India’s oldest mosque, a unique structure with no domes or minarets,has reopened

India’s oldest mosque, a unique structure with no domes or minarets,has reopened

India’s oldest mosque has reopened to the public after an extended 30-month conservation effort, and it looks decidedly different. For one thing, the Cheraman Juma Masjid in Kodungallur has no domes, arches or minarets. In fact, it looks a lot like a traditional Kerala home or temple.

“Due to the region’s trade relations with the Middle East, the local population was exposed to Islamic influences right from the 7th century,” says Manoj Kumar Kini, director of the state government’s restoration initiative, the Muziris Heritage Project.

This masjid is said to have been commissioned by a Chera king in 629 CE, though some historians place its origins in the 11th century. Either way, historians say, it is the oldest mosque still in use in the Indian subcontinent.

“Legend has it that a dream prompted the king to travel to Mecca and embrace Islam,” says Mohamed Sayeed, president of the mosque’s managing committee. In keeping with the king’s wishes, a series of mosques were constructed in the years that followed, the first being this one, in the then capital of the Chera empire.

In recent decades, the mosque had lost some of its unique flavour, after structural additions including domes and minarets were made in the 1970s and ’90s. (Photo courtesy Benny Kuriakose & Associates)
In recent decades, the mosque had lost some of its unique flavour, after structural additions including domes and minarets were made in the 1970s and ’90s. (Photo courtesy Benny Kuriakose & Associates)

Present-day Kodungallur sits near what was then the city of Muziris, a bustling centre for trade along the Malabar coast. “Mosques built at that time combined Islamic tradition with Kerala architectural style,” says Kini.

Before the renovation, the mosque had lost some of this unique flavour, after structural additions including domes and minarets were made in the 1970s and ’90s. The Muziris Heritage Project has now hit reset.

Work began with the expansions and additions being taken down. The original minbar (a kind of pulpit for the imam) still stands. It’s a centuries-old teak platform bearing intricately carved floral motifs covered in lacquer. Other interesting artefacts that have been preserved include a brass lamp with an inscription in the ancient Arabi-Malayalam script.

During the restoration, old photographs and senior historians were consulted. S Hemachandran, former director of the state’s archaeology department, supervised excavation work.

The original minbar or pulpit still stands within the mosque. The centuries-old teak platform bears intricately carved floral motifs covered in lacquer. (Photo courtesy Benny Kuriakose & Associates)
The original minbar or pulpit still stands within the mosque. The centuries-old teak platform bears intricately carved floral motifs covered in lacquer. (Photo courtesy Benny Kuriakose & Associates)

“The reconstructed mosque displays key features of Kerala-style temple architecture such as laterite stone walls plastered with lime, timber beams and floors, and a tiled roof,” says conservation architect Benny Kuriakose, who is heading the restoration effort. He and his team are now constructing a spacious prayer hall in the mosque’s basement, to accommodate up to 2,000 people without interfering with the structure’s architectural integrity.

A seminary, a church and a temple in the region have also been similarly restored by the Muziris Heritage Project.

Because of its interesting story, the mosque is frequented by people of all faiths. “Till about 100 years ago, the oil used to light the brass lamp in the mosque still came from the Kodungallur palace situated nearby,” says Sayeed. The tradition of lighting the lamp stopped after electric lights were installed, but non-Muslims still conduct important personal religious rites here, including the vidyarambham, a Hindu ritual held to initiate a child into the world of learning.

“The mosque is situated in a Hindu-majority area and is revered by all,” says Kuriakose.

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Vijay Singh

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