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Discover The Magic Of Malabar....

  • Writer's pictureVijay Nair

Islam in Kerala

Islam in Kerala is a unique experience, as the Mapplia community is a separate class of Muslims who live in the region, at variance in many aspects of life with their co-religionists in other parts of India. Their customs, language, and dress all are similar to that of Hindus or Christians in Kerala, and their history, economic and social causes have helped to develop the present 'Mappila Culture'. The history of Islam in Kerala can be traced back to even before the dawn of Islam, where Arab settlements existed on the Malabar coast. The period between the seventh and tenth centuries A.D. can be termed the 'Golden Age' of trade relations between India and the Arab world, and this contributed to the development of Indo-Arab trade.

Islam entered Kerala as a result of such trade relations, and while the actual date of introduction of Islam to Kerala cannot be ascertained, there is a tradition that Cheraman Perumal, the last Chera king, embraced Islam and went to Mecca, which can be found in both Muslim and Hindu Brahminical chronicles. The early Jews and Christians who came to the region found a semi-tribal Dravidian society devoid of naval power and coinage, and as the Brahmin-Kshatriya prejudice against trade and navigation also induced them to leave such vulgar affairs in the hands of foreigners, they were well-received by the rulers. The Muslims were also well-received as a substitute for the Syrian Christians and Jews whose international influence was waning.

The Mappila community exists as a distinct group with their own cultural traditions, different from that of their co-religionists in other parts of India. Islam and its traditions have mixed with local traditions, and even after conversion, the converts adopted matrilineality, though it was against Shariah. Other than the adoption of the Hindu custom, there had been economic and social factors encouraging it, such as the Arab Muslim marrying local women and returning to his country. These short-lived marriages or 'Mutta marriages' gave the foreigner a safer place to sleep and a partner for retirement from a busy life, and many families made their fortunes by such marriages. The convert Muslims were also either employed in the navy or took to sea trade, and hence were out for a long time, and the bride preferred to live with her own family.

In many Muslim festivals, all communities take part. The Nerchas' last Varavu should be of Thattante Petti' or Goldsmith's Box, which would mark the end of any Nercha or such festival. Thattante Petti is now a phrase used for indicating the last item of any event. The Nercha itself shows the influence of Hindu customs where drums, pipes, and fireworks are freely used, and dance in ecstacy in the form of folk dances of 'Dhabb' and 'Aravana' are common. The architecture of a mosque resembles that of a temple, and the close similarity has led ill-informed people to believe that they were temples converted to mosques. They have huge, massive doors with carvings on the ceilings and on the wooden structures fixed on either side of the doors. These carvings represent the lotus symbol and creepers, and this is because the local masons, carpenters, and other artisans were employed in the construction.

This unique blend of traditions and beliefs are all beautifully reflected in the performing arts. One such form is Kathakali, which is the most popular form of Kerala art.

If you attend a Kathakali performance, you will notice that the female character resembles a Mappila lady in terms of costumes. On the other hand, the male dress is inspired by folk dances like Theyyam and Thira. It is interesting to note that the female costumes have been borrowed from a Muslim lady, and every detail has been taken care of.

Moving on, let's talk about Theyyam, the traditional ritualistic folk dance of North Malabar. Within the realm of Theyyam, there is a deity called 'Alichamundi'. This deity is a significant part of the performance, and the dancer who portrays it is held in high regard.

The costumes, makeup, and the dance itself are all designed to showcase the rich history and culture of Kerala. It is a treat for the eyes and the soul, and you can easily lose yourself in the beauty of the performance.

In conclusion, Kerala is a place that offers a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of India. The performing arts are an integral part of the state's identity, and they are a must-see for any traveler. If you ever get the chance, do make sure to attend a Kathakali or Theyyam performance and witness the magic of Kerala.

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