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Tag Archives | Kerala

How the RigVeda is memorized

(This is a guest post by reader Ranjith P, after he saw a RigVeda chanting exercise in a temple near his home)

As you might  know it is a puzzle that how is RigVeda,  a ~4000 year old text is still memorized and chanted without making any mistake. It turns out that  people have made many special exercises to make sure that each person understands each word in detail, and can chant it in any order.  Once such exercise is called vaaram which helps people  learn RigVeda word by word by reciting it in a complex ordered way.

For example, these are the verses from Book 1, Hymn 23

Now watch these being recited

The two persons chanting are Dr. Mannoor Jathavedan Namboodiri (first person) and Mr. Naarayanamangalam Visakh. The second part (second person) is from Rig Veda Book 8 Hymn 11

When you see the video, you will note a few things

  1. In the first few minutes you can clearly see some stones near the person. They use some stones and somehow generate a random number. And using this, they choose a random hymn  in RigVeda and start from there. They don’t pre-plan where to start. That means, they have to know the whole of Veda by heart
  2. They repeat  words like: alpha beta, beta gamma, gamma, delta etc (first word, second word, second word, third word, third word fourth word etc).
  3. At the end of each sentence (and randomly) they have to split words (spitting sanskrit words is tough) .
  4. If you imagine transmitting some information orally, after some generations, very likely that one will goof up long and short vowels. For example,  words like “devaa” could be mistaken for “deva” and “vayoo” for “vayu“. To avoid it, they have developed a way of chanting where they stress the long vowels very clearly by extending it a bit too long so that the “deergham” is very clearly conveyed orally

When the second person chants you can see the first person, using his fingers, at random locations, ask the second person to split words (to test whether he knows)

This vaaram is like a minor day-to-day version of the famous Kadvalloor Anyonyam. vaaram is only one of the exercises and there are many others as well.

PS: This event happened at the Edakkuda temple, Malappuram district, Kerala

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Unraveling the Cheraman Perumal Myth

(All photographs by author)

This is the board outside the Cheraman Perumal Juma Masjid near present day Kodungallur, Kerala which proclaims that the mosque was established when Prophet Muhammad was alive. It also means that this particular mosque was established before the first mosques in Iraq (639 CE),  Syria (715 CE),  Egypt (642 CE), and Tunisia (670 CE) thus making it oldest mosque after the first mosques in Saudi Arabia and China. The interesting question is why would a mosque be established so far away from the deserts where Islam was spreading? Who was behind it and more importantly, is the mosque as old as it claims?

There is a popular story behind this mosque which is well known in Kerala even today. Once a king — a Cheraman Perumal — was walking on the balcony of his palace when he spotted the moon splitting into two and joining back again. Bewildered, he consulted a few astrologers, who confirmed that such an event had indeed occurred and was not a mystical experience. Few months later, he got a few Arab visitors on their way to Ceylon and  from them, the king learned that Prophet Muhammad was behind this miracle and 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, few of his followers reach Cranganore and it is they who set up the first mosques, including the one at Kodungallur. According to the legend, Saraf Ibn Malik, Malik Ibn Dinar, Malik Ibn Habib, Ibn Malik and their wives and friends were responsible for establishing the first mosques at Kodungallur, Kollam (in North, not Quilon), Maravi (Matayi), Fakanur, Manjarur (Mangalore), Kanjirakuttu (Kasergode), Jarfattan (Karippat), Dahfattan (Dharmatam), Fandarina (Pantalayani Kollam) and Caliyath (Chaliyam near Beypore)

A photo of the old mosque. Taken inside the museum


There is one thing to be noted about Cheraman Perumal. That was not the name of a particular king, but a title. Cheraman was the name of the dynasty of Chera rulers and Perumal meant, ‘the great one’. According to Keralolpathi (Origins of Kerala), written in the 17th or 18th century, following various conflicts in the 9th century, the representatives of 64 settlements in Kerala brought the Perumals from outside Kerala and each one was to rule for 12 years. There have been exceptions, though and once such exception would play an important role in this story.

First, is this story really true?

This story is found in a Muslim account recorded by Sheikh Zeinuddin as well as in the Brahminical narrative, Keralolpathi. The story has been retold countless times by the Portuguese, Dutch; the court chronicles of Calicut and Cochin begin with this narrative. There is epigraphic evidence as well: a Chola inscription mentions that the Cheras took to the sea after they were attacked which historians interpret to mean the Cherman Perumal voyage. There is evidence even from Arabia about the tomb of a king from Malabar who converted to Islam. Thus there seems to be sufficient evidence to suggest that a king from Malabar converted to Islam. That brings us to the second question: When?

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.

His version goes as follows: 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. But pay attention to one little detail: Barbosa mentions that this incident happened 600 years back and not 875 years.

A model of the old mosque


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 Cranganore on their way to Adam’s foot in Ceylon (See: How did Adam reach Sri Lanka). 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 Kasargod to Kanya Kumari 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 and his work was completed by Diogo de Coutos. According to his account, Cherman Peruman 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. According to him, the 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.

Thus within a century, you see the story being retold to based on the convenience of the Portuguese who were doing excellent trade in Malabar. But there is one data point that stands out in the narrative of Barros. He writes that the king, Sarama Perumal  reigned 612 years before “we” landed in India. It is not clear if that refers to the period when Barros’ ships landed in Malabar or if it refers to Vasco da Gama’s first voyage of 1498. Even if you take 1498 CE, the king would have reigned in 886 CE which is two centuries after the date mentioned on the board at the Cheraman Perumal Juma Masjid. This also agrees with what historian A Sreedhara Menon mentioned in his Survey of Kerala History

This is how the mosque looks now

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 fulfillment 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. 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).

Though there are minor variations and the influence of local politics, the Portuguese and Muslim accounts agree on one thing: a king from Kerala set off to Mecca, but this Cheraman Perumal did not travel in the time period mentioned in the board outside the mosque. But, this should be a relatively simple problem to solve. If this incident did happen, then all you need is  figure out who was the last Cheraman Perumal and that is where temple inscriptions are helpful.

There is a inscription of Vikrama Chola dating to 1122 CE which mentions that while the Pandyas took to the Ghats, the Cheras took to the sea. There are other statements in that inscription which have been proven historically and hence there is some truth to the Cheras taking to the sea as well. Historians read this to mean that the last Chera Perumal, who was Rama Kulasekhara, left by sea.  There is a record from another temple which mentions that a garland was offered to the deity for the benefit of Cheramar Rama which meant that the Rama Kulasekhara lived till 1122 CE.

This points to a date much later than the ones mentioned by the Portuguese and Muslim sources. There is more evidence on this front. According to the tradition the Perumal who reached Arabia sent some messengers to preach Islam in Kerala who established ten mosques, of which one is at Matayi. According to an inscription found at that mosque, it was built in 1124 CE, two years after the disappearance of Cheraman Rama Kulasekhara. Since we know the name of the king, it is easy to find references to other kings who were contemporaries and that can help solve the mystery. Two kings mentioned in connection with the last Perumal are  Udaya Varman of Koluttunad and Kavivamsha of the Tulu kingdom. Based on a inscription, Udaya Varman has been dated to the early 12th century and the Alupa King Kavivamsha ruled in the first half of the 12th century.

This complicates the narrative. From the story taking place in the 8th century, we have moved to the 12th century. Now comes another story which throws a spanner into the works. It turns out that this story was known in Arabia as well.  In 1882, William Logan recorded an incident where 15 years back a man came from Arabia soliciting funds for the repair of a mosque and tomb. This tomb, located in Zapahar in the Arabian coast had an inscription which said that it belonged to Abdul Rahman Saimiri, a king of Malabar. The inscription mentions that this man reached in year 212 of the Hijera. The name in the tomb looks like it was a Samuthiri, but there is no such record of a Zamorin traveling abroad and getting converted.

There is one thing though: this was an important event in Kerala’s history with the disintegration of central rule and the formation of many small kingdoms. But was the disappearance of the king the reason for this change or was the change that happened tagged to the departure of the king?

Lake behind the mosque

The Cheras were under attack by the Chola and Pandya forces and the king would have been forced to make deals with Jews, Muslim and Christian traders for financial and military assistance displeasing the Nairs and Brahmins. The revenue would have been affected and with an ungovernable kingdom, an easy way out would have  been the abdication of the throne. With the Cholas and Pandyas attacking the north and south, many areas would have become independent of the central power and the partition of the land may have been just a formal recognition of the ground reality. The Perumal’s Mecca voyage was a symbolic tale which captured all of this.

The Brahminical narrative, Keralolpathi, has another reason for this departure. First, the Perumal was upset having reigned for a long period the land which was the gift of Parasurama and wanted to make amends. The Perumals were supposed to rule for 12 years and make way for the next one; this one ruled for 36 years. Second, he had the supreme commander of the armed forces killed on the basis of a woman’s words which he regretted later and so conversion to Islam was probably a way out.

As we go through written records, temple inscriptions and legends, this story gets murky. At this point we have two possible dates for this event: the 9th century and 12th century. It is not a difference of a few decades, but a few centuries. Some people thought he took a trip to the Ganges and another thought he was converted to Christianity and not Islam. There is even a suggestion that it was not a Perumal, but a Zamorin. Sometimes, from these different versions you learn more about the writer and his politics than the truth, like a kind of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle applied to historiography. Even though the mystery is not solved, it seems that a person some repute reached Mecca from Malabar, and it seems clear that the incident did not happen in the period mentioned in the board.

If you are interested in this topic, please read these blog posts as well.

  1. The Perumal and the Pickle
  2. A tale of two conversions
  3. The myth of Cheraman Perumal’s conversion


  1. Perumals of Kerala by Prof. M.G.S.Narayanan
  2. Survey of Kerala History by Prof. A Sreedhara Menon
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Indian History Carnival-78:Bom Jesus, Guruvayoor, Deccani paintings, P N Oak

Guruvayoorappan's Elephants at Punnathoor Kotta

Guruvayoorappan’s Elephants at Punnathoor Kotta (photograph by author)

  1. Maddy has the fascinating tale of Bom Jesus, which left Portugal in 1533 with 18 tons of Fugger’s copper, 4 tons of tin, elephant tusks, gold and silver. The ship went missing and was discovered 475 years later.

    The Nau Bom Jesus was one among them and all of 400 or so tons in displacement. That the Portuguese knew how to build sturdy ships is clear, but you must also understand that the life of such a ship was not more than four or five years. Usage of nails, galagala caulking, lead in the seams, and a final black coat of pine tar from Germany gave these ships a sinister look. The heavy guns and cannons they carried for defense made them difficult to confront. The crew comprised a captain major, a deputy, a captain, a record keeping clerk (the royal agent – like our Barros or Carrera), a pilot and a deputy pilot. Then came the master, the boatswain, ships boys, pages and the sailors or seamen. We can also see chaplains, German bombardiers, stewards, specialist technicians like carpenters, caulkers and barber surgeons in this group.

  2. The Calicut Heritage Forum discusses the origins of the Elephant Race at Guruvyaoor Temple

    There was once some misunderstanding between the authorities of the two temples and Trikkanamathilakam temple authorities wanted to teach the smaller Guruvayur temple a lesson by not sending the elephants for the festival. The elephants were tethered at the Trikkanamathilakam temple after the festival there.  Apparently, the elephants managed to break the iron chains at night and ran all the way to Guruvayur temple, with their bells clanging and reached the temple well before the time for the ezhunnallathu  (the ceremonial procession of the deity).

  3. The Asian and African studies blog has a post containing Deccani paintings from the 17th  century onwards

    Kurnool, some 120 miles south of Hyderabad, became in the 18th century semi-independent under its own Pathan Nawabs. It was captured by Haidar ‘Ali of Mysore, and in 1799 was given to the Nizam at the division of Tipu Sultan’s territory. It was ceded by him to the East India Company in 1800, although the Nawabs were left in charge in return for a tribute to Madras. The last of them was judged guilty of treasonable activity in 1838 and the territory was annexed, although left in the charge of a British Commissioner and Agent until 1858 rather than under the normal Collector and Magistrate of British India. The arts flourished under the Nawabs and an offshoot of the Hyderabad style of painting can be located there (Zebrowski 1983, pp. 272-3). In the 19th century Kurnool produced paintings on leather of both Hindu and decorative subjects, but this painting by Kurnool artist would seem to be a rare instance of a Deccani ‘Company’ painting. The artist has combined a delicate Deccani approach to landscape with the more naturalistic traditions associated with European portraiture.

  4. Koenraad Elst takes to task those who think that Vatican was originally a Shiva temple and has other miscellaneous crazy ideas.

    In fact, the shape of the church is standard, and therefore the claim implies that most classical churches, thousands of them, are really shaped like Shiva Lingams. If your eyes are very hazy, you might indeed get the impression of a similarity. This school is quickly satisfied with a mere semblance of similarity. Thus, a 3-shaped sign in the undeciphered Indus script is declared to be Om/Aum sign; as is a door ornament on the Red Fort, equally deemed to have been “originally a Hindu temple”. But even if a more perceptive look were to confirm this impression of similarity, it doesn’t prove a causal relation. The likeness between vatika and Vatican is claimed to “prove that the Vatican was a Hindu (Vedic) religious centre before its incumbent was forced to accept Christianity from 1st century AD”. No, this phrase merely shows the miserably low standards of proof applied by the Hindu history-rewriters. Also, no evidence is attempted, or known from elsewhere, for the momentous replacement or forcible conversion of this Vedic pontiff.

The 79th carnival will be up on Independence day. If you have any nominations, please leave a comment.

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What happened in 825 CE in Kerala?

This is the photo of the Malayalam calendar hanging in my house and as per that calendar, the year is 1189 which means that something important happened in 825 CE. Wikipedia mentions that the important event was the establishment of a Nestorian colony. Maddy has written about various other events and that is covered in A Survey of Kerala History by A Sreedhara Menon as well.  The book Perumals of Kerala by Prof. M.G.S. Narayanan deals with these issues and comes up with an answer while refuting few others.

But before getting to the origins of the Malayalam calendar, called the Kollam Era, it is important to understand how events were recorded in India. The date on which the event occurred was mostly tied to a seminal event such as the establishment of a temple or an important marker like the beginning of the Kaliyuga or the Hijra. The position of Jupiter, the position of sun, the date, the week day and the nakshatra were noted while recording events.  Another popular way of recording events was to base it on reginal years of the king. Thus, if you were writing about the recent Indian elections, you would write, “In the 1st year of Rahul Gandhi being the Vice-President of Indian National Congress, it had just enough MPs under the Whatsapp group limit” or “In the 9th year of Prakash Karat’s tenure as CPI(M) general secretary, the party won seats which could be counted using both hands.”

The problem with reginal years or the establishment of a temple is that the events were local and that makes it hard for people outside the region to make sense of the date. But sometimes a local event can achieve such significance that it can live on for a thousand years and one such event happened in the southern part of Kerala.

Quilon - Dutch drawing from 1682 CE

Quilon – Dutch drawing from 1682 CE

Around the 8th century, there existed the region between Tiruvalla and Nagercoil was known as Vēṇāṭ with its capital at Vizhinjam.  In the 8th century, the Pandyans made an expansionist move and to counter that the Cēra forces moved to the south. They took overVēṇāṭ, absorbed it into the Cēra kingdom and established Kollam as the capital. This was an important victory for the Cēra’s with political and economic consequences. Kollam was a harbor city and remained important from the 9th to the 12th centuries and it was from here that the Chinese trade really took off. Eventually that trade would move up to Cochin and then Calicut. Maro Polo visited Kollam in 1294, Jordan Catalani in 1330 and  Ibn Batuta in 1343 an all of them mentioned the Chinese presence there. As Kollam bought in prosperity, its establishment became significant and what started out as a local era, was used in Vēṇāṭand eventually the whole of Kerala, though the port of Kollam became less important to Calicut eventually.

There are two inscriptions from this period, found in Kollam, which mention the phrase “Kollam tonri” implying that the event happened after the inauguration of Kollam.  Some historians have suggested — based on letters by the Nestorian Patriarch of Babylon — that the city of Kollam existed before 825 CE. Narayanan writes that this is based on an arbitrary and erroneous reading of Latin. Another suggestion is that “Koulam Male” was mentioned in Cosmas Indicopleustes by a 6th century Alexandrian merchant. Narayanan thinks that this refers to Kolam or Kolapattanam in North Kerala. Ma Huan wrote that the Tang dynasty knew about Kollam, but it may be about knowledge closer to the 9th century.

The Nestorian date is related to the settlement of Christian traders under the leadership of Mar Sapir Iso and that has been advanced by historians. According to them, if modern India could adopt Christian era, then it was possible a millennium back as well. Narayanan dismisses that argument; according to him, the establishment of Kollam as an important city came first followed by the establishment of the Nestorian colony. Narayanan writes that this incident would not have been universally acceptable compared to the founding of the city. He also dismisses the theories that it was associated with the departure of Cheraman Perumal to Mecca or with Shankaracharya.


  1. Perumals of Kerala by Prof. M G S Narayanan
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Earlier date for Malayalam

By around 800 CE, the language used in Kerala was a local variation of Tamil. The language known as Malayalam did not exist. Ilango Adigal (who wrote Silappatikaram) and Kulasekhara Alwar (responsible for devotional literature) were Malayalis, but wrote in Tamil. By around the 9th century CE, Malayalam evolved into a separate language under the heavy influence of Saṃskṛtam. As it became a new language — the youngest among the Dravidian languages — it discarded the earlier script and started using the script used for writing Saṃskṛtam.

But some data from Edakkal caves is changing our understanding of the evolution of Malayalam language. It seems the language started evolving much earlier than the “brahminical period”.

Eminent epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan contends that Edakal-5 provides important evidence that the common people of Kerala were already expressing themselves in Malayalam at about the end of the 4th century c.e.

The inscription (Edakal-5) is engraved just below and to the left of a tall, imposing anthropomorphic figure, which is part of the much earlier prehistoric engravings covering the rock walls of the cave (Picture 1). It appears that Edakal-5 is a label inscription engraved by a casual visitor to the cave recording his impression of the anthropomorphic figure he saw there.

The language of Edakal-5 is Malayalam. This becomes clear from the first word i (this), which is a pronoun in Malayalam standing for someone or something nearer the speaker. In Tamil, i has the same meaning, but does not occur as an independent word unlike in Malayalam. That the language of the inscription is indeed Malayalam is made clear by the second word pazhama which corresponds to pazhamai in Tamil, meaning “that which is ancient or old”. The text in Malayalam and its nearest rendering in Tamil are juxtaposed below to bring out the distinction.

i pazhama (Malayalam)

idu pazhamai (Tamil)

‘this (is) ancient’ (translation)

The most important result from the revised reading is that Edakal-5 is by far the earliest inscription in Malayalam and the only one in Brahmi. It may be assigned to late 4th or early 5th century c.e. on palaeographic evidence discussed below. The next earliest inscriptions in Malayalam occur much later from about the beginning of the 9th century c.e. and are in the Vatteluttu script.

Edakal-5 provides important evidence that the common people of Kerala were already expressing themselves in Malayalam at about the end of the 4th century c.e. However, Tamil was also retained by the elite as the literary idiom in which great works like Silappadikaram were composed. Eventually, of course, the people’s language prevailed in the region and Malayalam became the medium of communication for all purposes from about the beginning of the Kollam Era (early 9th century c.e.).[The earliest inscription in Malayalam (via Nikhil Narayanan)]

But then this is just one data point and one cannot generalize anything about what was happening in Kerala just from this.

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