KONKAN: A GEOGRAPHICAL OVERVIEW – Masjid Alfalah

KONKAN: A GEOGRAPHICAL OVERVIEW

The Konkan is the coastal plain of Maharashtra state, in western India, lying between the Arabian Sea on the west and the Western Ghats on the east. It stretches approximately 330 miles from the Daman Ganga river north of Mumbai (Bombay) to the Terekhol river between Maharashtra and Goa. Between 28 and 47 miles in width, the Konkan today (1999) is divided into the five administrative districts from the north to south of Thane, (Thana), Mumbai (Bombay), Raigadh (formerly Kolaba), Ratnagiri, and Sindhudurg. The topography of the Konkan coast is congenial to settlement. In this area, bays, peninsula, estuaries and capes coexist, and the combination of the influences of the land and the sea is seen. The narrow and broken coastline causes creeks and inlets in the Arabian Sea, whose tides thereby deeply penetrate into the country. This favors the growth of a number of littoral ports which are naturally protected. This is one of the few areas of the sea-boards of India that is sheltered from the sea. The settlement pattern in this region is intimately connected with both littoral and estuary ports. Together with the towns in the estuaries at points where the tides carry in the boats are formed two, sometimes even three lines of settlements corresponding to two or three degrees of marine penetration. At no other part of the western coast is this parallelism so obvious. Mountain passes through the Sahyadri connect the littoral region with the extensive interior. Moreover, some of the rivers issuing out of the Sahyadri range carry some amount of regional trade towards the Arabian Sea. The area is thus suited to commercial activities, whether inland, coastal or overseas.

EARLY MUSLIM SETTLEMENTS

From time immemorial there had been traffic between the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and India. India’s west coasts of Gujarat, Konkan, and Malabar traded with countries of the western Indian Ocean. The Arabs had shown themselves to be brave and skillful seamen; the term ‘Arabian Sea’ was no misnomer for the western part of the Indian Ocean. Long before the Greeks first entered the Asian world, the Arabs had crossed the ocean to India and had penetrated the countries of south-east Asia. Much before the Portuguese appeared in Asian waters, the Arabs had made themselves familiar with the eastern coast of Africa almost as far as its southern tip. They came to trade and not to conquer. But like the Christians in later times, they had their coastal settlements, and had intermarried with the local inhabitants. In circa 699, a group of Arabs in Basra left the province to escape the tyrannical Ummayad Governor Hajaj ibn Yusuf al-Thaqafi. These refugees evidently found welcome on the Konkan coast. The region from Khambayat in Gujarat to Chawl in Konkan came under the control of the Rashtrakutas who ruled for some two centuries between 733-975 from Malkhed. Although they were ‘infidels’ as the Arab traveler Masudi says, “amongst the kings of Sindh and Hind none treat the Muslims who are established in their domains with more distinction than the Ballahara (i.e. the Rashtrakutas). In the cities of the Ballahara kingdom the Muslims ‘were honored and protected’ and they were allowed to erect their own mosques. Masudi writes that the largest settlement was that of about 10, 000 in the district of Saymur;[Chawl] these were a permanently established group by the tenth century, with ancestors who had come from Siraf (Persia), Oman, Hadramawt, Basra, Baghdad, and other cities in the Middle East, now ‘wearing the same dresses and having their beards grow in the same manner as the infidels.’ Masudi refers to them as bayasira (singular baysari), explaining that this means they are ‘Muslim born in al-Hind of Muslims parents. From among the merchants of great distinction, one was customarily appointed by the Ballahara as the head (hamza) of the Muslim community. Consequently, even though Muslims were excluded from political power, ‘none but Muslims ruled over them on the part of the Ballahara (min qibali Ballahara) The Persian traveler Buzurg ibn Shariyar of Ram-Hurmuz was familiar with a man from Siraf. Abbas ibn Mahan, who was the chief of Saymur. More information is available in the writings of classical geographers such as Yaqut Hamawi (d. 1229) in his Mujam al-buldan written in 1154 and in al-Idrisi’s (d. 1166) Nuzhat al-mushtaq in 1224. The Arab geographers’ account of Muslims is confirmed by Sanskrit epigraphic evidence in the tenth century. This occurs in a grant of Rashtrakuta monarch, Indra III (reigned 915-28), found at theseaport town of Chinchani in Thana. The Chinchani inscription records the recipient of a land grant whose name is Madhumati, which a modern scholar David Pingree identifies as the Sanskritization of Muhammad. Ranabir Chakravarti, another scholar familiar with Sanskrit epigraphy, has arrived at the same conclusions. What is clear from the scattered writings of the early medieval travelers and geographers is that Muslims of Arab extraction were present in clusters from the close of the seventh century on the Konkan coast, and kept arriving until the middle of the tenth century. They enjoyed religious freedom to build and worship in mosques, and the local rulers granted them a degree of internal autonomy to the extent that a Muslim ruled his coreligionists on behalf of the raja. The fact that some Arab merchants settled in India meant that at least some of the profits of the overseas trade remained in the country. A Dutch factor Pieter van der Broecke encountered Arab merchants settled in India wherever he turned in the Red Sea-Hadramawt area in early 17th century.