ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY travel down North Kerala’s historic Malabar Coast to discover ancient mosques from Kasaragod to Kodungallur
Long before Islam burst into India through the northwest frontiers, Kerala’s Malabar Coast witnessed the spread of Islam not by the sword but with a smile. The region had ancient trade ties with Arabia and when the last Chera king Cheraman Perumal witnessed the splitting of the moon, a Muslim troop enroute to Ceylon explained that it was one of the miracles of the Prophet. According to legend, Cheraman embraced Islam, divided his empire among various subsidiary rulers, made his nephew the Samuthri (Zamorin) of Calicut and set sail for Mecca. He landed at Shahr, where he changed his name to Tajuddin and eventually died at Zaphar, marked by a tomb with an inscription noting his death. But before he died, he wrote letters in Malayalam advocating the spread of Islam among his people in Kerala. Several Arab religious leaders, including Malik Ibn Dinar and Sharaf Ibn Malik, sailed to Malabar to spread the message of Islam. Cheraman’s decree, historic mercantile ties with Arabia and the religious tolerance showed by the Zamorin of Calicut, the Chera king of Mahodayapuram and other rulers helped in the spread of Islam. However, Kerala’s artisans had no idea what a mosque should look like (the Indo-Saracenic style was yet to come) and built these early mosques in the local architectural style. Spread across Kasaragod to Kodungallor, these fascinating mosques of Malabar are excellent examples of religious tolerance and Hindu-Muslim unity.
Cheraman Perumal Juma Masjid, Kodungallur
Built in 629 AD, the Cheraman Perumal mosque at Kodungallur is widely considered to be the first mosque in India. Though rebuilt and renovated over the years, which gives it a modern architectural façade, it does retain a bit of the original style in the interiors. Unlike other mosques, this one faces east, not Mecca in the west. A huge bronze lamp, a feature common in temples, continues to be kept lit inside. And in a time honoured practice, people belonging to all religions bring oil or contribute money to buy oil for the lamp on auspicious occasions. In an anteroom, there is a small mausoleum where Muslim priests light incense sticks, yet another Hindu practice not followed in other mosques. A few years back, the mosque also started Vidyarambham, the custom of initiating children into reading and writing. This is a shrine that has set a practice of intermingling religious rites over the years to come up with a unique Indian ethos. Syed Mohammed aged 85, has been doing baang (meuzzin’s call) since 73 years.
Malik Deenar Juma Masjid, Kasaragod
One of the historic mosques believed to have been established by Malik Ibn Deenar on the Kerala coast, this holy shrine is located in the Muslim quarter of Thalangara. The original mosque was a small structure with thatched roofing and a floor of marble stones brought with him from Mecca. Later, it was replaced by a bigger, more elaborate structure like the palace of a local king, replete with conical roofs and gables. The same artisans who had built the palace constructed the new edifice using doors and marble stones from the original shrine. An extension was added later. Several tombs dominate the foreground as a walkway leads up to the mosque, which contains the grave of Malik Ibn Mohammed, one of the descendants of Muslim saint Malik Ibn Deenar. Historical details about its construction are also carved on the latticed woodwork in Arabic. Owing to the sanctity of the place and a school for Islamic studies, Kasaragod has become an important center of Islam on the west coast. The town is also famous for the hand-crafted Thalangara thoppi (skull cap), a beautifully embroidered accessory of Islamic identity.
Khizar Juma Masjid, Kasaragod
Tucked away in a plot barely visible through the narrow gate sandwiched between the rows of shops, the Khizar Juma Masjid off Station Road is a stunning mosque resembling a double-storeyed mansion. A narrow walkway leads to a sprawling structure with a row of arched windows, conical turrets, gabled roof and a slender spire to the right, which presents a beautiful sight. Located in the heart of town, Theruvath Mosque is another notable Muslim shrine. The annual Uroos, held to commemorate the arrival of Malik Ibn Dinar, attracts pilgrims from all over India.
It is said 12 saints sailed to Kerala from the shores of Arabia to spread Islam. Hazrath Rafih Idnu Habeeb Malik Deenar came from Medina in Hejira 37 with his family and seven disciples – Umar, Haroon, Usman, Adbullah, Ali, Abdul and Rehman. They came in an ozhi (boat) up the river from the coast and settled here in a Hindu temple after the Namboodris were relocated to Kidoor. The Hazrath died at the age of 73 and later, his disciples were also laid to rest beside him. Though the mosque is believed to be 1200 years old, a newer structure was built in its place 30 years ago. The only proof of its antiquity is a brass ball with ancient Arabic inscriptions and a stepped pushkarni (temple pond). The Udayasthamana Uroos, a month-long celebration in March-April, is held once in five years. En-route you can also visit the Baba Fakir Wali Ullah Alarami mosque at Pachambla. The Uroos is held every two years and the weekly jumma (every Friday) is a big celebration with devotional songs that go on late into the night.
Kakkulangara mosque, Valapattanam
The ancient capital of the Mooshika-vansham or Kolathri Kings of Ezhimala, Valapattanam was an important trading town on the banks of the Valapattanam River. The old mosque Kakkulangara Palli was built with laterite that was excavated from nearby, creating the picturesque green pond beside it. This mosque has one of the oldest existing minarets in Kerala and has the graves of Abubakr ibn Muhammad, grandson of the first Caliph Abu Bakr As-Siddiq (573–634 CE) and his companions who settled in Valapattanam to propagate Islam. There’s also a dargah of Ahmed Jalaluddin Bukhari close by.
Korome Mosque, Wayanad
A 400-year-old mosque, built in traditional Kerala style, with extensive woodcarvings. Originally built by the Nair community, the mosque is seen as an excellent example of communal amity. A newer structure was built 250 years ago under the leadership of Athilan Bappan. The annual Uroos festival in April, draws thousands from all communities. Such was its importance that janazas (funeral processions) would come to Korome from as far as Varampetta. It also enshrines the dargah of Syed Shihabuddin Imbich, a Muslim saint. Located 23 km from Mananthavady, Korome lies on the Kuttiyadi route and can be reached via Tharuvana, Vellamunda and Makkiyad.
Moideen Palli & Jumma Masjid, Kannur
Kannur was home to Kerala’s only Muslim dynasty, the Arakkal Ali Rajas. Once, a princess of the Kolathiri royal family was saved from drowning by Mammali, a Nair functionary who had embraced Islam. Subsequently expelled from the family, the king granted her land around Kannur, a small treasure and a palace called Arakkal Kettu. Remnants of the old palace and mosques remain in Arakkal Kettu, a large court next to the Moplah quarters of Thakkiavu. An ancient belfry within the compound is used to call the faithful to Arakkal Mosque. The original building that housed the offices of the Ali Rajas (later the office of the Collector of Malabar) is now a museum showcasing numerous royal artefacts. Moideen Palli, the roadside mosque at Ayikkara nearby is an excellent piece of craftmanship while the renovated Jumma Masjid in the backlanes of Arakkal Kettu has a beautiful old dargah of Sayyed Muhammed Moula Bukhari.
Odathil Palli, Thalassery
An unusual structure with Hindu-Buddhist style copper roofing, the 270-year-old shrine follows a mix of Hindu and Muslim architecture. It has neither a central dome nor minarets, instead there is a roof covered in copper sheets and wooden walls and pillars with intricate carvings. The mosque was built on a piece of land in the heart of Thalassery, donated by the rulers to a rich Arab merchant. Chowakkaran Moosa, a local trader of Thalassery, one of the earliest to source and supply spices from Malabar to the British, was later made in charge of the upkeep of Odathil Palli, counted among the oldest surviving mosques in Thalassery. The adjoining cemetry belongs to the Moosa family and CP Moosa, the great great grandson of the founder of the Moosa clan, runs the boutique homestay Ayisha Manzil in Thalassery.
Kunjali Marakkar Mosque, Vadakara
The Kunjali Marakkar mosque or Jumayat Palli at Vadakara is where Malabar’s brave admirals offered prayers. It houses the royal chair and sword used by them. The Marakkars, admirals of the Zamorins of Calicut are credited with organizing the first naval defence of the Indian coast. Originally marine merchants of Kozhikode, they left for Ponnani when the Portuguese came in 1498. After obtaining trading rights, the Portuguese pressurised the Zamorin to give them a trade monopoly and evict the Arabs, the traditional traders of spice. Rebuffed, the Portuguese negotiated a treaty with the Zamorin’s archenemy, the Raja of Kochi in 1503. Sensing the Portuguese superiority at sea, the Zamorin set about improving his navy and appointed Kutty Ahmed Ali to the task. Kutty Ali or Kunjali (derived from Kunnu Ali, meaning Junior Ali) eventually became the Admiral of the Zamorin’s fleet and was honoured with the title Marakkar, after marakalam the wooden boats used by Muslim traders to ply the seas. The old Marakkar house has been converted into a small museum and houses swords, cannon balls, daggers and other war relics. As tribute to the four Kunjali Marakkars and their great naval battles, the Indian Navy erected a memorial at Vadakara. Recognizing their contribution to naval defence, the Navy also christened its Naval Maritime academy in Mumbai as INS Kunjali.
Mishkal Palli, Kozhikode
Built in 1300 by a rich Arab businessman and ship owner named Nakhooda Mishkal, this five-storied structure is a historic landmark of the city. Originally a seven-tiered structure, the Mishkal Palli was once the tallest building in Kozhikode and the heart of the Muslim settlement at Kuttichira. On 3rd January 1510, in an attack by the Portuguese, the mosque was set on fire and the top floors were damaged. Later, when the Portuguese fort at Chaliyam was destroyed, the Zamorin handed over the rich haul of timber for the partial reconstruction of this grand edifice. Built in traditional Kerala style with extensive use of wood, the mosque has a laterite superstructure, Malabar roof tiles and Italian tiles paving the outer section. The building is supported on 24 solid pillars of carved wood and has 50 doors. Around 1300 devotees can be accommodated.
The mosque overlooks the Kuttichira tank, the focal point of the locality lined by old Koya houses dating back to over 200 years. Literally little pond, kutti-chira is spread over half an acre and is ironically one of the largest in Kozhikode! Old, weather-beaten laterite benches around the tank afford an inviting retreat to men who gather here for evening chats and feeding the fish. A local resident, Prof SM Mohammed Koya, has authored a book on Kuttichira, its ancient mosques and the history of the Koyas of Calicut.
Kuttichira Juma Masjid, Kozhikode
Believed to be over a thousand years old, the Juma Masjid has the largest floor area among mosques in Kerala and can accommodate 1,200 worshippers in the inner hall alone. This sprawling single-storeyed shrine has large doors on the four sides on the ground floor with an unusual circular extension. The upper portion of the walls are covered in wood panelling. The intricate woodwork on the ceiling is reminiscent of ornate temple carvings. Verses from the Holy Qu’ran are etched in Arabic on the partly wooden walls and ceiling rafters.
Believed to have been constructed 1,100 years ago, this is the oldest mosque in the city. The building stands on a 1.5 m high plinth and has a semi-circular mihrab (prayer niche). The double-tiered roof has an ornamental gable, while the outer walls have elaborate beams supporting a coffered ceiling with delicate woodcarvings. Cornices and carved wooden pillars depict flowers like lotus and animals, akin to Hindu sculptural patterns. A 13th century stone slab inscribed in ancient Vattezhuthu (early Malayalam script), mentions that the property was donated to the mosque by a Zamorin. The slab has been installed on a wall inside the mosque. Two 14th and 15th century inscriptions within the mosque – in Arabic and Malayalam record the renovation efforts.
Valiya Juma Masjid, Ponnani
Islam has very strong roots in Ponnani, harking back to the times of the early Arab traders. Legend has it that the ponnu nanayam (gold coins) the Arab traders brought were exchanged for goods at this ancient seaport, hence the name Ponnani. Others allude the name to the Nila River as pon-vahini or ‘the river that carries gold’. It is said that a Hindu and a Muslim were caught in a storm while at sea and vowed to build a temple and a mosque if they survived. As events turned out, they landed safely at Ponnani. The Trikkavu temple and the Juma’t Palli (Juma Masjid) stand testimony to their promise. An important pilgrim centre and hub for Islamic culture and education, this mosque has given Ponnani the name, Mecca of the East. The 600-year-old big Juma Masjid was built for theologian Zainuddin Ibn Bin Ahmed around 1519-20 by a Hindu carpenter Ashari Thangal. The architect’s signature adorns the mosque’s beam while his tomb lies inside. Legend has it that during the construction of the mosque, the carpenter fell from the roof and died, hence was buried there. The construction of the entire mosque was done from a single teak tree.
To counter the oppressive rule of the Portuguese, Sheikh Zainuddin decided to create a place of learning for the youth and a Madrassa was built near the mosque along the lines of Al Ahsar in Cairo. Zainuddin’s Tahrid jihad (war poem) called for a united Nair-Moplah front and is thus unique. Like the practice in Chishti dargahs, the Zamorin used to send a ceremonial robe to the Ponnani leaders during the accession ceremony. According to William Logan’s Malabar Manual, over 400 students were learning the tenets of Islam here in 1887. Nearby a mausoleum honours the Malappuram martyrs of the Moplah rebellion whose deeds have been immortalized in Mapila ballads. The four-day festival (nercha) is held in March-April.