Arya poonkanni and the advent of a faith

Her work soon increased her popularity, and she and Bappooran Poonkanni were deified in the folk realm as Theyyam.
A theyyam performance. Image used for representational purpose only.
A theyyam performance. Image used for representational purpose only.

In Kerala's North Malabar, a Kavu [shrine] is decorated for the yearly Theyyam festival. Crowds from nearby villages made beelines for it, disregarding the hot sun, eager for the blessing of a goddess, Arya Poonkanni. The goddess arrives at the performance area with rhythmic majestic steps accompanied by an entourage of drummers. A veil covers her face. Some legends claim she is a Muslim who migrated from Arya Nadu [folk designation for North India]. According to the legend, she came to North Malabar to purchase precious stones and pearls. On the way back, her ship broke, and a Muslim sailor, Bappooran, saved her. They reached Kolatthu Nadu [North Malabar] and settled there.

Her work soon increased her popularity, and she and Bappooran Poonkanni were deified in the folk realm as Theyyam. Many Muslims also attend the performance of Arya Poonkanni, whom the goddess addresses as “Madayi Nagarame” [one who belongs to the city of Madayi]. Vanidas Elayavoor, in his book Vadakkan Aithihyamala [Translation: Garland of Legends from North (Kerala)], gives a brief dialogue between the goddess and the person who belongs to the Muslim community thus, “Cheraman Perumal secretly boarded the ship from Kodungallur and reached Panthalayini Kollam. Then to Dharmapattanam. At Dharmapattanam, he entrusted the fort of Dharmapattanam to Kolatthiri.

Then Perumal travelled to Arabia, where he landed at a port called as Sahar. From Sahar, Perumal travelled to Jedda and met Mohammad Nabi [ Prophet Mohammed] converted to Islam and assumed the name Tajuddin [Tāj al-Dīn al-Hindī al-Malabārī]. Perumal lived there for five years and married Riziat [Rājiya], the sister of King Malik Habiyar [Malik Dinar]. Soon, Perumal wanted to return to India and spread Islam but fell ill and died. Before his death, he entrusted his followers with a letter to his successors in Kerala for permission to spread Islam. His followers came to Kodungallur and established the Cheraman Palli [Mosque] and soon spread the faith of Islam [in Kerala] establishing Pallis or Mosques at eleven sites including Madayi [Kannur District], Panthalayini [Kozhikode] etc.” 
Interestingly, the Theyyam performer is quoting the legend of the conversion of Cheraman Perumal into Islam from an anonymous writer originally written in Arabic, namely Qissat Shakarwati Farmad.

“The story of an Indian king’s conversion to Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and of the subsequent foundation by Arab Muslims of communities and mosques across the sovereign’s former dominion in Kerala appears in various Arabic and Malayalam literary iterations. The most remarkable among them is the Qissat Shakarwati Farmad”, writes Roxani Eleni Margariti, as an introduction to the complete text translation. The period of the events proposed by the legend is in the 7th century CE because the king meets with Prophet Mohammed. However, the authorities on Kerala history, like Padmanabha Menon and Elamkulam Kunjan Pilla, rubbish the abdication and conversion of the Malabar Monarch theory the legend proposes. Even the 16th Century Arab chronicler Zayn al-din ai-Malbari [from Ponnani, Malappuram District], in his Tahafat-ul-Mujahidin, dismisses the conversion theory in the lifetime of the Prophet. He further proposes that Islam came to the Malabar coast only 200 years after the life of the Prophet. Ibn Batuta refers to the settlement of Muslims in India but is silent about the emperor’s conversion theory. Such an exciting incident would have added perfect spice to the dramatic chronicle of Ibn Batuta.

Elamkulam Kunjan Pilla even scorns William Logan, the author of Malabar Manuel, for his endorsement of the “discovery” of the Malabar king’s tomb in the city of Safar in Yemen. He further suggests that the chronicle of Qissat Shakarwati Farmad became popular only in the 15th century, summing up the ideas of a great monarch abdicating the throne and absconding from his kingdom, conversion of a monarch into Islam and Islam's arrival through the trade routes.

However, one has to acknowledge the references provided by the text regarding the mosques on the Malabar coast; they could pre-date the mosques of North India like Quwatul Islam [Delhi] and Adhai din Jhopra [Ajmer] as the dated [1124 CE] inscription of Madayi Palli [Pazhayangadi, Kannur District] testifies. Freedman suggests that the legend is created in Malabar to distinguish and enhance the social positioning of the Mappilas [Malabar Muslims] from their brethren in faith from North India by depicting the first convert from Malabar as a king the Prophet himself honoured and converted. Such legends of origin and heritage are popular among Christians of Kerala and in various castes of Hinduism, linking themselves to Apostal Thomas and Parasurama. 

Roxani Eleni Margariti concludes thus, “Mahabali and the Onam myth created a powerful archetype in Kerala, that of a just king who disappears, yet in disappearing establishes a lasting social order that promises to create righteousness and harmony. Various religious communities in Kerala have tapped into this mythic archetype to explain their origins. These origin legends are also useful to communities seeking to claim Kerala’s geographic and social space. The Islamic origin story (isQissat Shakarwati Farmad).”

What is fascinating, apart from all the controversies on the historical validity of Qissat Shakarwati Farmad and heated scholarly debates on chronology, is the performers of Arya Poonkanni Theyyam, who could hardly comprehend Arabic or English manuscripts quoting the text word to word. Was this text popular in the oral tradition and hereditarily passed on to the next generation? It looks so, as the young son of the performer is carefully listening to the rendition to recollect it perfectly when it is his time to perform.    



Department of Art History & Aesthetics

The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda

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