INTERVIEW 

HINDU PATRON OF MUSLIM HERITAGE SITE

The 87-year-old Raja Valiyathampuram of  Kodungallur in Central Kerala is a descendant of King Cheraman Perumal, the first Indian to embrace Islam in the early 7th century. Talking to him is like talking with history. In the following interview taken by A U Asif (right in the picture) in Ernakulam, he dwells in detail upon his great early ancestor and the oldest mosque (above) of the sub-continent. He also asks North Indians to come to Kerala and see how people of different religions are living there for centuries in an atmosphere of harmony, fraternity and peace.

How do you take your great great grandfather Cheraman Perumal?

Cheraman Perumal was not only a king and my ancestor, but the first Indian to come into the fold of Islam. He was actually the person who gifted Islam and the first ever mosque to the Indian sub-continent. This happened much before the advents of Muhammad bin Qasim and Mahmood Ghaznavi. This shows that Islam didnít come to India with the sword. 

Is it a fact?

As is well known in Kerala, on a moon-lit night the king while walking on the rooftop of his palace along with the queen saw the moon suddenly splitting into two halves. Later he came to know through the Arab traders that that a prophet called Muhammad had wrought a miracle on that fateful night and sundered the moon before a crowd of dazed spectators. Impressed by this new messenger of God in Arabia, the king set out for the holy land after dividing his kingdom and assigning various territories to local chieftains to ensure smooth governance. In Arabia he met the Prophet and embraced Islam in the presence of Abu Bakr Siddique, who later became the first caliph. Cheraman, who took a Muslim name, Tajuddin, died on his way back to India and was buried on the shore of the Arabian Sea at Salala in the Sultanate of Oman. It is said that he had earlier written letters to the local rulers of Malabar and sent it through his ministers along with Malik bin Dinar, a companion of the Prophet. In the letters he had asked them to "receive the bearers of the letters and treat them well and help them to construct mosques at Kodungallur and elsewhere". The rulers of Kerala honoured the letters and permitted Malik Bin Dinar and his fellow Arab traders to build mosques in Kerala. The mosque built in the early 7th century at Kodungallur, known as Cheraman Malik Masjid, still exists with its original structure and is said to be the oldest mosque in the sub-continent. It is named after both Cheraman Perumal and Malik bin Dinar. 

Is the mosque intact with its original structure?

Yes, the original structure, including the sanctum sanctorum, remains intact. However, there have been a few extensions in the past. Its front portion is new while the back portion with its sanctum sanctorum, mehrab, mimbar  (pulpit), wooden work on the roof of mimbar  and traditional lamp as well as the ancient ceremonial pond, is still untouched.     

Anything more about Malik bin Dinar?

After the construction of the mosque at Kodungallur, Malik bin Dinar moved towards Mangalore and died at Kasaragod, now in Karnataka, where rests in peace. Interestingly, Cheraman Perumal and Malik bin Dinar are buried on two sides of the Arabian Sea, one at Salala in the Sultanate of Oman and the other at Kasaragod in India. In other words, their graves are interlinked by the waters of the sea. There exist 14 mosques of the same pattern and design from Kodungallur to Mangalore. 

How do you see all this?

We see all this with pride. There is no question of any ill-feeling about Cheraman Perumal. We have high regard for him. He was our patriarch. He embraced Islam but could not come back from Arabia as he fell ill and died on way. I hail from his lineage and have faith in Hinduism. 

How do the general people, particularly Hindus consider Cheraman and his gift in form of the first ever mosque in the Indian sub-continent? 

People belonging to different religions, including Hindus, hold him in high esteem and the mosque built as per his wish as a historical monument. The historic mosque has been visited by numerous dignitaries over the centuries and decades.

President Dr A P J Abdul Kalam was recently here. He was given a warm reception in the mosque. I was also among those present on the occasion.

Unlike north India, there is no communal strife over places of worship in South India?

No, not at all. In this part of land exist Indiaís oldest places of worship. The first synagogue, the first church, the first mosque and the ancient Bhagwathi and Mahadeva temples are located in this region. We have maintained a record of exemplary communal harmony here. I often wonder about the sudden eruption of controversy over places of worship. Unlike north, people of all faiths have high regard for all places of worship. My suggestion is: People in the north should come to Kerala and see and learn how we belonging to different religions live here for centuries without any communal hatred, animosity and strife. g

[The interviewer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He can be contacted at au_asif@yahoo.co.in]

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