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The mystery of the Nambiar Nakhuda

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Some of my previous articles covered the Indian Ocean maritime trade and key players like the Maghribis, the Karimis, Marakkars, the ship building facilities at Beypore and so on. In almost all the cases, we saw that the traders, the sailors and merchants were of Moslem, Jewish, Christian or foreign extract. But this blog is about a non Moslem ship owner, ship owners whom the people, especially Arabs of those times termed a Nakhuda. Strangely all there is in the Genizah records, is a brief mention with his name and not much more. To make some sense out of it is difficult, but at least we can get an understanding of the facets of trade and the involvement of the individual in question.

Normally these ship owners did not participate directly in the trade; they just owned the ship and leased it via the captain probably raking in a percentage of sales for its use.

This story again takes us back to the times of Abraham Ben Yiju (some think it is more correctly pronounced as Yishu) Asha or Ashu and the master of the Geniza records SD Goitein. It is now a good time to mention again that some experts like Roxani Eleni Margariti mention that Yiju lived in Pantalayaini Kollam and not Mangalore. If you recall, I had provided a perspective about this particular port in an earlier blog.

SD Goitein (in his paper - From Aden to India – Specimen of the correspondence of the India traders of the 12th century) transcribes a letter sent by Yiju to Madmun in Aden. The letter is dated 1146/1150AD. Paper was difficult to come by and expensive at those times, Indian scribes used palm leaves and iron nail based pens to record the Granthavari’s. Ink & paper were used only by the other traders. The same paper and every available inch of it was used by sender and receiver to record their communication which was painstakingly written in fine Arabic script (Sometimes scribes recorded the replies, not the trader himself). Now considering that the time between voyages and thereby correspondence can be one full calendar year, you see thoughts across large time spans in one parchment. The paper used is grayish in color or brownish. Sometimes you can even see that the discussion is suddenly cut short due to paucity of paper. Typically these scrolls were 10*70 cm and most possibly rolled up.

These papers from the Genizah at Cairo survived only because the lord’s name was on them (and hence consigned to the Geniza for appropriate future action) and today we are fortunate to have bits of those parchments to peruse.

In the letter, Yiju says ‘I sent you this on the ship of the Nakhodah Ramisht one bag –in the ship of Nambiyar (ani) one bag and in the ship of Al – Muqaddam one bag. So we know now that the mystery ship owner is one Nambiayar

Ranbir Chakravarthi, eminent historian analyses the ship owner in a little bit more of detail in his paper and states (Nakhudas and Nauvittakas: Ship-Owning Merchants in the West Coast of India (C. AD 1000- 1500)) In addition to Fataswami (Pattani Swami as clarified by Amitav Ghosh in his book In an Antique land) and Fadiyar, Nambiyar is the third Indian (Hindu) ship owner that we come across in the correspondence between ben Yiju and Madmun. Nam-biyar's ship(s) too sailed between the Malabar coast (from Mangalore or some other ports) and Aden. That Indian ship owners did participate in the shipping network across the high sea can hardly be missed. Although it is true that only a handful of Indian ship-owners are known from the Geniza papers, which speak much more regularly of Jewish and Muslim ship owning merchants.

You may also recall from the earlier Ben Yiju article that Yiju was assisted by Sesu Chetty, a Nambiar and a Nair in his activities in Manjarur. Was this Nambiar ‘the’ ship owner? How did a Nambiar take up a Vaishya trade, which was very uncommon? Nairs & Nambiyars in those times, unlike today took up only martial activities, not trade in North Malabar. Was he a ‘benami owner’ in the Yiju coterie? Does that signify that Ashu was from Kolathunad? Does it mean that Nambiyar was in Pantalayani Kollam and not Mangalore? Considering that a Nambiyar trader existed in P Kollam in 1150, does it mean that P Kollam was beyond the Zamorin’s governance? Very mysterious indeed but unfortunately no information could be obtained to identify this ship owner or answer the above questions though one can come to certain conclusions.

It is likely that Nambiar operated in Mangalore, rather than Pantalayani, for Kollam was under the suzerainty of the Zamorin. It is also very likely that the Nambiar was a ‘benami’ (only by name) partner of Ben Yiju for he would have had great difficulty speaking Arabic and conversing with the traders like Madmun in Aden. Note here that the Nair/Nambiar community was not usually conversant with Arabic and such foreign languages; did not travel into the oceans and they were at best conversant in Malayalam and Sanskrit and were busy with the raja’s armies. So the relationship does look intriguing.

To understand the role Nambiyar may have played, one must also look at the three individuals in question, Ben Yiju himself, Fattanswami and Fadiyar. Fattanswami is Pattanaswami or lord of the ports. Strictly speaking it could have been a rich Chetty (perhaps Sheshu Chetty mentioned in the Yiju letters) ship owner and Pattanaswami or port master could just have been a common title as stated by Parkin & Barnes (Ships and the Development of Maritime Technology on the Indian Ocean - By David Parkin, Ruth Barnes – Pg 53). Fadi yar according to Goitein papers had a number of ships and could have been a Persian and not of Indian origin. It could not have been a ‘vadiyar’ or teacher, in my opinion.

It was relatively easy for these rich traders or Nakhudas to live and operate off the Malabar ports. Many of them distinguished themselves and had monuments named after them. Note here that the Mithqualpalli (Kuttichira mosque) in Calicut was named after the Nakhuda Mitqual, a 14th century Arab merchant. The masjid in Beypore was built by a Nakhuda in 1132.

All in all, pretty unlikely to have a Nambiyar as a Nakhudah, but then future outputs from the Genizah study may cast more light on this matter, some day.


References

Abraham and Asha
The Cairo Genizah

Notes: Documents from the Cairo Genizah date from the 9th through the 15th centuries. They catalogue the social, cultural, and religious lives of Jews around the Mediterranean basin. The fragments were discovered in the late 19th century in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, a neighborhood in Old Cairo. Many of the fragments eventually wound up at Cambridge UK and many came to North America. Some fragments even have Indian languages such as the one shown. It could be Gujarati text.

Nākhudā (when Anglicised, also written Naghdeh, Nakhodeh, Nakhooda, Nakhoda, Nakoda and Nacoda) is a term originating from the Persian language which literally means Captain. Derived from nāv boat (from Old Persian) + khudā master, from Middle Persian khutāi a 'master of a native vessel' or 'Lord of the Ship'. Historically, people with this epithet are Muslim and Kamili Jewish ship owning merchants of Persian origin, known to have crossed the Persian Gulf to trade in other coastal areas of the world. Besides Iran those with the surname Nakhuda can be found in coastal areas of the world in small numbers such as the UAE, Oman, Malaysia and India.

Pic – Courtesy University of Pennsylvania

9 comments:

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    This is indeed a major contribution to Malabar history. Not many historians are known to be working on the rich documentation made available from Genizah.
    Nambiar could very well have been from P.Kollom, as the Zamorin's rule over the port was at best titular (Pl see our posting on Ananthapuram)
    Pattanam is used as a synonym for port city (see:excavations in Pattanam near Kodungalloor) Another name used was probably Nagaram (a place close to P.Kollam) Pattanaswamy could well be the port incharge, just as Nagareswaram in P.Kollam is a temple dedicated to the lord of Nagaram (Siva).
    Could the word Nakhuda be Arabic in origin? It could mean God-less, a generic term for Kafirs? In which case, Mishkal and Beypore could have been named after Sufi saints who were outside the pale of Islam and were Nakhudas?
    Anyhow, please follow the lead - you have struck a gold mine! Congratulations!!

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Very interesting post. While reading I was also puzzled with the term Nakhuda. Later the explanations appeared but some how I am unable to reconcile to the idea that ship owning merchants were being referred to as Nakhudas. To me it denotes non-believers.

  1. Maddy

    thanks CKR, PNS..

    A quick line of clarification on the term nakhuda.

    There is general concurrence that Nakhudah means owner-captain and this eventually became a surname. However, the question has always been if the Nakhudah was actually the chief captain or ship owner. In post 16th century writing, it meant captain though there is an Arabic term mu’allim for captain. Here again there is confusion as Muallim (another term for navigator is Rubban) could also mean navigator or pilot and Nakhudah acted as a helmsman. KN Chaudhri in his book ‘Trade & civilization in the Indian Ocean’ quotes Abu’s Fazal as stating that the Nakhudah was the ship owner or proprietor, the most important member of a ships crew, deciding the itinerary. Next in line was the Mua’llim or captain. However in later times, the border line between the two seems to have merged. Probably the Muallim became a part owner of the ship and called himself a Nakhudah or Nakhoda. The Nakhuda builds up his own team, which follows him from ship to ship. According to Hobson-Jobson, he is the owner & skipper or ‘navis Dominus’. Nakhodah was synonymous with the Arabic term ‘sahib al markhab’ and Tandail/Tindal was commander of the crew.

    While it is considered to be of Persian Arabic origin Nav+Khuda – lord of the ship, it has a Sanskrit link as well to the word Nauvittaka i.e. one whose wealth (vitta) was linked to (nau) ship. This in Tamil became marakkala naykan or marakkayar according to some historians. In Middle Persian Kutai (nav kutai) was master of a native vessel.

    One can also see observations such as the fact that old time Nakhuda’s were of Persian origin and had green or blue eyes. They were apparently Sunni and fled Persia during the Safavid Dynasty’s Shia rule. In this etymology quest, the following article may be an interesting reference, Nakatkhuda is like or Kumari in invitations – denoting virginity
    http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=story_25-4-2004_pg3_6.

  1. Maddy

    BTW - In Arabic, I think the word for No is 'la', not Na.

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Thanks Maddy. Nav + Khuda (नाव + खुदा) Got reconciled.

  1. talha

    The term "Nakhuda" cannot be translated to Na+khuda (No God, or Godless) if so... "Moulana" too be translated as Moula+na (Godless or No God). And Moulana is a term used for high profile muslim scholars. Therefore translating Nakhuda to Godless is baseless and it is as similar as translating the term "understand" to "under +stand".
    Nakhuda is a single word used for the lord or owner of the ship. A nakhuda can be a ship owner due to expansion of his business and owning many ships which he gives out on lease, or also a Nakhuda can be the one who is the captain of the ship.

  1. Thoufeek Zakriya

    Hai Maddy,

    Regarding Fadiyar, I do have a small point it might not be right.

    Here in cochin there is many Konkani and Chettiyar families, Among them there are many family with sir name Padiyar,
    I contacted Dr. Padiyar a resident of cochin. and asked regarding their family history. and he explained
    The origin of the word Padiyar is from a sanskrit word Prathihara which means "The chamberlain of the palace" this family extended throughout the konkan coast, even though their theory of origin says they were from the bank of Saraswathi river (an extincted river). There is a possibility for Fadiyar to be a hebrewised form of Padiyar.
    The following can proved my assumption, word Padiyar is written "פדיר" or "פדיאר" in Hebrew which can be read Padiyar or Fadiyar. The translator would have made it Fadiyar. Similarly Fattanswami can be even read Pattanswami.
    I can proved it if a facsimile of the Manuscript can be fetched.

    Looking forward for your answer.

    Thoufeek Zakriya.....

  1. Thoufeek Zakriya

    Hai Maddy,

    Regarding Fadiyar, I do have a small point it might not be right.

    Here in cochin there is many Konkani and Chettiyar families, Among them there are many family with sir name Padiyar,
    I contacted Dr. Padiyar a resident of cochin. and asked regarding their family history. and he explained
    The origin of the word Padiyar is from a sanskrit word Prathihara which means "The chamberlain of the palace" this family extended throughout the konkan coast, even though their theory of origin says they were from the bank of Saraswathi river (an extincted river). There is a possibility for Fadiyar to be a hebrewised form of Padiyar.
    The following can proved my assumption, word Padiyar is written "פדיר" or "פדיאר" in Hebrew which can be read Padiyar or Fadiyar. The translator would have made it Fadiyar.

    and it is same with Arabic too ie there is no alphabet equivalent to Pa in arabic so ف - fa or ب - ba is used instead of P. Possibly in the manuscript Fa was used for Pa so possibility of Fadiyar to be Padiyar cannot be denied. Similarly Fattanswami can be even read Pattanswami.
    I can proved it if a facsimile of the Manuscript can be fetched.

    Thoufeek Zakriya.....

  1. Maddy

    thanks thoufeek.
    let me see- i will try and get a copy of the manuscript
    i am sure your knowledge of judeo Aramaic would come in useful in this case, i may need your help to get a few other things also checked.