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The Role of Cultural Interactions and Resident Indian Communities in the GCC Countries in Shaping Gulf-India Ties

The Role of Cultural Interactions and Resident Indian Communities in the GCC Countries in Shaping Gulf-India Ties

By Talmiz Ahmad

Published Online: May 05, 2018

India’s ties with the Gulf go back at least 8000 years. Archaeological excavations at Dilmun in Bahrain and Sur in Oman reveal links with the Harappan civilisation that go back to 2300-2000 BC. 

Cotton was a major export from India, while an ivory comb and clay pots carrying grain have been found at Sur. India’s relations with the Mesopotamian civilisations perhaps go back to the 9th century BC: clay tablets from Sumeria and Akkad show evidence of trade with the Indus valley involving imports of precious and semi-precious stones, while Sumerian exports were woven cloth, bronze weapons and jewellery inlaid with lapis lazuli. 

Cuneiform tablets from the reign of Sargon of Akkad (2300 BC) indicate the joy of the ruler at the large number of ships crowding his port of Akkad from Dilmun, Magan (Oman) and Mellukah (Indus valley). Excavations at Ur and the palace of Nebuchadnezzar show images of apes, elephants, camels and the presence of teak from India. There were also communities of Indian merchants from Makran and Baluchistan in the Mesopotamian cities of Elam and Sumer. 

According to Jewish records, during the reign of King Solomon (c. 800 BC) ships would visit Eastern ports every three years and bring back “gold and silver, ivory, apes, peacocks, almug trees and precious stones”. Their destination was the port of “Ophir” in India, identified with Sopara, in Thane district, near Mumbai.

Early commercial links

Navigation across the Indian Ocean was facilitated by the knowledge of the monsoon winds. Indian ships moved out of the port of Broach in Gujarat for Arab and African coastal towns carrying wood, rice, edible oil, cotton and honey, and brought back pearls, dates and wine. The teak wood used by Omani and Yemeni sailors to make their boats came from Malabar, on the western coast of Kerala. 

Again, in the absence of iron nails, the boats were constructed in the “stitch and sew” tradition, being bound together with coir ropes from coconut plantations along the Indian Ocean littoral. 

In the books in the library of the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal (d. 626 BC?), the word “Sindhu” is used to mean Indian cotton, while the Hebrew word “Karpas” for cotton is perhaps derived from the Sanskrit “Karpasa”. Historical documents refer to trade in metals from southern India, including iron and steel, brass and bronze vessels. 

The Achaemenid Empire in Persia in the 6th century BC gained control of Indian Ocean trade by capturing Sohar and then the entire coastline of Oman upto Sur, during the reign of Cyrus the Great (550 BC). Later, Darius I (520 BC) sent his ships to explore the mouth of the Indus, as also the Omani and Hadrami coasts upto the Red Sea. After conquering Egypt, Syria and Persia, Alexander the Great also sent a naval convoy down the Indus to chart the river and then explore and map the Persian and Arab coasts in the Gulf. 

During the period of the Ptolemies ruling from Egypt, trade with India was revived as the Greeks, such as Hippalos, learnt about the monsoon winds from Indian sailors (116 BC). 

While the later Romans from 30 BC maintained links with India through the Red Sea, the Sassanian rulers in Persia from 225 AD shifted the principal sea links with India through the Gulf. This continued till the advent of Islam, when power shifted from the Persians to the Arabs.

For several centuries, Oman played a central role in the commercial links between Indian and ports in the western Indian Ocean. Records from the 9th century BC depict the Omani port of Sur as the base of a cosmopolitan merchant community that included Jews, Persians, Indians and Arabs. 

Arab merchants played a central role in the trade between India and the Roman Empire, as also between India and Egypt. Egypt imported precious stones, spices, incense and muslin either directly from India through Arab merchants or through Indian merchants settled at different Arab ports, such as Aden and Socotra. 

Thus, before the advent of Islam, the people of India and West Asia had already been trading with each other for over 2000 years, had lived for long periods in each other’s lands, and were familiar with each other’s religion, culture, social norms and values and way of life. With the coming of Islam, not only was the mercantile relationship enhanced, but a deeper relationship, encompassing religious and cultural affiliation was initiated and in time consolidated.

The interaction with Islam

The Arab Muslims first encountered north India as invaders of Sindh when they made this province a part of the Caliphate in 718-800 AD. As the Indian scholar Malik Mohamed has noted, while this occupation was not particularly significant politically, its cultural value was “profound and far-reaching”; he goes on to say: “the Arabs … were astonished at the superiority of [India’s] civilisation. The sublimity of Indian philosophical ideas and the richness of the Indian intellect were a strange revelation to them.”

The military occupation began a very fruitful interaction between the two civilisations, when ancient Indian learning in the areas of medicine, astronomy and mathematics was translated from Sanskrit into Arabic. In the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al Mamoon (813-33 AD), the mathematician Al Khwarizmi (780-840 AD) adapted Sanskrit numerals into Arabic mathematics. 

Besides the intellectual engagement, there was considerable practical benefit derived by Arab rulers from the Indian experience, particularly in the art of state administration. This was achieved through the employment of Indians at the courts of the caliphs.

Arab travellers to India also showed deep interest in Indian religion and culture and translated several Indian sacred and literary texts into Arabic. A prominent commentator on Indian culture was Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973-1050) who travelled extensively across the country and has left behind eighty chapters containing his observations on Indian religious, cultural and social life. 

While Muslims came to north India as warriors, in southern India they came as merchants and travellers, following in a centuries’ old tradition, and were cordially welcomed by local rulers. There is a legend in the Keralapathi that Cheraman Perumal, the last Perumal ruler of Kerala, converted to Islam, performed Hajj at the time of Prophet Mohammed, and then on his return journey halted at the Omani port of Salalah where he passed away. His mausoleum in Salalah is visited by hundreds of pilgrims every to this day. 

Perumal is said to have sent some Arab families to Calicut with instructions that they be well-treated and given governance of his dominions. They were warmly received and permitted to build mosques: thus, eleven mosques were built along the Malabar Coast. The Arab traveller Mohammed Ibn Batuta (1304-77), during his travels along the western coast of India, saw several Muslims, from Persia and Yemen who were flourishing and were highly respected. 

The Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD) gave priority attention to trade with India, China and the West African coast. India was important for imports of rice, spices and fruits and above all for its teak that was required for ship-building. Marco Polo visited Dhofar in Oman in 1290 and described it as “a great, noble and fine city, where there is a great traffic of shipping with India, with merchants taking great numbers of Arab horses to that market, making great profits thereby”.  

Arab writers of the early Islamic period are full of praise for the Rashtrakuta rulers of the Deccan 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.

Over the centuries, India-Arab cultural ties in southern India deepened with the frequent visits of merchants, travellers and scholars. In the Tamil-speaking areas, Tamil assimilated some Arabic words, such as “sukkan” and “malumi” which are derived from the Arabic sukkan meaning rudder, and mua’llim, the captain of the ship.

Not surprisingly, there were considerable cross-religious influences between the 8th-15th centuries, particularly with the initiation of Hindu reform movements by Vaisnava and Shaivite saints who were trying to wean the local people from the allure of Buddhism and Jainism towards the worship of the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu. The Indian scholar Tara Chand has noted:

[It was in the south where] Islam came into contact with Hinduism and leavened the growing mass of Hindu thought… The eighth century was thus a period of revolutionary activity in religion and politics. It was during this period of strenuous activity that the foundations of later religious development in the south were laid.

Tara Chand points out that the influence of Islam on the reform schools was initially “indirect and selective”, largely based on personal observations of Muslim rites and customs. This interaction later became the most fruitful and abiding space in Hindu-Muslim engagement: in the thinking and speculations of later sages, such as Ramanuja, Vishnuswami, Madhava and Nimbarka (12-13th centuries), there was a “closer parallelism” to Islam. This mutual influence became more robust in north India between the 13th-17th centuries and gave rise to the liberal Bhakti movement in Hinduism. As Malik Mahomed has noted, Bhakti was the religion of love and devotion that was brought about “by Hindu saints who had great respect for Islam and were impressed by its simplicity and insistence on oneness of God, besides its ideals of human equality and universal brotherhood”.

The impact of Islam brought by the Arab community to the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu is particularly interesting. Most of the 2 million-strong Muslim community in this state prides itself on being descended from people who converted to Islam during the life of the holy prophet and thus sees itself as the oldest Muslim community in the country. At the same time, Muslim men and women have been among the most eminent scholars in interpreting the ninth-century Tamil Ramayana, composed by Kampan, which is known as the Iramavataram or the Kampa Ramayanam. 

The most well-known work on Islam in Tamil is the Cirappuranam, the Life of the Prophet, by Umaru Pulavar or Omar the Poet (d. 1703), who lived in Kilkarai. The title of the work itself indicates the blending of languages: Cira is the Tamil form of the Arabic sirah, meaning biography, specifically the biography of the prophet, while purana (Tamil: puranam) refers to the Hindu literary genre containing pious accounts of the deeds of a divine being , often the incarnation of the supreme deity. 

European entry into the Indian Ocean

While the Portuguese established their military dominance over the Indian Ocean sea routes after the first voyage of Vasco da Gama in 1498, they could not muster the ships to take full control of the oceanic trade, so that most of the trade continued in Arab and Indian vessels. Later, Dutch, British and French ships also entered the ocean from the 17th century, slowly elbowing out the Portuguese from the region. In 1620-22, the Persians, with British support, removed the Portuguese from Bandar Abbas and Hormuz, while a local Omani uprising evicted them from Muscat in 1649. The new Omani dynasty, the Al Yaroubi, then built up a navy at the shipyards of the Maratha Empire on the west coast of India and in 1670-73 destroyed Portuguese forts at Diu and Bassein.

A later Omani dynasty, the Bu Said, that is still ruling the country today, established Omani naval and maritime domination over the western Indian Ocean from the late 18th-early 19th centuries, again on the basis of armed trading vessels, including the 70-gun Liverpool, that were built at the Bombay and Cochin shipyards between 1814-42. With the introduction of European steam ships in the second half of the 19th century, the era of Omani mercantile primacy in the ocean ended and the British now ruled supreme over the Indian Ocean trade.

Indian communities in the Gulf

British rule in India was unique in that not only did it extend across the Indian sub-continent, it also embraced the territories of the Gulf.  As James Onley has noted, Britain assumed responsibility for the defence of Oman in 1829, for the Trucial States in 1835, Bahrain in 1861, Kuwait in 1899 and Qatar in 1916. 

The actual implementation of this imperial responsibility was vested in the government of British India which provided the funding and personnel for this enterprise. This put in place an extraordinarily substantial and all-embracing political, economic and cultural linkage between India and the peoples of the Gulf. Onley describes the Gulf-India connection thus:

The [Gulf] region’s economic dependence on India and India’s profound cultural and political influence on the region up to 1947 was such that locals regarded India and Indians as highly as they now regard the West and Westerners. For generations leading up to Britain’s withdrawal from India, the sheikhdoms of Eastern Arabia formed part of Britain’s Indian Empire. India and Indians represented power and prestige.

The earliest account of the Indian community residing in the Gulf is from the Arab historian Abu Zayd Hasan who in his book written in 916 AD refers to over 100 Hindu merchants living in the Iranian port of Siraf. This community shifted to Kish, then the Gulf’s principal port, and after that to Hormuz, Bandar Abbas and Muscat. The Indian community in Muscat, mainly from Kutch, dates back to the 15th century, followed by the community in Manama from the 17th century, and the Lawati community from Sindh from the 1770s.

While the Gulf ports imported cloth, foodstuffs, wood and metal from India, pearls were the principal item exported from the Gulf to India from where they were sold world-wide. Indian ports became banking centres for the Gulf trade, while the Indian rupee was commonly used in Gulf ports from the 17th century, a situation that continued till the 1960s.

From the 18th century onwards, Indian merchants came to dominate the Gulf trading and finance sectors. In 1869, the British Resident in the Gulf noted that Muscat’s entire trade was in the hands of Indian merchants, an observation that was repeated by the British Consul in 1920 in regard to Bandar Abbas port.

Many Indian merchants in the Gulf also provided credit to Arab and Persian traders, thus linking the Gulf and Indian financial centres. Since most local creditors provided property as collateral for their loans, their inability to settle their loans meant that many Indian merchants became major property owners as well.

Indiahad considerable influence on cultural life in the Gulf in terms of local architecture, clothing and cuisine, with Indian-style buildings dominating Gulf coastlines, Indian headdresses being used by Gulf men, and Kashmiri shawls being used as turbans by sections of Gulf royalty. Again, Gulf Arabs and Iranians ate curried lamb and fish with Indian rice. In due course, the Indian biryani, seekh kabab and even the humble samosa became standard items of Gulf Arab cuisine.

In the 19th century, before the oil era, a few thousand families were residing in the Gulf. Most of them were merchants, but they also included in their ranks jewellers, builders, carpenters and ship-builders, as also officials in government departments. Figures in Lorrimer’s Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf indicate that in 1905 about 5000 Indians lived in the Gulf region, originating mainly from Sindh, Kutch and Gujarat. The Gazetteer noted that most Hindu merchants in Muscat, like their Muslim counterparts, were now accompanied by their wives and daughters.

While the resident Indian community in the Gulf in 1948 was estimated at 7500, there were two significant spurts in the Indian presence in the early 20th century: during World War I, half a million Indian soldiers were deployed in Iraq, and in World War II, several thousand Indians were used for the occupation of Iraq and Iran. 

Many Indians were deployed in the British Indian administrative set-up in the Gulf Sheikhdoms, manning the customs department, the postal and banking services, and in enforcing the civil, commercial and criminal codes of India. Indians also contributed to all-round regional development through their role in the municipal, communications, health, education and agriculture sectors. With the development of the oil industry from the 1920s, the lack of qualified local personnel ensured that Indians were recruited in their thousands to man this nascent enterprise.

Cross-movements of resident communities

The pearl trade led major Gulf Arab merchants to locate some of their family members in Bombay. These included: the Al Bassam, Ali Reza and Al Gosaibi families from Saudi Arabia; Al Ibrahim and Al Jinai from Kuwait; Al Zayani and Al Urrayed from Bahrain; Al Midfa and Al Sayegh from the Trucial Sheikhdoms, and the Al Sultan family from Oman. 

As the Gulf communities in western India expanded in the early 20th century, they came to be influenced by India in the cultural and intellectual areas. Information relating to developments in the Arab world in those turbulent times flowed to Bombay from where it moved to the Gulf. Many prominent Gulf families, including some from royal families, came to India to study English and pursue higher education. 

Many of them were influenced by the Indian freedom movement and promoted similar reform movements at home. The Bahraini scholar, Abdulla Al Madani has noted: “What probably made the Gulf merchants and reformers keenly observe India’s experience was the fact that their efforts were directed against the same colonial power, and the fact that the Indians supported their cause.” As early as 1928, the Indian National Congress passed a resolution expressing its sympathy with all Arabs in their struggle for freedom.

Since the early 1980s, there has been a remarkable increase in the presence of the Indian community in the Gulf Arab countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Commencing with just about a million or so in the early 1980s, the community increased to three and a half million by 2005 and then reached nearly eight million ten years later. Today, the Indian community is the largest expatriate community in every country of the GCC and remits about $ 30 billion annually to the mother country.

Besides its large size, it is important to note that Indians are represented in significant numbers at every level of the GCC economies – as business tycoons, professionals, technicians and blue collar workers. The last 15 years have also witnessed a change in the profile of the Indian presence: where once blue collar workers were dominant, today there is a marked shift in favour of Indian professionals as engineers, architects, doctors, managers and accountants. Today, several hundred Indians head Gulf and multinational companies in the region.

Another new feature of the regional economic landscape is the increasing presence of the Indian corporate sector in the GCC countries, representing infrastructure, communications, IT and diverse services sectors.

Cultural isolation and engagement

As the first influx of millions of expatriate communities flooded the Gulf geographical spaces in the 1970s, the immediate instinct of leaderships was to insulate their national communities from interactions with what were seen as alien cultures with their own values and ways of life; it was feared that this onslaught would strike at traditional khaleeji culture, corrode it over time, and finally create a new hybrid that uneasily joined the local with the multiplicity of foreign influences. 

Hence, within the same national spaces expatriate communities lived in their own national and cultural silos, so that the space would never become a melting pot but would exhibit a series of separate cultural towers, with hardly any junctions of engagement between them.

Over the last few years, these water-tight bastions seem to be crumbling. This largely due to khaleeji cultures themselves mutating in response to the information, technological, intellectual and cultural flows generated by the winds of globalisation. These have resulted from the extensive global engagements of Gulf citizens due to economic partnerships, presence at international fora, education at international institutions and tourism across the world. 

Today, as the third generation of the post-oil boom period comes to assume familial and national responsibilities, it has an easy sense of cultural engagement with other nationals from business and professional backgrounds. India is at the heart of the new interaction which effectively is a retrieval of the centuries-old ties that the Gulf has had with India, defined by a high level of mutual cultural comfort and familiarity. This engagement is of course facilitated by India’s own pluralistic and multi-cultural values, its democratic order in a large and diverse polity, its economic and technological achievements, and the excellent political and economic ties it has established with all the Gulf countries.

Bollywood cinema constitutes the premier contemporary cultural bond between the Gulf nationals and India, affirming the shared cultural ethos that Indians and the Gulf peoples have shaped through interactions over several millennia. Linked with this is the high regard for items of gracious living produced in India – jewellery, garments and modern Indian haute cuisine – again recalling the links that go back to Harappan times.

But, broader and deeper engagements are also taking shape slowly. Sections of the Indian community in the GCC countries are increasingly articulating their responses to their diasporic predicament, both in art and literature. Most responses speak of pain and loss. Thus, the Gulf-based protagonist in Asha Iyer’s novel, Sand Storms, Summer Rains, says: “Every man gets caught in his web of destiny. … I had never wanted to go abroad, but I did. I was forced to. I was newly married then. I carry the burden of her farewell tears all the time.”

Another writer, Sunaina Alhuwalia, in her novel Safe Harbour, has celebrated the landscape of serenity and beauty of Oman and even ascribes to it a curative quality to resolve doubt and strife: 

Clean, spacious and green beyond belief, this city [Muscat] was truly a model for gracious living … The garden soothed her senses and restored her equilibrium. Further ahead, she could see the sea. It was calm, the waters gently lapping at the shore. .. There was also a small fishing boat bobbing on the waves. The fisherman’s sojourn was undoubtedly solitary, but successful.

In fact, the beauty of the landscape has inspired expatriate Indian artists as well. The Muscat-based artist of Indian origin, Radhika Hamlai, finds the natural beauty of Oman inspirational; for her, “the world of beautiful nature, bright colours and dramatic light” is a source of “ultimate delight”; with this impulse, she then “wanders far into the depths of our being, of being a woman, of the dilemmas confronting us, of how we shape ourselves.”

Another Indian origin artist from Oman, Radhika Khimji, attempts to break out of the constraints of her formative cultural moorings; however, at Baraka fort, outside Muscat, she sees herself “hovering between two spaces”, the space of “a pragmatic, historic, lived experience of a people and a nation, and the search by the lonely artist to break out of the limits and definitions of a specific, inherited identity.”

Conclusion

India’s engagement with the Arabs and Persians of the Gulf began several millennia ago when bands of sailors, in fragile sea-craft, braved the waters and winds of the Indian Ocean, propelled forward by their sense of adventure and material gain, strengthened by their knowledge of the winds, waters and currents, and familiar with valuable maritime techniques and technologies. 

They have in most instances not left behind their names, nor have statues been erected to applaud their memory. What we have are pottery pieces, clay tablets, seals, glass beads, hints of grain, and jewellery. But, we can imagine that, as they spent several months together on the high seas, they talked, joked and laughed; they sang songs, bawdy and nostalgic, and exchanged stories and fables of gods and demons, and spoke of loved ones left behind and the perhaps of the affectionate ones awaiting them at the next port. 

And the learned merchants, the scholars, the ambassadors amongst them talked about religion, philosophy, the sciences and the arts, of music and poetry, and all aspects of life that elevate the mind and enrich the heart. These early passengers on the high seas from Arabia, Persia and India were the repositories of the inherited wisdom of the purpose of mankind on earth, of the lessons expounded by their sages, of the values of the mind and spirit. 

These men of diverse stations and backgrounds, from different ports in different parts of the ocean they shared, came together in camaraderie and harmony and have bequeathed to us the gifts of understanding and accommodation, have shaped our culture and ethos, and finally have made us what we are today.

The author, the former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India. This was published in Arabic in the Jeddah-based academic journal, Al Araa, which may be accessed at: http://araa.sa/w128.html.

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