India’s history is incredibly interesting and full of surprises. Did you know that there exists a language which is written in Arabic script but the words are from Tamil? This language, Arwi, was spoken in the coastal towns of Tamilnadu and in Sri Lanka: “Arwi dates to the 8th Century CE when travel and trade in the medieval world sparked a curious intermingling of tongues. It leapt to prominence in the 17th Century, when more Muslim Arab traders landed in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which was full of Tamil speaking people. The traders brought with them rich tapestries and the finest textiles and perfumes like frankincense and myrrh – records say they longed to establish a deeper connection with the local people because they felt connected by a common religion but spoke two different languages.

The Arabic that the traders spoke intermingled with the local language of Tamil to create what scholars call Arabu Tamil, or Arwi. The script employs a modified alphabet of Arabic, but the actual words and their meanings are borrowed from the local Tamil dialect.”

The detailed story of Arwi’s birth is fascinating and deserves a blockbuster Tamil series on OTT: “To understand how Arwi originated and how it evolved, one must travel to South India’s coastal towns that are predominantly Muslim settlements.

Kilakarai, 530km south of Tamil Nadu’s capital city of Chennai, is one such town. Located on the banks of the Bay of Bengal with a population of 38,000, it is home to the Jumma Pali Masjid – one of the oldest mosques in India, built in 628 CE. The mosque was believed to have been built by Yemeni merchants and traders who had arrived by sea to these parts….

Some scholars believe that Arwi’s popularity during the 17th Century was due to the inter-marriage of Arab seafarers and local Tamil Muslim women, and also because it helped the traders deepen business ties – they were able to master a complex language like Tamil using the Arabic script that they were already familiar with.

“Tamil has 247 letters. Arwi had a much more manageable alphabet – just 40 letters – perfect for medieval seafarers who wanted to quickly pick up proficiency in the tongue… enough to trade and earn their livelihood in a new land,” said K MA Ahamed Zubair, associate professor of Arabic at The New College in Chennai, who teaches the Arwi script to his students.”

Although Arwi started declining once the European powers conquered south India, now the language is finding a second life: “…today it’s facing a curious revival. University graduates are studying it, and in a handful of villages along the coast, many Muslim women pride themselves in singing prayer songs in the ancient tongue.

“Many people don’t realise its value. Families in my hometown of Kayalpatnam [in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu] consider it a sacred link to their roots,” Baqavi said.”

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