Talk of the Trade

How Kayalpatnam is saving a waning language of the Indian Ocean

Local woman reading Kayalpatnam Karana Sarithiram (history of Kayalpatnam) written and published in Arabu-Tamil by the Islamic scholars of Kayalpatnam, Palayam Lebbe and his brother Palayam Habeeb Mohamed Lebbe. The book, archived by @46thaikastreet, was printed in 1947 by Majidiya Press in Triplicane, Madras. @gioshravan
30 June, 2023

A few residents of Kayalpatnam, a coastal municipality in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, have been trying to generate curiosity around a fast-disappearing language—Arwi. Also called Arabu-Tamil, Arwi developed in Kayalpatnam as a bridge language between seafaring Arabs and Tamil-speaking Muslims of Tamil Nadu. Arwi was in active use in the community from the eighth to nineteenth century, according to a research paper by KMA Ahamed Zubair, an associate professor from the department of Arabic studies at New College, in Chennai. It became a medium for business, property dealings and correspondence, and played a major role in literacy among Tamil Muslims. “Arwi is a wonderful child of its two classical parent languages of Tamil and Arabic,” Salai Basheer, a writer, told me. “Though it has lost its purpose and sheen in the recent past, it must be rescued and guarded.”

Arwi enthusiasts set up the Kayalpatnam Historical Research Center, an independent grassroots organisation, in September 2022, aiming to record and preserve the municipality’s overall history and culture. The centre will soon host an event at Wavoo Wajeeha College for Women, Kayalpatnam to spread awareness about Arwi.

As a Tamil Muslim from Kayalpatnam, I learnt about the genesis of Arwi from my community and neighbourhood. I also read a few research papers that have documented its evolution over the years. To understand the advent of Arwi, one must look at the forgotten histories of Kayalpatnam as a distinct matrilocal port town. Prior to the seventeenth century, when northern Europeans asserted their dominance and took over sea-routes, the Indian Ocean trade was replete with Arabs from West Asia and Persians from the coasts of the Persian Gulf.

From roughly seventh century onwards, itinerant Arab traders—which included porters, peddlers, small and big-time merchants—gradually started settling down in coastal pockets tracing the Indian peninsula, and married local women. Arwi emerged through these interactions. Local women of Kayalpatnam used Arwi to keep in touch with their sea-faring fathers, brothers and “visiting husbands”—a term used by Indian Ocean history scholars for itinerant trading husbands, who visited their wives and children whenever their route fell in these municipalities, once or twice a year.