Published in The Hindu, dated November 23, 2017
Among the many inscriptions at the Vaishnavite shrine of Adhi Jagannatha Swamy at Thirupullani, about 10 km from Ramanathapuram in southern Tamil Nadu, there is one about a grant for a mosque. This particular inscription of the late 13th Century by the Pandya King Thirubuvana Chakravarthy Koneri Mei Kondan, describes the grant made to the Muslim Sonagar, to build a mosque at Pavithramanikka Pattinam. While no one today has a clue as to the exact location of Pavithramanikka Pattinam, the region has many ancient mosques like the rest of Tamil Nadu. What is unique about these mosques is that they were all built of stone, in the Dravidian architectural style with Islamic sensibilities.
Unlike north India, Islam came to the south through maritime spice trade even as it was spreading across Arabia in the 7th Century. The Muslims who were traders enriched the country with precious foreign exchange, and hence were accorded a special place by the Tamil rulers of the day, and often received grants to build mosques, like the one at the Adhi Jagannatha Swamy temple.
As mosques are called Palli Vaasal in Tamil, and they were built of kal, the Tamil word for stone, they came to be locally known as kallupallis. These kallupalliswere essentially built more like mandapams, better suited to Islamic requirement for the congregation to assemble and stand together in prayer.
With guidelines for the construction of mosques being simple - such as prayer facing Mecca, no idol worship and clean surroundings, the masons who worked on these mosques under the supervision of religious heads restricted themselves to carving floral and geometrical motifs instead of human figures as in a temple. “While the raised ‘Adisthana’ of the Hindu temple was retained, there were no ‘Garbha Grahas’ and no figurines carved on any of the pillars” says Dr.Raja Mohammad, author of Islamic Architecture in Tamil Nadu.
For more than a millennium, hundreds of such mosques built in the Dravidian Islamic architectural style came up across Tamil Nadu, often with the help of grants from the rulers of the day, ranging from the Cheras, the Pandyas, the Venad kings and the Nayaks to the Sethupathis of Ramanathapuram. Across Tamil Nadu, wherever Tamil Muslims lived in large numbers, from Pulicat near Chennai to Kilakarai, Kayalpatnam, Kadayanallur, Kottar, Tiruvithancode, Madurai, etc., one finds these beautiful kallupallis.
Amongst these kallupallis, though not the oldest, the most beautiful mosque is to be found at Kilakarai, near Ramanathapuram. A medieval port town with a predominant Tamil Muslim population, Kilakarai has many mosques built during different eras spanning many centuries. The one built towards the end of 17th Century is the most beautiful of them all. It is believed to have been built by the great merchant and philanthropist Periathambi Marakkayar, also known as Seethakkathi, whom the Dutch records speak of as a great trader having considerable influence with the Sethupathis, the then rulers of Ramanathapuram.
The mosque built in the Dravidian architectural style of the late Vijayanagara period, has elements that are specific to native traditions. Like many other kallupallis, this mosque too has Podhigai, the floral bud detailing on the pillar corbels, which represent positivity and auspiciousness, an essential part of the cultural beliefs of the land. An interesting engraving found in this mosque is the Tamil calendar for prayer.
What is unusual about this calendar is that, timings for prayers in the various Tamil months are marked in Tamil numerals, a rarity, found in just a few other mosques in southern Tamil Nadu.
These mosques, deeply embedded in the Tamil culture, were also places where Tamil flowered. Further down south, at the Kottar mosque in Nagercoil, an early Tamil Islamic literary work, Mikuraasu Malai, was presented to the assembled congregation by Aali Pulavar in the late 16th Century.
Mikuraasu is a Tamilised form of Mihraj, and narrates a significant event in the life of Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh), his ascension to the heaven. Even after 400 odd years, the tradition of singing Mikurasu Malai on the eve of Mihraj continues to this day at the Kottar mosque. Other literary works such as Seera Puranam, a Tamil epic on the history of the Prophet, are also recited across mosques in Tamil Nadu.
The Kallupallis in Tamil Nadu stand as proud reminders of not just an architectural tradition but also of cultural traditions, where Islam effortlessly adapted itself to the native customs.