Syncretic culture at its exotic best

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WhatsApp ImageA quaint coastal town, Bhatkal is 200 km south from Goa, in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. Bhatkal’s brush with infamy started in 1993 as riots engulfed the city. Later when the brothers Riyaz and Yasin Bhatkal were accused of belonging to the Indian Mujahideen, the entire town was stamped with the tag of being a breeding ground for terrorism. Recently ,Yasin was convicted for the 2013 Hyderbad blasts; Riyaz is still absconding.

Over the years, this image has eclipsed the rich cultural heritage of the Muslim majority town. Bhatkal’s culture is heavily influenced by its history. Muslims are known as ‘Nawayath’, a word that means ‘newcomer’ in Persian. The Nawayaths were predominantly an Arabic business community that migrated from the Gulf several centuries ago. Arriving in India from Yemen, Iraq, Iran and other Middle East countries, the Nawayaths made Bhatkal their main centre. Bhatkal’s Jain rulers welcomed them, giving a chance for inter-caste marriages between the communities.

Today, you can find Nawayaths settled in different parts of Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh. However, Bhatkal’s image as ‘mini-Dubai’ is because of its strong diaspora presence in Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries. Locals say almost every household in Bhatkal has at least one member residing in the Gulf!

IMG_3809The culture of Nawayaths is a beautiful amalgamation of Jain and Islamic traditions. Their language, Nawayathi , is a mix of eight other languages — Urdu, Persian, Arabic , Marathi, Konkani, Kannada. “Our traditions are a mix of both the cultures,” says Rizwan Gangavali. “Here you will find some Nawayathi women wearing mangalsutras (necklaces worn only after marriage) along with burqas. During weddings, some prefer to dress up in saris. This interesting mix just shows the unique cultural blend of Bhatkal.”

Bhatkal’s dual cultures can also be seen in its architecture. Housing a total of 10 ASI certified monuments, Bhatkal’s Jain temples shine alongside its numerous mosques. Built in the 16th century, these Jain temples have intricately carved relics. The famous Haduvalli Jain temples have 24 statues of Tirthankaras with detailed inscriptions.

Similarly, Bhatkal’s mosques showcase its Islamic heritage wonderfully. Jamia Masjid, Khalifa Masjid, Noor Masjid and Sultan Masjid are all more than a hundred years ago. Apart from these, Bhatkal has several small mosques — each with a history of its own.

Bhatkal needs a revamp in its identity , a chance to be discovered beyond its association with communal tensions

Beautiful beaches and a busy port add to Bhatkal’s splendour; yet locals do not wish to develop it as a tourist destination. “Our town is beautiful. It has been associated with all the wrong things till now, but we know it is beautiful. We want the image of this place to change but if tourists come in, it will also affect our culture and values,” says a member of Majlise-Islah Wa Tanzeem, a local organization. He adds that the reluctance is alsobecause of the misrepresentation of the town’s identity by media.

Despite its cultural treasure, Bhatkal’s charm stays hidden from rest of the world. Bhatkal’s identity desperately needs a shift in perspective, a chance to be rediscovered.

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