In 1510, a Hindu and a Muslim, both merchants, were sailing on a ship. When they found themselves in the middle of a storm, they realised their lives were in danger. Both the Hindu and the Muslim promised that if they survived, they would build a temple and a mosque respectively. Eventually, the ship reached Ponnani Beach in Mallapuram district of Kerala. One businessman built the Thrikavil Bagavathy temple, while the other the Juma Masjid. “If you walk east from the Juma Masjid for eight minutes, you will reach the temple,” says architect and author Patricia Tusa Fels.
There is a similar story about the founding of the Kochangadi Juma Masjid, Chembitta Palli, in Mattancherry, near Kochi. A local Jewish merchant was so impressed with the knowledge of Sayyid Fakhr Bukhari, its spiritual leader, that he donated all the timber for the construction of the mosque. Another tale, probably apocryphal, is that the merchant converted to Islam after hearing the Sayyid’s talk on the Hebrew prophet Moses. Whatever it may be, today, the Juma Masjid and the Chembitta Palli are two of the premier mosques in Kerala. Many of these places of worship have been documented in Fels’s authoritative Mosques of Cochin, brought out by Mapin Publishers.
The Seattle-based Fels had accompanied her husband, Donald, who had come to Kerala on a Fulbright scholarship. As she wandered around, especially in Mattancherry, she noticed these old mosques. A chance meeting with Mohammed Iqbal, a former Cochin Corporation councillor, got Fels interested in these buildings. “Iqbal told me of the strong likelihood that many of them would be torn down,” says Fels. She decided to write a book, but the lack of written material was daunting. Thankfully, there is a strong oral tradition in Kerala. Many people told Fels stories of how the mosques were set up. “Each story has some truth in it and had been passed by word of mouth for centuries,” she says.
What has also lasted is the conservative nature of Muslims here. “Some of the people allowed me inside the mosques only if I came at a time when there were no prayers,” says Fels. “Others permitted me only to look in from the verandah. I don’t blame their caution. After all, I’m an American woman who suddenly showed up, wanting to know more about the mosques.”
Asked to elaborate on their commonality, Fels says, “They are built with local stone. Because of numerous windows, there is ample air-circulation inside. All of the mosques also have large timber-framed roofs.” Other elements include wood panels with carved inscriptions, screens and columns. In every mosque, there’s an ablution pool, a mihrab (arched niche) facing Mecca (20-23º North-West of Kerala), and a mimbar (pulpit), from where the Imam delivers his weekly sermon. Fels and the Kochi-based Centre for Heritage, Environment and Development received a `3.6 lakh grant from the Ford Foundation for the research. Says Director Rajan Chedembath: “We decided to support Fels’s project because it’s a pioneering work. When we describe the heritage of Kochi, mosques are seldom mentioned.”
Fels is also worried about the lack of attention paid to these mosques. “Locals say half of the old mosques in Kochi have already been razed,” she says. In the new mosques built as replacement, there’s a tendency to mimic the styles of Persia, Arabia, and North India. “Unfortunately, the addition of domes, minarets, columns and flat roofs lacks proportion and integrity,” says Fels. “There’s little relationship to the local climate. Low-ceilinged spaces turn into broilers during power cuts.” The use of concrete is also jarring. The mosque at Cranganore, one of the oldest in India, is encased in concrete, with a tiny portion of the old, tiled roof peeking out. Changes have also been made to the Juma Masjid, Chembitta Palli and the Calvathy mosque. “It is modern kitsch,” says Fels.
So has this book come along at the right time? “Fels’s work will bring welcome attention to the old mosques and the need to preserve them,” says Chedembath. Says Fels, “Through the book, I wanted to show how beautiful the mosques are, and the need to celebrate their history. Hopefully, in future, old mosques will not be demolished.”