Until recently, I had blithely assumed that Islam entered the Indian subcontinent from its northwest fringes – from Afghanistan and elsewhere. In November 2017, I made a trip to Kochi (Cochin) in Kerala during which we were taken to see a mosque, the first to be built on the Indian subcontinent. Built long before the Mughal invasion, it is in the Kodungallur district on the estuary of the River Periyar, about thirty kilometres north of Ernakulam. I learned that this small area of southwestern India is of historical significance for at least three religions.
Kodungallur, watered by the River Periyar and backwaters, was a globally-important historical economic area, variously known as: ‘Muziris’, ‘Cranganore’, and ‘Shingly’. Until it silted up (many centuries ago), it was one of the ports where much trade (export of: spices, textiles, pearls, gems, and other exotic valuables) occurred between foreigners from the west and the local inhabitants. The silting resulted from the opening-up of a passageway for the River Periyar from the lagoon to the Arabian Sea at Cochin (now ‘Kochi’). This reduced the flow of the river through the backwaters between Cochin and its original mouth near Kodungallur, and caused its consequent clogging up.
Long before the invasion of the Portuguese in the 15th century (AD), these foreigners included the Greeks, the Romans (who were great consumers of pepper from Kerala), the Arabs, the Jews, the Chinese, and many others. The Romans spent so much on pepper that ancient authors recorded that it led to a great depletion in the empire’s coffers. Once, I visited a museum in Kozhikode (Calicut), which had many examples of foreign coins (Roman and otherwise) that had been found in the area. Extensive finds of ancient foreign coins have also been made in the Kodungallur area.
After crossing the water in a vehicle ferry from Fort Cochin, we drove along the long, slender Vypin Island through luxuriant, densely populated, countryside towards Kodungallur. The roads in this crowded tropical Garden of Eden were richly ‘decorated’ with flags and posters bearing the hammer and sickle of Communism, and placards showing portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and, sometimes, Stalin and/or Che Guevara. The Communists have been an important and, most say, a constructive political influence in Kerala since the 1950s.
When we parked in Kodungallur, I spotted a banner with a fine portrait of Stalin opposite the Cheraman Jumma Masjid. This mosque was established during the life of, or very shortly after the death of, the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632 AD).
It is said that one night the Hindu ruler of Kodungallur Cheraman Perumal (a member of the Chera dynasty) had a dream in which the full moon was split in two. No one could explain the meaning of this until he met some traders, who had sailed across from Arabia. Their explanation led Cheraman to travel to Mecca, where he met the Prophet Muhammad, and became converted to Islam. He sent word back to Kerala that his people should embrace Islam and follow the teachings of Malik bin Deenar (died 748 AD), whom he dispatched to India. Cheraman, who remained for some years in Arabia, died on his way back to India.
When Malik arrived in Kodungallur, he was permitted to build what is now called the Cheraman Mosque. This was the first ever mosque to be constructed on the Indian subcontinent. Nothing remains of the original building. It was reconstructed in the 11th century, then again in the 14th. In 1504, the mosque was destroyed by the Portuguese when Lopo Soarez de Algabria (c. 1460-1520) attacked Kodungallur (see: “Muslim Architecture of South India”, by M Shokoohy, publ. 2003). Later, it was rebuilt, and in 1974 it was enlarged and surrounded by a modern structure. What the visitor sees from outside is largely unexceptional apart from the tiled roof of the oldest part of the mosque which can be seen above the modern extensions.
Male visitors may enter after washing their feet in a special area close to the mosque. I was shown the inner sanctuary, which is all that remains of the pre-1974 building. A remarkable feature is a large metal lampstand in which oil lamps (‘diyas’) may be held. This lampstand would not look out of place in a Hindu temple. The wooden ‘mimbar’ (pulpit) is elaborately constructed and delicately decorated. Next to it is the ‘mihrab’, a niche in the wall facing in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, with its semi-circular arch. This is a part of the mosque built in the 16th century. There are two graves draped with red and green silk cloths in a small room leading off from the inner sanctuary. These are the graves of Habib bin Malik and his wife Khumarriah. A door beyond the graves leads into a poky room from which women are allowed to view the graves. Although Malik bin Deenar was the first ‘Ghazi’ (leader) of the mosque, he handed it over to his relative Habib after a few years. Malik was buried elsewhere in Kerala (at Kasaragod).
The museum and gardens of the mosque are open to all. The garden has an attractive square tank (rather like a Hindu temple tank), where fishes swim. It is next to a cemetery. I noticed that several trees growing nearby were home to a colony of large bats, who hung from branches upside down and motionlessly.
The museum attached to the mosque contains a lovely model of what the mosque must have looked like before it was modernised. Like some historic mosques that I have seen in Kozhikode, the earlier Cheraman mosque, was similar architecturally to Hindu temples (and other buildings) in Kerala. Other exhibits included photographs and a wooden funeral bier. I was thrilled to stand where Islam made its first concrete foothold in India. This shrine is a site that is more evocative than visually interesting. I was told that the mosque has very few foreign visitors, who are neither Muslim nor Arab, and that I was one of its rare ‘white’ tourists.
From the Cheruman Mosque, it is a short drive to the Thiruvanchikulam Mahadeva Temple (‘Mahadeva’ for short). This Hindu temple, probably first built in the 8thcentury (AD), is dedicated to Shiva. The earliest recorded reference to it is in some Tamil hymns, which were first recorded in writing in about the 10thcentury. With its many steep, often gabled, tiled roofs, it is a typical example of Keralan temple architecture. Some buildings within the temple’s compound have several roofs, each one projecting from different levels of the building, producing a pagoda-like effect that is characteristic of many temples and other buildings in Kerala.
The white outer walls of the central building, the inner sanctum, are covered, from ground to roof-level, with dark timber planks arranged to form a huge lattice of rectangles, rather like a huge set of pigeon-holes. At the base of each rectangle, there is a small horizontal metal dish that can be used to hold oil and a taper. When lit, each of these little dishes become small diyas (lamps).
To the rear (east) of the central sanctuary, there is a shelter supported by eight thick circular columns with Doric capitals. Immediately east of this, but within the walls of the compound, there is a tall pagoda-like building whose stone walls are covered with elaborately carved pilasters. This building is above the compound’s eastern doorway.
Under the shelter, we saw a set of weighing scales. These are used to weigh offerings to the temple. For example, a donor would sit on one of the weighing pans, whilst his gift (be it rice or gold) is loaded on the other pan until it weighs the same as its donor. The scales were close to a tall metal lamp stand used for oil lamps. A simple wooden ladder rested against it. This is used to place, and light, diyas out of reach at the top of the tall stand. The base of the stand was sculpted in the form of a tortoise. Set into the floor surrounding the lampstand there were several prostrate women carved in stone, their clasped hands pointing towards the stand. Between them and the inner temple building, there was a ring of seated metal sculpted deities, each with four arms.
Many of the roof gables were decorated with painted sculptures of religious figures. Some of these supported the edge of the tiled roofs of the gables like caryatids. Apart from the buildings already described, the compound contained several smaller buildings housing shrines. Unfortunately, during our visit there was nobody about to unlock any of the buildings including the main temple.
Less than six kilometres southwest of the Temple lies the St Thomas Shrine (in the district of Azhikode) also known as the ‘Marthoma Church’. It stands close to the north bank of the River Periyar about two kilometres from its entry into the sea. It is at, or near, this spot where the apostle St Thomas is supposed to have landed in India in 52 AD, some five to six centuries before Islam reached the same district. I have injected an element of uncertainty because some authorities have proposed that Thomas first set foot in India in various places far away from Kerala. However, many agree that he landed first somewhere near to modern day Kodungallur, and this has been commemorated by the shrine, which was built in its present incarnation in the early 1950s. It replaces an earlier church in old Cranganore, which was destroyed during a battle between the (Roman Catholic!) Portuguese and the Muslims in 1536.
The shrine that faces the lovely tree-lined shores of the River Periyar is a flamboyant construction painted in white. The domed church, which lacks any architectural merit and contains a relic of St Thomas, lies between two sweeping curved colonnades topped with statues. The relic was brought to Kerala from Italy in 1953. The whole structure, church and colonnades, looks like an elaborate wedding cake or the set for a Bollywood dance routine.
Between the church and the water, there is a tall shiny metal column surmounted by a golden cross with two cross-bars. This high structure resembles those often found in or outside Hindu temples (used for holding diyas). We noticed that these columns, inspired by those associated with Hindu temples, are becoming quite common outside churches in Kerala. Both in mosques and churches that I have visited in India, features ‘borrowed’ from Hinduism can be found within them. Despite the introduction of ‘newer’ religions such as Christianity and Islam, it seems that Indian worshippers do not entirely abandon their ‘Hindu heritage’.
There is a colourful building, the Marthoma Smruthi Tharangam, which is next to the church and behind one of the colonnades. Its imaginative architectural style defies categorization. You might describe it as ‘A Keralan Disneyland meets the Vatican’. The building houses a theatre where ‘digital shows’ describing the life of St Thomas and the story of his relic may be watched.
St Thomas is believed to have been martyred in Chennai. There is a cave, which I have visited, at the top of St Thomas Mount in Chennai, where the saint was speared. It contains a slab of rock in which there are two hand-shaped impressions, which are believed to have been made Thomas’s hands. This cave, like the shrine at Kodungallur, attracts many pilgrims.
When St Thomas landed in Kerala, there were already Jews living there. Shortly after his arrival, following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, many more arrived as refugees. Jewish people have been associated with Kerala for a long time. For how long, the historians disagree. Most agree that Jews on King Solomon’s trading vessels visited the Keralan ports about 900 years before Christ’s birth. These Jewish mariners are believed to have brought exotic items such as peacocks, monkeys, and ivory from India to Solomon’s palace in the Holy Land. It is unlikely that any of Solomon’s people settled in Kerala.
From some centuries before and after the birth of Christ, Cranganore was ruled by the Chera dynasty. The Cheras permitted the settlement of Jewish people in Cranganore. Their descendants lived in India until after independence (in 1947) and the foundation of Israel, where many of India’s Jews migrated (for economic reasons).
The Cheras allotted the Jews a small piece of land, named Anjuvannam, in the Cranganore district, which became a ‘Jewish kingdom’. Its inhabitants collaborated in many fruitful ways with their Chera, and then later, Chola hosts.
Various factors including the silting up of the Periyar as well as the decline of the Chera dynasty and their succession by the rival Cholas, caused many of the local Jewish people to move to Cochin. However, some Jews remained in what remained of Cranganore after it became less important than Cochin. The Jewish ‘kingdom’ of Anjuvannam continued after the fall of the Chera dynasty, which fell in the 12th century. By the time that the Portuguese began establishing themselves in Kerala, the Jewish community in Cochin was much more significant economically than that in Cranganore.
Today, several synagogues still stand in the Kodungallur, the old Cranganore, area. There was a total of twelve in Kerala during the heyday of Jewish presence in the state. We visited two synagogues near Kodungallur. Both have been looked after well, but are no longer used for worship. The two that we saw are far less-visited than the well-known and undoubtedly beautiful Pardesi Synagogue in bustling Mattancherry, in whose Jew Town the Jewish traders, of which only one remains, have been replaced by mainly Kashmiri Muslim traders, who are, incidentally, excellent salesmen.
The Paravur synagogue was first established in the 12th century AD, and then renovated by David Yakov Castlier in the late 16th, or early 17thcentury. Its architecture is typically Keralan. The first floor of the front entrance building has a deep veranda beneath a tiled roof supported by four pairs of columns. A covered passageway lined by stout columns leads from the entrance to the synagogue itself. The roof of the corridor is lined with wood.
The synagogue’s interior is simple. The original fittings have been moved to Israel, and have been replaced by replicas. If you were unaware of this, you would believe that you were seeing the originals. The carved wooden ark, or cupboard, in which the Torah scrolls were kept, has been reproduced, but is empty. The centrally located circular ‘bima’ or pulpit is wooden, constructed with turned wood balustrades. As with other synagogues in Kerala, there is an upper bima, which is formed by a semi-circular platform projecting from the first-floor gallery where women worshippers were required to be. The upper bima, a speciality of Keralan synagogues, was used only on special occasions, whereas the lower one was for routine use.
Women worshippers entered their first-floor gallery by way of the covered corridor running above that which connects the entry building to the ground floor of the synagogue. This upper corridor is lined with wooden slats which curve outwards from the floor towards the arched ceiling. In cross-section, this corridor resembles the hull of a boat. The slats sheltered women from the sun, and, also, made them difficult to see from outside.
Descriptive notices and photographs line the walls of the synagogue’s buildings. These provide information about Jewish life as it was in Kerala. From Paravur, it is a short drive (about two kilometres) to the smaller Chendamangalam Synagogue, which is close to the left bank of the Periyar. This synagogue was first built in 1420 AD, rebuilt after a fire in 1614, and renovated several times since. In the grounds in front of the main entrance, there is a small stone memorial to Sara, daughter of Israel, who died in 1269. This might have been brought by the Jews who migrated to Chendamangalam in the 13th century.
The entrance hall of the synagogue leads into the main prayer space through a door surrounded by colourful paintwork. Glass lamps of various designs hang from the colourful wooden ceiling decorated with carved, painted lotus flowers. The centrally located circular wooden bima is similar in design to that at Paravur. As in Paravur, there is an upper bima, which forms part of the gallery reserved for women. The female congregants stood or sat behind wooden lattice-work screen, the ‘meshisah’, hidden from the men during services. A staircase leads from the main entrance to the women’s area behind the screen. Another staircase with carved wooden banisters allowed the clerics to climb up from the main prayer area to the upper bima without having to see the women.
The ark, which was used to contain the Torah scrolls, is made of colourfully painted teak wood. There are three intricately carved pillars decorated with floral motifs on either side of the cupboard doors. The doors are also covered with painted plant motifs in bas-relief. The luxuriant decorative vegetation continues as decoration on the parts of the ark above the doors. Red, green, and gold are the colours which figure most on this almost baroque piece of furniture.
In the small grounds within the synagogue’s perimeter walls, there are a few gravestones with inscriptions in Hebrew.
I noticed a carved circular stone, whose perimeter was carved with a ring of leaf-shaped depressions. These were probably filled with oil and tapers, and then lit to be used as diyas. Thus, we find the diya holders characteristically used in Hindu temples not only in temples but also in mosques, churches, and synagogues. The reason for this is likely to have been because this was the normal form of lighting in India of old.
Most of Kerala’s Jewish folk have left for foreign parts. Neighbouring the synagogue in Chendamangalam, there is a newly built house bearing a Jewish name plate. The guardian of the synagogue told us that this was the home of a Keralan Jew who had left for Israel, but had returned to Kerala to live out his retirement.
We returned via the Vypin ferry station to Fort Cochin, where we were staying. On our way we drove along roads decked with Communist (and, also, BJP) banners. Our route took us past peaceful, rustic backwaters with occasional Chinese fishing nets. These backwaters are far more pleasant than those near to Alleppey, which are unpleasantly congested with boats and house-boats used by tourists.
Our brief visit to the Kodungallur district, a centre of global trade many centuries ago, was fascinating. It is an area, where four religions co-exist peacefully, and where two of them are supposed to have entered the Indian subcontinent. While reading about the history of this small corner of Kerala, one thing impressed me. That is, the almost complete lack of certainty about its early history. Like St Thomas, its story is full of doubts. To quote the small guidebook I bought at the Cheraman mosque:
“Total absence of reliable historical records make early history of Kerala a bundle of legends.”