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Navayaths of India-an Arabian lake in an Indian ocean
By Aftab Husain Kola

A traditional Nawaythi house

The mention of the name Bhatkal will invariably conjure before any one the image of Navayaths. They are a significant community among the Muslims and are found living mainly in and around Bhatkal, prosperous little picturesque town with quaint old abodes and villas on the west coast of Karnataka in India.

Navayaths are a distinctly identifiable ethnic Muslim group tracing their progeny to the Arabs. These fair-skinned people belong to the Shafi school of thought. Their main concentration of population is found in small colonies along the coastal tract of Uttara Kannada and Udipi districts of Karnataka with Bhatkal as its most important centre and the biggest settlement of the group. There is hardly any dissension about the meaning of the term.

Authors like Jaffer Shariff (Qanoon-e-Islam) and Colonel Wilkes (History of Mysore, vol 1) and the Imperial Gazetteer of India give the meaning as ‘New Comers’. We learn from the pages of history that the Arabs had established sustained trade relations with India in general and the west coast in particular since time immemorial. Notwithstanding the unanimity that the Navayaths are of Arab stock, the authors however hold divergent opinions about their actual place of origin and the reason for their exodus from the Gulf. Colonel Wilkes in "History of Mysore, vol 1 (1930)" states that the Navayaths belong to the House of Hashem. In the early part of 8th century AD during the fearful reign of Hajaj bin Yusuf, the Governor of Iraq under the Caliph Abd-Al-Malik Marwan, many respectable and opulent persons bade farewell to Iraq and fled their homeland fearing persecution. It is believed that they followed the route their fellow Arabs took for trade, anchoring on the west coast at several points. "While there may be some among the Navayaths whose ancestry can be traced to those who fled Iraq during Hajaj bin Yusuf’s time not all ancestors are of that type", writes Victor D’ Souza in his book "Navayaths of Kanara"(1955).

SK Lal writes in the "Legacy of Arab Dynasty in India" that although Hajaj bin Yusuf was only the Governor of Iraq his influence and rule extended even to Persian-speaking regions. Thus the Arabs and Persian traders carried on their commerce together, resulting in Persian influence in the coastal Indo-Muslim colonies. Another writer says, ‘The influence of Persian language on the language spoken by the Navayaths is vividly evident and the existence of Persian elements in Navayaths culture strongly propound that a certain percentage of Navayaths hail from Iran.’ Besides these versions Navayaths, however, are of firm opinion that they came from Hadramaut region in the Southeastern Yemen in the early 8th Century A D. Although no notable author or historian, barring one to our knowledge, endorses this theory there are tangible indications to support the Navayaths’ claim. Similar look, diction, sartorial preference, many cultural traits, family names, etc seem quite similar among the Yemenis and the Navayaths.

Also, Sheikh Abu Saeed bin Abubacker Sam’ani postulates that the Navayath community traces its lineage to Yemen from a noble group called Na’at in Yemen.

Summing up, it is plausible that the Navayath community is a heterogeneous group from Iraq, Iran and Yemen. History says that the Navayaths who fled Iraq brought along their families while others sailed across without their families. The integration of Arabs with the locals evolved the Navayath community. Victor D’ Souza writes, "The Arab sailors and traders who came to India have generated Muslim communities in different parts of India. Among them at least three different communities are known by the generic name of ‘Navayath’. It has been found that Navayaths are scattered in Pakistan, Srilanka, Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu, Nellore, Arcot, Kolar, Hassan, Goa and Ratnagiri. These Navayaths unlike the Navayaths of Bhatkal (about whom this article deals with) have totally adopted the local culture and speak Urdu.

One can easily distinguish between a Navayath and a non-Navayath. Stoutly built and generally light skinned and having pleasing looks the male Navayath is easily distinguishable in a motley crowd. Their attire comprises a shirt, lungi and a skullcap. The females with cute looks and innocence writ large on their faces have opted for the local way of dressing. Notwithstanding this, full purdah is a must for them. Navayath women deck themselves with gold ornaments. Necklaces, ear ornaments, head ornaments, studs and bijous are commonly worn while nose studs and anklets are no longer used. Some traditional ornaments which are exclusive to the Navayaths include the bazuband (a string of armlet worn on the upper arm), dudalli (a necklace with several rows of gold chain), rakhti (head ornament) and kapalpatti (worn on the forehead) with only the last two having been retained.

Navayath Settlement:
The settlement comprises clusters of structures in compact areas called seins (streets). The houses are seen constructed wall to wall on either side of the street. These seins (pronounced with a final nasal twang) are segregated from the house of other communities and also the non- Navayath Muslims. A typical Navayath house occupies a dimension of about 20 feet frontage and 150 to 200 depthwise. It is an elongated structure with a series of rooms, one opening into the other. Every house has a backyard which has got access to the adjacent house. The womenfolk normally use this. Some of the houses are really grand in every sense and need to be preserved. The intricately carved lattices, the beautiful balustrades, the enchanting arches, the fantastic facade, the grand woodwork all contribute to the solemn majesty of these edifices (see pix). But the modern Navayaths, abreast of the changing trends, are now opting for more spacious and architect-designed houses which are mushrooming all over Bhatkal. Thus, the humble, but elegant spires are slowly being dislodged by arrogant, baroque mansions of concrete, glass and steel.

Food and Dishes:
Navayaths reveal a very high standard of culinary appreciation. Rice, fish, meat, eggs and wheat preparations enjoy the pride of place in their menu. Some of their traditional dishes unknown to others are relished by non- Navayaths. These widely prepared dishes include Mudkule (small balls of rice dough steamed and put into delicious prepared curry), Nevri (rice dough stuffed with mixed preparations of coconut scrapping and onion/jaggery, then made into cakes covered with leaves and cooked in steam), "Godan" of different varieties (a sweet dish preparation and qualified by the name of the special ingredient put, the common being jaggery, coconut juice and ghee)-popular preparations are gova-godan (of wheat), muga godan (of green gram), amatya godan (of hog plums), etc. The Bhatkali biryani, half-cooked in steam, is famous all over.

Cultural Aspects:
It is feared that culture all around the globe is dying and dying fast. Exposed as it is to the acid test of consumerism, subjected as it is to the excesses of materialism, the citadel of culture seems to be crumbling fast. Unless an all-out attempt is made to salvage the culture it will be submerged in the deluge of modernity. The culture of Navayaths is in no better shape either. This centuries old culture with many unique and distinctive traits is in imminent danger of losing its identity. The fast disappearance of certain customs and conventions testify to this phenomenon.

If we focus the searchlight on the life-style of Navayaths we can discover that their culture is of mixed origin-the two significant strands being the Arab and the local lifestyles. Customs, conventions and folk songs of myriad hues from the important bands of the spectrum of the culture of Navayaths. Folk songs in the Navayath language are sung on social occasions like marriages. Arabic songs too find a place especially while leading the bridegroom to the bride’s place for the first reception. Navayath songs composed centuries ago can be heard even to this day. ‘Aikage Sayyanu’ listen O! friends) continues to enchant our folks. Smoking hukka (hubble-bubble) was a common sight in Navayath settlements till recently and is retained by some still. Certain furniture items adorning the house of the Navayaths speak high of their refined taste and aesthetics. "Hullo" is a distinct type of swing cot exclusive to the community which used to be an important feature of community life. Hullo is a rectangular shaped flat wooden plank seater with its four corners fixed to the roof by means of metal clews which can swing. Swinging on the cot the womenfolk and children used to sing traditional folk songs and enjoy the rides.

"Patai" is yet another equally salient component of community life of the Navayaths. It is a huge antique box used for storing articles and also as a seat and as a cot for sleeping. Another tradition of the Navayaths which has faded into oblivion was eating on a big plate called ‘wate’ placed on a round mat (Sufra), about 5 to 7 members used to sit in a circle and eat from one ‘wate’. One more remarkable feature of their social relations is that whenever in a certain family some special dish is prepared it has to be shared with some of the relatives who live in different houses. "Bhade" is the name assigned to such a practice which is still prevalent in same degrees. There are many who regularly exchange "bhade" irrespective of special dishes or occasions.

Some days and occasions for the Navayaths have special significance. The mother after conceiving has to confine herself to her house for forty days. The fortieth day known as "chalise" is observed even today on the same mirth with guests, mostly relatives, treated to a feast. Another tradition which was recently done away with was the pomp and merriment that used to accompany the ritual of circumcision of boys. The boy to be circumcised attired in a bridegroom’s ensemble and decked with jasmine and sandal garlands would be taken around all the relatives’ home. He would be showered with money, eatables and gifts after which he would be brought back home for circumcision in the presence of a big gathering.

On the third day of a death called "Khatam" fatiha is recited and relatives visit the house of the dead person. The guests are served a special drink called "thari" (semolina mixed with sugar and milk) and the poor are served with meals. On the first eid after death lemon juice is served to mourners who throng the place of the deceased. This is known as "Sana bhet".

Observance of death anniversaries called "barsi" is dying a slow death. Occasions like betrothal ceremony termed as "thodgoad" is also celebrated with festivities.

Social Customs:
Endogamous (marrying within their group) by nature, marriages are conducted as laid down in the laws of Islam. It is gratifying to note that the obnoxious and much hated dowry system has not raised its dirty head in the Navayath community and has been strictly prohibited. It is the bridegroom who has to present a wedding trousseau to the bride.
Wherever Navayaths go they settle in groups and make it a point to live in close contacts with other Navayaths. Their social life is closely linked with their religious life. An intense fraternal feeling prevails amidst all Navayaths.

Certain ancient structures and relics are part of the Navayath heritage. One such cultural legacy of Navayaths when they had settled in Hospattan is the extant dilapidated minaret and a platform of a mosque in Hospattan. This structure in Hospattan village is redolent of the past history of Navayaths. The places where the Arab traders used to anchor their dhows are easily identified by the Navayaths and the two stones meant for anchoring called "Nauje-father" are still extant. These two places "Daranta" and "Dhandaghat" evoke memories of the past, as it is these two places which served as genesis of the community. Some vestiges of the culturo-religious monument as old as 500 years like mosques which revived the bygone splendor of Bhatkal have been recently obliterated and in its place new modern mosques have sprung up. However one mosque known as Mushma Masjid has been spared the ordeal and preserved intact.

The Navayaths speak a dialect called ‘Navayathi’. It is a pleasant amalgam of Persian, Arabic, Marathi, and Hindustani with Konkani as its base. The language uses Urdu script for writing.

A mercantile community, the Navayaths have set up business in Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, etc. A majority of earning male Navayaths is settled throughout the Gulf earning their livelihood and thus contributing substantially to the Indian economy. The local Hindu population derives maximum benefits from the large funds deposited in banks at Bhatkal. The locally-managed Urban Co-operative Bank advances loans in millions to the needy sections which predominantly include non-Navayaths and the Hindus.

Paradoxical though it may seem, the affluent Navayaths remained educationally backward for a deplorably long spell. But, thanks to the tireless efforts of a few of Navayath leaders who had been endowed with a prophetic vision, the situation has changed for the better. They convinced the masses that lack of education was a bane that made great inroads into the very vitality and dynamism of the community. Once the awareness was created there was no stopping Navayaths. The Anjuman Hami-e-Muslimeen spearheaded the long drawn battle against illiteracy. In fact the Navayaths achieved at Bhatkal what the Pais accomplished at Manipal. They have founded an educational empire. A wide range of educational institutions ranging from kindergarten schools to the professional colleges have come into being. At last these efforts have begun to pay dividends. Scores of Navayaths have emerged as engineers and doctors. The Jamia Islamia at Bhatkal is a premier seat of religious learning. Majlis-e-Islah-Wa-Tanzeem, the social organization of the Navayaths, is making strides in the social and political fields.

The Navayaths can take pride over the fact that it has produced quite a good number of distinguished sons of India who by their magnanimity and service-mindedness, raised the image of India. While late I H Siddique was a top-ranked freedom fighter and a legislator of Bombay assembly (post Independence), late M M Siddique was an illustrious social worker and a prominent businessman. Late AK Hafizka served as her Ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 1978. As a member of the Legislative Assembly of Bombay and Bombay Pradesh Congress Committee president and chairman of BEST he served to such an extent that he became the pride and envy of his counterparts. While late Jukaku H Shamshuddin rose to the position of a Karnataka deputy minister in the early sixties the late SM Yahya was a very influential and dignified politician who served Karnataka as a Cabinet Minster in key portfolios like Finance and Education among others. Mr Zubair Kazi, a business tycoon in the United States, is ranked as one of the richest in Karnataka.

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