Real Truth About India’s Gift To Saudi King On The Legend of Cheraman

by Rakesh Krishnan Simha - Apr 12, 2016 04:09 PM +05:30 IST

Real Truth About India’s Gift To Saudi King On The Legend of Cheraman 

A gold-plated replica of Kerala’s Cheraman Juma Masjid
  • Cheraman Perumal’s legend is distorted with questions on his rule and the kingdom

    In South India there has been a proliferation of Perumals, mostly petty chieftains. And several of them so fancifully styled themselves as Cheraman

On 4 April, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted from Saudi Arabia:

A Chera King, a visit to Mecca & a mosque in Thrissur…seeing India-Saudi Arabia ties through my gift to King Salman.

The tweet provides a link to Modi’s website,which tells us about the gift:

The Prime Minister today gifted His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud a gold-plated replica of the Cheraman Juma Masjid in Kerala.

Located in Kerala’s Thrissur district, the Cheraman Juma Masjid is touted as the first mosque built in India around 629 AD by Arab traders. Modi elaborates:

According to oral tradition, Cheraman Perumal was the Chera King and a contemporary of the Holy Prophet who went to Arabia and embraced Islam after meeting the Holy Prophet at Mecca. Some years later, he sent letters to his relatives and the ruling chieftains of Malabar through his friends Malik bin Dinar and Malik bin Habib who, along with their companions, were then given permission by the local rulers to build the mosque at Kodungallur....

Now let’s hear it from the late Dr S.N. Sadasivan, historian and author, who served at various institutes of public governance such the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie and the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi. In his exhaustive book ‘A Social History of India’, Sadasivan explains:

The king or Perumal who was converted to Islam was in fact Kalaminja of Maldives (Maladwipa or Mahiladwipa), the son of Koimala, a descendant of the king of Ceylon. As early as the 6th century AD, Mali, the capital of Maldives was known to seafarers and the name Mali was mistaken by a number of historians and writers, including the author of the Cochin Gazetteers for Malabar or Kerala. Upon this error, they have come to several conclusions social and historical, which should be considered ostensibly absurd.....

Sadasivan points out Islam was brought to Maldives in 1153 AD by the Arab merchants and proselytisers converted everyone, beginning with the king:

The king, who was Darumavanta Maha Radun (righteous great king) was allowed to continue with the same title and was taken to Mecca by the Arabs who rejoiced at the great triumph of Islam in the small archipelago.....Those who mistake Maldives for Malabar are likely to support the fable that Cheraman Perumal had embraced Islam and was taken in pilgrimage to Mecca. The Arabs enjoyed full privileges in Maldives and the famous (traveller and scholar) Alberuni had taken four wives in muta marriage and lived there like a sultan till he left for China.

It is important to note, says, Sadasivan, there are a hundred significant stories in circulation in Kerala as related to Cheraman Perumal covering not less than a period of a millennium and the time gap between one and another is as wide as 100 to 400 years.

The reason for this multiplicity of Cheramans was the popularity of the name owing to the legendary status of the original Cheraman Perumal. Therefore, says, Sadasivan, in the territories now covering Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Canara, there had been a proliferation of Perumals, mostly petty chieftains. And several of them so fancifully styled themselves as Cheraman that it has become difficult to identify or even locate the legendary Cheraman.

The author writes:

The enormous evidence now available indisputably indicates that the whole Perumal rule in Brahminic Kerala is a mere fabrication to bury deep the elements of Buddhist history....Yet some Muslim scholars, in their efforts to support the painting of a high profile tradition for them, imagine that Prophet Mohammad might have sent a message to Cheraman, inviting him to enter into the Islamic fold. With a view to get their tradition built on a high pedestal or a higher conceptual plane, they are prepared for a quid pro quo: to allow the Christians to convert another Perumal, Pallivana, if the figment of Cheraman embracing their faith is not questioned....Had it not been for William Logan, who made pioneering studies of the antiquity of Kerala, incorporating the fable of Cheraman’s conversion into the Malabar Gazetteer, none would have prepared the settings to give credence or advanced claims to it

Sadasivan says the Brahmins’ Cheraman died many centuries before the message of Islam started spreading. So why did the Namboodiris create the fiction of the Cheramans? The reason is that like any other clergy they wanted overarching control over every aspect of religious, economic and social life in Kerala. This has an uncanny similarity to the Catholic church’s manufacturing of saints from local communities in order to capture the hearts and minds of lay people. Sadasivan writes:

The (Namboodiris) created at least one anecdote or episode of Cheraman associated with almost every caste and every community so that he would become an acceptable instrument for social control and source of legitimacy for furthering their interests and a seat of authority to accord finality in several historic and social questions...

One must mention here that for all their claims of being anti-caste, there is a deep-seated desire in Kerala’s Christians – also known as Nasaranis – to elevate themselves on the totem pole of the Hindu caste system. This is a classic case of wanting to have their cake and eat it too – they don’t want to be Hindu but they certainly want to be known as upper caste. Since that is not possible then at least they’d like to be considered de facto savarna (upper caste). Kerala Christians have been trying to weasel themselves into the savarna fold for hundreds of years, and their Muslims brethren are also affected by this.

Sadasivan explains further:

So far as group snobbery is mistaken as a means to achieve social gradation, antiquity is a fertile ground for implanting traditions of newer communities, and Perumals like Cheraman and their deeds are likely to proliferate. The people in ancient times always addressed their ruler as Perumal and the name Cheraman being highly popular and fashionable then, might have been adopted by many petty potentates.....Like snobbery, inferiority complex is no less a measure that contributed to the growth of the Cheraman cult.

Sadasivan concludes:

Therefore, the story that Cheraman Perumal had gone, upon the termination of his tenure, to Mecca or Kailash, has no basis whatsoever.

Muslim view of the Cheraman tale

In a paper titled ‘Historical Aspects of the Legend of Cheraman Perumal of Kodungallur in Kerala’, Dr Haseena V.A., assistant professor, Post Graduate Department of Economics, M.E.S. Asmabi College, Kodungallur, Kerala, mentions a popular story behind the Cheraman Juma Masjid:

Once a king – a Cheraman Perumal – was walking on the balcony of his palace when he spotted the moon splitting into two and the two halves becoming one again. Bewildered, he consulted his astrologers, who confirmed that such an event had indeed occurred and was not a mystical experience. A few months later, he met some Arab visitors on their way to Ceylon and from them, the king learned that Prophet Muhammad was behind this miracle and that he was the founder of a new religion.
The king did something drastic. He abdicated the throne, divvied up the kingdom and set sail to Mecca to meet this man. He met the Prophet and converted to Islam and lived in Arabia for a while. Then to spread the religion in his homeland, the converted Perumal returned to Kerala, but he died somewhere along the way.Later, some of his followers reach Kodungallur and it is they who set up the first mosques, including the one at Kodungallur.

According to Haseena-

This fascinating tale of a Kerala king meeting the Prophet was first recorded in 1510 CE by the Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa. Barbosa, who would later become Ferdinand Magellan’s brother-in-law and would join him on his trip around the world, reached Kerala in 1500 with his uncle and stayed there for five decades. Quite conversant in the local language and based on his familiarity with the traditions and customs, he wrote the story of this Cheraman Perumal based on what he had heard.

Here’s Barbosa version:

Around 600 years before Barbosa’s time, there was a mighty lord named Chirimay Perumal, whose capital was a popular port for pepper trade. The Moors who came for trade had numerous discussions with the king and they converted him to Islam. He went to Mecca in their company and died either there or on the way back; the Malabar people never saw their king again. Barbosa also wrote that the single kingdom which Cheraman Perumal ruled was partitioned into three – Cannanore, Calicut and Quilon – with Calicut having the right of coinage.

Haseena picks up a discrepancy: Barbosa mentions that this incident happened 600 years back and not 875 years.

The next version of this story was written eight decades later by Sheikh Zeinuddin, a Malayali Muslim with Arab ancestry:

In his account, a set of Arab Muslims reached Kodungallur on their way to Ceylon. The king invited them to his palace and in what must be one of the easiest conversion attempts in the world, converted after listening to their conversation. He divided the kingdom and secretly went to Arabia with the pilgrims, which agrees with what Barbosa wrote. Zeinuddin also mentioned that this king was ruler of the land from Kasaragod to Kanyakumari and gives an important detail regarding the date. According to him, this incident did not happen during the lifetime of the prophet, but two centuries later.

In 1610 CE, another version of this story came out from another Portuguese writer named Joas de Barros. Barros was an administrator in the House of India and Mina in Lisbon and was responsible for dispatching various fleets to India. His work was completed by Diogo de Coutos.

As per this account, Cheraman Perumal was a great king and his kingdom was frequented by many Moors for commerce-

According to Barros, these Moors were religious fanatics and converted the king to Mohammedanism. He moved to Calicut and the Moors there made him believe that he had to go to Mecca to save his soul, which he promptly did after diving up his kingdom. This was the time when the Portuguese had to resort to sea voyages to avoid Muslim controlled land route and were in competition with the Muslim traders to gain favours with the kings of Kerala for trade rights. Some of that antagonism is visible in the language.

Coutos then adds a twist to the tale which makes this very interesting:

Perumal was close to the St Thomas Christians based in Kodungallur and would not do anything without consulting them. Coutos drops a bombshell by adding that he was converted to their holy faith, implying that the Perumal was converted to Christianity and not Islam. Coutos also mentions that the Perumal died in the house of Apostle St Thomas in Mylapore and thus disagreeing with the Mecca trip. (Since the Pope of the Vatican has himself repudiated the lies spun by Kerala Christians that the Apostle St Thomas set foot in India, we can safely assume this ‘twist’ isn’t true.)

In 1723, the Dutch chaplain Canter Visscher wrote about this story, with another twist. He agrees that Cheraman Perumal was a great king who distributed his kingdom and undertook a voyage. The journey was, “either to the Ganges in fulfilment of a vow or as the Moors say to visit Mahomet in Arabia for the purpose of embracing his religion” implying that there were multiple theories existing at that time.

Haseena adds:

The Cheraman Perumal story continued in the accounts of Dutch Commander Van Adriaan Moens (1781 CE), Francis Buchanan (1801 CE), Keralolpathi (17th or 18th century) and Granthavari (19th century).

Modern myths

In an interview to the Institute of Objective Studies, a Delhi-based Islamic research centre, Raja Valiyathampuram of Kodungallur, who claims to be a descendant of Cheraman Perumal, says he’s proud of the fact that his supposed ancestor was “the first Indian to come into the fold of Islam”. He then adds: This happened much before the advents of Muhammad bin Qasim and Mahmud Ghaznavi. This shows that Islam didn’t come to India with the sword.

Having whitewashed Islam of its innumerable crimes in a few words, Valiyathampuram asks people from north India to visit Kerala and see how Keralites from different religions have lived peacefully for hundreds of years.

He has conveniently forgotten that communal amity remained in place because of two factors, both of which are absent today. One, the early Christians and Arab Muslims were non-proselytising communities. They did not threaten the Kerala Hindus, although small conversions occasionally took place.

The second reason was that until a hundred years back, the Christian and Muslim communities were microscopic and dared not provoke the local Hindu kings or militias.

That changed in the 20th century with the arrival of vote bank politics, conversions backed by foreign money and economic rise, all of which have given the Muslims and Christians clout that is disproportionate to their numbers. Beginning with the Moplah riots of 1921, communal clashes and Love Jihad are now a reality in Kerala. The state is a declared terror hub.

Now, how do you expect Modi or his advisors in the PMO to even suspect the mosque’s dodgy history, when the local Hindus themselves have become dhimmified to the extent that it is now a place of worship for them.Says Prof Haseena:

It is a matter of great pride that devotees and a substantial number of pilgrims are from non-Muslim communities. The Mohalla Committees have encouraged this and the secular credentials of the mosque are dearly preserved. Offerings of Iftar during the fasting month of Ramzan are being made by the non-Muslim communities. Many non-Muslim devotees are conducting ‘Vidhyarambham’ of their children at the mosque.

It is highly likely that these “non-Muslims” are Hindus (as Kerala Christians, threatened by an aggressive breed of Islamists, are not known to visit mosques) but Haseena elides the word Hindu. This is the Abrahamic way of the slow erasure of Hindus from Kerala’s narrative.

Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based journalist and writes on defence and foreign affairs for Russia Beyond the Headlines, a global media project of Moscow-based Rossiyskaya Gazeta. He is on the advisory board of Europe-based Modern Diplomacy.

Rakesh’s articles on defence and foreign have been quoted extensively by a number of leading think tanks, universities and publications worldwide. He has been cited in books on counter terrorism and society in the global south.

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