On the occasion of Eid, I take a break from my Fort Kochi posts to bring you something special, just for this occasion – an account of my visit to the first ever mosque to be built in India!
We frequently associate Islam in India with the advent of the Mughals. While this may be true of the northern parts of the country, Islam came much earlier to South India, as early as the seventh century, during the life of Prophet Muhammad!
The story goes back in time, to the days when present day Kodungallur in Kerala was part of Muziris – the most well-known port in India. Though the history of Muziris goes way back, to 400 BC, this story begins during the reign of Cheraman Perumal, somewhere around 600AD. (Digressing slightly, the Perumals are believed to be governors or rulers under the Cheras, and thus Cheraman Perumal was a common title for many of the rulers, and thus the same name appears for various such succeeding governors).
This particular Cheraman Perumal had a dream, in which he saw the moon being split into two halves at the horizon. As was usual then, he consulted his court astrologers, but they weren’t able to offer him a satisfactory explanation. Around that time, an Arab ship docked at the port, and the traders came to the court to offer their respects to the King, who mentioned his dream to them. The Arab traders told the king about Prophet Muhammad’s miracle of the Splitting of the Moon, and the king was convinced that this was a divine message. He decided to set off at once for Mecca, handing over the reign to his children and other chieftains.
It is said that the king sailed to Mecca, met the Prophet, and converted to Islam, becoming the first Indian to do so. Besides, he decided to spread the word back in his homeland, and started on his return journey. However, he was not to set foot on his native land again. He fell ill during the journey and died near present day Oman, but left behind detailed instructions for his descendants, in the form of letters, which were brought back to Muziris by his companions.
Following his instructions, the first Mosque was built at Kodungallur in AD 629. Today, it appears to be a typical mosque, with a domed ceiling and pillars, but the original structure was quite different. It is believed that the land handed over for the mosque originally contained a defunct Buddhist Vihara, and the mosque was built over it in typical Kerala style, with tiled roofs and corridors like a temple. It was only later, as the mosque underwent multiple renovations that it began to resemble the mosque it is today. Interestingly, the core part of the mosque seems to have been maintained well over the centuries, and it is said that this sanctum still remains the same, even after a thousand and five hundred years!! Take a look at the Masjid website gallery for some beautiful photographs of the interiors.
When we visited Cherai in May this year, we had the mosque on our list of interesting places. However, our hopes weren’t too high, since entry to many mosques is restricted. We learnt later that this mosque is open to all (only men, though), and is quite secular in nature, with many Hindus offering regular prayers here. We were unfortunately, not blessed enough to get a glimpse of the inside, since we turned up on a Friday, just in time for prayers, and therefore couldn’t enter it. However, we could circumambulate it (along with many women, both Hindu and Muslim), and most interestingly, visit the Museum, which holds some artifacts from the original mosque.
|Like most temples here, the masjid too has a pond behind!|
The museum is surely the best thing about this mosque, since we know so little about it. The old photograph of the mosque that I have posted is from here. Besides, the mosque also has a model of the original structure, as well as some door frames and laterite bricks which once formed a part of it.
There are also a few interesting stone structures, like this one…
We wondered what it was, till a caretaker informed us this was part of the ancient drainage system!!
The Museum is just being set up, though it is already open to the public. There are more artifacts being restored, and more information being gathered to improve it, and I look forward to visiting again, someday. Hopefully then, Shankar and Samhith can go see what the inside of a mosque looks like!