FAUNA AND FLORA INTRODUCED BY THE ARABS TO SRI LANKA

The Arabs and their mixed breed descendants played a very important role in the business life of Sri Lanka in mediaeval times. Maritime trade to do with imports and exports was dominated by them before European colonists made inroads here. However there introduction of exotic species of fauna and flora to our country has largely gone unnoticed. Here are some of them.

CAMELS 

Camels have been known by the Arabs for centuries if not millennia. Called the ‘Ship of the Desert’ it has helped these sons of Ishmael traverse large tracts of empty desert moving from oasis to oasis. Trade caravans also used them and wherever they stopped for rest and feed evolved into caravanserais and eventually little settlements.

It is possible that some adventurous Arab merchants of old brought camels here to Sri Lanka perhaps to serve as pack animals or to sell as exotic pets to royalty or rich folk. They also seem to have been used in warfare. We certainly know that their Moor descendants who had settled in the Kandyan Kingdom long ago used them as such.  The Moors who formed part of the Sinhala Grand Army had a Camel Corps (Otupantiya) which figured prominently at the Battle of Wellawaya Pass against the Portuguese in 1630. This is borne out by a votive offering-cloth presented to the Hanguranketa Maha Devale by King Rajasinha II where a camel corps is clearly depicted.

Interestingly the Deva Angam cloth here appears to show a substantial Moorish role in the Sinhala army, for it also depicts a turbaned rider in striped costume upon a red horse with sword and shield and a turbaned standard bearer with a moon flag showing horizontal red and yellow stripes. The illustrations also depict curved swords of Arabian type (scimitars) so distinct from the straight Sinhala type as seen in a carving at Ambekke Devale and a peculiar kind of dagger which could be attached to the fist with side bars for an easy known to the Moors of old as samusadu, a representation of which even figured in their cattle brand marks. 

DONKEYS 

The Arabs are known to have widely employed donkeys as pack animals to transport their merchandise over long distances. It was probably they who introduced a certain species of such donkey to our country. To this day such asses are found near the coastal areas of the Puttalam District, especially at Kalpitiya where they can be seen in considerable numbers. That they formerly inhabited Puttalam town in large numbers is suggested by the fact that they are still called puttalam booruwa in Sinhala. The species of ass found here bears a close resemblance to the species known as the African Wild Ass (Equus africanus) found in parts of North Africa from Morocco to Somalia and in the neighbouring parts of the Middle East. Its value as a ‘beast of burden’ is said to have been recognized as early as the 4th millennium BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia, for which reason it was introduced into many other parts of the world.  It is believed to have been introduced to Sri Lanka many centuries-possibly millennia- ago, probably by Arab traders. These asses are characterized by a prominent vertical stripe on the shoulders and closely resemble the Wild Nubian subspecies (Equus africanus africanus) which had a distribution centred on Nubia, that is Upper Egypt and Northern Sudan, though its range extended into Arabia and Syria. This would suggest that it was from someplace in the Arab world that the species was introduced to Sri Lanka.

SHEEP

Sheep have been well known among the Arabs especially for its meat. As such they were very popular as livestock in the Arab world. It is possible that some Arab traders did introduce them to our country long ago though they have since died out. In fact Osman Hill in his Check List of the Mammals of Ceylon published in the Spolia Zeylanica of February 1939 noticed certain types of sheep found in the extreme north of the island which were found to be of Aden and Somali origin including the fat-tailed variety Ovies aries steatopyga, suggesting that it were the Moors or their Arab ancestors who had introduced these varieties to the region where they were to be found until fairly recent times.

BAOBAB TREE

The Baobab tree with its broad trunks and compact crowns grows in the north western parts of our island such as Mannar, which was once an Arab settlement by the coast, a fact suggested by the existence here of a large community of Moors. In fact there is reason to believe that the tree known by its botanical name Adansonia Digitata was introduced by Arab traders.

The well known Orientalist Hugh Nevill in his paper Mantotta, its temple and ancient trade published in the Taprobanian of December1887 says that the old Baobab trees of Mannar District must have been introduced by sailors from Africa, for the sake of the acid pulp of their fruit, much relished, and doubtless to these old voyagers a valuable antiscorbutic. It is also said that the Baobab tree at Mantoddai was introduced by Arabs as fodder for their camels. Indeed, the Baobab is said to be generally found most abundant about the old ports frequented by the early Muslim traders. Thus there can be little doubt that it were the Arab merchants and mariners of old who must have introduced this exotic tree to our beautiful island.

Extracted from Serendib Culture Club FB Page (Courtesy: Asiff Hussein)

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