The island of Sri Lanka, since ancient times, has featured prominently in the navigational and spiritual cartography of the Muslim world. The word of Persian origin ‘Sarandip ’ (سرانديپ) has long captured the attention of historians of the Muslim world. It has also played a significant role in the historical imagination of writers and story tellers through the Perseo-Arab world of literature and legend.
The South and South East Asian region is home to the largest number of Muslims in the world. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the legends, history and practice of the Muslims of Sri Lanka can be understood in the context of a very South Asian form of Muslim practice. Ritual and legend surrounding once prominent sites along the Southern coastline are particular to the island’s geography, landscape and high levels of interaction with travellers anchoring along the ports of Sarandip.
Sailing to Sarandip was of spiritual significance and also held the potential of being a prosperous trading venture. Sailors who made the journey to the island of Sarandip were those taking the journey from the West to the East to China through the Spice Islands of South East Asia or those sailing from the Far East to the West.
Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems
Among the most prominent sailors sailing from the West to the East is Al-Masudi. Also known as the Pliny of the East, Masudi wrote a 10th century historiographical account titled Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems. This historical work attempts to trace a history of the world from Adam and Eve to Al Masudi’s time. In his work Masudi speaks of the funeral ceremony of a King of Sarandip in which the King is cremated in camphor, sandalwood and other prepared spices. He further comments on vernacular musical instruments of the island which produce on man effects as diverse as laughing and crying.
The historical works of Al Masudi are one possible source for the geographical descriptions of the island of Sarandip in the fantastic voyages of Sindbad the Sailor.
Another prominent traveller from the Islamic world of the 14th century is the Moroccan ambassador and traveller of Ibn Battuta. His travels recorded as the Rehla speak of arriving in the town of Puttlam and interacting with the King Arya Chakravarti in the Persian tongue. Persian and Arabic were the lingua franca of travellers from the West prior to European dominance of the seas thus it is possible that Battuta interacted with royals and pilgrims alike on his path to pilgrimage to the Foot of Adam. The path of the travels of Ibn Battuta of Morocco significantly features the journey to Adam’s Peak and later the prominent port city of Galle which he calls Qali.
The summit of the Mount of Adam’s Peak features prominently in the Perseo-Arabic literary tradition. The 15th century Persian poet and chronicler by the name of Ashraf states that God created the island of Sarandip’s spices and flowers to make Adam’s transition from paradise to earth less painful. Further, steeped in legend, accounts of oral history say that the tears of Adam who prayed on one foot for forty years on the mountain summit were turned to precious stones- which explain the Islamic tradition provide an explanation for both the single foot print at the mountain summit and the gem mines that surround the mountain (Ratnapura). In the port city of Qali (Galle), Battuta is supposed to have been received and hosted grandly by one Captain Ibrahim.
Spiritual networks along the coastline
Illustration of the Dharga Town Mosque in Alutgama (1963) by Barbara Sansoni
A closer look at the networks of mosques along the south-western littoral of Sri Lanka reveals a network of merchant-sailors, scholars and saints who feature in the histories of the cities of the south-western littoral. Legend connects one town to another with mosques and shrines being the markers along a long forgotten map of Sufi’s (saints) along the southern littoral.
Beruwala is recorded as the site of the first established mosque in Sri Lanka. The Abrar Mosque in Beruwala Maradana is said to be the first structured space of religious worship set up by sailors sailing from West Asia. The date of this mosque is said to be 920 AD- this tenth century structure affirms that sailors sailing into the island Sarandip would have employed materials surrounding them to build these mosques and possibly employ local builders and artists to design these structures suites to local climatic conditions such as larger mosques with smaller traditional courtyards to protect devotees from the tropical sun. However, like the illustration by Sansosni above, very few structures exist in its original vernacular form owing to newer styled mosque structures. However, as this article will attempt to map out, a few markers of past structures exist peppered along the drive along the old road from Colombo to Galle moving through the prominent port towns of Beruwala and Galle.
Muhiyadeen Meeran Mosque, The Galle Dutch Fort , Image by Atheeq Mahuroof
Facing the new lighthouse of the Galle Fort, the Meeran Mosque is said to have been built (in its present structure) by Ahamed Haji Ismail of the Galle Fort who commissioned the buildings of mosques in Weligama and Poruwa. This mosque is notable in its architectural identity for it is one of the few mosque structures which are built to face the sacred direction of the Qiblah (direction to Mecca) in the structures design itself. The mosque is said to have been built in harmony with surrounding structures using the available materials and skilled builders and carvers of the time. A notable feature of this mosque is its stained glass windows which and wooden flooring. Atop the staircase of the adjoining building, the Muslim Cultural Centre is a spectacular view of Galle from the Fort to as far as the Rumassalla Kanda.
The mosque is said to have been built in 1909. The numerals painted on the front wall of the mosque facing the sea state the year 1325 Hijri which probably denotes the existence of a prayer space much before the 20th century.
Meeran Jummah Mosque, Mosque Lane, Galle.
Saints of the South
Three saints (among many others) feature most prominently in the legendary accounts of mystics in the Islamic storytelling tradition of the South. Meeran Sahib of South India who is buried in Nagore in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu is widely regarded as the patron saint of sailors to and from Lanka and numerous mosques along the south-western belt are named in his honour.
The venerated Pallak Awuliya is a famous saint within the Galle Fort. As many mystics, this saint was known to be a wandering saint, the name Pallak originates from the word ‘pallakeen’(palanquin) in which he moved about carried on the shoulders of men carrying his palanquin.
Alim Sahib Appa, who’s shrine to date rests in Dharga Town, Alutgama is a saint born and brought up within the Galle Fort. The legend surrounding his fame is that in his life he was wrongly accused of killing a Malay lady. At the Courts of Law, the judge summoned Alim Sahib Appa to testify upon which he pleaded with the judge to let the dead lady testify as to the real cause of her death. Upon which, the deceased lady rose up and said her death was caused by severe abdominal pain rather than murder to which the stunned judge pardoned Alim Sahib Appa. The unwelcome fame and prominence brought upon Alim Sahib Appa owing to the incident in Galle caused him to move to Beruwala and live away from the public gaze, to date at the site in which his shrine rests.
Bathiriya Awliya Shrine surrounded by the Indian Ocean, Image from here.
Away from the public gaze, cordoned off by the Gamunu Regiment Camp in the Fort of Galle lays the shrine of Seyed Sally Al Haramain. More famously known as the ‘Bathiri Awliya’ the title associated saint has a curious story. The legend goes that this mystic had taken shelter in a battery where the Portuguese armoury stored guns and armour. In this space the mystic passed away associating his death with the battery curiously evolving to the word “Bathiri”. To date, an annual feast is held in hour of Bathiri Awliya where the passage leading to the shrine is open to the public and feasts and prayers are held in honour to the saint who died in the Portuguese battery.
Ancient Sailing Point of Haji Watte, Magalla Bridge, Galle
On the landside of the Magalla Bridge of the town of Galle lies what is possibly the oldest structure associated with sailing to the West from Lanka. The present Kajjiwatte Mosque was once known as Haji Watte and was a leading prayer space in the area. A tale associated with this structure and moat behind it attested by many locals is that pilgrims headed for the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca from the entire South of Sri Lanka would congregate at this point to set sail to Mecca via the Galle harbour. To the back of the mosque lies a moat which connects small sailing craft from under the Magalla Bridge directly to the Galle Harbour. According to the caretakers of this structure, this mosque is as old as the birth of Islam in the 7th Century AD.
Through the lens of Muslim heritage in Sri Lanka, the littoral landscape of the South presents avenues to understanding the movement of a network of sailors and saints and the diffusion of the religion of Islam along traditional trade routes predating Portuguese dominance of the seas. This rich heritage is present today in the form of shrines and the stories that surround them.