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India and Arabia are cultural cousins, says Gulf History scholar, Prof James Onley

21 Feb 2024 James Onley By HUBERT VAZ

The Lecture Series – ‘From Mandvi to Muscat’, hosted by the Embassy of India, brings Prof James Onley, Ahmed Seddiqi Chair in Gulf and Middle Eastern Studies and Professor of History (Dept of International Studies), American University of Sharjah, to speak on ‘India and Arabia: Connections across Millennia’ on February 22. ‘India and Arabia are natural trading partners. It is no coincidence that the largest India diaspora in the world is in Arabia,’ he asserts, in an exclusive interview with Muscat Daily. Excerpts:

The connections between the Arab world and India span over 5000 years – what could be the key reason for India becoming the fulcrum of all activities and ties with Arab nations?

Historically, India has always been the economic powerhouse of the Indian Ocean. Eastern and southern Arabia lacked basic resources such as wood, cloth, metal, foodstuffs, and capital to support large scale economic activity like the pearling industry and import/export sector. It is only natural that the Gulf Arabs would look to India for the things they lacked and for that to be reflected in their martial culture eventually.

The Kashmiri shawls that Gulf Arab men wear today, as part of their national dress, symbolise the ancient and ongoing connections between Arabia and India.  India and Arabia are natural trading partners.  It is no coincidence that the largest India diaspora in the world is in Arabia.

Was proximity with India across the Arabian Sea, as well as maritime relations, also a decisive factor in ties with the Arab world?

Yes. The Gulf is the world’s oldest cultural crossroads. Since the invention of ocean-going vessels nearly five millennia ago, ships have sailed between India and Arabia. The earliest account of Indian ships in the Gulf is a cuneiform tablet recording the words of the Akkadian king Sargon, who ruled from 2334 to 2279 BC, in which he mentions ‘ships of Meluhha’ (the Akkadian name for the Indus Valley Civilisation) anchored at the city of Akkad in central Mesopotamia.

Archaeological evidence suggests that trade contacts were established as early as 2600 BC. Historically, India was the Gulf’s most important trading partner. Today, the tables have turned and the GCC states are India’s largest regional-bloc trading partner, surpassing the ASEAN and the EU.

Mandvi Port

While plunderers visited the Arab world from far flung nations over the past four millennia, how come the Arabs always had cordial ties with India, though India had a geographic edge over others?

The Arabs first came to India through trade, long before Islam. India’s first mosque, the Cheraman Juma Masjid in the town of Methala in Kerala, was established in 629 during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad.  It was built because the ancient Arab merchant community there had become Muslim, along with most Arabs during the early years of Islam.

Intermarriage between the Arab seafarers and local women along the Malabar Coast produced a community of Arab-Indians known as the Mappilas, who, today, account for a significant number of all people in Kerala and the majority of all Muslims in that state.

It was through trade, and then Islam, that Arabs and Indians first came to know each other, therefore. Their ancient trade connections created a shared culture over the millennia. Today they are cultural cousins. 

What type of exchanges were most significant and sustainable between India and the Arab civilisation – trade/economic activity, education, culture, literary arts, maritime activity, etc?

The strong commercial connections between India and Arabia over millennia naturally led to a strong Indian influence, clearly evident in Gulf material culture, from architecture and accoutrements to clothing and cuisine. Gulf dhows were built with teak imported from India.

The houses of Gulf elites were decorated with Indian doors and furniture. Kashmiri shawls adorned the heads of many Gulf Arabs. Colourful Indian turbans were worn by the ruling families of Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah and Oman, and some Gulf Arab merchants.

Gulf Arabs ate their lamb and fish with curry and rice from India every day. In these and countless other ways, the Gulf’s ports and people were deeply connected to the world of India, while an Indian world (in the form of communities) existed among them.

What salient points would you be focusing on in your lecture?

India and Arabia have been interconnected for time immemorial despite being geographically separate. Before the oil era, the Gulf Arabs always looked toward the sea for their supplies and sources of prosperity. Their maritime orientation, toward India above all, has profoundly influenced their history and culture.

The Gulf has long been enmeshed in the movement of goods, people and cultures between East and West: from the ancient maritime trade routes between the Indus Valley, Dilmun (Bahrain) and Mesopotamia (Iraq) in the 26th century BC to the global air and sea networks linking the Gulf to the wider world in the 21st century.

Throughout this time, India always loomed large over the horizon, attracting most of the Gulf’s exports and supplying much of what made life possible in the days before oil. Today, the Indian connection is more apparent than ever before with the presence of over eight million Indian expats living and working in the GCC states, giving the neighbourhoods they predominate the feel of Indian towns.

India and Arabia - Muscat
Muscat Gate

Will you be touching upon anything specific between India and Oman?

My talk will be general, providing an overview of over 4000 years of trade and cultural contact.  I will be providing a table of all the ports that traded with the Gulf over the centuries, from Goa in the 22nd century BC to Bombay (Mumbai) today.

What is the clear-cut message for your audience?

The ancient commercial connections and cultural contact between the Indian subcontinent and the Gulf have resulted in far more than cultural influence – the coastlines around the Gulf and Arabian Sea, from Eastern Arabia to the western Indian subcontinent, are a zone of cultural confluence.

To comprehend how deep this confluence goes, one need only look at the prevalence of Islam throughout the Indian subcontinent, the tens of thousands of Arabic and Persian loanwords in Indian languages, the prevalence of Indian numbers and cuisine in the Gulf and the wider Middle East, or the countless cultural traditions shared between the Indian subcontinent and the Gulf. Each has adopted from the other and made it their own, part of their cultural DNA. India and the Gulf are cultural cousins.

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