Ponnani Valiya Pally: Islamic Renaissance and its Cultural Foundations in Kerala

// April 7th, 2013 // Cultural Politics

Mecca of the east and the crown of Malabar: Ponnani Valiya Pally at night.  Built by Sheikh Zainudin Makhdum I in early 16th century (1518). Partially damaged by the 1550 Portuguese assault but successfully resisted by the Makhdum and his holy warriors.

Mecca of the east and the crown of Malabar: Ponnani Valiya Pally at night. Built by Sheikh Zainudin Makhdum I (1465-1522) in early 16th century (1518). Partially damaged by the 1550 Portuguese assault but successfully resisted by the Makhdum II and his holy warriors. He composed The Tufatul Mujahideen in 1580s.  The Thachan or Vastusilpi who designed it is also buried along with the Makhdum I in the Valiya Pally and called Asari Tangal in deep reverence.

Ponnani is often linked to golden skies and golden Arabian coins, that is to ‘Pon Vanam and the Arabippon Nanyam.’  But in the etymological deep structures of place names in Kerala there is something that links the affix Pon (gold) with the Jain and Buddhist past as in Ponmudi (plenty of them on the western ghats), Ponkunnam, Ponmala, Ponnambalamed (Sabarimala) etc. It can be well assumed that before becoming a seat of Islamic learning in the 8th century Ponnani was a Chamana cultural hub and harbor.

The light of Ponnani:  The hanging lamp in Ponnani Valiya Pally.  Sitting in the light of the lamp is the ritual culmination of Islamic learning in south Asia.

The light of Ponnani: The hanging lamp in Ponnani Valiya Pally. Sitting in the light of the lamp is the ritual culmination of Islamic learning in south Asia. Photo from internet

Ponnani Jumath Valiya Pally from the eastern street.  The apsidal or Gajaprishta style building faces east and is enclosed in a big Anapallam or elephant belly compound wall.  Theres is a big pond at the south western corner.  It is one of the ancient structures still standing intact in Kerala, almost 500 years old.

The gateway to the lights of Ponnani: Ponnani Jumath Valiya Pally from the eastern street. The apsidal or Gajaprishta style building faces east and is enclosed in a big Anapallam or elephant belly compound wall. There is is a big pond at the south western corner. It is one of the ancient structures still standing intact in Kerala, almost 500 years old.

Whatever be the history of the region in the past, at least from the 8th century onwards Ponnani was a centre of Islamic learning and is renowned through out Asia and the Islamic world as the little Mecca of the east.  From the fifteenth century onwards it became the most prominent seat of Islamic culture and religious traditions under the Makhdums and also under the naval defense of the Kunjali Marakars as a second capital of the Zamorins of Calicut.  Both the Makhdums and Marakars came from Kayalpattanam in the Tamil south.

Cheraman Pally the earliest mosque in Kerala and India or outside Arabia.  Established by Malik Dinar in early 7th century.  Kunjikuttan Tampuran and Randathani had written that it was an ancient Baudha Pally prior to that. Photo from internet.

Cheraman Pally at Kodungallur, the earliest mosque in Kerala and India or outside Arabia. Established by Malik Dinar in early 7th century. Kunjikuttan Tampuran and Randathani had written that it was an ancient Baudha Pally prior to that. Photo from internet.

‘Vilakatirikal’ or Sitting in the light of the traditional hanging lamp in the central assembly hall inside the Ponnani Valiya Pally is considered as the zenith of Islamic studies and scholarship through out south east Asia.  The Makhdum’s developed the Pally and Ponnani after the Al Azhar University of Egypt where the first Makhdum Tangal had his higher education.  It is also renowned now as the little Mecca of the east and the ritual of Vilakirutal as the Ezhutirutal  (initiation into writing or Nanamonam) of the Buddhists was initiated by Makhdum Tangal himself  as a scholarly sit together with new and young learners.

Wood carvings on the eastern front of Ponnani Valiya Pally.  Photo from internet

Wood carvings on the eastern lower front of Ponnani Valiya Pally. Photo from internet

Ponnani is known for its ancient Islamic Pallys.  All the old Pallys were in traditional Kerala architectural style in the Buddhist Chaitya Vastu style. These unique Pallys are not in Arabian or Mogul style but exquisitely in ancient Kerala style that is Buddhist in micro and macro aspects of building culture. The apsidal or Gajaprishta style is common and the conical facade is a clear reminiscence of the Buddhist stupa or Chaitya motif.

Veliyankod Jumath Pally. Apsidal design facing east.  Unfortunately the concrete and metal constructions mask the architectural ingenuity of the old Pallys.  The concrete mockeries must be abolished an the ancient Kerala Buddhist style must be exposed to posterity.

Veliyankod Jumath Pally. Apsidal design facing east. Unfortunately the recent concrete and metal constructions mask the architectural ingenuity of the old Pallys in Malabar. The concrete mockeries and shallow imitations must be removed and the ancient Kerala Buddhist style must be exposed to posterity. Masking the real self and architectural identity of the Pallys are also part of fanaticism that represses one’s own past as in the erasure and distortion of place names with Pally affix into Pilly or Pully done by Savarna forces all over Kerala.

Pallys, Pally Kulams or ponds and Pally Kadu/Kavu or Pally groves were also common till the mid 20th century (Randathani 2010: 97).  Now only a few Pallys retain their old charm and monumental features. Concrete and shallow interests are masking their true self and cultural antiquity.  The reference to the Pally ponds and groves are illuminating specifications related to the Chamana antiquity as it was the Buddhist monks and nuns who created the ethical and conservationist culture of Sangha Aramas or Kavus and Sangha Viharas or architectural monuments  in Kerala as early as the 3rd century BC.

The windows to the world:  The decorative casements on the attic towards the east in Ponnani Valiya Pally.  Photo from internet

The windows to the world: The decorative casements on the attic towards the east in Ponnani Valiya Pally. Photo from internet

In his recent book on Makhdum II (1531-1583) and Ponnani, Dr. Husain Randathani also observes that the first mosque in India and the second one in the world, the Cheraman Pally at Kodungallur (seventh century) was originally a Buddha Vihara or Bauddha Pally (Randathani 2010: 88).  Even in the first work of history in Malayalam called Vella’s History edited by Dr N M Nambutiri; the narrator Vella Nambutiri of Tavanur uses the word ‘Bauddhar’ to refer to the Muslims south of the river Perar who came to welcome Hyder Ali when he conquered Malabar and was briefly ruling from Ponnani Trikavu in mid 18th century(Nambutiri 1998: 61).  Moreover Malabar Muslims and Travancore Christians are also called Maplas as people who followed the Marga or the way of enlightenment.

Hydros Pally, Putu Ponnani.  See the apsidal or Gajaprishta style resembling a standing elephant.  View from the south. Pally facing east.

Hydros Pally, Putu Ponnani. See the apsidal or Gajaprishta style resembling a standing elephant. View from the south. Pally facing east.

The same architectural and cultural connections between Muslims and Buddhists are visible at Kutichira in Kozhikod. Mishkal Pally and other old Muslim Pallys here clearly show an ancient Buddhist-Islamic architectural legacy that is unique to Kerala.  It is clear that before the advent of Islam in the 7th century on the Malabar coast, these people were mostly Buddhists and that is why they are still called Bauddhar in some regions and linguistic registers. Prof Ilamkulam observes that Muslims and Ezhavas in south Kerala used Nanamonam (Namostu Jintam or Salutations to the Buddha) for their initiation into writing called Ezhutinirutu till the early 18th century (Ilamkulam 1956: 98).  Pavanan has written that while the Savarna upper castes shifted into using ‘Harisree’ in late 18th century, Christians and Ezhavas continued to use Nanamonam till the early mid 20th century (Pavanan 2008: 23).

Veliyankod Jaram.  The Dwitala or double decked style is beautifully embellished in this unique construction incorporating the rectangle and round patterns of Buddhist architecture found in most of the current Hindu temples.

Veliyankod Jaram. The Dwitala or double decked style is beautifully embellished in this unique construction incorporating the rectangle base  and round top patterns of Buddhist architecture found in most of the current Hindu temples.  Also note the Chaitya like entrance to east.

Like the Chira or huge tank of Kutichira (literally the pond of a Kuti or Pally or Kottam or Vattam) the Ponnani Valiya Pally or Jumath Pally also has a big pond at the south west corner.  It is also remarkable that most of the ancient Hindu temples surviving now are also having the pond in the same location, again proving their Buddhist origin and antiquity.

The magnificent imagination of the Makhdum: Ponnani Jumath Pally, an old photo from internet.

The magnificent imagination of the Makhdum: Ponnani Jumath Pally, an old photo from internet.

It is also important to remember here that the Dome architecture associated with the Mogul or Mongol warriors in India as in the Taj, is also a minimalized trace of the early Buddhist stupa style.  The Mongolian regions up to Kalmykia in Russia were Buddhists and Kalmykia still has flourishing Buddhist Viharas.  Most of the Mongol clans were Buddhists before the advent of Islam.

Tazhatangady Jumath Pally, Kottayam.

Tazhatangady Jumath Pally, Kottayam.

Considering the architectural traditions and linguistic evidences that are still existing in Malayalam it can be assumed that the Muslims of Kerala were also Buddhists before the 7th century as illustrated by their earliest Pallys and various cultural practices that distinguish them from the caste society.  The earliest Pallys including Cheraman Pally at Kodungallur, Talangara Pally at Kasaragod, Tazhathangady Valiya Pally at Kottayam, Ponnani Valiya Pally, Teruvatu Pally, Tottunkal Pally etc. testify this ancient architectural lineage and cultural legacy.

Reference

Ilamkulam.  Samskaratinte Nazhika Kallukal.  Kottayam: NBS, 1956.

Nambutiri, N M.  Vellayute Charitram.  Sukapuram: Vallathol VP, 1998.

Pavanan and Rajendran.  Baudha Swadheenam Keralatil. Trivandrum: Kerala Language Institute, 2008.

Randathani, Husain.  Makhdumum Ponnaniyum.  Ponnani: Ponnani Jumath Pally, 2010.

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