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The Rowther community

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On the origins and history of the Rowther Muslims

Ravuttar, Rowther, Ravuther

Most people from Palghat would recognize this community name, for a number of them are settled in various parts of the district. As a child, I would hear stories of them being remnants of Hyder’s and Tipu’s cavalry forces. If you recall these forces were camped around Coimbatore, Pollachi, Dindigul and thereabouts during their many forays into Malabar. Growing up in Koduvayur, I came across many Rowthers, mainly traders in and around Palghat. The Palghat community spoke a kind of Tamil signifying that they once belonged to Tamil regions and were not connected with the Malayali Moplah communities. OV Vijayan frequently mentioned them in his books, and even had a few characters in his famous Khasakinte Ithihasam (legends of Khasak). That reminds me, it is time for a reread of that great book, I have forgotten most of it.

Recently a student asked me details on the Rowther’s, and since it had been in my plans to cover them sometime, I got hold of a few interesting articles and papers, and was soon engaged in pursuit of the origins and development of this interesting community. It was a tricky subject for I could glean that the narrative was over time getting tailored by vested interests, tending towards irrelevant Turkic origins. Anyway, let us see how it all came about though one thing is amply clear, that the term Ravuttan came from the Tamil ‘irauttar’ meaning horseman or cavalry trooper and that they once belonged to the Tamil regions. As times progressed, the uniqueness of the community seems to have suffered and Thurston even defines it as a title used by the Labbais, the Marakkayars and Jonagan Muslims of the Coromandel (The reasoning is that during the 19th century many Tamil Muslims believed that any kind of martial ancestry gave them a superior status compared to a lowly trader or sailor).

As far as Tamil Muslims are concerned, the conversions and adaptions to Islam followed either out of trade or out of invasions. In the case of the Kayalars (Tarakanar - broker) and the matrilineal Marakkayars, the communities arouse out of intermingling with Arab traders at various sea ports such as Kayalpatanam and Kalakkadu. These Shafei School followers (though there are instances of Hanafi Marakkars) are better known to us, since a number of Marakkars graced Malabar history in later times. The low density Pattanis are Urdu speaking North Indian (also known as Dekhani – from Deccan) origin Muslims, while the Rowthers descended from Tamil Hindu communities which converted to Islam and later served as cavalrymen in the Nawab’s army. Many of the Pattanis went on to own land away from ports and classified themselves as Zamindars, living near their Sufi shrines or dargas.

Fanselow brings in an interesting dimension when he explains the origins of the Rowthers and the Tarakanars, he says they are people without a history, in that they lack any conventional, collective, standardized account of their origins, and possess only some vague and ambiguous legends purporting to be statements of their origin. But one thing was always clear, that they were once Hindus and they were Tamils who converted at some point in history, not from one caste, but from a wider spectrum of castes including Brahmins. Why they converted is also not clear, if it was caste reasons or due to saintly influences. Strange, but not so strange considering the above, is the fact that many of them preferred to support the DMK or AIDMK, rather than the Muslim league! The Marakkars and the Pattanis on the other hand always preferred to consider themselves non-Indian.

The Rowthers however insisted that they were just like any other Muslim and not influenced by caste claims such as foreign or first Muslims etc. in order to create separations or hierarchies. They started out as a client community, under the Pattanis and the Marakkayars descendants of the Nawab’s soldiers during the 18th century. Once the Nawab’s rule was replaced by the British, the Rowthers started to adopt new professions and moved to new regions. As the Madras presidency started reclassification, the Rowthers and Tarakanars were placed in the Labbai Tamil speaking category, while the others remained in an Urdu speaking category. From a strict point of view the Rowthers belong to the Hanafi sect, though they generally take no objections to marrying the Shafi sect Tarakanars. The Rowthers incidentally are called Appa Kootam while the Tarakanars are termed the Wapa Kootam, from the way their fathers are called. In a social level, the Rowthers stood between the Trakanar on the low end and the Pattani on the high end and both communities still carried some of their old Hindu beliefs and traditions.

JBP More contends that even during the time of the Hindu rulers in Tamilakam, the horsemen were known as Ravuta or Ravats and the term is seen in Tamil literature as early as the eighth century. It is also interesting to note that the earliest conversions in Madurai were carried out by Sufi saints and before the arrival of the Delhi Sultans. The terms used after the arrival of the Turkic sultans are as we know, Tulukan or Tulukar and until the 16rth century, there were just three categories, Tulukar, Ravuttar and Sonagar (Chongar or Yonaka). Note here that the Sonagars originally encompassed the Arab origin Labbais and Marakkayar communities and later on were associated only with the Marakkayars.

BA Beeran’s thesis however provides differing origins – he states (Citing Kamal’s book Muslimgalum Tamilagamum) “The Tamil speaking Muslims of central and south central areas of Tamil Nadu are understood as Rowthers. The ancestors of the Muslims of Rowther group were attached to horses. The wide utility of horses was not known to the people of Tamil country up to the medieval period. When the later Cholas and Pandyas understood the importance of horses of Arabia and their usage, they contacted Arab horse traders for the supply of horses. Accordingly, the traders brought horses in large number to the ports of Malabar, Konkan and Coromandel coasts. From there they were brought to interior parts of Chola and Pandya kingdoms. Along with horses, the Arabs arrived in Tamil Nadu as traders, agents, trainers, breeders and soldiers and settled down in the Tamil Kingdoms. They were also known as Kudirai chettigal. Some of them married Tamil women and converted Tamil population into Islam. In course of time, the descendants of the Arabs, offspring of the Arabs and the converts constituted a Muslim community which was named after their profession. Thus emerged the group called Rowthers among the Muslims of Tamil Nadu”. This as you may note contradicts the inferences of all other researchers.

He adds - Considering the territorial origin, the Rowthers are classified into a number of denominations which are named after their profession and areas from where they migrated to different parts of Tamil Nadu and settled down. Parimala Jamath, Puliyankudiyar, Eruthukarar, Vaigaikarayars, Nallampillayar, Musuriyar, Jambaikkars and Palakkad Muslims are the major denominations. The Parimala faction for example, migrated from Nagalapuram, Kovilpatti and Ettayapuram of Tirunelveli district to different pockets of Tamil Nadu are collectively named as Parimala Jamath (perfume trading). Puliyankudiyar were the migrants from Puliyankudi, a town in Tirunelveli district. Their origin was Karupatti a town located near Cholavandan, on the banks of river Vaigai. Being the migrants from banks of Vaigai they are styled as Vaigaikarayars. Those belonging to Eruthukarar group are seen in Tenkasi, Rajapalayam and Cumbum. The earlier generations of them were cattle breeders and traders through which they obtained the name Eruthukarar, a Tamil word meaning people dealing with Bulls. Members of this group living in Cumbum are understood as Rajapalayattar as they migrated from Rajapalayam. The Nallampillayar group is inhabited in Dindigul and Theni districts. Their ancestors belonged to Nallampillai village, located near Attur of Dindigul district. It was founded by Chinnakattiranayakan, Poligar of Kannivadi. In course of time a batch moved towards west and inhabited at Uthamapalayam, Cumbum and Gudalur, towns in Cumbum valley. They were basically agriculturalists.

The Muslim migrants from Musuri, a town of Karur district are called as Musuriyar. Their major settlements are eight in number located at Velvarkottai, Ilangakuruchi, Pillathu, Sittuvarpatti, Rajakkapatti, Puttanatham, Natham and Kovilur of Dindigul district. They have engaged in trade, professions and small scale industries. The Muslims who trace their origin from Ilayankudi and nearby areas to it in Sivagangai district claim themselves as Ilayankudiyars and they are found in Paramakudi, Chennai, Thiruchirappalli, Madurai, Poona and few towns of Karnataka and Kerala. They engaged in trade in leather, rice, grains and groceries in Burma and Malaysia before the Second World War. The Muslims hailed from Jambai, village located near Bavani town of Erode district are understood as Jambaikkarars. They are now inhabited at Erode, Avinasi, Mettuppalayam, Edappadi, Kothagiri and Conoor, they are engaged in leather, iron and jewelry business from 1970’s through which they have attained upper middle income status.

The Muslim migrants from Pothanur, Kuniyamutthur and fort area of Coimbatore and Pollachi are concentrated at Pudunagakaram, Tattamangalam and Kolinjamparai, towns of Palakkad districts of Kerala. . They are the Palakkad Muslims. Speaking Tamil they have flourished in rice, iron and real-estate business and maintained matrimonial links with the families of the places from where they migrated.

The Ravuttans of Madura and Trichinopoly believe that they were persuaded to change their religion by Nathadvali whose tomb exists at Trichinopoly and bears the date of his death 417 A.D. Among the Ravuttans there are also the Nagasurakkarar and the Vettilaikodikarar who yielded a place of honor at social functions to the members of the other sub-divisions. "Rabithu" in Arabic, ' Ravuth" in Telugu "Raw in Tamil, "Rahootha" in Sanskrit - all terms are titles connected with horse traders, cavalry soldiers, horse riding or training and this title was applied to all those who were connected with these activities; later it came to be retained by a section of Tamil speaking Muslims only.

Mohammed Raja’s research concludes the following - The well-known legend of the Siva Saint Manikkavasalgar of the eighth century A.D. is connected with the purchase of horses for the Pandya king. In that the Lord Siva who appeared in disguise as a horseman to protect Manickavasagar and he is called by the name Rawther ‘Lord Muruga is praised as Rawther by saint Arunagiri. Thus the term Rawthar was also being used as a title of respect and honor. Though the present day Rawther Muslims are without horses and activities connected with it, the title Rawther stayed among them and was faithfully followed to this day. There are many place names like Rawthamatham (Kallakurichi) Rawthanpatti (Kulithalai) Rawthan Vayal (Pudukkottai Dt) Rawthanpalayam (Thiruneiveli). These places might have been their early settlements or their stronghold. They remember their ancient trade and heroic valor in their marriage ceremonies and the bridegroom is conducted in procession on a horse.

Qadir Khan deals with the subject differently, showing that there had been much intermingling and misunderstanding during his times. He states ‘To this day, in the midst of whole areas peopled by Ravuttans, it is not uncommon to find single families of priests, preserving their original purity and enjoying the universal respect of the people around them. Like the Dakhnis these converted classes are as a rule Hanafites. Though Musalmans, they have naturally retained many of their original customs. The Ravuttans, as the derivation of the name from the Marathi Rava, ‘King’ and the Sanskrit ‘duta’ messenger signifies, were originally a class of cavaliers or horse-soldiers whose occupation was to look after and train horses. They seem to have been once largely employed in Tippu Sultan’s cavalry. They are mostly scattered in the Tamil districts, their centers being Melur and Palni in Madura, Pettai in Tinnevelly, and Pallapatti in Coimibatore. A great many of them live in the Vellore and North Arcot Districts, where however they have come under Dakhni influence to such an extent in dress, manners and even in language, that they form a separate class by themselves and are called 'Sahebmars'. The Sahebmars pretend to an Arabian descent like that of the Mappillai or the Marakkayars, but as Dr. Thurston puts it “their high nasal index and short stature indicate the lasting influence of short broad-nosed ancestors. The different sections of Ravuttans were converted at various times by missionaries who are venerated as saints and whose tombs exist to the present day. The most famous of these are the Nathad Vali (969-1039 A. p.) of Trichinoply, Syed Ibrahim Shahid (born about 1162 a. d.) of Srvadi, Sha-ul-Hamid (1532 to 1600 a. D.) of Nagore. The Ravuthans are a pushing and frugal not to say a parsimonious class. They have no dynastic longings or recollections like other Musalmans. They conduct the important trade in leather and do a great deal of the commerce of the country. Some of them earn a livelihood in making mats and in betel cultivation in both of which they are especially skillful’.

One thing I noted as I perused different accounts is the fact that while one expert stated that a community followed the Hanafi sect, the other would mention that they were actually Shafei. What this demonstrates is that there was some amount of intermingling over time and when they migrated to farther lands, the practices followed seems to have changed. One example is the case of marakkayars. While the studies in the Tamil ports showed that they were Shafeii, the studies of Mathur in Kerala mentions them as Hanafi’s. Similar is the case of Rowthers in Kerala, they belong to both sects and arrived at first in Palghat and Muvattupuzha, but spread all over now. The Palghat Rowthers are usually Shafei and seen in Pudunagaram, Kozhinampara, Koduvayur, Pudukode and Melrkode, and were traditionally weavers. It may also be noted that the Shafi Muslims in Travancore were termed as Methans.

Many Rowthers of Travancore adopted the Pillai surname and placed themselves above the Mappila. Interestingly a Rowther could walk through a Brahmin Agraharam, whereas a Tiyya or Ezhava was not allowed to! And they did not eat food cooked by an Ezhava or Tiyya! The old and established Rawther families even identified with a particular vamsam name which traces their Hindu origins. They celebrated the child’s first haircut, and the circumcision ceremony was according to Mattis, called Khatna ceremony (done in the old days by the barber – Ossan), rather than Sunnath. And like the Pattanis who were usually the moneylenders, some Rowthers also partook in this trade, accepting interest.

As far as migration to Kerala is concerned it is said that Pandyan persecution or post Nawab constraints led them to migrate, and they did, to Palghat, Trichur, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Quilon areas. Typical professions they adopted earlier were as butchers, frozen fish and meat vendors and petty vendors. Some of the Shafi Rowthers continued cloth weaving while others managed and indulged in Beedi manufacture. In Tamilnadu however, they excelled in trading dried lentils, betelnuts as well as beedi leaves and cloth. Known to have no qualms about travel, they were always shrewd businessmen.

As we saw earlier, the Kayalars had more slang in their Tamil and were Wappas while the Rowthers and Labbais were the Appas. For the Rowther, mother was amma, while it was Umma for the marakkar and brother was kaka for the Marakkar, while it was annan for the Rawther. Sister was raata for Marakkar while it was akka for Rowther. Grandfather was Appa for the Marakkar while it was tatta for Rowther.

And that brings us to the story of another demigod, the Muttal ravuttan, very much a part of the Draupadi cult of Tamilnadu, especially Gingee where the Ravuttan signifies a Muslim horseman, Draupadi’s guardian, and as Wendy Doniger puts it, ‘a folk memory of the historical figure of the Muslim warrior on horseback, whether he be the sufi warrior leading his band of followers or the leader of an imperial army of conquest’. At the Chinna Salem temple, the offerings to Muttal Ravuttan include marijuana, opium, cigars and Kollu (muthira – horse gram) for his symbolic white flying horse. The Muttal Ravuttan himself is known by many names, such as Muttal Rajputan (from Nepal), Muttal raja, Muttal Rajaputtiran etc. As the story goes, Muttal Ravuttan was born in Gingee. One night he had a dream in which Draupadi-amman told him that she would give him whatever he desired if he would sacrifice a pregnant woman to her. Muttal Ravuttan had a pregnant younger sister named Pal Varicai (Row of Teeth). He readied her for sacrifice, but Draupadi stopped him, thinking: "She is a woman like me." She praised Muttal Ravuttan's dedication, however, and told him that she would still grant him a boon. Whatever he thought of would be done; but he must give up his religion and come serve at her residence (i.e., her temple): "Serving at my feet, you can live with me." Muttal Ravuttan thus gave up his religion and came to serve Draupadi. Henceforth it was agreed that she would receive pure offerings of milk, flowers, vegetables, and fruits. And he would receive live sacrifices (uyirinankal paliyitutal; i.e., blood sacrifices) such as cocks, goats, and even humans. And Muttal Ravuttan, after he has apparently been tested by Draupadi in the dream that nearly brings him to sacrifice his pregnant younger sister, is told not to perform this rite before he "converts" to Draupadi's service as the guardian who accepts animal "and human" offerings. He thus gives up his mantravadi ways and his Muslim religion, but at the same time retains such traits, turning his "meat-eating'' religion and his magical gifts to the advantage of the "purer" Hindu deity whose grace now extends, in return, to include Muslims. There are many more versions, such as the Mutalakkani story where Muttal Ravuttan was the Muslim field general of a Hindu king named Muttala Maharaja of the North Indian kingdom of Muttalappuram who came over to serve the Pandavas when the king married his daughter Muttalakkanni to Dharma. Muttal Ravuttan did this because he had always been devoted to Muttalakkanni, and wanted to serve her until his death. So he also served the Pandavas as the guardian of the northern gate of their palace. Those interested in these myths and legends may refer to the two part work by Alf Hiletbeitel.

When they arrived in Kerala is not quite clear, but loose figures of different waves over 900 years are floated, some of them could have been the descendants of the Muslim soldiers who faithfully followed their Pandyan masters to Poonjar(1152 C.E) and Pandalam. Then again it is said that Raja Kesavadas invited them when Alappuzha port was formed, and during the later years (1799 - 1805), some Rowthers had to flee the religious persecution in the Polygar areas to settle down in the eastern parts of Kerala. Conversely, some Meenakshipuram Muslims also belong to the Ravuttar descendants of converts who served in the army of the Nawab of Arcot defending the area against neighboring Travancore in the early 18th century. There is also a strong belief that Ayyappan was a Vellalla and the close relationship enjoyed by the Rowthers and Velallas in the eastern districts of Kerala point to the possibility of Vavar being a Rowther Muslim. Their marriage symbol is a Thali (in the old days tied by the grooms sister), and are a patrilocal community

So that was a little journey into the past of the Rowther, a community which Fanselow stated had no history. Conjuncture put them as converted Hindus of Tamil Nadu, who originally served as cavalry to many kings. Over time, they migrated to various parts of S India, and Kerala as well. Today many of them are all well integrated into the vibrant Kerala Muslim community, dispersed into many occupations, and very well educated.

The disinvention of caste among Tamil Muslims – Frank S. Fanselow (Caste Today - CJ Fuller)
A handbook of Kerala Vol 2– T Madhava Menon
Social stratification among the Muslims of Kerala - PRG Mathur (Frontiers of embedded Muslim communities in India – Ed Vinod K Jairath)
The Political evolution of Muslims in Tamilnadu and Madras 1930-1947 - J.B.P More
Muslim merchants – Mattison Mines
The cult of Draupadi - Parts 1 & 2 – Alf Hiletbeitel
Muslims of Tamil Nadu and hajj pilgrimage to Makkah (Thesis) – Basheer Ahmad Beeran
Muslims of Tamil Nadu 712 to 1947 A D a study   - Jan, S F Naseem
Muslim politics in Tamilnadu 1906_1947 (Thesis) - Nazeer Ahamed, M
Maritime activities economy and social customs of the Muslims of Coromandel Coast 1750-1900 (Thesis) - Mohamad, J Raja
South Indian Mussalmans – Qadir Hussain Khan
Islamisation and Muslim Ethnicity in South India - Mattison Mines (Man, New Series, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Sep., 1975), pp. 404-419)
Islam in Tamilnadu: Varia TORSTEN TSCHACHER (In German)
People of India – Kerala – Vol XXVII, Ed KS Singh, (Rowthers D Tyagi)