In coastal TN, an ancient hybrid language helped bring Arab traders and Tamils closer

Sixty-eight-year-old Zainab Sulaiha often quarrels with her grandchildren for failing to learn the unique culture of her home town. Zainab is a Tamil Muslim who was born and raised in Kilakkarai, an ancient port town in Ramanathapuram.

Nestled on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, Kilakkarai is one among the several coastal towns in Tamil Nadu that boasts of an Islamic identity which is rooted in Tamil. Here, streets and roadside mosques can tell you the story of Arab spice traders landing on the shores of ancient Tamizhagam and leaving a lasting impact.

The cultural integration in this port town is evident in old mosques built like Dravidian temples. Neither biriyani nor Urdu figure in the food or language preferences of the community. And this is seen when elderly members gather to sing songs and poetry in praise of Allah, all in Tamil.

Among these unique aspects, one particular feature stands out that confirms beyond doubt the Arab-Tamil cultural fusion in the region – Arabu-Tamil, an ancient hybrid language that spread across Kilakkarai and other hamlets such as Kayalpattinam and Parangipettai in the 8th century. Arabu-Tamil thrived in coastal Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka for a few hundred years during the medieval ages. 

In essence, Arabu-Tamil or Arwi is Tamil written in a modified Arabic script. While its evolution not only offered a common tongue to both Arabs and Tamils, it gave birth to many literary texts, poetry and religious songs. Today, Arwi is dying a slow death with fewer people reading the script, and the last few printing presses running out of business.

 Origin of Arwi

Arwi flourished in the 11th century in coastal Tamil Nadu and south-west Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) as a result of Arab traders visiting in search of exotic spices. Trading over several years, the two ancient civilisations not only engaged in commercial activities, but possibly formed personal relationships and exchanged cultural ideas, language and religion. Arabs spread Islam and strengthened their relationship with the Tamil Muslim traders. What was lacking, however, was a common tongue that both communities could speak.

“Here were two people united by the same religion, rapidly spreading cultural ideas and engaging in trade. But they were separated by their tongue. This is when the Arab traders decided to learn Tamil and the beginning of Arabu-Tamil was scripted,” KMA Ahamed Zubair, a professor from New College, Chennai researching Arwi, tells TNM.

Early communication by Arabs who landed in the region was in colloquial Tamil, according to researchers. But a need was soon felt by these foreign traders to learn more of Tamil and establish a better bond with the local community.

“Initially they learnt a few words in Tamil to talk to locals. Following this, a language began to take shape in the 8th century, with Arabic as the written script and the message conveyed in Tamil. This way they could learn Tamil faster by reading it in their script,” Zubair adds.

The script

Scholars and ancient books credit Hafiz Amir Wali Appa, a Kayalpattinam-based saint, for expanding the letter count and developing the full-fledged Arabu-Tamil script.

At its peak, the script had 40 characters with 28 Arabic letters and 12 letters formed by modifying Arabic letters with diacritical marks. These letters replaced the Tamil letters for which there were no Arabic equivalents. And the script was written right to left, just like Arabic.

“Arwi soon began to spread beyond just as an aid for maritime trade. The language began appearing on tombstones in Kilakkarai, marking the date of birth and death of the person. Houses began to be named with the script. This soon led to novels, religious texts and literary gems being scripted in Arabu-Tamil. During the 18th and 19th centuries, these texts were taken to the printers for mass publishing,” Zubair says.

Texts written in Arabu-Tamil varied from literary classics to religious jurisprudence and code of conduct for women. Simt-us-Sibyan, written by Maulana Mohamed Yusuf al-Hanafi al-Qadiri, is one of the leading texts on religion written in Arwi. Until the 1970s, Simt-us-Sibyan used to figure in Quran recitation classes for children, according to Zubair. Another notable text was Akhlam-al-Muslimeen, a much published and circulated book based on religious jurisprudence, first written in Arwi.

Despite a major chunk of Arwi literature being Islamic, non-religious material was also produced during the time. Not only was the script used for everyday affairs, be it for business, property dealings and other correspondence, Arwi literary texts also dealt with a sweeping range of subjects. 

According to a research paper published by Zubair titled ‘The Rise and Decline of Arabu-Tamil Language for Tamil Muslims’, the texts dealt with subjects such as architecture, astronomy, Quran commentary, logic, Islamic jurisprudence, sexology, sports, elegy, history, etc.

Fiction was also an important part of Arwi literature. 

“The first full length novel written in Arwi during the time is called Tamira Pattanam or ‘Copper Town’. This is a full-fledged novel and a not a religious book,” Zubair explains.

Today, several Arabic words figure in the informal spoken tongue of the community. Words like mowth (death), shaitaan (Satan), kithaab (book) and others are common terms inducted into the Tamil spoken in the community. Several religious terms that lack an authentic Tamil replacement also stayed back to be used in everyday conversations.

The decline

In active use until the 1950s to 1970s, Arwi saw a sharp decline in usage post-independence, and scholars have diverse views on the reasons for this.

One section of Islamic researchers believe that the script only existed to fill a certain need at a point of time in history and therefore died a natural death as it was no longer required post 19th century. Another set of scholars, including Zubair, believe that widespread dominance of English post-independence led to the decline of Arabu-Tamil.

“English was widely used as the medium of instruction post-independence. Along with this, Arwi texts began to be translated into Tamil as its content was Tamil. In madrassas of coastal Tamil Nadu too, Urdu began to be used for teaching,” Zubair adds.

Today, only a single madrassa in Kilakkarai uses Arabu-Tamil to teach students. In universities too, Arabu-Tamil is not encouraged as a subject as it lacks employability. Rather Urdu and Arabic courses take precedence, according to Zubair.

Most printing presses too have died as Arwi books are no longer in circulation. While ancient Arwi texts are preserved in the Tamil Muslim households, most of these texts are now translated into Tamil. 

“Some of the big presses in Triplicane and Royapettah used to print several copies of Akhlam-al-Muslimeen, which was in demand for a long time. Today, these presses do not have much to do. Most Arwi manuscripts are converted into Tamil or Arabic. Hence, the need for Arabu-Tamil in everyday communication has reduced drastically,” Zubair adds.

Despite its steady decline, Arwi still figures in the past and present identity of the Tamil Muslim community. Be it the numerous words it has added to spoken Tamil, the rich history recorded in old texts and medieval inscriptions, or the cultural, literary and religious influences, Arwi in its essence will live on in the identity of these coastal communities.