Beruwela — a multi-faceted historic city
AL-Haj A. H. M. Azwer MP
Historians of repute, both local and foreign, have always noted that Beruwela was indeed a prosperous city with its flourishing port. Indeed it was this Port, situated 56 Kilometres south of the capital Colombo, which brought the city its fame and prosperity.
It was no surprise that Beruwela assumed such a significant position, as it is located at the centre of the ancient sea route between the East and the West, alongside other port cities such as Colombo and Galle. According to reliable historical records, the Arabs landed in Beruwela even before the advent of Islam which was in the 6th century A.D. After they embraced Islam, the Islamic tradition and culture too found its way in to ancient Ceylon through Beruwela, paving the way for the Sinhala Kings to establish a strong bond with the Islamic world.
W. J. M. Lokubandara, the present Minister of Justice, Law Reform and National Integration and Leader of the House and a respected scholar of Buddhist history, opines that the teachings of Buddhism too inspired the ancient Kings to seek knowledge and understanding of other cultures. He says that the ‘ehipassika’ (come and see) formula, which is much valued by Buddhists, eschews the condemnation of other religions, and deserves close scrutiny and understanding. He also adds that, presumably, it was this open minded view that influenced King Agrabodhi to send a Sri Lankan delegation to Iraq, by way of the Silk Routes, for the purpose of making a study of the doctrine of the Prophet. Such lines of contact must have influenced the Arab traveller Ibn Batuta to come to Sri Lanka to seek out the sacred Samantakuta Mountain, ‘just forty leagues from Paradise.’ Identified with the ‘footprints that kindled the faith of those who came from the Middle East, while the famous gem fields in the area offered an enticing commodity to merchants from that region, thus satisfying the demands of both religion and commerce (in Sri Lanka and the Silk Road of the Sea).
R. A. L. H. Gunawardana elucidating on the presence of Arabs, Berbers and the ritual of whirling dances at Beruwela, suggests of a close connection between Ceylon and the Mamluk Kingdom of Egypt, which existed from 1250 to 1517 A.D. The initiatives of King Buvanekabahu appear to have brought forth some permanent results in the establishment of a settlement of merchants from the Mamluk Kingdom at Beruwela and the introduction of the influence of the Mawlawiya Sect. It is noteworthy, he says, that the Dambadeni Asna, in which the earliest reference to the land of the Berbers occurs, was written in the reign of the third or the fourth king who bore the name Parakramabahu, that is, between 1287 and 1293 or between 1302 and 1326 which would be soon after or close to the reign of Buvanekabahu.
Beruwela, according to some historians derived its name from two Sinhala words, viz. Be (lower) and Ruwala (sail), which denotes the place where the sails of the Arab merchant vessels were lowered. However another version traces the name to the famed North African (Berber) traveller Abu Yusuf al-Barbari, who is believed to have introduced Islam to the Maldivians.
In fact, Arabs called this place as Berberyn. Berr.. Berr.. which means to stop or pause. When the early Arab settlers arrived by sea and on sighting a tiny islet, they, overcame with joy, cried out "Berr.. Berr.." to their oarsmen of the Catamarans to stop. This island call Berberyn still adds picturesque atmosphere to the environs of the area in the sea waters almost facing Alfasiyathun Nasriya Muslim Girls Vidyalaya, the first Muslim school set up in the island, thereby Beruwela assuming prominence in yet another domain, i.e. pioneering Muslim female education at the very spot where their forefathers landed.
The renowned Muslim traveller mentioned earlier, Ibn Batuta, who has written much about Sri Lanka in his travelling episodes, is also a Berber. The Arabs, who possessed a tremendous knowledge of the sea routes, were inevitably employed by the Sinhalese Kings to handle the country’s commerce and trade. They were also sent as ambassadors to the Islamic empires, which were in fact regarded as the ‘super powers’ of that era.
A significant contribution of the Arabs in Sri Lanka, the Unani medicine system, found its way to this country through Beruwela. Tradition has it that in the 10th Century, Prince Jamal-ud-din, the son of the Sultan of Konya (in Asia Minor) arrived here and practised Unani medicine. According to Dr. C. G. Uragoda, Unani physicians at first transmitted their medical knowledge orally to members of their own families. Later, information was written down in Tamil language in Arabic script, and kept within the family. Many of the medical plants found in the Kandyan areas and used in Ayurveda began to be employed in the Unani system too. Unani drugs were brought to the country by trading vessels coming from Arabia and the Persian Gulf. These drugs consisted of mainly syrups, which contained ingredients such as rose petals, grapes, dates and musk. Many local constituents were also made use of.
Many Unani physicians have had the honour to serve the Kings in the palace as well. For instance, Muhandiram Mohamed Odeyar who belonged to the famous Behethge clan, served as a physician to the Kandyan Kings.
Even the princes of Maldives sailed to Ceylon in order to get treatment from the Unani physicians. It was also a common sight those days in Beruwela and other parts of the country where the Maldivians used to sell their products, the delicious Bondi Haluva and Diya Hakuru. Following the rapid development that took place in Maldive Islands under the leadership of President Gayoom, they became prosperous and the sight of Maldivians selling these items gradually disappeared from our country.
Although the Unani medical practice has declined significantly in Sri Lanka, quite a number of them could still be found practising in various parts of the country, including in Beruwela. The grandfather of former Speaker, Deshamanya Alhaj M. A. Bakeer Markar was an established Unani physician of the area. Muslims use the term ‘Hakeem’ when referring to a physician, which means literally a person of wisdom in Arabic. In Beruwela, the ‘Hakeem Villa,’ still stands as a monument to this family of physicians. Former Speaker Bakeer Markar, distinguished educationist S. L. M. Shafie Marikar, senior lawyer of the area A. W. M. Razik Marikar and the present Minister of Mass Communications Imthiaz Bakeer Markar hail from this illustrious lineage. Their ancestors came from Hazramouth in Arabia (present day Yemen) in the 7th Century A.D. It is said that four vessels sailed from Yemen with three Sultans, namely, Bad-urdin, Salah-ud-din and Mohamed. They landed at Mannar and settled there. Sad-ur-din the son of Mohamed, sailed further south along the West coast and settled in Beruwela (Ethnological Survey of the Muslims of Sri Lanka - Sir Razik Fareed Foundation).
Beruwela’s contribution to the cultural diversity and racial amity is un-paralleled in the history of Sri Lanka, from the period of the original Arab settlements to the present day where the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others lived in harmony. The Arab traders were inspired by the Islamic teaching of fairness in business dealings, as taught by the Holy Prophet Muhammed (Sal), Who was a trader himself when He received the Revelation from God Almighty. The Holy Quran too commands the faithful to "Give full measure when you measure, and weigh with a balance that is straight: That is better and fairer in the final determination" (17:35). It was due to nurturing such traditions that the locals developed an immense trust in them.
In an era when there was no banking system, the Sinhalese used to deposit their jewellery and other items with village Muslims, when they leave their houses and go on Negam. Upon arrival they will receive their valuables correctly and safely. Even the jewellers were always purchased from the Moors by the wealthy Sinhalese.
Beruwela was also a citadel of Islamic art, which is evident by the beautiful ancient mosques that are built in the area. The sight of the Kechchimalai Mosque along the coast has always been a treat to the weary traveller. The Muslim travellers never fail to stop at this place to refresh themselves physically as well as spiritually.
The precious stones from the ‘Gem City’ Ratnapura, found its way to Beruwela where they traded hands. It was a valuable source of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka for a long period of time. The great philanthropist of Beruwela, Alhaj M. I. M. Naleem, who rose to prominence through the gem trade, contributed much for the development of Islamic culture and tradition, the founding of the Islamic Institute, Jamiya Naleemiya being one of them, following the footsteps of his distinguished immediate predecessors such as Alhaj N. D. H. Abdul Cafoor and ‘Rubber King’ E. L. Ibrahim Hajiar, who have donated much of their wealth for the development of education and for the welfare of the disabled and orphans. It should be gratefully remembered that Alhaj N. D. H. Abdul Cafoor provided land and buildings for Zahira College, Home for the Blind in Ratmalana and Boys Home & Gafooriya Arabic College in Maharagama, among others. E. L. Ibrahim Hajiar used to distribute foodstuff and dates among thousands of people sans any communal and ethnic differences during the month of Ramazan, beginning from Veyangalle in the Kalutara District up to the bridge of Moratuwa.
When the Portuguese first arrived in Ceylon in the early 6th century, Muslims have already developed to an indigenous lot developing their own and unique identity, with a mixture of Arab, Sinhalese and Tamil blood. Tamil has gradually replaced Arabic as their language of communication, largely due to their interaction with the South Indian Muslim traders. The usage of Arabic-Tamil (Arabu-Thamil) in which poems were composed eulogising the lives of the Holy Prophet, His Companions and the famous Saints of Islam was prevalent among them. Even today, many Muslim families are seen sitting together in a circle, singing these poems in a rhythmic tone. This practice has served as an important tool to inculcate Islamic values among Muslim children for centuries.
The Muslims were also equally adept in Sinhala, a trend that continues unabated to this day, although English too is used among a bulk of the present generation. For the Portuguese however, the Muslims have always been ‘Moors,’ who ruled Spain for eight hundred years between the 7th and 15th Century A.D. It is this reference that came here to stay and used by the Sri Lankan Muslims.
Beruwela has also produced a Muslim ruler by the name of Vathimi Raja who reigned in Kurunegala for a brief period during the 14th Century. He was the son of Buvanekabahu I, by a Muslim spouse from Beruwela. He is still remembered by the people of Kurunegala as Vathimi Deiyo or Gale Bandara Deiyo. There is also a Vattimirajapura housing scheme, which was fittingly opened by the late Alhaj M. A. Bakeer Markar and appropriately named in remembrance of the King Vathimi. As destined, when he was the Speaker, Alhaj M. A. Bakeer Markar too was the acting Head of State for a brief period in 1981, when President J. R. Jayewardene and Prime Minister R. Premadasa left for England to attend the wedding ceremony of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
The Bard of Beruwela
The tradition of racial integration and linguistic ability nurtured by the early Muslims still flourishes this area. The name of Bakeer Markar - the Bard of Beruwela - was synonymous with Beruwela in the post-Independence era. He studied in Tamil under the able guidance of Pulavar Pandithar Muna Nallathambi at Zahira College, Colombo. He also, mastered the Sinhala and English languages. With the guidance of his mentor and political guru Dr. T. B. Jayah, he grew up to become an amiable leader, who was loved by people of all communities. He finally became the Governor (Ruler) of the Southern province, incidents that could be regarded as a historic sequence to the ascension of a previous ruler from Beruwela to the Throne.
Bakeer Markar’s eldest son, the present Minister of Mass Communication too has endeared himself not only to the people of Beruwela but also to the entire nation. Educated at Ananda College, Colombo, he was the President of the Sinhala Debating Society of this leading Buddhist institute. Today, Imthiaz is popular as one of the best Sinhala orators of this country. Minister W. J. M. Lokubandara paid a rich tribute when he described Imthiaz as a ‘Jathika Sampatha‘ (a national treasure) during the Mass Communication Ministry’s Budget Debate in Parliament in 2002.
A cultural heritage
It is most commendable that this ‘heir to the throne,’ Imthiaz Bakeer Markar issued a postage stamp on 8th June 2003 to commemorate the first Muslim mosque of Ceylon, the Masjidul Abraar, which is situated in the Maradana area of Beruwela. This Masjid was built in the year 920 AD by the Arab traders in conjunction with ‘Meelad-un-Nabi,’ the birthday of Holy Prophet Mohammed. Under the guidance and leadership of the elder Bakeer Markar, the mosque was rebuilt restoring its pristine glory - magnificently designed by that eminent architect W. J. Neil Alles of Surti & Alles Chartered Architects. The names of Alhaj S. M. A. Hameed and M. N. A. Haniffa (popularly known as ‘Haniffa Baas’) are also forever remembered for their valuable contribution in renovating the mosque. A significant feature of the event was the declaration of this mosque as a place of historic significance and a cultural heritage by the Minister of Human Resources, Education and Cultural Affairs, Dr. Karunasena Kodithuwakku.
It is very significantly that, this is first time in the history of our country that a place of Islamic culture and heritage has been declared as a national monument of the Nation.
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