Hindus of Aden

History and culture

Tue, 05-12-2023 03:50 PM, Aden

We see that the Hindu experience in Aden is thoroughly intertwined into her history in manifold and sometimes unexpected ways. At one point in 1840, Hindus even operated alongside Muslims as police constables in Aden and were responsible for maintaining law and order.

Fatimah Johnson (South24) 

Songs and stories, prayers and pilgrimages are sung, told and made simultaneously for Ayyapan and Vavar. A Hindu god and an Arab Muslim saint. In belief and practice, Ayyappan and Vavar are made to dance together gracefully. They inhabit cosmic and terrestrial space. They are confederates. This is true in the nation of India.1 In the southern state of Kerala, on the Malabar coast, there is a temple (mandir in Sanskrit meaning ‘still mind’) consecrated to Ayyappan called Sabarimala that up to fifteen million people make pilgrimage to every year. The temple is on a hill that is over four thousand feet high from sea level and is surrounded by forests that are home to tigers and elephants. The path to the temple contains a mosque, the mosque of Vavar. On reaching the mosque, the pilgrims to Sabarimala, who are bare-chested with beads around their necks and ash on their foreheads, perambulate around the mosque and chant the name of Vavar as well as Ayyappan. The pilgrims also enter the mosque to continue their devotional actions. This occurs even during the times of the five daily prayers (salah) common to most denominations of Islam with the complete consent of the mosque’s congregation and its administration (Mahalla Muslim Jama-ath). A festival is held every year to celebrate these events with decorated elephants taking part.2 Hindu-Muslim unity was once too a tangible feature of life in Aden, South Yemen. Shree Hingraj Mataji Mandir was built in 1865 in the Khusaf Valley, in the Crater area of Aden.3 The former Indian ambassador to Yemen who is of Hadramout origin informs that puja (a Sanskrit word meaning love of the divine as expressed in varying forms such as votive offerings of flowers to a deity) to Ayyappan was once carried out there.4

The display of respect and maturity between Hindus and Muslims in regard to the figures of Ayyappan and Vavar has lasted some five hundred years in India. In Aden, in 2015, Ansar Allah (The Partisans of God also commonly known as the Houthis), [Who invaded South Yemen for several months],displayed contempt and pettiness for the Ayyappan and Vavar tradition when they destroyed Shree Hingraj Mataji Mandir.5  As a power hungry religious militia, who from 2004 originally fought for participation in the Government of Yemen under the leadership of the late Hussein Badreddin al Houthi, Ansar Allah have made cultural genocide one of their many tactics in their bid to fulfil their shifting and complex goals. Whilst Ansar Allah do not publicly state they wish to enforce Zaydism (a version of Islam) their actions against the Mandir has the consequential goal of enforcing it. By reducing the Mandir to nothing by their presence in Aden, Ansar Allah amplified their potential as a serious alternative to fill voids in greater Yemen’s political and religious landscape. In other words, the shameful attack was a useful crime. 

Whilst Ansar Allah have attempted to obscure Aden’s Hindu heritage, a study of it demonstrates that it is complex and profound. In short, it simply deserves to be known like other stories about Aden because it is not true that Aden suffers a paucity or simplicity in terms of her historical inheritance. On the contrary, Aden is rich with the weight of an intricate and multifaceted history which we cannot allow to be diminished. From antiquity to the end of the fifteenth century C.E., Hindu merchants migrated into Aden in great numbers establishing trading settlements that contributed to the immense wealth of Aden in this vast period.6 This was documented by the Greek historian, Agatharchides of Knidos in the second century B.C.E., by the Arab historian al Baladhuri of Baghdad in 890 C.E. and the famed Berber historian Ibn Battuta in 1340 C.E. There was a stable trading and migration system between Aden and India for some seventeen hundred years which was only finally interrupted by the machinations of the Portuguese Empire at the very close of the fifteenth century (1498) which sought to supplant this system. It may be that the Hindu footprint in Aden has been easily forgotten because those Hindu merchants did not seek to leave their mark there by altering Aden ethnically or in a religious sense – Aden never became a Hindu region as in the case of Indonesia – despite being there for nearly two millennia. Hindu mercantile activity in Aden was a purely commercial undertaking with no attempt or interest in colonization. Hindu merchant communities then continued to be crucial in Aden’s history and her prosperity after the Portuguese Crown tried (and failed) to subsume Aden into their empire in the early 1500s. Eric Tagliacozzo writes in In Asian Waters – Oceanic Waters from Yemen to Yokohama, that Indian merchants (in fact both Hindu and Muslim), alongside other actors, directly facilitated general European authority over Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean region and East Africa.7 Tagliacozzo describes what was formed by Hindu merchant activity (and the actions of others) as “circuits” 8 of travel, movement, biota, languages, technologies, ideas and the flow of people between synergetic ports like that of Aden, Bombay, Singapore to Pusan in Korea etc. Tagliacozzo also asserts that this union of the Indian and Pacific Oceans deeply influences the way people see the world today: 

The maritime trade routes between Aden and Tokyo,…helped condition the parameters of what we think of as our contemporary, day-to-day realities. Coffee spilled out of these networks, indigenous to Ethiopia but eventually grown and exported by Yemenis on the Red Sea corridor, until the beans washed ashore literally everywhere the trade routes could take them. 9

Aden’s strategic importance in the world can ever seldom be justifiably downplayed. The historian and Professor, Jayati Gupta, has documented how the ‘Grand Tour’, a passage from India to Britain via the maritime interchange of Aden’s port 10, that became accessible in the late 19th century due to the spread of English education, was crucial to the development of the global epoch, of global citizenry and even the anti-colonial movement of the 20th century. By the late 19th century it became something of a fashion for highly educated, wealthy Hindu Indians known individually as Babu or Bhadralok to travel the world, seeing and writing travel books about Britain, Europe, the United States of America, Japan etc. with colorful titles such as Shanne’s Tour Round the World (1890) and Sketches of a Tour Round the World (1884). The normalization of foreign travel helped to undermine the prohibition by Hindu law (Dharma-shastra) that such an action was an abomination, paving the way for modern, secular thought to become the norm. In Diary from England (1958), Shivnath Shastri wrote how his changed perceptions of the world, sparked by travelling, influenced his beliefs about religion and nationalism. As long ago as 1884, Hindu intellectuals such as Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, who passed through Aden as part of their world tours were writing about bringing the ‘East’ and ‘West’ together through language, religion and philosophy and that such efforts necessitated being global in outlook as well as practice. 11 It is striking how easily these sentiments sit within even our 21st century understanding of the world.
The experience of Hindus in Aden was not always though as grand and as enlightened as detailed above. It could also be tragic and strange. Many modern Adenites can trace their ancestry back to India and Aden is in fact a most beautiful place but perhaps what is less known is how exactly in part it came to acquire some of its beauty and that many Indians, particularly Hindus, were in fact introduced to Aden as part of an “experiment” conducted by the Government of Bombay. 12 Around 1839, Captain Stafford Bettesworth Haines of the British Royal Navy who was the first Political Agent of Aden following its incorporation into the British Empire, made a request for Hindu convicts to be sent to Aden for the purposes of constructing Aden’s infrastructure. These convicts were used to build public roads, public buildings, fortifications, tanks etc. in Aden. The Hindu convicts were not sent to Aden until a discussion was concluded by the Government of Bombay, the Acting Advocate General and Superintendent of Police for Bombay that such a transportation would be legal. In 1718, the Felons Act had been brought into force in England and allowed for the transportation of men, women and children as a criminal sentence for seven years of those found guilty of larceny even petty larceny. In the United Kingdom today, transportation as punishment is connected in the popular collective mind to the story of immigration from the mother country, England, to Australia and its practice between British colonial centers like the city of Bombay, western India and Aden is obscured. In October 1841, the Government of Bombay authorized instructions for Hindu convicts to be sent to Aden. Guidance was also issued in respect of what clothes and food they should be given. Such information regarding the truth about Aden’s history can only make one wonder what exactly became of the convicts, whether they perished in Aden, whether some did indeed gain freedom after a time and chose to stay in Aden or whether they were sent on again to another British settlement for further punishment. It is not surprising then, that the Aden Affairs record is part of a volume entitled, Enclosures to Secret Letters from Bombay, 29 September to 29 October 1841.  

In the example of the Memon community of historic Aden we see the extreme danger that the continued indifference to the truth about South Yemeni history poses. This lack of awareness and thoughtlessness makes it easier for an organization like Ansar Allah to raze buildings like Shree Hingraj Mataji Mandir and launch pogroms. During the 2015 attack, the temple had its artifacts and statues destroyed, hate slogans were daubed on its walls, items were stolen and people were encouraged by Ansar Allah to join in these criminal actions by their claim that the temple was a valid target. Further, three thousand Hindus were expelled from Aden by Ansar Allah. 13 Ansar Allah believe that they have a divine right to rule Yemen as they are linked to the tribal group of Hashemites (the clan the Prophet Muhammad belonged to) and to restore the Imamate that was overthrown in North Yemen in 1962. 14 Theocracies by their nature create second class citizens and restrict religious freedom as well as creating an attitude of free licence to persecute those in minorities. The destruction of Shree Hingraj Mataji Mandir was inevitable under the fascist science of ideas Ansar Allah follow. However, a closer look at South Yemeni history shows that the region is indebted to a group of Indian Muslims called Memons who in fact were all Hindu converts to Islam.15 Memons were active in rebuilding mosques and tombs in Aden which required a high investment of capital. Memons were also active in administering said mosques and tombs. 16

We see that the Hindu experience in Aden is thoroughly intertwined into her history in manifold and sometimes unexpected ways. At one point in 1840, Hindus even operated alongside Muslims as police constables in Aden and were responsible for maintaining law and order. 17 They had been recruited from villages near Bombay. The Hindu experience in Aden is something that stretches back for aeons and informs the present.

Fatimah Johnson

Citizen journalist based in London

1- britannica.com

2- economictimes.indiatimes.com

3- english.aawsat.com

4- Dr. Sayeed, Ausaf, The Hindu Temple Heritage in Aden, Yemen, accessed on 17 September 2023 on Academia.edu

5- english.aawsat.com

6- Divekar, V.D., Hindu Trading Settlements In The Arabian Sea Region Up To The Arrival Of The Portuguese (c. 1500 A.D.), Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 40 (1979): pp.943–51

7- Tagliacozzo, Eric, In Asian Waters – Oceanic Worlds from Yemen to Yokohama, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2022, p. 107

8- Ibid., p. 226

9- Ibid., pp. 373-374

10- Gupta, Jayati, Modernity and the Global Hindoo: The Concept of the Grand Tour in Colonial India, The Global South, vol 2. No.1, India in a Global Age, 2008, p. 66

11- Ibid., p. 66 

12- Aden Affairs, British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, IOR/L/PS/5/398, ff 505-679, in Qatar Digital Library qdl.qa

13- english.aawsat.com

14- Sarhan, Mugahed and Saidin, Mohd Irwan Syazli, The Religious-Political Ideology of Houthis’ Rebellion in Yemen: Theoretical Perspective of the Divine Right to Rule, 2022, researchgate.net

15- Reese, Scott S., Imperial Muslims: Islam, Community and Authority in the Indian Ocean, 1839–1937, 14- Edinburgh University Press, 2018, pp. 318-319

16- Ibid., p. 147

17- Ibid., p. 155

South YemenIndiaHindusHistoryHouthisAnsar AllahHistoryShree HingrajMuslimsAdenBritish colonial