“There is a story that the people in the Lakshadweep Islands came to know of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination 14 days after it happened,” Dr N P Hafiz Mohamad, head of Sociology in Calicut University says.
Surrounded by the warm waters of the Arabian Sea and lying about 240 miles off the coast of Kerala, the Union Territory of Lakshadweep is politically and historically connected to India, but is also isolated from much of the developments taking place in the Indian mainland.
The socio-cultural life in the islands is unique. Though inhabited by a majority of Muslim residents, Islam practised in the Lakshadweep is unlike that followed anywhere else in the country. It is a matrilineal society, also influenced by Hindu traditions and caste structure. Further, although the islanders share ethnic, linguistic and cultural links with the Malayalam speaking people of Kerala, there is significant Arabic, Tamil and Kannada influence on Lakshadweep as well.
The discovery and settlement in the islands is frequently associated with the legend of Cheraman Perumal, the last of the Chera rulers in Kerala who governed the region. A popular oral tradition in Kerala suggests that the last Cheraman Perumal had a strange dream following which he converted to Islam and set out to Arabia for the sake of performing the Hajj. But he was to never return from Arabia and he settled and was later buried there.
When the Raja failed to return to Kerala, a tributary prince, the Raja of Kolattunad (north Malabar), is known to have sent a search party to look for him. This search party, on being caught in a severe storm, was stuck in one of the Lakshadweep islands. According to Lakshadweep’s tradition, these castaways were the first settlers in the islands.
Scholar of Islamic studies Andrew W Forbes, in his article, ‘Sources towards the history of the Laccadive islands’ (2007) notes that while the story of Cheraman Perumal is hard to validate, “there can be little doubt that the first settlers on the Lakshadweep islands were Malabari sailors, quite possibly castaways”.
He writes that even though it is unclear as to when the islands were first settled, there is strong evidence to suggest that a strong wave of immigration took place during the seventh century CE. These immigrants were Malabari Hindus, including Nambudiri Brahmins, Nairs, Tiyyars and probably Mukkuvans. “The existing caste structure of the Lakshadweep islands probably dates to this period, as does the prevailing marumakkathayam matrilineal system of inheritance,” he writes.
Apart from the caste system, a pre-Islamic Hindu society in the islands can be deduced from the use of the ancient Malayalam script, Vattelutu in the islands before the use of the Arabic script, the discovery of a number of buried idols, probably of Hindu origins, and the existence of several traditional island songs in praise of Ram and alluding to snake worship.
The history of how the Lakshadweep settlers converted to Islam is also shrouded in myth and mystery. The process of conversion is credited to ‘Ubaid Allah’ who is known to have been the grandson of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr. He is believed to have landed on the shores of Amini Island in the Lakshadweep while he was on a journey that the Prophet had asked him to undertake in a dream. Once in Amini, Ubaid Allah had won over the people of the island and thereby they converted to Islam. While this story is once again hard to verify historically, there does exist a tomb of Ubaid Allah inside the Jami mosque in Androth Island, an object of great veneration.
Forbes in his work is of the opinion that conversion to Islam in the islands happened over an extended period of time through regular contact with Arab merchants and sailors who had frequent trade relations with the neighbouring Malabar coast from the beginning of the eighth century CE. It is quite possible that the Arab ships passed through the Lakshadweep islands from that time. Possibly an Arab by the name of ‘Ubaid Allah’ played an important role in the conversion process. But as Forbes explains, it is certainly clear that Islamic influence in the Lakshadweep came through Arabic influence rather than through the Mappila community of Malabar. “Lakshadweep islanders speak Malayalam with a greater admixture of Arabic than the mainland Mappilas, and write Malayalam in the Arabic rather than Malayali script,” he notes.
“Unlike north India, introduction of Islam in the Indian Ocean including the Lakshadweep islands, Kerala, Tamil Nadu was accompanied by very less political contest,” says historian Mahmood Kooria. “Islam was introduced in these areas through other forms but mainly commercial interactions,” he adds.
From the 16th century, the islands came under the control of the Arakkal kingdom of Kannur, the only Muslim dynasty to have ruled in Kerala, and also a matrilineal one. The male head of the kingdom was called Adi Raja while the ruling queen was Arakkal Beewi. By the 16th century though, the Arakkal kingdom was frequently at loggerheads with the European powers. Even though its control over trading networks reduced overtime, the kingdom drew prestige from its control over the Lakshadweep islands.
Historian Manu Pillai says “the Portuguese made strong efforts to take over the island, and in the mid-sixteenth century there was a massacre of hundreds of locals by them. However, because the Portuguese came to terms with mainland rulers like the Kolathiri and Arakkal, the islands would have eventually enjoyed a degree of protection.”
A similar degree of insulation can also be seen during the period of British colonialism in the Malabar coast. While the Arakkal kingdom was forced to surrender most of its land in Malabar, they were allowed to retain part of the Lakshadweep in return for a tribute to the East India Company. Arakkal control over the islands in fact continued till as late as 1908 when they finally went to British hands after a prolonged battle. In return it was decided that a tribute of Rs 23000 would be given annually in 12 monthly installments to the Arakkal family.
Though the islands shared historical relations with Islamic society in the Malabar region, it also had its differences. The Muslims of Kerala are popularly identified as Mappilas. Kooria explains that even though the term originally was used to identify Kerala Muslims, Jews and Christians, after British colonisation it came to be associated with Kerala Muslims alone in popular imagination. “Since the Muslims of Lakshadweep did not undergo the process of colonisation in the same way as did the Malabar region, they were not identified with the same term,” he says. He adds that culturally the Lakshadweep inhabitants shared links with Kerala, but they shared a similar relationship with other regions of South India like Karnataka as well since it was under the rule of Tipu Sultan for a long time. In fact the islands’ geographical proximity and social interactions with several different cultures is the reason why this rather small region has as many as three main languages: Malayalam, Jazari and Mahl.
In the late colonial period and after Independence, the Lakshadweep was part of the Malabar district. It is only in 1956 during the reorganisation of states that the Lakshadweep islands were separated from the Malabar district and organised as a separate Union Territory for administrative reasons.
“In terms of familial relationships, the Muslims of Lakshadweep are almost the same as the Muslims of the coastal region of Kerala. But economically and politically they share a lot of differences,” explains Mohamad. “There is no Muslim League in the islands which is one of the biggest parties in Kerala.”
What really marks out the Islamic society of Lakshadweep from the rest of India is the long existing tradition of matriliny wherein lineage and property is succeeded from mother to daughter.
Anthropologist and feminist scholar Leela Dube in her book, ‘Matriliny and Islam: Religion and society in the Laccadives’ (1969), explains the uniqueness of a matrilineal society in Islam when she writes, “perhaps nowhere would a social system appear so incompatible with the ideology of Islam and demand so much adjustment and accommodation as in a matrilineal society.”
Kooria says “the islanders believe their practise in matriliny is not despite of Islam but because of Islam.” In other words, they make sense of their matrilineal practises in terms of Islam. “They believe that the Prophet lived with his first wife, Khadija in a matrilocal system. This is the religious sanction for their matrilineal practise,” says Mohamad.
Speaking about the roots of matriliny in the islands, Pillai says “one tradition has it that Amini, Kalpeni, Andrott, Kavaratti, and Agatti are the oldest islands that were inhabited, and certain families here claim to be descendants of converts to Islam from Nair and Namboodiri Brahmin families on the mainland. Matriliny was practiced by Nairs and several other castes, and was part of Kerala’s cultural pattern. Its existence in Lakshadweep is also part of the same pattern.”
Kooria explains that the practise of matriliny in the islands cannot be seen in connection with Kerala alone and that it is commonly found among the Muslims of the Indian Ocean region like in Mozambique, Indonesia, Malaysia, Tanzania etc.
However, the geographical isolation of the Lakshadweep has ensured that the islanders were not subjected to the kind of European colonial influence or the influence of conventional Islamic ideas from other parts of the Muslim world like the reformist Mujahid movement in south-west India in the 1930s. Consequently, unlike that in other parts of the Indian Ocean, the matrilineal tradition in the Lakshadweep has also been most long lasting.
In more recent times, however, the influence of modern lifestyles and a nuclear family system has impacted the traditional matrilineal practise in the islands. Maryam Mumtaz (29) a resident of Kalpeni island says that with younger people moving out in search of jobs and families becoming smaller, property is now getting divided. “If the reforms to develop the islands as a tourist hub does not take into account the intrinsic culture of the people, then the breakdown of our traditional ways of living will only intensify further,” she says.