Sunday, November 20, 2011

Desert to Serendib

Scheherazade, the mesmerizing Arabian Nights narrator would have made it her one thousandth and second story if she had known the progeny of a distinguished Arabian tribe amazingly deep rooted in the legendary island of Serendib which is vividly depicted in her story of Sinbad.
According to stories passed down through the generation, the family tree of Zeyans said to be an offshoot of the nomadic Zahran tribe of Saudi Arabia of the Al-Bahah province which is in the close proximity of Mecca. The Zahran tribe is regarded to be of the very few original inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula. The legendary Abdullah bin Zahran was said to be the patriarch of this tribe.
The Zeyans were among the handful of enterprising sea faring Arabs deviated from their nomadic lifestyle and expanded eastwards in the 9th century in search of trade in lateen or triangular sail ships. Establishing lucrative trading posts wherever they moved was a practice introduced by the discreet Arab traders of that epoch. Contrary to their associates who settled down in Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli and Madurei of South India, Zeyans settled down in Thanjavur (or Thanjaur). Factors such as the prevailing political stability, ongoing bustling trade in the South Indian sector and its strategic positioning in the region overlooking the Bay of Bengal and the sea routes stretching towards Far East would have induced them to fall in love with the city of temples favoured by the Chola Dynasty who ruled Thjanjavur from 9th to 11th Century. The innovative Zeyans moved from their customary spice trade into a lucrative option of pearl, ruby and chanks which had a greater demand then. Their long standing unblemished reputation as honest tradesmen and profound gemmologists coupled with magnanimity had cleared the obstacles in acquainting the Nayakkar household who were suffering from acute xenophobia. One of the Zeyans was a reputed Unani Hakim (traditional medical practitioner) who earned wider acclaim for extending unremunerated therapeutic offering to the unwell of the vicinity in his leisure which knew no limits of caste or creed. For generations the close knit family cluster of Zeyans said to be living in the close proximity of the present Dabeerkulam Road of Thanjavur. Villas dotted the extensive mango belt of this opulent neighbourhood was then said to be the hot bed of the cream of Thanjavur.
Though engrossed in trades they preferred, Arab traders and sailors failed dislodging their captivated minds from the fabled land of gems known as Serendib situated in the other side of the narrow sea lane that separated India and Serendib now known as Sri Lanka. There, the “Valley of Gems” witnessed by Sinbad the fictional sailor from Basra said to be lived in the time of Abasi Caliphate haunted their adventurous minds day and night. Being typical Arabs, Zeyans weren’t an exception to the ongoing Serendibmania nevertheless they were on the peak of their trade. In the end, armed with an esteem introduction from the Nayakkars to their kith and kin, the then rulers of the Kandiyan Kingdom, they moved in to Sri Lanka and settled down in the Hill Country. The Kandiyan Kingdom is approximately 101 kilo meters from Rathnapura, the “City of Gems” said to be not far from the fable “Valley of Gems’’ witnessed by Sinbad.
Their ancestry turns nebulous at this stage but bits and pieces gathered from the stories passed from one generation to anotherindicates the time frame they settled in the Kandiyan Kingdom could be the end part of the reign of King Sri Vijaya Rajasinghe or the first pace of the reign of King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe. This was a turbulent period where the European powers armed with gunpowder were itching to force the proud Kandiyan Kingdom on its knees.
The high degree of royal patronage bestowed on Zeyans hoisted them in to many heights. Combination of their profound knowledge in gemmology and Unani healing impressed the Nayakkars turning their newly adopted domicile the acme of their lineage. They were integrated into the tapestry of the Kandiyan society primarily by entrusting duties which related to the King’s administration.
One of the distinguished Zeyans was made a part of the Madige Badda or Transport Department who held the rank of Madige Badda Lekam. They were allowed to trade in areca nut, which was considered a royal monopoly then. The perseverance Zeyans quickly mastered the native dialect Singhalese by frequenting the Buddhist viharas (temples). Buddhist viharas were the pioneers in teaching the oriental languages then.

Abdul Quddus Zeyan said to be the most noteworthy among the progeny of Zeyans. He had been elevated to the rank of the curator of king’s cherished gem collection, which was considered an important wing of the treasury. He held the prestigious rank of Muhandiram which was a senior official title of the royal household. In appreciation of the valuable services rendered to the Royal treasury by enriching and cataloguing the royal gem collection, Muhandiram Zeyan was given lands, a royal mansion or a Walauwa as his residence in Gampola and a separate burial ground on a royal decree. The royal house or Walauwa vested to Muhandiram Zeyan was known as the Lindekotuwa Walauwa which had a noteworthy well so deep and had to be covered with seven slates at different levels in order to reduce the depth. They enjoyed Lindekotuwa Walauwa as a leisure retreat and continued in a row of distinguish houses along the far end of the then Eth Veediya(Tusker Street) which was swallowed by the changes instigated by the post-conquest era.
Kandiyan political climate took a dramatic turn with the advent of the British at their threshold. Native chieftains who resented the Nayakkars Dynasty as outlandish started surreptitious pacts with the BritishIn the end the proud Kandiyan Kingdom which was considered the last bastion for more than 400 years was conquered by the British in 1815.The toxic chapter unfolded with the capture and banishment of the last Sri Lankan king Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe to Vellore Fort in southern India on 24th January 1816 was a heinous episode Zeyans unthought-of.The cynic cycle unfolded thereafter purging and persecuting the close associates of the deposed royalty showed Zeyans the exit from the Kandiyan Kingdom. They relinquishedtheir ownership to the Lindekotuwa Walauwa and continued incognito abandoning theirfamily name to let their track cold. Degenerated but steadfast, Zeyans absorbed in to the meagre Kandiyan Muslims society and continued an obscured life.
The ever volatile Kandiyan political theatre took a dramatic twist once again. Authority of the native chieftains who wielded considerable influence in state affairsstarted waning with British beginning to squint-eye them. As per the stories passed through the generation, it was a prominent 18th century Zeyan who urged his grief stricken clansmen flocked around his death bed to continue the family name that fallen out of use.
The colonial Ceylon changed from coffee to tea and then to a fully independent state. Progeny of Zeyans picked up their long neglected gem trade from scratch and transformed in to one of the leading figures in the Sri Lankan gem trade. Eventually Zeyan Mohamed Hashim is been entrusted the baton of legacy passed through a multitude of flamboyant characters studded a saga unfolded from desert to Serendib. He furbished the genetically inherited knowledge under the distinguish shades of the elders who were eminent gemmologists. A connoisseur refined under the furnace of over thirty five years experience and exposed to exceptionally rare gems where only few gifted exponents would have set their eyes being now pushed into his second instinct passed through the lineage. Inspired by the Islamic motto of “wealth shouldn’t be acquired; but shared’’, he led his personnel crusade of endowing the inherited knowledge towards the future generation. He vehemently argued the priceless gems conceived within mother earth shouldn’t be incarcerated in voracious private collectors’ basements when unearthed.
Like a weather-beaten tree, the genealogy of their progeny encountered tremendous changes when going through many centuries, different countries, dynasties and political hurricanes.Couple of years agoHashim Zeyan made a shocking discovery when researching his obscured ancestry.His surname buried by the Kandiyan progenyhas surfaced misspelled when unearthed as Ziyaan and had continued since then up to the 21st century. The name has duly rectified by Hashim Zeyan recently after cross checking with the family history. Accumulated evidences suggested the culprit could be a Singhalese grammar dictum known as Poorvaswara Lopa Sandhiya, which allows tongue twisting words effortlessly pronounceable by omitting and substituting letters within the words in question.
It is hard preventing his mind when unoccupied wondering in the misty Kandiyan hills. After all he is a committed Kandiyan though domiciled in the western world. He desires to be left alone among the Kandiyan artefacts in his ancestral house whenever visited Sri Lanka.The cleverly displayed remnants of the past in the spacious living room give him the feeling of being with the by-gone era his ancestors lived. He feels the antiques and ola leaf (Corypha Taliera Roxb) native manuscriptsin their elaborately carved ivory and wooden covers with distinct Kandiyan Vaka deka liya vela or “double curve vine” motif are pulsing when touched. He is not a person holds fancies in mind. Nevertheless our minds sometimes see what our hearts wish were true. Endeavour of his ancestors braved the unruly waves in search of the island of gems aren’t a total waste. There’s a fiercely committed 21st century Zeyan to transform the dream into a reality.

-Zeyan Hashim