A Bequest of Trade Winds: Kerala's Islamic Legacy

Centuries before Mahmud of Ghazni (modern Afghanistan and northeastern modern Iran), lured by tales of the fertile plains and the fabulous wealth of Hindu temples first attacked northern India in 1000 AD, the coastal region of the Indian Ocean between India, the Persian Gulf, East Africa and the China Sea was an area of active commercial exchange. People along these coasts, blessed with wide open waters and natural harbors, excelled in maritime trade with distant lands. Both Indian merchants and the inhabitants of the Persian Gulf regions were active traders and intermediaries long before the birth of Christ.

Ancient Chera kingdom (Kerala) enjoyed a flourishing spice trade with the Arabs of coastal Yemen and Oman. By the early Christian period south India was transformed into a commercial hub linked to the West and the East through emporiums located along the coastal and inland routes. Arab traders left their shores in July, at the height of the southwestern monsoon season to the heart of the pepper country, and returned, carrying their precious cargo of many spices, with the northwest monsoons in November.

Even during the height of Roman trade, old Arab channels of trade continued to flourish thanks to the age-old alliances and agreements between the original Arab and Indian traders. Cinnamon, the spice that made fortunes for the Arab traders in earlier times, still remained an Arab monopoly. The Romans could find it only at Arab ports; the source of cinnamon in India was scrupulously guarded from them. Throughout the Kerala Coast the Romans were offered only malabathrum, the leaves of the same tree that produced the fragrant bark. Such was the loyalty between the ancient traders of the Indian Ocean.

Trading contacts with the kingdoms of Southern Arabia resulted in the formation of the earliest Muslim communities of Kerala. When foreign traders arrived at the port of Muziris, near the capital of Chera kingdom, the reigning kings treated them with respect, and extended facilities for their settlement, and establishment of their faith in the land.

Islam spread in Kerala through the migration of new groups from Arabia and the gradual intermarriage and conversion of native population in the permissive social set up of Kerala. The First mosque, Cheraman Juma Masjid, dates back to 629 AD, to the time of Malik bin Dinar, one of the followers of Prophet Mohammad, who came to Kerala to spread Islam. The mosque building has undergone extensive repairs, but the traces of the original construction are visible in the columns and the roof. In the twelfth century A.D there were at least ten major settlements of Muslims, each centered round a mosque.

The well-known fourteenth century Arab traveler, Ibn-Battuta wrote about the colonies of Arab settlers in Kerala in his travelogues. In The Coasts of Malabar and Coramandal, published in 1732, Philip Baldaeus wrote- “this great shipping business had rendered the country of the Cochin king busy, rich, and opulent. The king and the inhabitants agree well with the Portuguese, the Jews, and the Moors and live in peace. The town of Cochin might compare with some of the best cities in Europe.

With the advent of Portuguese and their monopolization of trade at Kochi, Muslim trade was concentrated in Northern Kerala. Their primacy in trade, and the experience of the sea made Muslims a prominent class. Kozikode became an important trading port and began to attract many Muslim traders. The prosperity of the kingdom depended on Arab trade, and the Samuthiri rulers of Kozikode conferred many privileges on them. According to tradition, Muslim trade intermediaries who played a significant role in spice trade were taken into the service of Samoothiri, and eventually became the 'Marakkars' (Admirals) of his naval fleet. During the time the Marakkars Islam spread from port areas to hillsides of Kerala.

The Muslims of Kerala are known as Mappilas. Influenced by the culinary traditions of traders from the Gulf region, and leaning heavily on the Indian spice combinations, Mappila cuisine is known for its distinct taste. This cuisine is spicy and wholesome, and has a lot in common with other foods of Kerala: its base is rice and it is spicy and hot and both coconut and coconut oil are liberally used. Black pepper is obviously predominant, followed by cloves and cardamom. Even cashew is a large presence. Unfortunately just like many other culinary treasures of south India, Mappila cuisine has remained mostly anonymous to the western world.

Several places of worship where Hindus, Muslims and Christians pray or make offerings are not uncommon in Kerala. Up on a tall peak of the Western Ghat Mountain ranges, there is a shrine that every January draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. The devotees undertake an arduous journey, the final few miles of it on bare foot, over a rough and rocky terrain through low-lying fog accompanying a cold season's chill, to worship at the temple of Lord Ayyappan at Sabarimala. But what sets him apart from other Hindu deities is the significant presence of a Muslim personality in his life. Before the pilgrims approach the great shrine in the darkness of early dawn to climb the final hallowed eighteen steps with their irumudikettu (sacred bundles) on their heads; they must make an important stop at the shrine of Vavar, Ayyappan's Muslim friend and advisor.

There are many legends about Vavar and his association with Lord Ayyappan. Some believe he was a Muslim saint who migrated from Arabia to India to spread Islam. Others suggest that he was a warrior who reached the shore of Kerala as a pirate. During his encounter with Lord Ayyappan, he was defeated and subdued by the Lord. Since then Vavar became a close associate of Lord Ayyappan and helped him in the wars in the mountainous region. Another legend is that Muslim invader Vavar and his army attacked the king of Pandalam, Ayyappan’s foster parent, and he was sent to defend Pandalam. After a fierce battle, Ayyappan overcame Vavar and later both became great friends.

Even today, a Muslim priest performs the rituals at this shrine dedicated Vavar. There is no distinguishable idol, but just a carved stone slab symbolizing the deity of Vavar. A green silk cloth is hung across walls, and an old sword is kept near the wall, perhaps to symbolize Vavar as a great warrior. The main offering at this shrine is green pepper; a befitting tribute to a heritage of pepper trade. Other offering include rose water, sandalwood paste, coconut and ghee. Pilgrims donate money in the donation box kept at the shrine.

An important Muslim festival in Kerala is the Chandanakkudam ritual held at several Kerala mosques. Pilgrims carry earthenware pots filled with coins to the mosque in a procession. The pots are covered with sandal wood paste, the mouth covered with white cloth and decorated with a jasmine garland around the edges, and three incense sticks fixed on top of the pot. Caparisoned elephants and folk performances, evocative of Kerala Hindu temple festivals, accompany the processions. Traditional Muslim art forms such as Aravanamuttu, Doobakali, and Kolkali are also staged during the festival.

At several Muslim festivals the processions from mosques visit the local temples. At some fetivals both the Hindus and the Muslims gathered apply sandalwood paste on their foreheads and receive flowers and lemon as tokens of fraternity. The long tradition of peaceful coexistence among the people of various religious faiths in Kerala is reflected in these ancient traditions still
observed at many temples, churches and mosques.

AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN