In the town of Chengannur in Kerala, there stands an old church called the Pazheya Suriyani Pally. Locals tell different stories about its consecration, featuring curses and miracles, and each of these is, in its own way, endearing. One tale, for instance, suggests that when Christians first came to these parts, they sought from the reigning Brahmin chieftain of the area a site where they could pray. The chief in question, called the Vanjipuzha Tampuran, without hesitation pointed in the direction of an almost-finished temple and asked for this to be made over to his newest subjects. The latter accepted the premises gratefully, and so it was that the Christians moved into a would-be Hindu shrine, venerating Christ and his message ever since in a space presented by an orthodox Kerala Brahmin.
While the current structure in Chengannur dates perhaps to the 18th century, it is, interestingly, replete with numerous Malayali architectural influences that would typically be construed as Hindu. Stone lamps, dwarapalakas or sentinels (in this case supposed to be Peter and Paul), gables, a tiled roof and brass vilakkus (traditional lamps) bring the Pazheya Suriyani Pally closer in appearance to nearby temples than to Western churches. In Kerala’s context, this is not surprising.
Near the city of Kottayam further north stands the Thazathangadi mosque, which, like most old Islamic structures on the coast, also features magnificent woodwork and tiles, not a dome and minarets—a consequence of the reality that the very masons and carpenters who built temples to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti were also the architects of houses of worship for Allah and Mary.
The oldest mosque in Kerala, however, is the Cheraman Juma Masjid, believed to date to 629 AD—a claim that would make it the earliest Islamic site in India itself, established in the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad. There are, of course, quibbles about how far the legend is accurate, but claims of its antiquity may not altogether be overstated. While we don’t know if Islam reached Kerala precisely in the early seventh century, just over 200 years later there was certainly a Muslim community there prominent enough to witness and sign in Arabic a royal grant by a Hindu king to a Christian merchant. In other words, when Sthanu Ravi Varma Kulasekhara issued orders in favour of Mar Sapir Iso (who also built a church in Kollam) in the mid-800s, among those present were Maymun, son of Ibrahim, and Bakr, son of Mansur.
Legends, in that sense, are not an objective statement of fact but sometimes offer hints and glimmers of a distant truth. The Cheraman Juma Masjid is also linked, for instance, to the tale of the mythical ruler, Cheraman Perumal. The story goes that this king of all Kerala saw from his palace (or in another version, in a dream) the moon splitting into two. Later, when Arab traders arrived at his court and claimed that this was the Prophet’s miracle, the Perumal decided it was imperative that he travel to Mecca and meet with Muhammad himself. He divided his kingdom among his followers and kin, set sail, and died in Arabia as a devout Muslim. While this is the founding legend, in a way, for Muslims in Kerala—for it was one of the Perumal’s friends who came to the region later and built the Cheraman Juma Masjid—even the Brahmin text, the Keralolpathi, talks of this ruler and his embrace of Islam.
But the Perumal’s is merely one such tale. Even small rulers and chieftains in the generations and centuries to come welcomed other faiths, and offered spaces for their ideas and gods. It was the Njavakkattu Karthavu, whose family claims Rajput descent, who donated land to Christians in Meenachil taluka in the state, and supported their commercial enterprises. It was the Cochin raja’s Nair minister, the Paliath Achan, who permitted construction of a synagogue in Chendamangalam for Jews, and it was his family which, till a few decades ago, supplied oil for the principal lamp in a nearby church. In some temple processions, the scholar Susan Bayly found, images of St Thomas were carried along with those of Hindu deities, and there are legends in which Muslim and Christian characters sit alongside their Brahminical brothers and sisters.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Ayodhya masjid-mandir matter, many have compared the feuds between Hindus and Muslims in north India with this accommodative, more friendly reality of Kerala. There are, to be fair, differences in context: While several Malayali places of worship, including living Hindu temples, occupy shrines that were once Buddhist and Jain, there is practically no recent history of functioning temples being seized for mosques in the south. The experience of Islam in Kerala, with exceptions in the colonial era, was one of friendship with Hinduism and the Christian faith, not of political antagonism. In the north, these dynamics are somewhat more complicated by a past that featured greater conflict, so that even now grievances 500 years old apparently require a 21st century redressal.
There is, however, something to be learnt from the tale of Cheraman Perumal and the masjid bearing the name of this Hindu king on India’s west coast. Perhaps it was because Kerala was traditionally a trading society that the “foreign" did not always seem alien—that there was always room for the new, for the unfamiliar, and for the different to be welcomed and made one’s own. While elsewhere there may be other stories, and lasting memories of loss and pain, deprivation and violence, perhaps we can try and look ahead. Like Cheraman Perumal, who saw an idea he liked and set sail to discover it, we too can seek inspiration from other, calmer terrains.
Perumal’s legend means the Muslim will always be at home with the Hindu and Christian in Kerala—the church and the mosque, after all, has equal antiquity as the temple. Perhaps these are the stories and histories we need to highlight outside Kerala too so that as Indians we can realize something our wiser forbears always knew—that while there are indeed many differences, we may yet be able to peacefully live together.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018)