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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.