to a meal at a table loaded with hurriedly prepared extras. An outstanding example of this was during the Tsunami when everybody came together in one tight group.

When we come together at such times, it is evident that, whatever we may call ourselves outwardly, we are ‘one’ people sans differences of skin colour, age, gender, social status or personal beliefs. Foreigners who have encountered this, either in our own country or elsewhere are overwhelmed by this unmatchable intrinsic quality that has existed since the beginning of time, long before ‘Karuna’ (kindness) was instilled in us by all the religious teachers of the world.

The most publicised comment about this comes from Edward Snowden, the well-known whistleblower who exposed the workings of the US intelligence community to the world. In his latest book ‘Permanent Record’ he writes in detail about the kindness and generosity of his poverty-ridden Sri Lankan hosts, who had helped him enormously, declaring his gratitude, saying that he would forever be in their debt.

I feel proud and privileged to be a part of such a wonderful nation even in a minuscule way. I hope you are too. I also thank the Coronavirus for affording me the chance in an oblique way, to publicise my undying loyalty to my wonderful country. I am proud to be a Lankan and hope you are, too.

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Travellers and traders: Muslims of Sri Lanka

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By Uditha Devapriya
udakdev1@gmail.com

In 851 AD, an Arab merchant, called Soleyman, wrote an account of his travels to the island of Serendib. Impressionistic but insightful, it records the earliest known engagement of a Muslim with Sri Pada, also known as Samantukuta.

Soleyman does not refer to Sri Pada as “aadam malayi”, the name we see in later Muslim reconstructions of the peak. Instead he calls it “Al-Rohoun”, which is what the ninth century Indian poet Rajasekhara used in the Balaramanaya. “Rohoun” was a corruption of Ruhuna, to which the area around the mountain belonged. Literary sources inform us that this was the term used, and preferred, by Arabs and Indians from that time.

Around five centuries later, the scholar and traveller Ibn Batuta is reported to have climbed the peak. Patronised by the king of Jaffna, Batuta ascended the summit and came across a grotto bearing the name “Iskander.” Poets, travellers, and even historians would later posit this as evidence for the view, now largely debunked, that Alexander the Great climbed Sri Pada on his horse. Writing of his ascent, Batuta also noted that a Muslim Imam called Abu Abdallah, said to have died in 953 AD, was the first Muslim to make the climb. What we can speculate about from Batuta’s travels, other than the identity of “Iskander”, is that Muslim engagement with the summit dates to the 9th centuries.

Muslim engagement with Sri Lanka, of course, precedes these pilgrimages, while Arab engagement with the island predates even the coming of Islam. From the Mahavamsa we know that Pandukabhaya, after emerging triumphant from his war with his uncles, settled a community of “yonas” at the Western gate of his capital, Anuradhapura. “Yona”, we know well enough, was the term the Portuguese and the Dutch later used on Arabs.

We can’t really confirm whether the community Mahanama Thera referred to were the ancestors of the traders and settlers European colonisers encountered many centuries later. Yet, the coincidence is striking: it suggests that European colonisers considered the Arabs as alien to the country as the yonas of yore. Of course, the truth was more complex than such colonialist perceptions would suggest: by the 15th century, Arabs had become active participants in Sri Lanka’s economic, cultural, and political life.

We come across extensive references to Arabs in the country no earlier than in the sixth century AD. The literary sources we have tell us that merchants, from this period, made their way to Sri Lanka through three trade routes: the Indian to the North, the Chinese to the East, and the Arab to the West. Braudel writes that by the seventh century, trade in the Far East was dominated by these three economies. Sri Lanka’s receptivity to all three had a great deal to do with its emergence as a distinct geographic entity, separated but not cut off from the Indian subcontinent. It is from this vantage point that we should delve into the Arab origins of the Muslims, specifically Moors, of Sri Lanka.

Where did Arab traders settle in Sri Lanka? One school of thought argues that they first settled in localities in the north. Another school contends that they moved southwest, with records showing that a landing was made in Barberyn in 1024 AD. It must be noted that two of the oldest mosques were built in the latter region: the construction of the oldest of them, Al Abrar, dates to the 10th century, and that of the other, Kechchimalai, to the 12th.

Regardless of where they settled, we know what role they played in Sri Lankan society: they were, first and foremost, traders and merchants. In this, they became intermediaries between the island and the world. Enmeshing themselves in the commercial fabric of the country, they introduced practices that may not have been familiar to locals before their arrival. To say this is certainly not to deny the vitality of Sinhala civilisation; merely to note that the assimilation of other groups to that civilisation reinforced that vitality.

These encounters were hardly limited to the southwest, or even the north. Wherever they settled, Muslim traders wielded much influence, serving not just as merchants but also patrons of society. Encountering Colombo, for instance, Ibn Batuta wrote of a vizier called Jalasti, who had with him a retinue of 500 Abyssinians. Tennent suggested that his presence showed the Sinhalese were indifferent to commerce. Tennent’s view is, in one sense, a generalisation in line with colonialist readings of Sinhala culture, but it belies the reality of Muslim involvement of the island’s trade after the 10th century.

Their sense of privilege and proportion was significantly enlarged by a concession they won from Sinhala rulers: the ability to be tried by their own laws. This was an expedient necessitated by commerce: according to Lorna Dewaraja, whenever a dispute arose in any of the ports where they traded, it had to be settled “by a tribunal consisting of Muslim priests, merchants, and mariners.” Such privileges were crucial, because like any trade-based community Arab Muslims required a body of laws they could apply to their kind, wherever and in whatever part of the world they operated from. Their importance in this regard was not lost on local rulers: part of the reason why Arya Cakravari patronised Ibn Batuta so well was his desire to tap into Arab trade in the region.

Unlike European colonisers, even Muslims from other parts of the region, Arab traders formed one of the more peaceful communities in the island. Their pacifist nature, a stark contrast to the fanaticism of their compatriots in India, the Maldives, and South-East Asia, encouraged Sinhala kings to grant them settlements of their own. Eventually they became not just a part, but a fact, of life in the country.

In his account of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka, Paul E. Pieris recounts an incident where, upon their first arrival in the island, the colonialists managed to anger locals by attempts to slaughter their cattle. What is fascinating about this episode is that Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka preceded the Portuguese by nine centuries, and even more fascinating, the fact that cattle slaughter was one of the few crimes for which a refugee could not escape the brunt of the law if he or she escaped to a viharagam (where cattle were held in high regard). It was, to borrow the parlance of modern law, a non-bailable offence.

Based on such fragmentary evidence, the conclusion we can reach is that cattle slaughter would have been tolerated as a practice of a community, in this case Muslims, assimilated to the country’s society. When committed by a foreign group, on the other hand, it would have constituted an act of disrespect, or even aggression.

There is, of course, no doubt that Muslim settlers and local communities faced a common enemy in the European coloniser. In their attempts to convince the king of the perfidious nature of the Portuguese, for example, Buddhist monks actively took the side of Muslim traders, warning the Sinhalese court of the dangers of allowing the Westerners too many privileges. By this point the reputation of Muslims had transcended their position as mere traders; they had entered other fields, as diverse as medicine and the crafts, flourishing in whatever domain they settled in. In incorporating them into the court, as physicians or members of the military, the Sinhala polity thus absorbed them into its social structure. It is this that explains the high regard Buddhist monks had for them. Historians who tend to play with categories of race, without noting the role caste played in Sinhala society, fail to appreciate fully the implications of such developments.

We see these processes continue in the Kandyan kingdom. For a social structure that was so rigid and fixed, it is astonishing that it absorbed outside communities so well. Muslims not surprisingly figured in its scheme of things: they were decreed a place in the Sinhala caste system, banded together with the karavas or the fisher folk. They were also allowed their own headmen for the villages they settled in. This gave them a twin advantage: while maintaining amicable relations with the king, they continued with their cultural practices that set them apart from other social and caste groups. Readily genuflecting before rulers and nobles, they played a role as merchants, physicians, and envoys.

The fact that we do not come across records of tensions between them and other groups, particularly those such as the Buddhist clergy, indicates that, for all its limitations, Kandyan feudalism did a better job than British colonialism in maintaining inter-group relations. To say this is by no means to romanticise the caste system; only to suggest, as historians like Lorna Dewaraja have, that colonialism brought an end to a period of symbiotic harmony between groups who were, with the advent of Western rule, to see themselves in ethnic rather than caste terms. This, however, is an entirely new domain of research, one which most contemporary scholars, barring the likes of Asiff Hussein, have not explored. That it should be explored is implied in the unfortunate, though hardly inevitable, conflagrations of ethnic tension which crop up from time to time today. As Regi Siriwardena suggested a long time ago, what needs to be emphasised is not imagined unity, but actual diversity: a diversity that remained a force for unity for so long.

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