The oldest mosque in the Indian subcontinent is set to be restored to its original form and aesthetics under Kerala Tourism's Muziris Heritage Project.
Cheraman Juma Masjid, which is believed to have been built in 629 AD, is located in Kodungallur town of Kerala's Thrissur district. It has been an enduring testimony to communal harmony in the region – a legacy that survives despite myriad attempts to propagate the 'us versus them' narrative in India.
Now that the Muziris Project is spending more than a crore rupees on its restoration, it is important to delve into the heritage of this ancient mosque that stands as a lesson in history that "foreign" is only foreign till it is not.
The erstwhile Muziris, a major international trade port and urban centre, had seen up close the maritime exchanges between the Roman and Chinese civilisations. Egyptian, Greek and Arab traders, who frequented Muziris in search of pepper and other spices married locally, thus creating an amalgam of cultures over years.
The most popular legend dictates that the local ruler responsible for establishment of this mosque was a Hindu convert to Islam. One night, a Chera king, of the title Cheraman Perumal, dreamt of the Moon splitting into two and no matter how many astrologers he visited after that, none could interpret the dream for him.
Then one day when Arab traders visited him on their business trip here, they revealed that the mysterious dream was the doing of Prophet Muhammad. That marked the king's epiphany and he soon converted to Islam. He decided to take hajj and meet the Prophet himself but unfortunately lost his life on the way back home.
The "Makkattupoya Perumal" or "the King who went to Mecca," however, did not leave without an order to build a symbol of his devotion to Islam in his hometown with his companion Malik Deenar. That is how India's first mosque was established.
Historian MGS Narayanan writes in his book "Perumals of Kerala: Political and Social Conditions of Kerala Under the Chera Perumals of Makotai" that "there is no reason to reject the tradition that the last Chera king embraced Islam and went to Mecca, since it finds its place not only in Muslim chronicles, but also in Hindu Brahmanical chronicles like the 'Keralolpatti' which need not be expected to concoct such a tale which in no way enhances the prestige of the Brahmins or Hindu population."
Since its establishment, the Cheraman mosque has undergone a sea change with respect to its physical appearance and was even completely demolished by the Portuguese in 1504, but the message this structure has been sending out is unaltered – social consonance can transcend religious dissonance.
People from all castes, class, and religions offer prayers here. At first glance, the mosque building appears to be an amalgamation of a temple and a mosque. The two minarets and a dome rest atop a temple-like structure typical to Kerala architecture. The original building, in fact, was much closer to a Kerala temple and a mosque.
The mosque also has an undocumented tryst with religions apart from Hinduism. The Cheraman building has apparently also served as a Buddhist monastery for a while before being restored to a mosque.
But legends aside, the Cheraman Masjid of today defies all norms of Hindu-Muslim coexistence by conducting 'Vidyarambham', a traditional ceremony to invoke Hindu goddess Saraswati on Vijaydashami day. Typically a practice seen in temples, educational institutions, and media organisations, Vidyarambham is a symbolic entry of kids into the world of language and letters.
It is no surprise that a state with highest literacy rate in the country places education above religious beliefs, but it is only at the Cheraman one witnesses people leaving their godly protocols outside.
Nearby places of interest
Kodungallur Sree Kurumba Bhagavati Temple
St.Michael's Roman Catholic Latin Cathedral Church