The Syncretic Treasure of India’s Oldest Mosque

Cheraman-Juma-Masjid
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What can India's oldest mosque, the Cheraman Juma Masjid, tell us about India's secular ethos?

Early morning is the best time to visit the Cheraman Juma Masjid in the Keralan town of Kodungallur. It is this time, as the mosque’s president assures us, that you can see pilgrims from all faiths arrive to offer their morning prayers.

Syncretism is irremovable from this mosque’s heritage – for, the mosque is visited by Hindus, Muslims, Christians and people of every other faith.

The Official story of Cheraman Juma Masjid, the one inscribed on the Mosque, places it at 629 A.D. This would make it the oldest mosque in India – constructed while Prophet Muhammad was still alive.

(Image: 7MB) The mosque today

There are many stories around how and when the mosque was commissioned – mostly based on oral histories. Each spans different kings, centuries and sometimes even religions. The most popular story is that the king of the Chera empire, Cheraman Perumal, was sitting in his palace at Kodungallur one evening when he observed that the moon had split.

The splitting of the moon is a phenomenon mentioned in the Quran. But Cheraman would not have known that and was obsessed with finding out the meaning of the moment. He turned to his astrologers, but their answers did not satisfy him. It was at this point that Kodungallur’s position as a global port changed the course of history.

For, the region on the Malabar coast is also reputed to be the home of the ancient port of Muziris – where traders from the Middle East, Africa, Europe and China all congregated. It was one of the first ports of call of globalization. This being so, the area was no stranger to Arab merchants, three of whom found an audience with the king. They told the King about the Prophet and his message. Thus intrigued, Cheraman ordered his empire to be sub-divided to be given to his sons and set off for Saudi Arabia to meet with the Prophet.

Cheraman arrived in Arabia, and converted to Islam “at the feet of Prophet Muhammad.” It’s even said that he had brought ginger with him, and distributed it among the Prophet and his companions. He was at peace with his new religion and sought to return home – but along the way, he passed away in Yemen. He sent his final orders through a handful of letters.

A Persian ex-slave, named Malik Dinar, took these messages back to Kodungallur. He told the king’s subjects what had transpired, and helped them build a mosque out of an unused Buddhist temple. This marks the official entry of Islam into India – and unlike the common perception, does not involve the sword.

Other accounts present a different story. S.N. Sadasivan suggests that it was a Maldivian king called Kalaminja who had converted to Islam, with several historians and writers mistaking “Mali” (capital of the Maldives) for the Malabar.

The same story is given a twist by Umar b. Muhammad Suhrawardi – who says the king’s conversion happened at a later date. While the king, his prime minister and the Raja of the Maldives were chatting, they came across a book describing the prophet’s miracles, which mentioned the splitting of the moon. This intrigued them, and they decided to visit Arabia and see the tomb of the prophet. But the king’s wife, after a failed attempt to seduce the prime minister, denounced him on claims of molestation. Enraged, the king ordered his minister to be executed. But he escaped miraculously and declared that the king had sinned, and in order to wash the sin away, he had to convert to Islam and go to Makkah.

Oral traditions are prone to variety. Sadasivan suggests that there are over a hundred different stories related to a king called Chera Perumal – spanning a millennium in range. Perumal was a title used for kings in the region, and Cheraman was a common name – hence the confusion.

The late reputed historian M.G.S. Narayan says there is no reason to doubt the king’s conversion:

It finds a place, not only in Muslim chronicle but also in Hindu brahmanical chronicles like the Keralolpatti which need not be expected to concoct such a tale which is no way enhances the prestige or the interests of the Brahmins or Hindu population.

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If there was ever to be a statue of liberty welcoming the world’s religions, Kodungallur would be its location. Located 40 kilometres North of the city of Cochin, the region has historically welcomed people regardless of their faith and religious beliefs.

Its historic origins give it many architectural quirks. Originally, it was said to be a Buddhist shrine. Later, it was reconstructed into a mosque with some caveats – for many years, it did not face the Kabah, but East. A reconstruction around 1000 A.D. changed this – though many elements of the shrine remain intact. This includes the traditional pond, and a hanging lamp said to have been lit for over a thousand years.

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Kodungallur’s spot on the world map was shaken around 1340 A.D. when a flood is said to have destroyed the great port of Muziris. Local legends say the mosque was inundated up to its roof with water.

The legend of “Makkattupoya Permual” – the king who left to Makkah – has lived on in contemporary memory. The traditional ritual of Vidyarambham – where children are initiated into literacy – is performed right here at this mosque by none other than its Imam. As part of the ritual, the alphabets are drawn onto the sand and then traced onto the child’s tongue by a priest. There is a ritual in Mallapuram where the Hindu priest of the Shobhaparamba Sreekurumba Bhagavati is appointed by a Muslim family. Locals ascribe the secular camaraderie to the example of Cheraman Perumal. And for many years, the Maharajahs of Travancore had to say, on receiving the sword of office as part of their coronation:

I will keep this sword until the uncle who has gone to Mecca [Makkah] returns.

The Cheraman Juma Masjid occupies a crucial position in India’s secular imagination. When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Saudi Arabia in 2016, he presented King Salman with a golden replica of the mosque.

India will always remain a land of many histories and varied traditions. The Cheraman Juma Masjid is just one of the many examples which present India’s all encompassing, secular ethos.

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